Have you ever gotten lost in a strange city? You might have become disoriented, made a wrong turn, and suddenly you weren’t sure where you were. You might be able to retrace your steps by way of the street signs, or you might be able to ask directions if you can find someone who understands you, but if it was a foreign city, you might be out of luck, especially if the street signs use an alphabet that you are unfamiliar with. Getting lost in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with the unusual Khmer alphabet, could be a daunting and fearful experience.
The marvels of human language and speech are amazing. We not only can point to objects and give them names, we not only can connect words in a way that enable others to understand what is going on in our mind, but we can also use language to deceive others, to shape and mold minds for evil and well as for good. The human brain can start learning at an early age and can start communicating with simple words, so that before the age of two in most cases a child can make their thoughts known to their parents and others around them. But so often people, and we may have to include ourselves, use language for the sake of power, rather than for the sake of truth.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent used language and questioning to lure our first parents into sin, thus earning himself the title, The Father of Lies. He asked that impertinent question, “Did God really say. . . ,” a call to subvert God’s word and to seize power for themselves, which sent their world, and ours, tumbling about our ears. Human pride ran rampant and things got so bad that God resolved to destroy the world with the Flood. But after the Flood things didn’t change. Human pride caused the immediate descendants of Noah to migrate together from Ararat to Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and to settle there as a group, expressly violating God’s blessing and command to fill the earth. Rather than being obedient, their pride led them try to seize control of their destinies, to make a name for themselves by building a tower up to heaven, a tower that would serve as a focal point for human civilization and a monument to human ingenuity. Because of this we see that God was constrained to confuse the languages so that the people would be forced to scatter to the farthest reaches of the earth and develop their own cultures in order to fulfil God’s mandate.
While differences in culture may be celebrated at times as you discuss whether you want Mexican, Chinese, or Thai food tonight, differences in language and culture nowadays do not lead us to celebrate diversity, but rather to fear it. Xenophobia, the fear of the stranger, is common in many cultures, and the corresponding superiority complex, seeing one’s own language and culture as the pinnacle of human achievement, stands firm as well. Empires rise and fall, and nations conquer and are conquered as people and nations seek to gain and retain power. Tribalism has raised its head in Europe and Africa, and nations that have been comprised of several ethnic and linguistic entities have come together and have folded. What was once Yugoslavia has subdivided itself back into its constituent nations, often with violence, as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Kosovo all fought to maintain their own integrity. Czechoslovakia has divided itself once again into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, no longer a single nation. Two decades ago, Quebec, still resenting their conquest by the British, sought to separate itself from the rest of Canada, but fell short of the 2/3 vote needed.
Even as the ancient people left the plain of Shinar and scattered, even as worship of the true God was once again abandoned, God was not done. Out of all the nations of the earth, God chose Abraham to be the father of a great nation. He led Abraham to the land of Canaan, and there He promised to give the land to Abraham and promised Him a multitude of descendants. Most importantly for him and for us, God promised Abraham that is was by Him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham would be the father of many people, but one man in particular would be the Blessing.
So God began His work in Canaan with Abraham, and then Isaac and Jacob. God blessed Jacob with a family and then through Joseph brought them into Egypt, where they first prospered but then were enslaved. But God led them out with a mighty arm and outstretched hand, and through Moses led them to the Promised Land, and through Joshua led them into the Promised Land to conquer it. God eventually gave them a Kingdom, and David as King, which was divided and then taken from them because of unbelief. Though dispersed and exiled in Assyria and Babylon, God brought a remnant back into the land where ultimately they were conquered by the Greeks and then the Romans. By the time Christ was born there were Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Jews, and Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jews, and in the dispersion, there were Jews who spoke the languages of the people among whom they lived.
God in His providential care sent His Son into the world when business in the known world was conducted in the Greek language, which within the next two centuries was replaced by the Latin language. Yet local languages prevailed. When the New Testament came into being the Greek language was used because most people, certainly the educated and those engaged in commerce, knew the language.
When we look at the world and the history of humanity, we see the scattering of humanity and the division of the peoples of the world. Out of that divided humanity God chose Abraham and his posterity to be the nation out of which God’s Blessing, His Messiah, would come. Jews from throughout the dispersion had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and many stayed until Pentecost. What had been scattered at Babel was now being gathered back together. For the Spirit descended upon those in the house where the apostles and the Jerusalem church were gathering, and those there began to speak in other tongues, that is in other languages, those languages which were spoken by the Jews of the dispersion who had now gathered together in Jerusalem. They spoke of those thing Christ had done and told their hearers of the salvation He had won for them and did it in their hearers’ languages. And so beginning in Jerusalem the Gospel, the word that unites people once again under God, began to be preached, with those of the dispersion carrying the Good News with them as they returned home, even as far as Rome.
But what does that have to do with us today? The Gospel unites, even as languages continue to keep us apart. I have had the privilege of meeting fellow Lutherans throughout the world, where more formal teaching and presentations take place through a translator, indeed often more than one, with many languages present in those meetings. Since even casual conversation must take place through a translator, the person I am talking to and I feel a barrier between us, feeling that we can never truly get to know each other because we aren’t truly talking with each other. Yet conversation, in teaching and in preaching the Gospel comes through. The Gospel speaks to the human condition. It recognizes that we are innately sinners who need the message of the forgiveness of sins.
It is a joy to bring the Gospel to others and hear the Gospel from others even through translation, because even in that way God’s truth comes through, and we see that God has brought us together in that one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. Twenty years ago when I taught my first courses in Ukraine, I preached to the people of the village of Kamenka on this very text, noting how even though we spoke entirely different languages, we have a common God and a common Gospel. About fifteen years ago I was sitting in a congregation is South Africa and heard the preacher at that service begin by saying, “I am a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian preaching a sermon in English to a Zulu congregation.” Last year when I was in Ukraine, besides preaching to Russian-speaking people through translators, I had the privilege of hearing a Finnish Lutheran pastor preaching in Finnish, having his sermon translated into Russian for the benefit of the congregation, and then quietly translated by a friend sitting next to me for my benefit. Clearly the Gospel is cross cultural, as the message spoken meets the needs of the hearers because we all need the same basic gift: the forgiveness of sins. The movement of the church throughout the world, the development of modern transportation, and the use of cyberspace to move documents around the world illustrate the challenges and the opportunities to bring the Gospel to others.
Even in our hymnals and orders of worship we acknowledge, give thanks for, and make use of materials that were originally written in other languages. The Kyrie, sung in English as “Lord have mercy,” comes to us from the Greek Kyrie Eleison. The Gloria in Excelsis comes to us from the Latin. The Venite and Te Deum from the Matins service also come to us from the Latin. The very Scriptures themselves come to us from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. We hear the words of Jesus in English by way of the Greek, though most likely Jesus spoke to the people in Aramaic.
When we look at the gift of tongues which was given to those in Jerusalem on that first Christian Pentecost, we see their purpose: the Holy Spirit gave the gift so that Jesus Christ might be proclaimed, so that the hearers might be converted so that they themselves might call on the name of the Lord and so be saved. Jesus, when He promised the Spirit to His disciples, told them that He, that is, the Spirit, would testify of Him, that is of Jesus. As we look at the variety of gifts that the Spirit gives to the Church, we see them given to us as members of the Body of Christ. As St. Paul puts it, there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit. The Spirit that gives these gifts is the Spirit who has called and enlightened us through the Gospel.
The gift of tongues to the apostles facilitated the speaking of the Gospel to the people to whom they went. Later, as Peter visited the centurion Cornelius and his household, tongues served as a sign demonstrating that God wanted the Gospel preached to all the nations of the earth. As the apostolic age came to an end, and mission work continued, it went on by means of people who had the facility to learn new languages. The continuity of the apostolic message was preserved as it was handed down from generation to generation, and carefully translated so that its integrity was preserved. Even among German Lutheran emigrants, some of whom feared that abandoning the German language would lead to an obscuring of the Gospel, the shift to English was made and the Gospel endures. Through missionaries and through the work of organizations such as Lutheran Bible Translators, the good news continues to be spread. God in His grace and providence and by the power of His Spirit has given people the gift to do these important works. The message goes out into the world, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.