Texts: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-10
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Jun. 4, 2017
I love today’s Old Testament reading. It is a strange story. It occurred at a time, the writer of Genesis tells us, 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 that would keep them together lest they scatter. The writer then informs us that God was not pleased with their plan and decided to confuse their language so they could not understand each other. Because they could not understand each other, they would scatter to the four corners of the earth. Thus, their decision to build the tower had the very opposite effect than they intended. Why would God be so upset? What does it have to say to us today? Why would this passage be read on the Feast of Pentecost?
To answer this last question first, 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 his 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 Pentecost, although the apostles spoke in languages they did not know, peoples from all nations understood all they said about 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 another example where we seek to replace God, by 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.
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.
In the days when I was a seminary professor, I would often ask my students who were taking my courses in in Church history to “compare and contrast” two events that took place at different periods of history. One question I asked was: “compare and contrast the 19th century abolitionist movement with the 20th century civil rights movement.” Another example was: “compare the first Vatican council in the 19th century with the second Vatican council that took place in the mid-20th century. Additional insight is gained when these paired events are compared as well as when they are seen in contrast.
Let’s see how this works when we not only contrast Babel with Pentecost but compare it as well. In showing the contrast, I set the two stories against the backdrop of the fall of humankind, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Babel, in this case, is an example of humankind’s continued rebellion against God. Just as Adam and Eve were punished by God by being banished from the Garden of Eden, the people of Babel are punished by the confounding of languages and a further scattering and alienation. Pentecost, on the other hand, is understood to be part of God’s plan of restoration and reconciliation. Easter is the event that reconciles humankind from alienation with God, and Pentecost is the point where we are empowered by God to accomplish His purposes.
When we compare Babel and Pentecost, however, we need to look at both events against the backdrop of creation story in Genesis chapters 1 & 2 rather than the fall. In the creation story, God created 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 a diverse 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 that so angered God was their motivation. Do you remember what they said? “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.” It was the very opposite of what God intended. 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. We keep looking for the fountain of youth. We want to forget that this world is ultimately not our home.
So, when the people at Babel act, God counteracts. But is it really 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.
What new insight do we gain when we look at Pentecost from this point of view? As we saw at Babel, we see people gathering together. In response, God comes down. Confusion is said to ensue as the disciples begin to speak with many tongues. When we continue reading in the book of Acts, the disciples leave Jerusalem and scatter to the nations or in the words of Luke: “from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria to the utter parts of the earth. Out of the chaos comes 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 and 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. A new era begins.
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 four.
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. 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. Here in Naples, each year He brings us together for a season, and then sends us forth throughout North America. 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. 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.
D. Finally, when the Spirit descends upon us, something unexpected always happens. Who knows what plans God has in store for us, just around the corner!