“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ And 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.’ So, the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:1-9).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Did you know there is a controversy about what the world’s tallest building is? Well at least there was. For years, the question has always been whether you count spires and antennae or just go by the highest occupied floor? If you count spires and not antennae the twin Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur were the tallest at 1483 feet. But if you count antennae then the title belongs to the Sears Tower in Chicago at 1729 feet. But in 2012, the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai settled the argument for now. Costing over $1.5 billion, the building soars 2,717 feet high in the Middle Eastern sky. Burj Khalifa has 160 occupied floors, fifty more than its nearest rival. It also houses the world’s highest mosque on its 158th floor.
So, what’s with this fascination for tall buildings? What’s the money and efforts spent in these endeavors all about? I think it is bragging rights. Burj Khalifa is named after the president of the United Arab Emirates, who financed a major part of the project. Bragging rights are important to us as human beings. And that’s just what the people of Babel were talking about. “Come, 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” (Genesis 11:4).
Who were these haughty builders? They were a family of favor and privilege. Their patriarch, Noah, had been the only one to find grace in the eyes of the Lord. They were Shemites—sons and daughters of Shem—the line that had received Noah’s special blessing that the Messiah, the Promised Seed of the Woman, would come from among them. Now, perhaps only four generations later, these chosen people were rebelling against God’s expressed will for them.
As they left the ark, God had commanded, “Fill the earth.” It was God’s will that in time the whole earth should be filled with people who would live for His glory, so that from east to west His reputation as Savior would be magnified. Noah’s descendants started out well. From Mount Ararat, where the ark had come to rest, they journeyed down into the Tigris-Euphrates valley. “They found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2). It didn’t matter to them that God had said, “Fill the earth!” They had no plans to move on.
The settlement they planned to establish was not a temporary camp either. “Let us build ourselves a city,” they said—a fortified settlement. “Let’s build a tower that reaches to the heavens. Then we will be safe. Then we’ll be important, and we can stay right here and bask in our glory and our achievement.” They even talked about the “state of the art” construction techniques that would be necessary. They wanted their tower to last, so they burned their bricks, much like a potter would fire a pot in a kiln to it more durable. And they used bitumen for mortar.
It’s the “If we build it, they will come” idea on a grand scale. But just ask the folks in Dubai how well that works. Their building is a wonder of modern architecture, but it’s a financial flop. Its completion coincided with a worldwide economic slump and overbuilding, and in addition to its other records it held the dubious distinction of being the building with the most vacant space. Twelve years later, over twenty floors, about 60% of its available office space, is still vacant.
And then we have an interesting turn of phrase in the text. “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built” (Genesis 11:5). It is difficult to miss the irony in this verse. The picture Moses presents is of someone squatting down with their face pressed against the ground to view an anthill. After all their efforts at greatness, this great tower they are building to reach “with its top in the heavens” is really nothing from God’s perspective. It’s a puny little anthill that God must stoop down to see.
So, what exactly was wrong with what they were doing? What’s wrong with a little human ingenuity? What’s wrong with building tall buildings and making a name for yourself? Is God afraid of losing power?
The key here is a small word in the first part of the text: “Us.” “Let us build,” not “Let’s see if God would have us do it” or “Let’s pray about it in the Lord’s name.” No, it was: “Let us build.” What they were saying was, in effect, “We don’t need God to protect us; we’ll build our own fortified city. We don’t need God to reach the heavens; we’ll build a tower. In fact, if we stick together, we can do without God altogether. This tower will prove that nothing is impossible for us.”
And on that point God agreed. “Nothing they propose to do will be impossible” (Genesis 11:7). But God means something different. When God says, “nothing they propose,”He knows what kind of evil will naturally result. It’s not that God is threatened by the building of great skyscrapers; He’s concerned about the great evil that lives right here in the hearts of the children of man.
God knows about the lies that allow people to claim each other as property. He knows about the selfish ambition that leaves thousands of dead soldiers lying on bloody beaches. He knows about the worship of “Choice” that leads to the death of millions of babies, often purely for the sake of convenience. He knows about the hubris of those who celebrate with “pride” what God has clearly called sin. He knows about those who say the most practical and compassionate thing that we can do for Grandpa is to put him to sleep so that he won’t have to suffer or be a burden.
When God said,“nothing they propose will be impossible,” I don’t even want to know about the evil that He was acting to prevent. It’s bad enough now. I can’t imagine how bad it could be. But when God confused the languages and caused the people to be dispersed, He was really protecting mankind from itself.
God’s judgment here, unlike the time of the flood, wasn’t even visible. We don’t hear about the city being sacked or the tower being toppled. God simply made some changes inside the minds of the builders. They could no longer understand one another’s language. And that meant that they could no longer work together. The spirit of cooperation was replaced by suspicion. And so, the settlement they had hoped would bring them security and fame became known as Babel or “confusion.” A name that would live on in infamy. Ironically, the people who wanted to be make a name for themselves, did, but it is a name of shame.
God dispersed the children of man. But the sinful pride is still there in each human heart. Even now, we continue to build. And God still kneels to look at our puny towers… All the things we depend on instead of Him. All the things we use to say, “We really don’t need You, God. Let us make a name for ourselves.”
Just think for a moment about the things we do to help us to “make it on our own” and “make names for ourselves.” We float along in life well, feeling in control, running our day-to-day life as we best see fit, and using our Sunday church attendance to keep God right where He belongs. And when trouble comes, we may even pay God lip service through prayer. But really, we believe that if we are just strong enough, we can get through our problems by ourselves.
Like when we must face death of a loved one, we say brave things like “I can get through this” or “I’m a strong person. I’ll survive.” Or we spout falsehoods such as “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” We live life and deal with trouble as if God lets us suffer so that we can show how strong we are. So, we can build our own tower of strength and show how we really don’t need Him at all.
But whether our towers are built from burned bricks or steel or our own self-esteem, it all comes out the same. We want our bragging rights. We want to be in control. The sin of the people at Babel is our sin—pride and rebellion.
At the Tower of Babel, God broke up the people’s pride by breaking up their communication. He dispersed them across the face of the earth to prevent greater evil. He breaks our pride by allowing trouble and pain in our lives. God doesn’t allow trouble into our lives to show us how strong we are. Trouble and pain show us how much we really need Him. Death shows us how helpless we really are. How puny we are in respect to the eternal and infinite Lord. How confused and dispersed we become when we push God away.
But thank God we live by grace. The God that dispersed is also the God who gathers. The same God who took away the ability to communicate gave it back again. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and turned dispersed people with many languages into unified people who each heard “the mighty works of God” in their own language. It was “Babel undone.”
We see in these readings from Genesis and Acts a sharp contrast—the difference between making a name for ourselves and calling upon the name of the Lord. Everyone who tries to make a name for themselves is ultimately confused and dispersed. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord is saved. They are gathered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. These are the “mighty works of God”!
Sinful human beings naturally want to take care of things themselves. We want to earn our own way. We think that if we just do enough good things, we can make it to God on our own. It is a plan doomed to fail from the start because it focuses wrongly on ourselves.
But God’s building plan is much better! He sends His own Son to save us from ourselves. We want to build our own tower to reach God, but God has Jesus come down to earth as one of us instead. We want to build a city that brings security and status. God promises a holy city, New Jerusalem, where the angels guard and the gates are never closed for fear of the enemies. We want to make it to God with our own religion, where our own good works and efforts count for everything. God gives us true religion where we are brought to God only through the free gift of His only Son. He gives Jesus to die for the sins of the world.
All the sin of pride and self-promotion, all the sin of leaning on everything but God, all the sin of wanting our own bragging rights; all our sin was taken to the cross of Jesus, where it was put to death.
With all of that done away with, God can start building. And He’s a much better builder than we are. The building He does is right here (in our church) and it’s nothing like any building that we could ever hope to do.
Just look at the difference after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. The signs and wonders that we are told about here isn’t the building of skyscrapers, it is the building of the Church. It is God turning hearts toward Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the miracle of people being devoted to the apostles’ teaching. That’s God building using His Word. It’s the miracle of God putting His name on people, making a name for them, through the water of Baptism. It’s the miracle of God building up faith through the breaking of bread, the eating and drinking of the bread and wine and body and blood of Jesus.
God’s building program seems unimpressive to the world. Concrete and steel structures are more to our liking. They seem more important. But God’s way isn’t like our way. He’s the one who decides what is and isn’t important. He builds in the way that He chooses, and He makes His building successful.
That what’s going on here again today: God is successfully building! Here we have the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayers. God’s building something more important than a tall tower. In His Word and Sacraments, through the work of the Holy Spirit, He’s building up your faith. Not so that you can take care of yourself. Not so that you can depend on yourself. But so that you trust more in Jesus and less on yourself.
And so, you do. You turn to God, and you trust in Him. You let Him build your life through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. You let Him be your security. You let Him give you life and salvation. You let Him give you His Name. You let Him speak to you His powerful, Spirit-filled Word.
What Name? What Word? This one: For the sake of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our only Savior, you are forgiven of all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.