Pentecost Vigil Mini-Studies

First Reading

First Reading Option 1: Genesis 11:1-9

1 The whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 It happened, as they traveled east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there. 3 They said one to another, "Come, let's make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, "Come, let's build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let's make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth."

5 YHWH came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 YHWH said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do. 7 Come, let's go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." 8 So YHWH scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there YHWH confused the language of all the earth. From there, YHWH scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth.

World English Bible

Sometimes, human achievement is mixed with human arrogance. Just because we have done something, should we repeat it? Just because we can do something, should we? These questions are ignored by some in the quest for perfection. Man, not God, is the height of ambition.

Gee, I wonder what God has to say about that?

The so-called "Tower of Babel" story was not a chronicle of human achievement gone bad, but a narrative of human arrogance in the face of divine rule. Men built a city; within the city, they built a tower that would "reach into the heavens," so they could "make a name for themselves." In other words, they wanted to reach God's level and garner God's reputation. Of course, such hubris had its cost. God confused their language, so to confuse and scatter the builders.

These results were the author's way of injecting divine judgement into arrogance. Most arrogant people fall from power, simply because they cannot work with others. They can't understand why others will not work with them, why others will not show them deference, when the arrogant have not show others simple respect. Communication breaks down. The will to cooperate disperses.

Of course, what humans break, God can fix. The Babel narrative stands in stark contrast to the Pentecost found in Acts 2-3.

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First Reading Option 2: Exodus 19:3-8a

3 Moses went up to God, and YHWH called to him out of the mountain, saying, "This is what you shall tell the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."

7 Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which YHWH commanded him. 8 All the people answered together, and said, "All that YHWH has spoken we will do."

World English Bible

These verses from Exodus were the beginning of the covenant dialogue at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites arrive and set up camp at the base of the mountain. Moses climbs the heights to encounter YHWH and receives a message. The message has three parts: witness to divine power, a call to obedience, and a reward for obedience. The Israelites had seen the saving power of YHWH; with such a power deity to protect them, they were offered a Law to guide them and a promise to mold their tribes into a "holy nation." When they hear the message given to Moses, they assent.

Witness, call, and promise. These found their way into Pentecost experience in Acts 2-3. Signs of the Spirit, the call to repentance and belief, and a promise of a life in the Spirit. These are what God offers those who choose to believe.

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First Reading Option 3: Ezekiel 37:1-14

1 The hand of YHWH was on me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of YHWH, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 He caused me to pass by them all around: and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and behold, they were very dry. 3 He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? I answered, Lord YHWH, you know. 4 Again he said to me, Prophesy over these bones, and tell them, you dry bones, hear the word of YHWH. 5 Thus says the Lord YHWH to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am YHWH. 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, an earthquake; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I saw, and, behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, Prophesy to the wind, prophesy, son of man, and tell the wind, Thus says the Lord YHWH: Come from the four winds, breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live. 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11 Then he said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. 12 Therefore prophesy, and tell them, Thus says the Lord YHWH: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 You shall know that I am YHWH, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. 14 I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land: and you shall know that I, YHWH, have spoken it and performed it, says YHWH.

World English Bible

Ezekiel's allegorical vision spoke of renewal and return. Ezekiel prophesied during the Babylonian exile and had seen the devastating results of uprooting a people and destroying a nation. The Jews in exile had lost heart, they were like the corrupt remains of the dead lying about in a desert valley. YHWH presented the Spirit-filled prophet this vision of desolation, asked him a rhetorical question about reanimation, then gave him the command to prophesy twice: first, to reassemble the bodies and, second, to give the Spirit so the bodies would return to life. The point of this allegory was clear; not only were all things possible with God, the power of God, his very Spirit, would bring the captives home.

In the shadow of Pentecost, early Christian interpreted these passages in the light of the Resurrection. They believed God would raise the dead back to life. But they did more. They believed Ezekiel's words had come true, for they lived in the Spirit. Those dead to sin had come alive in faith. Those who put their trust in God had seen their lives renewed and improved. They were like the raised army filled with God's Spirit.

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First Reading Option 4: Joel 3:1-5

Thus says the Lord:

2:28 (3:1) "It will happen afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. 2:29 (3:2) And also on the servants and on the handmaids in those days, I will pour out my Spirit. 2:30 (3:3) I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood, fire, and pillars of smoke. 2:31 (3:4) The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes. 2:32 (3:5) It will happen that whoever will call on the name of YHWH shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as YHWH has said, and among the remnant, those whom YHWH calls."

World English Bible

In Acts 2:17-21, Peter quoted these verses to explain the strange events of the morning. The disciples spoke in tongues and dialects about Jesus of Nazareth. These followers had seen Jesus risen from the dead; they were witnesses to this fact. The power of their witness and their ability to communicate, Peter claimed, came from the Spirit of God.

The events of Pentecost and the cultural beliefs of the Jews at the time dovetailed well with the words of Joel. The words "I will pour out my Spirit" were sighted twice (2:28a and 2:29b) to heighten the signs of the Spirit he mentioned. Those with the Spirit would show signs of prophecy, dream interpretation, and visions; all three refer to the reception of divine revelation.

But the words "I will pour out my Spirit" in 2:29b connected the signs of the people to the other work of the Spirit, the signs of the end times. What happened on an individual level, or on a community-wide level, would be reflected on a cosmic scale. Blood, fire, and pillars of smoke (2:30) referred back to the activity of YHWH in plagues upon the Egyptians before the Exodus. Now they would portend the coming of the last days (2:31). The saved remnant would gather in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, where many believed the Final Judgement will take place (2:32).

When Peter evoked Joel's words, he separated the gift of the Spirit upon the believers (2:28-29) from the coming wrath (2:30-32). That lull became a second chance to repent and believe.

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Second Reading

Romans 8:22-27

22 We know that all of creation groans (as one) and suffers birth pangs (as one) until now, 23 not alone, but also we ourselves having (the first gifts) of the Spirit groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For, we were saved in (this) hope. Hope being seen is not hope. For, who hopes in what he sees? 25 But, if we hope in what we do not see, we will wait for in patience.

26 Likewise, the Spirit also helps (us) in our weakness; for, it is not necessary (that) we know what we should pray for, but the Spirit appeals (for us) in groans (words cannot express). 27 The (One) searched hearts know what (is in) the mind of the Spirit, because (the Spirit) appeals to God on behalf of the saints.

8:23 "having (the first gifts) of the Spirit" is literally " having (that) from the beginning of the Spirit." Paul holds that an experience of the Spirit makes the believer yearn for the full realization of the Spirit in life, the resurrection of the dead to glory.

8:26 " it is not necessary (that) we know what we should pray for" can also be translated "it is not necessary that we know how we should pray." The first translation referred to content, the second to skill.

"(words cannot express)" is literally "unspeakable."

In these verses of his letter to the Romans, Paul saw the yearnings of Christians for the resurrection reflected in nature (8:22-23) and the gift of the Spirit filling in any lack the believer has (8:26-27). In other words, Paul inferred that humanity was not complete; only God could finish what he began. Humanity, along with the cosmos, waited for God to act. God, not human beings, knew the right way to pray, even when he gave the power to pray to the followers of Jesus. Hope and prayer can only be truly found in the Spirit. These were God's gifts to the faithful. They sustained believers in the bad times and the good.

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John 7:37-39

37 On the last and great day of the festival, JESUS stood and shouted, saying, "If anyone should thirst, let (him) come to ME and drink. 38 ''Whoever trusts in ME,' just as the Scriptures said, 'out of his stomach will flow living water.'" 39 HE said this about the Spirit, that the ones having believed in HIM were about to receive; for, the Spirit was not yet (present a among them), because JESUS had not yet been glorified (on the cross).

7:37-38 These verses present many problems in translation. First, the phrase "whoever trusts in ME, out of his stomach will flow living water" or any variation cannot be found in the Old Testament. Second, the phrase "whoever trusts in me" can be connected with the main clause in 7:38 (the translation above) or with the verb "drink" in 7:37 (in this case, the translation would be "If anyone who should thirst, let him come to me. Whoever trusts in me, let him drink."). Third, the word "stomach" in 7:38 is troublesome for English readers, but the Jews believed the stomach was the seat of emotions. Many English translations replace "stomach" with "heart."

7:37 "On the last and great day of the festival..." In his gospel, John referred to festival known as the Feast of Booths or Sukkoth. In late September, Jews celebrate the Exodus experience for seven days by living in outdoor shelters (tents or "booths"). Each day of the feast, males were to shake four species of plants (two species in each hand) as prayer for rain. In the time of Jesus, the ceremonies at the Temple included a procession and offering of spring water to YHWH. The prayers and offering for rain was a petition for an abundant winter crop.

The gospel writer John slyly wove images together for insight. In this case, a festival that prayed for rain became a proclamation moment about "living water." Obviously, this phrase reminded John's reader of the Samaritan woman at the well. In that case, the conversation led to a revelation of the Christ and belief by the woman. In this case, "living water" referred to the Spirit, the wellspring of eternal life. With the Spirit, the believer would receive abundant life now, and in the future.

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