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You asked for a sermon on The Tower of Babel; You asked for a sermon on Pentecost


Part One

Anyone who loves Jesus cherishes his parables. As a matter of fact many of us came to know Jesus by means of his parables. We began hearing these stories when we were four years old. At first they were intriguing stories. As we grew older they became moving stories. As we grew older still they became revelatory stories; they revealed the truth of God concerning God, concerning us, concerning our world.

No one dismisses the parables of Jesus just because the parables don’t describe historical events. “A certain man had two sons”, Jesus begins his best-seller about the prodigal. Jesus isn’t referring to an actual historical figure, Mr. X on 42nd Street, Mr. X being a man known to everyone in Nazareth who happens to have two sons. The parable, rather, is a story that Jesus makes up on the spot. Luke tells us (Luke 15) how the parable of the prodigal came to be. Our Lord’s opponents are mumbling and grumbling and grousing and not-so-quietly accusing him of dirtying himself by befriending irreligious people. Jesus, never as stupid as his opponents think him to be, is aware of what they are saying about him. They are faulting him. In order to exonerate himself and the people he’s befriending he spins out the parable on the spot. The parable is utterly fictitious. Jesus makes it up on the spot. It is utterly fictitious, and utterly true; true, that is, in that it tells us the truth about ourselves under God, true in that it tells us the truth about God over us. Wholly fictitious, wholly true. No one denies that the parables of Jesus are revelatory just because they are fictitious.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are parables too. Like the parables of Jesus, the parables in Genesis 1-11 tell us the truth about ourselves under God and the truth about God over us. Then why is it preachers have been expelled from pulpits for saying so, hearers have been crushed or enraged at hearing so, and congregations have been split over it all?

If someone says, “But if we admit that the first eleven chapters of Genesis aren’t historical, where will it all end? What will we deny to be historical next?” If someone advances this argument, the immediate reply is, “But if we ever admit that the parables of Jesus are parables, everything is lost!” This is not a very profound argument.

All of the parable-stories in Genesis 1-11 are profound. One such story is the Tower of Babel.

I: — Our story begins with humankind’s cry, “Let us make a name for ourselves! Let us build a city, and a tower, a tower so tall that everyone will be able to see our tower. As our city becomes famous on account of our tower, our name will be known everywhere. Let’s make a name for ourselves!”

“What’s wrong with building a tower?”, someone asks. “Is there something wrong with creativity?” Of course there is nothing wrong with creativity. God is creative. We are made in his image and likeness. We have an inborn urge to create. To stifle this urge is to impoverish ourselves and to disdain his good gift. There is nothing at all wrong with creativity.

“What’s wrong with building a tall tower, even the tallest tower?”, someone else adds. “Is there something wrong with the pursuit of excellence?” Of course there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence. There is everything right with it. We need to see more of it. After all, we live in an era that congratulates mediocrity. Mediocrity is sin. The pursuit of excellence can only be commended.

“What’s wrong with building a city, the venue of civilization?”, a third questioner asks. “Is civilization bad? Is culture bad? Should we be more holy or more virtuous or more human if we lived in caves and swung from trees and ate bugs and grunted in monosyllabically?” Of course there is nothing wrong with culture. Culture is riches without which we should be humanly poorer.

“Then what is the problem with fashioning city and tower? What is wrong with making a name for ourselves?”

According to the parable the problem with making a name for ourselves is that we reject the name that God has given us. He has named us his creatures. When he names us his creatures he emphasizes both words: “his”, “creature”. He is Lord and life-giver. We come from him, we belong to him, we can be blessed only in him. Because we come from him and belong to him and can be blessed only in him, to reject him is to reject blessing and therefore be stuck with curse.

“Name”, in Hebrew, means “nature”. The name God gives us is our nature. Our nature is to be God’s loving, obedient, grateful, faithful covenant-partner. Anything else is unnatural.

But we don’t like the name God has given us. We are irked by the nature God has given us. Be his obedient covenant-partner? Surely it is servile to have to obey anyone! We want to make our own name, make a name for ourselves. The name we give ourselves will be a better name; it will render us superior.

The problem is, of course, that there is no agreement among humankind as to what this name is going to be. The name we give ourselves will render us superior? Superior to whom? If I find it demeaning to be inferior to God, how much more demeaning do I find it to be subordinate to my fellows! Then I shall have to be superior to my fellows. I shall have to give myself a name that establishes my superiority over them!

And so we set about naming ourselves.

(i) One such name is race. The name of racial superiority isn’t mentioned in polite company, yet it is a name that no one renounces readily. Professional boxing is always looking for what it calls “the white hope”: a superior caucasian boxer who can end black domination of the “sport”. Several years ago when Sean O’Sullivan was in the newspaper every day it was hoped that this Canadian welterweight (147 pounds, the most competitive division in boxing, whose champion is nearly always the best boxer in the world) would become world-champion. The media “hyped” him. The fact of the matter is, O’Sullivan was never in the top 20 welterweights; I don’t think he was even in the top 30. Still, he was “hyped” as a future champion, only to lose in the second round to a black man who has never distinguished himself. Nevertheless, for a few months we had our “white hope”.

All races attempt to make a name for themselves through pretended racial superiority. Wherever black people have assumed power in African countries they have treated brown people savagely. And if you want to commit a huge social blunder and call down someone’s fury on you, simply mistake a Japanese person for a Korean.

(ii) Another such name is harder to describe. It isn’t racial, it isn’t even nationalistic. It is deep-down ethnic. When I was studying in Britain I noticed that war films appeared on TV every week; not Hollywood movies about war, but actual film-footage of World War II: the Battle of Britain, Rommel in North Africa, submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and so on. When I returned to Britain in the mid-80s I saw the same films on TV. I thought this must be unhealthy, since it must surely inflame anti-German hatred. And yet I kept noticing that the British appeared much fonder of the Germans than of the French, when the French had been their allies twice in this century. I was puzzled and spoke of it to one of my relatives. Whereupon he smiled cheerfully as he said, “It’s not difficult to understand why we like the Germans but not the French. The British and the Germans are descended from the same Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic stock. We and they constitute the master-people. But the French are Latins, inferior.” There is no end to the ways we can make a name for ourselves.

(iii) Another name is social class. The jokes about social-climbing are legion. The jokes are legion, of course, just because social-climbing itself is never-ending.

A woman, no longer in our congregation, tore into me one day inasmuch as she felt I hadn’t made enough of her husband’s Ph.D and his work-place position. His Ph.D had elevated him in the work-place. His work-place ascendancy issued in social ascendancy, according to this woman. By not fussing about his Ph.D I was failing to acknowledge his social superiority. Her parting shot was, “You are a phoney. You won’t recognize a Ph.D, but you worship the ground that M.D.s walk on.” (And all along I had thought myself to be rather hard on M.D.s!)

(iv) Language is another “name” we give ourselves. In our saner moments we might think that language-diversity can only be enriching. At the very least another language exposes us to another literature. What is more enriching than this? Besides, thinking in another language is a good check that our thinking really is thinking and not merely the shuffling of cliches. Yet most of the time any suggestion of another language begets suspicion and hostility.

There is a delightful touch in the parable we are probing today. When we have finished building that tower so tall that it reaches to the heavens, God still can’t see it! Our tallest tower, as high as the heavens, we think to have penetrated even the abode of God himself. But in fact our tall tower is such a pipsqueak thing that God can’t see it. The text in Genesis tells us that he has to “go down”; he has to leave his abode, get down on his hands and knees with his magnifying glass in order to see this puny fabrication.

The racial superiority we deem simply obvious; the ethnic advantage that is surely self-evident; the social elevation that declares itself to the world; all of these are so paltry, so puny, such trifles that God has to get down on his hands and knees to see them.

In any case we have achieved what we set out to do: we have made a name for ourselves. But others have just as effectively made a name for themselves too. They are now boasting of their superiority in blind ignorance of our boasting of ours. The consequences are far-reaching. Our story-teller tells us of two consequences. We are “scattered over the face of the earth”; which is to say, there is no community. There are crowds everywhere, but no community. The second consequence is that we do not understand each other. We talk, we listen, we even claim to hear. But we don’t understand each other. We certainly know the meaning of the talk we utter; we know the meaning of the talk we hear. We say we understand others even as we insist they don’t understand us. Everyone claims to understand but not to be understood. In other regards, regardless of the words we understand, we don’t understand each other. Of course we don’t. People understand most profoundly not with their ears but with their hearts. Our hearts are clogged and calcified. We don’t understand each other. But we keep talking anyway. We talk past each other. Our attempt at communicating has become babble. The builders of the tower of Babel can only babble.

Part Two

What is the solution to the “Babel-babble” that is endemic to humankind? Many solutions are proposed, virtually all of them one form or another of social engineering.

One man, a schoolteacher, bent my ear several times about Esperanto, an artificial language whose devotees are attempting make the international language. A common language will undo everything that the parable of the Tower of Babel describes, says this man. Most of us needless to say, find this naive, albeit harmless.

Equally naive, but not harmless, are the attempts of totalitarian states to enforce conformity, including thought-conformity. Citizens don’t appear to understand each other? don’t appear to understand their rulers? don’t seem to know their place? won’t surrender their pretension to individual superiority even as they are told to support a national superiority which finds them dead on battlefields? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet alike insisted that people appear to understand much more quickly when threatened with torture; solutions seem to be forthcoming much more quickly when a gun is held to people’s heads. But of course what such tyrants describe as a solution is actually a brutal manifestation of the problem.

The Ba’hai religionists and the New Age ideologues are touting world-government. Why do they think that world-government is going to solve what governments on a smaller scale have never been able to solve?

The only genuine solution to Genesis 11 is the one that begins in Genesis 12. Genesis 12 begins with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah are promised that through them all the families of the earth will be blessed. Through Abraham/Sarah and their descendants the curse of Genesis 11 will be overturned. Through Abraham’s and Sarah’s lineage there will come someone, finally, who doesn’t have to make a name for himself in that he honours the name which his Father has given him; someone who knows not only that he is the Father’s creature but the Father’s son; someone who doesn’t have to twist himself grotesquely in the attempt at rendering himself superior just because he is willing to be humbled, humiliated even, for the sake of those whose preoccupation with “climbing” is killing them. The turnaround comes fully and finally in Abraham’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth.

The turnaround which Jesus is is magnificent as God’s triumph over humankind’s self-victimization. As magnificent as it is “out there”, as an event in world-occurrence, it is nonetheless useless for us unless what occurs “out there” also occurs “in here”. That turnaround which our Lord is is useless for me unless it also turns me around. Can it do this? Can he do this? Is our risen Lord merely risen (i.e., risen but also ineffective), or is he risen and able, able to turn us away from our self-destroying and neighbour-destroying tower-building and name-making? The event of Pentecost answers this question with a huge “Yes!”. Pentecost, after all, is the incursion of that Spirit who is simply the power in which Jesus Christ acts upon us and within us; Pentecost is the celebration not merely of Christ risen (resurrection), not merely of Christ ruling (ascension) but of Christ reversing and reforming; reversing the curse of the tower and reforming the people who are otherwise fixed forever in the curse.

On the first Pentecost, Luke tells us, there are crowds of people in Jerusalem who have come from civilized lands. They hear the apostles declare the gospel. As the apostles speak and the gospel is declared hearers understand “the great things God has done”, says Luke. Hearers, scattered in places near and far, are alike grasped by what God has done. As they are grasped by what God has done for them, God does it afresh in them. Pentecost is God’s reversal of Babel. In Jesus Christ alone, and through the power of his Spirit alone, people find that they don’t have to make a name for themselves, glorying as they are now in the name that God has given them. They don’t have to invent something like Esperanto in order to understand each other, for now they understand with a heart refashioned by the heart-specialist himself. They don’t have to exhaust themselves in a quest for superiority which only disfigures them and afflicts others. They are content to identify themselves with him who ate and drank with anyone at all and was glad to do so.

Are we still tempted to make a name for ourselves through nationality or nationalism? But Jesus Christ has made us members of his body, the church. And the church, St.Peter reminds us, is the holy nation. Are we still tempted to advertise ourselves as extraordinarily talented at tower-building? But we are now identified with the tower, “towering o’er the wrecks of time”, the cross. Are we still tempted to make a name for ourselves, give ourselves whatever nature we want to have, through that city whose cultural achievements let us strut and boast and sneer? But we are citizens of another city, the New Jerusalem. Not only are we citizens, we are heralds of this new city; we point to it and point others to it, therein pointing them away from those other cities where they trample each other in pursuit of a name that isn’t worth having.

These other cities are many, old and varied. They are Rome, Babylon, Sodom, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, Montreal, Mississauga. Jerusalem is the city that slays God’s prophets and crucifies his Messiah (i.e., Jerusalem is every city inasmuch as it spurns the gospel). Sodom is the city of those whose sensuality will prove destructive on all fronts. Rome (ancient Rome) is the city of admirable cultural accomplishment and also the site of every idolatry imaginable. Modern Beijing is the city of conscienceless cruelty. (Think of Tiannemen Square.)

Babylon is almost in a class by itself. Babylon is the city that gathers up all other cities. Babylon is the city whose paganism grows with its wealth and whose affluence swells only as a blind eye is turned everywhere. Everybody lives in Babylon; we can’t help living in Babylon. But as Christians we aren’t citizens of Babylon. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We belong to the holy nation; we are people of a new name and a new nature and new understanding and a new community.

There is a most important feature of the parable of the Tower of Babel which we must not fail to mention. The Hebrew bible puts forward the tower of Babel as the Hebrew equivalent of Babylon, Babel and Babylon alike being Jewish and Gentile monuments to humankind’s God-defiance. But paradoxically the literal meaning of the word “Babel” is “gate of God”. Bab-el is the gate of God. God meets us at our point of greatest defiance (the cross of him whom we crucify) and by his grace renders it the point of our access to him.

Pentecost is that miracle of grace, that miracle of the Holy Spirit, that wonder at the hands of Jesus Christ risen and ruling whereby our God-defiance collapses just because we are granted access to God. Babylon (“babble on”) is rendered the gate of God, where we hear each other as never before, understand each other, cherish each other, find community in each other — and all of this because we are no longer desperate to make a name for ourselves, but want only to be named citizens of that city which cannot be shaken, the city of God, the holy nation, the church of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost, everyone knows, has to do with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that power whereby the victory of Jesus Christ becomes his victory in us. Our Lord was never driven to make a name for himself in that he cherished the name his Father had given him. He never had to bend himself out of shape by trying to give himself a nature he was never meant to have. He was son by nature. You and I are to become sons and daughters by faith, thereby regaining that nature we have long since forfeited through our building and babbling.

Pentecost means this: the Holy Spirit is the power by which Jesus Christ does in us what he has already achieved for us. In other words, Pentecost celebrates that power by which the wreckage of Babel-babble is turned into the gate of God, as by faith we own our place in the holy nation and in faith cling to him whose name is above every name, above all the silly, false and dangerous names we should otherwise give ourselves.

Victor A. Shepherd
June 1995