The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, an event that birthed the Christian church, seems like a long time ago. But strangely enough, to grasp its relevance for today we have to go back much further in time, to the beginnings of recorded human history.
I cannot give you an exact date, but I’m pointing us toward a time about 3,000 years before Pentecost, nearly 5,000 years before our current day. That is the most likely setting for the story of the Tower of Babel. The problem identified in the Babel story finds its fix in the Pentecost story.
Some people read the Tower of Babel story as a highly symbolic myth designed to communicate truths about God’s expectations of humanity. Others read it more literally, as a record of a key event in human history. Either way, you get to the same lesson, and the same link to Pentecost.
The traditional interpretation of the Babel story is that God becomes angry because the humans are trying to reach into heaven. There’s little biblical evidence for such an interpretation, however. Instead, God seems concerned about the humans’ potential for clever mischief, the kind that ultimately leads to idolatry or nonbelief.
In this story, bricks are to these people what the Internet is to us—cutting-edge technology allowing them to experience the world in new ways. Until humans figured out how to make fire-hardened bricks, they were limited to primitive stone structures. Brick-making technology allowed for the construction of ziggurats and other relatively large buildings that led to the development of the first cities.
Although the story probably doubles as a primitive critique of urbanization and the idols we find in city life, God doesn’t have a problem with progress per se. It’s more a case of God being concerned about the humans getting ahead of themselves and forgetting who they are, children of the Creator. So God confuses their language (Babel and babble sound alike for a reason) and scatters them across the earth, slowing them down before they reach a danger point.
Now shift your minds forward 3,000 years in time. Out of that scattering, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, have arisen. Christ has come among them, been crucified and resurrected, and before ascending into heaven has promised his followers will be “clothed with power from on high.”
As promised, the Spirit falls on the faithful. And with divinity present in them and among them, they find themselves with a surprising gift. The language barrier established at Babel breaks down in Jerusalem. Suddenly, people who look like a bunch of uneducated hicks are empowered to speak the message of Christ freely to a polyglot crowd.
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” people in the diverse crowd ask. “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
The answer to that question lies in the work Christ has done. By sacrificing himself for our sins, he has restored the relationship between God and humanity. Rather than slowing us down, God is now letting us use divine power and wisdom to speed ahead in our development and understanding of the world, in the process spreading the word of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Lord knows, the fetters are off. Here we are, less than 2,000 years from the birth of the church. We have covered the planet and connected ourselves in ways the early church could never imagine. With a little money, any of us can fly, and we’ve pooled our resources to send men to the moon. We split atoms in ways that can make abundant energy. (Of course, we could also blow ourselves to smithereens.) And what’s happening with digital technology is astounding.
In the span of an hour recently, I had two conversations via the Internet, one with a friend in the Czech Republic and another with a friend in Brazil. (In terms of readership, this blog isn’t what I would call widely read, but I was surprised to learn it will now be translated into and published in Portuguese through my Brazilian friend’s church.) The communication I accomplished in an hour would have cost a pastor at Cassidy UMC a lot of time and a small fortune just four decades ago.
Despite all our advances, we face the same basic challenges our ancestors saw when they figured out how to bake bricks in a kiln nearly 5,000 years ago. As we learn and morph, will we stay in touch with God? Will we cling to our original purpose, to worship and serve the one who created us?
It’s something to think about as we post on Facebook or tweet on Twitter. Even in these environments, are we the people God wants us to be? Can people see the face of Christ in our avatars?
During this most recent technological explosion, we are blessed to have the power of God available to us, even within us. The Holy Spirit wants to guide us brick by digital brick. We simply must open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance in all things old or new.