Scientists studying language have found that if you go back far enough -- say, 15,000 years or so, you will find that there are some words that are common to most of the languages spoken through Europe and Asia. They identified 23 words that are either almost identical or have cognates in several other language groups. "Cognates" are words in different languages that have similar sounds and meanings, like madre in Spanish, mutter in German and "mother" in English.
"Mother," in fact, is on that list of 23. So are "not," "man," "we," "that" and "to give." And so are a couple of odd ones, like "worm," or "to spit."
That comes to mind when we read the stories of Babel and of Pentecost morning, one of which tells us how language came to be a barrier to communication and the other of how the Holy Spirit worked to overcome that barrier.
At Babel, we're a few generations after the Flood, and the people decide they will make sure they are remembered. If they build a tower that reaches Heaven, they say, then no one will ever forget who they are. But once God stoops down and notices their mighty tower, he realizes the people have chosen to make themselves his equal, and that worked out not so well the last time. So he puts a stop to it before it gets very far, by confusing the language. Frustrated and unable to communicate with each other, the people pack up and scatter across the earth.
Now the thing is, we know that if we are patient and really listen to someone who speaks a different language than we do, we can understand them and we can make ourselves understood. I insist on calling the things on my feet "shoes," while my Spanish neighbor insists on los zapatos. But if I'm willing to listen to him, I finally understand that our different words mean the same thing. I learn what he means when he says los zapatos and he learns what I mean when I say "shoes."
If we are not patient, though, and we insist on our own way, we will probably not communicate. Now, what attitude do you think a group of people have who think they can build a tower to heaven? Patient or arrogant? Listening to others or insisting on their own way? Well, with the story, we can see what they did and that indicates a likely answer to me.
But what about the disciples at Pentecost? Their language is not confused -- in fact, even though they seem to be speaking Aramaic, the people in the crowd all hear them in their own native tongues! It's the exact opposite of Babel! What could bring this about?
Part of the answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit. The people on the plain of Shinar wanted to exalt themselves, but the people in Jerusalem on the Shavuot holiday proclaimed only the work of God in Jesus Christ. Motivated by the Spirit and doing the work of the Spirit, they were empowered by the Spirit as well.
And that presence itself happened because the people opened themselves to it. By remaining in Jerusalem as Jesus told them, they demonstrated obedience and that obedience let them be used by God. The great miracle of the undoing of Babel happened because once the people were filled with the Spirit, they didn't stay in the Upper Room and say, "Wow! Look at us!" They ran out into the street and said, "Wow! Look at what God has done!"
The journey from Babel to Pentecost is a trip from a place where we are at the center of our lives to one where God is at the center. In some ways it's a very short journey. But it makes all the difference.