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Babel and Pentecost (a sermon)

May 25, 2010

Gen 11: 1-9 – Tower of Babel – when unity is a bad thing

Music: pause to reflect on your experience of bad unity

Conversation: What made it bad?

Acts 2: 1-21 – Pentecost – when unity is a good thing

Music: pause to reflect on your experience of good unity

Conversation: What made it good?

Not all that is called community is a good thing… Not all so-called peace is good peace. In biblical times they lived under what was called the Pax Romana (peace of Rome). It was built on the blood of slaves and martyrs and the subjugation of women.

I often hear people saying… I’m so glad I’m born in NZ where all people are free… where we live comfortably… but often we fail to ask: Who dies for our so-called peace? Who are the victims of our comfortable lifestyle? Who is excluded from our community? Let’s think about this story which challenges our cosy assumptions about groups we are a part of.

Three elements to our parable

1. They ‘build themselves a city’

It’s taken for granted that city-building and community-building is a human enterprise, that it’s humanly do-able. If anything the Bible casts doubt on this assumption… The Psalmist writes: ‘unless the Lord builds the house’ it won’t last. There’s something fragile at the very roots of human society, unless the Lord build’s the house

2. They ‘build a tower with its top in the heavens’

What does that mean? A society built independently of God will in the end assume Godlike status. It becomes an idol. Maintenance of its unity becomes the ultimate significance. Which means that they will do violence to defend it, they will use any means to ensure its supremacy.

3. They said ‘let us make a name for themselves, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth’

Fascinating phrase ‘make a name for themselves’. Unless they stick up for themselves no-one else will (have you heard that saying?). The assumption is that their life is surrounded by threat. If they let their guard down they will be scattered. They must take charge, become leaders, make a name for themselves. When I read that I was reminded of NZ’s obsession with the clean green image even if it is not entirely true – it’s a dog eat dog world, we need a ‘name for ourselves. I was also reminded of the church’s concern to be seen to be vibrant, growing etc on their noticeboards – even if it’s a little rose-tinted. We start to tell lies, protect ourselves, manage our PR.

Society apart from God is ultimately driven by fear and the survival of the fittest.

In a few weeks I am going to the States for a gathering of reformed churches. The two international bodies are wanting to join together to form an international Communion. Hopefully about good unity. But I was struck by one of the documents under discussion at this international gathering. It’s called the Accra Confession, and in it I found these words:

We see the dramatic convergence of the economic crisis with the integration of economic globalization and geopolitics backed by neo-liberal ideology… therefore we reject the unregulated accumulation of wealth and limitless growth that has already cost the lives of millions and destroyed much of God’s creation

When we were preparing for this service both Ivan and I quite independently came to the conclusion that this story of the Tower of Babel was a kind of parable of Globalisation.

Some will say that in the modern world we avoid bad unity… we avoid totalitarianism by building a society on the freedom of the individual… (on individualism). But they fail to see that where we may not be united by force in the old fashioned way… we are still increasingly united by market forces… by greed, by mammon. The Bible calls these forces Principalities and Powers and they hold us in bondage. What’s more our unity has its victims… It’s Fair Trade week right now and the beauty of Fairtrade is that we can choose to challenge this unity. We can chose to spend a little more so that someone growing bananas in Ecuador can have enough money to spend time with his family.

Yahweh’s response

Look they are one people and they have all one language. Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’ (power)


It’s interesting, when we have debates about new technology (artificial creation of a cell) a standard response is that the technology is not the problem it’s what we decide to do with it. Again we think we can ignore what market forces will do with the technology, ignore the principalities and powers of bad unity.

So Yahweh says:

Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.


There’s an intriguing ‘us’. I could spend an hour talking about why this ‘us’ is in the text… But what matters is that in this parable we have the bad unity of human society interrupted by God who exists as an ‘us’ as a ‘good unity’. This is not John’s gospel… The Christian belief in a God who is love – the love of relationship (Father, Son, Spirit) might not be on the mind of the Hebrews who put this ancient story into Genesis

God (in good unity – let us go down) comes in judgement on the bad unity… God scatters the proud (Mary in Magnificat)…

This is not just an event in the past. Babel happens again and again in human life. Perhaps this story is a parable of human community the world over.

Jesus came not just to seek and save the lost, but remember he came with a sword of division… scattering bad unities. It is not as merely a rhetorical flourish the bible says that death has been conquered. It is the dead Jesus who conquers and exposes and undermines the bad unity of our Babels.

But that’s not the end of the story. The conquest of death is not the final point. Today is Pentecost.

If Babel is a parable of Bad Unity… possibly of globalization, what we see at Pentecost is a wonderful sign of a completely different unity. Not some homogeneous city structured to defend itself against outsiders and to control all around. Instead we have a meeting of people of every colour and language and style. Parthian’s, Medes, Elamites, Phrygians, Pamphylians and particular parts of Libya… And we see here not just the tower of Babel at Parthia and Phrygia and Pamphylia broken down, but we see a whole new order of community and communication.

This is what St Paul understand’s deeply. The gift of Jesus comes to us all (as a great interruption of culture). It comes to us regardless of our status and culture and creates a community in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free. It breaks open the tower of Babel of maleness, and the tower of Babel of Jewishness and the tower of Babel of femaleness.

And they all gather around the one table of the Lord because they have been given the language of love in the life of Jesus.

And there’s a lovely touch to the story that reminds us that the Tower of Babel at Jerusalem had been broken into also… these people were unsettling everybody. The comment was going round these people are drunk. They were behaving in culturally inappropriate ways… Of course they were! God was giving birth to a whole new culture which would no longer fit in Jerusalem alone.

Imagine this scene. The queen has invited important guests to a grand dinner and is going along the line greeting them all politely, when an old disheveled guy off the street sneaks past the guards and wanders up to the queen. He greets her in a broad cockney accent telling her that her hat looks awful but her heart is good. We all know what would happen next. The queen would call the guards and all the people would start to comment that he must be drunk…just like Pentecost… (they must be drunk!) But imagine if, instead the Queen were to reply, By hokey your right, this is a silly hat and she decided instead to stop and sit down for a moment and chat with the fellow.

Bruce Hamill

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