The Tower of Babel story has a near perfect narrative arc with a mirrored structure of events between early humanity and God almighty which I find super cool. It’s a bit odd, though, isn’t it? Don’t we expect God to want the people to be one?
It’s a story that gives an explanation for why the earth is filled with many people, and cultures, and languages, and that’s great; but is oneness not part of God’s plan? And besides, what’s so wrong with settling down to build a city and a big tower? Is human ingenuity that big of a problem?
The answer is yes. At least that’s what the Bible says. Genesis 11 isn’t the only story like this. The Bible is full of episode after episode of God ordering human life, and then human ingenuity, self-interest, impatience, and insistence messing with that order. We’ve already seen it in the garden, Cain and Abel, the lead up to the Flood, and its aftermath.
And it won’t stop here either, from Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac, Jacob, his sons with Joseph, all the way from Moses to David and beyond. Over and over, humanity proves that we are helplessly focused on ourselves. In the Bible, human ingenuity, the machinations of our hearts, are rarely if ever aligned with God’s purposes, and they leave a wake of broken plans, promises, relationships, and lives.
But, over and over, the Bible tells a story of a God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bounds of creation in order to achieve God’s own purposes, in spite of our own. But, let’s admit it, it’s not always pretty.
We don’t really want this God. It can make us feel uneasy to see ourselves this way or to see the hand of God as the one that breaks down towers, breaks up languages, and scatters the human family to the four winds. It makes us want to abandon this “Angry God of the Old Testament” in favor of the “Gentle Jesus of the New,” but to do so would be to disregard the Jesus we actually find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”That’s Jesus in Matthew 10.
“Once a crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you,’ and he asked ‘Whose mom? Whose brother? Only they that do the will of God are my brothers and sisters and mother.'”That’s Mark 3.
It’s Jesus who angrily calls the people of God hypocrites, fools, and white washed tombs, pretty on the outside, but dead on the inside. It’s Jesus in the gospels who doesn’t threaten but promises destruction.
In John 2, after throwing a massive whip-cracking temple tantrum, he says “Go ahead, destroy this temple, I can build a new one in 3 days.” Actually that’s not just John 2. It’s also Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke. He continues to tell of a coming day when, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Every stone of this temple and its towers will be shaken, taken down, and overturned.”
“But,” says John (and this is everything), “he was talking about the temple of his own body.”
Someone asked me this week what the modern day tower of Babel is and I haven’t quite figured out my answer; but I think it might just be the self. So much is devoted these days, and I do mean devoted, to the cult of the self, self-help, self-care, finding your true self, your truest identity, to help you become a self-made man, or woman.
I’m sure much of it is harmless, and some of it is helpful, but in many cases it’s as if our culture wants to put itself, our selves, the concept of the Self up on a pedestal, even a tower.
I see it in my self, and others, and in our culture at large. But I see it most in the fact that each story of a self I know in real life is a story of a tower that falls. Each real human story, whether individual cultural, has a similar ending to this first one in Babel, when ultimately we are met by the limitations of our selves.
Whether through personal failure, national catastrophe, global disaster, or personal tragedy, empires fail. Binges crash. Globes warm. Towers fall. People die. And when they do, our lives, our ingenuity, our plans, our families, our sense of self get shattered. And scattered.
“Every stone of this temple, this tower, will be shaken, taken down, overturned. But…” says John (and this is everything), when Jesus warns of destruction he isn’t only talking about what happens to each of us, “he’s talking about the temple of his own body.
In Christ, God is the one who says “let us go down.” In Christ God comes down into the midst of human life as God always has, but in Christ Jesus God is doing a new thing. In Christ Jesus God is taking on flesh and blood as one of us. He is coming as the fullness of humanity, revealed in the fullness of divinity, as he empties himself, “taking the form of a slave,” “the stone the builders rejected.” He comes as the divine self revealed as he empties himself for us.
And then it’s just outside the walls of the temple and its towers that he himself is raised up, and then taken down. It is his blessed body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, which is broken open, and taken down. At first it appears that he really has fallen, met his Babel’s end, and as he dies his disciples scatter… But… it doesn’t stay that way.
Three days later, on the evening of the first day of the week, the disciples gather together and suddenly Jesus is among them. The real Jesus. The Risen Christ.
He breathes on them. Not to “huff and puff and blow their Babel down.” No. He breathes on their broken down bodies and says, “receive the Holy Spirit.”
Just a few weeks later, “they were all together again. All in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, like fire, (also like divided languages) appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues, many languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
“There were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered because each one of them heard the apostles speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’” (Acts 2)
Here’s the ultimate narrative arc. Our story today began with one people, all together, with one language, building one tower, with their many words.
Now it ends with many people, from all over, brought together as one church, because in spite of having many languages, they’ve all been given the same Word.
It is the Word of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ. Ultimately it is not human ingenuity or self-guided project, but God’s Word of grace which unites them.
In Christ, God is reconciling all the nations of the world, every self, from every corner of creation to God’s own self. And in so doing God has reconciled us to one another not based on our agreement, or our sameness. Not based on our self-actualization or self-realization. Instead, our reconciliation is based on the self-giving love of God for us.
This is a God who breaks down Babels, and scatters the proud, but who also binds up the broken, and forgives sinners. This is a God who calls the children of Babel his Beloved, and then scatters them to participate in the ministry of reconciliation.
I don’t know what your Babel is, or was, or will be, but I don’t think I have to. All of us, at some time, meet our breaking point. Some of us do it multiple times a day. Others can remember the moment like it was yesterday. Like it’s today. Like it’s still happening right now. Whatever your Babel is, and whatever makes it break, I invite you today to take that to the cross.
The cross is the place where God meets us at our breaking point. At the end of our rope. At the end of our human ingenuity, our plans, our potential, and our harm. If it weren’t for the cross, our breaking points would be worthy of all fear and resistance. But because of the cross, and in light of the Resurrection, hear the good news: the points at which our Babels break, are exactly where our belovedness begins.
There is no stone which shall not be overturned, and repurposed, rebuilt and transformed, transfigured by the grace of God. And there is no person, no self, no matter how built up or broken down to whom Christ will not give himself, and then scatter broadly for the sake of the whole world.
This is the story of the Bible, of the One who was taken, blessed, broken, and given for us. This is the story that shows us the Way to follow… to follow him where he is leading us: from Babel to Beloved. Thanks be to God.