The Spirit of Understanding

Acts 2: 1-13, Genesis 11: 1-9

It cost a reported 2.7 billion dollars (that’s billion with a “b”). It is the newest and biggest and glitziest hotel casino on the Las Vegas strip. Its centerpiece is a 150-foot mountain and a five-story waterfall that cascades down into a three-acre man-made lake.

You may have seen the television commercial that preceded the grand opening a few weeks ago. It opened on a close up of Steve Wynn standing atop the 50th floor saying, “I’m Steve Wynn and this is my hotel…” Then the camera pulled back to show the immense size of the hotel and reveal the Wynn signature logo in bold script on the glass tower as Steve Wynn proudly proclaimed, “This is the only hotel I’ve ever signed my name to.”

Wynn’s name is everywhere throughout the casino – on the parapet at the entrance, on the slot machines, and even on clothing, china, and home furnishings that are for sale in the many galleries and boutiques inside. Clearly, Steve Wynn has set out to make a name for himself – not unlike the folks in the Genesis story we just read.

And so this old tale about the Tower of Babel doesn’t seem so out-of-date, does it? Egotism and the desire for self-aggrandizement have been with us from our earliest beginnings. We know this story in more ways than one.

Long, long ago in another desert area far, far away, some proud and ambitious ancients decided that in order to get closer to God, they would build a great tower that would poke through the clouds into the heavens. Genesis tells us that they did this because “they wanted to make a name for themselves.”

Now before I go any further, I need to say that this story should not be mistaken for an actual historical narrative. The Tower of Babel story is what is called an etiology. That is, a story about causation, which is meant to explain how something got to be the way it is.

The early Hebrews were intrigued by the fact that strangers passing through their villages and encampments often spoke in languages they could not understand. And they wondered why. Well, to answer their question the editors of Genesis borrowed this story from the local folklore and then put their own theological stamp of meaning on it.

Scholars guess that the story is based on the famous ziggurat of Babylon – a tall, terraced brick pyramid that was crowned with a temple at its top. Where it was said, the Babylonians conferred directly with their gods.

Anyway, according to the Hebrew telling of this story: in the very beginning “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In other words, the world as God created it included simplicity in communication. But then some people migrating from the east settled in a place called Shinar, and there decided to erect an enormous tower. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” This tower was to stand as a symbol of their ingenuity, and their pride, as well as their ambition. But there’s an indication that the tower project also reflected a certain anxiety. For the people hoped that the tower would ensure their security. “Otherwise,” they said, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Well, one day God happens to notice all the activity and decides to come down from the heavens to make a personal inspection of this grand project. And God recognizes the presumptuous vanity that the tower represents. God sees it as only the beginning of human mischief, and determines that these folks need to be slowed down. They need a lesson in humility. So God comes up with an interesting idea to complicate things— by giving the people more than one language.

You know how the story ends. God “confuses their language …so that they will not understand one another’s speech” and the people are scattered across the face of the earth, some speaking German, some speaking Farsi, some Hebrew, some Greek and so on. God has thrown a monkey wrench into their communication, and Babel results.

The Tower of Babel is an inventive explanation of why there are so many languages in the world. But the truth is, though so many foreign languages can be a problem, it’s really not the biggest problem with our communication. The fact is, people who speak the same language to each other are often lost in another kind of Babel of miscommunication. This is a deeper and sadder Babel. This is the Babel of being afraid to speak your heart. This is the Babel of being too proud to even try to say what you feel. This is the Babel of not really listening and hearing what is being said to you. This is the Babel speaking past one another. This is the Babel of thoughtless, insensitive words that over time corrode a relationship.

When I meet with couples prior to their wedding, one of the things we always discuss is the importance and challenge of communicating with the person you share your life with. Because sometimes husbands and wives unconsciously communicate with language that frustrates and discourages.

“How areyou doing?” “Oh, fine.” “What happened at work today?” “Nothing. Why do you always ask me that?”

The Babel that most troubles and dislocates this world is not that we don’t speak or understand foreign languages. The greater Babel is the echo of hollow words. The greater Babel is shallow words spoken to fill the emptiness. And you can add to that the Babel of words that tumble out of our mouths day in and day out in conversations that too often mean just about nothing.

T.S. Eliot captures a sense of this in his play, The Cocktail Party, when he has Celia say, “It isn’t that I want to be alone, but that everyone is alone, or so it seems to me. They make noises. They think that they are talking to each other. They make faces, and think they understand each other, and I’m sure they do not.”

This is the Babel of prattle between friends that never goes deeper than the surface of things. The Babel of nodding your head when you really are not listening to what is being said.

In his book, Father Joe, Tony Hendra writes about an Irish priest who was a mentor, confessor, guru and friend throughout his life. Hendra was a founding editor of “The National Lampoon,” a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and other comedy shows in England. He was a satirist who used words in a cutting way to skewer many conventions and people. His book about Father Joe, however is anything but satire. It is an account of gentle, wise words spoken by a humble priest that helped guide Tony Hendra through the turbulent currents of his life. Once when they were talking, Hendra expressed exasperation with his inability to connect with his faith. Father Joe responded by telling him the only way to know God, and others, is to listen. “Listening,” he said, “is a reaching out into that unknown other self, surmounting your walls and theirs. For listening is the beginning of understanding and the first exercise of love.”

At the root of all this Babel that surrounds us is pride and fear. The same kind of pride and fear that motivated the building of that tower to the heavens in the 11th chapter of Genesis. You and I are also susceptible to a pride and vanity that keeps us from speaking from the heart about those things that both hurt us and bring us joy. We’re too proud to talk about our need for love. We’re too proud to talk about our need for forgiveness. We’re too proud to talk about our hunger for God’s Spirit to satisfy our yearning.

Today is Pentecost in the church. In a way our two readings of: the story of Babel in the Old Testament and the story of Pentecost in the New Testament form a kind of bookend. In one language is confused and the people scatter, while in the other language is redeemed and people are united.

If the first story of Babel stretches our imaginations, then the second story of Pentecost goes well beyond most of our imagining. The Book of Acts describes the scene as an event that borders on the bizarre: euphoric praise, impromptu language skills, wind howling through a room, fire dancing on the top of heads. If we had been there when those disciples spilled out into the street preaching the gospel that day, we might well be among those who thought those Galileans had too much to drink.

Whatever and however it happened though, it was remembered and understood as the Spirit of Jesus blowing among the people so that all could hear the truth of God in their own language.

And again, like the story of the Tower of Babel, this story of Pentecost is about more than what is on the surface. It’s not just about foreign language skill and the breaking down of linguistic barriers. It’s also about breaking through the disciples’ fear of saying deep things. It’s about God’s Spirit empowering the intimidated disciples hiding in a room to talk about things they had been afraid to mention since Easter. The things that lay deep in their hearts and close to their souls. And it was the power of the Holy Spirit that enabled them to do this.

This same Spirit can help you and me to talk about things that really matter to us. Every now and then, the Holy Spirit opens the way and we have such an experience.

“Maybe this has happened to you. You are estranged from someone you really care about — because of something you said or did or something the other person said or did – it does not matter which. The point is, you get tired of it, so you start plotting ways to get through. You draft letters, rehearse phone calls, only none of them sounds right. You are still hanging on to your hurt. Then one day for no apparent reason something inside of you says, ‘Now.’ You grab the phone, the person says, ‘Hello?’ and the rest is history. Your heart opens and the right words come out. A reunion gets underway. You can call it anything you want. I call it an act of the Holy Spirit.” (Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, pages 146-7)

Or perhaps it is that there have been times you have sensed the Spirit’s presence in singing a hymn or in listening to an anthem here in church. Or maybe you have experienced the Spirit when your child was baptized. Or perhaps there was a time when the Spirit settled herself in the midst of a conversation you were having with a friend, and all of a sudden your shared words actually went deep.

The Holy Spirit is God at work at the level of the heart. The Spirit helps us to find words when our pride gets in the way and when we are afraid. The Spirit helps us to listen and to hear. The Spirit speaks the language of love. A language we all understand and need to pay attention to.

With the Spirit present, Babel ceases and there is life and community and promise.

Thanks be to God our father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.