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Reversing Babel
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
The Feast of Pentecost (Whitsunday), June 9, 2019
Rev. Carl D. Roth, Grace Lutheran Church, Elgin, Texas
© 2019 Rev. Carl D. Roth and Grace Lutheran Church, Elgin, Texas

Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Right after the LORD created Adam and Eve, He blessed them and told them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." Mankind is God's chief creature and his God-given role is to populate the earth and be good stewards of the creation. God gives us the privilege and duty of taking part in His creative work—that is why procreation is a much better term for childbearing than "reproduction." And the LORD's mandate about being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth did not expire after the fall into sin. After the great flood destroyed everyone except for righteous Noah, his wife, and his three sons and daughters-in-law, the LORD reiterates His mandate not once but twice in Genesis 9: "And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it'" (Genesis 9:1, 7).

Within that Word of God was the implication that all mankind could not stay in one place. Especially in that pre-industrial age, being fruitful and multiplying meant that a dramatic increase in population would require spreading out, migrating, making use of more of the creation. But in our text, the descendents of Noah who had migrated to Mesopotamia decided it was time to settle everybody down in one place, contrary to the LORD's desire for them. And for some reason they thought that building the tower and city would prevent their dispersion.

They all shared one language, which facilitated their planning to set up a one-world government headquartered at the location soon to be known as Babel. That their motives were sinful is most obvious from their deliberations: "Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth." They were not thinking of the LORD and His will, they were not calling upon the name of the LORD, but they were thinking of themselves. Perhaps they intended to storm heaven and take it over by force. They definitely thought they could achieve immortality through their great building project. They were building a shrine to their own cleverness rather than to the glory of God. They despised the thought of merely being creatures under God's rule and wanted to live self-determined lives. Just as Satan had tempted Adam and Eve with the promise that the fruit would make them like God, now their sinful descendents fall for a similar temptation and commit treason against the LORD their King.

But the LORD would not sit idly by watching His creatures try to displace Him. The LORD sees and knows all, so "The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech" (Genesis 11:5-7). Notice how God speaks to Himself in the plural, "Let us go down." This is because the Persons of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are taking counsel together.

But why does the Triune God confuse their language and scatter them? Because the LORD knows that if mankind continues to go down this path and unites their sinful wills all into one, then there will be no end to the wickedness and rebellion they will stir up, and they will need to be destroyed. So His punishment of confusing their language and dispersing them serves a merciful function. Now that they are dispersed, they can lay aside the project of climbing up to heaven and get back to their God-given task of being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth.

Yet the confusion of languages is a punishment that has had lasting dramatic effects on this world. The Hebrew verb balal means "to confuse," and a contracted form of the verb gives us the word "Babel," the name of the city. This is such a notable story that English often will use that same word without capitalizing it to describe a confusion of sounds or voices. And throughout history the legacy of Babel, the confusion of languages, has created countless problems for humanity.

Martin Luther comments on this passage: "This [confusion of languages] may appear to have been a light punishment, but surely it is a terrible one if you take into consideration the extreme hardships that resulted from this division of languages. For one thing, identity of language is a very strong bond in human association and harmony among men. In this instance, too, the statement of the proverb is true: "Birds of a feather flock together." A German likes to converse and associate with a person of his own nationality. But where the languages differ, there not only no commerce develops, but hatred arises in the heart against that nation whose language you do not understand."

In our cosmopolitan age, this may sound outdated and even politically incorrect, but throughout most of history, people didn't interact with or trust those who spoke a different language. The word "barbarian" was coined by the Greeks, not as a term for people who act barbarous, but to describe non-Greeks, because the foreigners' non-Greek language sounded to the Greeks like "bar-bar-bar-bar-bar," gibberish. The Greeks had little regard for barbarians, and in that they are typical of most peoples throughout history. Why bother learning a barbarian tongue? Learning another language is not only extremely inconvenient, but we have a natural bias toward our native tongue and consider it the best language. The language barrier has not only prevented commerce and communication for much of history, but it also has caused political conflict.

But the worst side effect of the language confusion was that it became so much harder to communicate the Word of God. As a punishment for sin, most of the world was then left without God's Word and fell into all sorts of idolatry, knotted up in unbelief and false religious babel. Yet the LORD in His mercy chose Noah's son Shem and his descendents as the ones who would pass on His Word and preserve the Messianic line. Immediately after our text, Moses lists the generations of Shem, down to Terah, the father of Abram. And then the LORD comes down to Abram and says, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-3). Later the LORD would be more specific and tell Abraham that all the earth would be blessed through his Seed, or Offspring, that is, the Messiah.

Whereas the children of men at Babel tried to make a name for themselves and take heaven by force, the LORD Himself promised to make Abraham's name great and bring heaven to earth by the Messiah who would come from Abraham's lineage. Whereas the LORD came down to punish the children of men at Babel for their rebellion, the LORD came down to Abram the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13) to choose him purely by grace to be the father of all the faithful. In fulfillment of His promises, the LORD gave Isaac to Abraham, then Jacob to Isaac, and Jacob was renamed Israel, who would be the father of the twelve tribes of the Hebrews, God's chosen people.

So the LORD kept His Word in the world through the Hebrews, and it seems that His Word was passed down in Hebrew orally up until the time of Moses, from which time onward the Word of the LORD was written down in Hebrew to instruct God's people about the mighty deeds and glorious promises of the One True God. The hearing of God's Word, especially the promises of the Messiah, kept faith alive among the remnant of Israel even when most of God's people had rejected Him by chasing after idols. Over time, the Children of Israel were scattered among many foreign lands, and in many cases they even forgot Hebrew and had to get translations of the Old Testament in their local languages. And that sets the stage for the reversal of Babel that would happen on Pentecost.

St. Luke tells us: "When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians-we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:1-12).

The time had finally come for the curse of Babel to be reversed. With the Holy Spirit poured out upon the apostles, they were able to speak in languages that they didn't even know. Devout Jews from every nation under heaven were gathered in Jerusalem for the Old Testament Festival of Pentecost, and the New Testament was proclaimed to them in words that they could understand. This great miracle is the start of the reversal of Babel, since the Holy Spirit shows that the Gospel is to be proclaimed to people from every tribe and every tongue.

In the earliest days of the church, it seems that this miraculous speaking in foreign tongues was a gift given to some disciples so that they could spread the Gospel orally, but this gift doesn't seem to have persisted past the time of the apostles. By then God's Word had been written down in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, which were penned in Greek, the most widely used language of the day, the lingua franca. But we know that from early on, Christians were busy reversing Babel by translating the Bible into Latin and Syriac, Coptic and Armenian, and many other languages. Christians wanted to share the Gospel with all nations, so they overcame their suspicion of those who spoke foreign tongues in order to bring the Good News about Jesus to more people. In some cases they encountered peoples that didn't even have written languages, so they would invent an alphabet to correspond to the people's speech and then teach them how to read it. For example, the missionaries Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century were sent to the region that is now the Czech Republic, and they taught the Gospel to the people in the Slavic tongue that was used there. But it wasn't a written language, so Cyril invented the alphabet that we know today as Cyrillic, which provided a written language for the liturgy and Scriptures for the Slavic peoples for centuries to come. This reversal of Babel by overcoming the language barrier continues on down to this day by the work of missionaries and organizations like Lutheran Bible Translators and Lutheran Heritage Foundation. Today we Christians must be concerned not only with translating the Scriptures into English as accurately as possible, but also into all those languages out there in which God's Word is not able to be yet heard.

But simply breaking the language barrier doesn't yet overcome the curse of Babel. The miraculous speaking in tongues on Pentecost was not an end in itself, nor is the translation of the Bible into foreign languages. The real overcoming of Babel only occurs when sinners repent and believe the Gospel. The church's evangelistic and missionary goal is always to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. So first the Law must be proclaimed to terrify smug, self-assured sinners. What all people must come to realize is that the sins committed by the people at Babel and our sins are the same.

At Babel, the sinners deliberated: "Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth." And we do the same. In our hearts, we turn away from the LORD and think, "Let me build myself a life to live the way I want, let me decide what to think about God and how to get to heaven, let me make a name for myself so that I can receive the praise of others." And then we go about committing these sins: we disregard the LORD's commandments and do what is right in our own eyes; we ignore what God has taught in Scripture about Christ as the only way to salvation, and we think that we can gain heaven by our good works or by making excuses for our sins rather than repenting of them; we live for ourselves and not for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. We treat our body as a shrine to be used for our own good rather than as a temple consecrated by the Holy Spirit to live a life of faith in God and love of others. Now just like Adam and Eve and the children of men at Babel, we their sinful descendents fall for similar temptations and commit treason against the LORD our King.

So we are left in a position just like the people on that first Pentecost, to whom Peter preached a sermon about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and about how sinful men were the ones who put Him to death. The people on Pentecost were cut to the heart in sorrow over their sins and cried out to Peter and the other apostles, "What shall we do?" In the same way, God's Law should expose our sin and cut us to the heart, so that we realize that our sins also were borne by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He was suffering for our transgressions.

And Peter replies to all of us, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." (Acts 2:38-39)

To repent means to reverse the sin of Babel. That is, we turn away from our self-chosen paths, we give up our aspirations to ascend to heaven by our efforts or excuses, we turn away from serving ourselves, we confess our total guilt before God and bow down to be washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, Abraham's Seed and Israel's Messiah. He is the one who has answered for all of our sins on the cross, rose on the third day, and poured out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He is the One who commissioned His Church to make disciples by baptizing and teaching all nations, even right here in Elgin, Texas.

And in Holy Baptism we have received the forgiveness of all of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has created faith in our hearts, and every time we have knotted ourselves up in sin again we return again in repentance to the promise that our Lord gives us in Baptism: "I gave My life for you, I was raised up to justify you, I forgive you, I am your righteousness, I have come down from heaven to save you." And in order that we may be sure that this precious gift of forgiveness of sins and Christ's righteousness belongs to us, the LORD also gives us Holy Absolution and Holy Communion as a pledge and seal of our Baptismal grace. He does not give us only one or two ways of being certain of His grace and love toward us, but He is superabundant in giving His Means of Grace.

Today Babel is being reversed everywhere the Gospel is proclaimed in languages people can understand and where sinners are repenting and believing that Gospel. We should devote our time, talents, and treasures to supporting such missionary efforts, and we should give thanks to the LORD when these endeavors bear good fruit. But we also should realize that Babel won't be completely reversed until we all enjoy the New Creation in heaven. There all believers in Christ will join together with one voice, as St. John saw in his Revelation: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"" (Revelation 7:9-10)

There Babel will be completely reversed, for there will no longer be any confusion, misunderstanding, sin, suffering, or death, but only unending joy! What language will we be using to praise the LORD there? English, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew? Perhaps some angelic, heavenly lingua franca? I'm not sure, but I can't wait to find out, for there is no doubt it will be better than anything we could ever ask for or imagine. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.


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