a sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 for Pentecost
preached on May 19, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It was quite an accomplishment, really—all the people of the world coming together, working to show off their best architectural and engineering skills, coordinating their labors in new ways to build a great city centered around a single monument, to “make a name for” themselves. As the bricks were made out of mud, as the stones were laid upon stones, the accomplishment became clear—humans could do anything they wanted to do if they put their minds to it. Divine limits meant nothing. The result was stunning—a great city, with a tower reaching high into the sky, showing off the greatest possibilities of human coordination and consultation, making it clear that humans could do anything and God didn’t have to get involved.
But then a slightly jealous God took a closer look at what was going on. The people shared common roots and a common language, and there were few limits on their communication and relationships. God saw this city under construction, the great tower as a monument to human possibility and ingenuity, and most of all their pride at what they had accomplished. God was not happy:
This is only the beginning of what they will do;
nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
So God took action to preserve God’s role in the order of things. God scrambled their words and confused their language, forcing them to scatter from the city and abandon their great work of human ingenuity and creativity. So the people called the place Babel, a nonsense word signifying confusion and misunderstanding even to this day, for in this place everything that they understood about themselves and one another was scrambled once and for all.
In a world where our human accomplishment goes far beyond the wonder of Babel, where communication even across language barriers is nearly immediate, where we build towers reaching 1776 feet into the sky, where human pride for the world we have created for ourselves reaches far beyond the bounds of a small city in Mesopotamia, the scrambled world of Babel seems deeply distant from our experience. But when we look a little more closely, we know that the scrambledness of Babel is still very much with us. Even though we may be able to talk with those who use a different language, the cultural differences among different peoples still make it difficult to really understand one another. Even though we may be able to build skyscrapers that tower over this vertical city of ours, we can’t manage to relate to one another without resorting to violence and animosity. Even though we may be more mobile than ever before, more communicative than ever before, more a global village than we ever could have imagined, we don’t always recognize the byproducts of our accomplishment in the climate change and overpopulation that ultimately threaten our very existence as the human race.
Now I don’t imagine God looking down at us in quite the same way as we hear in this story of Babel. The sort of direct divine interaction described in this reading from Genesis just hasn’t been sustained over the course of the Bible, let alone in the days since. But I do suspect that there is nonetheless some divine disappointment with the way we have managed to unscramble ourselves since the days of Babel and yet scramble things up all the more.
Amidst all our best attempts to unscramble things for ourselves, the ultimate unscrambling of Babel came by the power of the Holy Spirit on a strange morning in Jerusalem fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. That first Pentecost day, as the disciples of Jesus gathered to pray, a strange rushing wind blew over them, and divided tongues rested on them, then they began to speak in other languages—just in time to talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with Jews from all around the world who had gathered in Jerusalem for a festival. It was a strange sight—uneducated country folk from Galilee speaking the languages of the nations of the world, sharing a strange story about a teacher who had been condemned for blasphemy, insisting that God was doing amazing new things to unscramble the mess that humanity had made of the world.
Some people seriously wondered what it was all about, but others just assumed that the disciples were drunk. It was only nine o’clock in the morning, though! Peter, for one, insisted that this strange event was God’s unscrambling finally at work, that God was pouring out the Spirit upon all flesh, to bring prophesies, visions, and dreams into the light, to draw attention to God’s presence and work, and to bring people back together in understanding and hope. In a moment when the disciples still didn’t quite understand life without Jesus, when things felt very much scrambled and the future still uncertain, God stepped in to unscramble it all in ways beyond their wildest dreams.
The gift of Pentecost today is that we too can experience God’s gift of understanding that unscrambles our world and our lives. While the languages that have historically divided us can be bridged both through technology and understanding; while the cultural differences that make it difficult to live and work with people who come from different backgrounds can be overcome through careful listening, respectful action, and openness to new ways of thinking and being; while even our great insistence upon the depth and breadth of our human accomplishment can be tempered by new recognition of our limitations and the need to care for the full breadth of creation; we ultimately need the Holy Spirit to step in and act if we are truly to be unscrambled. We need God’s transformative Spirit in our midst to show us how to live together in peace and harmony. We need God’s powerful Spirit to overcome our insistence on our own well-being at the expense of others. And we need God’s renewing Spirit to help us through all the moments of transition that come as we are unscrambled into the new creation that God intends for us.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, as we wait and watch and pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us, as we look for signs of maybe a little less power but no less spirit as on that first Pentecost, as we look for renewal and rebirth in our lives and in our church, may we see the scrambled mess of our lives and our world more clearly, may we set aside all that keeps us from God’s presence and all that encourages us to think that we are responsible for the gifts surrounding us, and may the Holy Spirit step into our midst to unscramble us anew, now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.