The last few weeks have been busy, and I’ve not had the time, or frankly the inclination, to blog. I haven’t posted a sermon before, and it’s perhaps a rather desperate measure, but I feel under some pressure to show that the narrative-historical approach can work in normal preaching-teaching contexts. The proof-of-the-pudding, of course, is in the eating. The sermon was originally part of a series on witness that Crossroads International Church in the Hague was doing earlier in the year, but I also preached it as a one-off in our little church in Westbourne Grove last Sunday. You might think of it as expounding a narrative urban theology. It’s been edited—all the flim-flam that I usually throw in to lighten things up a bit has been removed; and it ends rather abruptly—I decided not to include the impassioned altar call. Make of it what you will.
Throughout the Bible, from a few chapters into Genesis to a few chapters from the end of Revelation, the people of the one, true, living creator God exists, lives, witnesses, one way or another, in the shadow of a great foreign city.
This is the story that I want to tell this morning, and we need to start at the beginning…
God makes humankind, man and woman, in his own image. He gives them dominion, rule, over all living creatures. He blesses them, and tells them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, and subdue it.
There we have the creation mandate: be blessed, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and manage it well—not exploit it, not plunder it, not trash it, not exhaust it; manage it well, as the creator would manage it, as images of the creator.
But as people begin to multiply on the face of the earth, their attitudes, their behaviour gets worse and worse. Humanity sinks into wickedness and violence. So we read:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)
Now the earth was corrupt, in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. (Gen. 6:11).
Now, maybe you’re thinking: Wait a minute, you’ve left out Adam and Eve!
Well, yes, I’ve skipped over Adam and Eve, but for a reason—to draw attention to the fact that what we have in these opening chapters of the Bible is not just an account of personal sin. It’s a story about how humanity, human society, human culture has resisted, side-lined, rejected the good creator God.
In the modern era, we have told a story that begins with Adam and Eve, and then Jesus comes to save us from the sin and death that we inherited from Adam.
That’s important, but it’s not the whole story. The biblical story is bigger than that. The disobedience of Adam and Eve is not all there is to say about sin. It’s just the beginning.
God said at the outset, “Be fruitful and multiply…”, but “when man began to multiply on the face of the land”, the wickedness of man was great and the earth was filled with violence.
Now, we know how the story goes….
The flood—and no doubt there was some sort of ancient memory behind the story—is understood to be the judgment, the verdict of the creator on a corrupted world—almost everything is wiped away.
And then creation starts over.
Noah and his family step out on to dry land, and God blesses them, just as he blessed humanity at the beginning, and he says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens…”, and so on (Gen. 9:1-2).
It’s the creation mandate again, the same words, the same refrain: the original blessing of God, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, manage it well. Let’s try again.
So the descendants of Noah are fruitful and multiply and spread across the earth until they come to a plain in the land of Shinar, and there they stop, and they settle there, and they come up with a plan. Why don’t we make bricks and use bitumen for mortar and build for ourselves a great city—“a city and a tower with its top in the heavens”.
“Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Here we have our first city….
They build a city and a tower in defiance of the living creator God. They build a great city in order to make a name for themselves.
This is what cities do. They build walls. They build fortresses. They build towers. They build monuments. They build palaces. They build factories. They build office blocks. They build art galleries and museums. They compete to host global institutions and multinational companies and festivals and sporting events.
Tim Keller says this:
“Cities were designed to be places of spiritual seeking and finding. So the city’s highest tower, whether it was a castle, a minaret, a cathedral, or an office skyscraper, always indicates a city’s faith, what most of the people are looking to for significance.”
Cities are big, sprawling, towering, ambitious, aspirational places. Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Warsaw, Cairo, Tehran, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Sydney….
In their different ways they symbolise humanity’s struggle to build, to make things, to innovate, to create beauty and wonder, to become prosperous and powerful—and it’s not all necessarily bad, much of it is good, it’s what humanity does, but it’s done in defiance of the creator.
Our cities are not built for the glory of the living creator God. They are built for the glory of their citizens. That is the lesson of the Babel story.
And of course, Babel was built in the land of Shinar, and Shinar is a name for Babylonia. So Babel is a sort of proto-Babylon—a prototype, a forerunner, of the powerful city states that would dominate Israel’s world. But we’re running ahead of ourselves…
So this is where our story begins. In the shadow of defiant Babel. In the shadow of empire.
Terah, the father of Abraham, travels with his family from Ur of the Chaldeans, which is Babylon, to Haran. Then after Terah’s death, God says to Abraham:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1–3)
The promise is made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, again and again in the next chapters: God will bless them, he will make them fruitful, they will multiply, their descendants will be like the stars of heaven in number, and they will fill… not the earth, but the land that God will give them.
It’s the creation mandate again, the same refrain—a new creation in microcosm, in the land that God will give them.
This is God’s positive response…. It is God’s response to sin. It is God’s response to the injustice and violence, the abuse, the conflicts, the wars, that are still endemic in humanity. Yes. But it is also God’s response to the deeply ingrained desire of societies to build Babel, to build cities, to build empires, to make a name for themselves.
So God calls Abraham, he chooses Abraham, brings him out of the shadow of Babel to be the beginning of a new creation, an alternative society, an alternative people, an alternative city.
And God says to him (notice this): I will make your name great—so that you will be a blessing. You will be known—renowned, your fame will spread far and wide… you will be known as a people that mediates the blessing of the good creator God.
If you walk in my ways, if you do justice, if you love kindness, if you walk humbly with your God, you will be a blessing, you will make the world a better place…
Now we fast forward: Joseph, Egypt, Moses, Exodus, Conquest, Kingdom, David…
And we discover that Israel did not walk in God’s ways, and so was exiled from the land…
And they found themselves swallowed up by a second great city, an immensely powerful city. Babylon—with its magnificent gates and walls and ziggurats and its famous hanging gardens—a city that had made a name for itself.
Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Neo-Babylonian empire, first attacked Jerusalem in 597 BC. He seized a large amount of booty, including treasure and vessels from the temple, and took it all back with him—along with a number of citizens, who were resettled in Babylonia as exiles. He installed Zedekiah as a client king in Jerusalem.
Ten years later Zedekiah made a bid for independence from Babylon, with Egyptian backing. Nebuchadnezzar took a dim view of this and returned with his armies to suppress the rebellion. After a long siege, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and many more Jews were also taken into exile.
Just after the first deportation, a prophet called Hananiah came to Jerusalem and confidently announced in the temple that God had “broken the yoke of the king of Babylon”. Jeremiah recounts his words.
“Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place… all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the LORD….” (Jer. 28:3–4)
But Hananiah was wrong—it’s like the people at the start of the second world war who said that the troops would be home by Christmas. It would be 70 years before the Persian king Cyrus invaded and captured Babylon, and the yoke of the king of Babylon was broken, and the Jews were allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. Not two years. 70 years.
So Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles with some very practical, down-to-earth advice about how to live well in the shadow of this powerful foreign city:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare—the shalom—of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5–7)
Be God’s new creation people in this foreign city, he says, in this alien, inhospitable culture. Build houses. Plant gardens. Grow vegetables. Be fruitful and multiply. Do life well. Be God’s people in the midst of the Babylonians. Be a city within a city.
But more than that…
Seek the welfare, the shalom, the peace, the prosperity of the city—be missional, we might say. And for a very practical reason: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.
Now we fast forward again: the return from exile, the rebuilding of the city and the temple, the conquests of Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, the Maccabean Revolt, a hundred years of Hasmonean rule, the Roman occupation of Palestine, Augustus and the beginning of the Roman empire, Jesus, who is executed as a false king on a Roman cross, on a small rocky outcrop outside the city of Jerusalem…
Even the city of God has rejected its saviour, its king…
But then, it’s another new creation, another new beginning… and the followers of Jesus begin to multiply and spread across the pagan world, from city to city, boldly proclaiming that God has raised his Son from the dead, that he has seated him at his right hand, that he has given him all authority and power…
That was an extraordinary challenge, an outrageous challenge, to the Babels and Babylons, to the kings and emperors, to the cities and cultures of the ancient world.
And it brings us to the last iteration of the theme, the third of the great cities that overshadow the biblical story.
I don’t want to give the impression that the book of Revelation is easy to understand. It’s not. But when, towards the end, an angel is seen descending from heaven, proclaiming in a loud voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”, I think it is clear enough that he is referring to the great pagan city of Rome.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. (Rev. 18:2)
Three main accusations, three main charges are made against “Babylon the great”.
First, it is said that “all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her”. Perhaps the reference is to Rome’s scandalous sexual ethics, but more likely sexual immorality is a metaphor for idolatry—especially the worship of the emperor as a god.
Secondly, the merchants of the earth have grown rich from trading with her—including a trade in “slaves, that is, human souls”. Rome is condemned for its greed, its materialism, its excessive commercialism, its abuse of human rights.
Thirdly, John says that “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24).
This is a city that savagely persecuted those who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord—“King of kings and Lord of lords” (cf. Rev. 19:16).
But Rome would also be held accountable for the blood shed, for the violence done—“all who have been slain on earth”—in pursuit of its political ambitions, in the name of empire.
This time the message to God’s people, to the churches, is not to embed, not to work and build and prosper and be a blessing, but to come out, to be different:
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues… (Rev. 18:4)
So we have three different responses, three different ways of being God’s people, of being church, when we find ourselves in the shadow of a great city.
In the shadow of the tower of Babel, Abraham was called to be the beginning of a new creation, an alternative humanity, loyal to the God who made the heavens and the earth. His descendants would be blessed, and they would be a blessing to the people around them.
What do we learn from this?
We learn that we are called apart as a new creation people in the midst of the cultures of the world, blessed by the good, living creator God to be a blessing to others…
In the shadow of Babylon the exiles were called to make their peace with the great foreign city, to work hard, to build houses, to marry and have children, to get on with life—to seek the welfare of the city because in its welfare they would find their own welfare.
What do we learn from this?
We learn that even in captivity, even in exile, even in the shadow of powerful secular cities like London, the creation mandate shows through—live as God always intended his new creation to be and we will be a blessing. It’s what we are here for.
It raises the bar on how we understand the mission, purpose of the church…
If the story that we tell is simply the one about personal salvation—that God sent his Son into the world to save sinners—we will not find it easy to construct a theology for an alternative civic life.
If we tell the story of personal salvation as part of the larger story of God’s people living in the shadow of Babel or Babylon or Rome, then we begin to get a sense of what it might mean to model a different way of being citizens.
But there are limits, there are boundaries. Sometimes we have to draw a line…
In the shadow of Babylon-the-great, Rome, the people of God was called to separate itself from an idolatrous and corrupt and decadent culture…
We do not share in the city’s insatiable materialism and greed.
We do not condone violence and injustice and intolerance and neglect. We model an alternative civic life, characterized by compassion, equality, honesty, transparency, modesty, fidelity…
We do not serve the gods of the city…
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:5–6)
We have one God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, who made us a people for his own possession. And we have one Lord, Jesus Christ, “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”….