Today’s sermon is about two stories. The first one is the story of the Tower of Babel found in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament and the second is the story of Pentecost as told in the book of Acts in the New Testament. Both stories tell us something about God and something about us.
The Tower of Babel story reminds me of many Native American stories that explain why something came to be in a pre-scientific world. It can be used to explain why there are different languages and cultures that spread throughout the world. But beyond reading this an anthropomorphic story to explain something there are some theological lessons to be learned.
In the Genesis story all the people live near each other and speak the same language. They decide to build a city with an extremely high tower. The humans say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let make a name for ourselves.” They choose to create an idol of the tower rather to be in an appropriate relationship to God.
God, observing this development, decides to thwart the building as a threat and insult to God’s power and authority. So, God creates many languages and the people spread to different regions and create different cultures.
Professor Leanne Van Dyk, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, describes the story of the tower as “an act of foolish pride by an arrogant community.” Dutch painter Pieter Bruges sees the tower-building as a way that people became separated into upper and lower classes. His painting of the tower portrays a tall spiral structure that pierces the clouds with smoking brick furnaces in the background and exhausted workers in the foreground. Van Dyk suggests the painting portrays overlords and slave in a class-oriented society.
Further she suggests that the painting shows the error of the idea that one culture or race is inherently superior. As an example, she describes the racial separation and prejudice that dominated human relations in South Africa until Desmond Tutu refuted the idea of apartheid. And in the early 1990s, the Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar Confession. (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Lent through Pentecost, Year C, Volume 2, p.320).
Out of the apartheid movement came the most recent of our theological standards, The Belhar Confession, which originated in South Africa, which affirms this equality of all people under God.
The problem illustrated in this first story of the the Tower of Babel is that the people thought they were equal to God and could control God. The story shows the frailty of humanity when in we are in competition with God and disunity with each other.
The New Testament story in Acts which tells about Pentecost, on the other hand, celebrates a barrier-breaking moment when God spoke through whatever means necessary to communicate the good news. It was 50 days after Christ’s resurrection and about a week after Christ’s ascension. The city was full of visitors who had come to celebrate the sacred festival. The disciples, with other Jews from all over had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest festival, the Feast of Weeks. There were people of all nationalities and languages, Persians, Jews, Africans, Asians and Romans. The list of ethnic identities represented in the crowd is the terror of most laypersons and even clergy readers. And into this crowd, the Holy Spirit came. It was a surprise! Jesus had not told the disciples exactly when the Holy Spirit would come. The scripture says, When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” Probably they were all together simply because they were good Jews celebrating a Jewish festival. Suddenly, however, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house. And they saw what seemed like tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each of them. Then the author of Acts says “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Notice that they were not speaking in unknown tongues. They were speaking in known languages of other nations.
Miraculously, God’s word came to them on that day in a way that affirmed God’s desire for unity in the midst of diversity. In this new world differences would no longer keep them apart.
The apostle Peter, quoting the book of Joel, speaks of sons and daughters, young men and old men, slave men and slave women all coming together to proclaim the name of Christ, crucified and risen. (Acts 2:1-21).
The events of Pentecost are an inversion of the story of the Tower of Babel, a reordering of the chaos that ensued when people became separated from God and from each other. Thus, Pentecost may be seen as God’s revision of troubled story of an ancient people into a divine promise for the newborn church.
So today we hear two old stories and I wonder how they relate to us today.
I see two important lessons from these stories. First there is the issue of control, all the people who gathered at Babel wanted to get control of God and of their territory. Control is perhaps one of the hardest things to surrender to God, and we sometimes try too hard to be in control of every aspect of our lives and often other people’s lives. However, there are times, many times when we are not in control and have no control over situations. Those are times to surrender control to God, to trust God with acceptance, courage and wisdom. That’s a good time to say the familiar serenity prayer. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Let God be in control and not us.
The other theme that comes up in these passages is inclusion. God invites everyone into the family of God. By this inclusion, the church was to grow and expand throughout the world that God loves. Jesus came to teach us about God’s unconditional love. That’s why the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on Pentecost and inspired Peter’s preaching.
Pentecost affirms God’s keeping of the promise to love the whole world. God welcomes all into the beloved community of Christians. At that first Pentecost, the disciples were faithful to the vision of how God works through the the power of the Holy Spirit to gather us together into a diverse community of love and faith. Today let us celebrate God’s incredible inclusive love for the whole world, on this birthday of the church. Please pray with me.
Thanks be to you, most high God, for the Holy Spirit who moves us to prophesy, see visions and dream dreams of your purpose for us and the whole creation. We are weak, O God until we find our strength in your love. We join our sighs, too deep for words with the groaning of your whole creation awaiting your redemption. Thanks to you we wait in joy because we await not the fulfillment of our wishes but the fulfillment of your promises to us in Christ. Bind us together in unity with all your people that we may serve you. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.