One King Only
The Tenth Sunday After Trinity
One King Only
Some years ago I read a book about British soccer yobs. The term “yob” is “boy” spelled backwards and referred originally to a “butcher’s boy” or “delivery boy” – a young man of working-class origins doing rather menial work.
An American went to England to research the subject. This author wanted to do more than interview soccer yobs and report their observations. He sought to become one of them in order to relate not merely what they did but how they felt.
To that end, he spent a few years running with the yobs.
The word has come to refer to more than origin. It describes what we would call a “thug” or “ruffian” or “hooligan” – and in this case one particularly associated with a soccer club. Partisans of the various big-time clubs build their identities around their soccer affiliations.
They tattoo every available patch of skin with the colors and insignia of their teams and appear en masse in the cities of the clubs their team is playing. They start fights with the tribes loyal to the other club. For them, this violence, fueled by alcohol and drugs, has supplanted the match itself as the main thing.
Fans of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, bearing bats and knives and machetes and even firearms, engage in frenzied clashes that may begin even before the match. They surge through the streets in a traveling tableau of carnage.
Borders pose no barrier. A riot instigated by British fans in Brussels, Belgium, left 39 people dead.
The American interloper described a war that raged in his gut. He had not grown up in this culture and his conscience nagged him in a way that appeared to have no effect on the yobs he joined. At the same time, he felt himself swept up and carried away by the heat and fury that drove his mates.
They rampaged through the streets of cities in England and on the continent, smashing shop windows, setting fires, overturning police cars – leaving a smoldering battlefield in their wake. This is the psychology of the mob. The pounding pulse of the group beats at the temple of each of its members, drowning out reason and morality and just plain decency as each impulse impels the herd on their common, demented course.
I think the story sticks in my head all these years after reading it because in the end all of it – the obsession, the mayhem, the depravity – becomes normal. Most of these yobs hold jobs. Their income from honest work as mechanics and masons funds their sporadic weekend flights into crime, their hobby of choice. In some cases, their girlfriends tag along and join in.
In most places, the police appear paralyzed. Most of the perpetrators never face justice, and some of those who do spend a couple of nights in jail before they’re released with a warning never to return.
Publicans and restaurateurs and shop-keepers anticipate the madness according to the soccer schedule and price it into their expenses for the occasion. When the yobs are gone, they repair what they can, replace the rest and move on as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. The old chaos is the new normal.
And so we arrive at the Tower of Babel.
“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).
In man’s eyes, God has grown too big for His divine britches. After the fall, He drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. After Cain slew Abel, God punished Cain by pushing him farther out into a hostile world.
After wickedness came to abound on the earth once more, He sent a vast flood to destroy mankind so He might start anew with Noah and his family. It is obvious by now that God will stop at nothing to drive evil out of His presence – and men bent on evil have had their fill of this divine high-handedness.
In the end, the Tower of Babel is a story of idolatry, of man crowning himself as king. It is one loud chapter of the de-creation component in the creation, de-creation, re-creation cycle. It is a cautionary tale in which man’s obsession with the creation obscures from him sight of the Creator.
It is, then, the story repeated time and again throughout history. Each time God humbles His creature down to his birthday suit, man grabs a fig leaf and returns to his labor of rebellion, exalting himself anew.
It was only eight years ago that an American president-elect revealed the meaning of his victory at the polls. It signaled, he said, “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
He had not yet even taken office. Do you think God was amused?
Our saga in Genesis 11 demands that we consider the double-edged sword that is unity among men.
Adam and Eve may have sinned and brought on their separation from God – but at least they did so together. Human harmony takes its first big hit when Cain murders his brother, instigating a long, slow decline into division, hatred and vengeance.
At last God purges the planet and starts over with Noah and his three sons – Ham, Shem and Japheth — a small, cohesive unit who, we expect, will pull together – one for all and all for one. But Noah, the Adam of the new Eden, begins with the noble motive of planting a vineyard to transform the world into a garden. And proceeds to get drunk.
His intemperance leads to the sin of his son Ham.
Noah, we learn, was naked. Mention of nakedness usually connotes sexual sin. We don’t know the specifics but Ham’s sin appears to have been of a sexual nature. In his disgrace, Noah points us back to Adam and Eve, who, after their rebellion, were naked and ashamed
When Shem and Japheth behave righteously we have a new rift. Discord and division will soon be crashing through the peoples like wrecking balls.
Noah speaks his blessing on those two sons but deposits his curse on Ham’s son Canaan. His descendants will succumb to those of Shem. Japheth’s line populates the territory we know today as Turkey and Greece, and fades out of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Shem’s seed – the Semites, both Jews and Arabs – issue from Abraham and eventually find their places in Palestine and Egypt. Those who come from Ham spread from Egypt south into Ethiopia and beyond – except for Canaan’s line.
Canaan’s descendants take root in the land named for their ancestor, also called Palestine. When Shem’s descendants the Israelites finish their sojourn in Egypt and their wilderness wanderings, they will cross over on Yahweh’s orders and demolish the peoples of Canaan. They will do more than seize the land. They will finally reverse the rebellion of Canaan’s father Ham against his father Noah.
Let me pause here to confront the lie that God abandoned people of color when Noah placed his curse of Ham’s descendants. Southern preachers spread it in the years preceding our Civil War and a few misguided souls still hold to it.
I do not suppose any of you embrace it but I want you well-fortified with Scripture should you ever encounter those who do. It’s more likely than not that the curse ran its course when Joshua led Israel across the Jordan River and sacked Canaan, taking over the farms and homes the Canaanites abandoned in their flight.
This we believe because the curse fell not on all of Ham’s seed but on those descended from Canaan only. Nothing in the Bible suggests residents of Ethiopia or other parts of Africa came under the curse.
What’s more, the New Testament speaks eloquently to the equality in God’s sight of all who bear His image. In God’s kingdom, St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (3:11).
Race is not a criterion for salvation.
The enmity between various peoples who issue from Noah’s loins throws the world back into the strife Cain and Abel knew. It will persist until Pentecost, when God intervenes to restore unity. At Babel He made one language many; at Pentecost He makes many languages one.
Now we await only the return of the Prince of Peace, who will bring perfect shalom to His creation.
We typically see it as a good thing when many of different traditions and backgrounds pull together. Our modern worship of diversity celebrates this idea: If we’re all headed in the same direction, arms linked, we must be on the right path.
In a church, a community, a nation, we have no trouble seeing the benefits of oneness of purpose. We can think back to those frontier settlers who gathered for their barn-raisings. A farmer might nail together the planks that formed the walls of his barn but he needed his neighbors to help him set them in place and join them together.
But Babel – another name for Babylon – shows us the dark side of unity. The peoples who converged were of one mind. Their common goal was to bring God down from heaven where they could manage Him. He would not banish them from their abodes as He had cast out first Adam and Eve and then Cain.
The masters of the Middle Ages knew their theology well. In their paintings they gave us a tower crumbling before it was even completed as its obsessed builders scrambled about frantically as its base. I wonder if these artists were thinking of the words of the psalmist:
“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Babel teaches us that disunity is better than apostasy. As the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it, you can run as fast as you want, but if the train you’re riding is rolling in the opposite direction you’ll end up at the wrong destination.
Put another way, those British soccer yobs were of one mind and one mood. Their shared vision made them no less guilty. And their shared passion exacerbated their crimes. Evil becomes acceptable, even palatable, when everyone else is doing it.
How could Hitler’s minions have been misguided? They were working together for the glory of the Fatherland.
So when we consider unity we must examine its motives. We must never forget that multiplying people means multiplying sinners. Those who assembled at Babel came from the warrior nations that had arisen in Mesopotamia after the flood. 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” (Genesis 11:4).
They were following in the thinking of the serpent in the garden, who seduced Adam and Eve with the promise of God’s knowledge, which would allow them to bring Him down to their level . . . which would allow them to make a name for themselves.
They were following in the thinking of Cain, who in his travels established cities dedicated to the glory not of God but of man.
When we consider unity we must look into our hearts. Do we find pride there?
That’s an easy one. Yes. Is our pride goading us to put ourselves in the place of God? In 1945, this nation achieved a glorious victory, leading an alliance in putting down hideous forces of hatred and mayhem and domination.
We had no choice but to take up arms and we triumphed simultaneously on two fronts, conquering enemies of East and West who were united in their malevolent yearning to rule God’s world.
We showed the world that we could police the world, restoring order and peace and the laws of civilized peoples.
Then came Vietnam. Then came Desert Storm. Then came errors of indecision rooted in doubts over whether our cause was just. The spirit of national unity that carried us through World War II as one nation under God splintered into myriads of sharp fragments we hurled at one another.
We hemorrhaged blood and treasure – and not just on the battlefield but in our national psyche, and today it’s anybody’s guess as to whether we will ever again pull together as we once did.
But, but, but . . . beloved in the Lord, God is in control. At Babel it served His purpose to confuse the speech of His image-bearers, to scatter them so as to thwart their evil purpose. Many centuries later it suited His purpose to give them a common tongue.
When Alexander the Great went a-conquering he decreed to the far reaches of his ever-expanding empire that everyone speak Greek, the new language of government and commerce.
And so it was that by the first century, by the time of the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the time of the transformation of the church from a national institution of the Israelites to a worldwide movement for the propagation of the gospel among all the nations . . . everyone spoke Greek.
We still learn it in the seminaries because it is the language of the New Testament. It’s called koine – common – Greek.
The purer language of Achaea and Macedonia frayed at the edges as Persians and Medes who cared less about the finer points of the tongue of Homer and Socrates began to bend it to their purposes.
In the same way, the English of the realm of Elizabeth I took on baggage as Indians and Australians and Nigerians and Jamaicans and Americans had their way with it. But in both cases, the world had a lingua franca – a common language pre-packaged and awaiting the God-given impulse for the proliferation of the gospel.
But . . . there’s always another but. Just as it seemed the English tongue would spirit the good news to every nook and cranny of the creation the missionary zeal of the 19th and early 20th centuries abated.
The mostly empty churches of England and Europe – those that continue — are doing well to keep their doors open. Those still thriving in America turn ever more inward, investing their proceeds in grander and grander junior-high pizza parties while the tribes of the hidden valleys of Nepal shamble on, unreached and unsaved.
And the English, who gave the world their language, have watched their empire disintegrate. Now they have decided to withdraw from the European Union, and unity suffers another blow. Europe, once united, however imperfectly, under the Church of Rome, elected instead to install a secular bureaucracy, and it appears to be beginning to unravel.
Man’s disobedience, however, never frustrates God’s purpose. The gospel is exploding in Africa – in large measure among English-speakers – and in Asia. As old alliances crumble, as we Anglicans know only too well, new ones coalesce.
A worldwide union of churches that comprises the third-largest Christian body in the world has looked for centuries to Canterbury for vision and direction. More and more we look to Lagos and Nairobi. The gospel marches on.
Well, this earth is not our home . . . until our Lord returns. As we ponder its ways, though, we see one thing ever so clearly. For hope to rise, man must leave Babel, wherever that is . . . and God will see to it that he does.
As we proceed we will consider just such a story, as God calls Abraham out of Babel to launch a vast missionary enterprise for the glory of the one true King. Amen.Posted on: July 31, 2016Ed Fowler