My message for Pentecost, May 31, 2009

The following is the message I’m giving for the Sunday evening service at Patchwork Central this evening, which is Pentecost. Feel free to use it if you like, give credit if you wish.

Well, we’ve had a reading from Acts, a Psalm, and an Epistle, so those of you who know how this pattern usually goes will be expecting a Gospel reading here. I hope you won’t be disappointed, but we’re actually going to turn back a few centuries or so to an older story.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, with tongues of fire and the ability given to the apostles to speak and have others hear in their own languages. This is really the beginning of the church, where the Jesus movement moved beyond a small circle of a few, frightened disciples who had taken to hiding in closed rooms waiting to see what would happen next – and really, who can blame them – what a whirlwind of events over the previous month or so! Their leader, Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had been tortured and killed, only to reappear a few days later, claiming that the new era of God’s liberation and peace had begun. This same Jesus had spent many days teaching them, and finally, instead of taking charge of things to lead the disciples in glorious conquest to the ends of the earth, ascended into the heavens with the parting command to go forth to all nations with the message of the Gospel. And finally, on this day, the descent of the Spirit gave them a new boldness to speak of this Jesus, and the same Spirit gathered into their number over 3000 in one day. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never preached a sermon with that kind of effect.

It’s a wonderful story, one we should always keep in our hearts to remind us that God can do amazing things, that God’s ability to work wonders is greater than we can imagine. But the story I’m going to read, in lieu of a Gospel reading, seems at first glance to be precisely the opposite of the one we heard earlier. I’m speaking of the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, where instead of God’s work in changing languages and understanding leading to a new gathering, an age of understanding and hope, it leads to separation, confusion, and apparent chaos. The two stories have long been thought of as polar opposites, and while I won’t dispute that entirely I think we have generally missed some very important things the author of the Genesis story was trying to convey. But before I get into that, let’s hear the story again, and pray that God will open our ears to hear it in a new way.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar [near the Euphrates river, in present-day Iraq] and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that they were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:1-9, TNIV).

We think we know this story pretty well. Late medieval interpreters, living in a time when common use of Latin was beginning to decline, set the trend to read this as a story of judgment in which a golden age of enlightenment is shattered by the curse of difference, the confusion of languages, and for the most part we’ve followed their lead ever since. But is that really what’s going on in this text? There are a few clues in the story, and one whopper of an ancient Assyrian royal inscription, that indicate otherwise. First, isn’t there something fishy about their using bricks to build the tower? The text makes it a point to mention that they used bricks instead of stone. Who else do we encounter in the Bible who used bricks, and under what circumstances? If your answer is the Egyptians, you get a gold star. The Egyptians used bricks, made with slave labor, to build their cities. The notion of using bricks to build a tower would NOT have had positive connotations according to the historical memory of the Israelites. Continue reading