Monday 14 September 2009

Bad Unity - Genesis 11:1-9

What was the sin of Babel? It must have been serious – God himself came down and brought judgement. The people of Babel were scattered, dispersed, spread out over the entire earth. This was a punishment that affected every nation, every culture, the whole world.

What did they do? Some say they were trying to rebel against God. Others say it was pride, their selfish ambition.

And yet the obvious reason is given to us, right there in the passage. It is not hard to see, but it is very hard to accept. In fact, some of us probably did see this but immediate went, “That can’t be right. There must be a mistake.”

I am talking about verse 6, where God, the LORD himself says, “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.”

Judgement has come on the people of Babel because of their unity. God has punished men for being united, for working together.

Doesn’t that sound strange – Doesn’t it even seem wrong of God to do this?

And listening again to God’s words in verse 6, doesn’t he seem just a little concerned?

If they have begun to do this… then nothing will be impossible for them?

What is God so worried about?

Let’s find out.

1. One language, one word

Verse 1:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

Many people have real problems with this verse. It’s hard for them to believe that everyone in the entire world spoke the same language.

But remember that this happens right after the flood. Noah and his family are the only survivors. Humanity at this point of time was just two or three generations removed from Noah. Everyone shared the same culture; the same history and the same language.

Others say the one language refers to the lingua franca. So it’s not that there was only one single language in the entire world. But there was a common language that everyone knew and used. So here in the Chinese church even though some speak Mandarin, others Cantonese, almost everyone speaks English. English is our one language or our lingua franca.

But we miss the point of verse 1 if we get caught up with this debate. Because it doesn’t just say that the whole world had a common language. It also says they had a common speech. The English Standard Version says they had “the same words”.

Meaning they had the same vocabulary. Meaning they weren’t just talking in the same language; they were talking about the same things. You could translate verse 1 like this: they were one in language and one in words. The point is they were one – and words were basis of their oneness and their unity.

Words are a very powerful tool for unity. Words can give us identity and vision. In advertising, in politics, even in churches, words can do more than inform. They can inspire.

Words like….

Verse 3: Come, let us make

Verse 4: Come, let us build

This was their mission statement. Come let us – These are confident words. These are democratic words. These are inspiring words.

We can do this! Together! We will do this!

And these words also reveal the basic purpose of their unity. I mean yes, they are building a city. Yes, they want to make this really impressive tower. But what they are really trying to do is build a community.

2. Community and Conformity

And all throughout the passage we find that community is the main motivation for building the city of Babel.

Verse 2: they were moving from the east but then they settle in the plain of Shinar.

The essence of community is this settling down; it is gathering and assembling. It’s coming together, working together, communicating with one another.

So, hang on! What’s wrong with this? Isn’t this what we all want – To be part of a community? To find people we can connect with?

Here is the bible saying not all communities are good. Some communities can be dangerous and deceptive.

Here is the bible saying not all unity is good. There is such a thing as a bad unity.

You see this isn’t the first city built in the bible. Genesis 4 also tells us of another man who was moving from the east; another man who settled down and built a city.

This man was the eldest son of Adam and Eve. His name was Cain. And if you remember the story of Cain and Abel, Cain killed his brother Abel because of envy and jealousy. And God punished Cain. He was to be a restless wanderer on the earth, never settling and never stopping.

But Cain did settle down. The bible tells us he built a city, he gathered people around him. He started the first community in the bible. It was a community built on Cain’s rejection of God’s judgement and God’s word.

We find the exact same thing happening in our passage today.

In verse 4 they say, "Come, let us build ourselves a city… so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

It’s the same fear over the same judgement. And it is the same rejection of that judgement.

Like Cain, the people of Babel were rejecting the will of God.

Like Cain, they were boastful and they justified their actions. The people of Babel were proud, but notice: they were also paranoid.

Underneath all that confidence and “let’s do this and that” bravado – is actually fear and insecurity.

Verse 4: They did not want to be scattered, to be spread out over the face of the earth.

You know, many of us remember the story of Cain and Abel like this – Don’t be like Cain, because he’s the bad guy, he’s a killer. But we don’t know the story of Cain and Babel which says we have a lot more in common with Cain than we think.

We have the same fears. We have the same reaction to our fears

o in pride instead of humility;

o in self-sufficiency instead of godly submission.

The ironic thing? We make it worse.

You can be so fearful of losing your job, your relationship, your money, your house, your health, your sanity: that your very obsession drives you even faster to the edge.

The people of Babel are obsessed about getting to heaven, reaching God, fearful about the judgement of God – but instead of talking to God, instead of depending on God – they depend on themselves, their ability and their unity.

You know, I don’t want to make light about serious situations. Your fears might be justified, but some of our actions might not.

Especially if our actions reflect a perspective that says: I’m my own boss. I solve my problems.

Instead, we might need to see our situations from another perspective – From God’s.

Verse 5: But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.

This was a massive building project. Bricks instead of stone. Tower reaching the heavens!

But what verse 5 is saying is “Get some perspective! Know who you are dealing with!”

The LORD had to come DOWN…

Just to see this great tower that’s supposed to reach the heavens

My wife, Vicky works with kids in nurseries and she was telling me about this one kid who came up to her with a robot he had made using straws. It had arms, legs and everything – very impressive. However this little kid was most proud of a special material he had used to glue the joints of his robot…. NOSE POO!

He was kinda sick as well that day, so the kid had an ample supply of his extra gooey and yellowish-green “building material”.

Some of us are so impressed with ourselves, but God might not be.

What we see in these verses is divine scorn – The bible is mocking this great human achievement – this tower that is meant to reach heaven itself.

And if you look closely, you’ll see that God even mocks their unity. – He says in verse 7, “Come let us go down….” – echoing their own words – their mission statement.

But don’t think for a moment, that God took their actions lightly. He doesn’t just ignore them. Instead, the LORD responds in judgement. But it was a surprising judgement.

…Because, the judgement of God was not the destruction of the city. I think I need to point this out, in case some of us come away with the impression that God sent thunderbolts and fire and the destroyed Babel in a huge explosion. Look at the passage again. The city is not destroyed.

Last Friday (just two days ago) was the anniversary of 9-11. I was talking to Vicky last Sunday saying, “Should I change the passage? It might be insensitive to talk about another tower in the bible – people might get the wrong idea.”

But I decided to stick to Genesis 11 …. because of this: people who try to use the Tower of Babel to explain the incident at the World Trade Centre are severely mistaken.

Nowhere in the bible does it say that God destroyed this tower or this city. Instead, what did God do?

Verse 7: God confused their language – literally in the Hebrew – God destroyed their speech so that they could not understand each other. God’s judgement targeted the essence of their unity – their words.

That’s why it’s called “Babel” – which in Hebrew sounds like confused. By confusing their language, God destroyed their oneness – their oneness of language; their oneness of words.

We are back to root of the sin of Babel – it is their oneness. And we are back to the question: what is so dangerous about this oneness – this unity?

Doesn’t the bible teach Christians to be one in Christ? Doesn’t the apostle Paul constantly remind believers to strive for unity, to work hard to be united in the gospel?

Ephesians 4 verse 3 reads:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

So there you go! The New Testament says the church should make every effort to be united. We should have programs that create unity within the church.

Only that is not what Paul is saying.

First of all, the peace that Paul talks about is not primarily a horizontal unity between men, but a vertical relationship between man and God. In Chapter 2, Paul writes of our separation and our distance from God. Through Jesus’ blood he brings us near to God. If you like, the cross gathers us to God.

And secondly, we are not to create this peace but to keep it. Make every effort, Paul says, to keep (NIV) or to maintain (ESV) the unity of the Spirit. This is a unity that is achieved for us on the cross, a unity that we can only receive from the cross.

And all we are asked to do is keep, preserve, maintain it. You cannot and must not create it.

That’s why in even though Philippians 2 verse 2 says “be one in spirit and purpose” – we must never forget verse 1 – “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ”. Our unity with one another is always, always a reflection of our unity first and foremost with the Lord Jesus Christ.

And Babel teaches us that it can be very dangerous to try and create a unity without Christ.

Not because it won’t work. But precisely because we can be very successful at building a community, a city, a church that is united in purpose, direction and vision; where everyone agrees with one another, and yet be absolutely Godless and Christ-less.

Like Cain, like Babel, we too might come together not because of God’s word, but in rejection of God’s will.

2 Timothy 4:3

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Revelation 19:19

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army.

Revelation 20:8

(Satan will) deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle

What was God concerned about when he saw the unity of man? That one day mankind would unite, rise up and achieve his greatest accomplishment, that is, to rebel against God himself – to ascend to heaven and bring God down to earth. That one day man would SUCCEED!

Acts 4:25ff

" 'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together

against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

When men rebel against God. When men unite to defy God. How does God respond?

Obviously and expectedly, God pours out his anger; his judgement.

But he pours it all out his Son.

On the cross, Jesus takes our punishment for our sin, he is separated, send away, he is dispersed, he is removed from God. So that we will be brought near. So that we will have rest and peace and be united to God.

You see, I think some of us reject God’s will for our lives because we can’t recognise his blessing. Like the people in Babel, you are so paranoid, so guilt-stricken, so fearful of the anger of God, the judgement of God that we don’t see the love of God, we do not see God’s blessing.

In Genesis 9, God says to Noah, I will bless you. I will allow your descendants to multiply, be fruitful and fill the earth.

But interestingly, Genesis 9:19 refers to his sons’ descendants as “people who were scattered over the earth.”

Genesis 10:5 – The descendants of Japheth are “spread out”.

Genesis 10:20 – Ham’s descendants the Canaanites are “scattered”

Genesis 10:31 – Shem’s descendants are divided by “clans, languages, nations”

Seen in the bigger context of the nations, God means to bless mankind by scattering them. The different languages and cultures are evidences of his grace and not his judgement.

Now, I know that some people might be like Cain: they reject God because they reject his judgement.

But many more people are like Babel who reject God because they reject his blessing. Either because they can’t recognise his blessing, because they doubt that God is really good

Or more likely, they just want to decide how they should be blessed; when they should be blessed. Some of us are very eager to tell God why we should be blessed. Because we think, we deserve it. Because we have worked so hard for it. Because we have been through so much for it.

The cross reminds us that some blessings are unexpected.

Keeping this in mind, 2 thousand years later – God would reverse the curse on Babel. And again it would be a blessing that no one could expect.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples – the followers of Jesus – enabling them to speak of the wonders of God in many languages – All the different nations hearing the one message of the gospel in different tongues.

Here we see that the reversal of the curse of Babel does not equate to a removal of the curse. No, the reversal doesn’t result in a removal, instead it points to a renewal.

Do you remember what happens next? The believers are scattered! All over the world! But with them they brought the one message; the one word of peace – the gospel!

Here then is a big difference between unity at Babel and unity in Christ.

Babel unity is about getting everyone to do speak the same way, act the same way, do the same thing. Verse 3: they used bricks instead of stone. It’s just so much easier with bricks. No funny shapes or sizes. No odds and ends.

But unity in Christ is seen not in diversity, not conformity. The church of Jesus Christ is made up of sinful men and women, rejected by the world but chosen by grace.

And this shouldn’t surprise us because we follow a Saviour who is rejected and despised. Jesus was not popular. He never fit in. The bible calls him the stone – the stone the builders rejected.

Listen, maybe you have been with us for a while and maybe all this time you have felt that you just don’t fit in. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s the different personalities. For some reason you always feel left out!

You know what? Maybe you are in a unique position – a position where you are able to understand the grace of God.

… To be able to recognise the blessing of God

… And maybe even to be a blessing to the people of God.

The key is to come to Christ – the true source of our acceptance and peace; the true centre of our worship and community; and the true sacrifice who makes sinful individuals like you and me acceptable before a holy and loving God.

Peter puts it this way in 1 Peter 2:4 onwards:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

No comments: