Out of the Garden, into the City
Genesis 11:1-9 (RSV)
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for 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 left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, 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.
Cities seem to get a bad reputation in the Bible. Just think of the first few chapters of Genesis: God creates man and woman, and places them in a garden. And this garden is about as far from a city as we can imagine. Then Adam and Eve transgress God’s commandment; within a generation, we’re killing each other.
And to where does the first murderer flee? To a city.
After God appears to Abraham and Sarah, promising a son, he tells Abraham about the coming destruction: and where is God not able to find ten righteous men? In the cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.
In fact, some of this city names are so powerful that they can encapsulate entire civilizations of biblical enemies and friends —Jerusalem, Babylon, Philistia, Nineveh, Rome…
Today a group of nomads is coming from the east to a plain, level area — Shinar. And they say to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city.”
Now there’s a good chance that, from all of us in this room today, most of us come from cities. In fact, 82% of the United States population lives in cities or suburbs. And I don’t think we would deny the comforts and conveniences of city living: advanced public transportation; efficient living situations, like apartment buildings; established cultural institutions, like museums and libraries and operas. In the ancient world, these advantages were pretty similar. You see, living in cities provides protection against invasion, and it’s a sign of civilization.
So what is it about city living that is so bad in the Bible? I think today’s reading gives us a clue.Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:4)
Let us make a name for ourselves…
It was a joy for me to be able to spend Christmas with my brother and his new wife, who are expecting their first baby this spring. And of course, nearly all of our dinner conversations recently have turned to names — “What are we going to name the baby?” My brother’s requirements are not unusual for couples today: it has to be a cool name, not a name you can easily make fun of, unique but not weird. We are, after all, a culture obsessed with names. Names are the ways we define ourselves: names are the ways we separate ourselves from other people. Now, individuality and self-affirmation is necessary and good. It’s important to identify our uniqueness, our spiritual DNA and gifts which are identical to no one else in creation. But simultaneously, this individuality has a dark side: it also includes ways we think that we are superior or more worthy in some way than other people. And instead of defining ourselves positively, as who we are, we start to do it negatively, identifying who we are not: I’m not an outsider, I’m not an immigrant, a heretic, a liberal, or a conservative, I’m not an enemy. I’m chosen to be not like these people.
And cities are the ways we protect that self-definition, erecting our own walls to keep out the foreign invader, closing the gates whenever danger is near, paying our taxes and losing our property all for a little more protection. But sometimes this self-definition seems so far away from us. “It’s not part of my daily life.” It’s only confined to the world of CNN and People magazine – the cult of celebrities. It’s easy enough to laugh at celebrities and the ways they engender our cultural obsession with self-definition. We have pop stars with the audacity and arrogance to think that one name will suffice for their definition: Prince, Madonna, Cher. We have sports superstars who emblazon their own names across entertainment, food, and drink products, changing their names to Metta World Peace or Chad Ocho Cinco. We have authors whose very names can sell a ghost-written book they had nothing to do with producing, like Tom Clancy and James Patterson.
But I think we can search a little harder, with a little more self-scrutiny, and see each of us is obsessed with self-definition. It doesn’t have to be something loud and ostentatious — like donating money to some cause so that you can see your name printed on the list of donors. We do little acts of self-definition every day. Every time I turn a blind eye to a panhandler on the street, I’m defining myself by my own money and actions; every time I deny help to people I don’t like, but readily help those attractive and friendly people, I’m defining myself by my friends and company; every time I wake up at 6:30am, and decide that I’d rather sleep in than go to Church on a Sunday, I’m defining myself by my own time and priorities.
So are we really so different from these men building a huge tower? After all, most of the time I’m more concerned with my own city, my own bricks, my own tower, than with God’s city and tower. These builders fire up the kiln, squeeze and mold the clay, mix in the sand, and heat the stones: they make their own bricks.
This is a constant refrain in Scripture: there’s the story of Peter, following Jesus to his interrogation at the house of the High Priest. As Peter is inconspicuously warming his hands by the fire, some people come up to him and try to assign him a name — “Oh, you’re one of his people, aren’t you…” Peter responds, and tries to make his own name: “No, I’ve never heard of Jesus before in my life!” Whose name is more important here? Whose name takes priority in my own life?
I’ll offer an example — I am an Orthodox Christian. That means we have 2,000 years of tradition and writing and theology and art to draw upon in our worship and Christian life. But that also means that I have 2,000 years of “stuff” that can separate me from God. Whether it’s languages, or liturgics, or incense, or icons, I find that I end up using “Orthodox” as an adjective to describe myself and not as a description of how the church sees Jesus Christ: fully God and fully man. Perhaps all of us who offer a qualifier in front of “Christian” face this same temptation — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, whatever! We end up making our name, our description, more important than the person of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen from the dead.
So yes, the city can be a nice place to be; it can make us feel comforted and safe, secure from danger and harm with those large gates, and strong army. But the truth of the city, at least in the Bible, is that we make its rules; we make its name, and call ourselves after it.
Before I entered seminary I worked at a homeless shelter for teenagers. There, I was trying to make my own bricks. I was trying to do this job on my terms, in my own way, apart from God’s plan. And after my first week there, I was just about sick of it. I was sick of being hurt by the people I was helping. I was sick of being lied to, and cheated, and treated like I was completely dumb; I was sick of being robbed, and giving handouts to people who clearly weren’t thankful. I called up the head pastor of the shelter to talk with him.
“Fr Steve,” I said, “What the heck are we doing here? We give these homeless children a place to stay, clean clothes, job training, 3 meals a day…and the gratitude and thanks and willingness we get back amounts to nothing. I can’t even get them to help wipe the tables after lunch and dinner.”
Father Steve took his time, let out a deep sigh, and said, “There’s a large French novel called Les Miserables. In the story, a bishop allows a stranger to stay in his house for the night; the visitor steals the bishop’s silverware, and runs away. And this thief is caught, and brought back to the bishop. ‘This man claims that you gave him the silverware,’ say the police. The bishop responds: ‘Yes, I did give him the silverware. But you left the best behind.’ And the bishop gives him two silver candlesticks.” Then Fr Steve said, “that is what we’re doing here.”
Well, Father Steve was right. Every day I lie to God; every day I cheat God, and steal from him; every day I start to make my own bricks, carve out my own city, establish my own identity, and deny the home he’s given me in a garden.
And still — God gives… And he gives…And he gives, knowing that I’ll probably lie and cheat and steal again tomorrow.
Now of course, God sometimes comes down, and intervenes, and confuses our tongues. That’s what we hear about today; God doesn’t destroy the tower, he doesn’t throw brimstone upon the city, he doesn’t flood the earth; He simply comes down and confuses our language. But the funny part of all this — the irony — is that all of these bad things in the story — languages, name-making, cities — they all become opportunities for salvation. Every sin I commit — every chance I take to steal from God — he turns into a vehicle for my own salvation.
Salvation out of chaos.
God knows that we have an obsession with names. It’s one of the first tasks he gives us — Adam names all the animals, he makes them his own he identifies them. But God takes our obsession with names, and turns it into salvation. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus. Emmanuel. God’s victory, present among us. And from there, we learn about all these names God offers: Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, First Born of All Creation, Firstborn of the Dead, the Lamb, Messiah. The Christ.
And God gives us this name for ourselves: “In Antioch, they were first called Christians.” He gives us this name as our own; He anoints us, because we are called after Christ. He makes us his own sons and daughters. The prophet Isaiah declares, “You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will give.” Our true identity isn’t caught up in some obsession with uniqueness, with defining ourselves, with giving our own lives direction and meaning. God gives us our name.
What does this really mean? Simply the message of the gospel: Your life is not your own. You were bought with a price. And not only does your life belong to God — it belongs to your brother, and your sister, and every person around you.
And so we turn once again toward the city. In the midst of the city – of brokenness, enmity, destruction – God offers us salvation. God takes all of that garbage and junk out of our lives, and transforms it completely. An example: Cain and Abel — second generation sinners, the first set of brothers, and the first homicide. Now, murder is not good. Murder is evil, it’s an aberration, it is horribly wrong. But God comes to us as we are, broken and twisted and evil, and he uses murder — gruesome, legal, public execution on a cross — so that we can be saved.
Likewise, God takes the cities we erect — these fortified palaces, alabaster chambers of reason, civility, culture; of safety, commerce, security; and he comes into our cities, these refuges in our hearts. And he enters the city not how we would expect. He comes in weakness, which is the ultimate manifestation of his strength; he enters as a baby in a cave in Bethlehem; he comes into Jerusalem on a donkey. He’s coming to save the city: He’s coming to save us from our self-obsession with reason, and culture, and security, and comfort.“Behold Your King” Behold your king, in emptiness, in condescension, disgraced, in the ultimate weakness of death. Behold your King, risen from the dead on the third day. “Let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb 13:13-14)
The city which is to come: that’s where we call home,
That’s where we belong. And even though, in the beginning, God put us in a garden — so removed from the concerns of city life, a place of harmony and concord; in the end, he puts us in a city. The New Jerusalem. We read about this in the Revelation to St John:“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Rev 21:3-5)
And in this city — there is no temple, because the sacrifice is already accomplished. And in this city — there is no need for sun or moon, because the perfect light is shining on it every day. And in this city, is a river, and trees, and fruit. And God doesn’t forbid us to eat this fruit — no, he invites us.
For centuries, Christians have been trying to reach this city, trying to realize it on earth. But the truth of this New Jerusalem, this heavenly city, is that it’s not of this world, even though it stands right before us. So we’re not going to reach it by making our own bricks, and building our skyscrapers, and making our own names.
We enter it today, right now, by doing the will of God — by spreading forth the name to which he calls us; by building and adorning his temple, his building, his body — his church; by using the stones and wood he’s already given us, instead of looking for our own.
What does this mean, every day? Two words, most simply: love and forgiveness. These are the bricks that God uses to build the new city, the heavenly Jerusalem. And I’m called to that, you’re called to that: we’re called by the name of Christ.
So maybe you have a brother you haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe you have a boss at work or an administrator at school who continually annoys you for his ineptitude. Maybe you’re still mad at your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse for some careless word or thoughtless act.
Forgiveness isn’t a magic pill or a wizard’s wand; but God starts to build the city through our work. And he uses living stones – you and me. God starts to provide the labor, and shows us that He is our only true name.
So forgive; love; and you, and your boyfriend or girlfriend, and your boss, and your brother, and I — we’ll all start marching into that city together.