St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

In Other Tongues

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

Philip Brad­ford