Sunday, May 23, 2021

From Babel to Pentecost

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III


Texts: Genesis 11:1-11, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:7-18

Unity for its own sake, our ever pervasive human attempt to "build ourselves a city" and “make a name for ourselves,” is a foolish endeavor that will always end in the very chaos, confusion, and division it ostensibly sought to prevent. The "Human City"—the "City of Man," the "Fallen City"—and its essential nature are epitomized in the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. The late M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. [Revelation: Holy Living in an Unholy World, 1990] writes at length about its four essential elements.

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.

, the people say, “Come let us build a city for ourselves.” Here is the human-centered context for the city in which human purposes, human desires, human will are the motive power of its creation. Here is a human-created structure for life in which human-generated values and principles are the dynamic of existence. Here is humanity operating as though it were the source of its own existence. This is the essential foundation of the Human City.

Second, the people say, “Let us build a tower with its top in heaven.” Here is the human recognition of the reality of God and God’s realm of existence. Here is the human awareness that God and God’s realm are somehow vital to human existence and the human attempt to include the reality of God and God’s realm into their structure of life, but on their own terms! They seek to bring God and heaven into their structure of existence as a part of their own self-generated agenda. This is the essential character of the Human City.

Third, they say, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” Biblically, “name” has to do with the essence of what is being named; “name” has to do with the nature of being. This is why, after biblical persons have character-transforming encounters with God, their names are changed. Here is the confirmation of the interpretations given above, human beings are attempting to determine the structure of their own nature. Here is humanity seeking to create itself in its own image, to determine its own being and doing. This is the essential purpose of the Human City.

Fourth, underlying the whole activity of building the city is the fear, “lest we be scattered.” Here is the human recognition of the loss of center, the awareness of what happened when Cain went away from the presence of the Lord. Here is the human sensitivity to the fragmentation and brokenness that results when life has no center of wholeness, no focus of unity. Here is the human predicament when life has lost its true meaning, value, and purpose in God. To overcome this experience of deep alienation is the essential impetus of the Human City.

Thus the effort to build a city is the human attempt to substitute its own structure of life for life with God; the human attempt to substitute its own meaning, value, and purpose in place of those for which God created humanity. The final state of that city is that “they left off building the city.” Their self-generated attempt to avoid being scattered is thwarted by the inexorable reality of God’s sovereignty over human life. They experience the scattering that they are seeking to avoid. Their very activity itself becomes the cause of their scattering.

The Human City, therefore, is always an incomplete city; always a city that experiences the very brokenness and scattering it seeks so desperately to avoid; always a city seeking to construct a context for life on its own terms; always a city seeking to establish its own parameters of meaning, value, and purpose for human existence. The dynamics of this city are expressed in various ways in the Bible. Paul speaks of this as the “Flesh.” John calls it “the World.” The prophets denounce it as idolatry and harlotry. By all its names and images, the Human City pervades the writings of the Old and New Testaments.

This morning, of course, our Old Testament reading gives a specific name to the Human, or Fallen, City.

Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

The desire to build a city, make a name, create one’s own realm of existence where thelf is sovereign, where God is up there somewhere but never really a necessary part of day to day existence—this is the foolish endeavor of a fallen race, a people who have lost their center of wholeness and focus of unity. To compensate for such a loss, they seek an empty form of wholeness on their own terms and an imperfect form of unity for its own sake.

Now, don’t laugh at such people—because we are among them. We are all members of Adam’s fallen race. We have all been corrupted by original sin—and we have all fallen for the lie that building back Babel is an original, creative, and noble idea.

But a fallen race is a fallen race—and a merciful God will only endure so much foolishness.

"Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing," writes St. Jerome, "so, likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are. Indeed, when the tower was being built up against  God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed."

The Tower of Babel is a monument to the incompleteness of the Human City and all its accompanying symptoms: loneliness, despair, hopelessness.

"To this malady of the human heart,” writes Derek Thomas, “God pronounces a judgment — one that is only undone in the obedience of the last Adam."

Derek Thomas

At Pentecost, the disciples began to speak in foreign human languages so that visitors to Jerusalem could hear the message of reconciliation in their own tongue. It is noteworthy that just as Genesis 10 [immediately preceding today’s reading] includes a ‘table of nations’ (vv. 1–32), Luke also includes one at Pentecost (Acts 2:8–11), signaling a reversal of the Babel curse through faith in the Mediator. Peter will reflect on this later when he writes his first epistle, recording that God’s redemptive purpose is created in Jesus Christ one ‘holy nation’ (2:9). At Pentecost, an eschatological reversal takes place, arresting the effects of Babel for a season, enabling the disciples to be witnesses to Christ to the ‘nations’ in anticipation of a reality that will one day emerge.

The church is called to love in anticipation of that new existence, demonstrating God’s covenantal blessing of a restored humanity in Christ. What arises in the early church is a reflection of life lived in submission to God’s providence and in fellowship with one another. In contrast to the manipulative, self-seeking, power-hungry parody of ‘church’ as we often so sadly encounter it, the body of Christ should reflect the undoing of Babel: a fellowship called out of the world, called into union with Christ and into fellowship with one another.

With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a new city bursts forth in full flower: the Church, God’s City, drawing together from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue a people for his own possession.

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

even on my male servants and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

And I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;

the sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

"This is a solemn day for us," writes St. Augustine, "because of the coming of the Holy Ghost; the fiftieth day from the Lord’s Resurrection, seven days multiplied by seven. But multiplying seven by seven we have forty-nine. One is then added: that we may be reminded of unity."

Unity not of human origin or delusion—but unity born of God, as a witness to the nations that he is, through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit, making this old, broken world new again under the gracious reign of Jesus Christ his Son.

And let the whole church with one voice say, "AMEN!"

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