Text: Genesis 11:1-9
Date: The Day of Pentecost + 5/15/16
At first the connection between the Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost may seem obvious. At Babel God confused the one language and same words of people and at Pentecost God’s Word broke through the division of languages to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ the Savior of the world. A closer look however reveals our own need of deliverance from sin and the great love of God who delivers us. To this end we prayed the Alleluia Verse on this day, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.”
Our Old Testament reading is from the last chapter of what I call the prologue of the First Book of Moses commonly called Genesis. That is, the first eleven chapters of Genesis paint the picture of creation in broad brushstrokes describing a list of “firsts,” the first man, the first woman, the first fall into sin, the first sacrifice for sin, the first promise of a Savior, the first murder. We’re told of the increase of sin and corruption, then the flood of God’s judgment and the Noachian covenant and finally this answer to the question of the plurality of languages. With chapter twelve then and the call of Abram begins the history of salvation. For it will be of the long line of the descendants of Abraham that the promised Savior would come.
But the story of Babel tells us much more than of the confusion of language of all the earth. It reveals our sin, the sin of selfishness, the sin of pride, the sin of attempting to live apart from God on our own terms.
I was surprised that one old commentary on Genesis estimated that at Babel the entire population of the world would have been at least about 30,000 people, about the size of Port Huron, Michigan!
Now there’s no way of knowing what the one language was with which people communicated. Human language is the communication of thoughts, concepts that begin in the mind. Whatever it was however was understood by everyone. We would naturally imagine that everyone speaking the same language would be a good thing, helpful to promote understanding and positive social progress. But remember that sin and disobedience to God was also the common possession of all.
Now there’s nothing wrong with making bricks or building a city with a tower. It was their motivation or reason for doing so. Their stated reason reveals their awareness of God’s displeasure saying, “let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” History is overflowing with examples of people “making a name” for themselves. Most of the time the pride or egoism is obvious and quite often reveals evil and not positive intentions. I suspect there are more infamous than famous in the history of the world.
It was not solely because God was angered by the people’s sin but also because of His deep redeeming love that God first diagnosed the situation. “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower.” These people, just like all people today, were created by God to be the children of God. It was because of the separation of sin that they are here called rather “the children of man.” The Lord noted the peoples’ unity and oneness but not in a positive light as He said, “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” God has built in amazing abilities and ingenuities in the human spirit. Just review the history of exploration to new lands and now even into space, or the increasing technologies of communication, production of food and goods and in medicine. But for all this progress and accomplishment the Bible said already in Genesis 6 before the great flood, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). “Only evil continually.” This is what is referred to by the doctrine of original sin as concupiscence, “the inner uncleanness of the nature of men,” “not being able to fear and love God,” “seeking carnal things contrary to God’s Word” (Apology Art. II). All people, all have sinned, all are sinners every day from beginning to end. We have seen and continue to see in our day the rank growth of wickedness all around.
The judgment of God against sin and at the same time the love of God for people intended to be His children came as God caused among them confusion so that they could not understand one another’s speech and they were scattered, “dispersed from there over the face of all the earth.” Their previous unity in one original language was lost.
The miracle of the Day of Pentecost is God’s Word breaking through all division and confusion, translated so that His thoughts and intentions are intelligible to all the redeemed. In Christ’s death and resurrection sin with its consequences has been overcome, even extinguished by the power of the grace of God. In Christ the love of God is discovered, known and to a limited extent understood.
That saving love says Jesus in today’s Gospel goes both ways. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Unlike that first Pentecost Day and the other special miracles by which the first disciples were to make the major discovery of Abraham, that is, that by his seed “all the nations” will be blessed; that all the history of God’s people in the Old Testament has come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ crucified and risen; that salvation comes through the Jews to all the world; what Jesus meant when He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18-19); God the Holy Spirit since then prefers to operate in the quieter, invisible, hidden form of Word and Sacrament, the means of grace. Oh, it’s still a spectacular miracle when an ungodly sinner is converted and is made able to say, “I believe”! But no longer required are signs and sounds like a mighty rushing wind, tongues as of fire, speaking in tongues; only the Word of God preached, read, taught, sung, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion in the fellowship of Christ’s body, the Church.
By the gift of God’s Word and Spirit, even across ethnic divisions, there is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, the Holy Church throughout the world, speaking one language of peace. So we say to one another and to the world, “Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins.”