Make a Name for Ourselves... Or Call upon the Name of the Lord?
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
What a day! The Day of Pentecost. The day of the baptism of Andersen Theodore Bucher. The confirmation of his dad, Derek. And the reception of Andersen’s family into the body of Christ here at St. John’s. And it’s very fitting, for like all baptisms, Andersen’s is a mini-Pentecost—a Holy Spirit-filled event. He received God’s Spirit, not in the rushing wind or in tongues of fire, but in the water and Word. My grandson is now my brother in the Lord—yours too! Derek, Marissa, and Abbott are also now part of this congregation, numbered with you, and all Christians throughout the ages and across the world.
This is a day for which I have prayed for some time now. I prayed for Derek before he even began to date Marissa—not specifically by name, of course, but that God would provide a godly husband for her and father for Abbott. I prayed for Derek and Marissa during their engagement and I still pray for them and their marriage each day. Andersen just turned two months old last week, but I’ve prayed for him for over 10 months—at least the last eight by name. Abbott would hear me in Daily Prayer, praying for members of my family, including Aimee, my Dad and Mom, my children and grandchildren, and he’d say: “You said, ‘Andersen.’ That’s my brudder.”
Long before he was born, Andersen had a name. But historically, the day of baptism was the day for receiving your name, your Christian name. Hence, the word christening is nearly synonymous with Baptism. And so today, the one known for a very brief time in the hospital as “Baby Boy Bucher” received his Christian name: Andersen Theodore; and you heard it a number of times in the baptismal rite. This is significant, for God says to His children, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
My parents taught me the importance of a good name. But it was my boss, Ralph Korn, who taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned on the first day I worked for him selling feed: “Remember to greet a person by his or her name. People like to hear their name. Their name is important to them. People like to know that you care enough to learn their name and call them by it.”
And God cares very much about each one of you gathered here today—from the oldest to the youngest. He loves you! Enough to give His Son into death for you. So today, true to His promise, God has redeemed Andersen Theodore, called him by name, and made him His own dear child. He did so by giving him His own triune name: the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Names are important to us. They give us a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and from a sinful selfish standpoint—bragging rights. And that’s just what the people in our Old Testament lesson, our text from Genesis 11, were talking about: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Who were these haughty builders? They were a family of favor and privilege, bearing a prestigious name. Their patriarch, Noah, had been the only one to find grace in the eyes of the Lord. Only he and his wife, their three sons and their wives were saved in the flood. They were Shemites—sons and daughters of Shem—the line that had received Noah’s special blessing that the Messiah, the Promised Seed of the Woman, would come from among them. So blessed, but perhaps only four generations later, openly rebelling against God’s expressed will.
As they left the ark, God had commanded, “Fill the earth.” It was God’s good will that in time the whole earth should be filled with people who would live for His glory, so that from east to west His reputation as Savior would be magnified. That multitudes across the earth would call upon His holy name.
Noah’s descendants started out well. From Mount Ararat, where the ark had come to rest, they journeyed down into the Tigris-Euphrates valley (in present-day Iraq). “They found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” It didn’t matter to them that God had said, “Fill the earth!” They responded: “Why should we? This is our paradise—the Fertile Crescent. It doesn’t get any better than this!”
The settlement they planned to establish was not a temporary one either. “Let us build ourselves a city,” they said—a fortified settlement. “Let’s build a tower that reaches to the heavens. Then we will be important and we can stay right here and bask in our glory and our achievement.” They even talked about the “state of the art” construction techniques that would be necessary. They wanted their tower to last, so they burned their bricks, much like a potter would fire a pot in a kiln. And they used bitumen, tar, to hold it together.
And then we have a very interesting turn of phrase: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” Moses, the one who wrote this text for us to read, is saying something important here. Even though the “children of man” were building a “tower with its top in the heavens,” God had to “come down” to see it.
Of course, God didn’t need to come to Babel in person to see what was happening. He is all-seeing and all-knowing, present everywhere, all the time. Nothing escapes His notice. The point is that from God’s vantage point their great work wasn’t even big enough for God to see without coming down. The picture Moses wants you to have is of someone squatting down with their face pressed against the ground to view an anthill. After all their efforts at greatness, this great tower they are building is really nothing at all from God’s perspective.
So what exactly was wrong with what they were doing? What’s wrong with a little human ingenuity? What’s wrong with building tall buildings and making a name for yourself? Is God afraid of losing power? Of course not!
The key here is a very small word in the first part of the text: “Us”. “Let us build…” Let us do it… not “Let’s see if God would have us do it…” or even “Let’s do it for the good of all people.” Or “Let’s pray about it in the Lord’s name.” And certainly not, “Let’s ask the pastor to bless this building project.”
No, it was: “Let us… according to our own will… according to our own power… according to our own ability…” What they were saying was, in effect, “We don’t need God to protect us; we’ll build our own fortified city. We don’t need God to reach the heavens; we’ll build a tower. In fact, if just we stick together, if we are just unified, if we just depend on one another, we can do without God altogether. And this tower itself will prove that nothing is impossible for us.”
And on that point God agreed. “Nothing they propose to do will be impossible.” But, God means something far different. When God says “nothing they propose,” He knows what kind of evil will naturally result. It’s not that God is threatened by the building of great skyscrapers; He’s concerned about the great evil that lives right here in the hearts of the children of man.
God knows about the selfish ambition that leads people to walk all over others to get what they want. He knows about the quest for power that leaves thousands of dead soldiers lying on bloody beaches. He knows about the worship of “Choice” that leads to the death of millions. He knows about the hubris that leads to torture chambers and mass graves in the desert. He knows about those who say the most practical and compassionate thing that we can do for Grandpa is to put him to sleep so that he won’t have to suffer or be a burden.
When God said, “nothing they propose will be impossible,” I don’t even want to know about the evil that He was acting to prevent. It’s bad enough today. But when God confused the languages and caused the people to be scattered instead of unified, He was really protecting mankind from itself. He was protecting us from our own evil that consumes us, our own sinful nature.
God’s judgment here, unlike the time of the flood, wasn’t even visible. We don’t hear about the city being sacked or the tower being toppled. God simply made some changes inside the minds of the builders. They could no longer understand one another’s language. And that had severe repercussions. For one thing that meant that they could no longer work together. Any of you who have worked with those who do not speak the same language know how difficult it can be. Worse yet, the builders no longer trusted one another. The spirit of friendliness and confidence was replaced by ugly suspicion and enmity. And so the settlement they had hoped would bring them security and fame became know as Babel or “confusion.” A name that would live on forever in infamy.
God scattered the children of man. But the sinful pride is still there in each human heart. Even now, we continue to build our own little empires. And God still kneels down to look at our puny towers… all the things we depend on instead of Him… all the things we use to say, “We really don’t need You, God. We can do it on our own. Come, let us make a name for ourselves.”
Yes, you and I have prideful towers we have built, too. Just think for a moment about the things we use to help us to “make it on our own” and “make names for ourselves.” We float along in life pretty well, feeling pretty much in control, running our day-to-day life as we best see fit, and using our Sunday church attendance to keep God right where He belongs—in the background, on stand-by.
And when trouble comes we may even pay God lip service through prayer. But really we believe that if we are just strong enough we can get through our problems by ourselves. Like when we have to face death in the family, we say things like “I can get through this” or “I’m a strong person. I’ll survive” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” We live life and deal with trouble as if God lets us suffer so that we can show how strong we are. So we can build our own tower of strength and show how we really don’t need Him at all.
But whether our towers are built from burned bricks or steel or our own self-esteem, it all comes out the same. We want our bragging rights. We want to be in control. The sin of the people at Babel is our sin—pride and rebellion.
At the Tower of Babel, God broke up the people’s pride by breaking up their communication. He scattered them across the face of the earth to prevent greater evil. He breaks our pride by allowing trouble and pain in our lives. God doesn’t allow trouble into our lives to show us how strong we are. Trouble and pain show us how much we really need Him. Death shows us how helpless we really are. How puny we are in respect to the eternal and infinite Lord. How scattered and confused we become when we push God away or simply ignore Him.
Thank God we live by grace. The God that scattered is also the God who gathers. The same God who took away the ability to communicate gave it back again. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and turned disunity—scattered people with scattered languages—into unified people who each heard “the mighty works of God” in their own language. It was “Babel undone.”
We see in these readings from Genesis and Acts a sharp contrast—the difference between making a name for ourselves and calling upon the name of the Lord. Everyone who tries to make a name for himself is ultimately confused and scattered. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord is saved. They are enlightened and unified by the Holy Spirit. These are the “mighty works of God”!
Sinful human beings naturally want to take care of things themselves. We want to earn our own way. We think that if we just do enough good things we can make it to God on our own. It is a plan doomed to fail from the start, because it focuses wrongly on us.
But God’s plan is much better! He sends His own Son to save us from ourselves. We want to build our own stairway to heaven, but God has Jesus come down to earth as one of us instead. We want to make it to God with our own religion, where our own good works and efforts count for everything. God give us the only true religion where we are brought to God only through the free gift of His only Son. He gives Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world. All the sin of pride and self-promotion, all the sin of leaning on everything but God, all the sin of wanting to make a name for ourselves, all of our sin was taken to the cross of Jesus, where it was put to death that you might have life in His name.
And so today, we’ve had our little Pentecost. For the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Father has poured out His Holy Spirit. And we’ve had the miracles, too. No tongues of fire, rushing wind, or the speaking of many languages. Something even better. The Lord is building His Church—brick by brick, one soul at a time, with His Word and Sacraments.
The Holy Spirit is turning hearts toward Jesus, creating faith, through the Word. He is putting His name on people, making a name for them through the water of Baptism. Feeding you with His very body and blood. Not so that you can take care of yourself. Not so that you can depend on yourself. But so that you trust more and more in Jesus and less and less on yourself. For only in His name do you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Only in His Word will you hear this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.