Not Just a Bunch of Talking Heads
Grace United Methodist Church
October 4, 2009
Genesis 11: 1-9
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “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 whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
A few years ago, I was on a road trip with several college students. We were on our way to Charleston, South Carolina, and I was driving the van late at night. I told the students that whoever rode “shot-gun” had the task of talking to me and keeping me awake. As we made our way over the flat, hypnotizing roads of South Carolina, the young man in the front seat was determined to do his task. So he engaged me in a conversation about the diversity of peoples around the world. The young man was curious about why God created us with different skin colors and why we speak different languages. We talked about it for a while, but never drew any really hard and fast conclusions; probably because there is no easy answer. But this story of the Tower of Babel attempts to provide an answer for why we are scattered about the earth and why we speak different languages. Yet, the lesson of this story goes far beyond that.
We love the story of the Tower of Babel because it’s vivid, and we can easily imagine the enthusiastic spirit of the community as they work together to make bricks and build this massive structure reaching towards the heavens. And then we can imagine the anger of God as the language of the people is confused and they are scattered around the world. Now we know why we speak different languages. The end. But if that really were the end, we probably wouldn’t be as drawn to this story as we are. What makes the story of the Tower of Babel so appealing to us is the fact that an explanation is provided for why God has caused us to have different languages, and yet the explanation itself seems contrary to God’s will. God wants us to be in relationship with one another and with God. So why is God the one doing the scattering?
Part of understanding the significance of the Tower of Babel comes in viewing the story as a parable. The Genesis narrative has already revealed to us that there are many nations scattered around. We learn this in the preceding chapter where we are given a full listing of all of Noah’s descendents. Hear these verses that fall immediately before the story of the Tower of Babel: “These are the descendents of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” Thus, we already know the story of how there came to be different nations and different languages. So what is the real meaning of the story of the Tower of Babel? What is its real significance?
As one way of getting a glimpse of what’s going on in Babel, let’s think for a minute together about teamwork. And since football season is now in full swing and you all are probably tired of hearing about my basketball career, we’ll use the football team. In general, the goal of any football team going into a game is to win. But, of course, winning requires teamwork. The offensive line is needed to protect the quarterback so that the quarterback can throw the ball to the receivers or hand it off to the running backs. And though the quarterback takes the ball initially, it gets down the field through the work of the running backs who run the ball, or the receivers who catch the ball. Of course, on the offensive side, there’s also the kickers who can put in a field goal if a touchdown opportunity is missed or kick the extra point after a touchdown. Then there’s the defense, which works to keep the other team from scoring; or in Tennessee’s case, which scores when the offense fails to do so. It literally takes the hard work of every player on the field to win a game, and if any one piece messes up their role, it means failure in reaching that goal of winning the game.
So, when God created humanity, God’s idea was that we would be a team. But not just a team to ourselves; we were to be a team working with God. God’s plan was that we would “fill the earth and subdue it.” God’s plan was that with God making a way for us, we would scatter across the world and share the story of the one True God: YHWH, as the Israelites called him. It’s kind of like God’s the quarterback calling the plays and directing the team, and we are the running backs or receivers who take the hand-off from God or turn back to God to catch the pass so that the ball can get down the field. We can try and function as a team without God, but without someone to manage the ball, we’re not going to do very well. We’re not able to move forward as God intends, and we are not able to accomplish the goal that God has in mind. And that’s exactly what God saw happening with the community in Babel.
They were trying to function on their own and as a result, they were ignoring the game plan. They were settling in one place rather than filling the earth. They were communicating only with one another rather than sharing the message of God’s love around the world, and perhaps worst of all, they were building this great tower that essentially amounted to an idol of massive scale. In essence, their action was a challenge to the divine command given at creation to fill the earth. And so God, as the “team leader,” intervenes. It was not that God was upset at the people for what they were building; rather, God was disappointed by the motivations of the people. God recognized that though the people were united, their concerns were isolated – focused on self-preservation – which could promote any number of projects that would put God’s creation in jeopardy. This is why the story of the Tower of Babel is important; because it is a reminder of what our motivations should be. This story is a reminder of why we are here, of why God created us, and why God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.
The story of the Tower of Babel would seem to tell us that God does not want us to be united, but that’s not the case at all. Rather, by confusing the people and causing them to scatter, God is seeking to promote the right kind of unity. The kind of unity God desires for us occurs only when the community encompasses the concerns of the entire world and encourages difference and diversity to that end. We are united as a body when we live together without conflict or oppression, and when we have common goals in line with God’s purposes for the world. This is why Jesus came: to unite us and point us to God and God’s will for this world. Jesus came to show us that though we are different, we have a common message to share of God’s love. And precisely because we are different, we are able to reach all the different peoples scattered across this earth. Just like all the players filling different positions on the football team, we are more fully able to carry out God’s plan for creation because we are diverse and yet united.
Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Jesus came that we might know the unconditional love and grace which God has for us. And Jesus came so that we might see how we are to share that love and grace with others. Jesus’ life in this world – his ministry, death, and resurrection – inaugurated God’s Kingdom here on earth. God’s Kingdom is a diverse community united by the common love of a Savior, and God’s Kingdom will be fulfilled when such unity is achieved throughout God’s creation. Not only did God in Jesus Christ make all this possible, he also gave us a way to continually remember our place in the body of Christ, and our role as followers of Jesus. That reminder comes in our sharing of Holy Communion.
When we gather at the Lord’s Supper, we remember the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we share in this meal, we are reminded of the charge that is before us to be bread in the world, offering life and hope to all who are lost. Our gathering at the Lord’s Table is a reminder of our unity in diversity; particularly on World Communion Sunday. And our sharing in the Eucharist is an anticipation of that day when all people, from all walks of life, and all across the world will gather around God’s great banquet table and share in his Holy Meal together, as one body. But that won’t just happen on its own; we as individual believers and as a church community have to work toward that common goal, looking to God who shows us the way. The story of the Tower of Babel reminds us of this. The unity of the church is not found only by focusing on unity here. The mistake of the people in Babel was that they were concerned only about their community and their tower. A unified front that is concerned only with buildings and programs, but is not in tune with the needs of the community is not really unified at all. True unity is really more of a gift; found in those things that are not centered on one’s own self-interests; those things which may not even be tangible at all. Unity will be forged most successfully in getting beyond our own kind on behalf of God’s Word in the world. Real unity will be known when we sit at a common table with God and with our neighbors; all whom we are to love unconditionally as God loves us. Across any and all barriers, this is the love which unites.
We must begin today. We must focus beyond ourselves and strive for unity beginning here, and spreading out into the Soddy Daisy community and beyond. So as you come to the Communion Table this morning, remember these things. Remember that you are loved. Remember that you are claimed as a child of God. Remember that we are all part of the body of Christ, and though we are many yet we are one, gathered around this Table today worldwide. And remember that with the call and claim on our life comes a charge to be scattered across the earth, united with people everywhere in sharing the message of God’s love with all people all around the world; beginning right here on our very own doorstep.
 Genesis 10: 31-32