Given by David Teall
23rd May 2010
The story of the Tower of Babel is an intriguing one that comes early in the Book of Genesis. In the preceding chapters of this gripping, fast-moving adventure story full of sex and violence we have heard about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their fall from grace through disobedience of God. And about Cain and Abel and their descendants and how they formed a society so full of wickedness that God decided to wipe mankind from the face of the earth. Fortunately though, as usually happens in the early chapters of an adventure story, there was a good kid on the block – a man named Noah – so mankind survived. Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives survived the flood and through them the world was re‑populated. It was their descendents who built the Tower of Babel.
In attempting to build their tower “with its top in the heavens” the descendants of Noah were attempting to put themselves on a level with or above God, just like Adam and Eve did when they ate the forbidden fruit. What I find most interesting though, is the method God used to deal with their arrogance. He “confused their language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.”
God knew that the ability to communicate with one another gave Noah’s descendents great power, and like all such gifts, that power could be used both for good and evil. That is still the case today. The rapidly-growing power of the Internet and the increasing use of English as an International language is taking us back to the position of Noah’s descendents in the land of Shinar when the whole population of the world were able to communicate with one another. Will we use that power wisely for the glory of God, or will we use it to attempt to build another Tower of Babel and set ourselves above God? Intriguing though that question is, I will leave it for you to ponder as I would like to focus our thoughts on some of the problems of understanding even our own language.
What have you been thinking as I have been talking about the stories in Genesis? It’s all a load of rubbish? We weren’t created in the Garden of Eden: we evolved from apes. How could Noah possibly have built an ark big enough for a pair of all the animals on earth? How did he stop the lions eating the antelope? What about the dinosaurs?
You will not be surprised to hear that I have spent much of my time during my three-year course to train as a Reader studying the Bible. One of the most interesting and liberating things I have learnt about is the many different styles and genres found in this best-selling book of all time. Our Bible contains 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament and up to 16 or even more books in the Apocrypha depending upon which have been included in the version you buy. These 80 or more books were written by at least 40 different authors over a period of time spanning at least 1600 years. Some are History, some are Law. Some are Prophecy, some are Poetry. Some are Letters, some are Biography. Each book was written with a particular audience in mind and, in modern parlance, given a particular ‘spin’ to make the content relevant to them.
The authors of these books used many different literary devices to get their message over including, where appropriate, metaphor and myth. Today we think of a myth as a legend or fairy-tale, but its proper meaning is to describe the actions of God in terms of this world. That’s an impossible task, of course, but writers over the ages have felt compelled to try, as have painters, musicians and artists of all kinds.
If we read the Bible, as unfortunately some do, as if it was all written in the style of a 21st century history book we will fail to understand the truth that it contains. The Book of Genesis is a whole collection of stories, many of which are Myth – an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world. Once we accept it as such we can dismiss the misguided criticisms of Richard Dawkins and his followers with the sadness they engender and see through to the real truth that it contains and understand its relevance to us today. That is how the myth of the Tower of Babel can give us an insight into the development of the Internet.
The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in our Pentecost Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is another Myth. Not a legend; not a fairy-tale, but an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.
The use of both wind and fire in the description is an example of writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place. Wind and fire are both used in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, to describe God’s self-revelation and the words for wind, both in Hebrew and Greek, are closely associated with spirit.
Relieved of the impossible task of trying to understand the story of Pentecost in literal terms we can begin to understand its true meaning: The Spirit of God is for all people regardless of race, colour or creed.
I find that the concept of the Holy Spirit is actually easier to understand than to describe. For me, it is strongly linked with the concept of the soul which I visualise as that part of a human being in which the Spirit of God resides if we will but let him in. When we do allow the spirit in we are inspired, a word that literally means breathed on, by God. When we are inspired in this way, our actions can be recognised as the work of God by people throughout the world, regardless of their faith or what language they speak. The word of God needs no translation.
We witnessed a dramatic example of the action of the Holy Spirit on Boxing Day 2004 when we heard the dreadful news of the Asian Tsunami. People throughout the world were moved to help in whatever way they could. The voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to help was heard by people throughout the world, each in our own language. It recognised no boundaries and accepted no limitations.
Mercifully, events on the scale of the Boxing Day Tsunami are rare, but the power of the Holy Spirit is not just for emergencies: it is for today and every day. If we will but let him in to our lives he can and will help us in everything that we do. Look again at the prayer we said together at the beginning of this service:
As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.
and last of all:
As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.
Fill us with your spirit. That is our prayer for today, and every day.
Now have a look forward if you would at the back page of your Order of Service at the section entitled the Commission. Here, at the end of the service, I shall ask you to go out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit. As you speak the words of the Creed in a few moments, and as we offer our prayers to God, open your hearts to him and ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that, during the Commission you can answer boldly:
By the power of the Spirit, we will.