Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

    One of the political issues that is front and center again this election year is immigration and the security of our borders.  There is a debate about how we should deal with those who illegally cross our border–from nations all over the world–and to what extent any help can be given that won’t contribute to disorder and lawlessness.  I bring this up today, not because you need to hear more about politics, but because the very fact that there are all of these different people groups and languages and cultures can be traced back to the historical event of Babel that we heard in today’s OT reading.  For a period of time after the flood there was just one language and one culture.  But man’s sin brought God’s judgment, and as a result of that confusion and scattering, we see all the various languages and people groups and ethnicities that have formed and developed over time.  Our troubles in communicating with one another–which sometimes even happens when there is no language barrier–and the disunity and disorder we see among the nations and within nations is an ongoing testimony to the effects of Babel.

    The people of Babel were descendants of Noah.  They had been given the same command by God that was given to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  But the people of Babel didn’t want to fill the earth.  They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  These people sought their identity and security not in God’s Word and command but in their own man-made organization, in their own numerical strength, in their own achievements.  They rejected the Lord as their God and instead made an idol out of themselves.  They said, “(Let us) make a name for ourselves.”  They began to build a tower that would be so great, the generations to come would revere their name forever, they thought.  It would reach to the heavens, signifying their supposed ability to achieve immortality by their own works.  This tower under construction stood there as a corrupt monument to their self-idolatry and their rebellion against God.

    We, of course, are descendants of the people of Babel; we are of the same stock.  Our fallen flesh doesn’t find its identity and security in God’s Word or commands but in our own personal attributes and accomplishments and groups of like-minded people with like-minded backgrounds that we belong to.  Our heart’s desire, too, is to attain a certain degree of immortality for ourselves by the things we’ve done and built and achieved, so that our name might be remembered fondly for generations to come.  We harbor self-exalting dreams about people saying wonderful things about us after we’re dead, as if we’ll even know or care at that point.

    And on a larger scale, consider how we’ve surpassed the desires of the people of Babel.  Not only have we built skyscrapers that would dwarf their tower, but we’ve escaped the bonds of earth entirely and now routinely send rockets into space and explore the galaxy with our satellites and probes.  And just this past week, more amazing advancements in artificial intelligence were unveiled, including one that can do accurate translations, in real time and with proper voice inflections, of two people talking to one another in entirely different languages.  Man seems to be close to overcoming Babel.  We ourselves may not personally have had much of anything to do with all of the many amazing technologies that have been invented in our lifetimes, but we still somehow credit ourselves with being more advanced than human beings who have gone before us.  We have this inflated view of our humanity, that we’re always progressing upward, that our potential is unlimited, that we can do anything given enough time and resources.  Humanity still idolizes itself.  And our technological achievements–which are not bad of themselves–they end up becoming corrupt monuments to a human race which trusts not in God but in itself to reach to the heavens, to become immortal.

    Psalm 2 says that God looks down from heaven at man’s lofty plans to be like Him, and He laughs.  He interferes and messes up man’s machinery, to expose the clay feet of our technological idols.  He doesn’t send an earthquake to topple the tower.  He confuses their language, so they can’t understand each other any more, so that they couldn’t carry out their plans. They called the place Babel; later it was called Babylon, the city that typified man’s ambition to be like God–whore Babylon, luring men to their death with her luxuries, her wealth, her power.  

    One people with one language wasn’t a good idea, the way God saw it.  He knew what would happen when sinners learned to cooperate in their sin.  Unity isn’t always a good thing.  Remember that when politicians talk about how we all need to “come together.”  God knew the harm we would do in our desire to be like God.  And so to protect us from ourselves, God confused our language and scattered us.  Our many languages keep us from being perfectly efficient at getting the job done.  They keep us slightly off balance.  And that’s good for us.  So the next time you hear something besides English being spoken, or you’re flipping through page after page of a foreign language in some instruction manual, remember the people of Babel.  Think of our own worship of technology.  And give thanks to the God who protects us from ourselves and our ambitions in order to save us.

    And here is how the Lord saves us:  At Babel God the Father had said to His Son, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.”  But now God the Father says, “Come, let us go down and pour out our Spirit on them, so that the words of the Gospel might be clearly proclaimed to them.  Let their ears be opened so that they may not be confused but may understand the truth.  Let them receive the forgiveness and life which you, my beloved Son, won for them.”  So it was that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in a variety of languages.  The confusion of Babel was lifted.  The different languages remained–that was still necessary–but the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak them.  Everyone heard the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection in his own mother tongue.  The Word made flesh was revealed through the words of the flesh and blood languages of the day.  The Gospel broke through Babel’s language barrier.  That’s what speaking in tongues is all about–communicating the wonderful works of God in Christ to people in their heart language.  This miracle was saying to the people, “Jesus is for you.  He is for all nations and languages.  He died for everyone; He is your Savior from sin.  You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your own native tongue.”

    The same is true for us gathered here today. The forgiveness of your sins, won by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the church in Latin, has come to you in your own language, in English, a tongue that wasn’t even in existence that first Pentecost.  That’s God’s gift to you.  There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior from sin and death than to say it in your own language.  The Gospel of Christ is for you.  You are forgiven and holy in Him.

    In contrast to Babel, the Holy Spirit took the scattered peoples and brought them together and unified them through the Word of Christ.  These new believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ words and teaching, to the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and to the prayers.  Babel consisted of man’s rebellion, Pentecost of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  At Babel, people were one in sin for doing evil.  At Pentecost, people were made one in Christ for the glory of God and the good of one another.  Babel was marked by confusion and differing languages, Pentecost by understanding and a common language of faith in Christ.  

    And so now, we also, who come from various language backgrounds speak a common language, the language of the faith. We all together say and confess, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . . And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”  This is a language taught to us by the Spirit.  For the Scriptures tell us, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

    This language is spoken in common by all of God’s people of all times and places.  Be it in Swahili or Chinese or German or French, be it in the 4th century or the 10th or the 16th or the 21st, the spiritual language of the Creed is spoken by the baptized.  Throughout the world and throughout the centuries, the Spirit has worked and still works a miracle of tongues–namely, that the faithful have been given a single, common speech and confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

    Remember that we have much more in common with our fellow Christians in Africa or Asia than we do with unbelievers next door to us.  For whatever cultural or national unity we might have with unbelievers will fade away, but our unity with people from all nations and languages in Christ our Redeemer will endure forever.  

    In the end, this is the one global activity that God approves of: Worship in the name of Jesus.  We don’t make a name for ourselves, God gives us His saving name.  God’s passion and desire is to gather the nations, not around a tower made of bricks and tar, not around the latest in technology and AI computers and robots, but around the cross which He has raised up, around the words and body and blood of His crucified and risen Son.  The Church is given to do this not only in one language, but in many languages.  This is the heart of missionary work and a true speaking in tongues.  

    We all look forward to the day when the entire church will again be one people with one language: the day we see Jesus face to face in the Resurrection on the Last Day.  Then we will stand before the throne of the Lamb of God and His Father, and worship Him in a new tongue, together with believers of every nation, tribe, people, and language.  To this God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all worship and honor and glory and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)