“A Tower to Heaven” – Genesis 11:1-9
Pentecost 5 – July 9, 2017
Two months ago – May 9 – was Provincial Election Day. Ten days ago, after a lot of uncertainty about election results, and recounts, and minority government discussions, and balance of power deliberations, we have a new Premier. Who knows what we are going to have two months from now?
But if someone were to get up and begin to promote their track record with these kinds of claims – there were lots of new jobs created (especially in the trades sector); people in our community have been engaged and working together toward a common purpose; technological progress was definitely evident in our region; our society is in the middle of this project and on the verge of a lasting achievement; for years and years to come, people will have fond and special memories of us and of what we have accomplished in our time and in this place – yes, if someone were to make those kinds of claims… well, I don’t think we’d be talking about a tenuous minority government anymore. Those are the kinds of things that get politicians elected.
The only thing is… I’m not talking about the 16 year reign of Christy Clark’s Liberals, and I’m not talking about the hopes and dreams of John Horgan’s new NDP government. I’m talking about a bold new Bible initiative… actually a bold ancient Bible initiative. Let’s hear about it from Genesis 11. READ.
- The Babel Problem
So, there you have it – new jobs in the trades sector (making lots and lots of bricks), people working together to build that Tower of Babel, the tallest Tower in the world (definitely a technological advancement in building engineering), a structure that will last for years, and one that will give its builders lasting fame. So, in light of all those good things, why is it that Babel is notorious? What was the problem?
Genesis 11:4 gives us a clue: “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” The driving motivation for all this seemingly good work was to gain human glory rather than to give glory to God.
The Tower of Babel could be compared to the space race. Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in 1961. That moment shamed the people of the United States. It was the time of the Cold War and once Gagarin went into space the US was focused on beating the Russians to the moon. They redoubled their efforts, and the fledgling space program became a national priority. Why? What was so important about being first to the moon? The race to the moon was a race for bragging rights, “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” It was a competition to show which nation had the greatest know-how, which system – Capitalism or Communism – had the most advanced technology, the most clever scientists. Gagarin’s space flight actually led the Americans to pour everything during the 1960’s into landing a man on the moon. They did – on July 20, 1969 – but at an incredible financial cost. Apparently the Apollo moon program cost $25 billion, which in today’s dollars is almost ten times that much. But what was gained? Humanity has not been back to the moon for 45 years, and that’s not much different from an incomplete Tower of Babel.
Who are some characters from history that have seemingly just been chasing personal fame and glory, sometimes even notoriety? Mohammad Ali (after defeating Sonny Liston: “I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest.”), Donald Trump, Andrew Carnegie (pompous return to Dunfermline, Scotland), people who have gone on killing sprees just to get their name in the media. It’s all about fame and glory.
Can anyone here today name the historical seven deadly sins? Lust, greed, envy, sloth (laziness), gluttony, anger/wrath, and… Among the seven deadly sins – pride!
Pride – that’s what the Tower of Babel story is about – the people being so full of themselves, that personal glory is their one ambition or aim, so full of themselves that at the end of the day their vest buttons pop off because their chest is puffed out so far.
- Pride Leads Us Away From God
Pride is considered one of the deadly sins because it leads people away from God, so it is spiritually and eternally deadly. Pride is about me, myself, and I. In fact, the pastors in the lower mainland are currently studying a book about that. It’s called, The Unholy Trinity: Martin Luther Against the Idol of Me, Myself and I. Listen to what author Michael Lockwood says: “In his Small Catechism, Luther explains the First Commandment by saying, ‘We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.’ This suggests three main features of idolatry: misplaced fear, misplaced love, and misplaced trust… There are two main ways we can turn ourselves into idols in relation to our Creator. First, we can love ourselves above everything else, so that we seek our own wellbeing above all, and use everything including God to serve ourselves. Second, we can trust in ourselves above everything else, so that we rely on our own ability to secure the good things of life instead of trusting in the Lord to provide.”
Essentially, pride is putting myself on the throne as God of my life, instead of God, Himself. The First Commandment is first in order as well as first in importance, for, as Luther says, it is about having and relying on God as the one you fear, love and trust. The worst sin therefore is pride, for it is breaking the First Commandment – making yourself out to be the one you fear, love and trust.
There are some pertinent Bible verses about pride and its poison:
“The pride of your heart has deceived you.” (Obadiah 3)
“Pride goes before destruction.” (Proverbs 16:18)
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace.” (Proverbs 11:2)
“Pride only breeds quarrels.” (Proverbs 13:10)
“A man’s pride brings him low.” (Proverbs 29:23)
The trouble is… the devil makes temptations and sin look so good, so appealing to our personal pride. “Eating the fruit in the garden,” Satan inferred, “will make you like God” – and that sounds and looks like a good thing. The tower will be an engineering masterpiece and will generate tourism income – and that’s a good thing. Landing on the moon will unlock the secrets of the universe – and that’s a good thing. Our personal temptations… promotion at work / more disposable income – that’s a good thing; ambition leads to personal achievements – and that’s a good thing; appliances / computers / robots that do our work for us and give us more leisure time – and that’s a good thing. But we don’t always consider the downside to our actions or temptations. That promotion at work comes at a price – less time for family. Achievements sometimes come at the cost of stepping on and over others. More leisure can mean time to spend in creation and away from the creator. Pride is a dangerous and yes, even deadly, sin – if it leads us to abandon or ignore God.
- Pride Leads us Toward Futility and Despair
God’s solution to the problem of the pride and ambition of the residents in the plain of Shinar (Babylon area) was to cut off their communication – can you imagine?? No more social media, He scrambled the networks, the Wifi. They couldn’t talk to each other anymore. Maybe this is even the first known example of what Robert Burns would later write in his poem “To A Mouse” – “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
The best laid plans of these ambitious and proud men certainly went awry. God confused their language, which thwarted their ability to finish their sky-scraping project. Babel actually sounds like the Hebrew word for confused. Besides their inability to communicate, God scattered them over the face of all the earth. Most of them could not even appreciate what they had begun, and the tower they left was an unfinished symbol of futility – a monument to the futility of trying to live and accomplish things without God. That’s where pride often leads – to futility and despair.
Pride may lead us to not communicate well with others, too. I’ll do it myself, because I can. Pride may scatter and isolate and segregate us. I don’t need others. Pride may result in independence from others rather than interdependence on others. God created us to live in community. Pride leads us away from community.
- The “Undo”-ing of Babel
You know how on your computer there is an “undo” button, or you can press Control-Z. When you do that, it undoes your previous action of typing and goes back to what it was like before that typing. In the New Testament there was kind of an “undo Babel” event. It happened on the Festival of Pentecost. Once every three years we read the Tower of Babel story in conjunction with the sending of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the Babel story, there was one language. At the end of the story, there were a multitude of languages and no one could understand anyone else. At the beginning of the Pentecost story, the people visiting in Jerusalem spoke many languages, and if they had spoken those languages, they would not have understood one another. At the sending of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the apostles were empowered to speak all those languages so that one united message was proclaimed and understood by everyone there. Babel undone! One message of God’s grace: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved… God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ.”
- The True Tower to Heaven
A few chapters later in the book of Genesis, we read about Jacob having a dream of a ladder spanning the distance between earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending on that ladder. In the New Testament, Jesus referred to Himself as that ladder between earth and heaven.
The people at Babel tried to build a tower to heaven. Jacob had a dream about a ladder to heaven. Jesus came to build for us and to be for us a true tower and means to heaven. When He was dying on the cross, innocently, sacrificially, in our place, He said, “It is finished.” He didn’t leave the way to heaven unfinished, an eyesore symbol of futility. He completed the tower to heaven by His death and resurrection. The writer to the Hebrews says that “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place – that is the very presence of God – by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through His body.” If we have the God-pleasing ambition of being with God eternally, Jesus is the way-maker.
The people of Shinar wanted to make a name for themselves. God has given Jesus the name, the only name by which we can be saved, the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The story of Babel bears out the truth of what both James and Peter would write in their New Testament letters: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God gives grace to all those who humbly put their salvation-trust in Jesus – the true tower to heaven. Amen.