In the 1920s the economy was flourishing in the United States and business leaders were pouring their profits right back into industry. One of the leading companies, General Motors, was doing very well and their President, a man named John Jacob Raskob, wanted to extend his reach into the real estate world in addition to the auto industry. Raskob purchased some land in New York city and decided he was going to make a building that the world had never imagined. When he met with the architect who would design his building he was asked about his vision for it.
Raskob asked the architect, “How high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” In 1930 ground broke on this massive skyscraper and in only 18 months the Empire State building was completed and open for business.
When we think of the tallest building in the world the Empire State building probably comes to mind. And it was the tallest in the world for about 40 years. Since then other buildings in New York, and Chicago surpassed it. And more recently there’s been a building spree in the Middle East and Asia of skyscrapers that keep getting taller and taller.
And if we go backwards in history we see plenty of other people that took on massive building projects… from the Eifel tower to the Great Wall of China… the Pyramids of Egypt… there have seemingly been building projects in every generation that sought to create something the world had never seen… something that could create excitement and solidarity in a city or nation… something other nations would flock to see… something that would be a lasting testament to the genius and ingenuity of those who designed and built it.
Today in our sermon text we get to hear about the first massive building project that is recorded in history… the tower of Babel. The events of our text took place in the years following the great flood in the days of Noah. God’s flood destroyed the unbelieving world and preserved the eight people left on the planet who still trusted in him. Now the world was once again filling up with people… but unfortunately it was also filling up with rebellion against God once again. This isn’t shocking of course. Even though God had emptied the earth of all but Noah’s family we still hear the Lord remind us of this sad truth following the flood when he says, “every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21).
And sadly it did not take long for the sinful nature to rebel against God’s good plans and purposes for his world. The Lord had told Noah and his family when they came off the ark, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1). God wanted his people to grow and flourish… and he wanted them to take his promises with them to the ends of the earth as they populated and cared for the world he created… but God’s plans were soon forgotten… and were replaced with man’s own ideas. And isn’t that the essence of sin? To tell the Creator, “Leave me alone! I’ll handle this my way! I have to do what’s best for me!” If anyone wants evidence that the flood destroyed sinners but not sin, here it is…
And as we look at our sermon text we see this sin really play out in the three life goals these people seemed to be focused on. We’re told: As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Do you see the goals these people had? You could maybe call them the three S’s. First we’re told they find a plain (vs. 2) to settle in. The area they settled in is part of an area called the Fertile Crescent because it is good for farming in an otherwise arid and inhospitable area of the world. Here was Sustenance. In this well-watered plain they figured they could grow all the food they would need. No more reason to wander in search of food, they’d just take care of it themselves.
Not just Sustenance though, but also Security. They decided that in this city they were building they would be safe. A massive walled-city would protect them from those who meant them harm and would keep them from being dispersed as God had commanded.
And in addition to the goals of Sustenance and Security we see the goal of Status clearly too, don’t we. The city and the tower were for more than security and stability… they were: “so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Do these life goals look familiar to you? Really we see the same thing today don’t we? Apart from God all people seek these things. They want to live in relative peace and security and have people notice and appreciate them. And the lie Satan peddles is that people can have those things apart from the Lord.
But it’s not just the unbelieving world that gets sucked in by the lie of Satan is it? Even we as Christians fall into this… how many personal building projects do you have going at the moment? I know I fall into this all the time… whether it’s building a house or a career or a family we easily shift our focus to building up our own means of sustenance and security in this life… and if we’re honest, along with that often comes the desire to build up our reputation… to make a name for ourselves.
But our God makes it clear in his Word that he alone can truly give these things to people in any meaningful way… The Bible says: The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing (Psalm 145:15-16). God is our sustenance physically speaking… and of course more importantly spiritually, as he reminds us: Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The Lord is also the only one who offers real and lasting security in this life and the life to come. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). And so instead of being worried about what others might do to us we can say with confidence: O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever (Psalm 12:7).
And finally, when it comes to status, what higher status could we ever imagine or hope for than the one God gives us in Christ. As St. John wrote: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1). And since we’re God’s children through faith in Christ (Galatians 3:26) we’re told that Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers (Hebrews 2:11), and we are considered heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). And we will inherit eternal treasures that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:4). What possible status in this life could compare with this?
And as Christians we think we can focus on the sustenance and security and status in this life and still have them in the life to come… not realizing that a misguided focus on those three things in this life jeopardizes our life with God.
Thankfully our Lord knows our sinful hearts… and the Lord came down to do something about them. The LORD came down when the people of Babel were building a tower and he put a stop to their sinful plans. He knew if he did not intervene they would just keep on going with their foolish and unbelieving plans… he knew the world would soon be filled with only rebels. And so the Lord came down to curse Babel. He confused their common language. The building stopped. The people scattered. And we’ve seen the effects of this curse to this very day. People of different languages now stay separate for the most part… people are naturally suspicious of those from other languages and cultures… wars and oppression have resulted in every generation…and the curse of Babel has brought tremendous hardship and heartache to this world.
And yet, when the Lord came down to intervene it was not just to curse Babel, but to reverse Babel… to reverse the sinful course of those people and to reverse the wicked hearts of those who were rebelling against him. The Lord didn’t want to lose the people of this world forever and so even though he confused the languages as a punishment, he also did it to mercifully prevent rapid rebellion and unbelief from spreading any quicker than it already was.
The reversal of Babel’s sinful attitude didn’t stop there though. The Lord would intervene time and again in the history of this world to keep his promises in front of people. And in the fullness of time the Lord himself would come down in human flesh to carry out the fulfillment of his promises. And when you look at the life of our Lord Jesus you see a life that perfectly reversed the sinful attitudes of Babel, the attitudes often model today… a life that perfectly looked for sustenance, security, and status only from his Father in heaven.
For example, in every meal time prayer Jesus acknowledged the Father as the one who provides. In his battles with temptation he remembered God’s Word was his sustenance and shield in the fight. When he was opposed and attacked he never doubted that his Father would keep him safe in this life and vindicate him in glory after his death. And he was so confident in this, that he willingly laid down his perfect life on the cross where he suffered the punishment of hell we deserve for our rebellion and misplaced focus… and there on the cross Jesus reversed the curse forever for us all through his sacrifice.
And remember… how is it that we’ve been enlightened to this good news? Well… the Lord came down to do that too. The events of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, remind us that it is only through our Lord, God the Holy Spirit, that our confused and sinful hearts could be taught the truth about Jesus. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit reversed Babel as he enabled the disciples to speak the good news of Jesus in languages they had never learned. And up to this very day the Spirit is at work as he teaches people from every nation the language of the gospel through his Word proclaimed… through his Word at work in the water of baptism… through his Word accompanying the Lord’s Supper… Yes our Lord, the Holy Spirit, has come down to us and reversed the curse of Babel as he’s opened our ears to God’s promised truth in Jesus.
And this truth isn’t just for you… As the apostle Peter said on Pentecost, “All who call on the name of Jesus will be saved…” Whether you’re a Parthian or Elamite… a resident of Amsterdam or Appleton… whether you say “Jesus, Yesu, Ἰησοῦς or ַעוּשֵׁי… The name of Jesus transcends tongues because God the Spirit has taught you the language of the Gospel and placed the name of the Lord Jesus in your heart.
And this changes things… this common language of the Gospel means that even in this life we can connect with those who don’t have the same language or culture or country that we do… Martin Luther, when he was writing about our sermon text, discussed this great reversal of Babel through the language of the gospel. He said:
I myself do not understand an Italian, nor does an Italian understand me; and so there exists a natural opportunity for anger and enmity between us. But if we both understand Christ, we mutually embrace each other as fellow members.
And one day the barriers that Babel brought in this world will disappear completely as we stand in heaven with a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
And there… around God’s throne… we will join our voices to shout praise to the name of our Lord who came down to save us… And so today we give thanks to the Lord Jesus who came to earn our salvation… And to the Lord, the Holy Spirit, who has come down to us… who has opened our ears to this good news… and who promises to protect our faith, feed our faith, and preserve us as children of God until the day Jesus comes down again to bring us home. All glory to his name! Amen.