Biblical Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
It almost has the makings of a strange football game. The kind of game where one team has a zero percent chance of winning, where you wish that team would have just stayed home that day. The two teams meet out on the field in the land of Shinar. One team’s rallying cry is “Come, let us build ourselves a city!” The other team shouts out, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language!” The rumble is about to begin. They break from their huddles and one team runs off the field in confusion; the game is over before the teams even hit the scrimmage line. Thus ends the Tower of Babel faceoff.
At its most basic level, the Tower of Babel story is one of God versus humanity. It is the kind of story we do not like to hear. We have the whole earth lined up on one side and the Lord, with the heavenly council, lined up on the other. The Biblical stories usually have at least one hold out on the human team like Noah or Moses who help humanity make things right with God. Or the Bible names the villain, like Satan or Caesar, someone we can point our finger at and blame for all the problems. But with the Tower of Babel, we have only to point at ourselves.
When we start reading this story, we may wonder why God’s actions seem so harsh. The story starts innocently enough. The people start making bricks, no big deal. Then they want to build a city with a lofty tower. There is nothing wrong with wanting to build a city to provide security and safety, is there? Then we are told their motivation and the fear behind it for making the bricks and the city: “Let us make a name for ourselves so we are not scattered cross the earth.” This is what get’s God’s attention.
In wanting to make a name for themselves, they turn from God in seeking their security. In building a city on their own to keep their unity, they loose their unity with God. They look to the heavens and desire to build a lofty tower, not because they want to glorify God, but because they want to glorify themselves, they want to make a name for themselves, they want to be god. They put their hope in themselves, not in God.
We fall into the trap of wanting to make a name for ourselves so our fears can be relieved. We actually live in a time and culture where we are told we can make a name for ourselves, get everything we could ever want, and then never fear for want of anything. Get the right degree, earn enough money, climb the ladder of success, and you will make a name for yourself. Society puts great pressure on individuals to prove their worth through personal achievement. They have to build and climb their own tower of Babel and make a name for themselves. Individuals must win, be on top, to show that they are one of the best.
Timothy Keller, in one of his recent books, describes what was happening at Wake Forest University. “…A disproportionate number of young adults have been trying to cram into the fields of finance, consulting, corporate law, and specialized medicine because of the high salaries and aura of success that these professions now bring.” But because these students went into these professions because of the income and security that was promised and not because it was a field they were called to or even liked, their jobs have not been fulfilling. They are building a tower that goes no where.
The Tower of Babel is a story of rebellion against God and God’s judgment on humanity for turning their back on the one who could really make them secure. But on a more profound level, we do not have a God who wants to be against us. We have a God who wants to be with us. God with humanity. The people of Babel’s goal was to make a name for themselves to ease their anxieties and fears on their own. They are incapable of doing that without God. We are incapable of doing that without God. They saw it as a project they were to pursue, independent and counter to the gifting of God.
God is the only one capable of the granting of a name by which humanity’s fears might be eased, and around which humanity’s necessary unity might be achieved. And that name is Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God has moved to the other side of the scrimmage line. Humanity’s goal of reaching the heavens is impossible when we try to achieve it on our own. In Christ, God reached down to us. In Christ, God became one of us.
Last week, Laura told us how the Ascension of Christ lifted all of humanity to be in communion with God, the goal that the builders of Babel were trying to achieve, the goal in which they failed. It is a goal that only can be achieved by God’s action with us in Christ. Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day a new rumble begun. It started in that room in Jerusalem and it sounded like a violent wind. It was the sound of the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to the community of gathered believers.
It was the gift of the Holy Spirit resting on each believer, like tongues of fire. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit giving each one the ability to speak in different languages. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit as God gave them a new name, the church, the Body of Christ active and alive in the world.
Pentecost is the breathtaking reversal of the story of Babel, when proud humanity was divided by the plurality of languages because of their wanting to make a name for themselves. Pentecost represents the in-breaking of God’s purposes for all humanity, bringing humanity together in understanding, despite their differences. Michael Jinkins puts it this way, “Even as Genesis begins with the stunning good news that humanity was created in the image of God and our highest purpose lies in trusting God—a trust violated in inappropriate self-confidence and independence at Babel—Pentecost tells us the good news that our humanity, ruined and distorted in our distrust, has been restored in Jesus Christ.”
The good news of Pentecost is we have received the same Spirit that was in and with Jesus Christ. The same Spirit that settled on him at his baptism, the same Spirit that was with him in the wilderness, the same Spirit that led him to serve the poor, heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, and reach out to the outcast, that same Spirit that was with Jesus Christ during his entire earthly ministry is now in and among us. The Spirit that filled his life, that united him to God the Father and empowered him to be fully the human image of God, is now shared with us.
Peter’s sermon reminds us of the promise of God that the Spirit, the living presence of the eternal God, would pour down upon all humanity, and “then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It is in the pouring out of the Spirit upon us that God gives us a new name. We no longer have to attempt to make a name for ourselves, we can’t. In the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, God gives us the name of the church, the body of Christ in the world.
It is in the given to us of that name that we become the hands and feet of Christ. The Spirit leads us to reach out to the outcast, the poor, the needy, and the homebound. The Spirit calls us to feed the hungry. The Spirit bids us to come and proclaim the good news; that those who call upon the Lord will be saved. The glorious day of the Lord that Peter proclaims has dawned in Jesus Christ.
Friends, it is the joyous celebration of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit rumbles through this house in which we gather. It is that Spirit that draws us together to glorify God. It is that Spirit that makes us the church. It is that Spirit that at table unites us with Christ and to each other, to sustain and nourish us. It is that same Spirit that sends us out, God always with and in us, as we go into the world to do the work Christ has called us to do. God has given us a name, the church, the body of Christ; so that we can go do all things in whose name all hope rests, our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is in his mighty name we pray, Amen.
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 79.
 Michael Jinkins, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3, 16.