This past Sunday at The Story we heard the story of the Babel Builders (entitled: Settle Down”) found in Genesis 11. Often the Babel builders get a bit of a bad rap for being all about their own glory and power. What they really wanted to do was to make a name for themselves and be famous and somehow take God’s place. Well yes, sort of… but when we read the narrative what we find though is that their desire to make a name for themselves is not the goal. They want to build this great city in order to make a name for themselves SO THAT they will not be scattered over the face of the earth.
The thing that they want most is not fame or power or prestige; that is what they seek as a means to the end, which is not being scattered. Significantly this is exactly what God has commanded them to do. In Genesis 1:28 the first humans are told to be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. After the flood in Genesis 8&9 Noah is given a similar command. Implicit in the command to fill the earth is to fill the earth with God’s glory. It is as human’s created in the image of God take up the raw materials of His creation and “create and shape” his world that we display his goodness and his majesty. There is of course also a literal filling of the earth with people, as the commands to be fruitful and multiply imply.
Why do the Babel builders not want to be scattered? Ask yourself what would you prefer, being scattered over the face of the earth; or safety and security as a part of some great enterprise or some great city? What does the great city of Babel offer? Safety, security, provision, communal enterprise, prestige, comfort, a sense of belonging… stable work, safe place for the kids to grow up, good schools?
What does God’s command to scatter and fill the earth bring? Uncertainty, instability, insecurity, an unknown future, unknown provision, loneliness, fear of hostile neighbours or bandits and numerous other drawbacks. Life would certainly be easier in Babel.
Was it wrong for the Babel builders to desire these things? No. But they sought to be their own source of security, safety, provision, rest and certainty for the future. If they would instead choose to embrace the life of scattering they would have to find their security, their rest, their future hope, their provision and their name in God and God alone. As an aside: note that all the Babel builders attempts at self-preservation and self-provision are wiped out with one simple action by the God who spoke the world into being.
The God-following life today is still the life of scattering over the face of the earth. Was it not Jesus who told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”? Our calling is still to fill the earth with the glory of God. Our call is still to scatter into all the unreached people groups of the world. Our call is still to scatter as communities of light into all the forgotten places and the dark corners of our cities and our communities.
But if we are honest most of us are more like the responsible, wise, Babel builders. Most of our parents would be delighted if we got a job with the ambitious, forward-thinking, innovative, new urban centre of our world. Stable income, pension, good schools, medical aid, good career prospects, safe neighbourhood for your kids, wise use of resources. Let’s be honest the Babel builders plans make sense. Of course they do they are our plans, our dreams our ambitions.
But everything we have seen in the story so far tells us that God is a good and a gracious God. In the midst of sin and chaos – he constantly shows mercy, provision, salvation, patience, goodness, peace, rest and hope for the future. The legacy of man’s ambitions are deceit, anger, jealousy, murder, boasting, snatching for power, shame, blame-passing, back-breaking labour, cursed ground and broken relationships. It might make rational sense to follow the example of the Babel builders and seek to secure our own future, but by faith we seek instead to follow the one who has secured both our future and our present through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
Sadly, we mirror Babel not only in our private lives but in our church life too. Rather than being scattered into all the dark and broken places of our community, instead we choose to build our own sources of comfort and security. Our obsession with buildings betrays our unwillingness to scatter and fuels our need for legitimacy and respectability. We design our programmes and structures around the things we enjoy and our felt needs. We meet at times and in ways that suit us and our schedules.
Often we barely know the community surrounding us and our lives are filled up with Christian activities and Christian friends. Is it possible that just as the Babel builders refused the command to scatter and fill the earth with God’s glory, so we too have refused the call to scatter and fill up our communities and cities with the glory of God. Babel looks so much more respectable and legit than the scattered community of a Moving God.