The Tower of Babel



TEXTS: Genesis 11:1-9; 1 Cor. 3:9-11

The Tower of Babel story doesn't have any reference to time, other than being placed in the book of Genesis after the Great Flood and before Abraham. Since the usual date floated for Abraham is somewhere around 2,000 BC, this would be before that. Just to put it in context, that would mean before the use of horses to pull vehicles, before the discovery of glass or the development of boats with masts. It was at least a thousand years before the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi created his famous legal code and about two thousand years before King Tut ruled Egypt. In other words, it was a loooong time ago.

Many see the story as a legend, inserted to give us a reason for the many languages on the face of the earth. Others believe it was a historical event somewhere in the pre-history of civilization. To me, the truth of the story comes through in either case. Whether or not it actually happened is, for me, beside the point. If you get hung up on worrying about whether the story is historically true or not, you will miss the deeper truth that the story brings to us.

Simply put, the Tower of Babel story tells us two important things. 1. Why we build is generally more important than what we build; and 2. God's purpose for us is to be scattered across the face of the earth. We'll look at those each in turn. Many, many places in the Bible...Old Testament and New...indicate that as far as God is concerned, our motivation for action is far more important than the action itself. The last line of Romans 14 goes so far as to say, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." It is not as easy as "Do this, but don't do that." In lots of cases, the same action will earn one person praise and another rebuke, just because one person did it for a good reason and another person did it for a sinful reason.

Our legal system recognizes this all the time. If you cause someone's death, what happens to you in court has everything to do with why you did what you did. If you intended to kill a person, that's bad. If you planned it for days, that's worse. If it was an accident, you get off with a much lighter sentence. The problem with the Tower of Babel was not the building of the was the REASON they built the tower that got them into trouble. Verse 4: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." They built the tower to make a name for themselves. If they had said, "Let us build a tower to proclaim the glory of God," they might well still be in it to this day. The tower was built as an act of pride.

As a church, we must never build either a physical structure or any sort of program of ministry in order to make a name for ourselves. If we do, we will eventually have a large, lovely, empty church; or a large, thriving social club. The Spirit of God will leave this place when we seek to exalt ourselves. We must always do what we do for the glory of God and to serve the mission of spreading the knowledge and love of God made known to us in Jesus.

The same thing is true in our personal lives. If you are building your career or your reputation or your legacy to make a name for yourself, it will all be in vain. You might end up famous or rich or well-thought of by everyone. But if your life has only been about you, it will not outlast you. Even if you manage to garner tons of media coverage at your death, like the Anna Nicole Smith circus we have been enduring this past week, when our bodies return to dust, so will all our accomplishments.

The World Trade Center was brought to dust in minutes...the splendid buildings, the wealthy corporations, the important people...all gone in an instant. The only thing that lasts from those lives is the love. The rest is not important anymore. Why we do, in the end, matters more than what we do. That’s the first lesson from this story, and we get that truth whether it happened or whether it didn’t. The writers tell us about a tower that was doomed even before construction began because it was built in order for the people to make a name for themselves.

The second truth this story brings to us is related to that: we are not put here just to get comfortable. We have a purpose beyond ourselves...we are sent out to the each other. In one sense the Tower of Babel story is a mirror of the call of Abraham in the next chapter. In chapter 12 God calls to Abraham to pack up his family, leave his home, and travel to an unknown land. God's purpose in calling Abraham and his descendants is so that "all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (verse 3). Abraham is sent out of his comfort zone, and the intention is for all of his descendants to do leave home and go out to the world to be a blessing to all nations.

The people in the Tower of Babel story were settling down. They had decided to stay together and make a name for themselves. No more nomadic lifestyle. They could stay together and build a great city where people from all over would come and marvel at what they had done. God's answer to that desire to settle where we are comfortable is not only the loud "No!" of the Tower of Babel story. God's answer is also the call of Abraham in the next chapter. Abraham who is settled in the great ancient city of Ur, gets plucked out of his comfortable life and sent out as a nomad so that others may be blessed through him.

The temptation of the people who build the Tower of Babel is the same thing that Peter faced back on the Mount of Transfiguration. Remember when Peter, James, and John are up having this amazing experience with Jesus? It's so good that Peter suggests..."Hey, why don't we just stay here. We can put up tents and just never leave." Well, that's not right. They have to leave. There is work to be done. Their mission is not on the mountain but in the valley and then to Jerusalem and then to the ends of the earth. They cannot, should not, stay put. The words of Jesus that we call the Great Commission say to "go into all the world and make disciples." It does not say, "Build a great church and let all the world come to you." As a church, we exist to facilitate the sending out, not the coming in. We welcome people in so that they might be transformed by the love of God and sent out to proclaim the love of God to all nations.

The Church has often misinterpreted that and gone out to try to drag people in...kicking and screaming sometimes. We have even killed them if they refused to come in. We are not called to bring others to where we are but to go out to others and meet them where THEY are. Abraham didn't travel to Canaan and drag everybody back to Ur. Jesus didn't go out among the people and drag them into the synagogue. He didn't even make them obey the law...he didn't always obey the law himself, for that matter. Jesus went out and recklessly gave away God's love, even to the worst of sinners. When they received that love, they may or may not have become good Jews; but they did receive eternal life.

We talked about the church as a ship a few weeks ago. Another helpful metaphor for our task is the lighthouse. A lighthouse does not exist for the keeper that tends it. A lighthouse exists to point the way to those who are lost...those who don't know the area...those whose eyes are blinded by a storm...those who are in danger of crashing upon the rocks. The lighthouse doesn't discriminate. It doesn't shine the light only for the smart ones or only for friendly ships. Even enemies will benefit from its light. And if the light goes out, the most beautiful structure in the world and the most talented keeper are still a waste of space.

We in the church are charged with keeping the light. Our lighthouse is not for us. It is not here to make a name for ourselves, and it is not built to be a comfortable dwelling for us. The Church of Jesus Christ was built so that from it the Light of God could shine on a world in danger of crashing on the rocks. We exist for those out there who are lost at sea, blinded by the storm...whether they are friend or foe is immaterial. We are charged with keeping the Light so that it shines brightly for all.

And what is true for the Church as an organization is true for the Church as each one of us...the Body of Christ. As I construct my life across the years, my job as a Christian is to keep the Light of Christ lit in me. If I go somewhere and find it is completely dark...that's my fault. There should at least be the light that I bring to the place. In fact, if there isn't any darkness, there's no need for a lighthouse. The book of Revelation tells us that there is no church in Heaven. The Lamb is the Light of the City of God.

We exist here and now to be a light in the dark. If we never put ourselves out into the dark places of the world, we may as well not exist. I invite you to look at what you are building in your life. Are you building a tower to make a name for yourself? If so, you can expect that at some point God will reach down and confuse your life. Making a name for ourselves is not why God put us here and gave us breath, and sometimes God has to shake up our status quo to get us to listen. As a church also we must always ask ourselves why we are doing what we it for ourselves or for others? When was the last time you took God's light into a dark place? Amen.

Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson

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