Babel, arrogance and Pentecost...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, June 24, 2012.  Our band, Between the Banks, will lead this week's worship music, too.  This is part three of my essential stories series and focuses on the Flood, the Tower of Babel and the blessings of Pentecost.  Then we're off for 2 weeks of vacation.

An old Jewish proverb tells us: “It is better to ask the way ten times than to take the wrong road once.” And while I might add that sometimes on vacation there are blessings to be found by wandering and exploring for a time, too still the truth of these old words warrants our attention:  by faith we have been called by God to live in humility and trust.

·      We have been commanded to actively seeks out wisdom in all its forms and embrace it, to honor the hard won good judgment of our elders with respect and strive never to become a law unto ourselves.

·      That is the fundamental reason why we read the Scriptures each week:  “we do not want to make the mistake of becoming our own blind guides” (Chittister) in a complex world.  So by trust and humility we listen for God’s word about the human condition in the experiences of our ancient relatives and then attempt to discern what that living word means for us.

Without the time-tested wisdom from generations past, you see, most of us will be left “dumb, undeveloped and awash in a naked arrogance that blocks our minds, cripples our souls and makes us unfit for the relationships that should enrich us beyond our merit and despite our limitations.” (Chittister, p. 71)

·       And God forbid we should want to become kind and helpful?  Without trust and humility our meager virtues and petty appetites will devour us.

·       Look at Syria – or the Sudan.  Take a long hard look at all the money being poured into this election cycle alongside the perpetually unmet needs of our schools, families and our most vulnerable citizens.  Or better still, maybe a mirror would be most instructive…

What I’m trying to say is that here is so much understanding and insight available to us from our ancient wisdom traditions if we would only be open to receiving it; in humble trust, we don’t have to reinvent every wheel.  Our faith communities have a great deal to teach us – they stretch back four thousand years – so what we need is respect for experience… and enough trust to know that what we cannot see right now may still be valuable to us.” 

St. Paul said told us that now we see as through a glass darkly, but later we shall see face to face.   All because we can mature and ripen with compassion and competence if we are willing to learn from those who have gone before us.  So today we move into story number three in the Top Seven Essential Tales from the Old and New Testaments:  the Tower of Babel.  It is a wild, primal and penetrating legend about what happens to real people when we choose to ignore the will of the Lord. 

·      It is as ancient as the desert world of Babylon 900 years before Christ was born and as contemporary as 21st century global warming.

·      It speaks to the hubris of dictators past and present, the complexity of living IN the world but not OF the world and the challenge of trusting the heart of the Lord when all we really want to do is dance.

It is a GREAT story – and comes to a provocative conclusion in the Christian Pentecost, too – so let’s take a little time to:  1) review the action; 2) put it in context; and 3) tease out some of the wisdom for our lives so that we, too, might benefit from the trials and testimonies of those who have gone before us in faith. 

Pray with me:  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

Now what can you tell me about the story of the Tower of Babel?

·      What’s the action – how does it unfold – what do you recall?

·      It is a story about building a huge tower and God’s displeasure and eventual destruction of it. We’re never really told why God was displeased, but we sense it has something to do with arrogance.

And that hunch is reinforced when we consider a part of this story that occurs prior to the action of Genesis 11 in the narrative of our early faith. That story has to do with the Great Flood and Noah and his Ark.  And, in order for our story about Babel to have depth, we have to know about the flood and what takes place in that story, too.  So, what do you know about Noah and the Flood and the reason for the devastation?

·      On one level it was a mythological story to make sense of the periodic flooding that took place throughout the region, right? 

·      On another level it was a theological story about God cleansing the earth from the blood of violence:  starting with Cain and Abel this story tells us that the Lord acted like a temple priest who cleansed the earth of all traces of impure and sinful blood spilled in violence.

What else?  Well, it is also a story of faith, trust and humility:  Noah is described in Genesis as a tzaddik who is tamim – a compassionate and just man who avoids sin and does so in a mature or even perfect way.  One of the great Jewish interpreters of scripture and tradition, Rabbi Shapiro, known as Rashi puts it like this:  A tzaddik is one who refrains from sinning, someone in control of his urges and inclinations while a tamim is someone whose thought process is perfect, his philosophy in-line with G‑d's (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 18:13.)

In the legend, both before and after the flood, Noah is a generous and compassionate man:  one who has learned from his tradition and is without sin.  His mind and heart is attuned to the will of the Lord.  So he is selected to co-create with God after the impurities of spilt blood is cleansed by the flood. 

·       And after the cleansing of the world – much like a ritual bath or astronomical hand washing – new life resumes on earth and Noah is told to go forth into all the world and be fruitful and multiply.

·      That’s why the story of the Flood matters in our ancient tradition:  it is about God’s cleansing commitment to creation – setting us free from the stain of impure blood – and celebrating the importance of living as tzaddiks and tamim – compassionate, mature people of faith and humility.  Are you still with me? 

Well, after the flood the book of Genesis gives us a long laundry list of the offspring and relatives of Noah and his sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth – and all is well and good until we come to the name of Nimrod.  He is the son of Cush whom Scripture calls a dark and mighty hunter who became the first mighty man on earth – a passionate warrior who went forth to create… Babel.

·      Not a tzaddik or tamim – but a warrior set on achieving his own goals – building his own kingdom – a tower which could be seen for miles in every direction.

·       Do you see where this is going and why it might have some ethical implications for us? 

In two generations the Bible tells us that the emphasis had shifted from living in harmony with God’s will to creating empire and power and temples of arrogance created out of our own limited vision rather than in the image and will of the Lord.  Another ancient rabbi pulled it all together like this:

When the flood gates closed, the waters settled, and the people emerged from the floating box, they quickly went ahead to rebuild civilization, having children, building homes, accumulating wealth, and just getting back to routine.  And not too long afterwards, they hit upon a wonderful idea. Why not, they thought, build a huge tower that will reach the sky? After all, we have the technology and the manpower! Let us build a legacy for ourselves! Let the future world know about how awesome we were! The vote was unanimous to build the tower, and the people of Babel set out to make their dream a reality. Things started out smoothly and they were making headway, when G‑d decided to put a stop to the project. He mixed up their languages – confused them – and dispersed them all over the world.

And you ask, what was the big deal? Why did G‑d react so angrily to such a harmless cause? Where did these visionaries go wrong? Could there be something wrong in wanting to build a legacy?  Well, yes! There was something very wrong. Think about it, friends. The world had been destroyed and now their society needed a lot of help.  Children needed schools, places of worship needed to be built, traumas had yet to be settled . . . and all these people could think about was their legacy! Why not the first hospital?  Or school?  Or homeless shelter?

·      It reminds me of the obscene absurdity spoken after the tragedies of September 11th:  Don’t let the terrorists win we were told – go out and… shop!  Remember that?  Not join together in a sacrificial act of sharing to help one another.  Not advance the cause of peace and understanding.  Not let’s go down to the river and pray – Jew, Christian and Muslim together – but shop! 

·      Same thing right here in the ancient story:  use your creativity and wealth and power and resources to show the world how awesome and self-absorbed we can be – so God struck down their arrogance and caused them to be confused and scattered.

That’s part one:  the action – with just a little bit of commentary along the way.  Part two is this:  we don’t really know when the Tower of Babel story came into being.  Maybe it was picked up along the way in the desert before Israel became a nation.  It could have taken shape and form during the time of King David or perhaps during the 6th century BCE when Israel was in bondage to Babylon.  After all, the word Babel comes from two sources:  the Hebrew word, balal, which means to jumble or confuse, and, the Greek word for Babylon, bab-el, the gate of the Lord.

·      Clues, to be sure, but the exact origin of the story isn’t clear.  Many scholars think it is likely that it was organized in its current form sometime in the 6th century BCE because of the reference to bricks being burned thoroughly – something that wasn’t done early in Israel’s history – but was a part of Mesopotamian construction techniques. 

·      And this 6th century BCE date might also be true given how Israel was trying to understand why God would allow them to be destroyed – again – during this time!  Had they become too proud?  To cavalier with the Law?  Too self-important?

And that brings me to part three:  what do we do with this story?  I think there are at least two parts to an answer.  Christians came to believe that the brokenness of creation that was instituted by the Lord at Babel was reversed on the first Pentecost after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, right?  Do you recall the action of the Pentecost story?

·      Christ has been crucified – and his disciples heart-broken.  Then by the grace and love of God Christ was raised from the dead – resurrected – and came back to encourage and teach his beloved friends about how they might move forward as tzaddiks and tamim – compassionate and mature people of faith – for their generation.

·     And before Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of God forever he taught them the scriptures and prayer and advised them to hang tight and wait until they received power from on high.

And that’s exactly what they did:  they waited and prayed and studied and listened – they practiced humility and trust – until God was ready.  And on the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, what happened?  The Holy Spirit came upon them the believers and filled them all with a dynamic power…

·      A power that gave them courage and the willingness and ability to speak to different kinds of people in ways that everyone could understand.

·     That’s what Pentecost is all about – the maturation of humility and trust combined with an outburst of God’s grace – so that you can speak and love everybody regardless of language, race, creed, color or class.

By the blessing and presence of the Holy Spirit – the same breath of God that the Lord breathed into the first mud creatures who became nephesh chayah – living souls – the same power God used to bring order out of chaos in the beginning of the book of Genesis – this same breath of God filled the first disciples and gave them the ability and desire to build bridges between very different kinds of people.  Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms which is the parent of Habitat for Humanity, put it like this:

·      Pentecost is NOT about talking in spiritual gibberish.  It is about God’s grace made so real in your life that you can communicate in love with everyone:  you can communicate with business people and soldiers, peace advocates and nihilists, young and old and gay and straight and male and female and Republican and Democrat and Green.  Because your tongue has the gift of grace.

·       So Pentecost is about maturing in humility and trust and being on fire for sharing God’s love with everybody.  How did one preacher put it?  In God’s grace the Lord can take a no body like me – and turn them into a somebody by love – who is on fire to tell anybody in life – that everybody is both blessed and beloved by the Lord.

And that suggests that we have some work to do, yes?  Some work in humility and trust?  Some work in being open to the Holy Spirit in love? 

·       Some work in resting deeply enough in God’s grace that we can offer clear and loving challenges to the arrogant destruction that surrounds and infects us all?

·       Some work in being tzaddiks and tamim – adults of mature compassion whose thinking is aligned with the will of the Lord – by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?

And here’s the good news of this challenge:  if God could take that wild and crazy group of disciples that included Peter and James and Mary Magdalene and all the rest, then there is hope for you and me, too.

Jesus was clear:

If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you. I will talk to the Father and he'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth – the Holy Spirit – who has been at work in Creation since before the beginning of time. The godless world can't take him in because they don’t have eyes to see him and don’t even know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you and will even be in you just as he has been with me from the beginning.

By the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – in humility and trust – the wounds of Babel can be reversed.  And this, beloved, is the good news for today.

credits:  see the brilliant work @


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