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Genesis 11:1-9

Lesson Focus: As a church we are called not to make a name for ourselves, but to be fruitful and multiply. Pentecost is the renewal of the command and an empowering to be fruitful and multiply.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lessons students should:

  1. Understand that the scattering which took place at Babel was the nudge given to humanity so that they might multiply as God’s image-bearers in creation.

  2. Understand that we are called to make a name for God by bearing his image in creation.

  3. Understand that Pentecost is another scattering so that we might be fruitful and multiply.

Catching up on the story: Noah and his descendants have been saved from the flood and have begun to repopulate the earth. Directly after Noah and his family get off the Ark, they are given his command, at least twice, “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s not a new command. In fact, it’s the same command that God gave Adam and Eve at the beginning of time. If the Flood narrative is a reset/restart on creation, then the command to the new fathers and mothers of humanity is the same: reproduce yourselves, your godly selves so that the world that God has created might be filled with the image of God bearing people, people who look and act like the one who created them.

Noah’s descendants have, in one sense, been fruitful and multiplied. They have had lots of offspring and they are beginning to fill the whole earth. But, in another sense, they have not been faithful to the command. Implicit in the command to be fruitful and multiply is the idea they will cover the whole earth, not in a dominant kind of way, but in a diverse kind of way. In our passage, however, Noah’s descendants begin to consolidate their power so that they might make a name for themselves.

The Text: Making a Name for Ourselves: I think there’s a natural drive, inside all of us, to want to become something, to want to do something with our lives. Well, if it’s not natural, then it’s at least a large part of the story we are told about how life works from the very earliest of ages. We tell our kids things like, “You can grow up and become anything you want to be.”

At least, that’s the story we tell ourselves here in America. It’s the American Dream. The dream is that no matter who you are, where you are from, what your race, gender or religion is, you can become someone or something important. We tell our kids, if you want to be president, you can be the president. You just have to work hard enough. We tell our kids, if you want to be a doctor, you can be a doctor. We tell our kids, if you want to be famous and make a name for yourself, you can!

In fact, shows like American idol, The Voice and America’s Got Talent all thrive off of the American Dream and its hopes of becoming something, of becoming someone. Some contestants, I’m sure, participate in auditioning for shows and competitions like these because they fear obscurity, they fear that one day they will die and their name and everything that it represents will be lost to the world. No one will care, years after they are dead, who they were or what they did. They will be lost in obscurity.

If you’ve ever watched American Idol, or any of those types of talent shows, you’ll notice that each individual who auditions has hopes and dreams about what that opportunity might lead too. For some of the more promising prospects, we are treated to a montage of what their life has been like so far and the struggles they’ve had to overcome and still need to overcome. Some, who are realistic, realize that they have only a slight chance of becoming famous, or having their name becoming recognizable. Others, who obviously don’t have a good grasp of reality, think that they’ve got an honest shot.

The show does what it promises, though. Some of the contestants do actually make a name for themselves. The winning contestant in American Idol gets a record deal and a good deal of notoriety. Their names become household names. In some cases, the runners up become more famous then the winners, going on to make more records and become even more of a household name. But for every one person that become famous, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, who do not. Dreams are crushed. Not everyone gets to make a name for themselves. But everyone gets to try.

Making a Name for Themselves: This is where the stars of our bible story this morning are. They are trying to make a name for themselves. They fear obscurity, being lost to history as just another group of people who lived, worked and died with nothing to show for their labor.

Let’s provide a little context for the passage. Not too long ago—scholars disagreed on how long ago, but I’m not sure it matters all that much—the world and everything in it was destroyed by a giant flood. Humanity was evil and that continually, to the very core of their being. God, who had created creation to be good, and it was very good indeed, was sad and sickened by how his good creation was turning out. There was one man, however, Noah, who was doing his very best to be what God had created and intended everyone to be, a faithful follower of God –a faithful bearer of God’s image in the world.

Noah, because of his faithfulness, was spared from the destruction. God commanded him to build an Ark, to stock it with food and with pairs of animals of every kind. God’s intention was to press a giant reset button on the world. Noah, his family and the animals he saved, would become a new start. Noah and his descendants would not be like those that had died in the flood. No, they would be fruitful and multiply (a command that they are given at least three times after the Ark hits dry land). Their being fruitful and multiplying is more than just being good at making babies. They were to be the kind of person Noah was: God fearing, faithful, image of God reflecting people. They were to spread throughout the world, bearing God’s image, making a name for God as his creation, everywhere they went.

And, for the most part, they did. We are told, in the text, that Noah’s sons have lots of children. We are told where they end up living and what nations are birthed from those families. Nations are formed, languages are created and the image of God is spreading all over the world. But this wasn’t enough for Noah’s descendants. No, they wanted to make a name for themselves, not God.

The Scattering: Our text reads like this, “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.” (verse 4) Like every contestant on American Idol, Noah’s descendants set out to make a name for themselves. Very clearly they are afraid that they will die in obscurity, no one will know that they ever existed, that they had even walked on the face of the earth. They want, desperately, to make a name for themselves.

Just how are they going to do this you ask? By building a monument to their own strength and abilities. They are going to take the normal stuff of building and creation and form it into a city and a tower that will touch the heavens. This tower will keep them from being scattered; it will be a testament to their greatness for years, decades and perhaps millennia to come. It will be a monument to them.

We all know about monuments. They are valuable aids in remembrance. As society, anytime we want to remember a person or an event, or a generation of people, we build a monument out of materials that will last a very long time. Monuments help us remember; they immortalize people and events. They center our attention on the greatness of certain individuals or groups. But very rarely do they point beyond a person or group of people.

This quality of monuments to immortalize is precisely the problem with the tower that Noah’s descendants set about to build. God, who is always watching, decides to come down and take a closer look at what his creation is doing. Upon further inspection God declares, “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.” v. 6-7. It isn’t out of fear that God decides to do something about Noah’s descendants ambitious building plans; rather it is out of a desire for God’s creation to engage in the task of being fruitful and multiplying that God decides to act. You see, making a name for themselves, monument building if you will, is directly contrary to the command to be fruitful and multiply. It takes the focus away from being and becoming who they were supposed to be as God’s created beings, as people who were to take the image of God into their world and make it known. They were to be fruitful and multiply so that God’s name might be spread throughout the world, not theirs.

So God comes down and acts. He acts, not to destroy, but to nudge, to guide his creation to do what they were created to be, God-fearing, image of God bearing people just like Noah had been. God confuses their language. Really, the force of the words means that God made it impossible for them to hear and understand each other. Communication becomes impossible, and their fears are realized, they are scattered.

Our Scattering/Hearing, Speaking, Being, Doing… But today is Pentecost, and God is doing a new thing. Well, not really a new thing, but an old thing in a new way. In the passage from Acts 2, a passage we are all very familiar with, God breathes his Holy Spirit on his followers 40 days after his resurrection and ascension.

They were all gathered together in the upper room. They have been waiting and praying because Jesus told them to. Suddenly, the room begins to shake and the wind begins to blow. Tongues of fire begin to settle on each of their heads representing the Holy Spirit. This mighty wind blows them out of the room, out of the building and they begin to proclaim everything that they have seen and heard. There are people from all over the world living in Jerusalem and they begin to hear the disciples talk, in their native language! The confusion, the inability to hear and communicate that happens at Babel, is undone. Scattering takes place. Only this time it is a scattering that isn’t the consequence of disobedience, of trying to make a name for oneself; it’s a scattering that is the fulfillment of the command to be fruitful and multiply. It is the sending of those who are bearing the image of Christ to the world, so that those in our world might become like them as they are becoming like Christ. It is the undoing of Babel.

So What? What does this mean for us? It is a call to quit trying to make a name for ourselves. It is call to not fear that if we haven’t done anything in life, if we haven’t built a monument to ourselves, then we will be left to die in obscurity. It is a call to attend to the command that God has given us from the very beginning, the call to be fruitful and multiply. It is a call to be Holy Spirit filled people who are scattered throughout our world to make a name for Christ. It is the call to evaluate our individual actions to answer this question: Does this make Christ known, or does this make a name for me?

What does this look like for our church? There is always a choice, when thinking and planning for the work of the church. It is the same choice that those at Babel had. We can make a name for ourselves. We can build a monument to ourselves, a legacy to the work that we have done, so that our church might be something.

Or, we can be fruitful and multiply. We can work to be image-bearers of Christ, seeking to make a name for him, not for ourselves. This choice needs to be the lens through which we view each and every decision about programming and activities. Does this make a name for us? Or does this make Christ known? Does this feed the hungry? Does this clothe the naked, does this work to take care of the widow, the orphan and the poor? Does this proclaim the Good News in all of its forms, spiritual and physical? Is this motivated by self-giving love, the love that Christ has for us, or is it motivated by self gratification?

This struggle between these two questions is nothing new. It’s been happening since the beginning of time. It is with confidence, however, that we celebrate this day: God is faithful and will help us to be fruitful and multiply!

Critical Discussion Questions: What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?

  1. God has given creation a mission and that mission is to bear his image in creation so that he might receive glory through us. Our attempts to make a name for ourselves keep glory from being given to God. God, in this narrative, is nudging creation to be faithful to the command to be fruitful across the whole earth.

  2. At Pentecost God is renewing the command for us to go throughout the earth and bear his image to creation. Only this time, we are to tell the story of the love and faithfulness of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God scatters us in the power of the Spirit, translating for us his message into the words of the people who need to hear the gospel.

What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  1. Holiness means allowing ourselves to be sent, through the power of the Spirit, so that we might bear God’s image in the world. It means that our own name and notoriety take a back seat as we are used to telling the story of God’s love and faithfulness. In short, it is ceasing to seek a name for ourselves and allowing ourselves to be scattered in our community and world so that God’s love and glory may be displayed.

How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  1. All our decisions concerning life and church should be filtered through this question, “Does this make a name for me? Or does it make a name for God?” As we reflect on this question it should help us make career decisions, life decisions, and decisions regarding the church’s events and programs. The story of Babel and of Pentecost is a reminder that we are not building the church for our sakes or even the church’s sake, but for God’s sake, and for the world that God loves.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Look back at the previous chapters. What is the context for this story about the Tower of Babel? What command has God given Noah and his descendants after the flood?

  2. Why did the people at Babel want to build a tower? What was their motivation?

  3. What was God’s response? Why does God choose to act as he did? Is God scared of what the people might now be able to do?

  4. Why would God confuse their language? How might that help them fulfill God’s earlier command to be fruitful and multiply, filling the whole earth?

  5. Today is the Day of Pentecost. Read Acts 2:1-13. What similarities might there be between the Tower of Babel story and the one in Acts? How is God using human language to further his mission?

  6. Reflecting on our personal lives and our church: are we more like the people at Babel before God confuses their language, or are we like the disciples on the Day of Pentecost? Are we trying to make a name for ourselves or are we allowing ourselves to be scattered?