Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Genesis 11:1-9
Pentecost – June 9, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
If you attended Sunday school or Lutheran elementary school when you were a child, you almost for sure learned this account of the tower of Babel. And of all the Bible stories we read or studied this one about the tower reaching to the heavens seems to stick in our minds because of the vivid and unusual imagery in it. First of all, there’s this tower that the people said would reach into the heavens. But then God came down to look at the tower and didn’t like the fact that the people were building this tower so he scattered them in different directions by suddenly scrambling their languages. The building of the tower came to an end.
As very little children in Sunday school we were told that the people thought they could build a tower that would reach all the way to heaven. So their sin was that they thought they could get to heaven on their own power instead of depending on God. The text really tells us that they were going to build a tower that would reach into the heavens; it would be a really tall tower. Their real sin was their pride and their refusal to listen to God’s command to multiply and fill the earth.
So God did bring an end to their tower building, he may have even dismantled the tower. And then he sent the people off in different directions speaking different languages and becoming the first people of many different nations in the world.
Today is Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. We might wonder what the tower of Babel has to do with Pentecost. Actually Pentecost is just the opposite, the reverse, of the tower of Babel lesson. In the story of Babel God scattered people by means of different languages out into the world. On Pentecost God began to gather his people of many different languages and nations back into one kingdom, into his kingdom.
On this Pentecost Sunday we see that
GOD DISMANTLES, BUT HE ALSO REBUILDS
The tower of Babel account follows immediately on the account of Noah and the flood. After the flood God gave to Noah and his family the same command that he had given to Adam and Eve in the beginning: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.
A number of years pass, and it becomes clear that the people of the earth were not following God’s command to fill the earth. They had one language and settled in one place. And their failure to fill the earth was not just a matter of circumstances or an oversight on their part. They deliberately defied God’s command.
They said to one another, “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.” There’s a lot wrong with their words and actions. First of all, their words are filled with enthusiastic encouragement to one another to build this tower. They used a special kind of bricks and mortar so that this tower would be very strong, very tall, and last a very long time. And so they would build their city around this tower and forever they would be remembered as the people who built the tower to the heavens.
There’s something else wrong in their words and actions and attitude. Did you notice that they never mentioned God? We shouldn’t be surprised. They were completely ignoring God. They were defying his command to fill the earth. They wanted to make a name for themselves. There was no mention of making God’s name great. There was no mention of giving glory to God.
The Sunday school teacher who might have told you that the sin of the people of Babel was that they wanted to build a tower all the way to heaven in order to get there on their own was not completely wrong. With this tower and with their godless attitude they were really telling God, “We don’t need you. We have ourselves. We’ll take care of ourselves. And our name will be forever remembered. Not yours.” Their sin was human pride. They didn’t need to listen to God. They didn’t need God at all.
I don’t know how many years have passed since this incident in Babel. It’s at least 4000 years and probably closer to 5000 or even more. But the sad irony is that sinful man hasn’t really changed in all that time. Actually sinful man has not changed since Adam and Eve sinned against God. Every sinful human heart is filled with pride. Every sinful human mind is hostile to God. Every sinful human heart has a deliberate desire to walk away from God, to defy his commandments, to plan his own life, to reach for his own destiny, to build his own tower of Babel.
Some biblical scholars say that the ruins of the tower of Babel remain in the area of Iraq. That could possibly be true. But they are just that – ruins. History is filled with the ruins of nations and empires and peoples who refused to listen to God and do it his way. A U.S. senator recently declared that people being sworn in to testify at senate hearings would no longer be required to say “so help me God” at the end of their swearing in. That defiance is so indicative of the spiritual direction of our own nation. And even more sadly history is filled with the ruins of people’s lives who have not followed God, not believed in him, not honored him. They went off to make a name for themselves.
What about you? Is God important to you? Do you work to give him glory? Or are you building a tower of Babel? Or maybe you’re partly giving God glory and partly building a tower of Babel, spending way too much time building a tower of Babel. The responsibilities of life, the desires of life, the temptations of life, the good things of life, the pleasures of life too often become our towers of Babel. And all those distractions of life can ruin our lives and ruin our eternity.
Our only hope is that God graciously intervene in our lives and change our course. We need God to dismantle our towers of pride and rebuild lives that glorify him.
God certainly did some dismantling at Babel. He didn’t necessarily dismantle the tower, but he certainly dismantled the plans and pride of the people. We read, “But the LORD came down to see the city and tower that the men were building.” That sentence sounds a little foreboding. Nothing good is going to happen as far as these tower builders were concerned. The Persons of the Triune God conferred with one another: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” And that’s exactly what happened. The text ends, “From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
Fast forward about 2500 or 3000 years. It’s Pentecost in Jerusalem. Hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign speaking Jews scattered out among the nations have returned to Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. It’s been about ten days since Jesus ascended into heaven. The disciples were really hiding, actually following Jesus’ command to remain in Jerusalem until power from on high came upon them. And that’s exactly what happened. There was the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire sat on the disciples’ heads. And they were enabled to speak in different languages so that they had the courage to go out into the streets of Jerusalem and praise God in the hearing of many foreign speaking Jews and other visitors to Jerusalem.
God had dismantled things at Babel, but now he was beginning to rebuild in Jerusalem. Pentecost really was the opposite, the reversal, of God’s judgment at Babel. At Babel he had scattered people with different languages out to form the nations of the world. On Pentecost the Lord God began to bring people of many languages and nations back as one into his kingdom.
We can be glad that the Lord God intervened at Babel and changed things. Actually we can be glad that the Lord God has intervened in all of human history to change our sinful course. He intervened with Adam and Eve in Eden and promised a Savior after they sinned. And ever since God has been intervening to rebuild people’s lives and his kingdom.
The LORD God who intervened at Babel is the God who calls himself I AM. He is the only true God. He’s the God who sent his Son Jesus into the world to die on a cross to atone for our sins. He’s the same God who raised Jesus again from the dead to prove to us that our sins really are forgiven and that eternal life is ours through Jesus Christ.
He intervened at Pentecost and sent his disciples out to proclaim forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus’ name. Three thousand people were converted on Pentecost and after 2000 years the numbers are still being gathered from every tribe, language, nation, and people. You and I are sitting here today because the LORD God graciously intervened in the history of this world, in the history of nations and peoples, intervened in our lives. At some time, somewhere, through the power of his gospel message God found each one of us, taught us about Jesus, and brought us into his kingdom.
Sometimes God has had to deal a little harshly with us to get our attention. He’s had to dismantle our pride in order to build a child of God. And he wants us to more and more leave our towers of Babel behind and to follow him in faith, to worship him, and glorify him – to make a name for him and not for ourselves.
If we could get into a time machine and go back 5000 years to Babel to see that tower I think we would be very disappointed. We like to imagine in our minds that this tower was magnificent, that it would rival the Willis Tower in Chicago or the 2722 foot (half a mile) Burj Khalifa building in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The truth is that the tower of Babel would have looked rather pathetic compared to today’s skyscrapers. It was likely what historians call a ziggurat, a structure of several levels. It likely wasn’t more than twenty stories high.
Human towers of Babel, our towers of Babel, when they don’t give glory to God, are all pretty pathetic and just end up as ruins. Let’s praise God that he dismantles those towers of sin and pride and through Jesus Christ makes us his children. Amen.