Sunday, May 27, 2012
This Week's Sermon: "Babel Undone"
"When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. 5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”" (CEB)
While I was in the town of Akko, Israel, in July of 2010 to work on an archaeological excavation, I and my fellow amateur archaeologists stayed at the Israeli Nautical College—sort of their equivalent of Annapolis, but for high school aged cadets as well—next to the Crusader city of Acre. We slept on tiny beds, did battle with mosquitoes the size of my face, and ate the same food at the dining hall day…after day…after day.
And sharing that dining hall with us was a group of young Israeli Sea Scouts. We sat on one side of the dining hall, they sat on the other. But at every meal, we could still hear the prayer they prayed before they ate because, well, they sort of yelled it. In response to what the leader would shout, all the Scouts would yell back, “Yahm! Yahm! Yahm Yahm Yahm!” Being the space cadet American that I am, I thought that they were shouting, “Yum Yum Yum!” before eating…which, I mean, it sounded like a fairly militaristic way to praise your food, but it is something I can get behind—my own preferred pre-meal prayer happens to be “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, Amen.” So, while shouting “Yum Yum Yum” might seem like an odd choice of prayer, far be it for me to question it. But towards the end of the trip, one of the students on the dig with me, who actually knew Hebrew, told me that “yahm” is actually Hebrew for “sing.” So these students were replying to the call to prayer by saying, “Sing, Sing, Sing!”
Sometimes, the way to serve God is as simple as to sing, as to speak, as to testify, but communicating that command to sing, to serve, is anything but simple—and certainly not simple for the ignoramus American student who doesn’t know a lick of Hebrew. I would like to blame my ineptness with foreign communication on the whole Tower of Babel story--we'll get to that in a minute--but as you will soon see, that should no longer be the most convenient excuse!
But the language that God uses to talk to us is also…for lack of a better term, organic, dynamic, growing, and changing. After Noah and the flood, God sees the destruction caused by the floodwaters but declares that never again will Earth be destroyed in such a way. Moses has to talk God out of smiting the Israelites during the Exodus journey in the wilderness. And the miracle of Pentecost, of the speaking of “God’s deeds of power,” undoes another primeval event—the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11, to prevent us from building a monument into the heavens, God cast us about with different tongues and dialects, but with the coming of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus Christ, Babel has been undone, we can once again understand each other in the common language of divine love, and the re-emergence of unity in God has triumphed over human-initiated sectarianism. If that is to be drunk on the “new wine,” as the Apostles’ detractors refer to it, then may the intoxicating power of the new wine be enough to continue to overcome the divisions we have built up!
And if you ask why we may praise a potentially changeable deity with the devotion that we do to God in the Scriptures—especially the way that Peter does in his inaugural sermon in Acts 2—as well as in church every Sunday, you may well find yourself on the wrong side of the judgmental glances as people wonder to themselves, “Exactly what is the temperature that this heretic will burn at in hell?”
But such condemnatory questions are largely beside the point. We praise this God that is organic and dynamic because of the gifts that He bestows out of an unknowable love for us. After breaking us apart by giving us separate languages and dialects, God builds us back up because He realizes that He has withheld something from us—the Holy Spirit—and it is given to us because we have finally realized that our first attempt to build a bridge to Heaven—a literal bridge in the tower of Babel—we realized the foolishness of that first attempt. And like all rough drafts, whether of school papers, or construction projects, or, ahem, Sunday morning sermons, we have broken it down, taken it apart, and come back to God with something that we hope and pray is far greater, and in this case, that thing is something to be truly grateful for: the post-Resurrection church.
Yet when we look around the world and see its complete lack of unity—its discord, its strife, its seemingly eternal iniquities in the form of poverty, violence, and inequality, we can lose our gratefulness to God in a big darn hurry. All of the sudden, our dialogue with God becomes, “What have you done for me lately?” We shout out, “You absentee landlord who created earth and sky and sun and moon in six days, who spoke through your prophets and raised your son from the dead, where are you now, when children die by the thousands from malnutrition and preventable disease, or when hardworking adults go years without a decent job?” We become latter-day Doubting Thomases, whose own disbelief occurs when he is not present to receive the Holy Spirit from the Risen Christ. How appropriate a mascot for many of us today—if we worry that we have missed out on the gift of the Holy Spirit, if we are scared deep in our bones, in our souls, that we are not filled with the spirit the way that we were supposed to, then we in turn begin to doubt!
We become Doubting Thomases, we become the naysayers who would stifle the moving, breathing vitality of the Holy Spirit in today’s world. We become the skeptics of a generation that hopes, rather than prays, that tomorrow will be better than today. And the God that many preachers tell us to have faith in, and pray to, is a God that is altogether horrific for us to contemplate, a destructive, apocalyptic deity who eagerly counts down the days until fire and brimstone rain down upon the Earth…and you just know that the Left Coast is going to get hit first! (Well, Seattle and Portland, really, but since we’re sandwiched in between them, we’re pretty much toast as well.)
However, the Pentecost story is, at its core, one of how God has not lost faith in us yet. For, only 52 days after the killing of His Son, God sends to us the Holy Spirit. And within the church, peace is the best means we have, because this post-Pentecost church is one that has to take, as a prerequisite for its existence, a desire for peace and for unity. We praise God for everything we have been given, and it, too, is in language that sounds very similar from church to church—for, I promise you, other churches sing many of the exact same songs that we do, and they even read the exact same Bible that we do! Their praise sounds like our praise, and that is the entire point of the Pentecost story—that the coming of the Holy Spirit can indeed unify our hearts and minds around God no matter our language.
So whether it is with the Hebrew “Yahm,” or “Yah Chai,” or the English “Hallelujah,” we are all speaking this same language of praise. Only this time, instead of speaking the same language so that we may build a tower to the heavens, may we speak the same language to bring the peace of the heavens down to our weary little world. And if our reward for such works of praise comes not in this world, may it come in the next, for it is not merely enough to be taught God’s goodness—we are called to witness it, to proclaim it, to testify to it, and most importantly, to live it.
And so I pray, and I pray, and I pray, that there will be a day when eventually God will look upon the hurt and pain caused in the world, and call out to us, and set bushes on fire, and jump up and down and scream, “Enough! Love! I want love!” And I can hear our excuses now…we might reply, “But we don’t know how.”
And God will simply say to us, “Sing!”
We might say, “That’s impossible,” and God will reply, “Sing!”
And we might say, “We might fail,” but God will keep coming back to us, over and over and over, whispering in our ears, “Sing! Sing! Sing!”
By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
May 27, 2012