The Reversal of Babel: A Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 1.1-9 Acts 2.1-21 John 14.8-17
+ May I speak and may you hear, in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever noticed how the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis are like nothing else in the Bible? They are peopled with characters like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Enoch, Noah and other lesser personages like Nimrod and Methuselah, all of whom are larger than life. Each is the first to do this, that or the other. They each live hundreds of years and begot or sired, presumably, hundreds of sons and daughters. Quite simply in these chapters we are presented with the time before history, the time of giants and of legends; we are dealing here with primeval time--not history. And when you read these chapters as a unit, it is clear that they tell the story of humanity’s progressive corruption, the tale of our increasing loss of innocence. It begins hopefully enough with God’s creation of heaven and earth. And there is the brief period, in chapter two, of innocence in the paradise of Eden, when God walked with man every evening, in the Garden, “in cool of the day.” But first Eve and then Adam allowed themselves to be seduced by the alluring words, “You shall be like God!” And no longer satisfied to enjoy paradise as a gift, they longed to possess it as theirs. Their rebellion meant their expulsion from paradise. If humanity will not receive paradise as gift, they cannot dwell there. That’s the third chapter. The fourth tells of the first murder, Cain slays his brother Abel, and the second attempt at concealing a crime; Cain was no more successful in covering-up his felony than his parents had been. By the time we arrive that the sixth chapter things are so bad, God has decided to go for the nuclear option. The slate is wiped clean--literally. God decided to begin again and only Noah and his family are preserved inside the ark with two of every species of animal. The story of the flood takes up the better part of three chapters to tell, and when they are complete and the children of Noah have begun to re-populate the earth it quickly becomes clear that in fact nothing has changed: Humanity is still infected with deceit, the corruption of evil and all rebellion against God. And the stage is set for the eleventh chapter and our Old Testament reading this morning. Humanity, for all its rebellion and sin, is still united, for they speak one language. And they decide the way to remain united is to build a tower into heaven. They have been expelled from paradise, so they will use their technology to take heaven by storm. You may dismiss the action as one of colossal naivety, but the real issue is that we have not moved one iota away from those seductive words “You shall be like God.” Humanity not content with its lot as a creature demands divinity as its right. The words which the prophet Isaiah place on the lips of a forgotten Babylonian king, are owned by the whole of humanity in the story of the Tower of Babel:
You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14.13-14).
And that last example demonstrates that it is not just Asian despots and fat cat city bankers to make the mistake of thinking that they are gods. Our ambitions may not reach that high, but we, each of us, find it all too easy to believe that we are the centre of our little world, whether that “little world” be our home or our neighbourhood, our office or our department, our company or our parish. Brothers and sisters, let’s be honest: There is far too much Babel in our world and in the “little worlds” of our individual lives; far too much of the confusion which results from human selfishness and pride. And the blame is ours, at least in part.
God’s answer to Babel is Pentecost, or rather Easter which comes to its conclusion in Pentecost. Jesus Christ, the one man who could claim divinity by the right, did not do so. Rather, he chose humility and obedience and love. And his apparent defeat on the cross of Golgotha became a victory which we call Easter. But Jesus himself told us that Easter would not be the end, that Easter would not be complete without Pentecost. He himself promised that once enthroned at the Father’s right hand he would pour out his Spirit on his followers; now exalted to heaven he nonetheless lives in his disciples by means of His Spirit.
And the portrait of that out pouring of the Spirit on the first Pentecost and the enabling of the disciples to speak in all the languages of the Mediterranean world demonstrates that what God is after is nothing less than the reversal of Babel. The confusion, disintegration and chaos of Babel is to be replaced by unity, order and concord. As the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians put it, “the mystery of God’s will” is, in “the fullness of time to gather up all things in Christ”(Eph. 1.9-10). Humanity will once again be united, our divisions will cease, there will be harmony, concord and complete peace. And, what is more, you and I will enjoy divinity, not as a possession and certainly not as a right, but as a gift. Babel will be reversed, paradise will be restored, and we will once again walk with God.
It is the work of the Spirit to fit us and all humanity for that day. It is the task of the Spirit to gather up all things and all persons in Christ. It is His task to bring about the unity, order and concord which is the reversal of Babel. And how does he do it? By pointing out to each of us the confusion and Babel which still lurks in the hidden places of our hearts and minds.
I very much enjoyed and I endorse the sermon Ellen preached a few weeks back in which she referred to the Spirit as the “Dis-comforter,” although I prefer the stronger, at least to my ears, title, “the Disturber.” The role of the Spirit is not just to comfort us, but to shake us out of our complacency, to convict us of our weaknesses and our addictions to luxury and convenience, and to show us the areas of our lives in which we still claim the right to be gods. The Spirit aims to make us like Jesus, and while the end-result will be a matter of great comfort and joy, the means to get us there may be anything but.
The Spirit also enables us to proclaim boldly and with integrity the love and humility of God, as he did with Peter and his companions on that first Pentecost. Both those adverbs are important. “With integrity” returns to everything I have been saying about the Spirit’s role as Disturber. If He does not show us the areas in which Babel still lurks in our hearts and minds and if we do not allow him to do his work of transforming those areas, we will never proclaim the Gospel with integrity. But what about that other adverb, “boldly”? I am afraid there is no escaping from this one, my brothers and sisters. If the Spirit is to fully do his work in us, we must open our mouths and tell people about Jesus. We cannot leave it to the professionals, the bishops, priests and deacons. We must all share our faith. Babel was a disaster and a fall which effected language and speech; and Pentecost is a miracle which effects language and speech. “Alleluiah, Christ is risen! ...” Yes, he is. And if we believe that, then we must go out there tell people the good news that Christ is risen.
You earn no bonus points for deducing that we need not read these first eleven chapters as accurate historical accounts of actual events. But you would be terribly wrong if you thereby dismissed them as simply untrue. Take a good look at our world and you will see plenty of instances of Babel. To mention just a few: The gods of the city have speculated themselves and us into an economic crisis which has touched every nation of the globe and may be with us some time yet; on the Korean peninsula a ten-penny, frivolous little dictator, who demands the worship of his people, seems hell bent on starting another Korean war; and the idols of consumerism and consumption have promised us a paradise of inexpensive holidays in the sun and chest full of toys and trinkets stamped “made in China,” but the culmination promises to be an overheated planet and an environmental crisis of biblical proportions.
The point of the story of the Tower of Babel is that whenever humans demand divinity as our right the result is confusion and disintegration, whenever we try to take heaven by storm, the outcome is Babel.