August this year is the Beijing Olympics. And China thinks they’ll be ready. Everything planned down to the minute detail. They’re even trying to do something about THE POLLUTION.
They’ll be hundreds of nations. Thousands of athletes. Hundreds of thousands of spectators and tourists. And, hopefully, everyone will get along.
That’s the Olympic ideal. Achieving UNITY through sport. Breaking down barriers. Promoting the togetherness of humanity. The brotherhood of mankind.
English-speaker and Spanish-speaker. Black and white and yellow and brown. African, Asian, European or Australian. Christian or Muslim. Protestant or Catholic.
The dream is that SPORT has the potential to BRING TOGETHER THE WORLD in a way that few other events can. To unite nations under the banner of physical competition. There was the glimmer of hope that, for just a few weeks, the world could forget its problems.
This is the world of Gen 10. All the nations of the world. Diverse and scattered and different. But descended from ONE MAN. A common ancestor. Noah. Noah and his three sons.
In Ch 9, God tells Noah to be fruitful, increase in number, and FILL THE EARTH. And as generations pass, that’s what they DO. All over the known world. And people groups develop. And cultures and languages.
But they’ve all come from one ancestor. There’s a basic principle of EQUALITY there. They all belong in the same world. And owe their life to the same God. They’ve been given the same mandate. They have the same rights. And are just as valuable as each other.
That’s what we’ll see at the Olympics. SPORT- THE GREAT EQUALIZER. All types. All colours, races, countries. All come together in UNITY. It seems ideal, and IDEALISTIC, doesn’t it?
A of years ago when the World Cup was on. There was an ad screening in America. Trying to get Americans interested in the world game. The World Cup is SO big, so the ad goes, it closes schools, and shops. Brings cities to a standstill.
It EVEN STOPS a WAR.
Apparently Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time. And after three years of civil war, feuding factions talked for the first time in years, and the president called a truce. Because, as everyone knows, a country UNITED makes for better s than a country DIVIDED.
But when the cheering stops, whether it’s the Olympics, or the World Cup, can the peace last? Muslim and Christian. Palestinian and Jew, Black and white might stand side-by-side for A MONTH. But will it continue once the cheering stops?
Once the Olympics is over, will the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay be released by the Americans? Will persecution of Christians in Egypt or the Sudan or China stop? Hardly!
What chance is there that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved by A SOCCER MATCH? Or the problems in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Not likely!
It might be nice to IMAGINE peace and unity. But we can’t even stop our division and hostility for a FORTNIGHT. The dream of something which can prove to be the great unifier – the great peace-maker turns out to be just that. A DREAM.
The problem with l
And that’s the message of Gen 11. That REAL UNITY will NEVER be possible in this world. Whenever man EXCLUDES GOD.
Because EXCLUDING God is what’s at the heart of the problem in l. Refusing to allow him to be the CENTER of their life. The CENTRE of their city.
Have a look at the start of Ch 11 with me. It rewinds the tape from Ch 10. Back to some time previously. And rather than MANY languages, there’s only ONE language. Let’s see if we can work out what the problem is with l.
In v2, a group of people arrive at a plain in Shinar, or Babylon. And SETTLE there. Which is FINE. So far so good.
And then they start to build a CITY. Which is ALSO fine. Nothing wrong with cities. And they make bricks instead of using stone. And use bitumen instead of mortar. Which is ALSO fine. After all, they live on a river delta – probably not a lot of stone blocks AROUND.
But here’s where the problem begins. Have a look at v4.
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.”
In the space of one verse, we get three mistakes. First. They want to build a city. With a striking centerpiece. Something to put them on the tourist map. Like the Big Banana in Coffs. Or the Big Merino in Goulburn. Or the Big Trout in Adaminaby. Or the Big Potato in Robertson.
In l, we’ve got … THE BIG TOWER. A tower that REACHES TO THE HEAVENS. If that was all we were told – probably not a huge deal. But reading between the lines. It’s about REFUSING TO STAY IN THE POSITION GOD HAD SET FOR THEM. It’s wanting to set themselves up in the place of God. To start a revolution. To install a NEW king. A NEW moral decision-maker. The same sin as Adam and Eve.
You can see it in their second mistake. Rather than building, and making, and creating, and multiplying so that GOD might be honoured. What’s their motive? To make a NAME for themselves. To exalt MAN, rather than God.
It’s the technological and scientific and political pride that refuses to recognise God as the source and goal and motivation of the developments we make. And seeks to take all the credit for ourselves.
It’s the pride that refuses to recognize any BOUNDARIES OR LIMITS to the progress we make. That fails to see that simply because we CAN do something, doesn’t automatically mean we SHOULD.
Making a name/ being FIRST/ being BEST. Is what it’s all about.
But it’s GOD who should be the center of their city. The King they follow. But instead they want a tower that REACHES to the heavens. To REPLACE God with something of their own creation. It’s really just idolatry.
It’s the sort of attitude that doesn’t change much in l in hundreds or thousands of years. Fast forward to the time of Isaiah. Around 700 BC. And listen to how God rebukes the nation of Babylon. The same city. Is 14:13-15
Isa 14:13-15 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I WILL MAKE MYSELF LIKE THE MOST HIGH.” 15 But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.
They want God’s position. But God will have none of it. That’s the second part of their sin.
And the third part of their sin is there at the end of v4. Why build a city? To NOT be scattered. When the very thing God commanded them to do was to out and FILL the earth.
But they’re not interested in God’s commands. They want to be comfortable, protected. Settled. Safe. And stay right where they are. Who cares about being obedient? About taking risks?
Who cares what GOD thinks?
Which is the exact response you’d EXPECT from someone starting a revolution. Rebelling against God, and replacing him on the throne.
What does God think of all this? He comes down to check out this noble piece of engineering and architecture. And the political and economic organization that got the project together.
And here’s his response. V6.
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.
God’s saying, “Better nip this in the bud. If they can get things this wrong ALREADY, how far could they go if they CONTINUED like this? Continued working together? Continued to use their God-given creativity to go in all sorts of directions/ oblivious to God’s will?
God’s intention is like a father who shuts the front gate while his children play in the yard. If they can get up to this much mischief HERE, imagine what they could do on the ROAD!
Or the mum who sees her child playing with a knife, and takes it off him. For his protection.
It’s not that God’s concerned that they might actually ACHIEVE what they’re aiming for – to reach heaven. He’s not jealous or protective of his domain. His concern is to protect them from themselves. To place boundaries and limits on what mankind can achieve.
And so he confuses their languages. And the people are FORCED to scatter.
And as you follow the story of nations through the Bible, you can see how those boundaries WORK. Whether it’s Israel, or Babylon or Egypt or Assyria. When ONE nation oversteps its boundaries. Becomes so wicked that God has to destroy them. How does he normally DO it? By using ANOTHER nation. One nation rises up and overthrows another because of their wickedness. But behind the human events is God’s plan and judgment. He USES the hostility between nations to KEEP IN CHECK the wickedness.
So one way of seeing this scattering is to see it as PROTECTION. Yes, it’s judgment caused by their disobedience. But it’s also designed to keep their behaviour in check. To place a fence around it.
And the result is the people are FORCED to obey God’s command from Gen 9. By their own hostility and suspicion towards others. They scatter and kept to themselves.
SO Ch 11 is the explanation for HOW the nations of Gen 10 manage to fill the whole world. It’s the result of DISOBEDIENCE rather than obedience. Which adds a dose of REALITY to the situation. Just in case we started to think that it was MAN’S doing. And that things were going to turn out alright
And so we come to the end of THIS story. With the nations ing out. Living in fear of each other. Living apart from God. In disobedience to him. Still needing to be reconciled. Brought back to EACH OTHER. And brought back to GOD.
And we’ll see how God begins that process NEXT week.
But before then, I want to jump forward many thousands of years. To skip dozens of chapters of God’s story. To ANOTHER city. To Jerusalem. It’s Pentecost. 50 days after Passover. About 30 AD. To see what happens when l is REVERSED. Acts 2.
Jesus has come, died, been raised, and returned to heaven. He’s done what he came to do. And reconciled people to God.
And now, he’s told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit. The one who’ll give them the power to take that good news of reconciliation to the world. The good news that will unite people again under God’s chosen king.
And as they’re waiting in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit falls on them, and they start speaking in other languages. Good Jews, who yesterday only spoke Aramaic and probably Greek. But now, they start to speak in the languages of the rest of the nations. The Parthians, Medes, Elamites; Mesopotamia, Cappadocians, Egyptians, Libyans and Arabs. All the languages of the known world.
Which amazes all the tourists in town. Who just happen to be visiting from all those same countries. And they hear the good news about Jesus in THEIR OWN LANGUAGE. The news of the one who breaks down mankind’s barrier with God.
And Acts 2:41 tells us that 3000 of these tourists believe the message and become Christians. And then they carry the news back to their homes. And tell OTHERS about it.
People ING OUT and SPEAKING DIFFERENT LANGUAGES again. Just like l. But this time, with a message that UNITES. People the world over/ united together under the Lordship of Jesus. All part of the one body – brothers and sisters – because we’re all connected to the same HEAD – which is Jesus.
And we’re STILL working at building that unity TODAY.
Ultimately, it’s the only unity that WORKS. Mankind’s efforts at peace and reconciliation, without God, will always amount to NOTHING. TO frustration and hostility and failure.
It’s the GOSPEL that unites people. That crosses cultural and language barriers. That goes beyond colour and race and geography.
Soccer can’t do it. Or the Olympic Games. Or the United Nations. Or a global concert to eradicate poverty.
It’s only THE GOSPEL that can TRULY bring people together. For the LONG TERM.
A THIRD city
And while we experience a TASTE of that unity NOW. God’s got a much GREATER unity in mind. A unity that lasts FOR ETERNITY.
I want to finish by looking at a picture of a THIRD city. With people living together. In complete unity and protection and peace.
It’s the Heavenly Jerusalem. But rather than a city with God REMOVED. THIS city has God and man in perfect fellowship. God – the source of all life and light and love and joy. Rev 21:2-4
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and HE WILL LIVE WITH THEM. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
And a bit further down in v22. What’s the center of THIS city?
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
That’s a picture of unity between God and man. But also between man and man.
It’s a unity that God’s been working to reverse since the creation of the world. A work that’s focused on Jesus. The one who’s the center of this city.
And it’s a work he’s called us to SHARE in. To be ing out, and taking the news of Jesus to the people around us. The news that UNITES people in a way that nothing else can. In THIS life, and the next.
But we need to learn a lesson from the people of l. As individuals, and even as a church, there’s the temptation to the sins of l. Banding together, in fear of the outside. Circling the wagons, shutting up shop, getting comfortable, worshipping idols rather than living obediently for him with an outward focus.
As individuals we’re tempted to focus on our family. Where family ALWAYS takes priority over church. I’m not sure that’s what God WANTS. I’m not saying you’re to sacrifice your family on the altar of your ministry – plenty of minister’s families have suffered THAT way. But that it can actually BENEFIT your family to be put out in the service of others. To see what a life of obedience LOOKS like. To be inconvenienced, and made uncomfortable for the sake of others.
I believe that God can HONOUR those things in the lives of your kids. That they’ll grow up RICHER for it.
We can be tempted like l when it comes to building our assets, working on the home, keeping everything so neat and controlled that we never risk it for anyone else outside.
We’re tempted like l when it comes to our TIME. Our Saturdays or evenings or Sunday afternoon naps are SO PRECIOUS, we wouldn’t give them up for ANYTHING, or ANYONE.
God calls us to SCATTER. How well are YOU doing at that?
But it works the same AS A CHURCH. We’re pretty comfortable here. We ENJOY each other. But how serious are we about stepping OUT of that comfort zone? How committed are we to making Jesus known in THIS SUBURB? Talking to people. Even just pushing that conversation ONE MORE QUESTION past the comfortable.
Inviting our friends to church. Or a picnic, or Men’s Breakfast. We TALK about it. Perhaps even PRAY about it. But do we DO it.
The sin of l was banding together, in disobedience to God, replacing him at the center with an idol of their own making, and refusing to out across the world.
God’s plan is for ALL NATIONS to be united under the headship of Jesus. WHATEVER their language, praising the name of the Lamb who was slain. And it’s OUR job to work together with God to bring that plan about. A plan that will result in THIS picture of unity and peace and harmony. Rev 7:9-12
9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language , standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.