Sunday, October 2, 2016

An Act of Mercy

This morning we look at another story about people. We will see people in action. And as we see people in action we’ll also see God in action. And as we watch, we will be able to learn how to live well. That’s because people haven’t changed, and God hasn’t changed. But first, listen to how Moses explains what happened.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people 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 dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man 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, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Genesis 11.1-9

So, what happened? It’s not complicated. The people settled in this place called Shinar. They set down roots and began to build a city, along with what they were hoping would become a gloriously high tower. God saw what they were doing. He didn’t approve. So, He decided to stop the building project. And He did that by bringing about a great deal of confusion. He switched things up so that the people who had been speaking the same language began to speak different languages. And how can you work together if you can’t understand each other? As a result, everyone left Shinar, scattered to the four corners of the globe, with the building project left behind, incomplete.

That’s what happened. One thing that stands out, making this all very interesting, is God’s take on what the people were doing. Listen again.

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.

Now, I’m thinking that when you first read this it doesn’t sound good. It makes God sound kind of nasty. Here’s this building project, and God decides to wreck it? Why? Is God afraid of something? Is that why He talks about how ‘nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’? One might even say that God sounds a little anxious. Is He viewing this as competition? He doesn’t like what He sees, and so He wreaks havoc. Are we seeing God at His worst, here?

Now, obviously, that can’t be true. But then, what’s going on? What is behind God’s response? This might sound odd, but God is performing an act of mercy. It may not look like it, but that’s what’s going on.

Let’s recall the situation, and by that I mean the larger situation. What are these people supposed to be doing? That takes us back, once again, to the first verse of chapter 9.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  Genesis 9.1

Let’s assume that they were being fruitful and multiplying. But what about the part about filling the earth? They were having the babies, but what about spreading out to the far reaches of the globe? They weren’t doing that. No, instead, they were settling down in one place. And what were they doing there? They were pursuing this building project. And why? What was that about? Listen to what they said.

… let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.

What we have here is a group of people who are rebelling against God’s command. They don’t want to disperse and fill the earth. Filling Shinar is good enough. And what was their goal in this? It was to become famous, to make a name for themselves. How does all of this fit with obedience to their Creator? It really doesn’t.

What we have here is a group of people who are very successful in what they are doing. They are well organized and busy. They are making good progress. But they are pointed in the wrong direction. They are all about building their own little kingdom where they are the stars of the show. If they are allowed to continue in that direction things will go from bad to worse. They will get really good at pursuing the wrong goal. Nothing will be impossible for them in the pursuit of that goal.

And so, God acts. He disrupts their plans. He brings their dreams to nothing. Then, He scatters them. And why? He does this for the sake of His plan to rescue His creatures, to rescue them. God interferes here with an act of mercy.

Now, put yourself into the situation. Think about how this act of mercy must have felt for those people. The rooster crows, and you wake up. You make your way to the kitchen to get some breakfast. As you see other members of the family doing the same you chat about what the day might hold. A normal morning. You leave home to continue work on the building project. But as soon as you arrive at the site, it’s all wrong. You greet a co-worker, but he looks at you funny. Someone else says something to you, but you can’t understand a word of what he is saying. There is confusion not just in you but in everyone. Something terrible has happened. Your world has been turned upside down. What was once normal, no longer exists. So, now you and the few that you can actually communicate with pack up and leave to go who knows where to try to start all over again. Your familiar world has come to an end.

That’s what happened to these people. And God did it. To be sure, it didn’t feel like an act of mercy - not even a little - but it was.

So, what can we learn from this? People haven’t changed. God hasn’t changed. So, there will be times when life will dramatically change. What was once normal will no longer exist. God will act in your life, He will do something striking, something that disrupts life, something that just might flip your world upside down. And it will be an act of mercy. To be sure, it won’t feel like an act of mercy - not even a little - but it will be.

You’ve heard about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Jesus did something to wound Paul. We don’t know what it was. But Paul knew, and it hurt. He really wanted it gone. Do you know why Jesus did that? Paul did. Listen to his explanation.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 2 Corinthians 12.7

Paul had been caught up into heaven and looked around. He had seen and heard things. What an experience! And what an opportunity to blow it, to become proud, conceited, because of what he experienced. So, to prevent that, Jesus gave him this thorn in the flesh that would harass him for the rest of his days. It was an act of mercy. To be sure, it didn’t feel like an act of mercy - not even a little - but it was.

I dare say that each of you has experienced those times when life went haywire. Everything was going along okay. And then, bam. Maybe, as with those people in Shinar, there was serious confusion. And maybe, like Paul, there was serious pain. But whatever else was happening, you’re thinking, ‘What in the world is going on?’ It was an act of mercy. And that’s true even though it didn’t feel like an act of mercy. Jesus decided to do you some good.

I’m sure that if you were to describe this way of looking at life to your average man in the street he would look at you as if your were crazy. Bad things happening as an act of mercy? There are many things about the Gospel that seem crazy. But they’re not. And seeing life this way, seeing those hard surprises this way, is so helpful. While that man in the street continues in his confusion when life surprises him, we have some answers. Jesus is doing something good. He is doing us a mercy.

So, what do you do when something like this happens? How do you respond to what Jesus is doing? Here are a couple of ideas.

First, it would be good to do a little self-examination. While there was no sin in Paul’s case, there certainly was in the case of those people in Shinar. So, it’s good to ask whether this surprise that has just invaded your life is a prod from the Spirit. Is He trying to get your attention so that you can deal with some sin? This might happen if you’ve been ignoring all those other times that He was gently pointing out something you need to deal with. If you are unaware of any sin that you’ve been refusing to work on, don’t dwell on this. You’re as innocent as Paul was. If, on the other hand, you’re not sure, just ask Him. ‘Lord, is this about some sin that I’m refusing to act on?’ If He doesn’t clearly zero in on some specific sin, then there’s nothing to repent of. But if He does, then repent of it, and do it quickly.

Here’s something else that would be good to do. Even though it is an act of mercy, when it happens you experience hurt. You lose something. You taste a bit of death. Don’t try to just shrug it off. Mourn your loss. Grieve. That is simply being honest with yourself and with Jesus. You see this throughout the Psalms. But, at the same time, remember that where there has been death there is always resurrection. Always. Whatever you lose will be returned to you, except it will be better. There is always resurrection.

And finally, rejoice. What you are experiencing really is an act of mercy. Jesus is doing something good. And whatever He is doing is not only for your good. It’s for the good of others also. Rejoice in that because in this act of mercy Jesus is moving His plan to redeem His creation another step forward.

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