Summary: A contrast between Babel and Pentecost. Pentecost undoes what happened at Babel.
The Philadelphia Daily News reported that 46-year-old David Vassallo boarded a jetliner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for a flight to North Carolina. He began talking to the man seated next to him and boasted that he was an undercover federal sky marshal. The man he was talking to was quite interested, and asked him to tell him more about himself. As he left the plane he was arrested by the man seated next to him — who actually was an undercover federal sky marshal. Vassallo, who before this incident was a postal employee, was arrested and charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer. He was also found guilty of gross stupidity. But that is what pride does to a person. It’s the curse of human hubris.
Our first Scripture reading this morning is about the building of the tower of Babel. It is also a story of gross stupidity brought about by pride. This was early in the history of the world when the population of the world was relatively low, and the people of earth had learned a new technology: the making of bricks. Using bricks instead of rocks they could build a much larger structure. They found a great plain where they could live called Shinar, and decided to build a tower there. They believed they could build a tower that would reach to the heavens — perhaps to prove there was no God watching over them after all. With biting irony the Scripture says, “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building” (Genesis 11:5). Their tower hadn’t reached heaven at all, in fact, God had to “come down” to “see the city.”
The whole purpose of the building of the tower was that they would be unified by one grand achievement. They had one language, and the plan was to gather everyone to live in the same place to accomplish great things. They did not want to be scattered, they needed everyone to come together and work together. But in the end, God reversed their plan and scattered them over “all the earth.” He confused them, giving them different languages so they could not understand each other. They wanted to be independent of God, but God reminded them that was not possible. The tower intended to bring people together was the tower that scattered people and drove them from each other. Alienation from God results in being alienated from others. Now their language, instead of being the same, all sounded like babbling — thus the name Babel. The place became known as Babylon — a city associated with chaos and evil throughout Scripture.
The whole story of the tower of Babel reminds me of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first human to orbit the Earth. According to international media, Gagarin made the comment while in orbit: “I don’t see any God up here.” We are still under the impression that we can somehow use our technology to build something that will get us to heaven so that we can see whether God is there or not. Amazing. We live out the Scripture which says, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
I was astonished to read one authority on this passage commented on the story of Babel stating that the text implied that the people had become a threat to God, and that is why he did what he did. How absurd! The people were not a threat to God, they were becoming a threat to themselves. The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis falls right after the story of the flood. God had brought about the flood in Noah’s day because of the rebellion of the human race and the resulting violence that covered the earth. The arrogance of mankind not only leads to stupidity, but to evil, and evil leads to the destruction of who we are as human beings. We are a threat to ourselves. Because God cares for us, he limits the evil we are capable of and diverts our path. When that happens, we need to pay attention.
It is the wisdom of this age that says we must all be alike and be up on the latest of everything. We used to talk about being old fashioned, meaning the way your grandparents did things. But then to be really “with it” you couldn’t wear or do anything that was last year’s fashion. Now kids look down their nose at us and say, “That is so 5 minutes ago!” The language changes so much every day that you can hardly understand some conversations, and if you really want to get lost, try reading some phone text messaging. I see the messages that my grandchildren send to their friends and I have no idea what they are saying. It is all in code with a series of letters standing for a whole sentence. It has become so popular that they have actually put the Bible in text messaging now. You can download it free and send it to your friends (www.biblesociety.com.au/smsbible). Here is an example: “In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth”... [and] “da earth was barrn, wit no 4m of life. . .” Or how about 1 John 4.19? It becomes “We luv coz God luvd us 1st.”