Bible Readings: Genesis 11:1-9

Babel: Scattering, Unity, Pride

We are coming towards the end of our sermon series, taking us from the beginnings of creation to the call of Abram. Now, I have not been here for the rest of the series and, because of other services that have interrupted the series, it’s actually been a couple of weeks since any of us looked at it, so I thought it might be worth a bit of a recap.

We started in Genesis, with the God creating everything good, with the powerful and loving nature of God revealed in creativity, in order, in generosity and in abundance. We thought about how human beings are created in the likeness of God, unique in creation as bearing the imprint of the nature of God. That image has been marred, been spoiled by our refusal to live in the relationship with God that we were created for, but it is still there. Adam and Eve break with God in disobedience and lack of faith and they lose their intimate access to God’s presence and are expelled from the Garden. They have sons: Cain and Abel. Before long jealousy and murder enter the story as Cain slays his brother. Things go from bad to worse, until God gets to a point at which God regrets the whole of creation and determines to reboot it all – to start afresh, wipe the slate clean. Against this background of judgement, the story of Noah and his family focusses on God’s will and power to save, to redeem, to rescue. As the family and the animals emerge from the ark, God’s blessing is repeated over them, they still bear the image of God, and a covenant is made between God and creation that God will never again flood it.

Since the flood Noah’s descendants have been multiplying and spreading out through the earth, they have been fulfilling God’s first command to humanity in Genesis 1:28 – ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” A command that was repeated after the salvation of the ark to Noah and his family in Genesis 9:7 – “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

Now we come to today’s story – that of the Tower of Babel. There are three themes that I’d like us to focus on this evening, the themes of scattering, unity, and pride.

To start, let’s look at what the humans in this story are up to.

We’ve just noted that since the time of Noah the people had been spreading out, scattering in obedience to God’s command, filling the earth. Now a group of them have reached the plain of Shinar and have settled there. They have stopped moving, and have decided that it is time to put down some roots, to gather together and remain in one place. It is time to build a city. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these things. Later on God will promise Abram a land he can settle in and call his own. The whole of the Scriptural narrative takes us from a garden to a city, from Eden to the new Jerusalem. The problem is that the people stop obeying God’s command, and even more than that, they fear the consequences of it. They are afraid of being scattered. They have stopped trusting God, and so they become disobedient.

In this decision, in this purpose the people are united. But that is not all that unites them. They are also united by a common language. Language is, of course, more than just the words that we use. Language is shaped by and shapes the way that we think, our culture, our creative impulses, how we express ourselves in our relationships, our worship, our learning – all are massively influenced by language. And of course, unity can be a good thing – peace, harmony between people, common purpose can all be positive. The problem is when that unity is based on and shaped by the wrong thing, something that gets in the way of our true unity as the image-bearers of God. This seems to be what has happened here. The people are united but that unity has an unreliable foundation.

Disobedient and with a misfounded unity, the human beings make a plan. They are going to build a city, with a tower that reaches to heaven. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how, they’ve got the skills, they’ve got the people power and now they’re going to bring them all together and start building. But why are they going to start building – because they want to make a name for themselves. They want to be known, to be remembered, to be feared perhaps, to have a reputation for themselves. Rather than being known by God’s name, or by the name that God has given them, they want to make their own name, to be independent of God. Pride goes before a fall.

That is what the human beings are up to. What about God? What is God’s response? Well, the mighty tower that is going to reach to heaven is so insignificant that it can’t be seen properly from heaven, so God comes down to pay an inspection visit. God is not impressed, and pronounces judgement, but the judgements are not just about punishment – they are about putting right those things that humans have put wrong. God’s judgements are redemptive – they restore and put back on the right track, they warn and they correct.

The Lord scatters them abroad. God brings them back into line with the standing orders that humanity has been given at this stage of history, they are to fill the earth. They had stopped obeying this command, and God brings them back into obedience by scattering them.

This is brought into effect by the confusion of their language. God reveals the falseness of this foundation of unity by removing it. When it goes, so does the apparent unity. As it is taken away, so the true unity of humanity as God’s creatures, created to be obedient and to live under God’s righteous rule, is revealed more clearly.

And what of the name that they wanted to make for themselves. Well, Gods judgement was that that should be allowed, should come to pass. But the name that they made for themselves, the name that is remembered to this day, is “Babel”, perhaps not the name that they planned. The name that they made for themselves is a testament to their disobedience, their false unity, and their pride.

Now, there is often a link made between the disruption of the language of humanity at Babel, and the outpouring of the gift of languages at Pentecost. As I was reflecting on this link, it seemed to me that it might be deeper than that.

Whilst Jesus was alive the good news of the righteous and loving rule and reign of God, of the Kingdom of God, was only heard in Israel and Samaria. Following Jesus death, resurrection and ascension into heaven the disciples were sent to wait in Jerusalem. They were all gathered together in one place. Then the Holy Spirit came and filled them with boldness, with the words to speak, with power to heal, with wisdom and counsel. As Jesus had told them, in some of his final words before returning to heaven, “And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” The command to God’s people to scatter is renewed, it is resourced, and it is obeyed at Pentecost and the days following, as we read in Acts

That scattering is not because the disciples have become disunited, or fallen out, it is not because of their unity as God’s created image bearers, there is a new unity, found in Christ. They are now one body, following one Lord, preaching one Kingdom. You see the gift of languages did not do away with all languages, it did not undo the judgement of Babel and give everybody the same language, would it did was enable everybody to hear and understand the good news in their own language. The judgement of Babel against the false unity of a shared language still stands, but that judgement will not be allowed to get in the way of people having the opportunity to enter a new unity, the unity of being one in Christ.

As Peter preaches on that day, to all the astonished crowds, in the freshness of the new morning, what does he say when the convicted people ask what they must do to be saved? “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

A new name has been given, a name that was man made, and God given. It is the name of the highest repute, at which every knee in heaven and earth must bow. It is the only name by which man may be saved. It is the name of Jesus. There is a better name than Babel now – and because of it humanity really can reach heaven.

So, how are we to respond to this?

As we a church, we at All Saints recognises God’s command to us to be scattered. We are sent to be closer to others. I wonder who God is scattering us to be close to this week. I wonder what choices we will each face this week about whether we choose to stay in the safe place, in the comfort zone, with the people we know, or to go to place we feel unsure of, to the wide world. I wonder where Judea, Samaria, the ends of the world are for us.

When I was thinking about language I recalled a time a couple of years ago when I was appointed as a school governor, and I had to keep asking what different terms and acronyms meant. The other governors weren’t trying to exclude me, but a whole new language had built up, and I didn’t know it. It’s a thing that happens commonly with groups of people. Christians are not immune to this. My question is, how would we know if this is what we’re doing? Who do we have to tell us that we’re talking about things of life and death in a way that no-one understands? Who might warn us that we are in danger of undoing the work of Pentecost by making the good news incomprehensible again?

As I start my ministry at All Saints and actually when I was in the application process I had to ask myself a question very seriously. Do I want to go to All Saints because it is where I believe God is calling me, or because I want to make a name for myself. The temptation is obvious, it is a large, well known, well thought of church. If I did want to make a name for myself it would be a good place to go. The antidote to this, is of course, as with any temptation to focus on Jesus. When we look at his name, when we believe in his name, when we know that he knows our name, any name we might try to make for ourselves fades into insignificance and folly.

I pray that as we go into this week, we will consider the folly of humanity at Babel, and the wise judgement of God, that we will receive afresh from the Holy Spirit what we need to be obedient to our scattering, faithful in our unity, clear in our sharing of the gospel, and safe in the name that is above every name.

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