Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Genesis 11:1-9 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
God is a God who talks to his people. Unlike any other god, not money, not fame, not power, not popularity, God speaks to us. He also listens to us, he invites us to call upon his name, to talk to him, to ask for what we need, even what we want, and he allows us to tell him our hurts, our sorrows. We can even gripe to him and complain. What a God!
In all this God has chosen human language to communicate. He communicates to us in human language and he hears as when we talk to him in human language. Therefore, words are important. We need to study language, words, grammar and know how to communicate in language so that we can hear God speak to us and also speak to him. The study of language is essential.
God has spoken to us in his word. And for this, our Lutheran heritage places great importance on the word. It is God speaking. It is not just the TV set or an advertising agency. It is not some publicity scheme or marketing firm. It is God, and through the power of his word he created all things. By his word, he created light and life. By his word he defeats Satan. By his word he forgives our sins and by his word he raises the dead. Through words and human language, God gives us life, faith, forgiveness, and salvation. God speaks to us. So we study language and we study God’s word. We spend great amounts of time and effort in the study of the word of God, and study it in its original languages instead of just translations of it. That is why one of the distinctives of the Lutheran Church is the study of God’s word and it receives such a prominent place in Bible Studies and classes, beginning with the Catechism in confirmation classes for children and working our way to the study of the entire scriptures in adult classes. For this reason, Martin Luther founded many schools for the children of the common people in Germany. He insisted that all children have the chance to be educated, not just those of the ruling class, so that they could read, study and learn the Scriptures. On account of Luther’s influence, after the reformation, schools in Germany numbered 10 times the number of schools per child than in other countries, and public education in the US can trace its history to the influence of Luther in Germany. The Lutheran church has always insisted that its pastors and teachers know the original languages of the Bible and become experts in its interpretation. The Word is our link to God and it is the means by which God is present with us to save us and supply all that we need. Without language, we are severed from God.
In the same way without language, we are severed form other people. If we cannot talk to or communicate with our family, our parents, our brothers and sisters, or our friends, we are isolated, without their love, without their help and alone in the world. A deaf person lives a life of isolation and loneliness.
Ever wondered where language came from? The story of language, of words, is older than our human story. From the very beginning, the Spirit and the Word of God were living and active in creation. The whole story of Scripture is the story of language. It begins when God speaks (Gen 1:3). “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” These were the first words ever spoken. God had created language and his word spoke. And that word was a powerful word. It created what it said. The Word of God brought forth, enacted what it said.
Then God gives mankind the gift of words and language by breathing his Spirit into Adam and inviting him to name the animals (2:19). God spoke to Adam in the Garden of Eden, in human language, in words which Adam and Eve comprehended. In human language we bless the Lord, we worship him, we pray to him, we make our requests known to him.
But by Genesis 11, civilization had been established. Everyone spoke the same language. So, what happened at the tower of Babel was devastating. It completely disrupted civilization and brought it to an end. The people begin to use a great gift of God, words, in a tragic way. It was also with words that the sinful hearts of mankind are revealed: “Let us make a name for ourselves.“ (vv 3–4).
Nothing wrong with wanting to make bricks and build a city or a tower. But see why they wanted to build it—to make a name for themselves and not be scattered! It was also idolatry because, as we know now, such towers were built in the ancient world for the purpose of worshiping false gods. A clear violation of God’s command to fill the earth (1:28; 9:1) and to have no other gods, and to call on his name (4:26)!
But we see the great power in language. When their language was confused, they did not remain a civilization, but split apart and were dispersed over the face of the earth. Language is necessary for civilization to exist. Wandering nomads; individual tribes; people grouped together in smaller societies dispersed all over the earth.
We can see the power of language today. How the media reshapes our views on social issues; how much bullying and gossip goes on via the internet; how an argument can arise just over what someone said, and even how wars have broken out between nations on account of words. The Book of James says, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness,” (James 3:5-6).
On the other hand, we have all seen just how much a teacher can influence the adolescents in his classroom by words, or the difference a gentle word from Mom can make in the life of a six-year-old.
What a great invitation God has given us to call on his name by the power of the Spirit living in us! Behold the wonderful gift of God’s name, given in Baptism for our protection and assurance that we belong to him. By his word joined with water we become his children and the Holy Spirit enters into us. By his word joined with bread and wine we receive the forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead.
Yet the builders of Babel, who thought they were so clever in their use of language, wanted to make a name for themselves. And so God came down (v 5). That’s an astounding statement. The tower was to reach the heavens, but it’s so small God has to leave the heights of heaven and come all the way down to inspect this tiny structure of men. God came down. The early Christians understood this verse to refer to the preincarnate Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, who, after all, is himself the Eternal Word later to become flesh (Jn 1:1–3, 14). Like the people at Babel, we talk, but God’s Word is always the final answer.
Thankfully, this wasn’t the last time in the story of language God came down to this earth. He came down many times thereafter through the words of the prophets like Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel. But ultimately, God came down in the person of the Word to live, die, rise, before going back up. Jesus’ word from the cross, “It is finished,” declared that all our sins of self are forgiven. The sins we commit with words, the cruel things we say to and about others are forgiven. The judgments, the condemnations, the offenses, the things we say behind people’s backs have all been forgiven by Jesus on the cross, so that by the simple word, “I’m sorry, forgive me,” and the word, “I forgive you,” relationships are restored, hatred is changed to love, and new life is given to families and friends.
So on that Pentecost, the confusion of Babel was reversed. The curse of multiple languages spoken by various peoples and which divided them was reversed. God had forgiven man’s sin and he proclaimed this in every language to all people so that all people could hear the good news. The Holy Spirit came down and spoke the word of forgiveness in every language. And he still does through the work of missionaries and Bible translators around the world. People from all nations, all tribes and all languages are brought into sonship with God through the power of the Gospel. The word of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.
These very words, along with the Word in Baptism and Holy Communion, are God coming down all powerfully to change the world, to give forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who believe God’s word of promise. That’s the power of God’s words!
It’s Not Humans’ Words but the Lord’s that Accomplish So Much.
Today we celebrate that God came down on Pentecost and the Holy Spirit spoke. He didn’t come down to teach us all Hebrew so we could understand him. Instead, God the Holy Spirit came down into every language that was spoken, all the languages created at Babel. So now the Church takes up the call to translate and proclaim the Gospel into all the languages of the world. The Lord’s words, not ours. Amen.