“Our very own tower”
A funny thing happened on my way to preach about Pentecost today: I got sidelined in Babel. Stuck in the Tower of Babel and struck by the story in a new way.
I know that YOU know about the Tower of Babel. Maybe you learned this story in Sunday School, as I did, as a child. Maybe you know the pat meaning, the easy interpretation of the story of Babel: What I learned in Sunday School all those decades ago was that we humans got too big for our britches, that that WE were God, so God confused our language to keep us in our place, to move us out of the heavens down to cover the whole earth. Maybe you learned something like this, also.
Of course, as a child I didn’t know that this is etiology, an etiological story, a story used to explain how things are the way they are, to explain WHY things are the way that they are. “Why do people speak different languages?” we might wonder. And this story of Babel is the etiological explanation. Not literally true, but somehow more true on a deeper level that mere history.
As a child—well, until very recently—I thought this story meant that we speak different languages because God wanted us to be separate from each other. That’s the effect of different languages, anyway. Different languages produce different cultures. If I can’t understand your language and culture, and you can’t understand mine, how could we ever get to know one another? How could we gang up on God?
But now I wonder if that was actually God’s purpose in confusing our tongues? The people of the earth—all the people of the earth—originally spoke the same language, our text tells us (and the sciences tell us this, as well. And as some were migrating into new territory, they found a place they especially liked, a plain in the land of Shinar. So they stopped there, settled there, and made themselves a cozy, tight-knit community there. Everyone knew each other’s names, looked out for each other, provided rides to doctors and frequently sent each other cards and invitations. Socialized and the like; grew old together. The rest of the world was migrating all around them, streaming by them, but THEY were in their very own tower.
These were BAD people or BAD actions, you understand. There’s not a single thing wrong with being a tight-knit, purpose-driven community. Aren’t such communities a place in which to learn about God our creator, and to learn about how to share what we have learned about God with the world?
BUT, our text says the people in their very own tower in Shinar had a different motive for setting themselves apart. Our text says that they wanted to “make a name for [them]selves.” Their fear was of being scattered from their community into the other communities that were springing up all around them, common communities (some 27 other communities, I would guess, all within five miles of them). How could they make a name for themselves if they weren’t somehow distinct, set apart, set above the rest?
But God DID scatter them. He did so by giving them different languages, not as a punishment so much as a means of ensuring they not stay by themselves, apart from the world. God sent them out of their very own tower, using the people as seeds, each bearing a different language to populate the whole earth with different cultures.
When viewed from this perspective, God’s action in Babel wasn’t a punishment, but rather an affirmation that each person in the tower could be his seed, an affirmation that diversity is good. This view makes a great deal of sense when we consider that God is so vast, so complete, that no one language or culture could ever define or describe God all by itself. God’s seeming favor of diversity makes much sense also from a God who is so loving that he wants to be, and wants us to be, in relationship with both him and the whole world.
Which brings us at long last to our lesson from Acts, the story of the miracle of Pentecost. We Christians call this “the first Pentecost,” but Pentecost was an important Jewish festival, a joyous time when the first of the new harvest was traditionally given to God.
So this wasn’t actually the FIRST Pentecost. But something important, something miraculous, something complexly new happened on THIS Pentecost: God poured out his spirit on the people who were there. And as a sign of this spirit, the people who were listening in were able to understand what was being said, each in their own language, to understand across language and cultural barriers.
Why did God undo his work of Babel? Let’s look at the text. On THIS day of Pentecost, seven weeks after Jesus died and rose again, his disciples were all together in one place. Our Acts text doesn’t say so, but we picture the disciples in the Upper Room, in their very own tower, huddled together, waiting for the sign that Jesus had promised to send them. They were a tight-knit community, fearful of the danger of being dispersed and even fearful of being killed by Roman or Jewish authorities.
Ah, but there was a crowd around them, within hearing distance, a crowd of foreigners, all around this small, tight-knit community of disciples. And this crowd was celebrating Pentecost also, albeit in other languages. But suddenly, somehow, each and every one of these foreigners understood the disciples in their own language as those disciples witnessed to Jesus the Christ.
Why did God do this miracle of language? Somehow we have to think that God wanted the disciples to leave their Upper Room, to leave their tower, and go tell the whole world about Jesus. And they did!
So what about us? I’m thinking that WE might be in our own tower, our own upper room today. I’m thinking that we are a great community, a community of faith united by the Holy Spirit to do the work of Christ Jesus in our world. And I love our place, our space, our cozy and incredibly supportive community (I even, God forgive me, love the name we are making for ourselves). But I do want to suggest that God seems to find ways of making such communities more expansive and more diverse, and to find ways of making us into the seeds that bring the whole world to him.
How will God work this Tower of Babel miracle among us?
How is God working this Pentecost miracle among us?
For surely God and God’s spirit is at work in this place. Today at 8 am we baptize (baptized) Gautier, an adult from Gabon whose languages are French and English. Today at 10 am we have a dozen people or more who will read (have read) the Pentecost story in a dozen or more different languages. Why has God given us this precious gift? And how will we use what we have been given to tell the whole world around us, a world listening in, about Christ Jesus?