Are you familiar with the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling? He began writing them as bedtime stories for his daughter, and she insisted that he keep telling them exactly the way she remembered, and since they had to be told “just so,” they were called the Just So stories. They are stories about how various animals got their distinctive features – origin stories. One of my favorites tells how the elephant got its trunk.
The story goes that elephants originally just had a stubby black nose that wasn’t very useful. One day a baby elephant who was very curious began asking lots of questions about how the world worked, and one of his questions was, “What does the crocodile have for dinner?” After a lot of asking around, the baby elephant came to a kolokolo bird. “What does the crocodile have for dinner?” The kolokolo bird told the young elephant to go to the Limpopo river and find out.
(I think maybe this was the kolokolo bird’s way of getting the baby elephant to stop bugging people with all these questions!)
So the baby elephant set off for the Limpopo river, and when he got there he met a creature he’d never seen before and which turned out to be a crocodile. The baby elephant asked the crocodile, “What does a crocodile have for dinner?”
The crocodile replied, “I think I’ll start by having a baby elephant!” And he clamped his giant jaws down on the baby elephant’s stubby black nose.
The elephant sat back on his haunches and pulled, and pulled, and pulled against the crocodile’s tug. His nose began to stretch and stretch. The crocodile threshed his tail like an oar, and he pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and at each pull the elephant child’s nose grew longer, and longer!
Eventually the crocodile let go, and the elephant’s nose stayed long, and that’s how the elephant got its trunk. (And now it can pack for a long trip.)
This is what we call an origin story.
The Bible is full of origin stories. Genesis 1 and 2 tell how the world was created, and how God filled the earth with plants and animals and people.
The book of Genesis is a collection of origin stories, actually. After creation and Adam and Eve, there’s the story of Noah and the great flood, the story of Abraham, followed by the story of Isaac, and then the story of Jacob who wrestled with God and got a new name, Israel, and so became the father of all the people of Israel.
And in between these stories, there are genealogies that tie them together. After Adam and Eve, the genealogy connects them to Noah, and after Noah’s story, the genealogy connects him to Abraham, and in between there is this story in chapter 11 about the tower of Babel.
The tower of Babel is another origin story that tells how people came to have so many different languages and be spread all over the world. We’re reading the story of the tower of babel today so that we see how it came to be that there were so many different languages being heard coming from the disciples when the Holy Spirit descended upon them on the day of Pentecost. These people had come to Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world to celebrate the feast of Pentecost because it’s one of the three major Jewish holidays that the people of Israel have been celebrating since the time of Moses.
In the story of Babel, the people were using their own power to build a monument to themselves, so that they would be famous, and known for building the tallest of towers. Instead, they are remembered for their lack of success.
The people of Babel were united by their effort to have the tallest building. Even if they had succeeded, the buildings of today are far taller than they could have built.
Do you know where the tallest building in the world is?
The city of Dubai. (United Arab Emirates) The Burj Khalifa is 2,722 feet tall, just over one-half mile.
What was the tallest building in the ancient world?
The great pyramid in Egypt in Giza.
It was originally 480 feet tall, and was the tallest structure on earth for almost 4000 years.
It wasn’t until the Lincoln Cathedral in England was built in 1311 that anything was taller. The Lincoln Cathedral is 525 feet tall.
It was the tallest structure in the world until 1890 when Ulm Minster was built in Germany, and at 530 feet is still the tallest church in the world.
The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 tells the origin story of the church – not a tall building like the ones in Lincoln, England, or Ulm, Germany, but one built by God in Jesus Christ. In the story the Holy Spirit is poured out on the people gathered, and throughout the book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit drawing people to God, bringing people together, helping them encourage one another.
The church that was born on Pentecost is so big that it includes people from around the world and throughout time. It was built not by the power of human hands but by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us.
The people building the Tower of Babel were united in their sameness – all speaking the same language, working together to build a monument to themselves. The people gathered at Pentecost were united by something stronger – the power of God’s love and grace – the power of the Holy Spirit, who doesn’t require us to all be the same, but instead encourages us to be the unique individuals God made us to be, and empowers us to work together in ways that transcend our differences.
The sermon that Peter preached that day explained what was happening with a passage from the prophet Joel that says:
‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants—men and women alike—and they will prophesy.
The Holy Spirit poured out on all people regardless of color or race or class or education or gender. Joel says men and women alike will prophesy. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to all people.
There was a modern-day Pentecost in the early years of the 20th century, the birth of the Pentecostal church at the Azusa revival. In this picture we see the first leaders of the Apostolic Faith Mission, including the African American preacher William Seymour and his wife Jennie. During that time, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon men and women, young and old, black and white, Mexican and Asian. Many had hoped that this unity in the Holy Spirit would continue, but the influence of racism during that time was too strong, and the churches soon became segregated. But considering the way the culture was in that time, the initial multi-cultural gathering was a Holy Spirit miracle.
I was thinking this week about our star words – words on a paper star that we get on Epiphany. As I thought about the words that I have received since I first start doing this in 2017 – 5 years ago, I realized that all of them are ways the Holy Spirit works. Guidance, Tenderness, Newness, Aspiration (Aspire), Anticipation (Coming), Servanthood. All of them have taught me more about God, just as Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would do. In John 16, Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.” (John 16:13)
What about you? What has the Holy Spirit been teaching you over the last five years?
Three weeks ago, during our worship we listed some of the things we dream of eradicating but that seem impossible to get rid of. We said poverty, war, hopelessness, and gun violence. In the time since that day, there have been even more shootings, the war in Ukraine continues, as do poverty and hopelessness. These problems will not be solved overnight, and we will not solve them with selfishness or pride, or by building monuments to ourselves. But by working together, listening to the Holy Spirit guiding us, encouraging us, stirring us up, helping us to keep hoping and not give up, who knows what might happen?
The Holy Spirit is like a thread that ties us together.
The Holy Spirit makes you one in every way. –Ephesians 3:4 NIRV
Like this ball of yarn. (Pass around until everyone has hold of the yarn.)
What are some of the ways the Holy Spirit unites us?
We are all connected by the communion of the Holy Spirit.
But there are also many ways in which we are divided. What are some of those ways? (Using scissors, cut the yarn between each person.)
Even though we have divisions, we still have the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised to be with us always, and through him we are forgiven for our divisions. God never leaves us and God’s love never quits.
Just like all these pieces of yarn are different lengths, the Holy Spirit works in us in a myriad of different ways, bringing us together, so that together we continue to sing God’s praises and do God’s work.
As we sing our next song, I invite you to bring your piece of the red yarn forward and put it on this tree as a sign of our celebration of the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
 By Pieter Brueghel the Elder – bAGKOdJfvfAhYQ at Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22178101
 https://medium.com/skyscraperworld/ancient-skyscrapers-76a164015f7f#:~:text=The%20tallest%20building%20in%20ancient,many%20to%20have%20exceeded%20it . https://blog.bricsys.com/tallest-skyscrapers-history/
 By Martin Kraft – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25826160
 By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Alaniaris using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5201133
 Demetrius K. Williams in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Ed. Brian K. Blount, pp.218-19.