Reversing Babel

A Pentecost Litany

This reading, originally part of a high school chapel, could be expanded easily into a worship service. At first glance, you may wonder why we chose it for the Ascension/Pentecost issue instead of for Thanksgiving, as it reflects on the language we use to give thanks to God. Indeed it would be fitting for Thanksgiving, but it also provides an intriguing insight into Pentecost as the act of reversing what happened at the Tower of Babel. At Pentecost the multitude of languages no longer divided people; instead, the gospel message was preached in a way that all could understand. We are united through the power of the Holy Spirit. —JB

For this reading you’ll need several people who can speak languages other than English. We used people who spoke German, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, and Arabic, but any languages would do.

Speaker 1: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.

Speaker 2: For what shall we be thankful? I suppose all we need to do is look around us to see God’s blessings.

Speaker 1: If we were to list all our blessings—friends, family, food, shelter, security—the list could go on and on. And although it is good to be thankful for the things of this world—things that do not last, things that will eventually fade away—there is so much more for which we can be thankful.

Speaker 2: How do you thank someone who has given you everything?

Speaker 1: How do you thank someone who has given you life?

Speaker 2: How do you thank someone who took your place on the cross?

Speaker 1: What words can we use to express our gratitude to the Lord? No matter how we say it, our words are insufficient.

Speaker 2: What do we say to the one who created words, sounds, phrases, and stories?

Speaker 1: How do we relate what is on our hearts when we cannot even comprehend what our hearts are telling us?

Speaker 2: All the languages in the world cannot contain our God. Mere words cannot describe God or God’s love for us. Our hearts ache with the need to tell God, to relate to him, to know him more.

Speaker 1: Yet in our futile fumbling, God bends a loving ear toward our hearts and listens. God gathers up our simple uttering of thanks and turns our words into something beautiful. He sends the Spirit to fill all the deep yearnings of our hearts. He blesses us with language to praise him. God blesses us with hands to serve him, with feet to follow him.

Speaker 2: God gives us lips and voices to speak our thankfulness and actions to show our gratitude.

Speaker 1: What language do we use, Lord, to thank you?

Speaker 2: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. (Ps. 19:1-3)

Song: “Hallelujahs” (Chris Rice)

[While this song is played, a timed PowerPoint presentation shows screens with the words “thank you” in different languages, including the languages spoken by the Persons 1-6 below.]

[After the song and PowerPoint presentation, six people come out on stage left, two speakers return to stage right.]

Speaker 1: No matter what language we use to say thank you, God hears our prayers. We would like to pray together this morning in several ways—first in English, and then in [list five other languages here]. Please join us in prayer.

Person 1: Dear God, thank you for all of your blessings, but most of all thank you for the gift of salvation. Teach me to use my voice and my life to offer you my thanks. Thank you for words to tell you. Thank you for hands and feet to show you and others how much we love you. In Jesus’ name.

[Persons 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 take turns praying this same prayer in their language. The last person concludes with “Amen.”]

Speaker 1: Think about this: God doesn’t need language to communicate. Language is a gift from God—a gift that enables us to speak, sing, write, or read. And our awesome Creator didn’t just stop at a few languages. He created hundreds of different languages and dialects. Listen to this story in Genesis 11 that tells how God brought many different languages to the people of the earth.

[Image of the Tower of Babel is displayed on the screen.]

Speaker 2: Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. 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. (Gen. 11:1-8)

Speaker 1: God confused the languages of the people. But even though the people building the tower of Babel were unable to communicate with each other, God knew every word they spoke. The people were confused and frustrated because God had taken away their ability to communicate. The ability to communicate with each other through language is only one of many gifts God has given us. In the New Testament we read about another gift that was given to believers—one that touched the very heart of communication. God gave this gift to people of every language!

[Picture of tongue of fire displayed on screen.]

Speaker 2: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:1-11)

Speaker 2: God is not limited by language. God doesn’t need to learn German or Spanish or Hungarian or English in order to understand us. He knows all the languages because he created them. Not only that, but he hears all the languages of people praying to him all at once.

[Picture of hands raised displayed on screen.]

[Persons 1-6 repeat the prayers they offered before, but now they all pray simultaneously, rather than separately. Person 1 begins the prayer, saying, Dear God . . . and the people praying in other languages join in. At the end of these prayers, Person 1 says the following:]

Person 1: Lord, we offer all these prayers to you, knowing that you hear these prayers—hundreds of thousands of prayers—every minute of every day. Not only that, but you know the heart of each person praying to you. Thank you for hearing us when we pray. Our words cannot even begin to express how thankful we are for the gift of your Son, for the gift of salvation.

[Offstage the following is sung a cappella to the tune of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”]

What language shall I borrow,

to thank you, dearest friend?

This gift of my salvation,

your mercy without end.

Lord, make me yours forever,

a loyal servant true,

and let me never, never,

outlive my love for you.

[Pause for a few moments of silence.]

Person 1: In your name we pray, amen.

Speaker 1: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Reformed Worship 103 © March 2012, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.