As I was pondering today’s Scripture readings, I recalled these famous words from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.”
In particular, I thought about those last words – “a time to break down and a time to build up” – and I noted how well they describe what was happening in our first two readings. In the account from Genesis 11, we hear about God breaking down the efforts of his people to build a great city and a great tower. Then, in the account from Acts 2, we hear about God building up his people by starting the construction of a new structure—the holy Christian church.
In the sermon today let’s explore why God decided to break down the efforts of Babel, noting the reasons and thinking about how they might speak to our world today. And, let us remind ourselves again of the wonderful way God built His people up at Pentecost, and how He continues to build up his people today.
Many critics of the Bible like to see the Genesis 11 account as simply a myth made up to explain the presence of many languages on earth. Other critics see it as a polemic against Israel’s longtime rival, the Babylonians. But these critics miss the real points being made in this text.
The key sentence in the text is where the people say: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” These words show that the motivation of the people for building was not pure. Theirs was a self-centered motivation and not one that takes into account God’s commands.
Many years later in Israel’s history the people asked Aaron to build them an idol—a golden calf—because they were unhappy with waiting on God while he spoke with Moses. In the same way, the people who settled on the plain in Shinar wanted to build a great city and tower because they were unhappy with God’s commands to them.
Specifically, God had commanded the people to fill the earth. He said this very directly, both to Adam and to Noah. And, God had commanded the people to call upon his name. He showed this in his acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and his blessing of Seth’s family, who the scriptures tell us “called on the name of the Lord (4:26).” When the people said, “let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth,” it showed that they preferred not to abide by these commands. They had their own ideas.
Filling the earth was an important thing to be doing in those early days. God wanted them to spread out. Note how the end of our text reads: “From there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” God got his way. He was not going to be stopped.
We may wonder why God felt so strongly about this. If anything, we tend to think God wants us to be together. And normally he does. But not at that time. Not when there was a world to fill.
And maybe there are lessons for us here too. Sometimes we want to remain where we are, when what is really better for us is to go someplace else—literally or figuratively. My son is getting ready to go away to college this fall. I love him dearly and would be happy for him to stay at home. Yet he and I both have the sense that what is best for him now is to go someplace else—perhaps for a while, perhaps for much longer. We will see.
Many of us at St. Paul’s would be happy for the church to stay the way it is. But we are told by God to be people of mission, and to seize mission moments when they come around. That means going new places, risking change, for the sake of that mission.
I think also of those great words from Hebrews chapter 13: “Therefore let us go to Jesus and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” You and I as Christians need to be reminded from time to time that we will never be completely comfortable in this world, nor should we place our complete focus on this world—for our true citizenship is in heaven.
The people of Babel didn’t want to spread out. In order to keep everybody together, they decided to make a name for themselves. Their unifying feature, their point of civic pride, would be this great “tower with its top in the heavens.”
There’s nothing wrong with tall towers. And there’s nothing wrong with desiring a little fame. But there is something wrong with elevating our name at the expense of God’s commands. This puts down God’s name, and we know that God’s name is to be kept holy among us. God’s name is holy when God’s name is first.
I mentioned God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and God’s blessing of Seth’s family, who “called on the name of the Lord.” Both of these references are from the very beginning of the scriptures and both speak to the honoring of God in acts of worship. Later this teaching would be codified in the second commandment, which safeguards God’s name among us—telling us we are not to misuse it. Rather, as Luther reminds us, “we are to call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.”
Putting God’s name first means to follow the advice of Psalm 116: “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord.” We are to be children like Abel and Seth—offering sacrifices and worshiping in God’s name. If we don’t, we end up being children like Cain, taking out our frustrations on our brothers, perhaps even killing them in our anger.
I don’t know if there are generally more frustrations in cities or out in the country. I suspect that maybe where there are more people there are just naturally more frustrations. What I do know is that where God is not called upon to ease our frustrations, heal our hurts, and teach us how to live together, then there is chaos and war. Where godlessness and sin reign unchecked there will always be trouble.
Our God knows when it’s time to break down. And, our God knows when it’s time to build. Fifty days after Jesus had risen from the dead, God started the biggest building project ever—greater than any tower that man has ever built. In an act that can be thought of as a direct reversal of what he had done at Babel, God overcame the confusion of multiple languages and brought understanding. Instead of dispersing people in multiple directions he was now bringing unity through a new message.
On the Day of Pentecost, God sent the promised Holy Spirit to move mightily among the disciples of Jesus, just as Jesus had promised. As we heard in our Gospel reading today, Jesus called the Spirit the “Helper.” The Spirit would indeed help the disciples in their great task of building the church. He would help them in many ways, just as he does us—especially as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies.
“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus had told them. They were to do this by dispersing God’s Word of grace. They were to tell, everyone, the message that Jesus Christ was crucified for their sins. They were to tell that God raised Jesus from the dead, showing that the curse of death has been overcome. And they were to share, as Peter did in his Pentecost sermon, quoting from the Prophet Joel, that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
God’s Word of salvation in His Son Jesus is now to fill the earth. It was dispersed mightily on the day of Pentecost and it is to be dispersed mightily by us. That means that we are not to keep it in glorious cities we call “congregations,” nor center it upon beautiful towers we call “churches,” but rather take it to our homes, to our neighbors, to the ends of the earth.
Peter concluded his Pentecost sermon by saying: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Moved by the Holy Spirit, Peter already had in mind the spreading of the Good News to the whole world.
On this day of Pentecost, we do well to remember this too. When the Parthians and Medes and Elamites and all the rest heard the Word of God spoken to them in their own language, it was a sign that God loved them all and wished to include them in a great new building of unity, based on Christ Jesus and the forgiveness of sins.
On Thursday of this week I attended a concert of the Gospel Choir of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. They were in the local area here giving concerts in Lutheran Churches. It was quite the Pentecost experience—first, because I heard the Gospel in my own language, from folks who were singing in a language that was not their own. You see, these Wittenbergers were singing American spirituals and gospel songs. But the language difference was only a small part of the Pentecost nature of the evening. Even more moving was the obvious delight and joy the singers found in singing these words of freedom, of faith, and of future glory. They found a connection with Christians who were an ocean and a century or so away, and through that connection there was help and healing.
When the people on the plain in the land of Shinar built their great city and tower, the Scriptures say that God “came down” to see what the children of men had built. And God “came down” to confuse their language. He did it as an act of judgment, but also to carry out his purposes.
Many years later, God “came down” from heaven to save us children of men. He came as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, Immanuel – God with us. God did this as an act of pure grace, because he loved us, and because the time was right to carry out his purpose of sharing his grace with the whole world.
On the day of Pentecost “there came [down] from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind and it filled the entire house where the disciples were sitting.” God continues to come down today, through his Holy Spirit, wherever the Word of God is preached, wherever the sacraments are administered, and wherever the name of the Lord is lifted up.
May God the Holy Spirit continue to move mightily among us, healing us with the grace of God and moving us to fill the earth with the message that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.