"Not just a bunch of babel"

May 31, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9

The other day I heard a confusing thing. People were speaking in all sorts of different languages that I didnít understand. Was it a meeting of the United Nations? No. It was a church service. And strangely enough, where I overheard this phenomena was on, of all places, National Public Radio, during an evening news program called "All Things Considered." It was the last place I expected to hear such a thing, especially reported in a respectful way. Usually the secular media is quite skeptical about religious things.

Now, mind you, I am no Pentecostal or Charismatic minded person. However, I respect my brothers and sisters in the faith who are. Furthermore, I rejoice when something of God gets positively reported or portrayed in the secular media. It was on the road last Thursday that I caught this lengthy report on the radio about what a black Pentecostal church is doing in North Omaha, Nebraska to curb gang violence and drug addiction in their community.

Through tears I had to thank God for what these people were doing, reaching out to and loving the lost children of their town into the Kingdom of God. They are making a difference, recognized by the overtaxed police department, the city government and, even, National Public Radio. In the background of the report, behind the words of the commentator, were the obvious sounds of spirit-led prayer called glossolalia... You know, however, it wasnít the phenomena of speaking in tongues that made me thankful. It was what God was doing in and through these people.

The same is true when we look back upon that first Pentecost in Jerusalem. I have no doubt it was a confusing, overwhelming experience to those who saw it from the outside. To get a flavor of what it might have been like, letís try an experiment. Reach for the nearest pew Bible and open it to the second chapter of Acts. Youíll find it in the back on page 948. Weíre all going to read aloud the first six verses, only we wonít do it in unison. Different rows will begin on different verses. (Step down and appoint - this row starts with verse 1, this one with verse 2 etc.) Now, weíll read through it only once. Those of you who begin at verses 2 thru 6, when you finish verse 6, go back and start reading verse 1 until you finish the verse just before the verse you started on.... Understand? Letís try it........

Kind of confusing, huh? If our neighbors were listening in, wonder what they thought?
                    "What on earth is going on over there?,"
                    "Those nutty Brethren!," or
                    "What a bunch of drunks!"

Brethren drunk? At 10:__ on a Sunday morning, even? Well, you catch the drift, donít you? That was the reaction back on the first Pentecost, according to the report we have received in the Bible. It was amid that confusion, in answer to those questions that the voice of Peter rang out. This was his first sermon, by the way. Can you imagine the pressure he might have felt? All those people, wondering what was happening. It was on his shoulders to make sense of it somehow.

My first sermon, if thatís what you want to call it, was delivered on a Youth Sunday in the calm, dignified Bridgewater, VA Church of the Brethren. The only confusion in that place on that day was the trembling of my hands and voice. I was very glad my part in the service was only 3 minutes long. I know some today might wish Iíd tremble a little more and preach a little less.

I imagine that Peter was a bit nervous on that first Pentecost, when he opened his mouth for the first time in front of all those people, some of whom were openly contemptuous of this ragtag bunch of gobbledygook-talking misfits. Peter probably didnít have time to worry about what he was going to say, however. It all happened very quickly. All he could do was just stand and open his mouth. Remember, when he did this previously, he got in trouble - sticking his foot in his mouth, denying his Lord. This time was different, though.

Yes, this time was different! The story is told in the Bible of another gobbledygook occasion. You heard it earlier from the 11th chapter of Genesis. In some ways the outcome of both the "tower of babel" story, and the account of the first Pentecost are similar. There is a great deal of confusion in each, people are not talking the same language. However, there is a difference.

When we listen to that story from Genesis, we may be intrigued by all this discussion of building a city and a tower that reaches toward heaven. The "Tooltime Tims" among us (not to be confused with "Toolbox Norman"), might try to figure out which Binford tools weíd need for such a job, or how many bricks itíd take to construct something that big. However, even though we recall this Old Testament tale in terms of the tower these people were trying to build, this story isnít really about a very tall edifice. Itís about a confused people who think they have it all together.

Now, mind you, they share a common language. But this common tongue is not leading them to become what God made them to be. You see, when Noah and his family got off the Ark (it says), God blessed them and called them to "Be fruitful, and fill the earth." In other words, "Scatter and pass on the blessing." Just a few chapters later the descendants of Noah, according to the story as we have received it, find themselves in the plain of Sinar. Theyíre still huddled together. They havenít scattered. Instead, they decide to settle down. "Come," they said to each other, "letís build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (11:4) Do you catch whatís happening? They are scared of being scattered. Thatís why theyíre building this city with a tower. They are afraid. Their words give them away.

Now, what God did in response can be read in a couple of ways. We might focus on the technological prowess of those people and see God reacting in a "Iíll huff and puff and blow their tower down" fashion because theyíve gotten too big for their britches. Who do they think they are anyway? Next theyíll create computers and internet, and a Bill Gates will come along and build a monopoly and control the world through Windows Ď98 (excuse me, Iím getting carried away). You know what I mean? Thatís one way of viewing what God did. Another interpretation is to focus on the fear of those people, and what that fear was preventing them from doing. They hand a common language, but they werenít talking to each other about the most important stuff. Nobody was asking or answering the most important question about that city and its tower. The question?: Why?

"Why are we doing this?"

"To make a name for ourselves."

"Why?"

"Well, if we donít, weíll get scattered."

"Why? What are we afraid of?"

Well, you know the rest of the story. They ended up getting scattered by God. Was this a punishment? Looked at from one angle, perhaps. From another vantage point, however, this was an act of mercy on Godís part. These people had to face into their fear, and step out in the direction of Godís blessing. Such a blessing is not a possession. Itís not a brick with which we build some marvelous skyscraper. Possessions such as that we, over time, take for granted, and gradually come to ignore because itís so familiar. Godís blessing is only a blessing when it is shared. In the very next chapter of Genesis God would say to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (12:1-3)

On the plain of Sinar, those people had a common language - but it wasnít doing them any good. You could say that they werenít really listening. When God confused their language, making a multiplicity of languages, the long-range intent was not to stymie communication so much as to get people back on track. Even though they previously used the same words, they had no idea who they were or where they were headed, except up in the clouds somewhere.

How different the story of Pentecost is. In the course of one day there is a drastic shift from a little huddle of people pretty-much alike to a multitude of very different people. Amid wind and fire, God confuses the language of the disciples - but there is no question about the intent, is there? Of course, there are differences, not only in language, but in culture as well. From this point God is scattering his people, not to punish them but to bless the world, whether it be Jerusalem in the first century or North Omaha, NE in the twentieth. Or here.....

What Norman shared earlier about communication is very true. How much do we really listen to each other? We may share the same language, but often we just talk past each other. You know, donít you, that the word "communication" is, at its root, a theological term a word involving God. To "commune" with another person is to really listen to them, to hear with head and heart and spirit - with all our being. It is not an act of building some edifice, but of sharing in a blessing. Words are not bricks to be piled one on top of another. They are the bread and wine of daily life, sacred elements to be shared and received.

The story of Pentecost is not just wind and fire and the confusion of speaking different languages. Itís about the power of communication in its truest sense. Itís not just a bunch of babel, even when persons speak in different tongues. A Word is spoken that is heard, really heard - heard on a level that goes deeper than words. It was on this level that the church of Jesus Christ was born. Even if we are not Pentecostal or charismatic, it is on this deeper level that we as Godís people need to live today - with God and with each other. May Godís Holy Spirit, indeed, "make us whole," empowering us to truly listen and follow. "On a scale of 1 to 10," a 10.

©1998Peter L. Haynes

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