A Tale of Two Towers

Posted: May 23, 2013 by Todd in Sermons

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I preached this sermon on May 19, 2013 at Grace United Methodist Church.

The texts are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21.  Here is the audio.

We’ve got two scripture lessons this morning – the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of Pentecost. Our graduates are about to go off to different places to make a name for themselves. These two stories contrast for us two very different types of name-making. Listen for the differences as we hear God’s word. From Genesis 11, verse 1.

When I graduated high school and went off to college, literally, the first thing I did, along with my roommate was to start working on my own tower of Babel. My freshman dorm room was a living testimony to this ancient building project. Our dorm room had everything that we needed. But we weren’t content live with the basics. We wanted more for our room. We wanted to make a name for ourselves. We were determined to live in luxury  as defined by 18 year old boys. First things first – our beds were going to be in the way of our anticipated home theater, so we took ‘em out. Our room wasn’t big – we had to find ways to concisely store things. This was before IKEA, so we invested in lots of those white metal wire frame shelves  and drilled holes into the cinderblock walls to mount them. Now we could stack our stuff vertically on these towers that lined our walls, making room for our home theater. [more…]

We purchased two sleeper sofas that we toted one at a time back to our dorm by tying them to the top of my roommate’s Jeep, which was itself sort of a tower of Babel on wheels. This dual couch layout was the lynchpin of the entire design concept – couches by day and fold out beds by night. We used stereo components as bricks for our tower. It featured the best speakers my roommate’s graduation money would buy, a laser disc player, and video game system. It was starting to feel like heaven and we were beginning to make a name for ourselves in the dormitory. But, like all Babel towers, we were always looking for ways to build our tower a little higher – make our room a little more awesome. So one day we decided to get a fish tank. But, by this time, space was at a premium, yet we figured out a way to get our fish tank above my roommate’s stereo equipment and our tower was almost complete. One of the few inconveniences in our otherwise idyllic life was having to battle Birmingham traffic to go to the store to buy more soda. So naturally, I thought buying 2 liters in bulk would be the way to go. But this takes up room  and clearly, we were running out of that. So…we built our tower a little higher and drilled more holes into the cinderblock wall and put up another wire frame shelf…above the fish tank.  Now, there’s no great way to stack two-liter soda bottles on a wire shelf and by this time, we were pretty much all the way up to the ceiling. I managed to construct a little soda pyramid on top of the shelf and got down off the chair. Finally, the tower was complete with its top in the heavens.  I’m not sure if it was the bass from the speakers or one of those undetectable earthquakes or just that things hadn’t quite settled yet, but one of the soda bottles on the bottom level of the pyramid rolled and the rest of the pyramid followed suit, shattering the fish tank, electrocuting our poor fish, and dumping dirty fish water all over my roommate’s stack of stereo stuff.

The Lord scattered our tower all over the dorm room. This did not help our quest to make the sort of name for ourselves that we wanted.

Babel building scatters. But Pentecost building gathers.

Pentecost is the beginning of this thing we call the church. I hope we all know that God’s church isn’t the church building – it is the people, who gathered together are the body of Christ. This, in and of itself, represents a very different type of building from Babel. Pentecost is a movement, a gathering, never a building campaign.
Last week, Pastor Bryan began our sermon series on the story of family with a focus on nuclear families. For most of us, these families mark us with a name. We don’t make a name for ourselves, but are made with a name. Names tell us where we came from. Our names are a sort of shorthand for our family inheritance and personal identity formed by our history. At Pentecost, another layer of family is introduced and another name is given – not to replace our nuclear family name or geographical history, but a name that both includes and transcends our given identities. It is the name church. Pentecost gathering has formed and is forming a new family – the church.

At Babel, there is an intense insecurity about name and identity. Who one is, the name one is marked with isn’t enough – one has to go and make a name for one’s self. Out of insecurity, it compares and judges. And worse still, there is no recognition of a larger name shared with anyone other than one’s own tribe.

Let me tell you a story of another tower. Three or four years ago, the phrase “Tower of Babel,” meant something special to the staff at Grace. Some of you will recall that we had this lovely…structure…that held our projectors to display words and images on the wall. This “Tower of Babel” had to be situated in just the right spot to work. [Walk to spot] About right here. A pretty convenient place, don’t you think? It was a very skinny tower on wheels that held two different projectors on it, each facing different directions tilted at different angles from slightly different altitudes to shine on the wall.   As you can see, it was sort of a permanent photo bomb on the stage. We took it off stage quite often, you know, for special occasions when we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. It’s only aesthetic consideration was a piece of cloth wrapped around the back half of the tower to conceal the projectors a bit. Everyone knew it was a make-shift solution. My experience has been that church people get nostalgic about / almost / everything. But I have never heard anyone say, “You know, I really miss that old projector tower.”

This tower was certainly not built to make a name for ourselves…quite the contrary. Yet it’s purpose was to gather us around shared words in song, unite different tongues in the same words of worship projected on the wall. It will never be regarded as an architectural achievement. It was just tall enough to do its job. To the joy of many, the Spirit led us to a more elegant solution.

There are lots of towers in our lives – these towers can be metaphorical. Work that we feel is important for some reason. I want you to take just a moment to think of a tower in your life. It may not be immediately obvious whether your tower is a Babel or a Pentecost tower. Rarely are we so bold as to declare that our buildings are insecure efforts at making a name for ourselves. Seen from a distance or at first glance, Babel building and Pentecost building may look a lot alike. Babel building is often done in the name of God. And God surprises us by showing up in places we consider to be Towers of Babel. Perhaps especially when the building is being done with our own hands or in our own hearts, it can be difficult to untangle the complicated mix of motives, emotions, and rationale that lay at the foundation of our buildings. However, I do think these two stories contain certain “design principles” that can guide us in our own life projects.

So, everyone have some sort of tower or project in mind by now? I want to take us through four design principles and my hope is that they might shed some light on your towers to give you clarity on your involvement or provoke you to think about it with Pentecost eyes.

Design Principle #1: Community Over Comparison
At Babel, there is a veneer of common purpose – the people want to make a name for themselves. They were dissatisfied with being on the same plane with everyone else. So they elevated themselves upon this plain of Shinar – over and above others. They rejected community with others in favor of comparing with others. God may have done the scattering, but the builders did the dividing.

And in a sort of mirror opposite of the comparing being done at Babel, at Pentecost scattered people gathered together in common purpose in the name of God – and God showed up too. There was a certain fire in the air – things were happening that no one thought could happen. Shared understanding revealed that in reality, the scattered were no longer divided, but now part of a community. And in this community, God shows up and does a new thing.

As you build: stop comparing and look for a larger frame around your work that will bring others inside.

Design Principle #2: Form Follows Function
Why do you think they chose to build a tower? The people at Babel could have built a nice one story building or dug a hole to China. But a tower was their chosen form. Form follows function is perhaps the most important principle that designers in every industry must learn. The Babel builders were not fools without a plan. If their function was to make a name for themselves – over and above others – only one form of building structure would do – a tower.  To make a name for ourselves amongst male peers – only a home theater dorm room would suffice. Sometimes the shape of your project, if you stop to consider it, will reveal its true purpose.

As you build: What does the form of your building tell you about its function?

Design Principle #3: Abundance Over Scarcity
Why did the tower have to be so high? If they wanted to make a name just for themselves, it seems to me, all they needed to do was get into the Guiness Book of World Records. It didn’t necessarily need to be a tower reaching into the heavens. But it did, because their bigness was tied to the smallness of everyone else. People on the ground would appear smaller by building into the stratosphere. Those who could help with the tower are rendered insignificant by it.
When my roommate and I got both of our couches in the dorm  we could not, no matter how we arranged them, fold both out into beds simultaneously. One couch folding out into a bed automatically took that option away from the other couch. If that weren’t enough, my roommate and I literally got into a wrestling match about the color of the rocks of the fish aquarium. I wanted multicolored rocks, he wanted something more “tasteful.” Truly, I didn’t really care what color the rocks were. But I felt like he had gotten “his way” too much and so I felt it was important for me to draw a line in the rocks, even if it seemed silly. These are the sort of arguments that happen when you assume that someone else’s gain is inherently your loss.

Babel building is a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games see life as a pie, fixed in size, when the pie is eaten, it is gone for good. Competing interests, therefore, scramble to get as much as they can of the finite pie. Had we broadened our horizon from our own dorm room to something more expansive, we might not have felt so confined.
Compare this to what happens at Pentecost. The Spirit expands the pie – as each group comes together, adding their voice, the area of the pie expands – there is more for everyone. There was no me and mine. Everyone brought their inherited name and place with them and they became common property. In contrast to Babel, there wasn’t even much of a building plan – they didn’t have to be so strategic about the use of precious limited resources. More is constantly being gathered in.

A scarcity-driven worldview not only results in less to go around, it also objectifies. My roommate and I didn’t really care about our fish. We just wanted something that looked cool and added a certain “wow” factor to our dorm room. As a consequence, the fish rarely were fed. I’m not sure if fish can get scurvy, but they certainly looked like it. It may have been an act of mercy on God’s part to electrocute the poor things to end their suffering. That’s what happens when you’re not looking out for others. They become either bricks for your tower or obstacles to discard.

And if all this destruction weren’t enough, we continued to look at our scattered tower through the lens of scarcity. We dried out my roommate’s stereo receiver and to our amazement, it worked. Also, to our amazement, Circuit City took it back. The clerk told us that he could put it up for sale as an open box buy. I’ve always felt sorry for the poor person who purchased a receiver soaked with dirty fish water. Our name-building efforts continued to come at the cost of someone else. Pentecost building offers opportunity to others, rather than extracting a cost from them.

As you build: Do you build with abundance or scarcity in mind?

Design Principle #4: Faith Over Fear
The fate that the Babelites feared most, motivating them to build the tower, was ironically caused by their avoidance of that fear. The text says “let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They built a tower of division to avoid being scattered. It didn’t occur to them that divided things are easier to scatter. Fear has a way of blinding us to certain realities. One of the most common responses to fear is to try and control every little thing. If we can maintain control, we think, we can avoid the result we fear.
Scripture hints at how much the builders were trying to micromanage a certain outcome. For instance, they were very concerned with craftsmanship – they said, “let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly” and the writer goes out of their way to let us know about the quality of their material – brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. This building was being designed to wow in ways that went beyond its mere height – all to prevent being scattered.

Now, I don’t want to gossip about a member of the Holy Trinity, but the Holy Spirit has a reputation. The Spirit cannot be controlled. It blows where it will. Spirit filled building endeavors can’t be carefully controlled. I’m not suggesting that we should abandon all planning, but if we’re so invested in a certain outcome, there is no room for the Spirit to surprise.

You have to walk forward in faith – which is to walk directly into fear, into the uncertain, not sure where the Spirit will take you. Faith is inherently open and willing to go in lots of different directions. It has not predetermined the destination. Faith is a dance with the Holy Spirit.

As you build: Are you open to a surprise?
A choice that our graduates are going to have to make – a choice that we all have to continue to make is how are we going to go about making a name for ourselves?
The way we claim our name determines whether the space we occupy is one of scarcity or one of abundance. If our name-claiming is done in a tribal way – to make a name for ourselves – declare our tribe as superior to other tribes, we’ll be fighting over the small spaces we occupy. But if we declare our name in a different way – as part of the gathered at Pentecost – we start to tune out the sneering from onlookers. We see possibilities emerging that we had never known before. We see God opening up shared space. Pentecost marked the shift away from a tribal based religion – tied predominantly to ethnicity. Christianity was now a global religion. It is about making a name together.

And so Pentecost gathering is more than just a museum of exotic people groups. A new name is made for the gathered. A new family is forged. Not to form some new super-tribe. Not to be better than anyone else. Not to say that this thing we call the church is better than the rest of the world. But to give a higher identity that is always a reminder of our purpose to be for the world, not against it. It tells the truth about the world we’ve been given – it is full of abundance. We don’t have to live as enemies with anyone. In fact, the Holy Spirit’s presence at Pentecost obliterates the entire distinction between us and them and seeks to gather us all under her wings. It tell us that God’s purpose for the world isn’t for a survival of the fittest competition that ends with the destruction of the world. But rather that the fate of creation is inexplicably tied up together. That my success isn’t dependent upon your loss. Pentecost means that we are part of a family without boundaries guided by an uncontrollable Spirit.
Let us pray.


Come Holy Spirit – all of the sudden, uncontrolled, like the rush of a violent wind and let us understand one another as you give ability. Keep us from keeping score, always counting who our enemies are, and drawing clear lines between us and them. Be with our graduates as we send them out like sheep into the wolves. Help them to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But most of all, Lord, let them be blown about by the uncontrollable Spirit that gathered your church at Pentecost. Amen.




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