‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ Genesis 11:4
Brothers and sisters, today’s passage has very modern resonances, as it confronts a problem in the world which we have faced in various guises over the past one hundred years. I’m talking about the problem of a bad form of unity. Usually when we think of unity we think of its positive side, you know, we’re united in our vision, the nation is united behind the England team, the school is united in wanting to serve its children. Unity, when thought about that way can be hugely positive. However, over the last century we have seen unity used in some very bad ways. Think of Nazis Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China; all of these dictatorships are formed around the idea of unity. Unity, that is, at the expense of diversity. And what happens when this kind of unity is forced on a people? It becomes oppressive; it forces people to conform or else. The idol, of nation, leader, or state excludes everything else, and it’s no coincidence that in such places God is excluded as well. And we see this happen first, not in the newspapers, but in the Scriptures.
We turn to Genesis chapter 11. It’s a number of years after Noah, and humanity is still going in the wrong direction. Verse 4: ‘[humanity] 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ As biblical people, such a speech should worry us for three very good reasons. First, there is no mention of God, their plans pay him no heed at all. Second, it is all about making a name for themselves. Third, their desire which is not to be ‘scattered over the face of the whole earth’ is the exact opposite of what God had told them. Back in Genesis 1, what did God tell humankind to do? He told them to: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth’. In gathering together, and not spreading out they are ignoring God’s will. Here in Genesis 11 we have the first example of bad unity. Of gathering together for a single purpose, of being united, but for the wrong reasons. Here is the first seed of Nazi Germany. The first attempt at Soviet Russia. Here is the first expression of today’s Communist China. And what results from bad unity is oppression, the ultimate end of individuality and diversity, with large numbers of people being enslaved. When unity is sought, other than under God, the end point is always oppressive.
Well, as we know by now, the main character in Genesis is not human beings, and the purpose of recounting this true story for the author is to learn about God. So what does God do, as once again humanity gets further and further away from their purpose and vocation? Verse 7: ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.’ Don’t think of this as God getting angry just because someone challenges Him. No, this is a gracious and merciful act to help get humanity back on track. Diversity has been oppressed by a bad form of unity. God’s commands to fill the earth have been ignored. And so what does God do? He encourages diversity through the gift of many languages, and as a result the people get scattered all over the earth, just as they should have been all along. A bad form of unity has been averted and diversity restored. Perhaps now we’re back on track again? Not so fast! For what humanity has done to a good concept like unity, humanity also does to a good concept like diversity. Diversity too pushed to the max only leads us to conflict just as it did under oppressive unity. Diversity, pushed for its own sake, and allowed to reign in God’s place leads to conflict and oppression as well. Look at the culture wars going on in the West, as diversity and individualism is forced to an ever greater extent on our already divided nation to see the end result of that. There IS such a thing as bad diversity, just as there is such a thing as bad unity. And when either are pursued without reference to God, the oppressive results are there for everyone to see. Once again, as we come to the end of our reading in Genesis, the future doesn’t look good.
However, I’d like us to end on a positive, so come with me forward a few thousand years, to see how God responds to the bad form of diversity, and the bad form of unity. In Genesis 11 God saves the people from themselves by giving them many tongues, which sounds like a babble. However, God’s ultimate design for humanity is for people to be united in their diversity. God longs for people to be united together as diverse people, and there is a sense in which this good form of unity is made more difficult by all these different tongues. Well look now look at Acts 2:1-12 at where God’s rescue plan —which He is about to start in Genesis 12 with Abraham — leads. We read about God’s people at the time in verse 4: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’. Notice what God does: He united together believers and gives them the ability to speak to people regardless of language. When the kingdom of God comes, the necessary separation of people by language comes to an end. God’s people are once again united which is why Jesus has come. What a solely human project like Babel could never achieve, the kingdom of God achieves, as people are united in their common love of Jesus. This kingdom —this united group of people under God— value the diversity of gifts, the diversity of ethnicities, the diversity of languages. The kingdom of God, finally squares the circle, finally achieves the balance between unity and diversity, so that all may flourish in the one and only place where that is fully possible, within the family of God. Here is the great biblical hope, and so we will find that everything in Genesis —everything in the Bible even— from this point on is building to Jesus. Only under in God in Jesus, is humanity finally able to find their fulfilment, for only under God in Jesus do we find the kingdom of God which unites a diverse body of people, and finally brings us freedom. Amen. (from Fr. Mike).