From Babel to Jerusalem
author: Dave Rogalsky
Part of series: Lectionary Year A, Pentecost 1, June 4, 2017
Scriptures: Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 113, Romans 12:9-16b, Luke 1:39-57, additional text Genesis 11:1-9
Theme/Goal/Aim: God gathers all languages together on Pentecost, the harvest festival of grain. All the grains gathered together after having been spread out at Babel. In Christ the promises of Isaiah that the peoples would be gathered together came true.
Last year Wilfred Laurier University celebrated the 40th anniversary of its music department with a grand concert containing two new pieces. Since both of the composers had Mennonite connections I could go, listen, enjoy, and then write about the concert and pieces. The second piece was by Stephanie Martin. The text was based on a poem by her sister Carol Martin and celebrated Babel as an example of human creativity, rather than as an attempt to get into heaven to supplant God. The poem challenges God with humans saying:
"What jealous god despised our Art?"
"What god-sized misinterpretation made him read that soaring vault as an assault on Heaven?
"Was God so petty, vain and small / a modest arch could seem a threat?"
This caused some controversy among a few of the students who saw this as blasphemous, challenging God`s goodness. Martin, the conductors and the dean of music were open and willing to listen to the students and work with them, but not to change the text. In the end only one student withdrew with the others seeing the piece as part of the conversation about who God is, how God has acted, and how humanity fits into God`s plan. Pentecost returns us to this discussion.
The Babel story is part of the prologue of the book of Genesis. This prologue is among the last written parts of the Old Testament. The editors who pulled together the Torah, Prophets and Writings sometime in the 4th to 2nd centuries BC built in this introduction to the whole with the pre-history of their people, and indeed of all people, the whole creation. The prologue ends with the calling of Abraham and Sarah to be the progenitors of God`s people, the Jews. (See Genesis 11:27-12:12:9). It tells the story of God making a perfect creation, filled with life, including the height of God`s creation, human beings.
But, if the creation was perfect, how did it become imperfect. Anyone looking out their window, or into their own heart, could see the imperfections of the world. So the story of Adam and Eve and their sin was remembered. (Genesis 3). Noah and the flood was an attempt to end sin, but even Noah and his children failed. (Genesis 6:1-9:29). Finally we have Babel, an attempt by human beings to assail heaven. Believing that the arch of heaven was not that high, and that it contained windows through which rain fell, human beings decided to build a tower to get into heaven, to “make a name for themselves.” Carol Martin, and many others through the years, have interpreted this as creativity. Many theologians have seen this as idolatry of the self.
According to the text, God, knowing that this was a fruitless task, confused the language of the people, scattering them across the world in competing and warring factions. The place became known as the source of confusion and was called Babel.
Now, this naming of the place is confusing in itself. The Hebrew word for confusion is balal and not babel. This is one of those ‘naming stories’ we find so often in the Old Testament which show us the narrative history of the story. The city of Babel, probably an allusion to Babylon and its many burnt brick ziggurats or towers, was the source of confusion in the world. So these like sounding words were used to support the story and to aid memory. Those who were pulling together the Old Testament were probably both in Babylon and in Jerusalem and were fighting to keep their people from falling into the confusion of Babylonian religion, working through the very production of the Book to keep Jews faithful to the God and story of their ancestors.
So the moral of the story of Babel is this: Don’t get confused by other religions like the Babylonian one. Stick to our faith. God is the powerful One. Reject others as those who lead you astray.
But at the same time prophets in the School of Isaiah were hearing a bigger word from God. They were hearing that God did not reject folk but wanted to draw all people to Godself. A prophet in this school wrote in this time after the Jews had returned from the exile:
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to God, to love the name of the LORD, and to be God’s servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Isaiah 56:6-8 (NRSV)
The prophet sensed that God was not about scattering but about gathering. And not just re-gathering the Jews from their places of exile but gathering all the people of the world to Godself.
Jesus probably saw himself as a prophet in the School of Isaiah. John the Baptist, in announcing Jesus’ arrival named himself quoting from Isaiah:
22 Then the Jewish leaders said to John the Baptist, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. John 1:22-23 (NRSV)
When Jesus began his ministry it was with a quote from Isaiah:
16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV)
Jesus, also known as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22, 23, Isaiah 7:14), came to bring the message of Isaiah to the Jewish people and beyond – God wants to gather all people to Godself.
On Pentecost it began. While the first followers of Jesus were all Jewish Jews, among those who became followers on Pentecost were Greek Jews, proselytes, converts to the Jewish religion from all over the world:
9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs . Acts 2:9-11 (NRSV)
In a little while the Samaritans, cousins of the Jews began to follow (Acts 8:4-8) and then others began to be added – the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), and then other Gentiles – non Jews like Cornelius the Roman centurion (Acts 10). Before long the church was replete with many people from many different backgrounds, all following God in the Jesus way. Many languages, but not driven out or confused, but gathered in and united. Pentecost is the end of the old curse of division and the beginning of the new blessing of unity.
We have gathered as followers of God in the Christian tradition. We believe that God began to slowly work in the distant past to gather all people to Godself. This sermon is far too short to get at all the passages and pointers, but God began with two people, who became a tribe, which became a nation and a religion, which in turn brought to birth Jesus and the whole Christian religion. It is in this womb and nursery that we learned faith, a faith that now invites us to reach out in love to encourage a relationship to God, a practice of spirituality and a life of usefulness to grow God’s kingdom of love on earth.
On Pentecost we celebrate the birth of the church, the gathering together by the One God of all people to Godself. It is fitting that we seal this with communion – the rite of oneness with each other. We do this as folk who have chosen to be part of the Christian tradition, who believe that God has been at work through the Jews, through Jesus and his followers, and has continued to be at work in the Christian church through the years by the Spirit. This is our womb and nursery, birthing and developing faith and a spiritual life in God. We believe that God is at work in the wider world – our scriptures tell us that. And we celebrate that God is at work in our tradition.
Empty your hands, close your eyes
Take five normal breaths
Think about how you learned to believe.
Think about how you learned to connect with God.
Give thanks to God for those who taught you, raised you in faith.
Ask God for how you can be that kind of person for others. Ask God to fill you with God’s own Spirit to inspire, lead, build in creativity.