Beyond Babel

 

By Paul Koch

One of the great lessons of the events of Pentecost, and for that matter one of the great lessons of our continued life together in the church, is a lesson concerning proper direction. Perhaps we don’t usually think of it this way. We prefer to talk about the flames alighting on the heads of the apostles and how as they went out to proclaim the works of Christ all these pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem heard these words in their own languages. Whether they were Parthians, Medes, Elamites or residents of Mesopotamia they heard the proclamation of God’s mighty work in their native tongues. But the underlying narrative of what is happening has to do with direction. There is a receiving of something that has come down from above. The proper direction begins from above and then flows down. As St. Peter himself quotes the prophet Joel, “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.”

Poured out. Poured down from above. That is the direction of our faith. That is the direction of our worship as well. A former professor of mine famously wrote these words, “The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them.” The rhythm of Pentecost, the rhythm of our worship and life together is the same. It flows down from above and then through us into the lives of one another where we return to our God lives of thankfulness and praise. We ought to be careful to not miss this lesson of Pentecost; if we confuse the proper direction of things we can lose our hope and confidence.

But you see that’s just it, we have a habit of forgetting the direction. We have a habit of denying the God given flow of things. In fact, we have made great efforts to go the other way. We move quickly from being in the receiving position to thinking we are the ones responsible for the giving. We aspire to take matters into our own hands, to be the masters of our own destiny. We move quickly to a place where we seek assurance and strength by our own will and work. We want to say that we chose Jesus, we invited him into our hearts, we made the sacrifice, gave what was necessary, did what was required so that we might be saved. We do this in an infinite number of ways and with varying amounts of creativity.

And today we are reminded that to forget the flow of Pentecost is to forget the lesson of Babel. On Pentecost we celebrate the uniting of language as the Word of God is proclaimed in Jerusalem. This stands in contrast to the confusion of languages which left a half-built tower on the plain of Shinar and a city in ruins. The people who built that tower were not all that different from us. They were wanderers on the face of the earth, tired (no doubt) of facing the brutality of a world broken by sin. Their days were marked by uncertainty and fear. Imagine being on the move all the time. There is no place that is truly safe, no opportunity to be truly at peace. They may have told stories about the Creator of all things, they could see evidence of his great work throughout the land they traveled. But they began to doubt that he would ever work on their behalf. So they turned within. God, if he was there at all, was distant, impartial and so they only had themselves. They only had their own strength, their own creativity, their own work to secure a future.

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So they say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” They turn completely to the work of their own hands. Their security and identity will be tied up in what they build. They set off to build a city that moves in the direction all sinful hearts desire. From our earthbound home climbing up to the heavens themselves.

This drive to build up to heaven has never left mankind. Men and women throughout history both inside and outside of the church have attempted to build their towers. We see it constantly outside the church in the passionate speeches and demonstrations and arguments in our political system. The passion comes for our desire to build our city, to make our stand to create a better society here on earth. We find our identity in political parties and our security in the laws of the land. In fact, I think this desire stands behind modern day environmentalism and social activism of all sorts. People without the promise of a new heaven and new earth work diligently to build up the walls of what we have. Care for the planet moves beyond faithful stewardship of God’s gifts to a necessary rallying of the troops to preserve humanity.

Within the church this reordering of the proper direction continues to thrive. In many churches throughout the world the primary message heard from the pulpit is not the outpouring of the free gift of the Spirit but the call to get busy, to work hard, to dig in and do it better. What are you not giving up for the Lord? How far are you coming along in your discipleship? Guidance is given as strategies for a more holy living are laid out. Follow them and you too can build your tower to heaven! Everything can be twisted into a brick for our building. Going to bible study, saying your prayers, supporting the church financially, even completing confirmation can be viewed as another layer moving us closer to our God.

But in the history of mankind, in the never ending quest to achieve that sustainable city of security and identity, no one has actually pulled it off. Every great civilization has come to an end. Every tower built up into the heavens has suffered the fate of Babel. Perhaps not as drastic as Babel, not a confusion of the actual languages of mankind, but still a confusion nonetheless. And the same goes for the churches that have sought to build their empire into the heavens. By the works and the desires of men, no one has yet to justify themselves, and no one has yet to live without sin and obtain the complete assurance of salvation based off their own doing. No, we get lost in our own confusion, in our own thoughts and desires. We don’t do the good we want to do, not perfectly, not all the time. And the evil things that we know we shouldn’t do, why that’s the very stuff we do over and over again.

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If we are hoping to move from down here to heaven above, we are off to a bad start. And if we ever get off to a good start we don’t get very far along before our failures outnumber our victories. There is no hope, no assurance, no confidence in a salvation that is contingent in any way upon what we do. Our landscape is riddled with partially built towers of our own works. Perhaps we stopped building them because it was too hard, perhaps we thought of a better way to do it, or perhaps it all just crumbled under our feet. Like the builders of the tower of Babel, we cannot find true security and identity in the works of our own hands.

But the God who came down to look at the tower in Babel (Isn’t it great that God has to stoop down low to see the mighty works of men?) continues to come down to us. Again this is one of the great lessons of Pentecost. God comes down, his gifts are poured out, he does what we could not do. The God who came down in the little town of Bethlehem and breathed the air of his own Creation is the same God who came down and caused his living Word to be spoken in all the languages of men. And our God continues to come down. He comes down to you in the waters of holy Baptism, he comes down to clothe you with his robes of righteousness and declare you to be his own dear children. He comes down to feed you his own body and blood for life everlasting. He comes down to speak with all boldness that this day you are forgiven of all your sins.

When we confess the proper direction of things, we find true hope and confidence in the Lord. For in your Lord Jesus Christ we live a life beyond Babel. A life that has received the free gifts of a God that has come down to seek and safe the lost. We have no need to build our own towers, for our identity our security, our hope is in Christ alone.

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