In other tongues
Sermon preached at Enmore, Pentecost Sunday, 15th May 2016
Readings: Genesis 11.1–9; Acts 2.1–21
The French theologian, Jacques Ellul, famously described the city as being the focus of evil throughout human history, and a clear example of humanity’s declaration of independence from God. The story of the Tower of Babel, our Old Testament passage this morning has often been used to support such a view. However, as we discovered recently when reading the Book of Revelation, the Bible concludes with a city and that city is described as being beautiful, ‘like a bride adorned for her husband.’ Clearly not all cities come under God’s judgement, so we need to look carefully at the Tower of Babel story and find out what was so wrong with this city.
Chapter 11 of Genesis begins with the statement, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” The first eleven chapters of Genesis are usually described as primeval or pre- history. The language is poetic rather than historical and the stories are intended to teach us truths about God and humanity and the nature of that relationship. We are not told anything about the ‘they’ who settle in the land of Shinar but they are obviously skilled craftsmen and women who have learnt how to make bricks and mortar; they are technologically advanced. Given this knowledge they see an opportunity to build a city and make its central feature a great tower with its top in the heavens. The inspiration for the story may well have been the Babylonian ziggurats, massive pyramid like towers which ascended in terraces with a temple at the top and which were a feature of ancient Mesopotamia. (If the story were being written today the inspiration could be Mr. Packer’s proposed towering casino at Barrangaroo!)
Two reasons are given for building this massive structure: the first was ‘to make a name for themselves’ and the second was to prevent them from ‘being scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ In most of us there is a hidden desire to be famous, to leave a mark and be remembered. The ancient Hebrews had no certain belief in life after death so the way to immortality was to leave behind a ‘name’- fame, reputation, renown. In contrast to that very human desire for honour is the Bible’s assertion that when we seek God’s glory rather than our own we will find something far more satisfying and enduring. It is significant that in the Abraham story which immediately follows this chapter, God says to Abraham ‘I will bless you and make your name great’ echoing the exact words used by the glory- seeking builders.
However, God’s judgement falls on the builders not just because of their hubris and arrogance but also because of their desire for unity and uniformity. God’s first instruction to humanity after the creation and again after the flood was to ‘fill the earth.’ The builders of Babel wanted to build a defensive city which would not only keep enemies out but prevent the inhabitants from leaving and settling elsewhere, a clear rejection of God’s desire for diversity and growth. The unity God wishes is not uniformity. One only has to look at the created world to see that the Creator loves diversity- it can be readily observed in the plant world and the animal kingdom. Even today we keep finding new species of insects, plants and sea creatures. The unity God longs for is that all of humanity shall be in relationship with him.
The ancient builders fell into the trap that all totalitarian governments throughout history have fallen into- a desire to control people and to enforce uniformity of language and ideas. Viewed this way we can see that although the scattering was a punishment, it was also a sign of God’s grace, for his intention was not for people to be locked up behind walls but to have the freedom to roam. That is made clear in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. The heavenly city that descends to earth has walls but there are gates in each of these walls which are never shut, allowing ease of entry and egress. Furthermore we are told that people will bring into this city “the glory and honour of the nations.” Here is unity in diversity.
The story also encourages us to reflect on the role of language in human society. Language facilitates community but language can also be used to control. Repressive regimes try to control language by censoring what people can hear and monitoring what people say. The ancient tower builders were fearful of diversity in language but in contrast, God willed freedom of speech. Verse 7 of our passage is usually translated, ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech’ but it can also be rendered, ‘so that they will not listen to one another.’ The Bible and human history give us many examples of failure to listen to each other. The failure to listen is often associated with a failure to trust the speaker. In the end every war, every human conflict can only be resolved when the combatants agree to sit down and listen to each other. Several times in the Book of Jeremiah, Israel is condemned because they failed to listen to their God: “When I spoke to you persistently you did not listen and when I called to you, you did not answer.” (Jer.7.13) The tower builders were determined to have unity based on uniformity and coercion but what they were given in the end was disunity and division. So the narrative is not a polemic against urban culture or technological progress but it is a warning that any attempt to find security and prosperity without reference to the mind of the Creator is doomed to failure.
There is also a clear link between this ancient tale and the events of Pentecost described in Acts chapter 2. Luke’s dramatic account of that first Pentecost, describes the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to his followers. The gift of the spirit brings new life and purpose to the hitherto rather puzzled and confused disciples. Suddenly they know what to do- they are impelled to share the good news about Jesus. It was no accident that the birthday of the Church should fall on this Jewish festival. The Feast of Pentecost or Feast of Weeks was fifty days after Passover and marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest. It was a time for devout Jews to thank God for his goodness and provision. The festival meant that Jerusalem was filled with Jewish pilgrims from all parts of the empire and together they became witnesses to the new thing that God was doing. The spirit’s work is not to confuse or mystify but to make things clear and that is what happened. This diverse collection of devout Jews heard the disciples proclaiming the good news about Jesus in languages they could understand. No wonder the response was so remarkable. Luke tells us that after Peter’s speech to the crowds on that first day of Pentecost, some three thousand people decided they wanted to become followers of Jesus.
The most obvious connection between the Babel story and Luke’s account of Pentecost is that both narratives describe diversity of language. Luke tells us that on the day of Pentecost the gathered followers of Jesus were suddenly ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’ But Pentecost was not only about a miracle of speaking but just as importantly, a miracle of hearing. The pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost heard the Spirit filled disciples, speaking in their own language. Naturally they asked the question, ‘How is it that we hear, each one of us in our own native tongue?’ Later on we are told that when they heard Peter’s explanation for these remarkable events they were ‘cut to the heart.’ Pentecost revealed a new capacity for language but also a fresh ability to hear and listen because the Spirit of God was at work. In contrast to Babel, the multiplicity of languages found in Jerusalem was no longer a threat or something to be feared. Despite the diversity of people and languages, the Holy Spirit brought unity and understanding.
The disciples who received the gift of the Holy Spirit were quick to draw attention away from themselves and instead directed the startled on-lookers attention to God’s words and his actions. Peter declared: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel, ‘In the last days God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’” When God’s Spirit is at work, the barriers of language, race and class are broken down. There is no one language of Zion; to become a follower of Jesus you don’t have to learn Greek or Hebrew-perhaps in heaven we will all be multi-lingual.
The church began in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit was first poured out in that city but God’s desire was that the good news about Jesus should be sent out and spread throughout the world. It is worth noting that the Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem but it ends in Rome. The early disciples quickly discovered that the Holy Spirit could not be restricted to any one time or place. All who called on the name of the Lord, whether Jew, Greek, Samaritan or Roman, received the gift of the Holy Spirit and were brought into God’s multicultural family. Today we celebrate the fact that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus is given to all who ask, and his presence is with us everywhere we go.
So let us pray: Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen