Pentecost Year C
June 5th 2022
In the early chapters of Genesis,
stuck between the long lists of the descendants of Noah’s sons
Japheth, Ham, and Shem,
comes one of the oddest primeval stories in scripture,
the story of the tower of Babel.
This story is an origin story. In academia, it is called an Etiological story.
The purpose of origin stories was to explain how things got this way.
How did humans from a single post-flood family come to speak so many different languages?
In only nine verses, the story of Babel explains:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 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; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
That’s it. That’s the end of the story.
The next verse returns to tell the genealogy of Shem’s family.
When Shem was one hundred years old,
he became the father of Ar-pachshad two years after the flood,
Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years and had other sons and daughters.
It is important for us to know that the Old Testament does not
profess to be a book of secular history or culture.
The Old Testament is a sacred history.
Sacred to both Jews and Christians.
The books of the holy bible tell the experiences of the Hebrew people
with the understanding that God’s hand is at work in all things.
We should not get caught up in trying to explain
how people could have lived to be 500, 600, 900 years old.
These stories are not intended to be accurate historical records
as we have in our world today.
These stories and their particular numbers/ages point to lives of significance
Noah was 500 years old when Shem was born; 100 years later
the flood occurred. Shem was 100 at the time of the flood,
and he died 500 years later.
Ancient Israel wrote beautifully with symbolic numbers and symmetry
signaling that some lives were lived with the grace of divine direction.
What makes Shem so special?
Well, he was after all, the great, great, great, great,
grandfather of Abraham.
Similarly, we should not get caught up in trying to logistically
explain the story of the tower of Babel.
Such literal inquiry will lead us to wonder what kind of a God is this?
This God sounds awfully insecure to me.
Instead, we would do well to ask, why would the ancient Israelites describe the diversity of language happening in this way?
“Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower
with its top in the heavens
and LET US MAKE A NAME FOR OURSEVLES.”
It is no accident that the first themes in the bible,
starting with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and moving through this story—the story of Babel, all concern
humanity’s excessive sense of self-importance.
The Israelites knew this is humanity’s biggest problem.
When we are honest, we know this too—perhaps in the form of
conceit or puffed up pride — self-importance is humanity’s Achilles heel.
The story of Babel is ancient Israel’s way of saying
our own hubris, our human attempts to be like God, will always fail.
God has other plans for humanity.
Instead of us needing to reach the heavens to make a name for ourselves, God descends to earth, becoming human like us, to show us who we are made to be.
As many of you know, Rob and I raised our children in Huntsville.
I say we raised them but they were equally raised by the people of the church, their teachers in school, and by their coaches—
our kids played lots of sports growing up.
Rob and I loved to see them swim at meets, to cheer them on at track races, to watch them play basketball and soccer.
Our middle child Jenny is a very fine athlete.
She is tall and strong, fast and fearless. When she was only 11,
her soccer coach wanted her to try out for a club team
so she could compete at a higher level.
Happily, I took her to the Saturday tryout. Dozens of young girls her age were there. I’d seen most of them play and watched proudly as Jenny walked onto the field. I knew she was better than most of them.
She would outshine them.
But I watched in horror as the try out began.
Jenny ran at half speed and kicked the ball with embarrassing lackluster.
At the end of the try out, I said, “What was that?”
“Mom,” Jenny replied,
“I don’t want people to think, that I think, I’m so great.”
I tried to drum it out of her—this lack of wanting to be great.
She loved her sports, and was very good,
but I wanted her to have a killer attitude.
When she started as a freshman for her high school basketball team
We made signs to cheer her on – Go KJ! (Killer Jenny.)
It just wasn’t natural for her to not want to be known as great.
Many philosophers and schools of theology have tried to answer the question, What does it mean to be human?
Philosophy says that the very question itself conveys our preoccupation with being great.
Most often, the answer involves having the characteristic of self-importance –we come by it naturally or we learn it at a young age.
I was trying to teach Jenny the ways of humans.
A funny thing happened. God was trying to teach me, the ways of God.
As Jesus is leaving his disciples he tells them,
“the Holy Spirit…will teach you everything,
and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
This is the very same spirit who brooded over the waters of creation,
birthing life into being.
This is the very same spirit who anointed Isaiah
to bring good news to the poor and bind up the broken hearted.
This is the very spirit promised by Christ
who came upon the followers of Christ on the day of Pentecost,
resting upon each of them with tongues of fire and giving these Galileans
the ability to speak in other languages.
Jews were there from all over the world.
The Holy Spirit urged them to go out in the name of the Prince of Peace,
and spread the Good News.
Pentecost is one of the 7 great feast days of the Church.
Up there in the list with Christmas and Easter.
Instead of the white in which we dress up the Church on those feast days
we put on the Red of the Holy Spirit.
This should signal something different to us.
Not often this Auburn grad wears red.
I’ve heard it suggested that we don’t celebrate this feast day
quite as loudly or happily, because unlike Christmas
which is quietly accepting God into the world as one of us,
and unlike Easter when we come together in church and proclaim the miraculous love of a risen Lord
Pentecost blows our cover.
We are called to go out, not stay in our comfortable spaces.
And this takes gumption, courage, effort.
On Pentecost we are called to ask ourselves hard questions:
Are we willing to be led by the spirit without knowing the destination?
Are we ready to allow the spirit to guide us and teach us or do we have a preconceived notions that drive us?
Saint Paul has a lot to say about this in preaching to the Romans.
By chapter 8 in his epistle after he’s argued his main points, then he turns and says over and over to these new Christians,
“You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness…”
“It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
In other words,
This life is not about making people great, it is about making people know that God is great. TBTG