Today is the day when we hear again about the magnificent event which transpired in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost celebration after the death and resurrection of our Lord. It is a famous story; one Christians have embraced as a sort of marker for the beginning of the New Testament Church. It is a day when we focus a little more on the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, it is easy to take the Spirit for granted. We know He is at work, but His work is not about promoting Himself. Rather, it is about directing the hearts and minds of the people of God toward the works and words of Jesus. The Spirit is the reason we even hear the Word, the reason we believe, the reason we trust what our Lord says. He is like the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, but unless there is a problem, we do not think too much about it… until we get to Pentecost Sunday. It is difficult to ignore the work of the Spirit when He appears like tongues of fire and lands on the heads of the apostles and then causes them to speak in the native tongues of all the various pilgrims gathered in the city. It is a powerful demonstration of the work the Spirit of God does.
It is fascinating how throughout the years the Church has connected this moment in its history with the story of the Tower of Babel. In a sense what they are saying by doing this is that the ancient curse of the confusion of the languages is undone by the work of the Spirit. There is a turning back, a uniting if you will, of the people in the proclamation of the Word of God on Pentecost as the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the words to speak. But the more I look at this ancient story I am inclined to think there is more to it than simply the confusion of languages. In fact, I think the connection deals with the whole plight of mankind’s fall and our hope in the promises of our Lord’s death and resurrection. The connection between these texts centers on confession and absolution, on God’s judgment and mercy toward us all.
Let us examine again the story of the tower. The ancient people were united in one common language and as they began to migrate to the East, they desired to shift from being nomadic wanderers to a people of significance and permanence. You can almost imagine the leaders making their decision as they find a good spot, good land, good water source, and the like. They have discovered an innovative technology for making bricks, a way to build that would last for years to come. So, they begin to construct a city. 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 find strength in the work of their own hands, in their ingenuity and craftsmanship. They will leave a mark, make a stand in the land of Shinar. The text says their desire is to make a name for themselves… make a name for themselves. I find that fascinating. Up to this point in the Biblical narrative no one is out there making a name for themselves. There is a lot of naming going on. God names His creation, He names man, and He has man name all the creatures including his wife. Names are given and some people are even renamed but no one makes a name for themselves.
In our day when we say someone is going to make a name for themselves, what do we usually mean by that? We mean they are going to become famous or leave a legacy of some sort, a name to remember. But the whole desire to make a name for ourselves goes much deeper than temporal fame. It is our attempt to take control of the situation, to become rulers of our own domain. We make names for ourselves when we glory in the works of our own hands, we make names for ourselves when we overcome our humility and are enamored with our own wisdom and insight.
In many ways the act of naming ourselves is the uncovering of the gods we treasure the most. The first commandment, the commandment from which all others flow, is that we should have no other gods before the one true God. When we ask what this means, our Catechism answers us, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Ask yourself, what is it I fear above all things? Is it loneliness or being insignificant? Is it losing those close to you? Is it pain or suffering? Or ask, what is it that I love above all things? Do you love your family, or your creativity, or your sense of liberty? Also ask yourself, what is it you trust in above all things? Do you trust in your financial security, your retirement plan, or do your trust in the technological advancements of our age, the never-ending road of progress? For whatever it is you trust, whatever it is you love, whatever it is you fear above all other things, that is your god. That is the source of your identity, security, and meaning in this life. And it is how you will attempt to name yourself.
Our names we desire to make for ourselves are our towers we build, hoping their tops will reach into the heavens themselves. Yet, the whole history of humanity is a history of the failures of such gods. The Tower of Babel may have been the first tower to come tumbling down but it certainly is not the last. You see, no matter how well-crafted our name becomes, no matter how perfect we think we can design for ourselves a lasting name, it all comes to pieces beneath the One who names from all eternity, the One who was the very first to name anything at all. In a way we can see how Pentecost is a great outpouring of the source of perfected and eternal naming. The languages God confused all those years ago in a commonality in the proclamation of the living Word of God, which is a Word that speaks to the true source of identity, security, and meaning in our lives, it is the source of an eternal name, which will define the people of God.
Now, when the Word of God opens the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind, when the work of the Spirit causes the Word to sink into the hearts and minds of the people of God, the names it gives are harsh. It can be as terrifying as the people of Babel having their entire world turned upside down. For instead of celebrating the names you have come up with on your own, instead of allowing you to continue to make a name for yourself, the Word of God calls you sinners. It dismantles your wisdom, your understanding, and your strength. The light of the Word shows you have sinned in your thoughts, your words, and your deeds. Your pride and arrogance mark the names you give yourself and it is exposed by the eternal Law of God. If you want to name yourself, then you must be perfect. If you want to name yourself, then you must be holy and righteous. But you are not. You have fallen short of the glory of God. You have made your name by hurting others, by ignoring those who need your help. So, you are rightly named a sinner.
But the work of the Spirit on Pentecost was not just about tearing down the names we have made for ourselves. It was not just about highlighting our guilt and failure. No, the Spirit that was poured out continues to name you. The preaching of the Word has something more to say to you. It continues to speak to all the broken and repentant sinners, to those who have had their Tower of Babel moments, who have had their own names torn from them, “You are not left alone and forsaken!” For the work of the Spirit is to deliver to you the gifts of Christ. How does Christ give? What does He give to you? He gives His own life. He gives His own body and blood. He gives love. He gives freely from His compassion and mercy as He forgives you all your sin.
So, you are given a new name. It is a name beyond the works of man, a name rooted in Christ and echoing throughout all eternity. You are named the saints of the Most High God. You are named the children of God and heirs of eternal life. You are named brothers and sisters. You are those whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. You are named “the forgiven” and “the bride of Christ.”