One moment you feel like maybe you are making some progress. One moment you have a big vision, a goal, and a plan. One moment everyone is on board and ready for the next steps. One moment you feel like maybe this thing will actually work—whatever this thing is. You feel as though you are on top of the world. But then the next moment comes, and it is all different. You’ve been there.
The plans fall apart; the hopes are crushed; it all seems like dead ends. The relationships crumble; those who were gung-ho and onboard are now abandoning ship as if you’ve hit an invisible iceberg and are going down fast.
And the worst part? You have absolutely no idea what happened. What seemed to be such a wonderful idea, what seemed to be just what everyone wanted, became a source of confusion and misunderstanding. You thought that you were telling the story well, but the looks of confusion on those who used to be close to you told a different tale. It was so clear and unifying before, before the clouds of uncertainty rolled back in, before the distractions of a complicated world jumbled the message. It was as if all of a sudden everyone started speaking a different language.
Well, let me tell you a story. It always seemed fanciful to some, one of those Old Testament stories that borders on the mythological. Too grand for us to comprehend. And besides, it was obviously there as an “explanation” story. Like many of the ancient myths, this story was there to explain the reasons behind the way the world was. “Why,” someone wondered, “are there so many different languages and cultures in the world?”
You know the story: the babbling story; the tower and the languages and the scattering and the sin. Except, it is sometimes hard to see the sin. It seems as if God picks a fight. I know, I’ve heard the explanations. They were thumbing their noses at God. Well, maybe. Though there isn’t a real clear taunt against the divine powers in this all too brief story.
One explanation that does make sense is that this story forms the end of the first section of Genesis. After a bit of genealogy, we launch into the story of Abraham and Sarah. So, this is a bookend to the first part of the Bible, which begins with creation and the command from God to fill the earth. But here we see people choosing not to fulfill that command. They want to stay in one place. They built their city to not do what God wanted them to do. The explanation for the building is “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
It is understandable, really. Safety is our number one priority, it seems. Fear of the unknown is a great motivator. Avoiding risk, avoiding change is our prime directive. Yet, God seems to want something else for us. God seems to imply that we were created for more than that—that we would be less than what we could be if we chose to live the way that makes the most sense to us.
Now in the story, God comes down to inspect the construction project. Upon inspection, God determines that something must be done. “Nothing that they propose will be impossible for them,” is the diagnosis. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. In fact, you would think that God would be proud of the offspring who have so much potential. But instead, God decides it must be stopped. So, the language trick is done, and boom, the construction project is brought to a screeching halt; and the migration out into the unknown begins—because the unknown came too close to home.
It all fell apart, and they weren’t sure why; I have no doubt. Except that the folks they thought they knew, all of a sudden, they realized, they didn’t know at all. They couldn’t even understand them anymore. They were speaking a whole other language.
You probably remember the books by Dr. Gary Chapman, variously titled but all including “The Five Love Languages.” The thesis of these books is that we don’t all speak the same language when it comes to love. Our expectations and our needs are different, and one of the reasons that relationships fail—whether between spouses, parents and children, neighbors, and co-workers, or whomever—is that people don’t always realize they are not speaking the same language.
All of which begs the question: Does the story of the Tower of Babel story really talk about punishment? Is God angry at us for going our own way and making our own choices? Or does God give us diversity to enhance the human experience and invite us to overcome our differences and find true unity, not based on fear or complacency but full of the richness of living in relationship with those who stretch us and challenge us to be more than we thought we could be?
Okay, that is not a simple question after all. But then nothing in this life is ever simple. I think this story is witness to the idea that God prefers it that way. And when we think about it, we do too. We often think, if only everyone thought the way I do, life would be so much easier. Maybe so; maybe it would be easier if everyone spoke the same language, had the same preferences, leaned in the same directions. It might be easier, but infinitely more boring. Don’t you think?
Maybe God wasn’t punishing us for getting too big for our britches in that story. Maybe God was reining us in before we got so far off track that nothing would stop us from total destruction. Maybe the community you have to work to preserve, to choose to commit, to stretch to enlarge is worth more than all the towers we could build to the heavens. Maybe our response to the Babel story ought to be, “thank you.”
Or maybe, Pentecost is the response to Babel.
Some years ago, I was attending the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, Tennessee. Sitting in Christ Church Cathedral for worship, but two rows up in front of me, I saw a woman whose name tag announced that she had come from my home state. I didn’t know her, but it still had that small world feel to it when I spied her point of origin. I also ran into a former associate pastor and a couple I had worked with at a choir camp and various other conference events, not to mention a fellow pastor from the town where I was serving.
But that familiarity was not the real eye-opener. No, I think it was the diversity. There were Lutherans and Presbyterians, Baptists and Disciples, Canadians and Europeans, Northerners and Southerners, Parthians, Medes, and Elamites.
There was a feeling of Pentecost about the place. Pentecost has been one of the big three festivals of the church from the beginning. Easter was the biggest, of course, and Epiphany and Pentecost were the signposts around which the Christian life oriented. But while Easter and Epiphany are self-explanatory in their importance, why Pentecost? If Jesus is the center of the faith, then his Resurrection and his Incarnation would be natural foci for us. But what is it about Pentecost that puts it in such a position of importance?
You can’t help but notice that Luke struggles to describe this event. He uses words that come close but aren’t quite it. “A sound like,” he writes, “tongues as of fire.” It was sort of like wind, but not quite; it was kind of like fire, but that wasn’t it either. It is an event that goes beyond description, beyond experience almost.
But the something that happens has an effect. It leaks out into the street beyond. And passersby are caught up by the sound that they hear. Voices and words are wrapped in the language of home. That is what makes them stop. I imagine in a cosmopolitan city like Jerusalem that is difficult to keep the noise down at the best of times. So, overhearing would be a common experience. But this one was different. They were drawn by the familiar language that they heard. It made their hearts stop for a moment, as they tuned their ears more carefully to the words.
There is a story of an American tourist in Germany. The tourist had no knowledge of German whatsoever and had wandered off the tourist trail and found himself in a small village where he was having trouble making himself understood. He was about to panic when he was caught in a sneezing fit. A passerby smiled and nodded at him and said, “Gesundheit!” The American rushed after the man and declared, “O good, you speak English!”
We all long for a familiar sound, for the language of home. We long for a connection. That was what was heard on that Pentecost morning. That was what the languages offered the passersby. So, they stopped and listened. Some wondered and, I suspect, hoped. Others scoffed, being of a cynical bent. “They must be drunk!” they shouted. If there is an alcoholic beverage that allows you to speak in foreign languages, I’m going to get me some.
You would have thought that Peter’s defense might have been that: “Drinking teaches you languages? Intelligible languages, that is. Nonsense. You’re the ones talking crazy!” But that wasn’t his defense. Instead, he went with the “It’s only 9 a.m.” defense. It’s too early to be drunk! Or as Bishop Will Willimon said in a sermon about the Pentecost event - “Peter said, we’re not drunk . . . yet.”
The tongues that were not quite like fire and not really like tongues either, but some visible manifestation of an invisible presence was making connections. It was one, divided and settling on each, says Luke in his struggle for words. It was one presence, one sound, and it was heard by each, who then echoed the sound, so that more heard. It wasn’t an experience to keep to oneself, that much is plain. It was meant to be shared. It was meant to be community building.
Pentecost is the building of community. It is overcoming the differences and making connections. It is building up the body. Pentecost is about the church being the church. Pentecost reminds us that this is a small world, and wherever you go, you are likely to find members of your family gathered around the living Word and the winds of the Spirit.