Sunday, June 5, 2022

Sermon: “The Voices That Matter”, Genesis 11:1-9/Acts 2:1-8, 12 (June 5, 2022)


Ever since the first time I realized the parallels between the stories of Babel and Pentecost, I’ve struggled to make sense out of it. In Genesis, it kind of seems like God’s just creating trouble where there isn’t any. After all, the Holy Spirit would never have had to do that translation trick at Pentecost if God had just let the people keep their unified language in the first place. Things seemed to be working just fine; the people were on track to build the first skyscraper millennia ahead of schedule and, more importantly, they all seemed to be getting along and cooperating. It’s difficult to imagine why God would want to put a stop to any of that, especially in light of God’s contradictory actions at Pentecost.

But to be honest, that’s not the only thing that doesn’t add up about this passage. To begin with, the very first sentence in chapter 11 says that “All the people on earth had one language and the same words.” But just one chapter earlier, in the middle of a genealogy recounting Noah’s descendants, Genesis explicitly says, “From these [grandchildren], the island-nations were divided into their own countries, each according to their languages and their clans within their nations.” Granted, this could certainly be a case of sloppy compilation; we know for a fact that Genesis was only written down after centuries of oral tradition, and scholars tells us that the version we received as canon was compiled from several different written sources. Questionable editing could easily explain away this discrepancy on its own. But this isn’t the only dubious part of this narrative.

Scripture also tells us the reason that the people wanted to build this tower: because they wanted to make a name for themselves. But if those aspiring architects were really the only people on the earth, who would they be making a name for themselves with? Furthermore, they mention a desire to avoid being “dispersed over all the earth.” The root of the Hebrew verb that means “dispersed,” [פוּץ (“poots”)] is used elsewhere in scripture specifically to describe the result of defeat in war (its most notable use perhaps being a description of the Jewish diaspora). If the people were all of one language and one mind, then who were they afraid might defeat them?

Some would argue that the answer is “God”. Many interpretations of this passage insist that it’s a story of human vanity and hubris directly challenging the divine. But given all the inconsistencies that we’ve noticed, I invite us to consider a different possibility. What if the people in Genesis 11 WEREN’T the only people on the earth? What if they KNEW, as their rationale suggests, that there were, in fact, other human settlements in the world…but they considered their society to be superior, the only one that really mattered? What if Babel actually IS a story of human arrogance, just not against God – but against other human beings? We don’t have to look far into the past to other find examples of this mindset; our history books are littered with examples of human beings’ nation-building on the back of other peoples: the Han dynasty, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire – even the United States has been guilty of colonialism throughout our 245-year history, albeit usually without labeling it as such. Heck, for many states, there’s still – to this day – a holiday celebrating the man who “discovered” America (aside from the fact that there were already millions of people living there).

So, if we’re willing to entertain the possibility of THIS interpretation, God’s reaction to the people’s tower suddenly makes a lot more sense. Certainly, there was unity on display at Babel, but it was an incomplete sort of unity, one founded upon exclusion and fear and arrogance. It wasn’t cooperation for its own sake; it was a calculated strategy to consolidate power. This so-called “unity” existed in an echo chamber of its own creation. These people weren’t interested in pursuing God’s kingdom together with their fellow humans; they were only interested in building their own, one that reflected THEIR values and THEIR wishes and THEIR presumed superiority over others. Little wonder, then, that the Holy Spirit descends on Babel to put a stop to this nonsense.

At Pentecost, on the other hand, we can see a different kind of unity taking hold. A holy unity, not based in uniformity, but in recognition and acceptance of diversity. Unlike the Babel-ers, the apostles and other Christ followers weren’t seeking to make a name just for themselves or to prevent being dispersed – in fact, their plan was to disperse THEMSELVES in order to make disciples of all nations, as Christ had commanded them! They weren’t interested in elevating themselves and those like them; they were interested in elevating Christ and Christ alone.

The only kingdom they wanted to build was the one that God had in mind; one that they’d been waiting for ever since Isaiah wrote, “The calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them…They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.” They weren’t pursuing an empiric echo chamber. They were working towards an existence where all voices (even conflicting ones) would matter, and all genuine needs would be met. A kingdom built on Christ’s love for all people instead of love of self. Of course God would want to empower this community! So, while the crowd was surprised and amazed at the Holy Spirit’s movement in their midst, we certainly shouldn’t be.

Today, we, too, like to talk a big game about unity and community, both in the Church and in larger society, but it’s not always clear which type of unity we actually want. There are times that we claim to be working for God’s kingdom but are in reality creating it in our own image. We claim to strive for the good of all, but we stop trying the moment that others’ needs conflict with our own self-interests. This is the unity of Babel – a superficial unity, a form of idolatry. We call on the Holy Spirit to bless us while implicitly hoping that she’ll favor us and ignore those who look, think, act, and speak differently.

Pentecost assures us that this is not how the Holy Spirit works. She is not a tool that we can manipulate for our own purposes. She is wind and fire and revelation and God. She will not take part in our empire building, whether it be for our nation, our political party, our idea of morality, or our version of righteousness. She is determined to break down our echo chambers and turn them into conference halls, places where we listen not only to those like us, but to all voices and to God. Knowing what we know about her, we can’t expect the Holy Spirit to fill our lives if our hearts insist on remaining closed to her idea of unity. That impulse is our lamentable inheritance from Babel: the hubris that stubbornly persists in all of us today.

So on this day that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us remember that she doesn’t come to enact our agenda, but her own. God will not allow our division to masquerade as unity for long. If we persist in fighting AGAINST one another instead of FOR one another, we’ll be left with nothing but the rubble of our arrogance and a whole lot of regret. Let’s not let this happen. Let us act not out of fear of defeat, but out of love for others. Out of hope, as we pray each week, for “God’s will [to] be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Out of curiosity for what the Holy Spirit can do with our willingness to serve God’s kingdom instead of our own. Can you feel her moving even now? Don’t be afraid, be open: to change, to unexpected community, and to true, holy unity in Christ. Amen.

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