There is a short little snippet toward the very beginning of the Bible that I think takes on some significance today as we celebrate the day of Pentecost. Now, if you were raised in the church, you probably know this story, but if you are new to Christianity or have not been at Sunday school, you probably haven’t heard it–at least you haven’t heard this story here. To my recollection, I have never preached on this story nor seen it appear in the biblical texts appointed for Sunday morning. What story am I talking about? The story of the tower of Babel.
This short piece is found in Genesis chapter 11 right after the great flood. All of humanity is gathered on the plain of Shinar–not to be confused with Shiner, there is no beer in this story. On this plain, humanity hatches a plan. They begin to make bricks and mortar. They revel in their creative ability. And then they say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” I want you to carefully consider what humanity is saying in this. It’s important. For we see humanity completely consumed with itself. A tower with its top in the heavens signifies a desire to supplant God. Making a name for ourselves shows the desire for worldly fame and popularity. Prevention of being scattered across the face of the earth shows a desire for self-preservation and isolationism. All of these things are centered upon one’s self and the desires to act independently of God–the same sin which got Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden of Eden.
God looks upon this self-centeredness. He sees a future where humanity forges its own ways and own desires. He sees a return to the days before the flood where humanity became completely wicked and self-centered, and God acts. “Come let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” This, God accomplished. The building stopped. Division ruled the day because no one could understand another, and people went their own way.
And we still cannot understand one another today. We are still dealing with the consequences of self-centered hearts today. More on this in a moment because I want to continue to set the stage for what happens on Pentecost.
After the events at Babel, people went their own way, but God also knew the consequences of abandoning the world. When He abandoned the world and let it go to its own devices after the Garden of Eden, the world turned to evil. Self-interest became the rule of the day and everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes. God promised to never destroy the world again by flood, so He needed a way to interact with the world. He needed a way to show the world how to live with Him and with one another. Therefore, He began that process by working through individuals. He picked people to be His mediators.
You may ask, “Why did God choose to pick mediators? Why didn’t God simply interact with each and every one of us individually? Wasn’t that within His power?”
Certainly, it was. But, there was a problem with this: the problem of sin. For you see, God is holy and just. God is perfect and blameless. Imperfection and brokenness cannot stand in His sight. His anger at sin would burn very, very hot against us were we to stand in His presence without being cleansed of that sin. God could not engage the world on a one on one basis unless this sin were cleansed.
Therefore, God began engaging the world through mediators–people He chose to bless that they may be a blessing to others. God communicated with such people in many and various ways. Interestingly enough, as you read through the biblical narrative, one of the ways God manifested Himself was through fire. We read about Moses kneeling at a burning bush that even though it was aflame, it was not consumed. We read about a giant pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the desert–the very presence of God leading His people. We read about this pillar of fire changing into a pillar of cloud, and this pillar resting in the tabernacle–the place of worship for the Israelites before the temple was built. In every case, however, not everyone was allowed to come close to the fire. Not everyone was allowed to come near the place where God rested in the tabernacle or the temple. God worked through those who purified themselves or were purified by God Himself. Anyone who came in direct contact with God died–because of their sin; because of their self-centeredness; because their hearts were tuned to themselves instead of tuned to God; because they sought the blessings of God but not God Himself.
Let’s fast forward to the events recorded in our second lesson this morning from Acts chapter 2. Let’s take a look at the imagery of this text and see how Scripture brings us full circle. The disciples are gathered together, and as they are sitting and praying, a loud sound, like the rush of a mighty wind, happens upon them. The lesson says divided tongues of flame rested upon each of them. The English doesn’t quite capture what the ancient Greek captures. For the Greek paints this image of a single pillar of fire–what does that imagery conjure up?–breaking apart and dividing and then resting upon each of the disciples. Anyone with ties to the Old Testament got this visual. Anyone who remembered the presence of God in the burning bush and pillar of fire understood what was going on. No longer was there any intermediary between God and man. No longer was a mediator necessary. God now descended upon the disciples and dwelt within them!
Oh, and there is more. When the Spirit of God descended upon the disciples, they went outside. A crowd had gathered because they too heard the wind. The apostles began to speak, and when they spoke, all understood them. Take a moment to let that sink in. Everyone who was there–people gathered from all over the known world–understood what the disciples were saying! It’s as if the tower of Babel never happened! Something had changed. Something had happened to allow God to dwell within each of us. Something had happened to unleash understanding and reconciliation–to bring humanity back into one group; one family. What? What had changed?
If we were to read through the entirety of Acts chapter 2 we would see exactly what that was. We would understand what unleashed this new reality where God was now with in and in His people. We would understand why the divisions were now being healed. For Peter, the leader of the apostles stood up and after he talked about the prophecy foretold by Joel, Peter began to tell everyone about Jesus. You see, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, is about each and every one of us receiving power to proclaim and point to Jesus who reconciled the world unto God; who became the atoning sacrifice for sin; who paved the way for God to live among and in us; and who brings reconciliation and understanding to the world.
I would argue that the main problem with the world today is not a lack of laws. The main problem with the world today is not that we don’t know what to do. For heaven’s sake, most people know what they should do. Most people know they should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most people know that we should be compassionate and caring. Most people know we should directly deal with one another instead of talking about each other behind our backs. Most of us know we should be generous. Most of us know we should work for peace and justice. We know what we should do, but we don’t do it. Why?
Because our hearts are still dealing with selfishness; self-centeredness; and self-preservation. Why do we lie? Because at the moment we lie, something more important than God has captured our hearts. Perhaps we don’t want our reputation damaged. Perhaps we are afraid of punishment. Perhaps we fear for our own life. In all of these cases, some thing has displaced God as the most important thing in our heart. Why do treat one another with hatred and contempt? Again, something more important than God has captured our heart’s imagination. When I treat another with hatred and contempt, I generally think I am better than that other person. I think I do a better job of living and making my way. I rest confident in my own laurels and abilities and think of myself instead of God. Why is there poverty particularly in light of the fact that there are plenty of resources to go around? There is poverty because our hearts are captured by wealth, possessions, and fear–fear that we won’t have enough in the future. Instead of focusing on God and God’s abundance, we focus on the scarcity that might take place. I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, I will not. If need be, I will be happy to speak to you later about it, but I think I can safely say at the root of all of humanity’s relational problems is self-centeredness; self-preservation, and selfishness.
So, what is the cure to such a thing? What changes a heart? Laws might change behaviors, but only because of a threat of punishment. When we follow rules because we fear punishment, we are still acting in our own self interest and with selfishness. We are still focused on ourselves, and biblically are still in our sin!!! Only a complete change of heart gets us where we need to be, and if I say, “I will change my own heart so that I can be sinless,” guess what? You are still acting in self interest. A changed heart must find its initiation for change outside of itself.
That agent of change, Christianity proclaims, is Jesus. Jesus is God who took on flesh, who lived the life we should live, who died the death that we deserved, and who was raised to eternal life that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus did everything that we should do. He loved His neighbor as Himself. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He gave money away and lived in poverty. He was perfect and blameless, and He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice and payment for our sin. He became the perfect mediator on our behalf enduring God’s wrath for us because He loves us.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
And once we understand this news. Once it weasels its way into our hearts. Once we understand the extent of our brokenness and the great cost Jesus paid on the cross, our hearts begin to change. We no longer seek ourselves. We no longer seek wealth and status and privilege as ultimate things. We no longer seek peace and justice as ultimate things. We seek God. We desire God. We hunger and thirst for Him. And just as He descended upon the disciples at Pentecost, He descends upon us and lives in us and through us. And when He lives in us and through us, we recognize that He desires to live and be in all people. So we, like Peter stand and proclaim. We tell of the mighty acts of Jesus. We argue and exhort and urge people to trust in Jesus. We feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. We care for their physical needs so that their pain and suffering do not hinder their reception of the message. We seek to understand others and be reconciled to them so that there is no barrier between us when we tell them about Jesus. We do this because of what has been done for us. Because Jesus died for us, God is with us.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, on this day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift that was only made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross. May we realize that you now live with us and in us. May we realize you desire to live with and in everyone on earth. May the Gospel change our hearts that we may proclaim Jesus and be reconciled to one another that You may receive glory. Amen.