Sunday, June 08, 2014

Babbling brook or brooking the babble?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on Whitsunday 2014 

Search engines are marvellous things. If you’re not on the internet, the whole idea of Google or Bing will, of course, mean nothing to you. Search Engines are facilities that simply help you to look for information on the web. They can help you find all kinds of weird and wonderful things from around the world. Of course, that does mean that you’ll come across a web page in Manderin or Guajarati. If it looks like a useful web page but you don’t know Mandarin or Guajurati, what do you do?

Never fear! The search engine Bing has a translate facility, so you can translate the whole page into English. Wonderful news! However, there’s a problem. A search engine is not a human being. It cannot make sentences meaningful which is a bit of a problem if you don't use them carefully.

Some people have obviously used a computing translator in order to translate international signs. A sign that would read, “Careful! Danger of slipping and falling!” gets translated as “Slip and fall down carefully.” “Caution! Missing step” becomes “Watch out, your foot is missing” and “fire extinguisher” has also been translated as “hand grenade”. So you can see that it’s not enough to be able to say words in a different language, you have to say what you mean. The trouble with different languages is that something always gets lost in translation. No two languages have exactly the same meanings and this is a problem when you're trying to communicate with other people.


We see the Apostles filled with the Holy Ghost going about speaking different languages and clearly with some fervour. To many of the people, they are pleased to hear words in languages that they understand and so expertly. There isn’t a Pamphilian phrase-book in sight! Yet others resort to cynicism and scorn, accusing the disciples of being drunk. For them, the message of God through His disciples is lost in translation: the words are meaningless babble for these folk.

Babble? For a first century Jew, this confusion of language would ring a bell in Hebrew history. Thousands of years earlier, on the plain of Shinar, mankind says
“Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
So a tower is begun, and God Himself says,
“Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”
So the tower of Babel never gets finished. It seems that Pentecost is Babel all over again! Confusion, different language, different meanings! What is God up to in confounding our language?


It seems rather unfair of God to cause disruption, but then what is He disrupting us from? The Tower of Babel is planned by people trying to put God aside and make themselves the centre of attention. These folk do not want God being the centre of their lives, but themselves. They want something of themselves to worship. However, in creating individuals, God has given us our own points of view which can be used for good and for evil, just like anything else. Just as we have arms that can hug or hit, so do we each have minds that can both unite and divide, and wills that can love and hate. When we blindly insist on our own ways then we lose out on what others mean and we cease to understand them. This is the confusion that God has given us: it is a by-product of His giving us personal free-will. The confusion comes from our failure to see God as the One who gives meaning in the first place.


Babel is about division. People are separated from each other by their language because they wish to leave God out. God, however, wants us with Him. This is why the day of Pentecost is so important. Whenever the Bible tells us that someone is filled with the Holy Ghost, it is always to speak God’s word. It is always to speak a truth and to speak words of love and unity. In filling the Apostles with the Holy Ghost, the same message of God’s love for us is brought to people of different languages for us all to understand. Every human being is told of the love that God has for them even if we do not understand the language.

This is the story of Babel backwards, because God is at the centre of worship. Confirmation with the Holy Ghost brings us the ability to come together even if we do not quite understand one another in full. St Paul reminds us that the fruit of the Holy Ghost is, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance” and these are all unifying – ways of living that are the same in any language. It is this fruit that we must pray for, and it is this fruit that we need to grow in our lives.


There is one God in three persons – a perfect unity. If we truly seek God and to be re-united with Him, then not only will we draw close to Him, but we must also necessarily draw close to those others who truly seek Him. Can we truly communicate that without being misunderstood?

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