Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Power of Babel”
Rev. Art Ritter
June 9, 2019
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore 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.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
I am not a big fan of jazz. I admit that I am very much set in my ways and when it comes to music I have strong opinions. I like strong melody lines and meaningful lyrics and jazz doesn’t seem to supply either for me. I once had a conversation with a jazz aficionado and he explained that my problem with jazz was me. I am too much of a music conformist. I was told that while jazz relies on a foundational melody, the deviations and improvisations from that melody are what make the genre unique. Good jazz musicians rely upon the melody and harmony but also upon the spontaneous contributions of other band members and the audience. “Jazz,” Duke Ellington wrote, “is freedom of expression.”
I saw a new item this week that caught my attention. The headline read, “Jazz Has Become the Least-Popular Genre in the U.S.” The article said that jazz is now tied with classical music as the least-consumed music in the nation, after children’s music, both representing about 1.4 percent of total U.S. music consumption. However, classical music album sales are higher so this puts jazz at the bottom of the barrel. I was curious so I read on as to the reasons. It was quite interesting. New listeners are not engaging with jazz music as they once did. While there has been much sharing and crossover of the genre, music specifically labelled jazz has not caught on with younger listeners. The article also said that traditional jazz followers are less likely to listen to new artists thus ignoring new musical styles and opportunities. They prefer listening to their favorites thus limiting the market for new artists. Finally it seems that jazz listeners are the slowest of all music lovers to adapt to new listening technologies. Jazz is the only music genre to have declining digital music sales. As I read over this article it seemed to me that jazz is suffering from a desire of its listeners to remain traditional and uniform, perhaps the very antithesis of its nature which is creativity and diversity. According to the article jazz is declining because jazz listeners are behaving unjazzy!
In the eleventh chapter of Genesis, following the flood, people migrate from the east and build a city in the plains of Shinar. Their goal is to construct a tower to reach the heavens and to make a name for themselves, lest they all be scattered across the face of the earth. It was a unifying plan to build a place where people could live and abide with one another. The author of the story then says that God was not happy with such a plan. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” I don’t know who God is speaking to here but clearly someone or something is working with God. And as a sign of judgement God created different languages and scattered people across the face of the earth.
I was always taught that this story should be a lesson of caution to human pride and arrogance. We should not make ourselves or think ourselves to be as God, building or planning or navigating our own way to heaven. If we do, we will be brought low in failure; confused, divided, and defeated. The lesson is to avoid pride, to be humble, and to know our place in God’s eyes. A side interpretation of the story seems to hold that human success can only be found with universalized speech and thought. The more we are alike, the greater we will be. Thus the introduction of differences was a punishment which caused the destruction of plans to reach the achievements of the gods.
But this week I read a couple of others interpretations on this ancient Biblical story. Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein submits that God’s plan was never punishment. God simply wanted to teach humans that the path to heaven was not in uniform thought and one single tower to heaven. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same, or act the same. God knew that humankind must be scattered, must be different in order to fully experience God and to thrive. The lesson of the Tower of Babel is that we get closer to God not through uniform towers but when we seek different backgrounds and embrace diverse experiences.
In Christianity Today, Pastor Peter Hong, of the New Covenant Community Church in Chicago writes that God’s spreading out of the people was actually not a punishment but a correction. “In choosing to remain together in their safe, homogenous existence, instead of spreading out over the earth, the people were thwarting God’s purposes.” God corrected that by scattering them. Walter Brueggemann writes that “the fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation.” Unity based on strong bricks and towers is grounded in fear, seeking to survive on its own resources. Instead God wishes for us to get out of our comfort zones, reach beyond walls that keep us comfortable, and venture out into the world to fulfill God’s mission. Don’t build up. Reach out.
On the day of Pentecost, it all changed. We are quick to remember the tongues of fire and the mighty wind, but what about the words that were spoken that day? Instead of everyone hearing one language, the message being shared that day was heard in many different languages. While one message was preached- the power of God as found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- there were many different voices and languages preaching it. One common message- spoken and heard in diverse ways.
This ancient story plays itself out in our lives today. Churches are formed with excitement and energy and vision to reach out to others. But over time churches began to pour their energy and resources into building towers and keeping the institution itself safe. As believers we are struck with the good news of the gospel and how it can change our lives and our world. As time passes we begin to use our faith less as challenge to our world and our own behavior and more as a way to make ourselves comfortable and to justify our thoughts and actions.
There is a comfort and predictability to living in Babel. But that is not where the spirit of God wishes for us to be. The power of Babel is the call to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, to leave the comfortable for that which causes us discomfort. The power of Babel is a lesson that we are to live faith as on a journey, leaving behind what we know and moving out beyond our field of vision. That is what God wants. That is how we come to know the divine.