Pentecost C • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
Some years ago the late Douglas Adams wrote a satirical novel called, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It went through many different incarnations as a radio show, as a British TV series, and even as a live-action Walt Disney movie starring Martin Freeman as the main character, Arthur Dent. He would later go on to another kind of adventure, as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The Hitchhikers Guide is in the guise of science fiction, but it is actually a satire, in which the author gets to poke fun at all sorts of institutions, sacred and secular.
Right from the start, the author satirizes political bureaucracy: the planet Earth is about to be destroyed by a galactic construction authority in order to create a hyperspace bypass, at the same time that Arthur Dent’s house is about to be bulldozed by a highway construction authority to put in a traffic bypass — and in both cases the officious officials announce, when protest is made, that planning permission, with public notice, has been on file in the galactic headquarters and town planning office respectively, so no one has any reason to complain.
Well the novel would be very short indeed if Arthur Dent did not escape the destruction of his house and the planet Earth. He manages this with the help of an alien who has been living on Earth for some time, and who has chosen, while on Earth, to go by the name Ford Prefect. (The joke is likely lost on Americans for whom it might have been better to name him Ford Fairlane!) Ford, in any case, helps Arthur to hitch a ride on the spaceship belonging to the planet-destroying construction company. And the first thing he tells Arthur he must do, if they are continue their travels, is insert a small fish in his ear. When Arthur protests, Ford explains that it is a strange species called the Babel-Fish, an alien species that lives on your brain waves and which, when inserted into your ear, takes up residence in your head and allows you to understand any language you hear, and the everyone in the universe wears them — because that’s how they can communicate with each other. And so Arthur is off on a series of highly improbable adventures, but able to communicate freely with any and all of the strange creatures he meets.
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In this morning’s reading from Genesis we heard the tale of the original Babel, which is not about gaining the ability to understand languages, but losing the ability. Like a number of the other accounts in the book of Genesis, this passage serves to answer a question about why things are the way they are, much like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. I don’t know if any of you remember them, but when I was growing up that was a favorite children’s book; the one story that sticks in my mind is, “How the Leopard Got Its Spots.” Genesis offers us, in a more serious mode, ancient answers to timeless questions such as, “Why do people get sick and die?” “Why do people get married?” “Who invented music?” and “Why don’t snakes have legs?” In this case, the question is, “How did all of the many languages on the earth come to be?”
And the answer to this last question is that this is God’s response to the presumption of mortals who set out to make a name for themselves and build a tower with its top in the heavens. To show just how presumptuous they are, they name their city Babel — which in Hebrew means “the gate of God,” but which after the confusion of their languages comes down to us with its other meaning ever since recognizable as “babble.”
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Why, you might well ask yourself, should we be concerned either with Babel or Babel-Fish, on this day of Pentecost, the last day of the Easter season, the day that celebrates the birthday of the church, and on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit in flames as of fire lighting upon the heads of the apostles? And of course it is because of what the Holy Spirit enables those apostles to do: suddenly to begin to proclaim the saving word of God in many languages — so that people who have come to Jerusalem from all over the known world can hear them proclaiming salvation through Christ in their own languages.
Pentecost undoes Babel — you might well say that it rewinds the tape (but who rewinds tape any more! So let’s say, it clicks the “back” button or the “undo” button). God looked at what the people were up to in those ancient days — in their pride and their desire, not to honor God’s name, but to make a name for themselves. God rightly and simply frustrated their plans by disrupting their ability to communicate with each other. Fast-forward some several thousand years to Jerusalem, where the apostles are gathered not as a prideful or self-asserting bunch, but in humble obedience to that final command that their Lord and Master Jesus has given them: to go to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. There they gather, and there the Spirit comes, giving them the ability not only to speak with eloquence, but in languages that none of them has ever learned, so that all of those outside in the city, from where-ever they come in the know world, can hear that powerful message of salvation — in their own languages, spoken right to their hearts.
And as I said a few weeks ago, God doesn’t just undo — God does something new. God doesn’t just press the undo button, he doesn’t just press the back button, he opens a new document, and starts a whole new story of salvation: ours.
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Thus the scattering of humanity because of pride is reversed and undone by this obedience — and the possibility to unite humanity in humility is made manifest, and the new story begins. The people of Babel had gotten too big for their britches, thinking that it was up to them to make a name for themselves, and even giving the work of their own hands the blasphemous name, “the gate of God,” because they wrongly thought their tower reached to the heavens (though in reality it was probably not much taller than the municipal parking garage across the street! When you live in a world where most buildings are one or two storeys tall, something six storeys tall may seem miraculous to you — but it wasn’t; wasn’t a gate of God — just human pride.) Such is not the Spirit of God, but the spirit of human ambition, human pride.
But the Spirit of God works differently, and comes to those who know that they are children of God. In fact, by coming to them, it makes them children of God, children by adoption. Because God has adopted us, because Jesus our brother has interceded for us, the Spirit empowers us to call God our Abba, our Father, as he taught us to pray. This is how the new story begins — our story — with that one word, Abba, Father.
Only that one word, Abba, Father, is necessary. We need not build a tower to the skies. We need not speak in many languages, either by miracle or by careful study; we need not speak in tongues as some wrongly think is needful for any who are touched by the Spirit of God. We need not make a name for ourselves, because God has given us a name as his children. We need not understand all other languages, or have the ability to interpret them. One word only is necessary, Abba, Father.
With this word we proclaim both our humility and our relationship to God and with God. We are not building a proud tower to assault heaven or to make a name for ourselves. Rather we rely on the presence of our advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God has poured into our hearts in a spirit of adoption so that we may call out as children call out to their father or their mother, to call out in the name of the Lord our God, who is our Father in heaven. It is God’s name, not ours, that is important.
This is the start of the new story, the church’s story, that tells us how we became children of God. This one word, Abba, Father, overthrows the towers of pride, and establishes our trust in our relationship with God our Father in heaven. May we who have received this spirit of adoption, persevere in it all our days, to the glory of God our Father, and Christ our Brother, through the Holy Spirit, our advocate and guide.