Summary: On Pentecost, God reversed the process of division and confusion around the tower of Babel, as he poured out his Spirit. The Spirit gave the disciples words of praise and proclamation to speak in languages that all could understand. How does that Spirit work today in our lives and churches?
[Sermon preached on Pentecost (Whit Sunday) / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Last Tuesday in our Bible study group, we studied the story about the first Christian Pentecost from Acts 2. It was a refreshing experience to hear someone read some verses in Chinese. Most of us could not understand them, but for three members in our group it was their mother tongue. The experience brought home the special importance of reading and hearing the Word of God in the language that we grew up with.
The same person also made an interesting observation about the connection between the Pentecost story and the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel. You may or may not know the story from Genesis 11 about people setting out to build a tower that would reach to the heavens. In the end of that story, God confuses the language of mankind. And by doing so, he causes division among a strongly united humanity to the point where they have to give up on their joint effort to reach the heavens. But what God does at Pentecost, is exactly the opposite of what he does in Babel. In a sense, he reverses the process that he initiated in Genesis 11.
Let me first refresh your memory about the story of the tower of Babel, as we find it in Genesis 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.
There are three things we should observe in this story. The first is that people had a common language. They could understand each other. There was no hindrance to their communication.
That’s pretty much an ideal situation. Think of it: When you come to Finland as a foreigner, you realize how important language is. Wherever you go, people speak in a way that you as a newcomer simply cannot understand. That is frustrating. It excludes you from the rest of society in which you try to settle. It builds invisible walls between us and them. It is so inefficient and so frustrating.
And the frustration only gets worse when you try to learn the language and bump into invisible walls inside your brain. I know people who, year after year, attend Finnish language courses. And every year they start from scratch again, because they fail to grasp the mysteries of the language. It is “SUOMEN MESTARI 1” year after year. That’s why some say that Finnish is the language of heaven. It takes an eternity to learn it. To which somebody commented: “If Finnish is the language of heaven, I don’t want to go there.”
Don’t you think that having a common language would be fantastic? To be able to understand one another on a deep level, to have the same culture, the same frame of reference? That was the situation before the tower of Babel was built.
But then comes a second observation. When there were no hindrances to communication and collaboration, and when new technology opened up new opportunities, people became proud. Their ambitions went sky-high. They felt so confident about what they could achieve together that they decided to try and eliminate God from their lives and their world altogether.
The tower of Babel was a kind of temple. But its main feature was not the interior, like in most temples. The main feature was the stairs that led around the tower like a spiral staircase to the top. Mankind wanted to reach the heavens on their own. They wanted to conquer the universe and penetrate the spiritual world by their own effort. They wanted to make themselves believe that a united humanity was more powerful than God. In fact, they wanted to forget God altogether and get on with life. Their motto was this: As long as we unite our physical, spiritual, intellectual and scientific efforts, nothing will be impossible for us.