[The Day of Pentecost, June 6, 2019]
Audio here: .
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Let us make a name for ourselves.” That would work pretty well as a description of what we all want, to one degree or another. Whether it’s because we want to be famous so that everyone knows our name, or because we want to do something important or significant so we’re remembered after we’re gone, we all want to make a name for ourselves. The one difference between those people gathered in the broad valley of Shinar and the people gathered in the broad land of the United States is that we would rarely say “us” and “ourselves.” We would say “me” and “myself,” because we are proud to be independent individuals. Let me make a name for myself.
Very often it takes the form of establishing and creating identities for ourselves, so we can say, “This is who I am.” This is what I do. This is what I like. I’ve made a name for myself. And we think that if we can only get there, only establish that identity, or figure out what it is, that it will be as certain and dependable as a tower built with bricks reaching into the sky. But anything that we establish for ourselves, anything we invent or imagine for ourselves, is only going to be as certain and reliable as we are. But who can make his or her own identity and not be afraid of it being challenged, or doubted, or broken, or shamed? The things we make with our own hands and our own intellects and our own ingenuity are never as certain as we think they are.
Because we, like those in Genesis 11, are sons of Adam. I know the English says “children of man,” but it is literally the “sons of Adam.” And as Genesis 5 shows us, the sons of Adam are made in the image and likeness of Adam, not the image and likeness of God. They lost that life, and now their image and likeness is the image and likeness of sin and death. Just as Adam thought he could be the Creator rather than a creature, so the people in Shinar think they are the Creators of their own name, rather than the recipients of what they have.
God refuses to leave them to themselves. He refused to leave Adam and Eve in the Garden to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in death. And here also, He comes down to see what they are doing, and He sees that they will not stop with towers in the sky. It says that nothing will be impossible for them, but that’s not quite the sense. That makes us think of the misuse of Philippians: “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Rather, it is that they will not be stopped from doing anything and everything that comes into their minds. If God does not stop them, nothing will.
We know what that means. With all the good of the advances in technology that we have, the fact is that we are closer to Babel than we think. We essentially have one language and one speech, connected globally. And people will rarely be stopped from doing anything and everything that comes into their minds. Just because we can do something, we ought to and will do something. Nothing will stop us, not even God.
But God doesn’t want us to make a name for ourselves, subject to the changes and chances of this world and our own whims. He knows that it will always be uncertain and doubtful, and it will never save us, no matter how high we climb. So God stops them, confuses their language, and scatters them. Only then does their building stop, and exactly what they were afraid of happens: they are scattered over the face of the whole earth, just as Adam and Eve thought they could grab and take life, but all they found was death.
He scatters them, because He has a Name to give that is not doubtful, is not uncertain, and can save. And it begins in the very next verse of chapter 11. “These are the generations of Shem” (11:10). Shem, you remember, is one of the three sons of Noah; Ham, Shem, and Japheth. But Shem’s name literally means “name.” It is no coincidence that the story of the Name picks up immediately after the people try to make a name for themselves.
But this Name has to be given. It is the Name that is being made by God, fulfilled in the Name that is above all names: Yahweh’s Salvation, Jesus of Nazareth. His is the Name that will be confessed by all, worshiped by all. His is a Name on which to call and be saved. His is the Name in whom the Father sends the Holy Spirit, and pours out that Gift on all people—people who have all sorts of different names, who come from all the places of different names. But the God who scattered them to all those places so that they would not rely on their own names, now gathers them together in His own Name. The Christ calls them by His own Name: Christians. No longer Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, all speaking their scattered languages, but the Church of Jesus Christ hearing and receiving Him, the crucified and resurrected one.
When Peter is done preaching this Jesus, they ask, “What shall we do?” And he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and for your children and for all those far off, whom the Lord will gather” (Acts 2:38-39). He gathers them in the same way you have been gathered: into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, by water and the Word.
And that is a Name that cannot be broken, or undone, or taken from you. That is an identity that no one can remove from you, because Jesus, whose Name it is, is risen from the dead and alive forever. Whatever anyone might say or do or challenge, you belong to the Lord whose Spirit has been poured out on you and all who have been baptized into His Name. And now all of God’s people in Christ have one language and one speech, the Word of God, the language of forgiveness and life, and the Name by which He calls us His own. He has made a Name for us in the flesh of Christ, and we cannot be scattered away from Him ever again.
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 guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/7/19