Sermon: Babble Made Beautiful
June 4th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: Acts 2:1-21
Languages are a challenging thing! The choir really worked hard at learning the songs for this morning – Thank you to Lisa and the choir for accepting that challenge. It is a beautiful thing when we make our best efforts to speak and sing and honor the languages of others.
David and I had many interesting language experiences while we served in India. India has unique language challenges because there are so many languages used throughout the nation. State lines are drawn along language lines. We lived in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the people speak the language of Tamil. If we crossed the state line to the west, the language spoken was Malayalam; to the northwest it was Kannada; to the northeast, Telugu. Each of these languages has greater differences than English, French and Spanish, which all share the same basic alphabet. Each of the 23 official languages in India have completely different scripts, different alphabets, different sounds. You cross the state line and you can no longer read road signs or ask directions. Except for the legacy of British occupation which left behind English as a language of commerce throughout the country – or at least a unique adaptation of English, as you may have encountered in customer service phone calls. English worked well almost everywhere we went, so unfortunately I was not forced to become fluent in any of the Indian languages, and we often had to use translators when we visited churches.
The most interesting language encounter I had happened when our family was out driving in a state forest area. We came to a gatehouse with the gate down across the road, closed. The forest officer in the gatehouse was a local Tamil-speaking man and I began to use my broken Tamil to ask about entering the next part of the forest. At that moment another family pulled up in their car – they were on holiday in the south, from North India. The driver got out and also began to ask about getting through the gate. Frustration quickly mounted when the 2 men realized they could not understand one another and one of them began yelling, because as we all know if you just talk louder it helps. The North Indian tourist spoke Hindi and English; the forest officer spoke only Tamil. In an ironic twist of fate, I ended up playing translator between the two men who shared a common nationality but not a common language. There is a similar ironic twist to the Pentecost story.
Have you ever wondered how the world came to have so many different languages? Even different dialects and accents within each language? Language is a gift from God, a way for us to communicate with one another and with God. Language separates us from other species, for while a cat can communicate some basic things with purring and meowing and hissing, your cat is not able to tell you what happened while you were out or make plans with you for his dinner menu. Language is a gift that allows us to express our thoughts and our feelings, to record history, to collaborate with one another to solve problems or devise strategies for the future. Much of our worship of God is mediated through language – prayer, songs of praise, reading God’s word.
But as humans are wont to do, we often take what is intended for good and twist it to serve our own purposes. And this happened with language. In Genesis 11, we read that the whole world had one language and a common speech. The people used the bond of common language to brainstorm how to make bricks, how to solve the water and food challenges of living in close community. Together they devised plans to build a city with a tall tower that would reach up to heaven, so they could usurp God’s place. It was a project of human pride and arrogance; a declaration of independence from God. Who knows where that scheme of defiance would have led or the damage it might have done, because God intervened. God baffled their speech, turning it into a babble of many languages. As you can imagine, the brick-layer could no longer tell the brick-maker how many bricks were needed. One guy tripped over another guy’s tar bucket and there was no way to apologize or explain or make amends. A sewer backed up and it led to a whole lot of yelling since no one could share ideas for how to fix it – all they could do was stand in the stinking mess pointing fingers and stomping feet. The abandoned project is forever known as the Tower of Babel.
The reverberations of Babel have echoed down the years, over centuries and millennium. It continues to impact us and our world today. People are divided along language lines. Nations battle nations because they struggle to understand one another. Diplomacy falls apart if translators slip up. Language difference complicates peace efforts, it hampers relief efforts, it disenfranchises immigrants. Miscommunication of all kinds, across languages as well as within languages, still leads to misunderstanding and confusion, to anger and hurt.
I do not believe God created a diversity of language as a punishment, but as a move of mercy to keep humanity humble, to prevent us from arrogant disregard for God which leads us to arrogant disregard for one another. Of course it wasn’t the perfect solution God was still preparing the perfect solution. On Pentecost we celebrate the arrival of that solution – but it is not the answer we would expect.
The whole event was unexpected. For a period of 40 days, the resurrected Jesus had appeared to his disciples on a number of occasions. He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were baptized by the Holy Spirit, for when the Holy Spirit came on them they would receive power to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:5,7). Yet they were still surprised when the Spirit suddenly arrived. There is the whooshing of a violent wind, the drama of dancing flames. It is amazing, bewildering. But what really catches people’s attention, including mine this year as I studied this passage, is the babble of languages that bursts out of the disciples mouths. The disciples were Galileans – they spoke Aramaic, maybe enough Hebrew to recite scripture – but suddenly they are speaking every language of the world around them. The places named make a full circle, north, west, south, and even east (which was the Mediterranean Sea, but the list includes the language of the island of Crete). To be clear, they were speaking actual languages, not to be confused with the spiritual languages Paul writes about as ‘speaking in tongues’.
And so the divisions that began at Babel are overcome. Babel is not reversed, with the many languages becoming one again; rather Babel is healed. The cure comes in God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit creates community. That word “community” joins together the words common + unity. Unity is what Jesus’ prayed for his disciples and for all believers: that we may be made one. He prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and that you love them, even as you love me.” (John 17:23)
We see the brokenness of the Tower of Babel around us every day in a divided nation and in a divided world. We are divided by nationalism and by centrism, a self-centered pride in one’s nation, culture, faith, language. We fear what we don’t understand, and fear grows into hate; hatred that is dividing, destroying, misunderstanding, demonizing. We heard it this week, spewing out of the mouth of a man in Portland. It has taken lives in Bagdad and Manchester and Paris and New York. We continue to need the Spirit to pour out healing and to speak the language of our hearts.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, but that does not mean it became the Christian language. Instead, all languages can hold the praises of the God who created them. The Bible remains the Bible, regardless of whether it is in Hebrew or Greek or Hindi or French. That is the gift of the Spirit. By the Spirit, language no longer separates us. By the Spirit, we are enabled us to speak in ways that glorify God to all people, to bring reconciliation across deep divides, to allow us to hear one another again, and to testify to Jesus Christ. By the Spirit there will be unity throughout the worldwide family of God. The verses from the prophet Joel, that Peter quotes, also lift up the inclusiveness of the days when God’s Spirit is poured out upon God’s people – sons and daughters, young and old.
Shortly after baby Ella was born, Nancy Swierenga shared with me that God gave her a prayer for Ella: that God would bless Ella and would speak to her in a way that she could understand so that she could begin to recognize God’s voice.
What grabbed the crowd’s attention on Pentecost was the babble that was heard. Some recognized the praise of God in the languages of their hearts. Others just heard babble, and blamed new wine. Not everyone will recognize the voice of the Spirit speaking and they will sneer at the activity of the Spirit. Are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to risk being so filled by the Spirit that it is noticeable to the world? Does our church have enough Spirit-filled life to grab attention, to elicit comments of any kind? We must be willing to risk disruption and sneers, to risk wind and fire. Barbara Brown Taylor, a Christian author, said about the church: “We don’t keep the Spirit of life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous.”
I sincerely pray each day that our church, and all churches in our community, might be so filled by God’s Spirit that we might gladly proclaim the greatness of God, and that we may learn to speak the language of another’s heart. I invite you to pray for that as well.
Let’s now hear the beautiful babbling sounds of Pentecost once again, speaking praise in a variety of languages. If you would repeat after me:
Praise the Lord! (English)
Aloo Shea! (Naga)
Sthotharam Ayah! (Tamil)
Gloria a Dios! (Spanish)
Louvado seja Deus! (Portugese)
Al-hamdu lil-lah! (Arabic)