Sermon for Mirepoix
Sunday 16th June 2019
Acts 2, vs 1-13, 32-33; Revelation 7, vs 9-12
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight , O Lord.
If it’s not taxing the memory too much, I’d like to start by taking you back around 32,000 years ago (give or take ten thousand years or so). By this time, homo sapiens (one of several human species) and the one which you and I belong to, has populated the whole of East Africa and migrated with astonishing speed not only to colonise Europe and Asia but even to cross open sea and reach Australia. Is it all coming back to you? Those fertile plains, herds of woolly mammoth and bison, the occasional encounter with a pride of European lions (a little smaller than the ones we left behind in Africa) and skirmishes with those Neanderthals.
Scientists have speculated over what caused this extraordinary feat of expansion. What made homo sapiens so successful? Even more successful than homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthal man, who was certainly as strong physically as us and (apparently!) had a bigger brain.
Well. It would appear that between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, something called the Cognitive revolution occurred in homo sapiens. It was a genetic mutation in the brain which led to the development of complex and sophisticated language.
Other human species, already had language. Animals had language and still do. For example, we know that chimpanzees not only have a warning call, they also have a call which means ‘lion’ and other calls for other predators so they can give more precise warnings. But unique to homo sapiens was the ability to take a finite number of sounds and use them to construct an infinite number of sentences.
This does not just mean going into detail with your mates about how to hunt lunch or manage the allotment. It means giving voice to the imagination. 32,000 years ago, someone just like us, living in Germany carved a figure out of a mammoth tusk: a man’s body with a lion’s head. Here we have, I understand, the oldest evidence that we were able to imagine, to invent, to think outside the concrete world of physical reality. We had found, or developed, or been given the capacity to conceive things supernatural. The ability to apprehend and worship a god had become ours.
In Book 11 of Genesis, we have the story of the Tower of Babel. In this myth, it is a common language that enables humankind to co-operate on a joint project. We can make bricks. We have taught each other that baking them in a fire makes them harder. We have worked out that, instead of merely stacking them, bricks can be bonded together with bitumen. Presumably, one of our number is a budding architect and has drawn up a plan for us all to follow. We are ambitious. The idea is to build a tower with its top reaching heaven. We fancy popping in on the gods. None of this would have been possible without a language as sophisticated as the ones we share today.
In the Tower of Babel myth, God sees what humankind is up to and is seriously miffed. Understandably so. It was not so long ago that he gave humankind a serious warning about bad behaviour by flooding the earth, and now this same uppity scrag of creation is planning to build its very own stairway to paradise! God sees that the root cause of the problem is language . ‘That’s easily solved,’ says God, and sends down confusion so that no-one can understand what anyone else is saying, scattering homo sapiens across the face of the earth.
The Genesis myth says nothing about what the future will hold but God, having an eternal perspective, of course knew that, one day, he would, in fact, invite humankind to join him. But that day would be for him to determine and it would be on his terms.
I like to think that The Cognitive Revolution, that fascinating period between seventy and thirty thousand years ago correlates with the great myths in Genesis. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is surely another way of explaining what happens when homo sapiens acquires language and the thought-processes that sophisticated communication skills unlock. In effect, with language, humankind’s ambitions know no bounds. Our species sets about recreating the world and how we live in it…often without fully appreciating the long-term consequences.
The result – as described in the Eden story and the Babel story is separation from God and confusion. So much of the Old Testament (echoed in the myths and legends of so many other religions) is about humankind charting its own course, charging off enthusiastically in the wrong direction and having to be brought back into line. Time and time again, we human beings have to be reminded that it is not for us to set the agenda. If we do, we do so at our cost.
We are an extraordinary species , our capacity to achieve is immense but we have to keep ourselves in check or our capacity for destruction will be even more enormous. We have to learn to live to God’s agenda. This, I think, is the message behind the myth of the Tower of Babel.
I wonder how many of those present on that first Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection, would have made the connection with the builders of the Tower of Babel. Then, so the myth went, the time was not right for a common language. Then, God knew that humankind was too immature morally to be able to manage the unlimited opportunities which would follow if everyone could understand everyone else. But that morning, fifty days after the amazing feat of reconciliation achieved by Jesus, things were different.
The apostles speak and all those different peoples, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, Libya, and Rome, Jews, Cretans and Arabs can understand them. It is a symbolic moment.
Why? Because the message now is that Babel’s curse is reversed.
The time is now right for communication between human beings to be facilitated. Now there is one specific purpose to be fulfilled. It is the spreading of the gospel, the good news: that Jesus has overcome death and God’s spirit has been outpoured.
The time is now right because God has decided that humankind is at last ready – 70,000 years after The Cognitive Revolution began – ready to be reconciled with him. Humankind, that uppity scrag of creation, has at last been found sufficiently worthy for God to take on human form and, by so doing, create an indestructible bridge uniting humankind with God. Jesus the human being is God incarnate.
In the mists of time, so the story went, humankind tried to build a tower to reach God in heaven. It was too soon and the project came to nothing. But we are now in the last days – some geologists call it the anthropocene era – a stretch of time (who knows how long?) following the complete revelation of all we need to know, as embodied in Jesus. We now have no need of a tower. Jesus is the route ahead and the Holy Spirit is offering to take us by the hand and lead us forward.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, we have still struggled to make real, sustained progress.
Language continues to give us extraordinary power. But that power can take us backwards as well as forwards. We are a little more than one hundred years on from the First World War when, without the rhetoric of nationalism those devastatingly destructive forces behind the conflicy would not have gained traction. The language of retribution enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles produced the perfect environment for Hitler’s oratory to hold sway. Nazism and other fascist creeds flourished. The 20th century has proved (if we needed further proof) that words can mobilise armies. Words too can radicalise. It is no surprise to me that President Trump, who struggles to frame a coherent sentence containing anything but one simplistic idea, hits out relentlessly at journalists who can wield words effectively. He knows where he is most vulnerable. In retaliation, Trump seeks to destroy the sophistication and beauty of language all together. Autocratic leaders see rhetoric and reasoned argument and complex thought – the freedom to speak – as another Tower of Babel seeking to topple them. They seek to knock it down, forgetting that they are not God in heaven.
Since that first Pentecost, the phenomenon whereby all can understand what is spoken to them, as if in their own language, has never been repeated. Although some Christian traditions still practise talking in tongues or glossolalia, this is more of an ecstatic utterance than an accessible language. Despite that first Pentecost, we are still left with just our numerous human languages for communication. That is why, the abuse and corruption of language is wrong because the gospel depends absolutely upon preaching The Word, engaging, explaining and exploring. Words are the most sophisticated medium for communication we have. They are both transactional and a wonderful medium for creative expression. The gospel needs them.
At Pentecost, language was liberated. It was as if God was at last giving his blessing to human beings to use this tool, the fruit of the Tree of the Cognitive Revolution, to be used to communicate the gospel. Indeed, we see Peter, until that moment a fisherman of few words, doing just that: wielding words with power and skill to reach out to the assembled crowds.
The challenge of communication remains. Rising to that challenge and finding new ways to articulate the Good News, embodied in the life and significance of Jesus, is the single most important task for those of us living in the last days or, as geologists call it, the Anthropocene Era.
One of the things I try to do – you might have picked this up from what I say when speaking here on a Sunday – is look for parallels between the language of theology and the language of science. For too long we have separated the two and for millions of people this means they struggle to understand the concept of God as anything more than fantasy or delusion. Science is how we make sense of the world we live in, a world created by God. There can be no separation.
I think we need to look for the symbolism in physics and biology, chemistry and mathematics. There will be universal truths here which have a currency outside the limitations of language because mathematics and physics and chemistry are the same whatever language we speak. Just as whatever the apostles said on that morning in Jerusalem was universally understood, over-riding the limitations of language, so should our grasp of spiritual truths, underpinned by scientific understanding.
If the story of the Tower of Babel sits in the realm of myth, beyond the reach of history, then the passage from Revelation which we heard, stretches out into an unknown, impossible-to-imagine future. The language of dream and fantasy take over from any solid prediction. Sitting between these two, myth on one hand and fantasy on the other, is a single date which we can pinpoint with reasonable accuracy: Penteocst. Each of these three passages (Babel, Pentecost and Revelation) informs the others. Babel records confusion and disintegration. Pentecost gives us the agent which will start the process of unification. Although what exactly happened during that extraordinary event in Jerusalem is difficult to understand, . But it sparked a tsunami of interest, rapidly washing over the whole of the Roman Empire and beyond. That cannot be doubted; it is hard fact. And so Revelation gives us a picture of the end result.
Let’s look at that picture. There are too many people to count. They come from every nation, race, tribe and language. There are no divisions. As Peter said, when he quoted the prophet Joel, this Spirit is outpoured on all humanity, young and old, free men and women, and slaves, all without distinction. No one is excluded. The divisions which began at Babel, and which nationalists persist in fostering, no longer exist. Nor should they, for Pentecost abolished them.
Babel’s curse was reversed at Pentecost. It was reversed by the Holy Spirit for a specific purpose.
The question for us today is how we can best rise to the challenge, the invitation which was set before us that day. It is an invitation to not babble away in our own cosy circles but to push back the boundaries of communication so those, who do not understand the language of Christ the Redeemer, might comt to learn to that when praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honour, and power and strength are given to God, this translates into a new world order.
It will be a new world order where humanity finds itself in the company of the divine.
And all shall be well.