Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
I know it is Pentecost. Some of you wore red to remind me. After writing a new Pentecost sermon for 38 consecutive years, I have extinguished all creativity on that subject. It is the closest I will ever get to feeling like Leonard Cohen. He wrote “Hallelujah”, one of the greatest songs known to humankind. Unfortunately he kept adding verses to the original. By the time he got to verse 25 he had forgotten why he created the song in the first place. That is the way I feel about writing a 39th sermon about Pentecost.
Fortunately the Old Testament text is the Tower of Babel. A misreading of Genesis 11 would have us believe the languages of the world originated with a failed attempt to build a tower to heaven. Add to the mix the words from Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “Everyone understood in his own language”, and many preachers would have you believe Pentecost restored the language the Tower of Babel debacle destroyed. Fortunately for you I am not just any preacher.
This tall tale has its origins in the folklore of Babylon. The original begins with an innocent question, “Why do other cultures not speak Babylonian?” The Babylonian answer was obvious. The language of the gods was spoken only by Babylonians. Those who helped with the building of the great ziggurats were the children of the god Marduk. They spoke the holy language. The others were scattered to the far regions. They were not allowed to utter the holy words.
The exiled residents of Jerusalem spoke Hebrew. They were quite proud of their language and heritage and had no desire to assimilate into the Babylonian culture. Some very clever writer heard the story of the ziggurats and created a response which mocked the efforts of the Babylonians. Listen to the story as told with a Hebrew voice.
Once upon a time everyone spoke the same language. They migrated from the east and came to the great Tigris-Euphrates basin. The people said to each other, “Let’s make a name for ourselves. We will build a city with a great tower. If we don’t we shall be scattered throughout the earth.” So they began to build. But finding stone was hard work, so they substituted bricks. Not wanting to take the time to make quality mortar, they substituted bitumen, a low grade tar. God looked down at the people creating a tower with sub-grade materials. God knew it was only a matter of time before the tower would collapse upon itself. Its foundation was sand, not rock. God said, “I will go down and multiply their language so they will not be able to finish their foolishness.” Frustrated, the people left the city and scattered throughout the region. The unfinished tower was called Babel because God confused their language.
The re-telling of this story is so simplistically complex. That is what makes any story great. Let’s start with the name of the tower. In the original story the tower and city were called Babylon, which means, “Gateway to the Gods”. The residents of the city saw themselves as the center of the universe. They had victories over the Assyrians and Egyptians. The story in Genesis shortens the name to Babel, which in Hebrew means, “to confuse”.
Second, notice the material that was used to build the tower. It was second rate. When we put our best foot forward, amazing results abound. But when we cut corners, disasters abound. The same is true of our commitment to God. When we claim that we will live our lives as a holy sacrifice and then take shortcuts, it is amazing how quickly our holy pilgrimage gets sidetracked.
But I have saved the best for last. God said, “I will scatter them.” From the beginning of time humans have feared being scattered. It takes us out of our comfort zone. We might encounter folks different from us. We might have to learn a new language to communicate. Scattering makes us fearful, even hateful. At first glance scattering is horrifying. But what happens when we are all the same?
We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the landing at Normandy. Remember the ultimate goal of Nazi Germany? Hitler wanted to create a master race in which everyone had blue eyes and blond hair. Everyone would look like and think like their neighbor. But who landed at Normandy? The soldiers came from the UK, Canada, US, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer includes Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews. Buried in that sacred ground are Whites, Hispanic, African-Americans and Native Americans. In other words, it was those who were scattered who brought down the Third Reich.
Genesis 10:32, the verse just before the telling of the Tower of Babel Story reads, “These are the families of Noah. They became scattered all over the earth to become nations.” The text reveals that the fear of scattering expresses a resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The tower, in both stories, was an attempt to resist a divine directive of celebrating diverse opinions. Isn’t humanity always at its best when a variety of folks come together with a smorgasbord of ideas to solve difficult problems? Aren’t faulty solutions often the results of a lack of original thinking? Imagine if one person in the story had said, “Where I come from, stone last a lot longer than bricks.”
Believe it or not that brings me back to Pentecost. Peter was a fisherman with an extremely limited viewpoint. He stands before a crowd in Jerusalem, which is the center of his universe. But he remembers Jesus saying, “One day we are going to rebuild the Temple, but it won’t look anything like the old one.” Peter has a story that needs to be told and a vision he wants to share. Peter has no desire to go backwards. The resurrection has revealed God has chosen all of creation, not just one people. But Peter is limited by his history, his culture, even his faith. Then his eyes focus. He is surrounded by folks who have been scattered. They came from Partha, Medes, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome and Arabia. Peter speaks only one language and probably had a horrible Galilean accent. He is a hick from the sticks. Who cared what he had to say? The only thing Peter had going for him was he trusted God. Slowly Peter spoke and each person heard in his or her own language.
This isn’t the creation of a new language. It’s like being at the UN with head sets. So listen in on what Peter said. “God has poured out the Spirit upon you in order that you might see visions and dream dreams.” Peter had the courage to announce, “What I have got to share is bigger than all of us. It can’t be limited to Jerusalem. It can’t be restricted to one voice. It is going to take every one of you to scatter throughout the world and spread the good news that God still blows a holy wind into our emptiness.”
The folks that day in Jerusalem may never have heard of Jesus but they had experienced chaos. They may not have known of the young prophet who had been killed, but they witnessed a voice filled with joy. They might not been raised in the religion of Moses, but they now heard of a God who offered hope instead of despair, visions instead of nightmares, life instead of death. And they scattered, not out of fear, not out of self-preservation, not out of disbelief. They scattered because they wanted to run home and tell their families, and their friends, and even those folks they didn’t like very much what they had heard. They scattered, because the breath of God touched their souls, and they were not afraid.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Sing it with me.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.