Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9
The story of the Tower of Babel is a rather odd one, and yet it sets the stage for the Pentecost story. In the Genesis story a group of people discovers how to make bricks, and they use them to build a city with a tower that reaches to the clouds. This discovery offers them the means to control their own destiny. Now, they can build walls to protect themselves from outsiders and ramparts that allow them to climb into the heavens and touch God.
We understand the need to protect ourselves from outsiders and the need to reach for the stars; both are part of human nature. What may seem odd to us is God viewing all of this as a threat. Apparently, as the story gets told, the Creator of the Universe is worried that if humanity gets the right tools and abilities, they might storm the very gates of heaven and take over. To keep them at bay, God decides to confuse their languages and scatter them across the land. This may all seem rather petty, but there is a message here about hubris, alienation, and reconciliation. When we read the story of Babel with that of Pentecost, we discover that what was confused is now redeemed.
1. THE PATH TO ALIENATION
Although we might struggle with the way Genesis describes God’s response to the Tower of Babel, this story reveals a distinctly human problem – that is, hubris. Hubris is the arrogant belief that there are no limits or boundaries, and we can do whatever we please, whenever we please, with no consequences. This includes controlling all of our relationships, including our relationship with God.
In the Wednesday Bible Studies, we’ve been talking about God’s will and sovereignty. There are some among us who struggle with this question, which isn’t surprising for Disciples. Our theological fore bearers resisted the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty and stressed human free will. Although it’s understandable that we would resist overly rigid ideas about divine sovereignty, we must be careful about pushing the pendulum the other way. If there are no limits and no rules, then we face the danger of falling into anarchy and confusion.
Examples of hubris are many. They range from the innocent showboating of a football player who allows himself to be caught just short of the goal line to the forces at work in the financial sector that led to the recent global financial meltdown. Then there’s the Gulf oil spill, which lead to the death of eleven workers will cause billions of dollars of damage to the environment and the industries that depend upon the Gulf – all because the ones drilling for the oil failed to observe the limits to their equipment.
This path to alienation is symbolized by the Babel story, but the problem starts much earlier in the Genesis story. Indeed, it starts when the Serpent suggests that by eating the forbidden fruit humanity would share in divine knowledge. There are dangers stemming from the desire to control our own destiny, and the destinies of others. The biggest danger is that it leads to alienation from God and from our neighbors. You see, if we think we’re in control, it’s likely that our desires will collide with those of our neighbors, and alienation sets in.
2. THE PATH OF RECONCILIATION
The path out of this dangerous situation, which is symbolized by the Babel story, leads us to the Pentecost story. In this story, which has become very familiar to church people, the people of God gather in an upstairs room for prayer, and as they pray the Spirit falls, and things change. From the mouths of this new people of God flow words of grace and healing in a multitude of languages. As a result, everyone in the neighborhood, no matter where they hailed from, understood the good news, and their confusion turned into understanding, and the alienation that separates one from God and neighbor began to dissipate. The Spirit becomes for them and for us a sort of universal translator – to borrow an image from Star Trek.
Pentecost is a natural response to Babel, but God began sorting things out and setting things right from the beginning of these times of trouble. He does this first of all by calling on Abraham and Sarah to be the means of blessing to the nations. Through his seed, we’re told, the nations of the world will be blessed. As Christians, we believe that this seed, through which the world will be blessed, is Jesus. Pentecost carries this message of reconciliation into the future, for with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit, the process of reconciliation is set in motion. That which was lost in the confusion of Babel, is now restored in Pentecost’s gift of languages.
We all know what happens when we’re confused and when communication falters. To overcome this disability, we seek ways of communicating.
There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that illustrates how confusion can be overcome through the telling of stories. In an episode, called Darmok, Captain Picard finds himself alone on a deserted planet with the captain of an alien ship. The two captains face the dangers present on this planet, along with the possibility that their two ships could end up in battle. Although the universal translator allows for them to hear the words spoken, they still can’t communicate. You see the Tamarians use stories and metaphors to communicate, and in order to bridge the gap, Picard must find analogies and metaphors that carry the same meaning in his own language. Dathon continually speaks of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," a story about two heroes joining forces to defeat an enemy. Picard isn’t able to understand the meaning of this reference, until he remembers an ancient Babylonian story, the Gilgamesh Epic. It is in this story that he finds the key that breaks down the language barrier. What we learn from this episode, is that if we’re willing to learn each other’s stories, we’ll find a bridge that leads to healing and hope. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darmok)
I don’t need to tell you that we face a world that’s full of confusion and even chaos. The world seems to be getting smaller because of air travel and communication devices, but we still find it difficult to understand and communicate with each other. We still struggle to find the words, the stories, and even the language that will help us bridge the gaps that lead to suspicion and anger.
While the Babel story speaks of confusion, the Pentecost story offers a way of reconciliation. With the coming of the Spirit, the barriers that divide human beings from each other begin to disappear. And as we allow the Spirit to work in our lives, then we become agents of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20). The Spirit provides the language so that we can build the bridge that will bring us together and allow us to work together – not so we can storm heaven and take over, but so we can experience the reign of God on earth as it is experienced in heaven.
3. BUILDING THE BRIDGE THAT CROSSES THE DIVIDE
The story of Babel is about people trying to find a way to touch God, but in a way that God deems inappropriate. Perhaps they weren’t ready or their motives were wrong. Whatever is the case, God put a stop to it. But with Pentecost God provides a bridge so that we can come as one people into God’s presence. Where reckless ambition once led to confusion, now trust in God brings reconciliation.
There’s something else interesting about the story of Babel. In building a city they would have built walls, and we build walls out of fear. In life fear results from a lack of knowledge, and a lack of knowledge begins with a failure to communicate. It’s fear that keeps us apart and leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
Pentecost, on the other hand, celebrates the coming of the Spirit, who empowers the church to carry the message of God’s reconciling grace to the world. It’s a message that builds bridges across gender, ethnic, language, socio-economic, religious, and political divides. It allows us to listen to the voices of the other, and it does so because the Spirit of God is there to translate the many voices present in our world.
Babel is about arrogance, but hearing God’s voice in the stories of others requires humility. It takes humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions, and that God might choose to speak in ways we don’t expect, and which we can’t control. But if we trust in God, and let the Spirit move in our midst then we’ll begin to hear God speaking to us, and maybe God will speak to others through us. And the means by which this happens is the stories that we tell about God’s reconciling love and presence in our lives. May we truly hear these stories of grace and love and take them to heart, so that we might experience reconciliation and healing.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 23, 2010