Pentecost - c

Preached: May 23, 2010

The Human Spirit Fails, But the Holy Spirit Prevails
Genesis 11:1-9

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Through this word from God recorded in Genesis 11, the Holy Spirit points us to God's work in our lives.

All the earth was one language with the same words. When they traveled eastward, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and settled there. Each one said to his neighbor, “Come, let's make bricks and bake them in fire.” They used brick instead of stone and used tar as mortar. They said, “Come, let's build a city for ourselves and a tower whose top is in the heavens. Let's make a name for ourselves, so that we are not scattered over the face of the earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they all are one people and one language, and this is just the beginning of what they'll do. Now nothing will keep them from whatever they devise to do. Come, let us go done and mix up their languages there, so that no one understands the language of his neighbor.” The Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, since there the Lord mixed up the language of the whole earth. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:1-9)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

A. The human spirit triumphs. Not!

1. Where do you lie on the line between optimist and pessimist?

Do you recognize what news event this audio clip refers to? That's the voice of Steve Nesbitt from NASA mission control on January 28, 1986. I was standing in the lunch line in high school that day when the vice-principal said that it exploded. The space shuttle, Challenger, had exploded. But it was NASA. They had put a man on the moon. They had beat the Soviets in the space race. They could do anything. How could this happen to NASA?

The human spirit dreams impossible dreams. May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed Congress saying, “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space. . .” ( Then on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong says, "That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind" ( The human spirit triumphs!

How many commencement addresses this time of the year echo that theme? “Reach for the stars and you'll achieve your dreams.” The human spirit triumphs! In so many stories we tell, the human spirit triumphs over any obstacle, whether that's conquering space, the final frontier, or overcoming the elements of nature, or wrestling with personal demons. Wish upon a star for your hearts desire. Winning the victory against a bigger, stronger, opponent. We love underdog and the Cinderella stories. The human spirit triumphs no matter what the odds. Even children stories breath it. Be the little engine that could. “I-think-I-can. I-think-I-can.” “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” From little on up we learn that the march of progress will overcome any barrier, any disease, any set back, any failure. Hope springs eternal. The human spirit triumphs!

We see that spirit throughout the ages. Over 2000 years ago the ancient Greek Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” Yes, the human spirit triumphs! And around 2000 years or so before that, mankind said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4 NIV). Can we do it? Yes we can! The human spirit triumphs!

But it didn't, did it? Not at Babel, not with the ancient Greeks who are long gone. And not with us today. The space shuttle explosion brought that home, not to mention the numerous wars, disease, disasters, accidents, earthquakes, airplane crashes, oil spils that daily remind us how fragile and frail we are. The human spirit fails again and again. The underdog doesn't always win. Cinderella is often left in the ashes. Despondency, despair, depression. Under such pessimism society deteriorates. People wallow in self-pity. Life crumbles. Escape into the bottle or pill box. Drown out reality out with constant entertainment. Why work hard? Why try to get ahead? You'll fall on your face. The human spirit fails.

Now we don't want that for our children, do we? Is it any wonder why we tell them to keep chugging along, keep trying, keep saying “I-think-I-can. I-think-I-can”? That's why we love to hear those stories where the human spirit triumphs.

But what's the solution? We've looked at the extremes: At the one end human optimism imagining continual triumphs; at the other end pessimism despairing as failures mount. Is the solution some point in between these extremes? Is there somewhere in the spectrum that's not overly optimistic filled with false hopes but on the other hand not desparingly pessimistic so that we give up and stop trying? Is there some point of realism that brings a happy median?

No matter where you go on that line, no matter how well the point or range you choose fits reality, that's not the solution. That part of the spectrum might work for you to get you through life, even to get you a successful life on this earth, but it's not the solution. For the solution does not lie on this line. Let's turn to tower of Babel to see why.

B. Like at Babel, so still today

1. How is our “American spirit” like the time of Babel?

Humanity had witnessed how serious God was about sin. He had destroyed the world and all life that breathed except for Noah and those with him on the ark. But through Noah the line of the Savior and the promise of his coming continued. After this world-wide flood, those eight on the ark where again to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

But how soon we mortals forget! For in those centuries between Noah and Abraham, humanity turned away from God again. “As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2 NIV). This would have been where modern-day Iraq is, part of the fertile crescent in ancient times. Here was good, flat farmland between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, vital water supplies in this part of the world. What a good place to settle! Plenty of food to sustain them.

And look at their ingenuity and technology. “'Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly.' They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3 NIV). These were no sun-baked clay huts with mud holding them together, but solid bricks and tar for a permanent home. The march of progress.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city” (Genesis 11:4 NIV). That would offer them safety and security. “ . . . with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4 NIV). That would give them fame and status. So they thought they had it all: Sustenance, security, and status. Fame and fortune. What more did they need? The human spirit was triumphing.

Are we much different? When our bellies are full and we're safe and sound in the comfort of our own home and we have a good name in the community, friends and family who love us -- is that what life's all about? Is that why we work hard, chugging along? Is that our life's purpose and ambition: sustenance, security, status?

But we do at least give a nod to God, don't we? We say our prayers and have our day of thanksgiving. Well, these people at Babel might have given God a nod too. When it says the tower was to reach to the heavens, might they have not viewed this tower as their worship place, their church, their spiritual center to bring them heavenward, giving their nod to god.

But notice how they kept god in their own box. God was good as long as he fit into what they wanted. God had told them through their forefather Noah, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1 NIV). But instead they were determined not to “be scattered over the face of the whole earth”(Genesis 11:4 NIV). Rather than listen to God, the dictated to him.

We, live in a country that gives a nod to God. There are vocal voices today that deny God, but for the most part we still live in a “religious” society, but only as far as God fits what we want. So we have “In God we trust” on our coins. Aren't those good sounding words? But America really trusts its economic and military power. We pledge that we're “one nation, under God” but live as if God were under us. All this talk about god is so generic it fits most any religion, recreating god in our own image. In times of tragedy, prayer and memorial services are held calling on a god but rather than seeking the true God, these are but tools to reignite the human spirit so that citizens keep striving toward triumph.

How much has this American religion infected our mindset? Are we content with this generic nod toward God, thinking all is right since I have food and shelter and a decent life? Such lukewarmness is deadly! The risen Jesus in his glory says, “So, because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:16, 17 NIV).

2. Explain how God's judgment was also an act of mercy?

The Lord brought that home to the people at Babel. “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building” (Genesis 11:5 NIV). The Lord, the God of grace who freely makes his promises and faithfully keeps them, does not act in an arbitrary way. He is present everywhere and knows all things, but to emphasize that he truly did give his attention to the situation and dealt with it fairly and justly, Scripture says that he came down to see.

And what does the Lord conclude? “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6 NIV). Yes, in the wonder of God's creation even the fallen spirit of humanity is a powerful thing. As the crown of his creation, humanity has much control over the things of this world. So much, that working together as a team they could easily deceive themselves into thinking they did not really need God. Nothing would break that deception except the fires of hell after it was too late.

So the Lord, in his mercy as well as his justice, declares, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:7 NIV). The Lord, the triune God (note the “us”), acted. What a serious judgment this is! Unlike the Flood that affected only one generation, how many generations in the millennia since Babel have suffered from the confusion of languages? How much mistrust, how much hatred, how many wars, how much blood have resulted from Babel?

But is not all this earthly trouble worth it, if it brings us closer to God? What would have happened to us if at Babel God's promise of the Savior had once-and-for-all been forgotten, since man thought he didn't need a Savior if the human spirit could actually triumph over all? Where would you and I end up if the troubles of life did not keep us running back to God? This severe judgment was also a merciful judgment, an act of the Lord, who abounds in grace and mercy.

C. The Holy Spirit centers us on Jesus and his cross

1. Describe the change the Holy Spirit works in us.

That brings us to the solution. That entire line between unbridled optimism triumphing and pessimism despairing is centered on the human spirit. The solution is off the line. The solution is centered on the Lord, whose promises never fail.

This doesn't mean giving a nod toward God or speaking religious words on the right occasion. It's a radical change, a change that only the Holy Spirit works. It's a radical change in which the Holy Spirit through his Word and Sacraments tears us lose from this line centered on the human spirit and centers us on Jesus and his cross. That's what we see him doing on that Pentecost Day as Peter preached: “God, has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36 NIV). With those words the Holy Spirit cut them to the heart. They despaired of any hope in their human spirit and desired to know how to be saved. Peter continued, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:38, 39 NIV). That means you, dear friend. The human spirit fails, but the Holy Spirit prevails.

This changes everything. We still chug along striving to do our best, but not because we believe that the human spirit will triumph. Rather we chug along because we want to use the gifts and abilities our gracious God has given us. We want to use them for his glory. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NIV). “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17 NIV). This is not a simple outward nod toward God, but a deep inner conviction worked in us by the Holy Spirit, an inner conviction that fills our thoughts and attitudes. For although the human spirit fails, the Holy Spirit prevails.

So then when we tend toward optimism or experience success, we don't credit the tenacity or ingenuity of the human spirit. Rather we see it as a gracious blessing from our heavenly Father who opens his hand for his blood-bought children. For we know, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1 NIV). Without the Lord, the human spirit ultimately fails. That's the lesson of Babel. But the Holy Spirit prevails. That's the lesson of Pentecost.

And when we tend toward pessimism, feeling the heartaches and pains of life, the accidents, disasters, and tragedies of this sinful world, then rather than falling into despondency and despair, we turn to our merciful Father in heaven. He treats us as sons, whom he disciplines in love (Hebrews 12:7-11) to draw us to rely on him more and more. Nothing can separate you from his love that is Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can snatch you out of his hand, nor out of Jesus' hands that were pierced with nails for you. In fact, he will bring you from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven. That's the real triumph. So take heart and stay centered on Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313