May 19, 2013 - Genesis 11:1-11 - Showdown at the Shinar Corral
I have what is probably – pound for pound - the most stubborn dog in the whole world. If I call her name, she’ll come only as close as she must to see if there is anything in it for her: No treat, no coming. When we’re out on a walk, she goes at her own pace. If I tug on the leash to hurry her along, she sits down where she is and gives me a look that says, ‘You must be kidding.’ If I keep tugging, she’ll continue to sit her ground until I actually begin to drag her along. Sometimes, I get so frustrated I just pick her up and carry her along.
I think I deserve a dog like that because I’m stubborn myself and dealing with her gives me a glimpse of how God must feel when dealing with me.
Of course we humans are generally stubborn – we are now and we always have been.
Today is Pentecost Sunday –50 days, 7 weeks, 8 Sundays after Easter when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. But this morning, before we talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit – the universal gift of God’s power, we will talk about another time – a much earlier time, when God spoke, and people could not help but listen.
By the beginning of this chapter in Genesis, Noah’s great ark has landed. It has survived the floods that covered the earth and has come safely to rest with its cargo of eight humans and every kind of animal.
As the left the ark, the Lord told them to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ – spread across the land, subdue it and nurture it as good stewards.
So far they’ve done a good job with the first two commands: be fruitful and multiply, in fact the previous chapter of Genesis was filled with the genealogies of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah. And now, with the beginning of chapter 11, the genealogies are interrupted with this morning’s scripture portion about the tower in Babel.
They migrate from the east and instead of spreading out to fill the earth, instead of spreading out to work as good stewards of the creation, instead of spreading out to population densities that are safe and sustainable; they are still traveling together as one tribe.
But there’s another reason why whey want to travel together as one tribe. When they are all together they can come to believe they don’t need to rely on God because they can just rely on each other.
The people come to the plain of Shinar and decide to settle there. Already they have some technology because they know about brick making and they set out quickly to make themselves at home.
What they choose to do is exactly the opposite of what God has commanded. They stubbornly do exactly what God doesn’t want. They say to themselves, ‘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.’
Do you head the pride, the willfulness: let’s build OURSELVES a tower and make a name for OURSELVES.
That’s the point of tower building – to make a rallying point, a gathering place, a creation that shows their pride and their prowess. Here was a community of people who had survived the great flood, and already they had forgotten who brought them to the new land in the first place.
The tower offends God because it symbolizes pride, exclusiveness and isolation and their desire for self sufficiency. They are creating their own little private world that will keep them from stretching themselves or building new relationships. And most of all, their obsession with the tower it kept them from venturing out in faith.
The Lord comes down – not because God fears they will become God, but because they will – and in fact already are – forgetting about their need for God and forgetting about God’s love and care for them. They think they’ll take care of themselves and that they won’t need anyone.
And so God confuses their speech so they can no longer understand each other. Now they are no longer all one people. Now they understand loneliness, isolation and perhaps even prejudice as they find themselves surrounded by people who can’t understand them.
Fast forward to this morning’s lesson from Acts. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jews from every nation as they come to celebrate the Festival of Weeks: 50 days, 7 weeks, 8 Saturdays after the first Easter.
Once again, they were all gathered together in one place, but this time it is at the command of God. This time, they are engaged in prayer. This time, they understand their reliance of God. Suddenly from heaven there is a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them.
Now they are each filled with the Holy Spirit. Now they are all gifted with some gift from the Holy Spirit. Now they will be able to speak and hear move clearly with the Holy One. Now they will each have a ministry, a work for the good of other people and to the glory of God.
At this same instance, all of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability. The disciples pour out into the streets of Jerusalem and no matter where people are from or what language they speak, everyone hears them speaking in their own tongue. All of these pilgrims to Jerusalem will be able to hear the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and all of them will return to their homes with news of this amazing manifestation of God.
We can understand why the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. Jesus had ascended to Heaven just 10 days earlier. After Jesus left the earth to return to the Father, the disciples were alone. While they remembered the words and work of Jesus, they lacked his power and vision. They lacked his courage and conviction. They lacked his wisdom and compassion.
The Spirit brought them all those things just as it still brings those things to us. We can list the gifts of the Holy Spirit and know how our gift blesses the work of God. We know and strive for the fruits of the Spirit that bring us closer to the One we worship.
But what about that language thing? Why be heard speaking in other languages? Why communicate with those from far away and who we may never see again?
Some of that ‘language thing’ is easy to answer. They and we need to communicate with everyone because the good news of God is a gracious gift of redeeming love that the world needs and deserves to hear.
Why speak in other languages? Sure, it’s because all need to hear, but it’s also true that we must all have the courage to go and say – and the best way to garner that courage is by doing it.
But there is, sadly, another reason. It’s because once again there will be that temptation, that tendency to stay altogether in one place. There will be that urge to stay with people just like us – and yes, even to build our own towers of Babel. There is still the temptation for us to build OURSELVES a tower and make a name for OURSELVES instead of making a name for God.
We still stubbornly refuse to obey God and scatter ourselves into the world. Instead we continue to build towers, rallying points, gathering places, creations that show our pride and our prowess.
Of course today our towers of Babel look different. Humanism comes in many forms as we think we’re evolving and bettering ourselves. But we still need to rely on God. We still need to remember who led us through the flood, sustained us through the wilderness, redeemed from the curse of sin and gifted us for the work of the kingdom.
On this day of Pentecost, as we celebrate the Spirit and join in the celebrating the sacrament of communion, let us come together to celebrate our giftedness and reliance of God – and resolve o go into all the world to share the Gospel of Christ.
© 2013, Sarah J. Butler