Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A New Start – Babel Reversed

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. …Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, …The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, … And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them."...So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth… Therefore its [the city] name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the earth, and … scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Excerpted from Genesis 11:1-9 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.  And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.  And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?
Acts 2:1-8

The story of the Towel of Babel, one many of us have known since we attended Sunday school, has inspired monumental paintings and epic poems.  Its meaning is quite simple: human cleverness gives birth to pride of accomplishment, which grows into arrogance and a desire to displace God.  In the elegantly simple account preserved in Genesis, God confuses the tongues of humankind, and scatters the builders of the tower abroad, to save them from a presumption that could destroy them.

On Pentecost God reverses the process.  In the wake of Christ's triumph over sin and death, the Holy Spirit infuses the followers of Jesus with the capacity and will to carry the Good News to the far reaches of the earth.

With a sound like a mighty rushing wind, the gathered Apostles suddenly begin to declare the great deeds of God in languages other than their own.  Within minutes a crowd assembles.  Foreign visitors hear the message in their own languages, and while some don’t understand what is happening, others become followers on the spot.

Babel is undone, and Peter sees in the wind and flame the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, who foresaw a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out upon many, a new era would begin and God’s New Creation would spread out upon the earth.

These two events, Babel and Pentecost, speak to us at three levels: they present a cautionary tale, followed by a foundational principle of life, and then offer a great hope.

The cautionary tale warns us that there is, within our humanness, a spirit that wants to become a substitute for God.  In our time this spirit encourages us to lay aside the God revealed in Jesus Christ.   We are invited to “reimagine” our faith in ways more pleasing to our individual personalities, or perhaps to fashion for ourselves gods that accommodate our individual quirks and demand nothing we are unready to give.  If we want to be done with faith altogether we can proceed into a totally secular future without any gods.  Paul describes this impulse to his protégé Timothy:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
2 Timothy 4:3,4

Babel's fate tells us that this is the road to destruction.

The foundational principle is that while human pride and arrogance are ultimately destructive, faithful humility and a genuine desire to be of service to God are ultimately honored.  The error of Babel was the people’s desire to occupy heaven, the country of God, and make it over according to their own vision.  By contrast, the Apostles followed Jesus' command that they not begin their mission until he sent the Holy Spirit to guide them in God's Way rather than their own ways.  Their obedience resulted in success beyond all their dreams.

The great hope is that if we resist the spirits of the age, and seek instead to serve the purposes of God, there is available to us wisdom, strength and direction to do more for God than we could possibly do on our own or in service of other gods.  If we seek first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness, the rest will follow, for the same Spirit who descended at Pentecost is our promised Companion until the end of the world.

Howard MacMullen
© May 2013

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