From Babel to Babbling

 Scripture: Acts 2:1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors form Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “what does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts

It was Pentecost in Jerusalem before the Holy Spirit came on the apostles. Pentecost, or Shavuot, was one of the three major festivals of Judaism where every Jewish adult male was commanded by Law to appear in Jerusalem. It was a week long festival, began soon after dawn on the first day of the week when each man who take two loaves of bread to the temple in offering from the new wheat. It marks the end of the harvest of grain- a harvest party, if you will. So, similarly to Passover, Jerusalem’s walls are filled. There would be around 180, 000 people at the festival and 120 thousand of those would be from outside of Jerusalem. The city is bustling and crowded with devout Jews and converts to Judaism from every nation of the dispersion.

So all around there are people from many different nations, speaking different languages. The people in Jerusalem are celebrating the first fruits of the wheat harvest, bringing them to the temple as an offering. Just as when we celebrated Passover not too long ago on Palm Sunday, the streets are crowded, as you walk along you can pick up snippets of this language and snippets of that language.

This is the scene into which we read the story of Pentecost as we know it today. In is in this city of multi-culturalism, bustling with people, Peter leads the apostles in a meeting in an upper room.

It doesn’t say exactly what they were doing when the winds came. Perhaps someone first noticed that they were a little chilled. Maybe asked someone else if they could close the shutters. But suddenly the wind picks up and it is a violent wind. The sounds of the festival in the city are drowned out. No one can hear anyone else speak. People begin pointing, seeing fire above the heads of each person. Eventually, the apostles realize that the fire is above their head, too.

While the wind blows around, it draws others in from the street. What is this wind, what is this noise? Why are  there fires above the heads of people? Everyone who is in the city is curious about what is happening inside the house.

As the wind dies down, people begin to speak. Asking questions about what has happened, knowing that it is from God and speaking testimony to the miraculous occurrence that has just taken place. Those from outside of Jerusalem begin to have shocked looks on their faces- they understand? All the languages together sound like a cacophony- but a beautiful one. A sound that they can all understand. The sound of cohesion.

Babel

The story we read here sounds vaguely familiar. One of different languages and people from every nation. If you have your Bible handy, please turn with me to Genesis 11:1-9.

It takes us back to the beginning, not quite the beginning-beginning, but pretty close. The whole entire earth was under one language. Everyone understood everyone and as they continued to explore, they came upon some land and thought “this is pretty nice” and settled down.

And, as one does when you settle somewhere, they began to build their homes. Their city. And they were feeling pretty good about themselves and all that they had accomplished. Everything was accessible to them, right at their finger tips.

As their city grew, they wanted to build a tower, all the way up to the heavens. They were feeling pretty positive about themselves. “Come let us make a name for ourselves; everyone will know who we are.” Humility wasn’t exactly their strong suit.

God saw the city and the tower that they had built and realized the self-righteousness that had formed in these people. As their city grew, so did their egos. Larger and larger. God said, “If we confuse their language, that will teach them a lesson. It will take their egos down a notch.”

And so, everyone began speaking different languages. It perhaps was a mad-dash to find those that were speaking the same language as you. Walking quickly through crowds of words you’ve never heard before to finally come upon someone who understood you- what a relief.

The groups who found similarity went off with one another. A community that was once an empire now scattered. Folks packed up their bags and their carts and moved away with those they understood. 

This is a story of self-exaltation, confusion and dispersion. The other is a story of God exaltation, understanding and cohesion. The coming together at Pentecost is a reversal of the dispersion of Babel.

Today

At the tower of Babel, God rebuked the human self-exaltation by confusing the languages and making it impossible for people to understand each other. This resulted in a dispersion of the tribes. In Acts, Spirit-filled people are able to speak in languages that they have never learned. What comes to them as divided tongues actually draws together people who have been scattered in diaspora.

Pentecost was a Jewish festival to celebrate the harvest. As we read Acts 2, we see the Holy Spirit harvesting hearts, coming into the fields of people’s lives and cutting them to the heart with conviction as they speak about God’s wonderous acts for their brothers and sisters of different languages to hear.

This thing that God made as a result of human sinfulness is made into something beautiful- a rich diversity of languages that fills our earth. It shows the end of the dispersion of Babel and a new kingdom come of unity and diversity.

“Oh for a thousand tongues to sing, my great redeemer praise”

The beauty of Pentecost is that God wants to be glorified by all kinds of people. God ensures that the Gospel can be proclaimed in all kinds of languages. To us, many of the languages of the world- even the names listed in this Acts story are foreign, they are unknown. But to God, they are not. God knows every name. God knows every word in every language. God knows our nation. God knows our city. Our neighbourhood.

I have a lived a pretty sheltered life. I haven’t experienced much trauma. I grew up with good parents. I grew up in a country and a town where I didn’t have to fear for my safety. Now, I live quite comfortably. I can walk at night by myself (with the dog, of course). I know that we will always have food and if we don’t- the 24-hour grocery store is nearby. If for some reason we ever completely ran out of money and a home, I have several friends and family that would graciously take us in. I am privileged.

When I get thinking about the ways the church can reach out to others I often feel overwhelmed. Like I don’t know how to help these folks because I don’t know what they’ve experienced. I don’t know what words to say. I don’t know how to make things right. I don’t know how to show them that God loves them in the best way.

But the story of Pentecost reminds me that I don’t have to. Just as the Holy Spirit came to the apostles during Pentecost, so does the Holy Spirit live in us today. The same Holy Spirit that knew all the intimate languages of everyone present on that glorious day. The Holy Spirit knows the lives of those around me and, working through me, knows what people need.

Pentecost shows us unification. It shows us diversity. And, most importantly of all, it shows us that the Holy Spirit was, is and is to come. The Holy Spirit is with us always, knowing our needs and the needs of those around us. Guiding us, filling us, and enabling us.

Amen.