June 5, 2022
Not surprisingly, our second reading today is the story of Pentecost from the book of Acts. Continue to listen for God speaking to you.
Because the Wednesday Bible study group started a study on Genesis this past week… as I was writing this sermon… which I’ve got to be honest with you upfront is going to be a bit scattered… sometimes they come all at once… and sometimes they come in bits and pieces… so you might have to do some construction work in your own brains this morning… anyway… as I was writing this sermon… I couldn’t help but think about the Genesis counterpoint to this Pentecost story… the story of the Tower of Babel. A strange little story where human beings… unified in their one language… decide to pool their efforts to build a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens… it is magnificent and a sight to behold… and God seeing all this says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Admittedly, this doesn’t seem to be one of God’s better moments… but Genesis is full of this sort of thing. Taken on a surface level, the story… like I said… seems very odd… as the ambition of the people get met with what seems like a pettiness from God who can’t have them achieving what they propose to do… who invents ways to make it even harder now for human beings to work together to achieve the impossible.
Maybe that’s what’s happening… we’ll come back to it later.
Historically speaking… the odd story of the Tower of Babel is likely a piece of an independent story from the time of the exile about the ziggurats in Babylon that was edited into this spot in Genesis. The Tower of Babel story works on one level as a “just so” story about why people speak different languages… and another level as a commentary on the proper understanding of Babylonian power… or any great earthly human power, really… when compared with the power God. It’s easy to imagine someone during the time of the exile sitting around and being amazed at these massive structures and still saying something like, “For all their power, the Babylonians cannot reach the heights of the power of God… their hearts are focused on reaching the glory of the heavens, but their vane ambition is built upon crushing all others underneath.”
See… I think, the story is less about the languages of the people being confused than it is about to what the people aspired in building the magnificent city and Tower… to what effort did they put all their combined work and resources. In the building of the Tower, the goal was to reach the heights of heaven… to take their place among the gods… to dwell in that rarefied atmosphere. These massive ziggurats made great object lessons because they were… pretty much these man-made mountains… and in those days… in the thinking of that time… remember… the gods lived on top of the mountains. So, yes, there is a natural arrogance in the ambition when it comes to the ziggurats… an arrogance and a cruel understanding of how one comes to be with the gods… how one ascends to dwell among the gods.
I mean… imagine in your mind a ziggurat… a massive step pyramid… and look at the message it gives… of the large base… then the next level up is smaller… and smaller and smaller… until you get to the top and only a few… only a few make it up to the lowest part of the heavens. Now think of that shape in people terms… how the largest part of the ziggurat never comes any closer to the riches of heaven... it’s there to support the higher steps of the ziggurat that sit upon it. The ziggurat does not lift all up to heaven… but only the few at the top… that sit on the support of all those below. If your image of being one of the gods is an image of power and control… an image of your will and whims being enacted… that’s the hierarchical structure that needs to get built so that you… one of the few… can reach the heights. Don’t we still have the same thoughts in our vane hearts of today?
The day of Pentecost is a story about a wholly different vision of what it means to be God. God is not on high… untouchable… remote… distant… and powerful in what God can reign down from on high. God is not meant for the precious few who can reach the heights… who can ascend to God. No. God comes down and dwells on the earth. Do you remember hearing that from our scripture readings over the last month or so? God dwells with human beings. God’s desire is to come down to dwell among human beings. God comes down and meets humanity where humanity is. God crosses the chasm of sin. God seeks out the sinner. God takes God’s place among all the people… as Christ came and went among all the people and met them where they were.
The gift that the Spirit gives does not take the apostles up to some small, rarified atmosphere of holiness… it blows them out of the room where they have stayed hidden and safe… it blows them out and puts them there among the people… it gifts them so they can share the good news of God with any and all they come across. No one is to be left out. God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh… all flesh. All means all… not just some. There is no hierarchy of holiness on the day of Pentecost. That’s the way the whole story of Acts goes. A new ziggurat of holiness and perfection isn’t built… the ziggurat of holiness and perfection collapses as the apostles and disciples keep going out and encountering new people to share the gospel with.
It’s like starting at the top of a ziggurat and then coming down a level and including those who are found there. All along the way they keep thinking that ok… we’re not going to go any lower… any further away from God up here from where we’re starting… knocking on the door of the highest heaven… but then they are invited down a level… and down a level… and down a level… until they finally catch up to where God is already on the ground. That’s the great reversal of thinking in Christianity… this idea that we have to rise up somehow to meet God who is far away in the highest heaven… that we have to climb whatever spiritual man made mountain before us to reach the heights where we will find God living up there in the highest heaven… that’s the wrong direction. Christianity… exercised in the church… the direction is always horizontal because God has come down.
At the Tower of Babel, God confuses their language. “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” And yes, how the story gets told in Genesis, it makes God look a bit petty on the surface. But think about this… and look at what the people decide what isn’t going to be impossible. They build a Tower to heaven. Look at how that impulse… again… is no different today. We build our towers… we construct our empires. We solve the problems that lift up the few. But hunger still ravages. Homelessness… a bottom tier issue… rather than doing the impossible to solve that and other problems like it… is declared an impossible problem to solve. Or worse… tries to get hidden from sight. The more some work toward getting themselves up there to heaven… the more people are cast down to live lives in the bottom supporting tiers. The more we keep telling ourselves God is living up there where everyone has a mansion and the streets are made of gold… the less we see the true God down here among the dust. The less we feel that need to meet God where God is… in the people that get pushed beyond the margins. At Pentecost… in Christ… we are given a single language… a new primer I guess. And that language starts with love… love one another as I have loved you… that means more than any man-made mountains we can construct to the glory of our man-made pantheon of gods. Amen.