Sunday of Pentecost, June 7, 2020
Acts 2:1-11; John 7:32-57, 8:12
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
The hymns of the feast of Pentecost as celebrated in the Orthodox Church interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit as a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel.
This connection is probably obvious in at least one respect—language. In the Genesis 11 account of the Tower of Babel, we see God descending to the tower builders and confusing their single language into many languages, thus dividing the people from each other.
And in Acts 2, with the descent of the Holy Spirit into the apostles in Jerusalem, we see them preaching the gospel and people from many places each hearing the gospel in his own language. And 3,000 people were baptized in response, uniting them all in Christ.
There is far more going on in the Genesis account than might be apparent to the modern reader that illustrates for us how Pentecost reverses and heals what happened at Babel, and is, I believe, urgently needed for our own moment in history.
Genesis 10 gives what is called the Table of Nations, an account of the traditional seventy nations of the Earth, all descended from Noah and his sons. The beginning of chapter 11 is also about these nations, but it is about how they fell into sin. It is not merely a story about some over-ambitious tower builders who were stricken by God for their arrogance.
What was that tower really all about? In Genesis 11, human civilization is depicted as a worldwide empire with Babylon as its capital. And in that city, a great tower was being built in the center of the city. What was the point of this tower? You don’t put a tower in the center of your city for purposes of defense. This is not a narrow, horizontal tower like we might imagine on city walls.
This tower is a ziggurat—essentially a terraced pyramid. One such ziggurat found in the area of ancient Babylon is estimated to have been about 300 feet in height. This is a massive building, so it was clearly for a very important, central purpose. And its purpose is for sacrifice. The nations knew the one God, but in building this tower, they were trying to treat him the way ancient paganism worked. How so?
Ancient pagans would build a garden or a tower, and then in the midst of it, they would erect an idol. They would perform a ritual to get their god to descent into the idol through its nostrils, a kind of breathing-in. And then they would control the god by taking care of the idol and offering sacrifices to it. So this ziggurat of Babel was an attempt to worship God in a pagan way.
God actually does descend at the building of this ziggurat at Babel, but it is not to be controlled by idolatry. Rather, He descends to drive them away from what they are doing, confirming it by confusing their languages. And something else also happens in the wake of this event which illustrates that the nations did not repent of their idolatry.
In Deuteronomy 32:8, it is written that God had assigned the nations to the “sons of God” (or in some texts “the angels of God”). These are the angels assigned to govern the nations. Yet these angels fell into rebellion and brought the nations with them. They did this precisely through idolatry, accepting worship for themselves rather than directing all to worship the Holy Trinity.
And because the nations worshiped these demons, they became like them, falling into sexual immorality, greed, violence, and so on. There is even an icon of the Tower of Babel that shows the demons, depicted as grey-colored angelic beings, descending on and possessing the nations as they are dispersed from the tower.
The division of the nations thus became cemented in idolatry, with tribe warring against tribe and nation against nation. Idolatry does not unite, because the gods of the nations—the fallen angels, the demons—are each jealous of their own power and influence. This division is of illustrated in Genesis 11 by the multiplicity of language and the numerous ways of thinking that result from different languages and cults and cultures.
The Reversal of Babel
So let’s return again to Pentecost and see how it undoes, reverses and heals what happens at Babel. It is not only about language. It is fundamentally about worshiping the one true God. At Pentecost, the apostles and disciples were also gathering in an elevated place, an “upper room,” just as when Christ gave them the Eucharist, it was in an “upper room” – there is a tradition that these were in fact the very same room. And of course the Temple in Jerusalem was also on a hill, an elevated place dedicated to worshiping God.
When they were gathered in that upper room in prayer, the Breath of God did indeed descend—the Holy Spirit. But He did not descend into an idol—an image of a god made from lifeless material. Rather, He descended into human beings, the image of Himself that He had fashioned at the beginning and placed in the Garden of Eden to commune with Him. We may recall that in Genesis, God breathed life into the nostrils of Adam.
So in a sense, what happened at Babel was a reversal of what had happened in Eden, and what happens at Pentecost is not only a reversal of Babel but a restoration of Eden. In Eden, God made mankind according to His own image, and breathed life into him, communing with him.
And He had made mankind to worship Him only, not because He needed worship but because it is through worship, through the common meal of sacrifice, that communion with God is possible. At Pentecost, the worship of the one God is now opened for all mankind not through idolatry and self-interest but rather through true worship and self-sacrificial love, the kind of love given by Christ Himself on the Cross.
Idolatry in our Time
In our own moment in history, we see the divisions of mankind into warring tribes and nations, political movements and ideologies, driven not only by the fear and ignorance that the media at least rightly point out. Rather, division is driven really by idolatry, the worship of something created rather than of the uncreated Creator.
In our time, the worship of possessions is extremely strong. Sacrifice to material wealth is common and indeed often lauded. And those who worship this idol will gladly sacrifice even their own families to it, but of course they will also easily sacrifice other people who do not look, think or speak as they do.
The worship of power is also gripping our time. And the worship of pleasure is also everywhere. These forms of idolatry are also common and encouraged.
We fool ourselves if we think that idolatry does not attract demons. It absolutely does. And when we attract demons to ourselves, then we divide ourselves from each other. Sin does not unite people. It always divides. Why? Because sin, deep down, has one message: “Me first.” That is called pride. It is the truly original sin, the sin that is the basis of all other sins.
Why is there systemic injustice in our nation? Why is there hatred? Why is there violence? Why is there division? Why is there greed? Why is there immorality of every kind? It is because of idolatry. It is because sacrificial worship is being offered to created things. It is because the image of God in man is being ignored so that people may attempt to deify other things.
If we wish for an end to strife, we are called to repent. We are called to repent of our immorality, of our greed, of our love of power and pleasure. When we do that, we cast off idolatry.
No Justice, No Peace
There is a common slogan in our time: No justice, no peace. People interpret that in a lot of different ways. Some use it as an exhortation to work for justice so that there might be peace. Some use it as a kind of threat—if you do not give me justice, I will make war on you. Nevertheless, it is true that justice and peace do go together.
But they do not go together in the midst of idolatry, because idolatry is unjust and it is never peaceful.
If we wish for justice, we should worship only the Sun of Justice Himself, Who when He descends brings wrath to the unrepentant and vindication to the fallen.
If we wish for peace, we should worship only the Prince of Peace Himself, Who at His advent brought the heavenly hosts to sing in unison and at his coming manifestation to the nations will bring the end of all war, all sorrow, and all death.
Mankind is suffocated by his idolatry. If we want to breathe, to breathe again the Holy Spirit, it begins with repentance. It begins with sacrifice. It begins with worship. And then we can breathe. Then we can live.
When we do that, our divisions of wrath are transfigured into distinctions of grace. Our many languages are not eliminated but instead begin speaking the same Word of God, the Word Who sent us His Holy Spirit and brought all into one unity. The apostles speak, and everyone hears in his own language. And we speak in our own languages, and everyone hears the same Christ.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.