December 28, 2011
by Katherine Britton
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. - Romans 15:5,6
Coca-Cola created a cultural meme of epic proportions with a TV spot in 1971. You've probably heard it. The brand jingle "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" met such popular appeal that it merited a full song minus the Coke references. The New Seekers took their happy song high on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year, as people sang along with the hilltop melody. In case you've forgotten the original jingle, a few sample verses:
I'd like to teach the world to sing
in perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke,
and keep it company
I'd like to see the world for once
all standing hand in hand.
And hear them echo through the hills
for peace throughout the land.
It's the real thing
what the world wants today,
That's the way it'll stay
with the real thing.
This utopia of happy people might've been a little exaggerated (the song originated as a marketing campaign, after all), but the underlying ideal of unity clearly resonated with people. If Coke happened to be the original vehicle for such peace, love, and happiness, okay then. It's a delightful ditty that manages to communicate our need for unity and connection. But is unity alone enough?
Coke's marketing was clever, but not original. At its heart, the commercial and subsequent song celebrated a humanism that was also secular. Its message was for the people, by the people -- and by their creations. From that point of view, the message was the same as the message of Babel. In that instance, men united to sing praises from another hilltop. The praises were their own - praises of a unified people so in sync and powerful that they could rival the gods.
You know what happened next.
Matthew Henry's commentary observed of Babel that "unity is a policy but it is not the infallible mark of a true church." Babel was partially constructed before God decided to deal with their pride and disobedience, and looked plenty successful for a time. Call it a common grace that we have the ability to build relationships that work even in a fallen world. Even Babel - and Coca-Cola - can do that. Our attempts, however, may only work for so long.
Babel failed when its people "forgot their place" and sought their success, reputation, and a good life elsewhere than where God had commanded them. Their unity was founded on something temporal. As such, it was no matter for God to drive a wedge between the people and send them away from each other. That was his original command. He had told them to fill the earth, not stay in one place and build a single city for all humanity. Apart from his purposes, they had no real unity… only a secular humanism to temporarily stick them together.
While God can drive apart, he also has the power to bring people together for his purposes. As I talked about last week, the miracle of the Gospel doesn't just bring us back to God - it brings us back to each other. Matthew Henry's commentary says this:
As the confounding of tongues divided the children of men and scattered them abroad, so the gift of tongues, bestowed upon the apostles (Acts 2), contributed greatly to the gathering together of the children of God, who were scattered abroad, and the uniting of them in Christ, that with one mind and one mouth they might glorify God.
The Gospel brings us back to our right place. Observing our need of grace orients - and unites! - us towards Christ with other believers. Then, something crazy can happen. Babel reverses itself.
Babel happened when people took a superficial unity to the extreme, and ended up judged by God for their disobedience. Pentecost, with its universal call to repentance in Christ, forged a permanent unity between people who had little in common.
*This devotional originally ran January 6, 2011.
Intersecting Faith & Life: What holds our relationships together? Are we building our unity around a happy song that might ultimately disintegrate? That only works so long as we, so to speak, agree to sing exactly the same tune, words, and song. But when our focus is on living life to glorify God, we get something far more encompassing. That's enough to hold us together through the smaller disagreements here on earth. Babel's day is over - the miracle of Christian unity has taken over.