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Backwards Babel – by Tupper Garden

Do you ever wonder at the power and gift of language? We used to think that language is what set us apart from lower animals, but now, we have come to realize that a great many animals communicate with one another in rather sophisticated ways; from the whales in the deep seas, to the crows on Mill Mountain, and depending on how one defines communication, scientists have even posited the notion that the lowest forms of life have their own ways of communicating, and that even the vast lifelessness of space has a voice– if you will, an animating spirit, that bursts with infinite expression.

Think of our capacity to use language to express what we think, what we feel, what wonders grip our hearts, what pains and sorrows make us feel half-alive, and yes, our anger and hatred. It is simply amazing that words can incite a crowd, still a panicked heart, make us laugh. A novel can take us to another world. A poem can make our hearts race. Language allows us to transcend our own selves, to extend our selves to others, to share our selves with others, to be in relationship.

In Genesis 11, we read of the power of language. Here, all the peoples of the earth are gathered in one place, somewhere in present-day Iraq. As the story tells it, humanity is on the same page, with one language, working toward one goal…..the furthering of their own security, their own fame, their own purposes. So they push the limits, begin to build a tower to the heavens, to the place of the gods. Apparently, there is real danger that in their unity, they might accomplish their goal, and reach heaven on their own, become gods themselves. So God stops the building by confusing their language, so that they will not understand each other’s speech.

Israel asks the question, Why can’t we communicate with our neighbors? Why can’t we understand one another? And answers it with the story that says, Because we have different languages, because whenever we seek our own way without reference to God, we split up, we divide, we lose our unity. The truth being that whenever we seek our own way, and we always do, our unity is shattered. It is a fact of the human condition. What might be a chorus of harmonious voices, becomes a chaotic cacophony of shouts and whines and babble, because they are all in competition with one another. They all are expressions of hearts bent on the self.

You and I, we live in Babel.

The writers of Genesis were right. We are separated, no matter how much we wish we weren’t. God made us to be in communion with each other, with the whole of creation, with himself. Be we chose otherwise. Perhaps we cannot help it. But, that is not the end of the story.

You see, if we truly humble our hearts, we can learn the real language of the kingdom. It is the language of self-less love. It is the language of God, and it was given to us in Christ. It is the voice of God for humans like us, and it first came at Pentecost, when the Spirit of God, the very presence of God, came to those first frightened and bewildered disciples. That Spirit rushed upon them and so powerful was the experience that they described it as wind and flame!

But more amazing than the experience was its effect. They went out into the street and spoke in languages they did not know to people they did not know, and they were understood! These are a bunch of uneducated, back-woods Galilean fishermen, yet they are speaking our languages? How can that be? The answer is simple: It can’t be. Unless, of course, something beyond themselves has gotten hold of them. And that is exactly what we are to understand. They are vessels. They are no longer themselves! They are God’s children, speaking God’s language, by God’s powerful, loving Presence in them.

Pentecost is Backwards Babel. At Babel the one language is confused and understanding is lost. At Pentecost, there is a diversity of language, but all are united in understanding.

Babel describes more than an event, but the truth about the human condition of misunderstanding. So too, Pentecost is more than a strange little story from an old book. Pentecost describes God’s power and intention for the his people – not that we would be multilingual, but that we, too would be vessels of the language of God to our world.

Tupper Garden is the Senior Pastor at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church. Visit  RCPC on the web at

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