We are living in Babel. The world is filled with miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misdirection. Politicians use talking points to avoid questions, social media is used to flash memes, and brief memos to make allies and enemies with little regard for the collateral damage. Our kind of Babel is not by a confusion of languages, but by the splintering of language. The meaning of words is becoming more and more esoteric and non-consequential. For example, when NBA star Dwyane Wade continues a pregame shoot-around while the Canadian national anthem is being played but is adamant that he is not disrespectful, it’s because he can redefine the word. Respect means what one says it means.
We are living in Babel. We live in a time of unparalleled power. We hold sufficient technology and transportation to solve the world’s major problems, but fundamental differences threaten to split nations, homes, and even selves. We have built many towers to the sky, but we have torn souls and spirits.
We are living in Babel, but we have just celebrated Pentecost, and Pentecost undoes Babel. Whereas at Babel God confused human speech, at Pentecost God spoke through humans to the heart language of listeners. Do not fall prey to the skepticism, nihilism, and individualism of Babel. In a Babel world, we need Pentecostal preaching.
By Pentecostal preaching, I do not mean preaching of certain a style, preaching marked by the theology of the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition, or preaching that miraculously morphs into other languages. I mean preaching marked by the event of Pentecost. Pentecost sparked a preaching festival where people proclaimed Jesus and people heard the message of Jesus in their own language. This kind of preaching found inroads for hearers who had solid theological foundations and for hearers who had none. There are many aspects of the phenomenon that could be considered preaching-wise, but let me focus on one: Pentecostal preaching is Christocentric-contextual preaching.
Contextual preaching and Christocentric preaching can be placed in tension with each other, but they need not have this kind of relationship. Contextual preaching means taking into account the condition of hearers when preaching to them. When Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost, there is a different theological context than when Paul, for example, preaches in Athens. Peter contextually preaches to people who had a Jewish theological foundation. Paul contextualizes his sermon after his initial message of Jesus and the resurrection was not connecting with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers (Acts 17:16-21). In a second opportunity, Paul switches his approach to begin in a different theological way (Acts 17:22-28). Instead of beginning with Jesus, Paul begins with a more generic picture of God. Notice, however, that Paul still brings the sermon around to Jesus (v. 31). Peter and Paul both preach contextually and Christocentrically. Christ is the full contextualization of God—the image of God in human form, fully immersed in a culture and revealed in the fullness of time by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostal preaching is contextualized preaching and Christocentric preaching.
Perhaps we can think of the difference between Peter and Paul’s Pentecostal preaching as the difference between centripetal and centrifugal force. Centripetal force is the force of a whirlpool that draws everything into the center. Centrifugal force is the force of a washing machine that separates water from clothes during a spin cycle, pushing everything away from the center. Both forces are centered on, well, the the center: The center either draws in or the center pushes out. Peter’s preaching is like a centrifugal force: Starting with Jesus, the message goes out powerfully. Paul’s preaching, on the other hand, is like a centripetal force. Starting on the outside, the power of Jesus draws everything toward himself. Rather than pitting contextual preaching against Christocentric preaching, Pentecostal preaching orients the preacher to the power of the Spirit pulling toward or out from Jesus.
Contextual preaching is revealed at Pentecost by people hearing the message of Jesus in their own language (Acts 2:8). This phenomenon is not meant to overcome a language barrier, but to symbolize the universality of the message. Pentecostal preaching contextualizes to the heart language of a people. The people gathered for Pentecost—Jews and God-fearing Greeks—were from all over. Yet the Galileans gathered in the upper room were speaking in their native languages. God made the word clear in their heart languages. Pentecostal preaching seeks to translate the story of Jesus into the heart language of its hearers.
Church planter Jacob Matthew reminds us that heart language is not simply about words and phrases, but food and location as well. We are living in Babel. So what does Pentecostal preaching in Babel sound like? Let me give an example. The last generation of preaching has sought to maintain relevance by shifting to wisdom preaching. Wisdom preaching is preaching that seeks immediate capital with hearers, promising improved finances, families, and relationships by applying Scripture (i.e., “3 Steps to God’s Best in Your Relationships”). Wisdom preaching can be effective at building bridges to hearers. Pentecost can affirm such preaching because it is the heart language for many pragmatists in the process of opening to God or following after Christ. At the same time, Pentecost preaching reminds the preacher that preaching must also remain Christocentric, operating in the power of the Spirit to draw people to the source of wisdom, Jesus Christ. If wisdom preaching does not bring round to the complete overhaul of life that Jesus models and enables, then it is not Pentecost preaching. Instead, it has become moralistic. It is Jesus who makes the content wisdom and not simply practical.
We are living in Babel, but we have just celebrated Pentecost. The preaching festival continues. How are you speaking the heart language of your people? How are you centering your sermons on Jesus? How can Pentecost help you in the ministry of preaching Christocentric-contextual sermons?