So earlier in the worship service we read about the tower of Babel. In the
Genesis story people are united around a common purpose, they are going to make
a name for themselves by building a tower to heaven. They are going to prove
the greatness of humanity. So in response, God and the heavenly beings disrupt
human unity by giving them different languages and making it so they can’t
communicate. The people are scattered, divided and as a result they give up building
In many ways this is a disturbing story. What is it trying to teach us? Not
to build cities? Not to build skyscrapers? Why is God threatened by that? It is
not as if we can actually build a tower all the way to heaven. Is God afraid of
humanity? Is our power so great?
If we look at the interpretations of this passage throughout time, the main
interpretation seems to be that the builders were not just trying to reach
heaven, but that they were trying to challenge God, perhaps even rebel against
God. One retelling of the story has the builders saying, “God has no right to
choose the upper world, and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will
build us a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it may
appear as if it intended to war with God.”
However, another retelling suggests that that it was not the idea of the
tower that was so upsetting to God, but the morality of the builders. “The
Tower had reached such a height that it took a whole year to hoist up necessary
building-material to the top; in consequence, materials became so valuable that
they cried when a brick fell and broke, while they remained indifferent when a
man fell and was killed. They behaved also very heartlessly toward the weak and
sick who could not assist to any great extent in the building; they would not
even allow a woman” in childbirth to leave the work.
As you can see, readers for a long time have been disturbed enough by the
original story that they have crafted other stories around it to help us make
sense of what God does.
But there is another disturbing question that arises from this passage --
if our power is so great as human beings that we can work together to build a
tower to heaven, why can’t we learn to communicate around language barriers? Why
are we so easily divided against each other by something that isn’t all that
hard to overcome? So this passage brings up all sorts of questions. Questions
about God, about God’s goodness, about human power, about human division, and
Yet when I think about it, those are some of the similar questions that
seem to crop up in our debates around religion, ethics, and even politics
When a new technology is created that has great power, people say that we
are playing God – suggesting perhaps that we are somehow challenging God’s
power. And sometimes the creators of those things do have god-complexes, and
symbolically they want to put an idol with a sword on top of their
accomplishments in rebellion to God. As if we can even come close to challenging
the creator of the universe.
And people still have trouble getting around language barriers –
distrusting and fearing those who speak other languages rather than doing the
rather easy thing of working together despite the differences. So perhaps the story of Babel is disturbing
because the same problems occur today. It is one of those bible stories that
starts discussions rather than offering us answers. Discussions about human
motivations, God’s power, and human unity.
But there is also in the bible another story, another situation in which
God takes the story of the tower of Babel and reverses it. We call it Pentecost
and it is the holiday we celebrate today. Listen as I read Acts 2:1-21
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were
all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a
fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what
seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were
all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the
Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every
nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd
gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native
languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people
who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear
them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well
as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia
and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors
from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them
declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all
surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others
jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
Peter stood with the other eleven
apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in
Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk,
as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this
is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream
Even upon my servants, men
I will pour out my Spirit
in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a
cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed
before the great and
spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Instead of confusing languages, the day of Pentecost, as the disciples are
gathered with people from many nations, features a miracle in which God’s power
comes on humanity in a new way, and which overcomes the language barrier. Each
listener hears the disciples in their native language. And again this leaves us
with questions. What has changed since Babel? What are these people doing that
is suddenly so acceptable to God that God would undo what God had done before?
The obvious answer to those questions is that Christ has come. It is as
though God is saying, the upper world is no longer just for me, but for all of
you. But you must allow the presence of my Spirit to fill you, you must follow
the teachings of Christ (you can no longer be builders that are more concerned
with material things than with human lives, you must grow in your sense of
justice and love), and then you may come. If you do all that, you are now ready
to work together to build the church, which will be a path to heaven. Which is
a wonderful thing, when you think about it.
But here is the problem. We as Christians don’t work together very well.
We are among the people that fight against human unity the most. We are
among those least likely to want to work with other nations, among those least
likely to trust people who speak other languages. We are like the people on the
sidelines who would rather call the disciples drunk than participate in God’s
spiritual miracle. We seem to prefer living in the limitations of Babel rather
than taking up the miraculous gift of the Spirit which empowers us to change
the world for good.
God has called us to reach every nation, to remember that everyone who
calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Everyone. Even if they speak
Arabic, or Spanish, or Swahili, Chinese or Russian. But we frown upon that
idea. God didn’t divide us, we did it ourselves. Instead of building the church
as one united effort, we split ourselves, and we call each other names.
But think about it: If we were to unite, and work together across our
differences, around our language barriers, with the Spirit of God filling us,
and the teachings of Christ behind us, God would blow like a mighty wind
through our world, tongues of fire would touch lives, and miracles would
The potential of humanity as empowered by God would be unbelievable. Young
and old alike would see visions of God’s plan. We would share the dreams, the hopes
of God, and the kingdom of God would come on earth as in heaven. And everyone
who called on the name of God would be saved.
You see, Pentecost is a celebration of God on the move in our midst,
bringing us together for heavenly work. It is time we caught the Spirit,
allowed ourselves to be filled, and took up the challenge of building God’s
city, God’s community and God’s world.
R. xxxviii. 7; Tan., ed. Buber, Noah, xxvii, et seq. – cited by http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2279-babel-tower-of
Greek Apocalypse of Baruch iii, cited by http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2279-babel-tower-of