31 May May 31, 2020: Online Worship Resources for “Down the Up Staircase”
Down the Up Staircase
Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-4
May 31, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Click here for the Adult Worship Guide:5-31-20 Pentecost Bulletin (1)
And click here for the Children’s Worship Guide: Children’s Pentecost Bulletin
Click here to access the pre-recorded worship service.
The tower of Babel would be considered pretty unimpressive compared to the architectural wonders of today. Historically, the world’s tallest man-made structure was the Great Pyramids of Egypt, which held that position for over 3,800 years until the construction of Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311. Five centuries later, in 1884 the Washington Monument surpassed the height of the great cathedrals and churches of Europe. The early skyscraper, the Sears Tower pioneered in Chicago, meant that the United States held the bragging rights to the world’s tallest building for much of the 20th century until 1998, when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed. Since then only two more buildings have held the title: Taipei 101 and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa which at 2,716 feet blew away the competition in 2009.
Modern skyscrapers are built so tall that engineers design flexibility into their frames, allowing them to sway in swirling winds without damaging the integrity of the structure. They need that flexibility because the steel, glass and concrete canyons of modern cities have created entirely new weather and wind patterns. A few creatures have used this phenomenon to their advantage. Peregrine falcons, for example, swoop and race along the wind currents created by the avenues of towering buildings as well as use the buildings’ rooftops for nesting and urban pigeon populations are part of their daily food supply.
But not all the side effects of these towering cityscapes have been beneficial. As more and more brightly lit skyscrapers blaze like torches throughout the nights, the artificial light from these towers pollutes the night sky. We may not yet be able to build to the heavens, but we have managed to effectively blot out the brilliance of the heavenly skies. Stargazing from anywhere near a modern city is next to impossible.
But clearly, the urge to build upward has been in us from the beginning. As we see in our text this morning, the Tower of Babel, the world’s first skyscraper, is notable for two important reasons. First, it was part of a major urbanization effort that intended to “make a name” for the people of the region. Second, the city and the tower would give them a place of permanence in Mesopotamia, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
What Genesis is describing is that, as a result of this building project, a previously migratory people would have a geographic and cultural center and that, in turn, would give them legitimacy. People from all around would see their great tower and Babel would have a reputation as a great city. It would give them some “street cred.”
At first glance, this doesn’t seem a particularly problematic desire. After all, the temple that Solomon will eventually build will be similar in terms of some of its intentions, elevating the Hebrews from their days as wilderness wanderers when a portable tabernacle was the best they could offer for God’s presence. The temple would become an established geographic and cultural center, a place to which the followers of Yahweh from all over the world would be drawn to worship.
The problem is in the details of the Genesis story. First, the tower is a monument to self-reliance. The phrase “let us” shows up three times in these eleven verses and sounds an alarm of independence and egocentrism.
Here in the West, of course, self-reliance is hardly considered a sin. It is, in fact, lauded as a virtue. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Rely on good old Yankee ingenuity. Make something of yourself. These are adages we’ve heard from birth. With a strong work ethic and emphasis on personal responsibility plus the rewards that our culture heaps on visionary leaders, entrepreneurs, and risk-takers, it is all too easy to forget faith and dependence when we’re calculating life’s equations. James 4 comes to our rescue, offering a sobering reality check. “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” James reminds us. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (4:14-15).
The second problem is that the tower was intended to make a name for the people. This is not in God’s plans, as the covenant God makes with Abraham in the very next chapter will spell out. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2). God is the name-maker, and the purpose of blessing and good reputation is to benefit others, not oneself.
Theologian and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright summarizes the spiritual selfishness of Babel: “Those who were supposed to be reflecting God’s image in the world—that is, human beings—are instead looking into mirrors of their own…arrogant and insecure, they have become self-important.”
The truth is that everything we have accomplished and everything we have are the products of, and instruments of God’s blessings, intended to be used for the sake of others. Not to make a name for ourselves. Not to be used to gain street cred. Not to be the means of being respected or envied by our peers or to make us feel better about ourselves. We are blessed so that we can turn our attention outward, not inward, and bless others.
The third problem was that the tower was a symbol of permanence in Babel. But again, this was not God’s plan. God had a curious “population theology” from the very beginning. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth (1:28). After the flood, he told Noah’s descendants the same thing (9:1,7). It seems that from the garden to Babel, people were to have children and spread out. But none of them were as obedient as God had desired.
Monopoly in a free market economy guarantees two things: price increase and quality decrease. That’s why we have anti-trust laws that broke up monopolies like Bell Telephone and Standard Oil over the years. Perhaps the geographic and cultural monopoly that God found in humanity had added to the constant increase of the sinfulness of people. We don’t know. But it is clear that this geographic monopoly was not what God had in mind.
For the church today, a missional question comes to mind at this point. Are we actively spreading the gospel beyond the boundaries of the church, or are we sitting comfortably and permanently within the family of God—as if we have a monopoly on the good news? Our tower has been built. Good luck to the rest of you. At the heart of our call as followers of Jesus is that we are not to hoard the blessing of the gospel, the blessing of the source of our peace and hope. We are to share it beyond the walls of the church where it can bless others. I wonder if God might use something like a pandemic to remind us that, as important as our fellowship together is and as our physical space is, we are not ultimately to be the church inside the four walls of the sanctuary but outside of it, because those walls are not our permanent home.
In response to the self-reliant and self-focused Babel, God “came down to see the city and the tower.” Note the deep irony and humor of God needing to come down to see a tower with its top in the heavens. Can you imagine God stooping down with his hand cupped over squinting eyes—“Oh, there it is. Jolly good. Cute tower. Nice hustle, guys.”
God’s response to this tower of hubris is fitting given his observation in verse 6. There was harmony of purpose, harmony of thinking, and harmony of language in Babel, but there was no harmony with God’s will. Perhaps not surprisingly, God confused their language and then scattered them abroad. The divine mandates of the garden, the Table of Nations in chapter 10, and the covenant with Abraham all have their impetus in this divine scattering.
Isn’t it fascinating that in this instance, God acts seemingly in the opposite way of what we might expect? We primarily understand God as a Creator who brings order from chaos. But in this instance, God creates chaos out of human-imposed order to accomplish God’s purposes which is a reminder that our resistance to what God wants to do in and through us will often lead to uncomfortable consequences. For Babel, it was confusion and scattering. For the early church, it was persecution.
Of course, the church did not always bring persecution upon itself. It is not as if they wanted it or asked for it. But, consider this: In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells the church that after Pentecost, they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But if you flip over to Acts chapter 8, you see that the church still hasn’t left Jerusalem! It seems an anti-monopoly nudge is needed, and in Acts 8:1 we read, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” You could say they were persecuted into doing God’s will. The gospel was always intended to be spread out, not piled up in one place, as comfortable as that place was.
We celebrate Pentecost today—the inbreaking of God’s gracious presence which is actively at work in his people, enabling us to live out the same missional calling given to Abraham, Israel, the prophets, the disciples and the first century churches. Pentecost reminds us that God is an incarnational God who repeatedly comes down to us—in creation, at Babel, in Christ, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
At Babel, a common language meant unity bound up in arrogant self-sufficiency. The diversity of language brought the confusion that results as people live apart from God’s desires. In the Pentecost event, Babel is reversed. People are reunified by the Holy Spirit as language barriers are removed. But, they are not reunified in order to hang out together in Jerusalem. They are given the Spirit to get out into the world with the hope-filled message of the Gospel. Friends, so are we. Thanks be to God. Amen.