Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone! I hope you get a chance to enjoy the holiday, as well as pause to give thanks to God for all those who are serving our country. This Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the birthday of the church (read Acts 2 for more information). Here is the sermon from Sunday; I hope it is a blessing to you!
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Babel-ing On and On
May 27, 2007
This is a special day in the life of the church. It’s the day of Pentecost, on which we celebrate the events in Acts 2, which mark the birthday of the church. It’s the day when God poured out his spirit on the disciples, just as Jesus promised he would, and those tongues of fire empowered them to go out and continue Christ’s work.
One of the interesting features of this passage is the effect the outpouring of the Spirit had on the disciples. Pentecost was a big Jewish holiday, so Jews from all over the world would have gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate. That is why you had folks Phrygia and Cappadocia and Pamphylia, each coming to Jerusalem speaking their regional dialect.
When God pours out his spirit, on of the things that happens is the disciples start speaking in foreign languages so that the visitors to Jerusalem could understand them. In a sense, God was uniting the diverse crowd through the use of a common tongue. God was speaking their language, so to speak.
To understand the significance of God’s uniting people through language, you have to first understand how God used language to drive them apart, and that is the story of the
tower of Babel
In the last few years I’ve taken up an interest in climbing Mount Everest. Now let me be clear here. I don’t want to climb Mount Everest. You could put a Krispy Kreme store at the top and that still wouldn’t be enough motivation. But I’ve been captivated by the folks who have climbed it, and I’ve read several books and watched movies about their experience. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to stand at the top of the world, at the closest point on earth to heaven.
That is part of what motivated the builders of the tower of Babel to do what they did. The Bible tells us that at this time there was one common language, and the people decided to settle down and build for themselves a city. As a part of doing that, they formed bricks and used tar, both of which were expensive luxuries and were signs that what they were building was of great importance.
What they are building is what we know as the tower of Babel, but what is better known as a ziggurat, which was a common structure for ancient pagan religions. A ziggurat was a pyramid-like structure that served as the religious center of a town, much like the Temple was in Jerusalem. It also was an identity symbol. When our family is driving home from Indiana, as we’re driving along the Skyway we look for the Sears Tower, because that tells us we’re close to home. A ziggurat would have functioned in the same way for a town.
But it had religious functions, as well. On the outside of the ziggurat would be a stairway that leads all the way to the top, and at the top there would be a room with a small bed. Now the ziggurat itself wasn’t a temple; the temple was built right next to the ziggurat. The belief was that the god would dwell in the little room at the top, and descend the stairway when folks were worshipping in the temple. You know how western towns on the frontier would build train stations in hopes that the train would stop there and bring economic benefit to the town? Ziggurat builders hoped for the same thing. If they built it, they hope the god would dwell there and bring them blessings.
So that was probably in the mind of the people who are building this tower. Now, it is often believed that God scattered these folks because of their pride and disobedience, but I’m not sure those are the biggest issues here. People point to the fact that the statement, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” sounds self-centered and prideful. It well may be, but I also think making a name for yourself can be an admirable goal. In the Old Testament times, names were very important and carried a lot of meaning. In fact, in the next chapter, God is going to tell Abraham, “I will make your name great.” Is it wrong to want to leave a legacy and have your name outlive you?
Other people say that the people were being disobedient because God had called them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” and yet they didn’t want to be scattered. But the command is to multiply, which the people were obviously doing. It doesn’t matter whether you have 50 people in one town or 5 people in 10 towns, you still have the same number of people. Besides, God calls us to be in relationship with each other, right? So not scattering is not disobedience to God.
So if the people weren’t being prideful or disobedient, what was their sin? What causes God to intervene? I love how the author describes God’s action. The people are working and working to build this magnificent, towering structure that reaches to the heavens, and yet we’re told that God has to “come down” to see it.” “Aw, look at the cute little building. It’s so itsy-bitsy!”
As I see it, what spurs God to respond is not pride or disobedience, but the perspective the people had developed about God. It’s the idea that God can be bought. “If we build a big enough tower, God will live there and bless us.” The people had made two very wrong assumptions: first, that God has needs; and second, that humans can meet those needs.
In essence, what they were doing was thinking of God in human terms. By bringing God down to their level, they could manipulate and control God, bringing him out for display when he was needed and tucking him in his room when he wasn’t needed. Leigh and I watched the movie “The Queen” the other night, and I see a comparison here. The people wanted a God like a British monarch, someone who was good for show but had little power.
We are susceptible to the same sin. We often think that if we build a big enough tower, or give a big enough pledge, or serve enough people, then God will come down and visit us. We see that in the belief that churches with bigger sanctuaries or bigger budgets somehow have more access to God than others. But there’s not a direct correlation between our success and God’s blessings. Isn’t it true that we often experience God’s blessing the most when we are at our lowest point? Our connection to God is not made through tall towers or abundant budgets; it’s made through our hearts. The connection is forged on the inside, not the outside.
We also fall prey to the belief that we can control God and not the other way around. We love God because we need him, but we sometimes make the mistake of thinking the opposite is true as well, that God loves us because he needs us. We often forget that we worship a God who is “other,” a God to whom we simply cannot compare ourselves. Yes, he is the intimate, compassionate God we know through Christ, but he is also the powerful, majestic God who created this world and who rules the cosmos. God’s power cannot be harnessed or captured in some little room at the top of a tower, especially not for us to use only when we want. We may say to God, “Work your changes for me, but not in me,” but that is evidence of a distorted view of God.
So God, seeing what the tower represented, acts. Notice that he doesn’t destroy the tower. He knows that we would just build another one. Instead, he confuses the one common language of the people, which caused them to abandon their building plans. Building something together can be hard enough when you speak the same language; imagine what it would be like if everyone spoke a different language. And so, linguistic and cultural divisions are formed and begin to proliferate.
Which makes the day of Pentecost so important. Once again God came down, but for the purpose of uniting, not confusing. Through Jesus Christ, God has shown definitely what it means to be loved by him, and what it means to love one another. And when his spirit is poured out on the disciples, they become vessels of his command to make believers of all nations.
They do so because they do not try to control, but instead open themselves up to being led by God’s spirit. Instead of building towers they break boundaries. Instead of making a name for themselves, they boldly speak God’s name. As we celebrate the birthday of the church today, it might be good for us to stop and ask ourselves: Whose name are we promoting? Our own? Or the name above all names, the name of Jesus Christ? “God, work your changes in me, that I might glorify your name.”
1- I took both French and Spanish in my freshman year of high school, but decided to stick with French because (confession time!) that class had the cuter girls. Did you ever learn to speak a foreign language? Which one?
2- What’s one thing you’ve done in your life that you believe will outlive you?
3- What’s one area in your life in which you could give up control to God?
Have a great week!