“Babel to Benediction”
May 23, 2010 - Pentecost
“I straightened all your pictures for you.” So said the heating repair man after I’d left him waiting for just a couple minutes in the hallway outside my office. He was really proud of himself and I thanked him sincerely. It’s the sort of thing I might do. I like order. I like the tops and bottoms of picture frames to line up parallel with the ceiling and floor.
You line up everything necessary for a project—tools, materials, plans—and start putting it together. You feel good when the pieces of a new computer or home entertainment system all connect and work, or when the new garden is laid out and all the plants you chose are snugly in the ground. It’s pride, pride in bringing order to the world, pride in doing good work, pride in achieving what you set out to do.
Why then, in our text, does God seem to be against that sort of thing, against basic human pride in accomplishing a goal? What was the big problem with the Tower of Babel? If you back up a verse into the previous chapter, you find that the descendants of Noah’s sons “spread out over the earth after the flood.” Verse 4 of our text says that part of the purpose of the tower builders was that they might “not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” These were people who wanted to stick together, to found a community.
They weren’t just building a tower it says, but a city. They were founders of civilization, of agriculture, of architecture and probably science. They settled down in one place, developed new building methods like the use of brick, and established a culture. They were growing a city that would include law and art and education and medicine and music and writing and literature and all the social blessings which arise when people change from simple nomads to city dwellers. So what’s the big deal? Why was God so upset?
Even if we didn’t wear tie-dye and beads and smoke weed, we in the hippy generation might suppose the problem is civilization itself, the idea of a city as a home for human beings. Young people in Oregon might find it easy to imagine God’s ideal place for us is out in nature, under the sky and among the trees, not huddled together surrounded by concrete and asphalt. Go to the uglier parts of Portland or Seattle or better yet, Los Angeles or Chicago, and you might conclude that cities themselves are seething cauldrons of crime and injustice and sin. The best thing is to get away from such concentrated collections of humanity and breathe free in wilderness or at most a small town.
Yet the Bible clearly shows that God is not opposed to cities as such. When it came time God selected Jerusalem as His own city and declared His love and protection for it. Psalm 122 is a hymn to God’s love for that city. And in Revelation, Scripture ends with human beings living forever not in idyllic meadows of some heavenly untouched wilderness, but in a City which comes down from heaven, complete with streets and walls and gates.
No, God has no problem with cities or with civilization. The problem with Babel was rooted in human attitude and its relationship with God. Verse 9 tells us this place was called “Babel,” connecting it with Babylon. In Scripture Babylon symbolizes civilization opposed to God. But God’s opposition to Babylon is not an “Avatar” like vision of some ideal, primitive life without buildings or industry or science. It’s spiritual opposition to a city based in pride and selfishness and evil.
The problem for Babel was too much of that pride we feel in our accomplishments. In verse 4, the inhabitants say part of their purpose is to “make a name for ourselves.” They intend to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” Their pride went beyond simple self-esteem pleasure in putting things in order and set itself up in opposition to God. They wanted to challenge God’s supremacy, to rise as high as His dwelling place in heaven.
Babel’s inhabitants disobeyed God’s intent for humanity at that time. At the beginning of Genesis 9, as He blesses Noah and his sons, God tells them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” God wanted human beings to spread and cover the earth, to live all over the planet He created for them. Focusing on one city, on one building project, is, for that moment in history, direct disobedience to God’s will. It is pride, sin, human beings doing what they want rather than what God wants.
This whole passage is laid out in a style contrasting God’s desire and action with human desire and action. If you compare the beginning and end of the text and then work inward to the center of it, you see the Lord’s response correcting and opposing the tower builders at each point.
Verses 1 and 2 state that the world had one language, a common speech and that people settled down in a single location on the plain of Shinar. Go to verse 9 and you find that God has confused the language of the world and that He scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Now move inward to verse 3 and you find the city builders saying, “Come let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” and then in verse 4, “Come let us build ourselves a city…” In verse 7 you find God echoing their very words saying, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language…” What they call each other to do is contrasted with what God calls on Himself to do to frustrate their plans.
The end of verse 4 states their impossible dream, their vision, a tower that reaches to heaven, a name for themselves, a unified life together in one place. Verse 6 is not so much a contrast as the Lord’s recognition that He’s given human beings great power. As a single people with one language they very well may accomplish their vision; “nothing will be impossible for them.”
The crux of it all, the center point from which the focus changes from human action to God’s action is there at the beginning of verse 5, “But the Lord came down…” There’s a kind of irony going on here. They’re working on a tower that will reach up to heaven, but if God wants to see it, He has to “come down.” They are in reality nowhere near their goal. They have not reached heaven. God has to “come down” to see what they’re up to.
The very center of this story, the heart of it all, is there in those words, “the Lord came down.” In fact, you could say that every story in the Bible and the great overarching story of the Bible itself centered in that same thought, “the Lord came down.” And, we could say, that this is still our story today, the story by which you and I live our lives as followers of Christ. “The Lord came down.”
Just after this story of Babel God came down to call Abraham and choose a people for Himself. We see Him come down to Egypt to rescue that people from slavery. We see Him come down to Mt. Sinai and give them Commandments to live by. For the last few months as we’ve studied Joshua we’ve seen Him come down to fight their battles and give them a land to live in. As the story goes on we also see the Lord come down to judge His people and punish them, but ultimately to have mercy and restore them to their land.
At the crucial moment and at just the right time, you and I believe that the Lord came down in the most amazing way possible. He came down as one of us, as the Man Jesus of Nazareth. He came down to die on the Cross, to rise from the dead, and to raise us all up to live in God’s City rather than the city of pride and sin.
As we celebrate Pentecost today we hear that same story repeated. The Lord came down. The Holy Spirit came down as wind and fire upon those eleven disciples. They were all gathered in one place and speaking the same language of fear and despair and disappointment. The Spirit came down and transformed them into apostles of the Good News. He sent them out and scattered them around the world to spread the message of Jesus to all people.
It’s been said for hundreds of years that the when the Lord came down at Pentecost He reversed what He had done at Babel. Back then on the plain of Shinar He confused the languages of humanity, made it impossible for us to understand each other through a common tongue. At Pentecost the Spirit undid that confusion, made it possible again for everyone to understand the marvelous message that the apostles were speaking. The diverse crowd there said, “Each of us hears them in our own native language.” Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. There’s some truth in that, but not quite the whole truth.
Though Pentecost is often associated with the spiritual gift called speaking in tongues, Pentecost was not so much a gift of speaking as it was of hearing. What God changed for awhile that day is not what language the apostles spoke, but what those who listened to them heard. God reversed the confusion He brought on the builders of Babel, but He didn’t do it by giving everyone the same language once again. Instead He gave those who heard a gift of hearing and understanding.
Which means that the Pentecostal undoing of Babel is not a mere return to the way things were in a primeval time when everybody belonged to the same race and nation and language group. God never just turns the clock back on our lives. We never get to just go back to the good old days. Instead, He takes whatever has happened to us, whatever troubles have come or problems we’ve brought on ourselves and transforms them into something new. When the Lord comes down it means a fresh start from that point on.
That’s what happened at the Tower of Babel. God could have just wrecked the tower, burnt the city. A couple of well-placed lightning bolts would have done the job. But instead He confused their languages, deliberately divided and separated the human race by language so that in the long run there could arise something new, something more glorious than people all speaking the same language, all working together on the same project.
God meant to unify humanity not by race or language, not by human endeavors like building projects and government, not by our own genius and effort, but by His Spirit. As Zechariah 4:6 says, “‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” At Babel the Holy Spirit of God came down to scatter us across the planet, to let us become all the nations and races the world has ever seen, Canaanite and Hebrew, Greek and Roman, African and Asian, Caucasian and Native American, speaking all sorts of languages and constantly failing to understand each other, so that we might learn that true unity comes only through Him, through His Spirit.
At Pentecost God does not reverse all the differences which divide us. We don’t suddenly have everyone speaking a heavenly version of Esperanto, a universal language everyone understands. Instead we have the Holy Spirit helping people understand each other across the divides, in spite of different languages.
God’s design to bring us back together, to reunite humanity is not to erase all those differences He deliberately allowed to develop out of Babel. We might want to think about that as we watch Arizona take steps to insure that only one language is taught in its schools. We might want to think about it as we Americans travel abroad having never seriously studied a foreign language and expecting the rest of the world to speak to us in our own tongue. We might want to think about it as we consider how we treat people of different races and languages and customs in our own country. Pentecost is the model of God’s sort of unity, a unity that includes differences and by the grace and love of Jesus Christ brings us together in Him.
It’s more and more apparent to me just how important is the Christian doctrine that God is a Trinity, that our Lord is three persons in one God. And if we forget the Holy Spirit, if we don’t see Pentecost as the monumental event that it is, then we are not really believing that key doctrine.
If we focus the light of the Trinity on Babel, we see that what God did there was a step on the way to bringing human beings together in a life like His own. Just as God is three distinct and different persons—the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Spirit; and the Spirit is not the Father—so we as human beings are distinct and very different persons, different in race, language, culture and innumerable other ways. Yet just as the three persons of the Trinity are still one God—the Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God—so we are meant to be one holy people united together by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ, to the glory of the Father.
Just as there is difference in His own being, God made us different, had us speak different languages, learn different ways of thinking, and live in different cultures. He scattered us in cities and places over the whole earth, so that, just as the persons of God are different, yet one, He could gather us back together into one great City that He is building. He stopped us from building a city that reaches to heaven, so He could give us a City that comes down from heaven to us.
We enter the City of God whenever we allow the Holy Spirit to do His new, fresh work of bringing us together across differences. Some of those differences are merely personal, matters of age and upbringing, preferences in music or movies, taste in food or art. Yet many of them are deep, Babel differences of race and language and culture. And the Spirit’s response is not to undo all that. The City of God is not a place where everyone enjoys country-western music or where everybody likes sushi. It’s not a country where we all speak the same language. It’s a grand, glorious combination of differences God Himself brought about. When He came down to Babel to confuse the tongues and separate the nations, He knew He would one day come to down to Bethlehem and to Jerusalem and draw them all together again.
Two weeks ago I was in Chicago on a Wednesday evening after a meeting held at North Park Covenant Church. It’s a hundred and twenty-five year old congregation founded by immigrants and still largely attended by people of Swedish background from our college and denominational offices. Eric and Shelby are moving into an apartment just down the street from this church.
For dinner that night we were invited to stay for North Park’s regular Wednesday fellowship meal held before children and youth groups and various committee meetings begin. I watched as children and families came in from the neighborhood to sit down and eat together. Some of them were far from Swedish, far from white. I saw an African American young man, a couple little Asian girls, and a number of boys that looked middle-eastern. I turned to one of our hosts and she said, “Yes, the most common name in our youth group right now is ‘Mohammed.’”
That’s Pentecost at work. That’s God’s Holy Spirit coming down to turn Babel into benediction, into blessing in which we find a new, deeper unity across our differences and in Christ. May you and I welcome the Spirit and welcome each other and all people into the City of God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj