Monday, June 05, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost (1 Year Lectionary), "Babel and Pentecost"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today is the Festival of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus, so that they were able to speak and be understood in a multitude of known languages, by a large crowd of gathered worshippers from scattered Mediterranean nations. The apostle Peter then got up to publicly explain to the crowd what was going on with this language miracle. Pentecost means “fiftieth”, and it had been 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, and also 50 days after the Jewish Passover meal.
Look at our Old Testament reading today. The Tower of Babel story is paired with the readings about that remarkable Pentecost. These two events, are separated by a few thousand years of human history, and take place in very different settings, one on a monumental construction worksite in ancient Mesopotamia, and the other at a house near the Temple in Jerusalem—but nevertheless they are intricately linked, and have more in common than just the topic of languages. In many ways they are a reversal of each other. The Tower of Babel is the account of God defeating human pride and scattering and confusing the peoples and languages—while Pentecost is the account of confused people of many languages being unified in understanding around the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Let’s look a little more closely. In the ancient history of humankind, God tells us that there was once a single human language. This is sometime after the Flood of Noah’s day. God had told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. He wanted them to repopulate the planet, which indicates spreading out and resettling the earth. But at the Tower of Babel, the people sought a different goal—to make a name for themselves and to keep from being scattered across the earth, by building a tower up to the heavens. A monument to their achievement. A friendly observer might say that they were trying to create “community” and “significance”, which are not in themselves bad things—but that was not the problem. The problem was that they were displacing God’s plan with their own plan, and instead of finding community and significance as God intends to give it, they went their own way and tried to create it themselves. They were idolizing themselves and trying to exalt themselves like gods on earth. God saw their unity that was bent toward disobeying His will, and God determined it was troubling enough to break their unity and scatter them. Better for them to be divided than to unite in rejecting God. Sadly, their unity could have been used humbly and with God’s blessing to fulfill His commands, but instead by their disobedience, He had to frustrate their plans.
The Tower of Babel explains to us how God confused the languages and scattered the people across the earth. It’s the explanation for the different language and people groups we have today—but with the reminder that we still all descend from one common human race. St. Paul also taught this to a crowd of philosophers in Athens: that God made from one man every nation on earth, and determined the periods and boundaries of the places where they would live (Acts 17:26). Our common human ancestry is a necessary reminder against the evils of racism, and endless conflicts between nations over land and territory. It reminds us that whatever else divides us, that we share the common gift of our shared humanity from God above, and that His command to love our neighbor as ourselves is universal.
But if the Tower of Babel story has these features: that God moved the people from one language to many; that men were trying to raise their own glory and achievements up to the heavens; that God was going to scatter the nations;  that God was breaking apart an ungodly unity; and that they failed to make a name for themselves—then the story of Pentecost has these reverse features: God brought the speakers of many languages to understand a unified message; the glory of God’s great deeds were being raised up to the heavens; that God was gathering the scattered nations together; that God was creating a new and godly unity, and that this unity came in the Name God glorified for Himself—the Name of Jesus. And that all who call upon the Name of Jesus will be saved! The trajectory of the Tower of Babel story is towards disunity, scattering, and confusion—while the trajectory of Pentecost is towards unity, gathering, and clear understanding. The Tower of Babel was a vain attempt to raise men’s names up to the heavens in glory—Pentecost instead raises up Jesus’ Name to the heavens in glory, for our salvation. In short, God gave a miraculous sign that He had begun to “reverse the curse” of Babel.
Still today mankind chases after glory and pride that we create apart from God. Still today we attempt to “play god” in ways too numerous to mention, and try to sit ourselves on the throne of God’s authority. Still today God lifts up and brings down the mighty from their thrones. Human pride and achievement throughout history have never brought permanent or lasting community, peace, or even monuments, for that matter. At most, the disrepair of ancient monuments tell us of the collapse of civilizations that died out centuries or millennia ago. For all their power and technology, they still have fallen into the dust of history like the rest of mortal men. But still today God has a bigger plan and better goal for our lives than our human attempts to etch our names into the heavens. God desires to give us community and significance, to be sure—but on His terms, and in ways that honor Him. God has an everlasting Word and an eternal community that will endures long after all empires and powers have risen and fallen.
Zoom out momentarily to the big picture of the whole Bible and story of salvation, and you’ll see that God is building for us a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:28; 13:14). He desires to gather all people to His heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal home of all who call on the name of Jesus and are saved. But zooming back into our lives and Pentecost, understand that God desires community, fellowship, and significance for us, that is centered around Him. And He has a particular plan to achieve that, that He has carried out in Jesus Christ.
It was the first Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, that His disciples went public with that message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On Good Friday, they had been reduced to 11 men frightened for their lives, and a handful of faithful women. They were powerless, cowardly, and dejected. By 50 days later, just before Pentecost, their number had grown to 120. On the day of Pentecost, that number exploded to 3,000! (Acts 2:41). A short while later, to 5,000, and then continued growth beyond (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). Today more than 2 billion people claim the name of Jesus. That incredible growth and transformation came because of what the disciples saw for themselves—the Risen Jesus. It was by their unmistakable witness of His resurrection and by His gift of the Holy Spirit, that they were emboldened to proclaim God’s salvation plan to all, at great personal risk and loss to themselves, but for the gain of God’s spiritual kingdom.
Through the proclamation of the apostles on Pentecost and afterward, the Holy Spirit signaled to the world that God is gathering people of all languages to unify around the Name of Jesus Christ. In 2:11-12 the crowds exclaimed “we hear the telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God! And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to on another, ‘What does this mean?’” God’s deeds were being exalted, Jesus’ saving works were being proclaimed in many languages to many peoples. Peter goes on to explain the miracle by telling them about the teaching of Jesus, His unjust crucifixion and death, and God’s subsequent raising of the innocent Jesus to life again. This, Peter says, is the explanation for the miracle you are seeing and hearing. He called them to be baptized and saved, calling on the Name of Jesus. He was holding up for them a godly purpose for unity and community, showing them how God was going to return the scattered people to Himself.
The Holy Spirit still today proclaims the Name of Jesus for our salvation—as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit will always bear witness about Him and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught. The Holy Spirt still calls and gathers Christians together in community—across and beyond barriers of language or culture or class—and to people of one human race He proclaims the forgiveness of sins and peace with God that we have in Jesus Christ. He makes the mighty works of Jesus to be known so that we would have a Name to glory in—but His Name, and not our own. And He gives us purpose and significance by loving us and sending us out to all the world to bear witness to His Name and His love for us. So let us rejoice that God has made a Name for Himself in the sight of all the nations, and that He gathers His scattered children to be His own under the care and love of Jesus Christ His Son. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen at:

  1. Compare and contrast Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21. How does Pentecost (Acts) show a reversal of many of the details of the Tower of Babel (Genesis)?
  2. What was the sin of the people of Babel? Genesis 11:4? What did they seek to gain, and what did they seek to avoid? Why was that contrary to God’s command in 9:1, 7? How did God ensure that it happened? Genesis 11:7-9; 10:32.
  3. Why is the Tower of Babel important in explaining 1) the origin of people groups and languages, and 2) the common ancestry of the human race? Acts 17:23-27; Genesis 10:32. What implications does that have towards racism and relations between different people groups?
  4. How does Genesis 11:7 hint at, but not fully reveal, the teaching of the Trinity? Cf. Genesis 1:26; 3:22.
  5. In Acts 2:11, what did the crowds hear in their own languages? Where before (at Babel) they had sought their own glory by their own works, who was now receiving glory, and whose works were proclaimed and understood by all? What is God-pleasing and desirable about this unity? 1 Timothy 2:1-4. How can this basis of unity help to bridge the divisions between people across the world? Why will Christ still remain a dividing point for many? Matthew 10:32-39
  6. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he explains that the work of the Holy Spirit, poured out that day, will culminate in this truth: (2:21) “Everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” Read further in Acts 2:41. How did this message ignite the “birthday of the Christian Church? What recent event was the literal life of this message? Acts 2:31-32, 36.
  7. To whom does the Holy Spirit still point today? John 14:26; 15:26. 

No comments: