St Barnabas, Jan 20th 2013
Last week Tim talked about the importance of baptism as the foundation for Christian unity. But he also told us that across the world there are as many as 33,000 Christian denominations – he spelled it out a bit, since while some are orthodox, others are cults, some are catholic and others are protestant. But statistics reveal that among those who call themselves Christian, there are many, many differences, some of them mutually exclusive (that is, you can’t have it both ways and both be called Christian!).
Why so many? And why such fundamental differences? This is the first sermon of a new teaching series called ‘Journeying with God’ in which we’ll be following the story of Abraham. But the story starts here in Genesis 11, many years before Abraham was born.
The story of the building of the tower of Babel is the introduction or foreword to what follows, and it shows that despite the earth having been cleansed by God in the great flood, God was still not satisfied that things were going according to plan.
The story of Abraham tells how God worked to build a nation, a people who demonstrated God’s intention for his creation, who revealed his love for mankind and his plan of salvation for the whole world … a people who, in our own day, we identify with the Christian church (not just the Anglicans!). So what is God’s master plan? And what are we aiming to build together as we meet week by week in this place?
The story of Babel tells us what not to build.
It’s an altogether impressive account … this was a people who lived together, worked together, using all their skills and abilities to create an amazing structure, united by a common goal, learning new skills as they worked. They didn’t disagree about what to do, no-one went off and started a new and independent project so that there were little towers dotted all over the place, and people going round trying to poach the best workers, the most skilled artisans. No, everyone worked toward this common goal and no time or energy was wasted on competition or argument. The men building the tower of Babel give us an exemplary example of team work.
And they might have succeeded in their aim … in vs 6 God says,
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 …
But God steps in to scatter them and confuse their language: just as in the great flood, God starts over. Not this time by destroying everything – he had made a promise and he kept it. But by taking one man, Abram, to rebuild a people from scratch. A people, that just like the original creation, would be made in God’s image …
That’s why Babel was wrong. Not what they did, but why they did it, their motivation … vs 4,
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.”
Their reasons for building were self-interest (to make a name for themselves), security (to not be scattered), arrogance (they thought they could reach the heavens) and independence (no need of God to help them). And rather than give the world this wonderful example of team work to show what man can do when he puts his mind to it, God starts over again, with Abram.
We’ll see over the next few weeks how Abram is transformed, how he learns to walk in faith – let’s be careful to learn from his mistakes along the way, too. And if it seems that he learns fast – after all, by chapter 15 he is called ‘righteous’ by God – take a careful note of the time scale, how many years it took for Abram’s first encounter with God to reach that point – and then how many more years he had to wait for God to fulfil his promise of an heir.
But, what was God’s blueprint? If what the builders of Babel had in mind was all wrong, what was God aiming for with Abram? What is he still aiming for with us?
I’ve already said that the people of God of Old Testament times has become the church of the New Testament and of our own day. The story of God’s people before Christ came is still one from which we can learn a lot … positively as well as from their mistakes. Yet sadly, the nation that grows out of Abraham’s story lost their way, so that by the time Jesus came, instead of being the light to the nations they were meant to be, the revelation of God to the whole world, they are fighting their own corner against all comers, separate, divisive, divided. Sounds familiar …
There are several pictures of the church we might take as our pattern, our road map … we’re familiar with the church as the body of Christ, as a building, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, as the bride of Christ, even as a royal priesthood and holy nation. But I’d like to suggest we focus our thoughts on just one passage this morning. I’m going to ask Margaret to bring us our second reading now … listen carefully to Paul’s description of the life of the church as it’s supposed to be …
Colossians 3:1-17 (audio)
You see, every time we’re together, we’re building something … whenever folk get together, they’re building something … a friendship, a reputation or a character, an organisation, a team or a family, establishing patterns of behaviour or creating new ones, developing bad habits or building good ones. And whenever we meet together as Christians, we are building the church.
What sort of church do you want to build? What is your contribution Sunday by Sunday?
There are opportunities every Sunday to make a fresh start with Jesus, to pray more, read the Bible more, go to more meetings … but usually it depends on us doing something to make a change and it’s not long before once again, we slip back into the old routines. I’m not suggesting for one minute that we are at all apathetic about being disciples, simply that for many of us, following Jesus has become part of the daily routine, and there simply isn’t time or energy to ‘do more’.
But ‘doing’ is not what’s at the heart of our relationship with God … as our MAP points out, the Christian life is all about ‘being’ … being with Jesus, being with each other and being in the wider world.
And our reading from Colossians is a good place to start. I’m not now going to preach a whole new sermon on it – after all, I’ve been talking for quite a while already! What I want to do this morning, at the start of this New Year, is simply to make us conscious of the fact that every Sunday, every conversation and every attitude makes a difference to the overall life and future of this church. And to give us all an opportunity to reassess our part in it.
In our reading from Genesis, those who built the tower of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. At the end of our reading in Colossians we’re told that, ‘whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the God the Father through him.’
It doesn’t matter what we do … it’s how and why we do it that makes a difference, to God, to ourselves and to each other. As we come to communion together in a moment, let’s use this time to start again if need be, to make things right where they have gone wrong, to refocus on why we’re here and what we’re doing, to recognise that together we are the church, made in the image of God, dependent on his sacrifice, designed to reveal him to the world and to demonstrate his love for the world.