Nothing will be Impossible for Them
Sabbath Day Sermon; Saturday 29 September 2001
"As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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." But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 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" (Gen 11:2-9, NIV).
I struggled all evening yesterday knowing what to talk to you about today. I had planned to introduce Sukkot - the Feast of Tabernacles - to you but I received no inspiration. As I prayed for inspiration I remembered an Israeli cartoon film the small children were watching the other day about the Tower of Babel. And as I meditated on the story of the tower, the word, "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them" seemed to stick out and I was shown something in this passage which I had never seen before. It's what I discovered that I want to share with you today.
Anyone who is aware of our modern technological society cannot fail to be impressed by the scientific advancements we have made in the last century. Even those of you are who not scientifically-minded take for granted appliances which you use every day which you would feel the poorer for without. Mobile 'phones, computers, dish washers, washing machines, microwave ovens, toasters, kettles, refrigerators, deep freezes, sophisticated cars, TV's, videos, radios, and food mixers are just some of the commonly used appliances we use all the time. Just think back to yesterday and I think you'll discover that in some way of another you used, or were dependent on, at least three-quarters of these items. Yet a century ago, in the year 1901 when Queen Victoria died, almost none of them existed and people didn't seem that much worse off for not having them. Life was a little harder and yet people were able to find contentment with what they had. Even back in the 1920's and 30's, when some of you here were youths, half of these things hadn't even been dreamed of.
Every generation interprets and misinterprets the Scriptures based on their surroundings and contemporary culture. We have a tendency to "read in" to the scriptures things which are common place in our day but which were wholly unheard of in theirs. Why, for instance, did Yahweh send His Son Yah'shua (Jesus) to the earth in the 1st century and not in the 21st? How might contemporary apostles have worded their accounts and with what kinds of illustrations? What sort of language would the Saviour have used?
Let's imagine that the New Testament was written in the first two decades of the 20th century after Queen Victoria died. What kinds of illustrations do you think Christ and the apostles like Paul have used, and would they have been comprehensible to us today? I imagine that most people today who don't know very much history might have a few problems if Christ or the apostles had used Zeppelins, Dreadnoughts, knickerbockers, horned phonographs, and other items contemporary to that time as illustrations for spiritual teachings. Our technology now changes so fast that our language is struggling hard to keep up. Words like "cyberspace" or "Schrödinger's Wave Equation" would have been very to explain to the ancient Hebrews. And yet we are using such expressions to try and explain the more complex aspects of the Gospel.
It can be no accident that Yahweh chose to give His final revelation to mankind at a time when language was simple and technology non-existent comparatively speaking. In spite of the odd occasional thing which we know little about, almost everything that was familiar to the ancients like chariots, swords, pitchers, and so forth, are all readily comprehensible to us. The other day I was reading a brilliant parable which used hologram technology to explain a complex spiritual principle - such could never have been used 2,000 years ago, and such would have been meaningless to a poor peasant in remotest Mongolia even today.
As we look at the astonishing technological development around us, it is tempting to think that given sufficient time man will be able to do whatever he wants. Scientists have even been talking about laboratory-made immortality, the ultimate quest, only they have not been able to explain who of the few who might be able to afford such a speculative technology would have the right to have access to it, and what would happen to the earth if people kept multiplying and never dying. They have no - and never will have - solutions to the moral dilemma such an imagined technology might bring.
Honesty will, however, force us to stop and think, and to realise that the skills of man and not limitless. There are accomplishments beyond our reach. We may be able to continue prolonging life but we cannot stop death. We will never be able to create life out of non-living matter - we may be able to redirect it, manipulate it. Not even in one of our most expansive moods would we ever be able to make the world. We have to take the world as it is. We may be able to destroy it, but that still leaves the universe which we could not possibly destroy, let alone create. And why can't we? The answer lies in one word: space. Just go outside one night when the sky is clear and look upwards. The fact that there aren't just millions of stars but millions of galaxies each of which contains millions of stars makes the idea of man ever being able to make such a wonder utterly and totally ridiculous. Man's skills clearly aren't limitless. There is a point at which we can go no further. There the buffer stops to human expertise.
What is our usual reaction when we come face to face with these limits? Imagine yourself in some beautiful and extensive parkland. You wander all over it, enjoy it, develop it, even revel in it. Eventually, however, you come to a fence beyond which it is impossible to proceed further. You walk along by it. There are no gaps. You come to a gate but it is securely locked. What next? What do you say to yourself? "Oh, well, there are interests, occupations and even pleasures enough within the enclosure. I will trouble myself no more about the fence." Isn't this the line most of us pursue?
All right. We cannot prevent death and we cannot initiate life, and we certainly can't build the universe. But there's still a football match to watch, we still have to raise cash to pay our bills, we still have to plan our vegetable garden next year so that we have enough to eat. This tacit acceptance of the frontiers of our human endeavour works for most of us for most of the time until - yes, until - something desperate eats into our complacency about ultimate questions. Perhaps we stand guilty of some crime, perhaps the death of a loved one opens an entry into bitter loneliness, a hopeless illness is diagnosed, our career collapses. What then? We stare at the fence and we start asking ourselves questions like: "How did I arrive in this wretched enclosure? Why did I arrive here? What is the point of this existence anyway? Whose is this parkland I have enjoyed and wish to enjoy?"
There are three possible attitudes to these awkward questions. One is to shrug the shoulders with the confession, "I don't know." This is the way of agnosticism, which at least has to its credit, that it is a humble attitude.
Then there is theory that the whole universe is the product of chance. This attitude may be left in the vaguest of terms where, with the increase of our knowledge of the wonders of the natural world, it becomes more and more incredible. Or it may be scientifically expressed in terms of the random association of basic elements. These hypotheses are atheistic and on this account less humble than the agnostic.
The third alternative is the leap of faith, it is the attitude which believes in a divine creator whose mind and purpose lie behind all that is. It does not ultimately rest on logical proof but neither is it destructible by logic proof. It accords with the mystery of human experience and is demonstrably an uplifting and energising stance. Faith in God as creator is creative. Men and women of faith are generally more purposeful than those of unfaith. When we cease to believe in anything we flag.
With faith in our kit bag, we can begin to start doing things. We can start building schools, orphanages, and churches. Or we can start building other things. The Bible teaches us that if we exercise enough faith we can go so far as to command a mountain to be cast into the sea. Though I've never heard if this miracle actually being performed by a man, I've certainly heard of men who have walked on water, healed the sick, and done other supernatural things by the power of Yahweh. The trouble is I have also heard of men doing similar miracles by the power of the devil. But what I have never been able to witness the devil do, let alone hear about from others, is to turn evil into good, rebuild destroyed lives, bring peace out of fear, or love out of hate. There are, as I have said many times, some things the devil can't do. Creating life is another thing he can't do.
Once we start to use that magical property called faith, many temptations start falling across our path. Whereas we are exhorted in the Scriptures to exercise faith, it is always a conditional kind of faith - we must exercise faith in the right things. We must seek to accomplish with that faith that which is in God's will.
There are thousands of stories of men and women of faith who have set out with high ambition, will power, and faith, in order to achieve a goal. The men of the tower of Babel fame were such people. The Bible doesn't say too much about this episode other than it started with the urge to build. Building is one of those creative things God has put within us. For some, it is family-building. For others, career-building. And yet others, church-building. We are all builders by an inner drive. The problem is knowing what to built, how to build, why we build, and to build at the right time. Just having the urge to build something doesn't guarantee that it is right or that it will be successful.
Up until this time the people had been building with stone. Stone is pretty durable but it's hard to work with. It's very heavy for one thing. So the men of Shinar hit on an idea: "Let's make bricks instead. They're not so durable, but they're easier to make and to transport about." Encouraged by this new "invention", they then wondered what to build. They decided to build two things: (a) a city, and (b) a tower. The purpose of the city, we imagine, was so that they could all live together. But the tower had a more sinister purpose. With the tower they wanted to reach heaven. Now why would they want to do that? Why would they want to build this vast structure up into the clouds? Did they seriously believe they could accomplish it? Surprising though this may seemed, that didn't bother them to much. What really seemed to work up their imagination and fantasy was two things: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves - i.e. become famous or well known; and (2) they hoped they could thus be able to live together in the city.
Now why did they believe that this tower was important for them in remaining together? Why couldn't they just build a tower, live there, and forget about their reputation? The very plain answer is that they weren't supposed to be living in cities in the first place. The tower and the fame it would bring them would be their justification for doing something they shouldn't be doing.
That their desire was wrong is proven by the fact that the Lord had to confound their languages to get them to split up. He did not want the construction of a huge super city-state with its potential for evil so early on in earth's history. The tower, which is what we tend to focus on when we read this story, was not the main issue at all - the tower was just something showy to impress, like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. It was a symbol of their defiance against God to be an agrarian society.
Just go into any big city or capital and you'll find a tower somewhere. I guarantee it. Each of them is an unconscious attempt by mankind to make a name for himself in order to justify ungodly building projects. Such building projects don't have to be cities. They can be huge church buildings. They don't even have to be buildings. They can be things like stardom, but to be a star, you have to be loved by the world. And to be loved by the world you have to do what the world loves. And what the world loves, God invariably hates.
As a species we are incredible builders. The pyramids of Cheops in Egypt still impresses us. But why were they built? They were built not just for their own sake but to justify themselves. And as is true of most such building projects, the price is very high, and sometimes human blood, if not high taxation and therefore exploitation. Don't forget that the children of Israel were made into slaves in order to make huge imperial cities in order to get Pharaoh "a name". In short, he wanted to be famous, and he didn't care what he did in order to be. And like all vain rulers, the Pharaohs built expensive pyramids as burial places.
Notice that people don't live in any of these monuments. They may well be astonishing technical achievements but they don't actually serve anyone any use. Certainly not the farmers in the countryside who feed the city people. What use is the Eiffel Tower to a French farmer in Provence?
The only large structure that Yahweh has ever commanded built was a single temple in Jerusalem for His Name to live in, not the builders'. It is unfortunate, in that respect, that it ever came to be called 'Solomon's Temple', because it wasn't. I doubt he even lifted a single stone in place. It was God's, for His glory, and His glory alone.
There is no mandatory temple, synagogue or church building under the New Covenant. Yah'shua (Jesus) made that plain when he spoke to the Samaritan woman. From the point of His death and resurrection, the only temple that God would now live in was our human bodies. And for this reason, we became obliged not only to keep it physically and sexually clean, but spiritually clean as well. From now on, this would be the temple that Yahweh would put His Name on through the blood-purchase of His Son. From now on, our bodies would give Yahweh a Name. Listen carefully to that! Our physical bodies don't exist so that we can get a reputation from it by what we do with it but for the reputation that God gets from it by the kind of life we live.
The Tower of Babel was a diversion. It was built to distract people from a sinful practice. In the world people prostitute their bodies as screen idols, sports idols, and other kinds of idols. Their bodies are their passports to self-fame. Their beauty, voice, looks, muscular build, or whatever, are used to serve mankind's selfish ends. But this isn't what they were created for. Our bodies have only one purpose as Scripture so clearly states:
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Rom.12:1-2, NKJV).
"For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (Rom.12:3-5, NKJV).
This is what I was trying to convey to you on Yom Kippur. We are to think of ourselves not so much as individuals but as a family or a "collective body". How can we become a collectible body if we are too busy promoting out individual ones? That is why Paul explains most clearly that Christianity is a group effort whose sole purpose is to make a Name for Christ. And how different that is to what those Babylonians got up to!
The Tower of Babel comes to us with a warning. If we seek to please ourselves by gathering with the wicked into cities where evil works have always flourished, then in the end Yahweh will scatter us by creating CONFUSION. If we are confused, and can't communicate properly as happened after Yahweh confounded the languages of the people, then that is a sign that we are not on the right path. It means we are on a path of self-glorification which ignores the Family of God because the family of God is a co-operative effort. It's about people working together to give the Creator a good Name by works of holiness and honour. It's about the forgetting of self and working together for the collective good, whose end is in any case glory to God.
God knew that if He didn't intervene that nothing would have been impossible for those tower-builders. And we see that being fulfilled today. Look at the spectacular achievements of modern technology but look at the parallel moral and spiritual poverty. That's our modern tower of Babel, sustained by the cities. Today's world is directly paralleled by the Babylonian world. The exactness is astonishing.
I repeat, there are no solo-Christians. The solo-Christian is in the business of building towers in the centre of his own ambitions. The saved Christian - the one following the manual of life, the Bible, is working co-operatively for the good of the local Christian community which in turn is supposed to shine as a light to the unsaved around. It is this co-operative effort which wins hearts because it is an enterprise that is so difficult without Christ. The miracle of Christ is that he breaks down the barriers that alienate us from people because of selfish pride. Through His death and resurrection power we are able to transcend our puny and frankly repugnant fallen natures and find something infinitely more satisfying and God-honouring.
When you think of these things, remember the Tower of Babel. Not all ambition is good, and most of it that wants to "go-alone" invariably isn't. We aren't supposed to be making names for ourselves - our careers, our ministries, our churches - but for Christ. United we stand, divided we fall. That motto will always hold true. Amen.
This page was created on 18 October 2001
Last updated on 18 October 2001
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