The story of the tower of Babel. I can remember it quite clearly from Sunday School. The teacher had brought with her piles and piles of cardboard boxes, and we built a tower. To me, it was the biggest tower in the world. It wobbled and teetered precariously. "The people built a tower higher and higher because they thought they could reach God." Stand back children. She beat the tower with a broom handle until it was smashed to pieces and not one box was left standing on another.
It was very dramatic. I remember it to this day. And that's why I was surprised to read the story again and discover that it doesn't say the people were trying to reach God, or that God destroyed the tower, with or without broom-handle. I was disappointed. The real story is a lot more confusing. They built the tower to make a name for themselves. God came down to have a look and said this, "Look, they are all one people, and they all have one language; this is only the start of what they will achieve, soon everything will be possible for them. Let's go down and confuse their language so that they don't understand one another."
Well, you know as well as I do how difficult it is to achieve anything when you don't speak the same language. Lythan still reminds me how I went into a shop in Italy to perform the simple task of buying 1/4lb of mushrooms and came out with half a hundred-weight ! Buying mushrooms is one thing, building a skyscraper is quite another. The people simply gave up building it and went their separate ways.
Perhaps we need to understand a little of the background to this story in order that it might make sense for us. It is not intended as an historical story, it is an etiological story. Anyone with children or who ever comes into contact with children will know what an etiological story is. You may not realise it, but you do ! An etiological story is one that is told to answer a question.
The most famous modern-day etiological story is the one about the stork. "Mummy, where do babies come from ?" "Well dear, the stork brings them in a little bundle and leaves them under the gooseberry bush."
Just as we tell them today, so the people of Israel told them, and not just for children. Many were told to help believers understand something more about their God. This is one of them. It might have been prompted by two questions - "What is that half finished tower over there ?" or "Why is it, if we all have a common ancestor, that there are so many different languages ?" .pa If you put your mind to it, I suppose you could come up with all sorts of convincing stories. The people of Israel came up with a story that reflected the world around them, and taught something about God's intention for the world.
One of their neighbours and arch enemies was the country of Babylon. To the people of Israel, Babylon represented godless society, with its pretensions, persecutions, pleasures, sins, riches and superstitions. The Babylonians believed that God dwelt in a mountain, and so they would build huge structures called ziggurats as artificial mountains. They were immense towers, shaped like pyramids and rising in terraces, crowned with a Temple. The idea was that God would come and dwell there.
The people of Israel obviously came across a half-finished, abandoned Ziggurat, and they use it as an opportunity to tell a story at the expense of the Babylonians, explain why there are so many different languages and teach something about God. The nations are divided and set against one another, because they cannot understand one another. They cannot understand one another because of their pride and self- interest. They presume that they can trick God into dwelling among them by building this tower. They presume that this expression of their skill and strength will give them pride of place among the nations. But God had other plans.
The Babylonians called themselves Bab-ili - the gate of God. this Hebrew story mocks them with a play of words - Babel - confused jabbering.
But this Hebrew story became very important to the early church, especially after the story of Pentecost. We've heard the story read for us already, and we can see why it was naturally linked to the Babel story. Babel is a story of separation through language; Pentecost is a story of bringing together - the understanding by all nations of the word of God, the language of God.
The simple message is this - our sinful divisions, our pride, our selfishness all cause us to misunderstand each other (The Babel story); But the coming of the Spirit gives us the power to communicate one message - the Good news of God - across all boundaries.
Is this a message for you and I ? Living in Hartlepool we don't often meet people who cannot speak English we won't have any trouble communicating the gospel. Listen to this...
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We live in a world that is changing fast. We live in a world that has many different cultural stratas. We live in a world not unlike the world in the tower of Babel story where groups are becoming ever more alienated from each other, less able to understand one another, less able to communicate. It happens between different professions, different generations, different classes; Different regions, different ethnic backgrounds.
A few years ago, in London, inspired by the central churches, a whole series of banquets took place. The idea of the banquets was simply to bring people together over a meal, to provide an opportunity for them to meet one another. There were MPs business people, homeless people, drug addicts, clergy, journalists, unemployed people, housewives, prostitutes, black and white, rich and poor. The seating plan was meticulously planned! Those banquets were the inspiration for our Hartlepool Churches Together Millennium banquets planned for next year.
It's a recognition of the widening gulf between the various groups in our society. And it's also an answer to our question. "Is the Pentecost message a message for us ?" Yes it is. The Spirit gives us the strength, the courage, the wisdom, even the words to enable us to share the gospel across all barriers. So let's pray that God will fill each one of us with His Spirit, day by day, that we might go out boldly and speak the gospel that others may understand.