Genesis 11:1-6; 12:1-3; Luke 10:2
Sermon preached at Willow Street Mennonite Church October 23, 2011
Genesis chapter 12 is the prime text for conversations about missions; it is also commonly referred to as “the call of Abraham.” I believe however that the power and meaning of that call emerges when it is placed against the story of the tower of Babel that precedes it in Genesis 11. This story is illustrated in various art forms showing people attempting to build a city with a tower that supposedly reaches to the heavens. For our modern view of the world such an effort is laughable and is easily dismissed as a fable.
But in the world of scripture, when we take such a dismissive position, we miss great opportunities to see the Scriptural truths in such stories and as a result fail to see opportunities for life transformation. When I read these stories as I have suggested above, I did not see some fable but rather an insight into God’s mission and human’s attempt at their own mission without God. From the very beginning of creation, God chose to involve human beings in creation. As I read a section of Genesis, a theme emerged indicating the creator’s vision that humans should multiply and scatter all over the face of the earth. This theme is repeated several times:
• “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Gen. 1:27-28)
• “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Gen. 8:15-17)
• “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Gen. 9:1)
• “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Gen, 9:7)
• “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”-(Gen. 10:32)
You get the point; God is interested in the scattering of humans all over the face of the earth and the cultural and linguistic diversity that results from such a scattering. It is easy to dismiss this as Old Testament stuff but a look at (Rev. 7:9-10) which depicts a vast crowd from every nation and tribe and people and language before the throne makes it very difficult to dismiss this insight. The tower of Babel project and its intended vision in Genesis 11 stands in a sharp contrast to God’s vision. Instead of carrying forth God’s vision to create cultures and languages, humans in this story resorted to their own vision, which they clearly articulated,
Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4)
These people decided to do something that would make them a name and also would prevent them from being spread abroad as God had planned. Perhaps their nomadic lifestyle called for such a grand project because they were tired of moving from one place to another according to the dictates of political and natural forces as we still see in nomadic tribes today. Such a life breeds uncertainty, insecurity and insignificance and these people determined to change that. I believe we all enjoy the comfort and security of a nice home, a good steady job and a good supportive community and therefore in many ways we are similar to the people of Babel.
The people of Babel decided that they were going to settle down and make themselves a name and be secure and show that they amounted to something great! They intended to build a great monument that would outlast them a dream that came true since we are still talking about them this morning several millennia later although not for the same reason they might have envisioned. They perhaps thought that generation after them would look at the monument and regard them as “the greatest generation.” This sound so familiar doesn’t it? We know that such is the goal of great empires and ambitious kings as in the case of the ancient Roman emperors, but even now people continue to erect monuments that will leave their marks in history. We share in this goal in many ways; therefore, these Babelites are humans just like us, simply trying to have something to show for.
The bad news is that God was not impressed by the project and is still not impressed by our own efforts to determine our own destiny without God’s involvement. As such, God moved decisively to stop the project and thwarted their efforts. Such is still the case today when we decide on our own destiny without giving thought of God’s involvement in our lives I believe. It is against this backdrop that Genesis 12 becomes significant for it shows that while the Babelite’s mission was frustrated because among many things, it was self-focused, and failed because they sought to determine their future without God, in Genesis 12, God’s mission continues with the call of a couple that was ready to obey and be a blessing to others. In short, the Babel project failed because God was not the central focus and Abraham and Sarah succeeded in their mission because it was God centered.
The story of God’s mission is a story of a call to leave the security of kinship and the significance of property and family to follow after the insecurity of a promise.
Lancaster Mennonites understand this story. This is why over a century and a quarter ago they sent forth pioneer missionaries to Tanganyika through Eastern Board, which has since been named Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM). These missionaries left the comfort of their farms and families and ventured into the unknown areas of the world as in the same way Abaram and Sarai did simply because God called them to go. Some of them never returned and were buried in the African soil both young and old. Some of the like Glenn Brubaker and Nathan Hagi and their families who are members of your congregation left great legacies of faith in Tanzania and Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, I grew up in Kenya with Glenn Brubbakers! You Lancaster Mennonites took Genesis 12 seriously, and through EMM sent forth workers. I believe that your legacy speaks better words than the legacy left by the Babelites. You have been blessed and you have been a blessing and the story continues on.
We do not know Abram by how much theological and biblical knowledge he had, actually from the story we know nothing about that but what we do know is that their lives were characterized by obedience to God’s call. The couple did not want to hold on to what they knew or had; in fact they were to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar. This is the story of Missions. This is the call and vision of EMM. God offered security and significance to Abram and Sarai but it was not the same as the one the Babelites and sometimes we expect or seek. The purpose was that through this couple witness about God was to spread to the whole world (Gen.12: 2-3).
The call of Abram demonstrates clearly the life of faith. We see in this call that faith is not primarily religious belief or a set of propositional truths. Faith is expressed here as obedience to the call. Abram and his family did not have the option of staying put in their security system and simply saying, “yes I believe.” They showed they believed by going. Babel story is a story of humans attempting to secure a blessing (security, prosperity and peace) for themselves. In the call of Abram the focus of blessing shifts. God does intend to bless Abram and his family, but his real intention for them is to make of them a great nation, so that they will be a blessing (Gen 12: .2-4).
The nation of Israel was not to exist for its own sake; it was to be an instrument for God’s larger purpose for all humanity and creation. In its very inception Israel’s existence is priestly; to mediate God’s blessings to all the people.
Exodus 19:6 — Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”
Abraham’s descendants were to have a different view of the world; instead of a worldview shaped by settled lives that sees outsiders as threat, their worldview was to consider outsiders as objects of potential blessing. As Israel struggled in her own existence, she forgot and lost the sight of God’s vision of being a blessing to all nations, but was reminded over and again through their prophets to return to the vision. This family’s call indicates a parting of ways. They were called to live by faith in a promise.
How can we as followers of the Messiah really live a life that corresponds to the radical character of this calling? This is the challenge that is constantly set before us as we re-read this foundational story. The struggle of Israel to live up to this original story is one of the central dynamics of the remainder of the Biblical story of which we have become part. How is God Calling you both as a congregation and as individuals and families? How are you responding to God’s call? Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” We welcome you to explore that question with us after the service.