Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sermon: Unbabbling Babel

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

So earlier in the worship service we read about the tower of Babel. In the Genesis story people are united around a common purpose, they are going to make a name for themselves by building a tower to heaven. They are going to prove the greatness of humanity. So in response, God and the heavenly beings disrupt human unity by giving them different languages and making it so they can’t communicate. The people are scattered, divided and as a result they give up building the city.

In many ways this is a disturbing story. What is it trying to teach us? Not to build cities? Not to build skyscrapers? Why is God threatened by that? It is not as if we can actually build a tower all the way to heaven. Is God afraid of humanity? Is our power so great?

If we look at the interpretations of this passage throughout time, the main interpretation seems to be that the builders were not just trying to reach heaven, but that they were trying to challenge God, perhaps even rebel against God. One retelling of the story has the builders saying, “God has no right to choose the upper world, and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will build us a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it may appear as if it intended to war with God.”[1]

However, another retelling suggests that that it was not the idea of the tower that was so upsetting to God, but the morality of the builders. “The Tower had reached such a height that it took a whole year to hoist up necessary building-material to the top; in consequence, materials became so valuable that they cried when a brick fell and broke, while they remained indifferent when a man fell and was killed. They behaved also very heartlessly toward the weak and sick who could not assist to any great extent in the building; they would not even allow a woman” in childbirth to leave the work.[2]

As you can see, readers for a long time have been disturbed enough by the original story that they have crafted other stories around it to help us make sense of what God does.

But there is another disturbing question that arises from this passage -- if our power is so great as human beings that we can work together to build a tower to heaven, why can’t we learn to communicate around language barriers? Why are we so easily divided against each other by something that isn’t all that hard to overcome? So this passage brings up all sorts of questions. Questions about God, about God’s goodness, about human power, about human division, and so on.

Yet when I think about it, those are some of the similar questions that seem to crop up in our debates around religion, ethics, and even politics today.

When a new technology is created that has great power, people say that we are playing God – suggesting perhaps that we are somehow challenging God’s power. And sometimes the creators of those things do have god-complexes, and symbolically they want to put an idol with a sword on top of their accomplishments in rebellion to God. As if we can even come close to challenging the creator of the universe.

And people still have trouble getting around language barriers – distrusting and fearing those who speak other languages rather than doing the rather easy thing of working together despite the differences.  So perhaps the story of Babel is disturbing because the same problems occur today. It is one of those bible stories that starts discussions rather than offering us answers. Discussions about human motivations, God’s power, and human unity.

But there is also in the bible another story, another situation in which God takes the story of the tower of Babel and reverses it. We call it Pentecost and it is the holiday we celebrate today. Listen as I read Acts 2:1-21

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

    Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

    Even upon my servants, men and women,

        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

        and they will prophesy.

I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above

    and signs on the earth below,

        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

The sun will be changed into darkness,

    and the moon will be changed into blood,

        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Instead of confusing languages, the day of Pentecost, as the disciples are gathered with people from many nations, features a miracle in which God’s power comes on humanity in a new way, and which overcomes the language barrier. Each listener hears the disciples in their native language. And again this leaves us with questions. What has changed since Babel? What are these people doing that is suddenly so acceptable to God that God would undo what God had done before?

The obvious answer to those questions is that Christ has come. It is as though God is saying, the upper world is no longer just for me, but for all of you. But you must allow the presence of my Spirit to fill you, you must follow the teachings of Christ (you can no longer be builders that are more concerned with material things than with human lives, you must grow in your sense of justice and love), and then you may come. If you do all that, you are now ready to work together to build the church, which will be a path to heaven. Which is a wonderful thing, when you think about it.

But here is the problem. We as Christians don’t work together very well.

We are among the people that fight against human unity the most. We are among those least likely to want to work with other nations, among those least likely to trust people who speak other languages. We are like the people on the sidelines who would rather call the disciples drunk than participate in God’s spiritual miracle. We seem to prefer living in the limitations of Babel rather than taking up the miraculous gift of the Spirit which empowers us to change the world for good.

God has called us to reach every nation, to remember that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Everyone. Even if they speak Arabic, or Spanish, or Swahili, Chinese or Russian. But we frown upon that idea. God didn’t divide us, we did it ourselves. Instead of building the church as one united effort, we split ourselves, and we call each other names.

But think about it: If we were to unite, and work together across our differences, around our language barriers, with the Spirit of God filling us, and the teachings of Christ behind us, God would blow like a mighty wind through our world, tongues of fire would touch lives, and miracles would unfold!

The potential of humanity as empowered by God would be unbelievable. Young and old alike would see visions of God’s plan. We would share the dreams, the hopes of God, and the kingdom of God would come on earth as in heaven. And everyone who called on the name of God would be saved.

You see, Pentecost is a celebration of God on the move in our midst, bringing us together for heavenly work. It is time we caught the Spirit, allowed ourselves to be filled, and took up the challenge of building God’s city, God’s community and God’s world.

[1] Gen. R. xxxviii. 7; Tan., ed. Buber, Noah, xxvii, et seq. – cited by http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2279-babel-tower-of
[2] Greek Apocalypse of Baruch iii, cited by http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2279-babel-tower-of

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