Years ago, one of my co-workers in ministry had this email signature (you know how some folks have a quote or sentence or meaningful phrase under their signed name on an email?) Anyway, he an email signature that included the following quote:
Write a wise saying and your name will live forever. - Anonymous
Pretty good, right? Now, maybe that makes for a funny joke and nothing more.
But I also kind of wonder, if maybe, just maybe, it’s intended to gently poke fun at how futile our efforts in self-promotion really are or to use a phrase from our story today, just how futile our efforts are when it comes to making a name for ourselves.
Consider this for example: Have you ever noticed how many buildings and streets are named after people or dedicated in their honor? Half the time I have no idea who those people even were and yet they were important enough or did something great enough to have a building or street named after them. And those are the most famous of people, how much more is that true of average people like us (sorry, I mean, like me)?
At the end of the day, we all want our lives to matter and to have our days count. To make a difference. To have an impact. We may even want to leave a lasting legacy, to be remembered well.
In many ways, our two stories today describe before us two different ways, two different approaches, two different paths that we can take when pursuing and striving for greatness. Either we follow humanity’s path to greatness or we can follow God’s path to greatness.
As many of you know, this fall we’ve been studying the book of Genesis, specifically Genesis 1-11 and today we’ll wrap up that sermon series by studying the Tower of Babel and the Call of Abraham, the latter of which serves as the turning point in the book of Genesis and therefore makes for a good place to push pause before next week setting our sights on Advent. Yes, that’s right, here comes Advent, ready or not.
Yet, before we get to Advent and before we get to our stories for today, let’s briefly set the stage here: Last week we looked at the story of Noah and the Flood, or Noah’s Ark as we best know it. And as the flood waters ceased and as dry land appeared, and as Noah and his family got off the ark, they were once again given, the creation mandate that Adam and Eve were given long ago, where God said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” That may seem like a minor detail but yet it’s going to help explain why God does what he does here in the Tower of Babel.
We then learn that Noah and his children, have children, who then have their own children, and their children have children, all this to say, once again there’s a sizeable population on earth again by the time we get to chapter 11, where we are introduced to the first of our two stories today, the Tower of Babel.
And though these two stories are briefly separated by a genealogy, I want us to look at them together because together they create this wonderful compare and contrast, almost serving as polar opposites of each other, laying out before us two paths to greatness.
So let’s dive in … we’ll first look at the Tower of Babel, and get a glimpse of the human path to greatness, then we’ll look at the Call of Abraham, and get a glimpse of God’s path to greatness.
When we first pick things up in the Tower of Babel story, at first glance, it seems as if humanity is doing pretty close to what God wanted to do in the first place. They’ve been fruitful, they’ve increased in number, they’ve settled down, and now they’re building a city together. So in other words, they’re creators and cultivators, reflecting the image of God by being creators that reflect their creator God. And so at first glance, it’s as if they’re doing exactly what they are supposed to do. And yet, as is so often the case, the problem for them (and for us too), is so much in the what, but in the why. Not so much for their actions, but rather the motives behind their actions. Here’s what we find out:
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Now, to be clear, the problem here isn’t that they’re building a city. Like, this story isn’t a referendum on city dwelling or intended to show that somehow you’d be a better Christian if you lived in Dillon rather than Denver. That’s not it.
Rather, we gain more insight into the following statements and motives given. Together, they say:
and [build] tower with its top in the heavens
This is more than simply wanting to build a building with a stunning view or fancy rooftop deck. The idea here is that their desire is to either be like God or to be their own God in some way and live life without Him. Either to literally and figuratively get on God’s level, building a tower that creates a “stairway to heaven” or to rival God and take His place. In so many ways, it’s the exact same longing and promise that the snake uses to tempt Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, the promise and hope that they could be like God.
Bible Teacher and Author Jen Wilkin, whom I’ve mentioned in past sermons makes this incredible insightful observation, noting that when it comes to the attributes of God, there are some that you and I share in common with God and some that we don’t. That as people made in the image of God, we are in fact called to reflect Him and be like Him in many ways, by being like God in our pursuit of holiness, love, mercy, faithfulness, patience and kindness, and more. And yet, we sometime want more than that – we aspire towards those attributes of God that in reality we can never obtain – the desire for limitless power, limitless knowledge, limitless authority. As I’ve shared before, the whole idea behind term “helicopter parent, that is, a parent who needlessly and relentlessly hovers over their child into adulthood, is really the desire to play the role of God with your child rather than parent. It’s the idea of wanting to hover over your kid at all times, to know their every move, to be at all places at all times, when in reality, you and I need to trust God to be the God of our children, to control what we can control, and let go of what we can’t.
Or consider this. Brick and mortar were considered high-tech in early days of Genesis, it was the latest and greatest technology and here the people want to leverage technology in a way that allows to them to rival God or live life without Him. And through the use of technology, internet and smartphones and instant information access, we begin to desire and seek the same, as we begin to believe that through technology we too can be everywhere all the time, and have the ability to know everything about everything. And this modern day fallacy, this belief that because I’ve read everything on the internet I’m now an expert on everything, gosh, how’s that worked out for us?
You see, the problem with their desire to [build] a tower with its top in the heavens is that they want to rival God and be like God in ways they weren’t designed to be.
In addition, and this part might be even more telling, they want to “make a name for ourselves.” They want to be great, they want to be remembered, they want to be famous, in the same way that that you hear people today using this language – I want to move to Hollywood to pursue acting, or politics in D.C. or the stock market in the Big Apple, I want to make something of myself, I want to make a name for myself.
They want to be celebrated and known for their accomplishments, to want to be praised by everyone who sees this enormous spectacle they’ve built, and in fact, they even want something beyond that. They want safety and security.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves … why do they desire all of this? … otherwise [they say] we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Interesting, right? You see, there’s a sense of security and safety in this city that they are building, there’s strength in numbers. The more and more people that are gathered together the more and more they can be self-sufficient and not have to rely on God.
And here seems to be the real problem. They have gotten distracted, and gone astray from their God given mission, the divine creation mandate that was given to Adam and Eve and then once again to Noah after the flood.
You see, God’s call upon their lives wasn’t to “fill this tower” but rather “to fill the earth.”
Meaning, they have not been created to exist for themselves, to exist for their own pursuit of greatness, but rather to exist for God, to be fruitful and multiply, to be his image bearers not just in one small pocket of the earth, but to on mission for God, by filling the entire earth.
Think of it this way – Jesus calls his disciples the “salt of the earth.” Imagine putting salt on a T-bone steak. Salt is at its best not when it’s all clumped together but rather when it’s spread out.
And so in effort to scatter His people across the face of earth, God does something at first glance is rather strange, but yet in light of the desire to see humanity fill the earth, turns out to be unbelievably effective. He confuses their language, so that they will not be able to understand each other.
So all of a sudden, when someone would yell down, “Hey Bob, send up another brick” or “Hey Nancy, please pass the salt” or even “Sorry Jill, what did you just say?” nobody had a clue what they were talking about. And so the people’s city creating, tower building was put to grinding halt and they had no choice but to go their separate ways.
You see, altogether, the humanity on display here in the Tower of Babel seek greatness not only through self-promotion, through their feats and accomplishments, but also through their self-sufficiency, their desire for security and safety, their desire to be like God and live a life without him.
And yet, contrast that path of greatness against the Call of Abram. It is in so many ways, the polar opposite, the photo negative to the Tower of Babel story.
The Lord had said to [Abraham], “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
That is, rather than stay put, rather than hold fast to what you know, rather than clinging to the safety and security of the people that you know, the place that you’re familiar with, the family that raised you, I want you to go where I call you to go, to the land God says, I will show you. This for Abraham will require radical trust, radical obedience, and willingness to let go and trust God with his future.
Even more, God promises that he will make Abraham “into a great nation.” Which to Abraham, would sound insane. He and his wife Sarah have no children at the present moment and in addition, Abraham is currently 75 years old, eligible for senior citizen discounts wherever he goes.
And here’s the promise that really gives us the photo negative to our previous story. God says to Abraham, “I will make your name great.”
In the Tower of Babel, we see humanity’s pursuit of greatness through their own feats and accomplishments, the desire to make a name for themselves. They in their minds, will be the ones to accomplish and create their own greatness.
The Call of Abraham is just the opposite. Through God’s gracious call on Abraham’s life and through Abraham’s radical trust and obedience, his willingness to forgo his own comfort and security, God will make his name great.
I recently read the story about a man by the name of Gary Haugen, he’s the founder of International Justice Mission, a Christian organization that frees people trapped in human trafficking, rescuing people around the world from slavery, bringing criminals to justice, and restoring countless victims throughout the years.
He describes God's calling to start International Justice Mission, or IJM, for short.
He says … I vividly remember when I finally had to make a decision to abandon my career at the U.S. Department of Justice to become the first employee of a not-for-profit organization that didn't yet actually exist called International Justice Mission. I had worked for three years with friends on the idea of IJM and was very excited, in theory, about this dream of following Jesus in the work of justice in the world. But then I had to actually act. I had to walk into the Department of Justice and turn in my badge …. I tried to be very brave and very safe. That is to say, I walked in and asked my bosses for a yearlong leave of absence …. My bosses politely declined.
He says, I was suddenly feeling very nervous, but then thought, what was I really afraid of? As I thought about it, he says, I feared humiliation. Truth is, if my little justice ministry idea didn't work, no one was going to die. If IJM turned out to be a bad idea and collapsed, my kids weren't going to starve. We'd probably just have to live with my parents for a while until I could find another job, but with my education, odds are I would soon find a job. The fact is, I would be terribly embarrassed. Having told everybody about my great idea, they would know that it was a bad idea or that I was a bad leader. Either way, it would be humiliating.
I sensed God inviting me to an extraordinary adventure of service, but deep inside I was afraid of looking like a fool. Yet he says, this was actually very helpful to acknowledge, because it helped me get past it. When I am [older] he says, do I really want to look back and say, Yeah, I sensed that God was calling me to lead a movement to bring rescue to people who desperately need an advocate in the world, but I was afraid of getting embarrassed and so I never even tried?
Like Abraham, Gary listened to that nudge that he was sensing from the Lord, Gary followed and obeyed God’s radical call on his life to start IJM.
Now, truth is, God may not be calling you to leave your family and your hometown like Abraham or start an international ministry like Gary (although, he very well could), so let’s briefly, emphasis on briefly here, let’s identify some smaller ways in which you and I can follow God’s call and let go of some of the safety and security we crave.
One might be to create margin in your schedule and to be open to interruption. Friends, if you were to look at your weekly schedule, is there any margin in it? If a spontaneous service opportunity, whether it be to help move a piece of furniture or give someone a ride to Butte or simply to have a 30min phone call with someone who’s grieving and needs someone to talk too, do you have the margin to do it? Of course, the different seasons and circumstances of life will allow for more or less margin, yet are we trying to seize full and complete control of our schedule at all times, or are we leaving space for God to control it?
Another might be with our finances. Giving is one way among many in which we can relinquish safety and security as we trust God with our money. Callie and I think of our giving in three different ways – giving to our church, giving to charity and giving gifts. Maybe look at your budget in 2022, could you increase your percentage giving by one percentage point from the previous year? It’s been said that when God increases your income consider it not only as an opportunity to increase your standard of living, but rather your standard of giving. And no, I did not come up with that quote, someone else did and for the life of me I can’t remember who. As it’s been said, write a wise saying and your name will live forever ☺
Finally, consider serving in ways that are outside of your comfort zone and immersing yourselves with people that you may not share everything in common. We as Christians sometimes have tendency to want to stick together, to exist in our comfortable Christian bubbles. As the salt of the earth, we sometimes get a little clumpy. I especially am prone to this. Since our church is filled with Christians (that’s a good thing), my tendency is to exist primarily within my Christian bubble. So maybe consider ways in which you can get outside of your comfort zone and immersing yourself with non-Christians. Maybe this looks like having your neighbors over for a meal or backyard bonfire or serving in our community in some way.
Three brief ways in which we can, like Abraham, follow God’s call, trust and obey, relinquish our safety and security, and pursue true and godly and lasting greatness.
Friends, when it’s all said and done, when the final credits roll, there will be one name that stands above all the others. And his name is Jesus. In the meantime, we can put our names on trophies, we can dedicate buildings after those who have gone before us, we can put our titles before our name and letters after our name and we can build statues that pigeons everywhere will flock to.
Yet in the end there will be one name and his name is Jesus. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In the end, I’m reminded of something Jesus once said about greatness himself, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Friends, may that be the path of greatness we pursue as well.