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June 9, 2019

Babbling Cities

Passage: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
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The assigned lectionary scriptures for this Sunday contain stories of two cities receiving an influx of languages. Today is Pentecost Sunday—the holiday celebrating the birthday of the Church—but let's start with the Tower of Babel. This is the final story in the Bible's “prehistory” of Genesis 1 through 11. The Tower of Babel marks the transition from God dealing directly with humanity as a whole in the Bible's story—that's the prehistory—to God instead dealing with just one specific family starting in Genesis 11, a family who would become the Israelites and through whom God would deal with everyone else. Whether you read Genesis 1 through 11 as literal history, allegorical poetry pointing to deeper religious truths, or something in-between... the Tower of Babel marks the end of God addressing humanity in broad strokes and the start of God's work of addressing just one nation, one people, one culture: the Israelites. At first glance... God in Genesis today seems petty, vindictive, and jealous, like a bitter ex who's not happy unless you're not happy. The Lord sees humanity gathered all in one place, with one language and culture, one huge giant tower... and God says, “If they keep this up, the humans will be unstoppable. Can't have them learning nuclear fission millennia early! Let's see, this lot will now speak Mongolian; that bunch now speaks only French; those guys now speak only Swahili; and Frank over there will be the only one speaking Klingon. That'll put a stop to this tower nonsense.” God seems envious and spiteful at first glance here, so what's really going on?

To understand Genesis 11, you need to understand Genesis 9. In that chapter, after Noah's flood, God gives humanity a blessing: “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” But by Genesis 11, humanity has rejected that blessing. Humans were fruitful and multiplying, yes, but instead of filling the earth, the humans declare: “Come, let's build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens. And let's make a name for ourselves; let's cement our honor and reputation. If we don't do these things, we'll be scattered across the face of the earth.” We were blessed with the task of exploring and filling the earth. And the Hebrew word for “fill” here even connotes consecration and fulfillment: we're not just filling the world with people but subtly fulfilling it. Yet humanity in Genesis 11 rejects this blessing and purpose. Instead in fear, we chose to put our own interests above the Lord's calling and blessing. God sending a multitude of languages on the people therefore isn't pettiness or even punishment per se. Instead, God sees us hoarding power yet misusing it like a toddler with a hand grenade. And so God gives humanity a nudge back in the right direction, knowing we fearful ones would scatter ourselves if we couldn't communicate. And so at last we grudgingly take up the task of truly filling the earth, not because God gave us this blessing but out of fear of each other. One more rocky start for humanity in Genesis' story.

The story of Pentecost in Acts 2, meanwhile, begins with the disciples likewise all in one place a few weeks after Jesus' Easter resurrection and a few days after his ascension back into heaven. At the same time, devout Jewish people from across the known world gather in that same city for the religious festival of Shavuot remembering God's giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai long ago and thanking God for a good harvest today. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit in a freakish and fiery miracle falls upon Jesus' followers, who all begin speaking in all the languages of the known world. All who had traveled to the city for the festival now hear the language of their homelands and are amazed, first that anyone so far from home would speak their language, second that these men speaking the language clearly aren't from their homeland so wouldn't know the tongue, and third that all these disciples across all these languages are yet praising the Lord together in unified faith. Some scoff at this miracle, accusing the disciples of just being drunk, which Peter answers with one of my favorite Biblical excuses: “We're not drunk! It's only 9am!” While Jesus taught many things, apparently mimosas and bloody marys were not among his lessons: the carpenter didn't even teach his disciples how to make a screwdriver!

But from that tee-totaling turn-around, Peter goes on to explain the significance of the disciples speaking in all these languages. Just as with the Tower of Babel, the Lord sent a diversity of languages upon the people to scatter them across the world. But whereas back then it was because humanity wasn't fulfilling its calling and blessing, here the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples with language because they are at last ready to share the good news everywhere, because at last the entire world is ready to hear and believe it. Whereas the languages of the Tower of Babel signal a shift from the Lord dealing with all humanity to instead focusing on just one nation—the Israelites—here the gift of language signals an opening of God's mission from only the Jewish nation out to include all the world, regardless of race, speech, homeland, age, gender, or anything else. Where the Tower of Babel marked the end of the Bible's prehistory and the start of the Abrahamic family saga, the fires of Pentecost mark the birth of the Church universal. Where languages at the Tower of Babel divided humanity, sparked fear and chaos among us, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost instead uses a multitude of languages to bless and unite people of all walks of life around Jesus Christ.

Or as Peter himself explains, quoting the prophet Joel: “In the last days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young ones shall see visions, your old ones dream dreams. Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I shall pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” Remember too that in the Bible, prophesying was less about predicting the future and more about declaring God's will. So Peter is saying the Pentecost gift of languages from all nations means God at last is speaking to and through all people, that the promise of scripture is no longer confined to the descendants of Abraham and the Israelites only but is freely offered to all peoples, all nations, all cultures.

The lectionary this year assigns the stories of Babel's Tower and Pentecost's Holy Spirit, two stories of babbling cities and miraculous languages, as a reminder that language, culture, and so on can be powerful tools. As humanity learned in Genesis' prehistory, these things that make us unique can divide us, make us mistrust one another and turn the arrogant into the terrified. But the joy of Pentecost is a reminder that in God's kingdom—that in the Church of Jesus Christ whose birthday we celebrate this day—it will not be so. It is a wonderful blessing the Bible is the most translated book on Earth: from its original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic... into Latin, Hindi, and English... into Korean, Arabic, Navajo, and more. On this birthday of the Church, step back and marvel at God's glory reflected in countless worship services this day: from our staunchly traditional Protestant worship here... to a soaring high Latin Mass in a Paris cathedral... to quietly reverent house churches in China worshiping in secret... to dancing and cheering tent revivals in Brazil... and in every other way humans can possibly imagine to worship our Creator.

We as Christians can celebrate this diversity within the Church without fear... because our unity does not come from uniformity. The unity of Babel's Tower crumbled when many languages appeared, when the people spread out far and wide, because the unity of Babel relied on universal sameness, of uniformity that could not adapt across national boundaries. But Christ's Church adapts wherever it goes, taking the unchanging gospel message of God's saving love and grace... and translating it into the language, the worship, the heart of every new culture it meets that these people too might join in our hymn of praise. Babel's Tower chases unity relying on its own strength, centered on its selfish desire to earn a name, fearful of what might go wrong. Pentecost's blessing pursues that unity trusting in the grace of Christ to bridge whatever divides us, whether it be divisions of culture, politics, gender, race, or history. Christian unity is not the bland uniformity of tyrants... but rather unity within diversity, unity across boundaries, unity that relies not on similarities of culture but on the Person of Christ. And in this unified diversity, the glory of God is magnified even more as every nation and tongue bows before the Lord in its own way, all praising Christ for what he has done. On this birthday of the Church, as we Christians in Lapeer look towards the next two thousands years of ministry and the new horizons and lands that may arise for the gospel, may we likewise reject Babel's fear of difference and instead embrace the courage of the disciples of reach out across divisions in the loving and glorious name of Jesus, who is the source of all true unity, comfort, and peace. Amen.

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