The Day of Pentecost
Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104: 25-35,37; Acts 2:1-21; John 14: 8-17, 25-27
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The story we hear this morning about the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis is a story about, yes, the building of a tower, but there is much more to it than God frustrating the efforts and arrogance of the tower’s builders. Yes, the tower the people planned on building which was to be very grand and serve as a monument to their collective ego was never finished. But I feel there is more to this story than the mythical origins of different languages, and a lesson of our true place in the universe, valid though those points may be.
The story of the Tower of Babel isn’t just meant to answer the obvious questions of why there are so many different languages in the world. It does do that – demonstrating how God got all the builders to speak different languages so that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other as they were building. No longer could the builders just say “put that brick there, and use mortar here.” They could be, but it was pointless. And so the project stalled, not for lack of energy, desire, or even resources, but because they couldn’t understand each other.
Many of us today are the same. We might speak the same language, we might live in the same city, we might attend the same church – and yet we don’t understand each other. We could magnify this to a macro level and see the same thing in our country: we more or less speak the same language, and yet we are polarized – we don’t understand how someone could vote for one candidate other than the one we want to support.
The story of the Babel tower explores the shadow side of this inability to understand the other – it goes with courage into a darker place, and in my opinion, the Babel story is the Bible’s attempt to explain the origin of war. It explains our fear of the stranger and our judgment and hatred of people different than us. The Babel tower explains our suspicion, hostility, and distrust of people different than ourselves.
Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own pride and arrogance, I don’t think we received it as grace. At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs. And the human response to that was to create tribalism. It didn’t take long for the energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon devoted into making weapons. And if you feel that America is somehow immune to this, then look no further than the presidential campaigns we are currently immersed in, and you will see tribalism run rampant.
But Babel is not the end of the story. The end of the story comes with Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of scattered tribes and people. Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill people with praise. And though they each speak in a different language, they understand each other. There is no more confusion. There is no distrust, there is only perfect communion with God and each other. God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a people diverse in language and custom, but without fear. A people who, remember what was forgotten at Babel: that we were made to praise God, not to build towers to the heavens.
You were made to embody God’s love to the world, not wall yourself off from it. You were made to serve in God’s name, not worry about making a name for yourself. You were made to point toward God’s future, not to try to secure your own. God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language. God heals the wounds of the world by creating a people who are God’s new language. And that is you! AMEN.