Acts 2:1-12 – When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Gen: 11:1-9 – Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar,Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Babble On and On
Acts 2:1-21; Gen. 11:1-9
June 12, 2011
George Bernard Shaw once said that England and America are two countries separated by the same language. I can attest to that. In my last congregation we had a wonderful family from Great Britain who I thoroughly enjoyed, but sometimes had trouble understanding. Gill would say to me, “I’ve just come from the garage and ran into a bobby on the lift as I was heading to my flat to visit the loo.” And I would say, “Huh? Could you translate that for me?”
Language plays a prominent role in both our scripture readings today. We started in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost when God poured out his spirit on the disciples, just as Jesus promised he would, and those tongues of fire empowered them to go out and continue Christ’s work. One of the interesting features of this passage is the effect the outpouring of the Spirit had on the disciples. Pentecost was a big Jewish holiday, so Jews from all over the world would have gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate. That is why you had folks from Phrygia and Cappadocia and Pamphylia, each coming to Jerusalem speaking their regional dialect. When God pours out his spirit, the disciples start speaking in foreign languages so that the visitors to Jerusalem could understand them. In a sense, God was bringing the diverse crowd together through the use of a common tongue. God was speaking their language, so to speak.
To understand the significance of God’s uniting people through language on Pentecost, you have to first understand how God used language to drive them apart. I believe Pentecost makes so much more sense when understood in the light of Genesis 11 and the story of tower of Babel.
For the past several years I’ve had a fascinating with Mount Everest. Now let me be clear here. I don’t want to climb Mount Everest. You could put a Krispy Kreme store at the top and that still wouldn’t be enough motivation for me. But I’m captivated by the folks who have climbed it, and I’ve read several books and watched movies about their experience. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to stand at the top of the world, at the closest point on earth to heaven. That is part of what motivated the builders of the tower of Babel to do what they did. This story from Genesis takes place right after the flood, when Noah and his family left the ark and started life all over again. Being faithful believers, they followed God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and they grew into a whole world united around one common language.
But despite all their unity and feel-goodness and Hands Across Mesopotamia, there was one major problem: all the people were still human. The flood hadn’t washed away the sin that was in them, and it was only a matter of time before they started down the same slippery slope as those who came before them.
After the group settled in Shinar, the property committee met and decided they needed a building that would represent just how gosh darn good they all were. So they conducted a capital campaign to pay for bricks and tar, and began building a city with a tower that reached the heavens. I’m sure they put the correct spin on the project with their congregation: more classroom space, greater visibility in the community, increased closeness to God. But the scripture reveals their true motivation: they wanted to make a name for themselves.
What they are building is what we know as the tower of Babel, but what is better known as a ziggurat, which was a common structure for ancient pagan religions. A ziggurat was a pyramid-like structure that served as the religious center of a town, much like the Temple was in Jerusalem. It also was an identity symbol. When our family would drive to Chicago from Indiana, as we were driving along the Skyway we looked for the Sears Tower, because that told us we were close to home. A ziggurat would have functioned in the same way for a town.
But it had religious functions, as well. On the outside of the ziggurat would be a stairway that led all the way to the top, where there would be a room with a small bed. Now the ziggurat itself wasn’t a temple; the temple was built right next to the ziggurat. The belief was that the god would dwell in the little room at the top, and descend the stairway when folks were worshipping in the temple. “If you build it, they will come,” they being the local gods. The people who built it hoped the gods would dwell there and bring them blessings.
But you can’t put God in a box, not even one at the top of a mighty tower, so God intervenes. The people are working and working to build this magnificent, towering structure that reaches to the heavens, and yet we’re told that God has to “come down” to see it.” “Aw, look at the cute little building. It’s so itsy-bitsy!” God looked down at the tower, and remembered the time before Noah, and said, “Oh, boy, here we go again.” He scattered the people all over the earth and took away the one common bond they had: their universal language. It’s hard to build something together when you can’t communicate. And the place was called Babel, which literally means “confused.” They lost their connection, they lost their sense of community, they lost their place where they could go and all speak the same language.
Now, fast-forward several thousand years to Jerusalem, to the day of Pentecost. God comes down again, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit, and descends upon the disciples. And then an amazing thing happened: the disciples begin speaking in tongues, but not unintelligibly. They weren’t babbling. No, they begin to proclaim the good news of Christ in Latin and Arabic and Egyptian and Phrygian and Pamphilian and in all the other languages represented. Do you see? It’s Babel rewound. It’s the bookend to the scattering; it’s the reunification of language. The bond that was broken at the tower is now restored in Jerusalem. The giving of the Holy Spirit was the epoxy that fastened those followers back together and united them in belief.
But Pentecost was more than just a restoring of language; it accomplished what the builders of the tower of Babel couldn’t do. Remember, they were trying to make a name for themselves, trying to reach up high enough to be equal with God. Pentecost tells us it’s not about how high we can reach or how good we can try to be: God’s already with us, within us. We don’t have to reach up to God because God has already come down to us on the cross, and his Spirit dwells within us, only waiting to be awakened. After the fiery event of Pentecost, instead of trying to build a tower out of bricks, the disciples will begin to build a church out of living stones, out of ordinary believers like you and me.
Now, fast forward again, to today. The church has grown and proliferated, the word of God has spread all around the globe, and the Spirit continues to be hard at work in the life of every believer. But there’s still a lot of babbling going on, isn’t there? Not only do we still speak different languages, but even those of us who speak the same language speak different languages, if you know what I mean. I hear and participate in conversations every day in which I know we’re both speaking English, but as the sheriff in Cool Hand Luke said, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This is especially true when talking with people who don’t go to church. To many of them, “God” is a four-letter word; say it, and either their eyes will glaze over or they’ll remember that thing they have with that person that they were supposed to be at 15 minutes ago. Like the disciples on Pentecost, we have to learn to speak the Good News in a language everyone can hear. How do we do that?
First, we have to know the language. It’s not terribly difficult; in fact, much of the vocabulary has infiltrated our everyday talk. And I’m not talking about theological words like predestination or eschatology or transubstantiation. I’m talking about words like love, and forgiveness, and grace, and servant, words that have been co-opted and contorted and contaminated by our culture until the true meaning is unrecognizable. They are words that are spoken around here quite often, in such simple phrases as, “I’m praying for you” and “That’s OK” and “I’m so sorry” and “What can I do to help?” and “You did a great job!” and “Thank you so much.” That’s the language of faith, the language that unites us together as believers. It’s not spoken as an afterthought, or matter-of-factly; it’s spoken with sincerity, with meaning. When we speak those words, we are allowing the Spirit to work through us so that people can hear the Good News in us. It sounds like English, doesn’t it? But it’s actually divine speech.
Just because we know the language doesn’t mean we have to be the one speaking. A writer once said that it’s good to know several languages, but it’s better to keep your mouth shut in one. When our mouths are closed our ears are open, and we’re likely to hear something that will tell us which word to pull from our English-to-God dictionary.
“I’m worried about my mother, she seems so frail.” “I’m so sorry.”
“I am so swamped! I feel like I’m going crazy!” “What can I do to help?”
“I’ll drive your son to the baseball game.” “Thank you so much!”
When we speak this language, we are doing more than being polite, we are witnessing to the work of God in our lives. We are taking the Spirit that was given at Pentecost, the Spirit that lives in us, and unleashing it to do its work in the world, the work of comfort and encouragement and inspiration. And when our daily actions are consistent with our Spirit words, our lives are transformed and we become the living Good News. And that makes an impression on those people who don’t have a relationship with Christ until one day they’ll echo the words of the stunned visitors at Pentecost: “What does this mean?” which is another way of saying, “Tell me more!” And you’ll be able to say to them, “Let me show you,” and you’ll be able to say to God, “Thank you so much!” That’s not babbling; that’s speaking God’s language.