A sermon for Pentecost – on Genesis 11:1-9
The story in Acts we read every year on Pentecost, about the coming of the Holy Spirit, with the sound of the rushing wind, and the tongues of fire, and the different languages that everyone miraculously understands …
That story is actually a kind of reversal of the event of the confusion of languages at Babel. One of the things we realize on Pentecost, from the story of Pentecost, is that the Holy Spirit overcomes the language barriers that divide people from one another; the Holy Spirit empowers our communication across these barriers.
I read a book a few years ago, by a professor of missions and evangelism, Lamin Sanneh, who pointed out that Christianity is the only one of the world’s major religions that DOESN’T have some special “sacred language” that we have to use in church. The Christian scriptures are scriptures in translation, and they have been from the very beginning, when they were translations into languages that lots of people used at the time, like “common Greek.” Christians have always thought that translations from one language to another are possible for the gospel, that the gospel can be proclaimed in any language. That idea starts right from the day of Pentecost. And that idea is actually unique in the world’s religions.
So one of the things we celebrate on the day of Pentecost, besides “the birthday of the church,” is the way the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ, of who Jesus is, of what Jesus Christ means for humanity and for the individual members of humanity – repairs the divisions between people that come from our inability to communicate with each other. The gospel brings people together as people, who share humanity with one another, and with Jesus, and who are also in communion with God through Christ. [That is a lot to celebrate!!]
Because the day of Pentecost is, we are meant to recognize this, the undoing or repairing or overcoming of the consequences of what happened at Babel.
So, since the church thinks the story of Pentecost is that kind of anti-Babel, is the undoing or the beginning of the undoing of the confusion and the communication problem that began there, it makes some sense to take a closer look at the story of the Tower of Babel. That will give us some more insight into what exactly Pentecost is undoing …
But before we do that, here’s a warning: this story of the Tower of Babel is VERY familiar to most of us, and probably we have been told MANY TIMES what it means, what “it’s about.” That can make it very difficult to actually hear what the Bible says in this story, to listen to the text, instead of what’s already in our heads about the text.
And in particular, I know from some past experience, of having been a TA for Hebrew exegesis at the seminary once, and from having read this story with people in Sunday school, what we have probably learned is that this text is about “pride.” The people at Babel were too proud; they wanted to build a tower that reached to the heavens; they wanted to be God, etc. etc.; so God punished them for that. I could ask for a show of hands of how many of us have learned that about this story … I’ll be astonished if anyone doesn’t raise their hand.
So I’m going to ask everyone to at least consider that there could be … something more than that in this story … there could be something else going on, too.
With that in mind, let’s look at this story.
First, we know that there has been a big flood right before this. That flood wound up in chapter 9 of Genesis, and then there was an episode with a vineyard and Noah getting drunk and some family conflict, which reminds us that even the people who were “good” in the Bible were not close to being perfect. After that, there’s a whole chapter of family tree. So some amount of time has gone by, we don’t know exactly how much … and then at the beginning of chapter 11, we read that people have started travelling west …
That is probably supposed to ring a bell with us. We’d have to remember back as far as Adam and Eve; we’d have to remember that when that first family was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, they moved east.
Now, people are moving back west. That seems like it could be meaningful; it could, possibly, mean that people are, in a way, on a journey back towards God, after this terribly disappointing beginning to the human story as told in Genesis …
Except that, the next thing that happens, is that the people come to this nice plain … that is, a nice piece of land that’s spread out, flat, that seems to be not too rocky because we find out right away they don’t have stones to build with; and one thing to know about a plain is that it’s easy walking. A friend of mine, for some reason, once walked across the state of Illinois – just for fun – and although we think of Illinois as rather flat, she said it was not completely flat, and by the end of that walk, she and her walking buddy would just groan when they realized they were having to walk uphill again … “Oh, no, another hill” … because walking uphill is some hard work.
So these people who are the second or third chance for humanity come to this plain, and our translation of the Bible says they “settled there.” In Hebrew, the text says, literally, they sat there. They sat there, like people who are sick and tired of walking, and are especially sick and tired of walking uphill, and who just don’t want to go any further.
Then, while they are busy sitting in this nice, flat place, they come up with the bright idea to make some bricks and build a city.
[That’s kind of a cool play on words, but I think it only works in English.]
They give a reason for this idea, too: the story teller tells us, they want to “make a name for themselves” and then they say “otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the earth.” A big reason people think this is a story about pride is that line “let’s make a name for ourselves,” and that idea of a really tall tower, a tower with its “head in the clouds” … to us, that sounds like the people are trying to build themselves up …
So I’m going to point out that in Hebrew, the word for name and the word for place, for “there”, are very very similar to each other. It’s basically the difference between poTAYto and poTAHto, that’s how similar they are. They are tied together a bit – a place and a name go together.
Plus, the next thing these people say is, basically, “we don’t want to be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” That is, we don’t want to get separated. We don’t want to get too far away from each other. We need to stay close, we need to stick together. So the storyteller here seems to be telling us that these people are stuck.
If they were on a journey back towards God, getting stuck here on this plain would not be a good thing.
Possibly they are people who are a little … complacent … who are fairly content to stay put … their best idea is to make a building, to make their situation more permanent.
[And here’s something ELSE we might remember from our Sunday school classes: the rest of the stories in Genesis and Exodus are about people who are “on the move,” who don’t sit still … Abraham moves around a lot, Isaac, Jacob, these people move around; it’s the bad guys of the Bible, the Egyptians, who do a lot of building and sitting; God frees the Hebrews to get up and leave, and then they travel … and they only get in trouble when they refuse to keep moving … in the direction that God has pointed them … so we are probably seeing a theme here …]
Anyway, here are these stuck people, who want to dig in even more, and God comes down and takes a look at what’s going on, and says, literally, they all have the same words … and something to know about that, in Hebrew, again, the word for “words” and the word for “things” and the word for “deeds” are all the same word. So these people all have the same words. They all do the same things. They all think the same things. No one puts up any … resistance, no one has a different idea, no one says, “no, let’s not build a city, let’s keep moving,” for instance.
So, when God says “nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them …” the problem with that might be that not everything they propose to do will be a good idea … but without some resistance, some opposition, some questioning … no one will ever notice that.
Pretty clearly, God thinks this is a bad situation. Without a spirit of adventure, or a sense of call, or even some holy discontent, what’s going to get them unstuck, and moving again … ?
So God mixes up their words. The text says, literally, that they couldn’t hear one another.
We usually think of this as the sudden explosion of lots of languages. Languages like the different ones listed in the story of the day of Pentecost. But we probably all know that even when we are all speaking “the same language,” all supposedly speaking English, for instance, we can have trouble hearing each other, or getting other people to listen to us.
We have different backgrounds, different assumptions, different hopes and fears, the “same words” mean different things to us … and communication breaks down.
And because the people on the plain at Shinar were folks who didn’t want to leave their comfort zones … now, being around other people who were different, who had different words, different ideas, who thought different things and who did different things … bothered them … so what had been a comfortable place that kept them stuck became uncomfortable enough to get them moving again. God seems to have known these were people who would only get moving and keep moving if they were at least a little uncomfortable. And then maybe they would keep moving in the direction of God.
We can still have problems with communication, and with comfort zones.
True story, several years ago, at Corydon Presbyterian Church, we decided we would have a book study and read a book about Islam … and we decided to open it up to the community, thinking maybe this would be one of those ways to get other people interested in the church … and when I wrote the ad for that book study, I used the word “neighbors.” “Learning more about Islam will make us better neighbors …” I was thinking, literally, about “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” that second greatest commandment.
But that word “neighbors” can mean a lot of things, and a rumor went around parts of the county that The Government was planning to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to Corydon, and this program was a way to make it easier for that to happen. A lot of very concerned people showed up at that first meeting. All because we meant different things by the word “neighbors.”
I’ve told that story a few times over the years, but I don’t usually tell the sequel, because I’m not proud of it. One of those concerned people came up to me after the first book study meeting, which was very tense, and invited me to the Harrison County Tea Party meeting the following Tuesday night. There was going to be more discussion about Islam and so on. And even though I did pray about it and talked to my pastor about it, in the end I didn’t go to that meeting – because I assumed that people would have a lot of critical questions, and I was afraid of ending up in the middle of an argument with people I assumed thought differently from me, and I think, honestly, I was afraid I might not be good at answering those questions and keeping my cool, and was too proud to admit all that.
I was too afraid that we wouldn’t be able to communicate, and honestly, too proud to risk looking stupid that way.
When I think about that now, I think that my even bigger problem was that I was not taking the story of the day of Pentecost seriously enough. I didn’t trust the power of the Holy Spirit.
Because if we keep reading in the book of Acts, we will find out that the power of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost doesn’t just overcome the barriers to communication that are created by all these different languages … although it definitely does that, at least for some people. [There are still some people who don’t hear, who think these disciples are drunk at 9:00 in the morning.]
The Holy Spirit does even more than that. The Holy Spirit also gives Jesus’s disciples the courage to get moving, to start travelling all across the known world, to get right out of their comfort zones … not to be afraid of being “scattered” … since they can count on humanity also always being gathered, in Christ. I believe now, I needed to trust that.
Because another thing we celebrate on Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit empowers us to “get moving,” to “get out there,” even to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, for Christ’s sake. We celebrate the way people have been led by the Spirit to foreign countries, led to translate the Bible into all the world’s languages, led to proclaim the gospel that crosses all barriers. Sometimes, crossing barriers simply means opening up and listening to that relative or neighbor who tries our patience because we can’t figure out how they can even start to think what they think … or even just to the person we don’t know, yet … allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us out past the place where we feel entirely at home, entirely familiar.
The project of getting humanity back on that trek back to God, that project of gathering a scattered and scared humanity back together in Christ, that project is actively underway, powered by the Spirit of Pentecost. We are called to be part of that project, to trust the spirit of Adventure that, sometimes, will lead us out past the borders of our comfort zones.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Pentecost, El Greco, via Wikimedia Commons
3 responses to ““Going Out to Listen””
Thanks for unpacking the story.
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Thanks, Tim – I am pretty sure that reading is originally from Mieke Bal, maybe even via someone else, but it is all long enough ago that I don’t remember any of the specific sources.
That experience of being a TA in Hebrew exegesis and listening to bright people read all kinds of things into the text from all the sermons they’d heard over their lives is still pretty fresh, though …
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“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Mary Oliver (who always says the best and the smartest things).
Glad you were listening and paying attention!
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