Text: Gen 11:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 10/10/04
Well we’re nearing the end of our series on Gen 1-11. Today chap 11, next week chap 12 .. which will cause you to wonder how your minister coped with Maths anywhere beyond about Gr 1. But I’m ending with chap 12, because it describes step 1 in God’s long-term plan and strategy to fix the mess created by the comprehensive damage wreaked on creation by the entry of sin into God’s perfect world of relationships. Gen 12 is chapter 1 of the rest of the Bible. But more on that next week…
Gen 11 begins with these words: 1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. There’s something very significant in that, something that sounds very positive – significant because it represents an unbroken relationship. Almost every week in this series, I’ve gone back to pick up the thread running through the rest of these eleven chapters, and today is no exception. If you remember, one of the threads I’ve highlighted quite a bit already is relationships: What God created at the beginning (chaps 1 & 2) was a perfect world of perfect relationships. And on that foundation, what we’ve seen as the story has unfolded over nine chapters (where we left off last time, before my break) .. is that bit by bit, relationship by relationship you could say, the whole thing comes apart:
• Ch 3: Adam & Eve chose to disobey God’s command — the perfect relationship between people and God is damaged catastrophically. And flowing out from the fracturing of that relationship which is the core of all the others .. the other relationships come apart as well:
• Relationships between people are damaged: ch 3 – inequality between man and woman; ch 4 – Cain murders his brother; then more killings and talk of vengeance;
• Breaking down in the relationship between people and the earth: ch 3 – the earth is now hard and unproductive, and work becomes a frustration; ch 4 Cain is cut off from the land which has been his livelihood;
• That’s not all for relationship meltdown. In a way that’s a bit beyond our complete grasp, (ch 6) right relationship between heaven and earth is violated, with a kind of marriage between heavenly beings and humans – and so another once perfect relationship breaks down
• And so when we get to 6:6, God says “Enough!” .. The relationship between God and the human race has disintegrated so far, the sin in people’s lives was so pervasive, so gross, that the Lord was sorry he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to the heart .. and so the flood .. But there’s a new beginning through Noah and his descendants
Well as we saw last time it was a shaky start – even Noah’s no hero .. but, things are looking good, on the surface.. And in chapter 10, we’re told about Noah’s descendants, through his three sons. And the final verse of ch 10 says that from these descendants of Noah’s sons the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. The word “nations” in the Bible generally means not so much “countries” as we today speak of (areas of land separated by borders. “Nations” in Scripture generally means cultures, people groups. So I think chap 10 is talking about the emergence of different ethnic groupings. So, descending from the sons of Noah, varieties of peoples begin to spread out across the earth .. And then comes ch 11: 1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. .. Many nations (peoples) on this planet – but they have one common language.
11:1 looks a great start, apparently really positive – because there’s a relationship between all the nations that apparently hasn’t been broken by sin. Families may be falling apart, there may be tensions between individual people .. but at least the nations are together! In fact if you stopped right there, at the end of v1, you’d think .. “There’s hope here, this is good, this is not a complete disaster, the human race still has the power to fix things up .. with the right strategy, we can get back on track – keep interest rates low, fix up Medicare, keep our hands off the forests – and we can fix the world .. We’ve had a mighty close shave with the flood, which but for the thinnest thread of Noah’s exceptionally blameless character, would have wiped us out completely – the whole story ending at Gen 7 after barely starting .. But for all that we’ve made it – and now the whole earth had one language and the same words.. We’ve got the UN, and we can reign in the damage from here; we can pull together, we’re in control.”
So if you were watching this as an epic movie, or reading it as a novel for the first time, and you were an optimist, you’d now be saying .. “Maybe this time..” But then as we saw last time, you’d have thought the same with Noah .. and you’d have been tragically mistaken. Remember? .. He was caught blind drunk with his pants down in the beer tent. But if even after the letdown of Noah the apparent hero, you’re still an optimist, still ready to believe that human goodness and determination is enough to fix the world .. then as you read 11:1 your heart might again be filled with hope .. maybe, just maybe, the UN can sort it all out .. But when you read on, you’ll be disappointed yet again .. humanity will let you down – again:
Look what happens: The nations come together, and they say (v4) “Come, let us build ourselves a city .. Let’s go for gold, let’s do it” – this could have been sponsored by Nike! .. And yet in v8, the end result is that the project collapses, the human nations are scattered across the earth .. and worst of all, the Lord confuses their language so that (v7) they will not understand one another’s speech. And that’s the end of nations united .. that’s the fracturing of the last level of relationship in God’s world. (Someone had better turn out the light.)
.. And the start was filled with such promise. In fact – it starts off reflecting very much the creative character of God – sin has sullied God’s image in man, but not destroyed it – and so there is still residing in the human spirit something of the creativity, which I think is at least part of what God’s words in chap 1 are about: “Let us make mankind in our image..” God is creative; so people in his image are creative .. God speaks and says “Let us make .. ” and he makes; now people in God’s image do as God does and they say “Come let us make.. bricks” – and the author tells us they’ve developed the technology to do just what they intend (v3 – brick for stone, bitumen for mortar).
It looks like a mirror image of the creative character of God .. but in v4 we realise it’s actually a terribly warped image, a twisted image – twisted in fact in on itself. These people don’t want to make bricks to glorify their Creator; they want to make bricks to glorify themselves. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, [we want heaven itself to resound with the glory of man] and let us make a name for ourselves. Sin is still alive on planet earth .. that’s what sinners do with the gifts of God .. they seek to deflect the glory from God, and take it for themselves.
The cat is out of the bag .. the truth is on display. This brave new world after the flood is still a world wracked by sin. Sin takes many guises .. but it’s character is always the same: Gen 1 tells us that God created people to display his glory. Gen 11 spells out unambiguously what’s been implied since chap 3: people try to make themselves God, for their glory
Sometime in the nineteenth century, the TIMES newspaper in Britain invited submissions to the editor in response to the question: “What’s wrong with the world?” The editor received plenty of letters from academics, philosophers, politicians, economists, sociologists – all with their impressive ideas about why the world was such a mess. But he also received the shortest letter that had ever been published in the paper. It was from the author G.K.Chesterton, who was a Christian. “What’s wrong with the world?” – Chesterton wrote: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely. G.K.Chesterton.” He was a man who read his Scriptures. He knew .. that no political or economic strategy will overcome the deep flaw in the human heart. Let politicians and those who elect them take note!
Let no one tell you the Bible isn’t about life. And there’s one more life observation I’d like to make from this chapter, before we start to draw a lot of threads together: Sin blinds us to reality. Specifically, the very fate man in his sin-clouded wisdom believes he has the power to avoid .. is the fate he suffers. 4 “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city – a tower [reaching to] heavens … let’s make ourselves a name … Otherwise we’ll be scattered across the whole earth.” .. And what happened? – The LORD scattered them … from there over the face of all the earth, .. When people seek their own glory – instead of God’s glory, what they think they’re avoiding happens.
The scene has changed .. the human characters have changed .. but the sin is the same, and the consequence is the same .. Chapter 11 is chapter 3 .. played out all over again, with more people! In chap 3 it’s the first man and woman .. in chap 11 it’s the nations .. but they’re following the same script. If you have a bible with you, let’s look at it together:
• Gen 3:4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” … The players in Gen 11:4 are reading from the same script: “Come on, let’s make ourselves great, so we won’t be scattered.”
• Gen 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, .. he knows good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– 23 therefore the LORD God sent [drove the man out from] … 24 [and set a guard to block the way] to the tree of life. .. The serpent, Satan, said they would not die – and they died. In chapter 11, they said we won’t be scattered – and they were scattered.
We will not believe and we will not learn the deadliness of sin. When will we learn? When will we accept that our lives and our destinies are not ours to shape .. but are in the hands of God our judge?
We as part of the Australian electorate have just elected a government for another term. And it’s abundantly clear in Scripture that God is sovereignly involved in the processes by which rulers come to power, whether they themselves acknowledge God as their sovereign, or deny his very existence. And it’s equally clear that God requires us to pray diligently for our public leaders. Read 1 Tim 2:1-7 for example – we are commanded to pray for rulers. That’s an express part of what Paul tells the young elder Timothy is expected for godly order in the life a Christian congregation. So if you confess Jesus as your Lord, then you are commanded to pray for Mr Howard – you have no option. Whatever your personal opinion of John Howard or his party, or his policy agenda – pray for him!
But one message that shouts from the pages of Gen 1-11, and especially from the towering fiasco of Babel, is that man is not in charge of this world .. that the very best of human skill and ingenuity, the most visionary of human leadership .. is incapable of arresting the ravages of sin and saving the planet. Prov 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. The ruler may be on the throne or in the Lodge, but the Lord is behind the stage and his hands are pulling the strings. Only one hand is ever truly, ultimately in control .. There’s only One who can save us. God, as the Psalmist says, is the King of all the earth.
And Gen 11 tells us that in a single sentence of delicious irony in v5. Verse 4 describes the day the finest engineering minds on the planet got together. And they said: “Let’s build a tower – so high the top will reach the heavens.” .. And in verse 5 – the Lord has to come down to inspect the finished product. .. That’s it – over with a single glance from heaven! .. So much for the glory of man .. so much for the pinnacles of human achievement.
And so yet again, the message is the same. Gen 1-11 is simply the same story repeated over and over with different characters, different relationships within God’s world, and in an ever-widening circle of impact. .. But the message is the same: I. The world is a mess, and will remain a mess, as long as people persist in worshipping, trusting in, and submitting to anything other than God. II. Only God can fix the mess. If the Lord will not have mercy on the people of planet earth, if he will not intervene, if he will not save the world .. then we’re finished, history .. the world, the entire human community, the entire universe – would disintegrate, annihilated by the cancer of sin. .. But watch this space, folks! Next week we’ll read chapter 1 of God’s way out of the mess this world is in. Stay tuned, keep praying for this nation and this world .. and trust in the Lord.