Genesis 11:1-9 (ESV)
1 The whole earth had one language and a single vocabulary. 2 As people traveled in the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used mud brick instead of stone for building material, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let’s build a city for ourselves and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If this is the first thing they are doing as one people, who all have one language, then nothing that they intend to do will be too difficult for them. 7 Come, let’s go down there and confuse their language, so that they cannot understand one another’s speech.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 It was named Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may be united in praising the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We may not like to admit it, but we all want to make a name for ourselves.
For some, this will mean getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ on reality TV shows like ‘Survivor’, ‘Masterchef’, ‘The Voice’, ‘Married at First Sight’, or ‘Big Brother’. They want to be famous, respected, and well-liked.
But this may not be the way you and I attempt to make our own name great.
For example, if we use social media, we might post about ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. We might take pictures or videos of our food, pets, holidays, family, surroundings, or even of ourselves in a ‘selfie’ (with or without those pouting lips).
This isn’t to criticise any of us for doing so, but it’s the new and easy way to make a name for ourselves, which we simply measure by how many hits or likes we get. Of course, the danger is if we don’t get many hits or likes, we might take this personally and wonder how much others like or love us. We may wonder what we need to do so that people will take notice of us and remember our name.
But even if we don’t use social media, we might talk about ourselves in conversations and point out all the things we do for other people, or how busy we are, or what we’ve done, or what’s been done to us, or where we’ve been, or who we know.
We might unknowingly puff ourselves up by showing off our great shows of strength, fitness, beauty, intelligence, artistry, skills with machinery or craft, how funny we are, and so on. We do this because we want to be noticed, respected, valued, or loved. We want people to know and respect our name and who we are.
Because we want to make our own name great (or at least protect the name or reputation we think we have), if our name is ever threatened because we’ve been accused of doing or saying something, we’ll want to defend our name.
But by defending our name, we may talk about others in an unkind way behind their back. Through our careless talk, unchecked rumours, and malicious gossip, we may point out someone else’s failures, inadequacies, and all the evil things they’ve done, which means we want to damage another person’s name and reputation. And even though we do this, we’ll probably attempt to justify our sinful behaviour as good and reasonable, or at least better than the other person’s!
Of course, no matter whether we’re attempting to make our own name great through our boasting, or whether we’re attempting to damage someone else’s name through careless talk and harmful gossip, we’re gaining a name for ourselves that we probably don’t want.
You see, if we’re attempting to make our own name great, people will soon learn whenever they’re around us, well…it’s all about us!
Similarly, if we’re often criticising or questioning other people’s motives and words and actions, we’ll soon earn the reputation of being a negative, distrustful, and critical person.
So, whether we’re making our own name great or damaging someone else’s name, we make people around us feel less important, less valued, and less loved.
But this attempt to make our own names great isn’t new. In fact, it all began in the Garden of Eden.
Satan tempted the first humans to ‘be like God’ by taking and eating the forbidden fruit. The first woman and man saw it was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to become wise by knowing good and evil, and so they ate.
Perhaps they never even thought they were trying to make a name for themselves, but by trying to be like God, that’s what they were doing.
They wanted to be more wise, more important, more valuable, and more knowledgeable. They wanted to know and define good and evil for themselves. They weren’t happy with their place in God’s order and wanted something more. They wanted to be number one. But once one person tries to be number one, there’s always going to be a conflict – and this usually means conflict with God!
And, if we can’t be our own god who controls the people and environment around us as individuals, we might attempt to do this collectively. You see, some may argue that, if only we could all come together to agree on something important, there’s almost nothing we humans can’t do.
So, for example, if only we can all agree on climate change and how to tackle it, then perhaps we can affect our world’s weather patterns for future generations.
Similarly, if only we can put in place the right technologies, the right medicines, the most appropriate laws, and the best resource management, then there’ll be no more accidents or crime or poverty or hunger or sickness. If only we can all put down our weapons (or restrict the weapons we have access to), there’ll be no more war or terrorism or mass shootings. If only we funded all the right research, then there’ll be no more sickness or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or cancer.
Wouldn’t these types of things be something noble or grand to aspire to? Even if we can’t make our own names great, wouldn’t this be something our generation would like to hand on to future generations? In this way, even if can’t each become gods of our own destinations individually, then why can’t we unite and corporately become as influential as God himself!
But this was the issue in Genesis 11! The people wanted to corporately make a name for themselves and do something that’s never been done before. In fact, what they planned would reach the heavens (where the gods live), and so they’d become equal with God!
Now you’d think God would be pleased with their efforts toward unity. You’d think he’d want people to come to him. But their unity was based on trusting themselves, and their efforts toward reaching the heavens was to coronate themselves as the gods other people would aspire to.
So, while their efforts may have seemed noble or grand, the problem was that, while they were trusting themselves, they were rebelling against God and wouldn’t trust him, which was a first commandment issue.
All the time they were attempting to make their own name great, meant they wouldn’t call on the name of God, which was a second commandment issue. In other words, their faith in God was at stake, so God acted. God came down.
In this case, God didn’t come down to unite, but divide! He intervened in this monumental building project by confusing their language. Once they spoke different languages, they couldn’t understand each other.
Even in our own relationships, we often experience division, and many times this is because of our own failures to understand each other.
For example, husbands and wives don’t always listen to each other very well because they often think they alone are right and the other one is wrong, so why bother listening?
Children don’t want to listen to their parents because they’re no longer young enough to know everything. Even in church we don’t listen to each other in order to understand, but instead we usually listen in order to respond. When we do respond, we show we don’t understand because our answers are often presumptuous, hasty, ill-informed, and unwise.
Anyway, in response to people’s sin of wanting to make a name for themselves, God came down and personally intervened in human history. Sure, their name would be remembered, but the name of ‘Babel’ is only great because of what God did among them to confuse and divide them and their language.
But unexpectedly, we hear in the next chapter how God personally intervened again in human history by making a promise to Abram that his name would be great. Abram (and later Abraham’s) name would become great because of the promises God made and kept for him.
Because God kept his promises and continuously looked after Abraham’s lineage, God’s name became great among the scattered nations. God’s great name would later be called on at his holy temple in Jerusalem until God would personally intervene in human history in a new way.
You see, God himself came down and became a human being, living and walking and breathing among his good (but rebellious) creation who constantly thinks their own name is great. God, in the human form of Jesus, didn’t rebel and seek to make his own name great, but humbled himself and was obedient all the way to death.
The result of God’s coming down in the person of Jesus is that, in the name of Jesus, forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. In the name of Jesus people will be baptised with water and have the holy name of the Triune God placed on them.
Before Jesus died, and before he ascended into heaven, he promised his students a helper, an advocate, a comforter – the Holy Spirit. And soon after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus’ students, and here’s where God’s plan of unity reveals itself in an unexpected way!
Where once God confused the language of all people so they couldn’t understand each other, now all people can hear and understand the one message of forgiveness and salvation through the name of Jesus in their own language.
Where once, at Babel, the people sought to make a name for themselves; now the holy name of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed among all nations so that every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
To unite and bless the people of earth, God didn’t change the languages back into one language, but instead sent one message in many languages. And today the gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ is proclaimed in every language on earth.
In our worship, even though we may still seem divided into separate churches and denominations on earth, we’re truly one in faith and confession. This is what it means to confess the one holy catholic church. We confess there is one universal and complete church that crosses the boundaries of language and denomination. Today people of all nations, tribes, races, and language gather in the holy name of our Triune God.
We don’t need to make our own name great, but God has engraved our name on his hand. He’s also given us a name by which we can be saved – the name of Jesus Christ.
Our sins of attempting to make our own name great are forgiven in the name of Jesus. He placed his own name on you and me when we were baptised and so has claimed us as his own. Because we bear the name of Jesus, we’re dearly loved holy children of God who’ll inherit the kingdom of heaven. As an inhabitant of heaven, we receive as a gift what the people at Babel were once trying to achieve for themselves through much hard work. You see, through faith in Jesus who came down, we get to ascend into heaven.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit (who came down upon us), we believe we’ve received forgiveness, life, and salvation through the work of Jesus Christ. We believe and trust this because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Even though the people of Babel were once dispersed among the nations, the event of Babel has now been undone as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.
Only one name is great, and it’s not yours or mine. The name of Jesus Christ has been placed on each of us so that…
…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen.