Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 11: 1-9 Beginnings: Scattering


A few years ago we were on holiday in Lanzarote. We went on a bus tour, and the guide was pointing out various features of the island. And as we drove along between stops, she was telling us about other things we might like to visit - including a town that has an Amy Grant museum. Now, Amy Grant is a famous Christian singer, but neither of us realised just how popular she must be in the Canary Islands. Slightly strange, but ok. Until we realised, as the tour guide continued to talk about the museum, that it was an Emigrant Museum, dedicated to the people who have emigrated from the islands, and not an Amy Grant museum!

We were both speaking English, but confusion reigned supreme. Or think of when you encounter Americans, and they say some words we’re not used to - what do they mean by trash? (rubbish); gas (petrol); sidewalk (footpath); and diapers (nappies). As someone once said, two nations divided by a common language.

Now, imagine that you’re working on a building site, you’re working on a big tower, and suddenly, you can’t understand a word your colleagues are saying! They can’t make you out either, there’s just confused looks all around. You were able to communicate yesterday all right, but now, it’s all Double Dutch. What’s going on?

Over the autumn, we’ve been tracing the story of the opening chapters of the Bible. We’re been hearing about our beginnings - where our world came from; how we lost the original paradise; and how sin and death has been reigning over the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from their first rebellion. And yet there have been moments of grace - the promise of the son who would crush the serpent’s head; the covering of Adam and Eve’s shame through sacrifice; the grace shown to Noah, who was saved with his family in his floating zoo, and started afresh when he came out of the ark with God’s rainbow covenant promise.

So now, having come out of the ark, we are back on track. But what are we on track to do? Well, in Genesis 9, Noah is given a command - the same command, in fact, that God had originally given to Adam and Eve. Back in 1:28 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...’ And then in 9:1 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth...’

Adam and Eve’s original purpose was to increase and fill the earth. And when Noah with his wife and sons and their wives step out of the ark, God tells them the same. They’re not to stay in one place, all huddled together. They’re to fill the whole earth, to steward and use all that God has given.

Now, we didn’t read Genesis 10 - if you like, I’ll read it to you over tea and coffee in the hall - but it’s the listing of the nations and people groups who came from each of Noah’s three sons. And if you glance up to 10:32, it looks as if the nations have obeyed God’s command to fill the earth: ‘These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread our over the earth after the flood.’

It looks as if God’s word has been obeyed. Except, in Genesis 11, we find the circumstances that led to the scattering. In verse 1, we’re told that ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech.’ The same word means the same thing wherever you are. Everyone is together, banded together, as they move eastward, and they settle at Shinar. Rather than filling the earth, they stay together - safety in numbers and all that.

It’s here in Shinar that they develop some skill as they work together. They work out how to make bricks by baking them thoroughly, so they don’t need to use stone, and they work out how to use bitumen as mortar. And then, the sky’s the limit.

The town planners and architects get to work; the builders start building, and the plan is to build, not just a city, but also a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens.’ Just think of a city skyline, with the skyscrapers standing tall - the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet high). They’re working on the first ever skyscraper.

And they’re doing it together. Did you see what they said each time? Verse 3: ‘Come let’s make...’ Verse 4: ‘Come, let us build...’ They’re in it together. And they are quite clear about their motives. Why are they building a city and 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.’ (4)

They’re out to make a name for themselves; they’re motivated by pride and prestige; wanting to be famous for their achievements; reaching for the top.

Reaching, in fact, for the very top - to heaven itself. As they labour and build and climb, they’re seeking to prove themselves, wanting to succeed, to replace God, to do away with God. So they press on, doing all they can, working for their own name and glory. We don’t need or want God!

As they reach up, they’re repeating the folly of the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, or rather, wanted to be God. And so these Shinarites are doing the same. They want to be famous, to make a name for themselves, so that they aren’t scattered as God wants them to do.

Come, let us. Higher and higher they go, building their tower and their empire. Come, let us. Higher and higher we go? Building our empire? What is it that we give ourselves to? What is it that our pride pushes us to do? How are you trying to make a name for yourself, to be known for?

Is it in your family, to have the best, most perfect children, the highest achievers? Perhaps it’s to have the cleanest tidiest house. The most beautiful Christmas tree. The Christmas lights that can almost be seen from space. Maybe it’s in your work to succeed and make it to the very top. Perhaps you’re building your tower of wealth and riches, wanting everyone to be in awe of your success, your power, your position. What are you giving your energy to?

They were reaching up, building up to make it to the heavens. In verse 5, we find the start of the Lord’s response. It’s like a little bit of humour, it’s a moment of irony. They’re building up, reaching towards the heavens, but verse 5: ‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.’

Imagine you have ants in the garden. (not your mother’s sisters; the wee creepy-crawly type of ants). And imagine that they start to build an ant city. They’re working away. It’s something very grand and impressive in the ant world, never been seen or done before. They even start to build a tower, because they think they’re going to know you off your perch and take over your garden. But for you to see what they’re doing, you have to get down on your knees, get the magnifying glass out, stoop down and look carefully. That’s a bit like what’s happening here. The LORD comes down - it’s as if he couldn’t even see it from heaven!

The people had banded together with their ‘Come, let us’. Now the LORD responds with his own ‘Come, let us’: ‘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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ (6-7)

The people reached up in sinful pride; and the LORD stoops to curse by bringing confusion of their language. The scattering happens, the nations are divided, the peoples spread out over the face of the whole earth. The city lies unfinished, it’s ruins a testimony to the folly of pride. It’s name? Babel - babble.

Later, the city would be built, and a mighty empire would come from it - the city of Babylon. And in its later form, it was still known for proud rebellion against God - so that even in Revelation, the empire standing against God is known by the codename Babylon.

So when it comes to our own prideful ambitions and projects, what will come of them? Do we really think God will allow them to continue? Will we forever get away with making a name for ourselves and building our own kingdoms? Whether suddenly or slowly, confusion creeps in; our plans are frustrated; our pride leads to a fall; our towers lie in ruins.

We simply cannot reach up to heaven. We can’t build our way up to heaven. It’s not possible. Indeed, as we’ve seen right through these opening chapters of Genesis, our first parents are just like us. We’re scattered, lost, alone. Our achievements are temporary, they’re soon toppled.

But the good news is that in Jesus, the curse is reversed. In Jesus, God comes down, not in judgement, but in grace to seek and to save the lost. In Jesus, God comes down to lift our humanity to the heights of his throne.

We see that in Philippians 2 - Jesus didn’t grasp or exploit his equality with God the Father, but made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and humbled himself to death - even death on a cross. He went down, down, down, in order to rescue us from our pride, our achievements, our ambitions.

And in Jesus the confusion of languages and the scattering is reversed, as the risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations, so that on the day of Pentecost, people from all over the place hear the good news in their own languages, and on the last day, gathered around the throne, will be people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages praising God as they sing: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (Rev 8:9-10).

We can never build our way up to heaven. But we have a God who has stooped to save; who is calling us, and gathering us - and gathering others too. We have a way of calling people to him, as the Christmas flyers go out this week. Have you come to Jesus? Have you repented of your pride, seeking to make a name for yourself? One day he will return, and on that day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Are you ready?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 8th December 2019.

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