Pentecost: Out of the shadow of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-21; Romans 8.14-17) [Sermon 05-15-2016, Pentecost 2016)Leave a comment
May 13, 2016 by jmar198013
The manuscript for my sermon this Sunday, May 15, 2016. Pentecost Sunday, Year C.
Credit where credit is due. I’m hardly an original thinker, and this is hardly an original sermon. This sermon couldn’t be what it is without the following sources of inspiration: Vernard Eller, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 34-36; and Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church as God’s New Language,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, 142-162 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001).
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
The wounding and the healing
Pentecost. Where it all began. The birth of the church.
The mighty rushing wind and the fire of the Spirit. The Good News of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace told in the tongue of every tribe and race and hue of humanity.
Yes, it was God’s new thing, God’s latest gift to his people, and the whole earth. A word of healing for a wounded world.
The creation had been groaning for God’s healing gift since the eleventh chapter of Genesis.
The story of Pentecost goes all the way back to Babel.
The prophet Hosea once said that God has injured us and will heal us; he has struck us down, but he will bind us up (Hos. 6.1).
The wounding happened at Babel. The healing began in earnest at Pentecost.
The story really goes even further back than that. Before Babel. The chapter before the Babel story, we meet a real bad dude named Nimrod. Nimrod was a cousin of Egypt and Canaan, and if you know anything about biblical history, that means he’s from a rotten branch of the human family tree. Genesis 10.9-10 says that: The LORD saw him—Nimrod—as a great hunter, and so it is said, “Like Nimrod, whom the Lord saw as a great hunter.” The most important cities in his kingdom were Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.
Read on for the next few verses and you’ll find out that some of his kinfolk also built Assyria and its great city Nineveh. That means Nimrod was hooked into every enemy that ever threatened Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, and Babylon—because that’s what Babel became later on—were all close relatives or direct descendants of this one bad dude, Nimrod.
That’s why you shouldn’t read the LORD saw him as a great hunter; and think it means that he’d always be on the cover of Field & Stream. Brother Nimrod wasn’t that kind of hunter. Nimrod hunted people and nations to conquer. What the Genesis storyteller was saying is that Nimrod was a mighty conqueror the LORD didn’t let out of his sight. Because if God had ever turned his back on the guy, there may not have been anyone left alive when God turned back around.
Even the kingdom he founded—Shinar, where Babel was—had a scary name. We’re not sure exactly what Shinar meant, but every possible root for the name is bad. Shinar meant either terror, rage, or to cast down. Nimrod’s territory was never a safe place.
So it was some of Nimrod’s people, in Nimrod’s brutal land, who hatched the idea to get everyone together to build a tower and storm the heavens.
All people on the earth had one language and the same words, begins the story. When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Now, it’s very important that we know the people were headed east. An eastward move in the Hebrew Bible is almost always a very bad thing. At the end of Genesis 3, after they were expelled from the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve went eastward. After their oldest boy Cain murdered his brother Abel, we are told that he left the LORD’s presence, and he settled down in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Gen. 4.16).
Going east meant moving away from God. Away from Eden. Away from everything that God had wanted for his human creations. Moving eastward meant becoming less and less human, less and less who God created us to be.
According to the first eleven chapters of Genesis, humanity just kept moving further and further eastward—and never looked back.
God had to do something.
The children of Nimrod ginned up all their neighbors to build a city with a tower that would go right on up to the heavens.
The people of the earth—like Adam and Eve had done—decided that it was not enough for them to be like God. In God’s image. They were conspiring to knock God off his perch and take heaven for themselves. Let’s make a name for ourselves, they said. God had created humans to be his representatives on the earth, to manage the good land. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth, is what God had in mind (Gen. 1.26-28). God had placed humanity in the garden to farm it and to take care of it (Gen. 2.15). The root verbs back of that phrase are to serve and to protect. God placed humanity in his good creation to work together, cooperatively, to nurture it, preserve it, and lovingly care for it. To the glory of God.
But the humans had gone east almost immediately. And that eastward drift continued all the way to Babel. The children of Nimrod decided that they didn’t need to fill the earth and master it as God had said (Gen. 1.28; cf. 9.1). No, they’d just cram themselves all together; conquer the earth; and then go colonize heaven, too. Let’s make a name for ourselves, they said.
God knew that they couldn’t actually take over heaven. That’s why Genesis tells us that the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. That’s a little joke, see. They thought they could build a tower into the heavens, but really God had to come down to even see it. Ha ha. No, when God said, now all that they plan to do will be possible for them, it was his way of saying they’d gotten too big for their britches. If I don’t put a stop to all this, these knuckleheads are all going to kill themselves! When he laid eyes on that eyesore of a tower in that cramped city, he sighed and lamented, This is why we can’t have nice things.
Think I’m off-base? Maybe melodramatic? Why, even with God confusing our languages and scattering us across this globe, what have we done? Devised all sorts of ingenious ways to kill and maim each other; defile the earth; and amuse ourselves to death. God knew what he was talking about.
God confused the language of the earth at Babel because he knew that was the most efficient way to stem the ongoing eastward drift of humanity. Now humanity was scattered every which direction—which is what God really wanted, anyway. Fruitful humans, multiplying and filling the earth with cultures and art and music and food and dance and gardens. God values diversity and creativity. You don’t get those when everyone is crammed together thinking the same thoughts, saying the same words.
But of course, we humans didn’t recognize the gift God had given us. We rarely ever do. Oh, yes! Humanity was torn asunder at Babel, no doubt about it. But the tearing was an emergency surgery. I’m sure it was an excruciating experience for all involved. But now human history stinks of the festering wound of Babel. That’s why we have wars and genocides and Crusades and the North Atlantic Slave Trade and Jim Crow and the Holocaust and ISIS.
And we dare not lay the blame for these at God’s feet. He simply gave us the gift of variety, and settled us in new lands. So cultures and learning and creativity and the good life could flourish among the human family, all to the glory of God. We’re the ones who decided to start killing each other over our differences. Seems we all still have a bit of Nimrod in us after all.
Yes, the Good Lord tore us apart that day at Babel. But from the moment he knew he’d have to do that, he always had a plan to stitch us back together again.
God’s plan for stitching up the deep wound of Babel once and for all came together in Jerusalem, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Just a few days after the crucified and risen Jesus went back home to Father God.
Pentecost, by the way, is the Greek name for the festival. The Hebrew Bible called it Shavuot, or The Feast of Weeks. The first place it’s mentioned is Exodus 34.22: You should observe the Festival of Weeks, for the early produce of the wheat harvest. Now, the fact that God unleashed the church during Pentecost is mighty significant. Not to give too much away, but harvest festivals celebrate the crop being gathered safely in, don’t they? Well, God had scattered everyone at Babel. But now God is gathering humanity back together in the church.
This Pentecost, God has come to heal the wound of Babel.
Funny thing, brother Luke doesn’t actually tell us what they preached when the wind and the fire came on them. But he does tell us how they preached. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, Luke Says, and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. And that everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.
And Luke means everyone. The second chapter of Acts reads like a roll call of the nations. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome . . . Cretans and Arabs.
At Babel, God used languages to scatter people to all these far-flung places. At Pentecost, God uses languages to gather them back together again.
The incident at Babel took place because Nimrod’s children decided to build a tower and conquer heaven to make a name for themselves. But now, the kingdom of heaven has come down to earth, and people are gathered in Jesus’ name. And when we are gathered by God’s Spirit in Jesus’ name, we are no longer children of Nimrod. As we heard in our reading from Romans today: All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters.
At Pentecost, the Spirit of God came to call daughters and sons out of the world Nimrod had helped make; into a new creation of God. A new nation made up of every tribe and tongue, every race and hue of humanity. A new people called the church.
United in difference
The reality of living in the shadow of Babel is a world where we’re divided by languages, races, cultures, politics, even how we tell our histories. It’s a world of greed, and conflict, and war. A world whose nations attempt to impose their own wills at the expense of their neighbors.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that when people are determined to move westward—away from the Babels of our time—some of Nimrod’s children will try to discredit them. That happened at Pentecost. And I hope by now you see that Nimrod’s children is not one tribe or race. We all have a bit of old Nimrod in us. Well, some of Nimrod’s folks heard the preaching, but they were still stuck in Babel. So it just sounded like gibberish to them. And they mocked the messengers. Go to bed, y’all! You’re drunk!
But the fledgling family of Jesus’ followers knew that was just the voice of Nimrod, trying to put them back in their place. And Peter—acting as the spokesperson for God’s new family—speaks up and tells the truth.
These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; After all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Using the language of the prophet Joel, Peter explains that what those gathered for this Pentecost are seeing and hearing is a new creation.
A new people united in their differences. A new people whose strength is in their differences. In this new people, God’s Spirit—God’s presence—is freely available to all peoples. Not just one race or color or tribe or language or culture. Nor are these people divided by gender, for both sons and daughters prophesy in this new family. Neither are people divided by class or status; even those considered lowly servants in this world—whether men or women—receive the gift of God’s Spirit, and are empowered to speak and live God’s truth. Age and generational differences likewise are no basis for division in this new people. Young and old are seeing visions and dreaming dreams together. Everyone is learning and dreaming and growing and working together for the glory of God.
This is God’s alternative to a bland world of conformity where there is only one language and the same words. Where everyone is thinking the same, saying the same things, seeing the world the same way. This is also God’s alternative to any one race or color or culture of people saying, Let’s make a name for ourselves. That is, elevating themselves and their thoughts and their culture at the expense of their neighbors.
The church is God’s alternative to what we see in a world that lives in the shadow of Babel. A world where people mistrust and fear each other for their differences. A world that routinely disintegrates into fiery conflicts and violence and wars. The church lives in the world as God’s new creation, God’s new humanity. Gathered together by the Holy Spirit in Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). Although we have been scattered in the world by race and color and gender and language and culture and social status, at Pentecost God began to gather us all into a new family. A family where we learn that our differences don’t have to tear us apart, but can be a source of strength. We all have so much to learn from each other. As God calls us into his family, this new creation, we each bring our particular stories; experiences; ideas; dreams; hurts; hangups; traditions; and perspectives with us. We are never called to leave those at the door when we are adopted into God’s new family. We are called to live and move and work together in Christ; to accept one another as Christ accepted us (Rom. 15.17); and to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4.3).
All so that this world full of Nimrod’s children, living in the shadow of Babel, can see that they don’t have to go on fearing, hating, excluding, and fighting each other over their differences. The church is God’s good news. A unified people made up of every tribe and tongue, every race and hue. A true mosaic of humanity. The church is a people united in our differences, with the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4.6) shining in us and among us. In the hope that others will see that light, and be drawn by it out of the shadow of Babel and into God’s new creation.
About three thousand people were drawn to the light that first Pentecost. Three thousand people left the shadows of Babel that day. Three thousand people showed up that day, children of Nimrod; and came away children of God. Adopted into God’s new family by baptism. And then they set about learning to live together in their differences, without fear. As we heard in our reading from Romans today: You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. God poured this Spirit onto them and into them at baptism.
The end of the second chapter of Acts shows us how they learned to live together:
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)
How did they learn to live together as God’s new people? By worshiping together. By praying together. In awe of what God was doing among them, together. Around dinner tables. Sharing with one another. And Acts says that this new rainbow family—dreaming and eating and praying and working and worshiping God together—demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. That is, people saw that God is good because they saw God’s people living together peacefully. And more and more people were drawn to God’s new people every day. They fled from the shadows of Babel into the light of this new people.
And that’s what Acts calls salvation. That’s what it means to be saved. Not simply an individual making a decision about Jesus. But people finding refuge in God’s family. Not just so they won’t go to hell when they die; but so they can live lives of righteousness and peace now.
That’s still true, you know. Most people in the world aren’t seeking escape from hell. They’re not looking for answers to tricky doctrinal questions. They don’t care how well we can parse Greek verbs. They’re looking to get out of the shadows of Babel. They’re looking for rest. Value. Connection. Forgiveness. Support. Hugs. Coffee. Homemade meals with people who love them. Somewhere to belong. A place to raise their children. Safe and secure relationships. A haven in a heartless world. Cooperation. Acceptance. Peace.
They’re reaching out for healing from the wounds of Babel.
May we, church, be a people and a place for that healing. May our lives and our life together be a sanctuary where scattered people are gathered together again. But not a private sanctuary! No! The world must see us living as a family, a community. A colorful people, of rich hues and textures. A family of differences, unified around the crucified and resurrected Jesus; bound together by the Spirit. Living in peace. Laughing and crying and working and eating and wondering and dreaming together. Listening to and learning from each other. May we show the world how God is healing our divisions.
Oh church, let us be the anti-Babel!