The Second Sunday after Christmas January 3, 2010
105, 114, 424, 116(2,5,6)
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is 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.
In the name of the Lord our God who has power over all things and by whose grace we are saved from sin, dear fellow-redeemed:
I once received a notice in the mail for a national conference for men. The theme was: “Unleashed! Releasing the Raw Power of Your Heart.” If that organization knew what it was really saying, I doubt it would have chosen to use that theme. If people who read the invitation understood what it was really saying they would have stayed far away from the conference. If the true raw power of the human heart is released, we would cower in fear and run for our lives.
We see the raw power of sinners’ hearts being unleashed every day in the news. The raw power of the sinful heart is unleashed in the latest crime. The raw power of the heart is unleashed when people serve their own selfish interest without thinking the least about how it will impact someone else. God tells us that the imagination of a person’s heart is evil from its youth (cf. Genesis 8:21). Is that the power we seek to unleash?
Jesus tells us that out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemy (cf. Matthew 15:19). Is that the power we wish to see unleashed? That is the raw power of the heart. In the Epistle reading this morning, the apostle Paul said, “I know that in me that is in my flesh, nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18).
This Wednesday is Epiphany. During the Epiphany season we focus on the revelation of who Jesus is—Jesus’ miracles and preaching clearly revealed Him as the Son of God. Today, we go back to the REVELATION AT BABEL. It is a revelation, not directly of Jesus, but an instructive revelation nonetheless. At the Tower of Babel we find revealed: I. The proud rebellion of sinners (the true raw power of their hearts), and II. God revealing His sovereignty—His power and authority over all things. We pray that the spirit will bless our meditation.
The event of most significance immediately preceding the tower of Babel is the Flood. Following the Flood God promised that He would never again destroy the earth with a global flood. God also gave a command to Noah and his family. God commanded Noah and his family, in other words, the whole population of the earth to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (cf. Genesis 9:1,7,19).
God’s desire and His command were that people should spread across the whole earth and fill it. The people had quite another idea in mind. We discover that instead of spreading out over the earth, they found a plain in Shinar and they dwelt there. They said, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly”…and they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves.” [vv.3-4]
The people were very much focused on what they wanted to do. “Let us make bricks…let us build a city…let us build a tower…let us make a name for ourselves.” Then, in the climax of their rebellion, they said, “We want to do this, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” [v.4] They were planning to do all of this “lest we do the very thing God commanded us to do.”
The people at the tower of Babel thought they could choose their own path and they tried to do so. They were not at all concerned about what God said. They did not go to God and ask, “Is this where we should settle? Should we build here?” God was already on record as saying, “Spread across the whole earth.” But they ignored what God said and chose their own way.
In Old Testament history there are other examples of people who tried going their own way and failed. For example, after Joshua and the people of Israel were victorious over Jericho, Joshua sent spies to scout out the little town of Ai. Based on the advice of the spies and without consulting God, Joshua sent only 3,000 soldiers because the town was small. The army of 3,000 was defeated.
Joshua had not consulted God so he did not know that Achan had disobeyed God and kept some of the spoils of Jericho for himself. As a result, Joshua didn’t know that God would not fight for the army of Israel against Ai or in any other battle until they had addressed Achan’s sin.
After the defeat, Joshua did go to God and asked why He had not fought for them. Then Joshua learned the reason. After that they dealt with Achan according to God’s direction and then attacked Ai according to God’s direction and won the victory with God’s blessing (cf. Joshua 7:1ff).
Achan’s sin and Joshua’s reliance on human wisdom are further illustrations of the sinful rebellion that is so incredibly clear at the tower of Babel. At Babel the people wanted to build a city and a tower that would proclaim their name instead of God’s name, their greatness instead of His glory. The people’s proud rebellion against God is what the Psalmist spoke of when he wrote: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us…” (Psalm 2:2-4).
The psalmist goes on to say, “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision…” (Psalm 2:4). God had very different ideas and a very different approach at Babel. In the face of the people’s “let us do this, let us do that…” The Lord said, “Let US—the Triune God—go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel (confusion), 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.” [vv.7-9]
With something so simple as confusing languages, God put every plan of man into disarray. It wasn’t hard at all. Up to that point everyone spoke the same language and were one people. God said, “If I don’t intervene, they will accomplish what they aim to accomplish. [cf. v. 6] Because it was God’s will that the people spread out and not accomplish their plans, He intervened and confused their languages.
Once the new languages were created communication broke down. Having a variety of languages was a brand new experience so there were no translators. There was no way to communicate except with those who spoke your language. Imagine trying to build even a simple home if none of the workers could understand each other. When God confused all the languages of the people there was nothing left to do but forsake their plans and migrate to an area with those who spoke the same language. The people scattered. They left Shinar and built cities across the earth. God’s will was accomplished.
The evidence of God’s act at Babel is still evident today. There are many different languages and cultures spread across the earth. After Babel the people separated and reproduced within a smaller group. Those groups developed a culture and took on distinctive physical characteristics. The separation of people at the Tower of Babel has led to the variety of races and cultures as we know them today. This is a lasting visible sign that God’s will was done at Babel. Mankind’s rebellion is revealed at Babel, but that rebellion could not stand because God had other plans.
If we apply these two revelations to our lives, we learn about ourselves and also find encouragement from God.
Starting with ourselves, we learn that we too have a sinful nature that rebels against God. What we see revealed at the Tower of Babel is that the people didn’t really care about God’s will. They were going to do what they wanted to do. Hopefully, this blatant rebellion doesn’t apply to us, but remember, we do have a sinful flesh that doesn’t at all want to follow God’s will. We are still that split personality—the inward man created after Christ that desires to do God’s will, but also the sinful flesh that rebels (cf. epistle reading). Keeping this in mind means that we need to stand guard in how we approach our plans in this life.
Carefully planning things in our lives is God-pleasing. He has given us our time, he has given our possessions, he has given us our abilities, our families, our homes—everything that we have is from God, and He wants us to be wise stewards of these gifts. There is a need to plan, to determine how best to use God’s gifts, but we want to exercise caution lest we plan with a rebel’s heart: “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. This is what I’m going to accomplish.” We might even assign a time-table to it: “I’m going to have this done in two years!” The apostle James reminds us: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit;’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16).
A rebel’s heart declares, “I’m going to do this!” A humble heart trusting in the Lord plans and then says, “If the Lord wills I will accomplish this. If the Lord wills, this dream of mine will be brought to completion. If it’s not the Lord’s will to accomplish this, then I don’t want to do it either.”
There is another weakness against which we need to stand guard. In some ways this may be more subtle and an even greater concern in our lives. The issue is this: Do we always consult God before making those plans? It’s one thing to say, “Here are my plans, and if the Lord wills, they will be accomplished.” But what was my approach and attitude when I was making those plans in the first place. From the beginning was the first stone of that plan’s foundation made with God’s direction and my prayer to Him for that guidance? There are some circumstances when we won’t have time to ponder and meditate upon a decision. Some decisions have to come quickly and as instantly as possible. For those cases part of our daily prayer can be, “Lord when I am faced with a split-second decision, guide me and lead me to the best decisions.”
When we do have time to deliberate and plan, do we tend to default to what is my personal desire and say, “This is what I want and this is what I’m going after…”? If so, beware of the rebel’s heart! Rather, we should approach everything with prayer and time to consider, “Lord, lead me in my desires, so that I don’t automatically say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and then close my ears to anyone else or anything else that You might use to sway me to a different path.”
I confess that I have made decisions based on my will and have conveniently not heard the counsel of others whom God was using to redirect the plan. I have witnessed others who have been in the same position in which personal desire becomes the focal point and despite good counsel in a different direction we pursue what we want and make that our plan. This kind of planning is a weakness. It is a rebellion against which we need to guard lest we become so sure of what we want that we forget to ask, “Lord, what do You want? Where do You want me to go? I humbly submit to Your will. You lead me. You guide me.”
The rebellion that was revealed at the Tower of Babel is in our hearts as well. We pray that God will enable us to stand guard lest we fall into the same sin of rebellion in our lives.
That is the sobering revelation at Babel. The glorious revelation is God’s power being revealed. God’s power that so easily confused the languages changed man’s plan into God’s plan. That same power is active in our world and in our lives. God has the power to control things so as to overcome and counteract what our sinful rebellion creates. He has the power to fix our mistakes. He won’t necessarily fix them as if they never occurred. He will allow earthly consequences because He also knows that we need reminders, we need loving chastisement and correction. But God promises to work those things out—even to the point of turning our failures into blessings. This does not give us the right to intentionally fail. It does not give us an excuse for sin, but what a glorious promise that God’s power and grace are so great that He will overcome our weaknesses.
When we consider God’s plan of salvation we rejoice to know that the same power of God that tweaked the events at the tower of Babel in order to accomplish His will has been active in large and small ways throughout history. We heard in the Gospel reading how the people of Nazareth were seething with rage and wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff. But it wasn’t yet Jesus’ time to die. Had they succeeded in their rage, God’s plan for salvation would not have been completed. At that moment, God’s plan of salvation could not allow Jesus to die…and He didn’t.
God used His power and continues to use His power to accomplish His gracious working of salvation. God controlled all things so that at the proper time Jesus was born and accomplished everything for our salvation. We are saved by grace and grace alone and that grace moved Jesus to be our Savior, but God’s almighty power brought all things to pass so that His gracious plan could unfold and be accomplished. God has done this in a broad sense by providing salvation for every sinner. He has done this in a very personal way by bringing you into that salvation and preserving your faith.
God’s power was revealed at Babel and it effected His goal of spreading the people across the earth so that in time the Savior could come and redeem people of every nation, tribe, and tongue (cf. Revelation 5:9). So, although Jesus was not directly revealed in the revelation at Babel, nevertheless, God’s eternal plan of salvation lay behind His action at Babel as well as everything He does.
As you go forward in your day today, keep in mind what was revealed to you at the tower of Babel. Revealed was the sinful heart, the natural power of the heart, the sinful rebellion against which we stand guard. But also revealed is the sovereignty of our gracious Lord who has done all things well, who has accomplished all things for us, and who has saved us from our sin by sending His Son to be our Redeemer.
The psalmist writes, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; (and in view of our text we could add, “some trust in their own will and own desires”) But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7). Amen.
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