Expository Sermon on Genesis 11
by Maylan Schurch
Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church 8/08/2020
©2020 by Maylan Schurch
(To watch the entire worship service on YouTube, click the link just below–or the play arrow in the middle of the image above, if you see one. The sermon begins at the 58:30 mark.)
Please open your Bible to Genesis chapter 11.
A few weeks back I began a new sermon series, which I’ve called “Exiles.” Thursday evening of this week Jim Learned loaned me a National Geographic magazine with the cover title “A World on the Move.” The sentence just below the title said, “Seas rise, crops wither, wars erupt. Humankind seeks shelter in another place.” And on the page where the article actually begins, there’s another summary sentence: “Humans are a migratory species, yet some would divide us into two kinds: the migrant and the native.”
I haven’t had a chance to read through the entire issue, because those National Geographic magazines are thick. But I like to quote just a little from an article called “We Are All Migrants,” by Mohsin Hamid, a best-selling writer whose writing has been translated into 40 languages. Here’s part of what he says:
“All of us are descended from migrants. . . . None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.” (From “We Are All Migrants,” National Geographic, August 2019, pp 17-18)
I began this “Exiles” sermon series because, all around this planet, people who thought their lives were fairly stable have been jolted into uncertainty. Jim Learned told me that elsewhere in this magazine the comment is made that one out of seven of Earth’s human beings is a refugee. That’s a staggering number.
And the people who are literal migrants, desperately shifting their location because it is unbearable to remain any longer where they were, these people are discovering that the coronavirus pandemic just adds another layer of uncertainty and loneliness.
I’ve been looking through the Bible for “exile” stories, and I’ve discovered that anyone who chose to buck the crowd, step aside from the multitude, automatically became a spiritual exile. Hebrews 11, the Bible’s great “faith hall of fame,” puts it this way. After speaking of several of the Bible’s faithful servants of God, it says:
Hebrews 11:13 – 16: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
In Genesis 11 there is the short but interesting story of the Tower of Babel. (By the way, if you’re not sure whether to call it “BAH-bel” or “BAY-bel,” I now hereby give you full pastoral permission to pronounce it anyway you want to. In Hebrew they say it bah-BEL, but the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary says that BAY-bel is the first preferred pronunciation for English speakers. That’s how I grew up saying it, so I’ll probably do that all the way through this sermon.
Here in Genesis 11 we are going to meet a strong-willed group of people who will end up being are double exiles. First, they’ll be traveling in a large group find a place where they want to stay, and then–because of sudden language difficulties—they’ll be exiling themselves off in all different directions.
One thing that’s interesting about the Tower of Babel story is that it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, as far as I know. Sure, there is a strong possibility that Babel eventually becomes the city of Babylon, but that is not stated clearly in the Bible. All we have are these nine verses.
If we were able to interview God on Zoom or Skype this morning, wouldn’t that be interesting? We could ask Him the question, “Lord, is there anything You are trying to teach us through this story? If so, what is it?”
We know that, since all Scripture is profitable in one or another ways for our learning, this story is indeed an important one. So what I’d like to do is to go through these verses and try to understand what God might be trying to teach us, there at the base of the Tower of Babel. What can we learn from what happened to these exiles?
Let’s find out. But first, let’s set up the story. By Genesis 9, God has brought Noah and his family safely through the flood, and in Genesis 9:1 He says, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Genesis 10 is basically a list of the families of the sons of Noah. Then comes chapter 11.
Genesis 11:1 – 2 [NKJV]: 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.
When it says “they,” it seems to be talking about the majority, of the descendants of Noah. We don’t know how long after the flood this chapter’s events take place. So this group may not be multitudes and multitudes, but there are enough energetic entrepreneurs to make some ambitious plans.
However, the first thing we notice is that they are ignoring God’s command to “fill the earth.” There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of the pioneering spirit in these people. The refugees who came from Europe in the 19th century – including my own Swiss-German ancestors – were pioneers. They pulled up roots in the Old Country, came over here, and dug their roots down deep in prairie soil. Even earlier than that, other people came over here because they were forced to come, brought over in chains.
But when God told these Babel people to “fill the earth,” He meant what He said. Yet these people ignored what He said.
If you’re taking sermon notes, here’s Sermon Point One. What might be the first takeaway God has for us in this story? Here’s what I think it is:
God says, “Remember to keep moving to where I want you.”
It’s interesting how when Jesus became human and began His ministry, He did exactly the opposite to these Babel people. They wanted to settle down, but He walked from place to place telling people, “Follow Me.”
Jesus could have gone to a large town and set up a major retreat center where people could flock to see Him, and maybe buy houses close to the retreat center so they could have easy access to the center—along with the status that would have come from living so close.
Instead, Jesus kept on the move, and His disciples followed Him. And great crowds of people, when they heard He was coming to their area, didn’t wait for Him to show up in their synagogues. They went out to wherever He was, away from their homes, away from their towns, to listen to Him.
And what He told them made them realize that, if they were truly on God’s side, they were pilgrims and strangers in the earth. They might even be ejected from their hometown synagogues if they believed in Him. They might be persecuted. But He insisted that their true home was no longer here, no longer Jerusalem, no longer even at the great temple there. Their true home was a place God had prepared for them. Until then, they would be pilgrims.
After all, Jesus told them “I am the Way.” The Greek word for “Way” literally means “road” or “path.” In other words, following Jesus was a journey rather than a a spiritual “settling down.” Many years ago, while I was pastoring another church, a man wanted to be baptized. But he told me, “Just tell me the minimum I need to learn before I can be baptized.”
So, now that we’ve discovered that God (and His Son, and His Holy Spirit) want us to keep moving to where they want us, how can we do this?
Well, it’s best to keep in mind that, just like His Son, God Himself is constantly in action. A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the garden of Eden, and at the same time God exiled Adam and Eve from the garden, he exiled Himself. In other words, he also left, and came with them, staying at a safe distance, but always ready to guide them as they went.
And when Jesus came to this earth and started teaching, His messages were always about moving from what you know now to what He wanted to teach you. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “You have heard that it was said to you . . . . But I say to you . . . .” And each time he said that, He was urging us to go deeper, beyond the letter of the law to the deep spiritual heart-change that His Holy Spirit would provide us if we allowed Him to.
In First Corinthians 6, verses 9 and 10, Paul lists the kinds of people who won’t make it into the kingdom of God: “Do you not know,” he says, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”
But in his very next breath, Paul says to those Corinthian Christians, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (verse 11)
This is a perfect example of what God and His Son and the Spirit mean when they want us to keep moving to where they want us. And as we journey, following our Savior, other people will take notice, and they’ll want to follow too.
Now let’s look for something else God might be trying to teach us in this story.
Genesis 11:1 – 4: 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.”
Here’s what I would consider Sermon Point Two. What else is God saying to us in the Babel story?
Not only does God say, “Remember to keep moving to where I want you,” but He also says, “Remember to build out, not up.”
These people decide they want to build a city – which God had not commanded them to do. And in that city they want to build a tower – which God had not commanded them to do. God had told them to get out there and fill the whole earth. But they wanted to build up, not out.
The Bible itself doesn’t say why they wanted to build this tower. But from the fact that all through the Old Testament, sacrifices to pagan idols were sometimes done on what were called “high places,” this might have been part of it.
And notice that they just come right out and say that God has no part in their thinking. They said, “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.”
They wanted to build themselves a city, whereas Hebrews 11:10 says of the tent-dwelling Abraham, “he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” And they wanted to make a name for themselves, so that stories would be told about them years later.
But God wants us to built out rather than build up. So how can I apply this to my own life? How is this going to look? Well, first let me mention a few benefits of “building out.”
First of all, “building out” is good because God said to do it. The Bible says a lot about forsaking the world, turning away from it, changing your life direction from where you were going to where God wants you to go.
“Building out” can mean reaching out and getting acquainted with people you might not otherwise have gotten acquainted with. “Building out” means that you can’t have city walls. Tear down your castle.
Another thing” building out” does is that it helps to avoid the “outrage culture.” If you deliberately move out and get acquainted with people who are not like you, then you won’t write slash-and-burn troll-talk about them on Facebook. Race prejudice will gradually evaporate once you get to know a wider variety of people and hear their stories.
And “building out” forces you to think more independently. If you always stay cooped up in the same echo chamber you’ve always lived in, you’ll stop thinking for yourself. Instead, you’ll just keep thinking what the loudest and most persistent voice in your echo chamber keeps shouting.
How do you know how to “build out” in your life? I think you need to ask God to lead you to where He wants you. When I was five years old, my own parents felt the Lord calling them away from their church and culture, so they moved a mile southeast of town and sent all four of their kids to eight grades of Seventh-day Adventist elementary school education.
And they deliberately decided not to do what every single one of their young adult friends was doing– get a television set. Though Mom and Dad might not have put it exactly like that, they wanted their kids to avoid the “group-think” of the echo chambers and think for themselves.
Another benefit of building out rather than up is that you have a better chance of staying humble. Because if you build up, you might start tending to look down your noses at those you believe are beneath you.
Several years ago, when Overlake Christian Church was selling their old facility to move to a new campus, one of our Adventist pastors (who is no longer in this conference) got this great idea. He mentioned it to a number of his fellow pastors, including me.
He said, “Why don’t we Adventist pastors all sell our church properties and gather together and have one church, there in the old Overlake Christian Church campus?” This pastor idolized mega-churches, and desperately wanted to preach to large crowds of people. The rest of us pastors politely rolled our eyes when he mentioned this, and the project never got off the ground. But I think this would’ve been an example of building up rather than building out.
Because when you come right down to it, there’s only one “tower” that God wants us to have. He tells us what that tower is in Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe.”
And the word for “tower” in that verse is migdal, the exact same word for the “tower” of Babel. We don’t have to proudly build ourselves up, make names for ourselves, or create what we think are towers of safety for us to run and hide in. The Lord is our safest and strongest tower.
Let’s look at just one more lesson I believe God wants to teach us from this story.
Genesis 11:5 – 9: 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 my office at home I have a copy of the fifth edition – the latest edition – of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. It’s hard cover, three inches thick, and it’s a highly regarded dictionary.
If you take my American Heritage dictionary and open the back cover, you will see a complicated, fan-shaped diagram of the languages of the world. At the center is a language called Proto-Indo-European, and according to many linguistic theorists, all the languages evolved from those.
I don’t know how many separate languages the Lord programmed into those energetic Babel-people minds. Maybe four or five languages was all it took. But whatever He did, it accomplished what He wanted. The people evidently got so frustrated trying to understand each other that pretty soon they gathered into language-similar groups and headed off and did what they should’ve done in the first place – build out, not up.
So what is our third sermon point? What’s the third thing I believe God wants us to remember from this story? Here’s my suggestion.
God says, “Remember to keep moving to where I want you.” God says, “Remember to build out, not up.” And God says, “Remember, I’m watching—and I’ll have the last word.”
In other words, things are going to eventually turn out the way God wants them to. Of course, He will not force our wills to conform to his ideas. He will attempt to persuade us through the gentle influence of the Holy Spirit. And He will grieve with unutterable sorrow if we decide we want to go our own way.
But Revelation 21 tells me that one day that incredibly gigantic heavenly city, whose builder and maker is God, will start to move through space, and arrive on this planet. And anyone who has responded to the Holy Spirit’s leading will have a place in that city.
God “came down to see the city and the tower” which the Babel people were building. God tells us throughout the Bible, “Remember, I am watching.”
Does that make you a little nervous? I used to be nervous about those cameras on top of traffic lights – not the ones which will blink and catch you speeding, but the cameras who are recording who go through those intersections.
Is that how God wants us to see Him? Not at all. I have a better and more recent comparison to tell you about. A couple of days ago as I was taking my usual mile-long morning walk in our neighborhood, I walked down a slope to where the street takes a sharp left turn, a 90° angle. The slope goes down to the elbow of the “L,” and turns left and goes up another slope.
Well, down at that corner, at that elbow, a man was standing. He was glancing up the slope at right-angles, and also glancing straight up ahead of him up the slope where I was approaching.
I noticed a couple of kids – what looked like a three-year-old girl, and her brother might’ve been five. The little girl was riding a bicycle that wasn’t built with any pedals, sort of a “starter bike.” The boy had a regular pedal bike.
Dad stood there, and he would look both ways, up both streets, and he would finally say, “Okay. Go!” And the kids would race down the slope toward him at top speed and then come around him in a big circle. And then they would toil backup to the top of the slope and wait for another command.
And it was a quiet morning – all the work traffic was gone – and no car ever came along while I was watching them. But dad was watching, up one street, up the other street, allowing his kids to enjoy themselves but making sure they were safe.
I think that’s the way God wants us to think of Him. He loves to see us enjoy ourselves, use our bodies and minds in wholesome and exciting ways, explore new abilities, learn the pure joy of creativity. He wants us to know that He is on the watch for danger.
In John chapter 10, Jesus made a breathtakingly soothing promise to His disciples—a problem that would have made that dad on the street nod understandingly.
John 10:27 – 29: My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.
That’s how I like to think of God—because that’s how Jesus thought of God, a watchful father, watching only for what might hurt or destroy His child. That child is you. And that child is me.
And that’s why our closing song is NOT “Great Is Thy Watchfulness,” but “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Let’s sing it together as we close.