(1 John 3:1)
“Can we all just get along?” That’s what Rodney King famously asked during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. You might remember that news story or maybe you read about it in a history book; the video footage of a beating, the trial of police officers, an acquittal in court, and riots in the streets. The nation’s second largest city was turned into a domestic war zone complete with explosions, looting, and fully armed military personnel trying to restore order. And into the middle of the fray came a quivering voice asking that simple question, “Can we all just get along?” The answer, pretty obviously, was “no.” But Rodney King was not the first person to desire unity and camaraderie among humanity, and he wouldn’t be the last. After all, human beings are relational creatures, so we’re told, desiring connection with someone or some group with which to identify. But how do we get there - what is it that unites us? What is it that divides us? Humans are looking for unity, so we say, but we’re not finding it. This, of course, is not for lack of trying. Maybe if we got all of our political ducks in a row, then it’ll happen. Maybe if we isolate ourselves from outsiders, then it’ll happen. Maybe if we invent a world wide web of information and communication sharing called the internet, then, we’ll definitely be united! But how did all that work – uniting people or polarizing them further? Read the comments section under a YouTube video, and then answer that question! Unity seems like an impossibility – the stuff of dreamers, poets, and altruistic simpletons.
Though, of course, that’s not entirely true - there was one group of people in history who thought they had it pretty well figured out. We heard about them in Genesis 11. A couple generations after God had destroyed the world with the Flood, Noah’s children had children and God wanted them to spread out over all the earth, re-inhabit, repopulate, and eventually bring the promised Savior into the world. But that’s not what happened right away. Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” On the surface, this seemed like a pretty smart endeavor. There’s strength in numbers, so let’s stick together. We all understand each other, we’re all on the same page, we’ll all pool our resources and build a city with a wall and a tower. This was a Herculean effort for humankind, but look again and see what’s noticeably missing, rather, who’s noticeably absent – the LORD. The LORD, remember him? The One who had preserved their lives, the One who had made them a promise, the One who sent them out to fill the earth all over again…but we like it here, so we think we’ll stay.
This was always a cool Bible story to learn as a kid – the thought of a building going up and up and up all the way to heaven! At first glance, it might seem like these people were building this tower so they could get closer to God “in heaven,” but clearly, they weren’t interested in being close to God – instead, they wanted to dethrone him. They wanted not God’s glory, but only a name for themselves. They were united with each other, and completely separated from their God. Unity is good, until it divides us. We may be perfectly on the same page with our fellow man, but that spells only separation from our perfect God. So, the LORD did something about it. But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world.
The account of Babel teaches us where all the world’s different languages come from. Variance in human language didn’t only come about through gradual tribal shifts or cultural affinity. Originally, the variance came about as discipline for human defiance. (So, if you’ve ever been in a first hour Latin class and thought that this was punishment, you’re not so far off!) With variance in language comes a lack of understanding and you know what happens next – fear, suspicion, distrust. I wonder what he’s saying…What do you think they’re talking about? I think those people know more than they’re letting on. Babel shows the beginnings of divisions that would result in different nations, skin colors, and cultures. It shows us how different we are and just how many barriers there are, but is that the source of hostility in the world and the reason why unity is so hard to come by? Why couldn’t the Hutus and the Tutsis get along in Rwanda in the 1990s? Why didn’t the Nazis like the Jews? Why does the KKK exist? If I’m in America, why do I have to “Press 1 for English”? Why can’t the guy in the red Make America Great Again hat coexist with the pantsuit-wearing blue stater? The surface answer only goes so deep – you’re different from me, therefore I guess we’re enemies.
The full answer goes deeper than skin or culture or language. The real problem isn’t that we’re all different; it’s that we’re all the same. Babel shows us that truth in stunning clarity. In the heart of each human being exists the capability, desire, and drive to “make a name” for myself no matter what the cost. Why is America more divided than ever? Why do schoolyard bullies shove the kid with glasses? Why are there cliques in the cafeteria? It’s not because we’re so different – it’s because we’re all the same. I need to be in control, and I assume that you obviously want the same thing. Therefore, I see you and all you are as a threat to my control. No matter what language comes out of your mouth, Jesus is pretty clear about what lives in the hearts of all –For from within, out of men’s hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. By nature, we exist to build our own towers so high that we can push everyone else down. Our natural inclination is to make a name for myself and ride it as far as I can, even though it takes me all the way to hell. This is what exists inside you, inside me. This is what comes out from inside me. We desperately need a word to break in from outside of us – but more on that later.
One of the most striking things about the tower of Babel, I think, is found in this verse, The LORD came down to see the city and tower that the men were building. Couldn’t God see what was going on all along? Did he really need to go and “kick the tires” on this brazen act of self-glorifying defiance? Our minds jump to other places where God says and does things that don’t seem fit. Remember after Adam and Eve sinned, and the LORD was walking in the garden in the cool of the day? The LORD said, “Adam, where are you?” Spoiler alert: he knew where Adam was! Or we think of any of the questions Jesus asks in the gospels – he’s not seeking information. He’s giving an opportunity for confession and repentance. He’s intervening for a purpose. So, did God have to “come down” to see what was going on? Of course not, but God “comes down” nonetheless. For what purpose? For judgment? In a sense, yes. We know what happens here – a confusion of language, a scattering over the face of the earth, and the resultant distrust that is bred from lack of communication. But look who it is who “came down;” none other than the covenant LORD, whose ultimate desire is salvation. The LORD comes to redirect the wayward sons of men back to his plan for them to spread out, fill the earth, and procreate the promised Savior into the world. Yes, the purpose of his trip involved judgment, but even more so, it was a mission of mercy – for you, for me, for the whole world.
God “comes down” for us and for our salvation. This little verb teaches a profound lesson in mercy. The LORD who made a covenant and rescued Noah and his sons, could have smote these sinning sons of men from on high, but he came down. The Lord Jesus didn’t just sit in heaven and weep at the sins of sinners. Instead, he jumped in. He did something; he did everything. He came down – not in divine wrath, but in a manger. In the ancient church something happened at the speaking of these words of the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” When the congregation was confessing the creed and came to those words, everyone in attendance would pause and bow down at the profound mystery and mercy. Who could believe it?! The Almighty God comes down to take on our flesh, to forgive our sin, to defeat our death! On this day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes down, the Counselor whom Jesus promised to his disciples. “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Ultimately, when God “comes down,” it’s not just a word of condemnation and destruction – but God taking action on behalf of and for the benefit of his own. So what a crazy thing that God, the one who is defied, “comes down” and unites himself with our humanity in Christ. Even crazier, that same God still “comes down” for us and for our salvation by speaking to us through (of all things) human language. This time around, he “comes down” not for confusion, but for clarity. Pentecost Sunday is the hopeful and humbling undoing of Babel. So, listen up, because God is speaking through his Word!
Throughout the years, researchers, idealists, and crack-pots have attempted to create a “universal language” in an attempt to unite humanity. Not surprisingly, all attempts have failed. While every human attempt at a universal language has failed, Pentecost brings to our attention the existence of one, and only one “universal language,” namely the gospel promise fulfilled in Christ that goes out to every nation, tribe, people, and language. You heard about that in the first Pentecost in Acts 2. “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Sin, selfishness, and pride come out from inside of me. Here is the Word that breaks in from the outside. This is what Pentecost is all about. The fact that Parthians, Medes, Elamites and the rest heard untrained Galileans suddenly speaking their languages wasn’t the most remarkable thing that crossed their ears – it’s what they said that really struck those foreigners with awe. You, with the help of wicked men, put [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead. Peter pulls no punches – You killed the Son of God! God “came down” and you murdered him! But just as unmistakable is the proclamation of the gospel – God raised him to life! Cut to the heart, what should we do? Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off. Here is the unconditional word that breaks in from the outside – none are excluded from this promise from the mouth of God.
Language, culture, fear, suspicion, and miscommunication can all put up huge barriers – then in comes the word from the outside: Christ, the one who shatters the barriers. At Babel, the diversity of language caused division. At Pentecost, the diversity of language brought unity. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit convicting of sin, comforting with gospel, and calling into the unity of one body – the Church. Do you see? The gospel proclamation of Pentecost heals the most profound division. Reunion with God is brought about not through your climbing to God, but in his coming down to you in Christ. The impassable chasm that sin brought about, the impossible distance it created between you and a holy God, God himself has bridged that gap in the cross of Christ. That’s good news, and Pentecost makes clear that that good news is for everyone – even you, even me, even the neighbors next to us. So, let it fly!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen