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Pentecost: compare and contrast with Babel

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-10

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Priest-in-Charge

May 24, 2015

Introduction

My kid brother really knows how to hurt a guy. Last year he sent me a birthday card which read: “When you were born, doves soared through the air, sunlight poured down from the heavens, and the animals of the earth rejoiced. Then Noah walked out of the ark and said, hey it looks like its going to be a nice day!” That happens, I guess when you turn 70.

My brother’s card got me thinking about Pentecost. Not that Noah has anything to do about Pentecost except that it happens to follow the story in Genesis about the tower of Babel, today’s Old Testament lesson. It was a time says the writer of Genesis when all the people in the world spoke the same language.

They decided to build themselves a city and a tower that would reach to the heavens so that they would have a focal point and keep them together lest they scatter. Now the writer of Genesis says that God was not pleased with their decision and decided to confuse their language so they could not understand each other and they all scattered.

It is a strange story. Why would God be so upset? Does it have anything to say to us today? Why would it remind me of Pentecost?

I.

For centuries ministers have preached on this text on Pentecost Sunday. The Day of Pentecost is usually portrayed in these sermons as the day that God reversed the action at Babel. It is easy to see why. If Babel was the place where God confounded the language of the people so they could no longer understand each other, then at Pentecost the apostles spoke in languages they did not know but peoples from all nations heard them and understood the great and mighty works of God.

From Babel God scatted the people to the ends of the earth. At Pentecost, people were gathered at Jerusalem from the ends of the earth and experienced a new unity. At Babel a human dream died. At Pentecost a divine vision was born. Babel was the human city where people were going to build the first sky scrapper right up to heaven itself. Pentecost points to the day when a divine city, the New Jerusalem, will descend from heaven and peoples from all nations and ages shall come to dwell.

Such a study of contrasts is painted against the backdrop of the fall of humankind. Babel is seen as another example where we seek to replace God, putting ourselves on the throne. God punishes this human pride. Pentecost in this reading is understood as part of the divine plan to restore us our rightful place as daughters and sons of God.

II

There is, of course, much truth in this interpretation. I want to suggest to you this morning, however, that this focus on Pentecost as God’s great reversal of Babel does not exhaust the meaning of these biblical texts.

When I gave my students in Seminary their final church history exam, often I would ask them to “compare and contrast.” “Compare and contrast the 19th century abolitionist movement with the 20th century Civil rights movement,” for example. Or, “compare the first Vatican council with the second Vatican council. Additional insight is gained when these paired events are compared as well as when they are seen in contrast. Likewise additional insight seen When Pentecost is compared with the story of the Tower of Babel.

To fully appreciate this we must place both events against the backdrop of creation rather than the fall. When God brought order out of chaos it is clear that He wanted variety and diversity. When he created Adam and Eve, He told them to be fruitful and to multiply and to fill the earth. The move out of the garden, which followed the fall, was already anticipated in this command. Their children were to scatter and have dominion over the whole of creation.

Again, after the flood, God gave Noah and his family the same command. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Seen in this light, the “sin” at Babel was their motivation. “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” And isn’t this our constant temptation? We want to settle down. We want roots. We like to forget that we are called to be a pilgrim people, that this world is ultimately not our home.

The people at Babel act. God counter acts. But is it punishment? Certainly their purposes were frustrated. But it also serves to accomplish God’s purposes, to scatter the people that they might fill the earth.

III

And so we come to Pentecost. As at Babel, we have people gathering together. In response, God comes down. Confusion is said to ensue, and the sequel to the story is a scattering to the nations. Here we have a new creation. Just as God had formed humankind from the dust of the earth and breathed into them the breath of life, so now comes the fresh wind of the spirit, as God brings to life a new creation in the birth of the church.

Once fearful cowardly disciples are transformed into a new order of humankind, boldly and powerfully proclaiming the vision of God. They are given both ears to hear and tongues to speak. Diversity is not reversed but rather is celebrated as everyone hears the great and mighty works of God proclaimed in their own language. And so a new eon begins.

Still there is a lingering. It is not until persecution comes to the church in Jerusalem, that the new Christians begin to scatter, and begin to fulfill the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

IV.

What then are the lessons we are to draw from these texts on this observance of Pentecost? Many can be made. I will hold up but three.

A. First, I believe we are called upon by God to celebrate the unity that we have in Christ by affirming our diversity. As individuals, as denominations, as ethnic groups, as nations, as cultures, we are not to be reduced to uniformity. Our unity in Christ comes in the mist of such variety. Both the unity and the diversity are gifts from God.

B. Second, we are called upon to listen. With the coming of the spirit at Pentecost, we are promised that in the community of faith we will be given the ability to understand each other. But it means that we must be given ears to hear as well as tongues to speak.

C. Finally, we are called upon to rejoice when we hear the spirit say, “Set apart for me a Barnabas or a Saul for the work to which I have called them.” St. Luke records that after fasting and prayer the elders at the church of Antioch laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them off.”

We live in a mobile society. It is difficult if not impossible for us to sink roots in any one place. We make friends, and then they move on. This is not easy for us. The longer I live, however, far from seeing this a bad thing, I have come to recognize this as cause for celebration, as way life that forces us to live life at its fullest. It means that at the deepest level, we must place our faith and trust in God. If, like the people of Babel we misplace our trust in our ability to sink our roots, or build our towers, yes even our church towers, we will ultimately misplace our heritage. Instead of being an open, loving community in which the stranger is welcomed and diversity is cherished, we will become a closed society, uniformity will be imposed, isolation will set in and we will become alienated.

The Lord has many ways of sending us out, new jobs, new mates, new stages of life.

As it comes time for each of us to go, may we be sent on our way rejoicing in the knowledge that new ministries new possibilities await us as we leave, And for those of us who remain may we come to the full realization that still others will receive the call to come join with us to share in the mission of this community of faith as well.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.