God Had to Come Down, Genesis 11:1-9, 2/2/14

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Feb 022014

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church


1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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.”


5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”


8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9, NRSV)



Have you ever gotten so lost or messed up when you are trying to go somewhere or do something that you decide the best thing is to just go back to the beginning and start over again?  And you ask yourself, “Okay, so where is it again that I’m trying to go?  What is it exactly that I’m trying to do?”


In some ways this was what God is doing for humanity when he flooded the world but spared Noah and his family.  Given a new start, people were reminded of where it was they were supposed to go in the first place and what it was they were supposed to do when they got there.  From the beginning, God had made it clear.  In Genesis 1:28 God gives the first humans their marching orders, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”  This was our purpose from the get go, to spread out over all the earth and cultivate all of it in God’s name.  Build cities and farms, make music and art, develop culture and government, and do it all for God’s glory.


By sparing Noah and his family from the flood, humanity gets another chance to get it right.  And in Genesis 10 we’re told that they get off to a pretty good start.  Noah’s children had children, and those children had children, and on and on until there were lots of people on the earth again.  But then at the beginning Genesis 11 we read that as the people begin to migrate east to spread out over the world they end up getting stuck again.  They come upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and maybe because the place had a nice view, or lots of riverfront property, or plenty of fertile farmland, whatever the reason they decide to stop filling and subduing the earth as they had been told and instead they choose to stay put and settle down.


Apparently at that time everybody spoke one language, which must have been very convenient.  And apparently once they settled in their new home they all got together and talked in their common language about what to do next.  And apparently somebody came up with the idea of building a tower.  “Let’s make bricks,” some guy suggested.  “Let’s 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 upon the face of the whole earth.”  This was the suggestion and, apparently, everybody agreed it was a good idea and immediately they got to work.


So let’s review.  God had made it clear from the outset that his people were to spread out over all the earth and take the riches of creation into their hands and cultivate all of it for God’s glory, always remembering that God was the source of everything they possessed.  That is what God commanded but that is not what the people did.  Instead the people decide that instead of following God out into the world they would instead huddle together in one corner of the world and instead of cultivating creation to glorify God and show their dependence upon God they would rather cultivate creation to glorify themselves and show their independence from God.  “We’re not going to worry about the rest of God’s world, but only our little corner of the world.  Furthermore, we’re not going to try to make a name for God, but instead we are going to make a name for ourselves.”  And all at once the story of the Tower of Babel becomes our story, for the great and enduring rebellion of humankind, a rebellion in which every one of us in this room has fully participated, is the rebellion aimed at exalting ourselves in a world in which everything was made to exalt God.


It could be argued that apart from the Tower of Bable, the first skyscraper in history was the ancient Great Pyramid of Giza built in the 26th century B.C. to stand 480 feet high.  There is little doubt that when it was completed the ancient Egyptians who built it had made quite a name for themselves.  Ever since then, it’s been a race to see who can build a higher tower.


In the 14th century it was the great cathedrals of Europe which claimed the best view.  In 1884, the 555-foot WashingtonMonument became the tallest tower in the world.  The world’s first skyscraper was the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, finished in 1885.  It stood 138 feet tall.  We’ve come a long way since then.  Today, the tallest skyscraper in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, a building which made quite a name for its builders in 2009 when it topped out at a breathtaking 2,716.5 feet.  Ever since the pyramids it’s been an endless competition to see who can be tallest.  I even heard a rumor that back when we were designing this very church steeple 20 years ago, at least one person in the church at that time was overheard to ask, “Exactly how tall is the steeple across the street at the Catholic church?”  As a matter of coincidence, I believe our steeple is a few feet higher.


Now, before we unfairly pick on architects and city planners, let’s acknowledge here this morning that even those of us with no interest in skyscrapers are nonetheless still very interested in building towers in our lives which will help make a name for ourselves.  We were made to promote God but, by nature, all of us are inclined to rebel and promote ourselves.


One of the most difficult places for me to ever go is to a pastors conference.  I’ve been to many of these gatherings over the last 25 years and they are never easy.  Hundreds, sometimes thousands of pastors gather from all over to learn and grow, which is a good thing and the reason I go.  What makes these conferences difficult for me, however, is that these gatherings always exposes one of the towers I’m trying to build in my life.  Without fail, I meet other pastors at these events who seem to have been much more successful in leading their churches than I have been in leading mine.  I listen to other preachers who seem to be so much more skilled and effective communicators than me.  Sometimes the opposite happens.   I meet pastors who lead churches who are struggling in ways my church has never struggled.  Or I listen to a pastor teach a seminar and think to myself, “Why did they give this guy the microphone?  I could do a way better job than he’s doing right now.”


Please understand, I do know that “success” in the church is very hard to measure.  Is the church with the biggest membership and the biggest budget always the more faithful church in God’s eyes?  Is the most entertaining preacher always the one through whom God speaks most clearly?  No, not necessarily.  I don’t think that’s the way it works.  And yet, as I fall into the trap of comparing myself to others and, depending on how I measure up, either coming away feeling discouraged on the one hand or arrogant on the other, I am reminded that in my life I am trying to build a tower.  Is my work as a pastor done entirely to build up God’s name or is it done, at least in part, to build up my own name?  If I’m honest, there is something in me that is still very interested in self-promotion.  I’m not proud of this and it is not easy to admit to you today, but it is true and it is something that I have learned I must face.


But enough about me.  Let’s think about you for a moment.  I know that God has entrusted you with a great deal.  Maybe more or maybe less than the person next to you, but still quite a bit.  Health.  Ability.  Training.  Wealth.  Education.  A job with good work to do.  Influence.  Relationships.  Knowledge.  Truth about God and what he has done.  There is a great deal of God’s creation which has been placed into your hands.  So let me ask you, as you take all those resources and make from them bricks and mortar, are you using those bricks and mortar to build a tower to make a name for yourself or to make a name for God?  Are you following God out into the world where God is calling you to go, or are you circling the wagons and staying in your little corner to protect what you believe is rightfully yours?


There is the woman here who is working herself to the bone building a successful career that, to her delight, is increasingly admired by many.  There is a man here who struggles daily with feelings of great inadequacy because he has not been able to make enough money to buy his kids the things that many other kids take for granted.  There is a mom here who has invested everything in the success of her children because she believes when her children succeed then her life will take on great value.  There is a young person here who has not been able to make many, if any friends at school and as a result he feels terrible about himself.


I know that I need to come to grips in my life with the ways I am seeking to justify my life and build myself up.  Are you willing to do the same?  Going to a pastor’s convention would likely be the last place you would feel threatened.  So let me ask you, where is it that you do feel threatened?  Is it when people ask you what you do for a living?  Is it on the athletic field or at the gym?  Is it in the mirror?  Is it when people come to see where you live, or when you come to see where somebody else lives?  Is it when other people talk about their kids or their families?  Is it when you go on Facebook?  Is it when you lose?  Might it even be when you show up at church?  Where in your life these days are you feeling threatened, afraid that your tower isn’t quite as high as it should be?


Listen to me.  Nothing wrong with working hard at your career, or providing for your family, or preparing your children for success, or making friends at school.  There is nothing inherently wrong with building a tower.  God was not upset with the people in Genesis 11 because they built a tower.  God’s displeasure came from the fact that they were building the tower to make a name for themselves.   What made it even worse is that their tower had religious overtones.  It was a tower intended to have its “top in the heavens.”


You see, this is Adam and Eve all over again.  Remember, Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they wanted to become like God.  In a similar way, the people in the valley of Shinar build a tower because they want to reach heaven.  They also want to become like God.  Humans were made to bring glory to God.  Our natures have been corrupted, however, so that what we really want to do instead is bring glory to ourselves.  This is so deeply engrained in us that often times even our very religious practices are done with this end in mind.  We come to church, give away money, help those who are poor, read our Bibles and say our prayers, in part because we want God to admire the impressive tower of faithful obedience we are building.  Many, many people sitting in church pews this morning are doing so because they want to make a name for themselves in heaven.


Well, after some time the people in the ShinarValley finally finished their tower.  When it was done, we can only imagine that they had a little open house, maybe catered in a meal, invited over a few neighbors they wanted to impress.  Perhaps they even invited God.  Either way, God did come.  In verse 5 we read, “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”


Now, don’t miss the irony here.  The people do their best to build a tower that has its top in the heavens but when God wants to see their tower God must come down to take a look because God can’t see their little tower from where he sits in heaven.  This is the little boy who wants to show his father his muscles.  The father says, “Okay, son, go ahead and flex.”  “I am flexing,” the boy says in disgust.  This is me expecting Tim Lincecum to stop by the ball field so I can impress him with my curveball, or expecting Beethoven to immediately want a copy of the new song I recently plucked out on the piano, or expecting Picasso to ask for painting lessons after he sees a sample of my artwork.  God comes down to look at their tower and God has to stoop down to see this puny extravagance.  For all their efforts to climb to heaven, in the end heaven still has to come down.


Walk through the streets of downtown Manhattan and look up and you cannot help but be awed by the enormity of the skyscrapers.  Get in a plane, however, and fly 30,000 feet above Manhattan on a clear day and, in comparison to the endless horizon stretching out on all sides, those massive buildings below seem like tiny dominos ready to topple over onto each other the first time a strong wind blows.  Tragically, we now know just how easily and how quickly they can topple over.


We may succeed in temporarily impressing one another with our towers.  When we hold them up before God, however, they will always appear so small and insignificant that to even see them God has to stoop down.  God created the very galaxies with a word from his mouth.  How can we ever imagine then that God could be impressed with our accomplished resumes, or athletic victories, or bank balances, or well-adjusted children, or tanned and toned bodies, or even our righteous religious deeds?   Can we ever come to understand that no matter what we do we will never make a name for ourselves in the kingdom of Heaven, the only place where a persons’ name ultimately counts for something?


What’s interesting to me about this story is that when God does come down to take a look, God does not scoff at the pitiful tower the people have built in the Valley of Shinar.  No, this is not much ado about nothing.  God doesn’t laugh or make light of it all.  No, God is serious.  As one writer put it, “Though man’s highest achievement was pathetic in God’s eyes’, the motives that promoted his efforts were horrific.”[1]   God has grave concerns with this tower, not with the lack of quality he finds in the building but with the lack of humility he finds in its builders.


Immediately, God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible.”  In a way, I think God is saying, “What if this is only the beginning?  These people have impressed themselves so much that pretty soon the whole human race will be collaborating to seize control of creation and history and there will be no limits to this unrestrained rebellion.  They will forever seek to build a godless human kingdom ever imagining that they can, in the end, exclude the kingdom of God.”


You see, when God looks down from heaven and sees us building our pitiful towers in an effort to make a name for ourselves, God’s heart breaks.  For God knows that to choose to use your life for your own glory is to choose a life apart from the source and sustainer of life and is, therefore, to ultimately choose destruction.  Jesus himself told us that some people will build the houses of their lives on foundations of sand and in the end, when the storms of life come, as they always come, those houses will crash to the ground in heaps of devastation.[2]


You know this.  If you think about it, you know this.  A great athletic contest will be played out this afternoon in northern New Jersey.   The noble Denver Broncos will take on the evil Seattle Seahawks for the right to be called champions.[3]  Those playing in the game this afternoon are going to feel as if they are at the very center of the universe.  And in the end the athletes and coaches who ultimately get to climb up on the podium and hoist the Lombardi trophy in victory will, in the eyes of many, stand atop a very, very tall tower.  Super Bowl champions.  They will have made a name for themselves, along with a few shoe and soft drink endorsements.


But what about a week from now?  Or a year from now?  Or a lifetime from now?  How tall will that tower seem then?  In a recent USA Today article, basketball star LeBron James talked about what that experience was like for him atop that tower:

What really got to me [when we won the NBA championship] was how short of a time it lasted. The championship lasts (he snaps his fingers) just like that. The confetti rains, you go in the locker room, pop the champagne, you do the media, you have the parade and then it’s over. It’s over. You’re looking around, and everybody’s back to normal. I was like, “Wow, that was an unbelievable 48 hours. I want it again.” It was the best 48 hours of my life, and I needed that again … I have a drive that’s burning inside of me, and I want to continue to be successful.[4]


We hear that and want to say to LeBron, “Come on, man.  You realize, don’t you, that it’s never going to do it for you.  You can win 10 NBA championships and they are never going to justify your life!”  How can he be such a fool to invest his life in that tower?  And God hears us say this and looks at us and says, “Do you hear what you’re saying?  Do you think at the end of the day that the tower you are building is going to be any more impressive or lasting than the one he is building?”


God never does anything but love us.  Do you know that?  God is love.  God can do nothing but love.  That means that whenever God acts towards people God is always acting in love.  It may not feel like love.  I bet when you were a kid there were lots of times your own parents’ loving actions towards you didn’t, at the time, feel like love.  But they were.  God sees his people building their tower and he comes down and, out of love, confuses their language so that any future tower building projects will be impossible.  Then God scatters the people across the earth, sending them out to do the job they were originally assigned to do.


And we wonder why God had to confuse their language?  Why not just push over the tower?  Well, could it be that God knows that people are stubborn and towers are replaceable?[5]  If he pushed it over would they not simply get to work making more bricks to build another one?  Could it be that God loves us so much that there are times in our lives when he allows some precious tower to be taken away permanently because he knows that if it is not we will never cease trying to build it towards heaven?  As you look back, have there been times when God has allowed you to experience loss or failure in order that you could come to grips with the ways you had been trying in vain to elevate yourself?  Maybe you are even going through such a time right now in life where God is scattering your best laid plans to give you a set of much better plans?


Have you come to the place in your life that you realize that no matter how high you build your particular tower you will never be able to make a name for yourself that lasts?  If you have come to that humble place, consider yourself blessed.  In fact, you might be the person Jesus spoke about when he said things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”[6]  Blessed are those who realize they can never reach up to heaven, for they are ready to realize that heaven is coming down to reach them.


Maybe you know that God is famous for making names of people in ways they never could do for themselves.  Abram was an old man who had no children.  God named him Abraham, which means “father of many.”[7]  Jacob wrestled with God and overcame, so God named him Israel, which means “struggles with God.”[8]  The tax collector Levi was renamed Matthew by Jesus.  Matthew means means “gift of God.”  Simon the unreliable flake met Jesus and had his named changed to Peter, a name which never would have described him before because Peter means “rock.”  Saul was named after a great king until Jesus met him and changed his name to Paul, a name which means “small” or “humble”.[9]


Apart from God the names of these people and many like them would long be forgotten.  The same is true of us.  If you and I spend our lives building towers to make a name for ourselves, names we hope will reach even to the heavens, if we do this then in the end our efforts will be found to have been in vain.


We cannot reach heaven.  Ever.  Heaven has to come down.  And when it does, when it did, heaven comes, heaven came, all the way down.  In the person of Jesus Christ, heaven came all the way down.  In Christ the immortal God stoops to take on mortal flesh, the creator descends into creation, riches bend down to be clothed in poverty, the sacred submerges itself in sin, life itself is buried in death, so that we, so that all who have faith, would find that by grace God has made for them a name in heaven.




The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Read Genesis 11:1-9.  What do you notice here?


Why do the people decide to build this tower?  Is this such a bad thing?


Why does God decide to respond to their architectural exploits by confusing their language?


In verse 6 God says that limitless human potential is a problem.  Why?


Is God impressed with your life today?


Can you recognize how you are trying to build a “tower” in your life right now?  How are you trying to make a name for yourself?  How’s it going so far?


When was the late time God came down and scattered your ambitious plans?  How did you respond?  In retrospect can you see that God did so for your own good?


How does the story of the Tower of Babel point us to Jesus?


[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, (Waco: Word, 1987), 245.

[2] Matthew 7:24-27.

[3] A Denver Broncos fan since childhood, I’m not afraid to show my true colors!

[5] Victor Hamilton makes this great insight in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis (Chapters 1-17), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 355.

[6] Matthew 5:3-5, NRSV.

[7] Genesis 17:5.

[8] Genesis 32:28.