Confusion and Grace - Genesis 11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Here is part of a poem: ‘But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before; though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where. Men have left god not for other gods, they say, but for no gods; and this has never happened before that men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason, and then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic. The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms upturned in an age which advances progressively backwards?’ That was T.S. Eliot writing about the culture of his day in the 1940’s. But it could easily be our culture he was speaking of or indeed any culture which has turned its back on the one true God. Eliot said that there were two ways of looking at a collapsing culture. The first says that a society ceases to be Christian when material prosperity becomes its overriding aim. The second says that a society has not ceased to be Christian until it becomes something else. Eliot lived at a time when the culture was very negative but yet still Christian in terms of the generally held shared values and outlook. The choice for the future, he said, was between the formation of a new Christian culture and the acceptance of a pagan one. 60 years on we inhabit what was once that future and I think that it would be fair to say that whilst there are still vestiges of Christianity having an influence, albeit a modest one on our society, the pagan view is the predominant one. This is the view that it is man and not God who is to be the master of his own fate and yet paradoxically finds himself enslaved. Whereas the old paganism was enslavement to impersonal forces such as Fate or the position of the stars and planets, the new paganism is enslaved to market forces, opinion shaping liberal intelligentsia and consumerism. The results are the same however-people feel alienated, lonely, and empty.
But this is not the first time in the history of the human race that people aspired to shape their own future without reference to God only to find their efforts thwarted. In fact we find a classic instance of this very thing in the book of Genesis and the episode of the Tower of Babel. So do turn with me to Genesis chapter 11 as we look at this passage under three headings: the pride of man, the power of God and the praise of Christ.
But first of all it may be worth clearing up something which may be a little confusing to some of us. When you read of this account it appears that the origin of the different language groups began here. Up to this point human beings gathering together on the plain of Shinar- that is the region of Babylonia- modern day Iraq- had a common language-v1, ‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.’ But yet back in chapter 10 there is a list of Noah’s descendants and we read for instance in v5, ‘From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.’ And then verse 20, ‘These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.’ So if you read this account as a strict chronology it doesn’t add up for before we get to Babel where people have one language we have a whole host of people with different languages. Well, the simplest explanation is that this is not written in chronological order. Our writer deliberately disrupts the flow of the narrative in order to shock us. Chapter 10 looks like men and women are doing just what God commanded them to do back in chapter 9 and verse 1: ‘Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’ And as you read on that is what seems to be happening, people are multiplying, moving out and filling the earth. But then it’s as if we are walking along a road quite merrily when suddenly a 20 foot slab of stone is dumped right in front of us out of the sky-‘bang’- stopping us in our tracks- as if to say, ‘If you think that people have been obedient and things are on the up and up after the flood with God’s new start, then think again! Let me tell you what has happened in between- there has been an act of rebellion of monumental proportions and this is it.’ People have not dispersed they have clustered, verse 2, ‘As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.’ And in verse 4 we are told that one of the reasons for building this tower was so that they should, ‘not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." They don’t care what God had said- go and fill the earth, they wanted to take their destiny into their own hands thank you very much and stay put, maybe feeling there is safety in numbers and that collectively they would be in a position to defy God- strength in numbers too. And so we are reminded afresh that the virus of sin is still very much alive and active in the hearts of men. Nothing has significantly changed in that regard. We are still constitutional sinners- cocking a snook at God is as much a part of our human make up as breathing and what is more we like it to be so.
Hence the pride of man: v 2, ‘As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4Then they 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 and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."’
Did you notice what the four aims of these people are? First, to build a city, second to build a tower, third to make a name and fourth to stay together. And of course the way the second two things are achieved is by doing the first two. You get people to stay together by building a city for them to live in. They may go out during the day to work the land or do business, but then at night people come back into the city for safety. And in order to make a name for yourself you build the biggest tower in history, one which stretches right up into the heavens, employing all the findings of modern technology- brick instead of stone, bitumen for mortar. Cain may have built a city back in chapter 4 but it was nothing compared to this. Why, since then mankind has advanced, he is now in a position to shape nature rather than allow nature to shape him, he can boldly go where no man has been before- he now has a tower in this city which people can see for miles and stand gawping in amazement at such an achievement. And such buildings are impressive aren’t they? I must say that I was mightily impressed with the remains of the temple in Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall. You look at the size of those stones and your mind boggles as to how these were put together without modern machinery, how many hernias did they cost? So it would have been here- a testimony to man’s ingenuity and determination.
But when you think about it, both of these things are outward expressions of two inward sins. The first sin is the craving for human praise. There is not one person here this morning that doesn’t long for approval and thrives on it. We just feel devastated when we are criticised, even fair criticism, let alone unjust criticism can reduce us to tears. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to praise people. When something has been achieved which is laudable then of course we should give people their due recognition. But it is when we live for human praise, when that is what is driving us and determining what we do and why we do it-then it becomes a form of idolatry- self-praise, because it places us at the centre of things. We want people to look up to us and say’ Aren’t they great!’ Our supreme value is derived from what other people think of us and make of us. And so we can soon find ourselves selling our souls for it. The student who is keen to get the approval of his tutor hides his Christian faith when writing an essay. The factory worker keen to be well thought of by his colleagues would rather keep quiet about going to church on Sunday when others say they went shopping. The Christian minister who desires to gain his denomination’s approbation, tones down his enthusiasm for the Bible for fear of being considered a fundamentalist. We so love the praise of others.
The second sin is the sin for security- hence the city so that people aren’t dispersed. The walls provide a safe haven from bandits and wild animals. Society is well ordered and we can sleep peacefully at night as it is policed. We so want to feel safe don’t we?
Now there is nothing wrong in seeking praise or seeking security in themselves. It is from whom we seek ultimate praise and security which is the thing that matters. What we have here is a society, a group of people, who want both of those things but without God- that’s the point. This was the problem with the religious leaders of Jesus day-the Pharisees. They sought praise- the praise of men, hence them standing on street corners offering their long prayers so that people would think, ‘Wow, aren’t they holy.’ And so says Jesus, to avoid that and to ensure that you receive the only praise that matters- the praise of God- when you pray do it secretly. When you give money for God’s work do it quietly without a great fanfare and you will gain God’s approval- he will be delighted. Similarly nothing is wrong in wanting security- but where are you placing your real security- is it ultimately in God or other things? So we busy ourselves in building a nest egg only to find it being wiped out by inflation or economic collapse. We put in place all sorts of behavioural devices to keep people at a distance, only to find ourselves insecure from loneliness. Jesus says, ‘Lay up for yourselves treasurer in heaven, for where your treasure is there will be your heart also.’ Our treasure is meant to be Christ. And if we have him, he cannot be taken away; his love is the one constant in this changing world and remains secure come what may. So by all means seek praise and security, but from the only one that matters and can provide both sufficiently- God.
You see, what we have going on here is an attempt to displace God with man. It all comes down to human pride, the root sin. Did you notice how God is being mimicked? Just look at the language being used, v3, ‘Come let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ V4, ‘Come let us build ourselves a city.’ That is the God language of Genesis 1, ‘Let us make man in our image’ and indeed here in Genesis 11, v7 with God saying, ‘Come let us go down and confuse their language.’ This is the promethean arrogance of man who, not content to be made in the image of God aspires to be god- and so he starts talking like God and acting like God. But just as in the garden, such aspiration to divinity led to humiliation- man saw that he was naked and anything but god-like, so it is here in the city. And so we come to the power of God- verse v5 ‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.’
There is divine scorn being poured out in this verse. Here you have humankind collectively gathering together, mesmerized by their technical prowess and they assert, ‘Come let us build a tower that reaches the heavens.’ And underlying that assertion is the belief that all by themselves, unaided they can make their way into God’s presence- the heavens. In fact the name ‘Babel’ can mean ‘Gateway to heaven.’ It would have to be one BIG tower to do that. And that may have been what it seemed to be from the point of view of people on earth as they looked up at this great edifice. But what of God’s point of view as he looks down from heaven? Why it is so miniscule that he can’t even see it. He has to come right down to search it out it’s that small. And this is supposed to be a monument to man’s glory? This is going to be the man-made stairway to heaven- even before Led Zeppelin appeared on the scene? It is laughable. But still we do it. If only we can get our economy strong; our military power in place- getting rid of the world of its terrorists; our science developed to mitigate the ecological problems- and all without reference to God- then all will be well. No it won’t. You know those terrorists which flew those planes into the World Trade centre new exactly what they were doing. Those gigantic twin towers were potent symbols of the West’s economic power. And what happened? The collapsed like a stack of cards. That is how mighty our achievements are.
It is interesting that without too much thought many of us buy into the belief that having a unified world- a ‘one world’ -would be a good thing. God would beg to differ- he sees it as a very bad thing, v6, ‘The LORD said, "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. 7Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 8So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel-because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.’ Given what Genesis has been telling us so far about the heart of man being wicked, what do you think would be the result of millions and billions of wicked hearts being united together? Global peace and harmony? Hardly- only more cruelty. Just see how this works itself out in countries which are united by a common ideology or leader. Do they promote religious liberty and freedom of thought? Are they set on submitting themselves to what God says about loving him with all our being and our neighbours as ourselves? No, in every instance there is an attempt to overthrow God and his ways-totalitarianism. Of course it is possible to have a form of dictatorship in a democracy too where certain views will not be tolerated and a censorship by a minority is exercised. We are aware in our own country that to believe that Christianity is true and to be argued with respect in the public arena is not to acceptable in a climate where all religions are viewed as equal. That is dubbed extremism and as we know, extremism is dangerous and is not to be tolerated. You see, God considers our divisions to be a necessary check on our sinful tendencies to rebel and oppress, for if you have something like 6500 languages in the world, that makes it very difficult for someone to disseminate dangerous ideas and sway people into thinking the same. Just as democracy is a check on the abuse of power- so is the multiplicity of language and people groups. And all of this is backed up by the place in which all of this is occurring. It is Babel-or as it is better known- Babylon. And in Scripture Babylon is the symbol of mankind in organised revolt against God, where politics, ideology, philosophy and religion all conspire together to defy the Maker. In the Book of Revelation she is described as the great harlot who leads the nations astray. And Babylon appears over and over again in world history. Babylon was literally the civilization that took the Jews into exile under Nebuchadnezzar. It was Rome under the Caesars persecuting Christians. It was Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany- all trying to wipe out God’s people and more. But it is no less the materialistic, secularised West. We are Babylon.
So how does all of this fit in with the grand scheme of things in the light of the rest of the Bible where everything is going to be brought into liberating subjection to the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ? Here then is the third heading: the praise of Christ.
One of the most wonderful, and in many ways unique, features of the Christian faith is that it is a universal faith, it is not tribal. Unlike Islam, where the Koran can only be in Arabic, where there is the adoption of the same dress, same prayers, and so on- Christianity is able to be incarnated within the 6500 language groups and still remain Christian. The unity and diversity of Christianity is one of its greatest glories and one of the great secrets of its success. You can remain culturally a Yemeni, a North American Indian, a Korean, with all that goes with that- diversity of dress, food, music, language and still be Christian. And what we see taking place on the Day of Pentecost is not so much a reversal of what happened at Babel, but a fulfilment of what God had decreed back in Genesis 1 and 9 to go out into all the world, being fruitful and multiplying- spiritually- producing more and more Christians. For back in Acts 2 you had gathered together in Jerusalem a whole range of different language groups and God did not miraculously give them all a common language so they could hear the Gospel- rather he enabled them to hear the Gospel each in their own language by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit- and then they were dispersed taking the Gospel with them. That was the miracle of Pentecost and it is still the miracle when people from different classes, different cultures are all united in Christ by his saving message. That is why it is a joy to belong to a church like this where we see this as we look around every time we gather. And you know what? God had that purpose in view when he did this at Babel. He was going to glorify his Son by showing how it is only the Gospel which has the power to unite people from right around the world.
What is more, the praise that Jesus receives from all the languages is more beautiful, because of its diversity than it would have been if there were only one language and one people to sing. Let me ask: even now as we meet what is happening in heaven? This is the way John describes it: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10). Which language will you be speaking in heaven? Well, I think your own-it won’t be Hebrew or Greek. We will be able to understand each other but more importantly when we join together in praise of our Lord and Saviour the different sounds won’t make a cacophony as they would on earth, they will be like different musical instruments which blend together to form a harmonious whole, each enriching and complementing the others in an orchestra of praise to the Lord Jesus Christ. That will be such a beautiful sound and only the Gospel can achieve it. Isn’t that a wonderful vision to have before us? Isn’t that a wonderful work to which to give over your life? Then we fulfil God’s original vision as we are united to Christ-the image of the invisible God- to fill the earth and subdue it.
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