Sunday, January 6, 2008

Thoughts on Babel's Tower

Pieter Brugel, Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1-8
"1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with 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." 5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, "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. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel-because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth."

We know this story. The story of human beings attempting to "make a name for themselves" of course to serve the common good, like unity; like nationalism, for ones religion, for ones family. Humanity likes to build monuments.

It is an interesting behaviour, isn't it. The powerful get to name entire buildings, however the less powerful can still get their name on stone or a piece of brass. I wonder if that is the reason some young people "tag" their signature as graffiti all over the city. To say that I mattered? I was here? This is my city? I don't know.

But human beings love monuments to their achievements. From pyramids to cities, we build and build and build.

Like the people of Babylon, we build our great buildings to honour what we think is important. Just look at most any city, and the largest buildings will tell you what the culture ultimately values. What are the largest buildings on the lower mainland? {Sports Stadium, Malls, etc.} We build for entertainment and for consumption. These are the gods of our culture. Come and worship, only $75 a seat; only $100 per item; 50% off.

There was a time when the churches and cathedrals were the largest buildings around, yet however tempting it would be for a preacher to lament for "the good old days." If the text is true and I think it is. God is not impressed with wonderful buildings, even if they were built to the glory of God. At least God is not impressed with buildings made out of mud, stone, steel, or wood.

And so God confused our language in order to limit our power, since united, "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."

The text sort of sounds like a myth trying to explain the reason why there are so many languages in the world doesn't it. Why do we have different languages? Because we built a tower which disturbed God and therefore "God came down and frustrated humanity."

But we know that God is not so petty, just as we know that the differences in language did not arise this way. Languages developed separately around the world, arising out of various cultural needs and situations. And so what truth is the text speaking to today?

As our spiritual forbearers looked upon the tower of babel. Indeed, it was a real building, likely dedicated to the god Marduk in the city of Babylon. Our spiritual forbearers looked upon this impressive towering example of human achievement and they did not see unity but rather confusion, division, and the scattering of humanity. In great human power, they saw a people moving away from the living God. And in through their experience with the One Living God, Yahweh, they were painfully aware that the Babylonian empire in all its glory would not last. That which God does not build does not last. Just as all the other empires throughout history have not lasted and will not last. Ming, Roman, Mayan, British, Soviet, American. Some of you know Shelley's Poem:

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

We too might be tempted to at first chuckle at the uselessness of human efforts and later, of course, fall into despair at the state of the world. We may be tempted to succumb to nihilism if not for another temple that was raised up on the third day. Jesus said that the temple would be destroyed and three days later it would be raised. However he was not talking about the actual temple in Jerusalem … it was destroyed in 70 AD and all that is left of it to this day is the "Wailing Wall." No, Jesus was talking about his body.

We are witnesses to the truth that God came in Jesus to make humanity united and whole again. And let us not forget how the Kingdom comes. It comes down not in what humanity considers grand or glorious. He is born in a manger. He lives amongst the poor in the least of places, he eats with the poor, welcomes the outcast, eats with sinners. He creates no monuments of stone or wood or steel. What he does create is community. What he does build is grace. The empire he leads is not of this world, for when he enters Jerusalem, it is on a young donkey not a war horse. He has no army. He writes no books. He comes and gives of himself, even to the point of death on a cross shaped tower. And at his rising on the third day we discovered that his empire is without end.

We didn't get what had happened right away. It was 50 days after the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, while worshipping, that a mighty wind filled the place and fire danced on our heads. We heard each other in our own languages and such was the joy and others said of us, "They must be drunk."

For you see, we are citizens in an upside-down empire. Where fallen humanity seeks builds towers and walls and missile defense shields and other ways to protect their name, their way of life, their honour, their ethnicity, their wealth; We follow one who's power is expressed in giving his life away. God builds true humanity not in achievements of bricks and mortar, but with living stones. Peter said it this way. "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."

This is why I have confidence that if you persevere in allowing God to build you up into a spiritual community, you will be a tower that can not be shaken.
However let us be careful not to place our trust in buildings such as these. They are a tool to assist in the building of grace filled community. They are not our main focus! Buildings be damned if they keep us from being a cross shaped people.

For we know one day this building will become a pile of rubble or ash. Yet, what God is building in us and through us, is forever. God is building up grace amongst us. New lives being freed from addiction and oppression, the dead being raised, the lame walking, the blind finding new sight, the voiceless shouting out loud, people of different languages coming together as one, strangers becoming friends. The truth of the Gospel is that the kingdom has come among us, it built on the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ, our crucified saviour. And his name is above all names, and ever more shall be. He alone is humanity's hope for unity and peace. And in his name anything is possible! AMEN.

(c)2007, James Love. Used by permission

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