6/10/2019 11:15:43 AM
A Common Language
Pastor Kyle Bitter - Pentecost Sunday - Sunday, June 9, 2019
Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends who have traveled abroad do some foreign language immersion work in the hopes of becoming fluent. As you might guess, such experiences are most effective if the person has minimal contact with their native language, and that means it can be kind of a lonely and isolating experience at times. Thanks to some of the modern technology available in the interne age, that’s starting to change. Online tools like google translate and other similar services have become available – allowing users to type what they want to say in English and then see Spanish or German or whatever other language you want come out the other end, and it works in reverse too. I think it’s a fascinating piece of technology, and it does allow communication to take place where it otherwise might not be possible, but at the same time you don’t have to use it very long to realize that it’s not quite the same as speaking the same language. Usually you can understand what’s being said, but idioms and words with multiple meanings tend to be confusing and sometimes you find yourself wondering if you’re actually saying what you think you’re saying. There’s just no substitute for two people speaking a common language.
And it’s not just true in regular conversation. Just think of how many social and political issues our country faces today have been exacerbated by the different perspectives of people coming from different cultures and different races. More broadly, I wonder how many wars have started in history because of linguistic misunderstandings and poor communication between cultures? I wonder how many conflicts have been caused by people who actually want the same things but because of culture have different ideas about how to get there? You can imagine how many things in the world would be easier if everyone shared a common language!
Today’s first lesson takes us back to a time in world history when that was the case. After Noah and his family got off the ark as the only people on earth, God commanded them to have children, to fill and inhabit the earth, to spread out over his creation and take care of it and make use of it. Obviously, they all spoke the same language since they were from the same family and after a few generations pass today’s first lesson picks up the account. “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” (Genesis 11:1 – NIV84). If you look at the geography, the plains of Shinar are a wonderful place to settle down and start a farm-based civilization. “They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.” In that part of the world, bricks and tar were the most permanent building materials available. “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens,” (Genesis 11:2-4a – NIV84). Their common language allowed them to undertake ambitions projects of engineering and construction on a scale some have speculated might not have been seen before in human history!
The Language of Sin
And there’s nothing inherently with building a city and settling down. There was really nothing wrong with building a tower, in and of itself. But, in this case, that’s not what God had commanded them to do. And this wasn’t a simple case of misunderstanding either. Why was this ambitious project undertaken? “so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4b – NIV84). Instead of uniting to follow the God who had created the world and who had preserved their ancestor Noah in the days of the flood, the people unite themselves together in opposition to God’s will for people. And it was easy, because they all spoke the same language, and I’m not just talking about words phrases and idioms. This was much deeper than that. You might call it the Language of Sin. The natural language that all people are born speaking, the language that breeds a culture of selfishness and arrogance, a language that allows sinful people to unite around a shared interest in sinful activity – something that wasn’t new at all to the people of Babel working together to build in defiance of God’s will. Sin is a language that people have always spoken, from the first sin in the garden of Eden all the way down to today.
Sadly, Sin is a language and a culture that you and I understand all too well and speak all too fluently. You can easily see the comparisons, even across thousands of years of history and massive societal changes. The people at Babel were more interested in a comfortable life on the plains of Shinar than in following God’s instructions. In the same way, it’s often a lot easier sit comfortably in our own lives and our own hobbies than it is to get involved in using our time and money to carry out the work of sharing the gospel that God has commanded us to do! The people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves by accomplishing huge things in life, and the temptation is still there today to be more interested in doing things that bring prestige and popularity among other people than doing things that bring glory to God. And those examples just scratch the surface, because you can see the same sad story in every bible character, in ever chapter of human history, and in everyday of your life. We all speak A Common Language, and it’s the Language of Sin, a language that unites us in opposition to God and builds a culture that stands under the threat of his judgment. Only a few generations had passed since the flood, but nothing had changed. Sin was just as pervasive as it had ever been.
The Language of Salvation
“The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6 – NIV84). At that point, God could have declared some kind of judgment – giving his people exactly what their wickedness deserved – but he didn’t. Not entirely – one might say he let them off pretty easy! He said. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:5-7 – NIV84). Yes, the confusion of languages did make life more difficult for the people, and yes, it did come about as a result of their sinful rebellion, and yes, the difficulties of relationships between races and cultures do continue down until today, but if we only think of this as punishment we miss out on a big piece of what God was doing.
Think about what this prevented. As long as people shared a common language and a common culture and as long as they all lived together in the same part of the world, there was a constant spiritual danger that sinful people would begin to oppose God in a perfectly unified way, working together to abandon him and marching step for step down the path to eternal destruction in hell, separated form God forever. This is what people had been united in doing before the flood, and now, just a few generations later, the same thing was happening again! Unless God intervenes, that lock step march down to hell is the natural path that every single person will follow. The good news is, God wasn’t about to allow his wayward people to destroy themselves. He intervened and prevented people from working together on their wicked purpose. “So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:8-9 – NIV84). That’s the end of this account, but it's far from the end of what God was bringing about.
If you were following along in a hard copy bible and turned the page from Babel, you’d meet a man named Abraham. Generations later, his descendants were a great nation – we know them as the children of Israel. And what did God do with them? He established the children of Israel with their own language and their own culture, separate and distinct from everyone else, not because they were any better than anyone else – the bible certainly shows us their shortcomings – but for their own spiritual protection as they waited for the time to be right for the long-promised Savior to arrive. God used the cultural and linguistic differences of people to separate the ancestors of the Messiah from the pagan wickedness that the nations around them indulged in. At Babel, God came down in judgement and forced people out of godless habits by destroying their united language, but that set the stage for when God would come down into the world again – this time clothed in human flesh and to be the Savior the world so desperately needed! Here we see God speaking Another Common Language – the language that God always speaks when he interacts with people, the language of mercy, of forgiveness, of promise kept – the Language of Salvation!
And that language shares this beautiful message: No matter what part of the world you come from and no matter which group of people fleeing the tower of babel make up your ancestors, God sent Jesus for you. No matter what form this Language of Sin takes in your life and no matter how fluent you have become, God sent Jesus to live in your place and die for your sins. No matter how often you’ve abandoned God’s will and sought your own comfort and prestige, God did not abandon his plan to send Jesus to be your Savior. No matter what your background is, God approaches you speaking A Common Language – his promise that your sins are forgiven, and his invitation to you to trust that promise and look forward to eternal life in heaven. That’s the Language of Salvation, and it’s for everyone!
That Common Language is what’s what makes Pentecost such a special festival, isn’t it? In the plainest of terms possible, God demonstrates that when he speaks the Language of Salvation, when he promises that sins are forgiven and when he invites his people to join him in heaven, he’s speaking to every single one of us! On Pentecost, God undid the curse of Babel for a few minutes, and everyone who heard the apostles sharing the good news was able to understand it in their own native language, because the Language of Salvation – the story of Jesus the Savior and his life and death for us – is A Common Language. It carries a message that every single one of us can understand, and it’s a message that changes your life.
In human terms, we still struggle with the curse of Babel. We remain divided by culture and race and language, and that is going to be a part of life in a sinful world until Jesus comes again. But when it comes to our work as children of God and the mission God has entrusted to us, we can rejoice that God’s message to his people goes beyond words and phrases and idioms, it goes beyond race and culture and social status. No matter what human language you share it in and no matter which group of people you tell it to, the love of Jesus remains A Common Language – intended for all. May God bless each one of us with constant opportunities to speak this language to those around us. Amen.