Skip to content

Babel and Pentecost (sermon)

May 21, 2013

Genesis 11: 1-9   Acts 2: 1-21tower-of-babel1

The Tower of Babel is a very very old story! Probably first written down around 3000 years ago (although going through several revisions) its origin lies much further back at a time when in Mesopotamia when towers were built with bricks (whereas the Hebrews of 1000 bc built in stone) – maybe up to a thousand years earlier again.

It’s a cleverly crafted story… it includes a pun on the Akkadian name Babel, from which we get the name Babylon and the Hebrew word for mix-up ‘balal’.

It’s a story that can be read in all sorts of different ways.

For some it is a story of pride and human ambition to be like God or to challenge God – God’s rival.

Let me offer another way of reading the story in the context of the other bible stories.

Once upon a time God created human beings to multiply and spread out through all the earth and be responsible for its care… things got into a bit of a mess thanks to the violence that took control of humanity so God flooded the earth and started again, committing himself to a future with these human beings and all the other creatures on the earth so that they would spread out and diversify according to God’s original command.

But one day, at a time when everyone still spoke the same language, some migrant people thought the better of this and decided to avoid being scattered all over the earth by building a unified city with a tall tower. God knew that would lead to problems, so God came down and mixed up their language so they couldn’t understand each other. They gave up building Babble-Town and that’s how come they spread out and diversified the way they were meant to in the first place.

It’s interesting to think about what stands out when you read a story differently. Impressions? [contrast: otherwise we will be scattered… the Lord scattered them abroad]

To read it this way suggests that the punishment is in fact consistent with God’s original purpose and blessing. The diversity of language and culture is not so much a curse as a blessing – a blessing because it liberates them from their own tendency towards empire – towards a single system of control in one place. Seen this way it is a story about the potential goodness of language and of cultural diversity. Good for humanity, good for the earth we are called to care for. I say potential goodness, because history tells us that diversity of language is no more a guarantee of peace or care for creation than empire is. But nevertheless we have this ancient story about the breakdown of empire for the sake of diversity – ultimately for the good of creation.


We live in a multi-cultural world (to state the obvious). In the last couple of weeks a group of Samoan Methodists have come to us in need of a building. They now worship in our church in their own language. One example of the culturally diverse world we live in. We also find ourselves in a world that is becoming increasingly homogenised. There is a MacDonalds in every town and every cultural practice is being held up for assessment as to how it serves the market, gdp and promotes growth. We have cultural diversity and we have empire.

But today is Pentecost and there is another story than Babel to be told.

Once upon a time the earth was again filled with violence, and one large empire was doing its best to rule them all. God was still deeply concerned about where it would all end up. So God came down again, this time through the back door, as a human being at the bottom of the heap, living a life that surprised everyone with its compassion and openness, a life that upset everyone because it challenged everyone’s sense of who were insiders and who were outsiders. In the end the Empire needed to shut it down. So a centre of Jewish national pride (Jerusalem) joined hands with the Roman empire to cast him out. God refused to fight and refused to back down. So God was crucified and in this way made a public display of the new empire (new Babel), shaming its power… and at the time no one knew what was happening. Babel seemed to be well and truly in command of the world. End of story! But it wasn’t.

God came down again. The rumour was alive that God was not finished, that things were not as they had appeared. And so God came to a group of people from all over the known world, from a multitude of cultures and languages. And in that moment God gave them a sign of a new beginning.


And the sign was? (Pentecost – communication).pentecost

Those followers of Jesus began to speak and their speech came out in the languages of all the gathered people from all over the world

Is this story a kind of ‘reversal of Babel’? No, not really. Did God eliminate their languages, by creating some kind of Esperanto? No! There’s something wrong with the idea of Esperanto. There’s a reason why it doesn’t work. Pentecost can be a sign of hope where Esperanto cannot. We don’t have the human capacity or political processes to make Esperanto work. Pentecost comes from above (or if you think of Jesus – the above that comes from below). Apart from this love of God, demonstrated in Jesus and working in human beings at the very core of their identity and being by the Spirit, humanity constantly reverts to the struggles created by our fears, this sense of needing to defend our self against others who are different.

So Pentecost became a symbol of what Christians eventually described as ‘The unity of the Spirit in the bond of love’… In other words the “unity in the Spirit of Jesus”. Pentecost is a sign that the unity of humanity is a real and dynamic possibility (but only because it is a gift of God); a sign that diversity need not result in division. Language, says Pentecost, need not be a source of violence, but can be a source of mutual understanding (standing under one another, in the way of Jesus).


We live in a multicultural world. David (and Linda) came to us from China… a little over 10 years ago. Kamu comes from Samoa. Paul from Tokelau, Eddie is Maori from up North. Colin and Alaina from Canada. Today we baptise Arthur and just a few years before Arthur’s birth his family came to us from South Africa… with all the cultural struggle that that country has gone through.

This is not a Kiwi congregation! This is not a European congregation. I don’t just mean there happen to be other cultures and ethnicities here. This is not a kiwi congregation, in spite of the fact that most of us are Kiwis of European origin. If we understand this we understand why there is no kiwi flag in this church.


What we are trying to do as we gather here today… is to share in a space, to live in a space which Jesus has created… a space in which Jesus has authority over all our cultural heritage that we bring, over all the different traditions and languages. This is a space in which the Spirit of Jesus is at work doing Pentecost things… doing things that allow diversity to be the site of unity and communication rather than barriers and prejudice and violence.

The Pentecost Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus!… the Spirit who makes people like Jesus… like Jesus on the cross… vulnerable, even to being killed, taking the risk of opening ourselves to others who are different, taking the risk of listening to them, taking the time to listen in a world when time is money.

The barrier to communication is not difference. God knows, it is not language difference that ultimately keeps us apart. It is the fears of our hearts. The sign of the Pentecost Spirit is that communication happens in a way that respects the differences of culture and language.


Rather than homogenise humanity into a new empire, like some big melting pot, rather than fitting everyone into a kiwi church, we are called to a different kind of unity.


This all takes us back to Genesis. The framework around all of this is our responsibility before God to care for the earth. A new unity, a unity in diversity, brings with it an ancient task – the care of creation.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: