I hope, and this feels tentative to me but I hope, anyone reading this post has followed the progress through the previous four, AND that the series is making sense to you. I hope so because in this post, I intend to make some daring assertions that, to my way of thinking, rely on the kind of study we have been engaged in so far – assertions that begin to challenge the status quo at the root and may begin to cause trouble. Basically, there is Someone new in charge now, and when he arrives at your place of worship, he is likely to turn the tables on you.
A quick, one-paragraph review is in order to help us hold it all together here. We started by pointing out that a strong traditional view of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, one long held by many of us devout believers, winds up making that story into mere Bible trivia – explaining where all the languages come from. Then we challenged that idea first by setting the story within it’s original context in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which grounded a deeper, more penetrating insight: The people of God’s creation who were created to bear his image (and thus honor his name) have a tendency to rebel and make a name for themselves as a way to order the world God made to bring them pride and security. Then we used that insight as a lens through which to examine three key passages all through the biblical saga and saw that this insidious rebellion continues among the pagans throughout world history, that this rebellion has infiltrated even the chosen people of God as well, and that God has reversed the curse of the scattering languages upon re-establishing himself as King of his chosen people.
Yes, I hope your heart and mind have grappled with that large sweeping picture. It is epic in size, really. That moment in I Samuel 8 when God claims that his own people have rejected him being their king is answered in all four Gospels when Jesus, God incarnate, comes back to Jerusalem and takes a crown of thorns! And this King is King of kings and Lord of lords! So when Luke opens his second volume on Jesus, and the advancement of his Gospel among the people who will now spread the glory of his name over the face of the earth, and in short order pictures this bookend on the other side of the saga from the confusion of the languages in Genesis 11, we should see that despite the insidious nature of the rebellion, God is moving even deeper beneath the surface against the tower/empire to redeem creation for his own name’s sake.
Yeah. Acts opens with this bookend, and the rest of the story is about what Jesus continues to do, but this time through his people who now point to his glorious name to reorder the world for God’s glory. And this mission does not stop until it has reached the belly of the beast, that Tower of towers/Empire of empires, Rome. And the last verse of Luke’s second account describes the Spirit of Jesus in this man named Paul preaching the Kingdom of God (another way of saying God is in charge here) and proclaiming that Jesus is Lord (right in the hometown of that other lord – Caesar), and that despite his house arrest, Jesus is now UNLEASHED!
Yeah. That is what the last verse in this document that very quickly bookends the saga we started in Genesis 11 says. Jesus is UNLEASHED right under the nose of that other would-be lord and his little empire cannot stop him!
So… if I am making sense to you now… What do you think?
Are you having some new thoughts yet? What is the relationship between God and empire?
Well, it is clear that he does not destroy the tower with a flood, like he destroyed the world in the days of Noah. It is clear that he does not destroy the empire with fire from heaven, like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. He certainly put Egypt through the paces with ten devastating plagues, but then he put his own chosen people through the very thing the architects of empire feared when he took them out into the wilderness to worship. Then later, when the same rebellion cropped up amid his own chosen people, he actually indulged them! Woah Nelly! What’s up with that??? But at the long end of that saga, he uses a cruel form of capital punishment devised by the evil empire to have himself crowned King! Apparently God can seem pretty tricky that way! And then he invades that empire with missionaries planting little cells of worshipers all over the empire who suddenly withhold their allegiance to empire and instead give it to Jesus, the very one that had been crucified beneath imperial contempt!
So what is God’s relationship with empire? And what is ours?
I know someone will want to rush to Romans 13 about now, and that is fine. I will not negate what St Paul says there, but I will not sit back and let you use that passage to negate what Luke is doing here either. No doubt Romans 13 puts some pressure on us that would have us show respect for the tower/empire we are subverting, but that cannot then be used as a way of calling off the subversion or comforting the empire. There is no comfort for those making names for themselves in hearing there is a new sheriff in town bringing a new way of doing things. That message is bound to be disturbing!
I am struck by the insidious nature of the rebellion to begin with, but even more so by the insidious way the Gospel subverts it. God, it seems, favors order over chaos – and insofar as that goes, he gives blessing to empires, but there is still the matter of evil order vs. good order, and evil order must come to an end. Making a name for ourselves is very Roman, very Egyptian, very Grecian, very Babylonian, very American. All empires seek vanity by which to order the world, but it will not be so among us.
Remember how in both part 2 and part 3 I highlighted a shotgun blast of questions to consider? Let’s look at those again: What do we do with this view of things? What does it mean to us now? What guidance does this story offer us besides explaining why we speak English? What exactly is the problem with building towers/empires and making a name for ourselves? How is “confusing the languages” an answer to the problem?
Are we finding answers for them now? Are we finding the questions themselves enhanced by this process?
I will now divulge the thing that prompts me to take on a series of posts in this way. I recently sat in a Bible class studying the book of Acts over the course of several weeks. The class is made up entirely of white, middle-class, middle/late-middle aged, conservative west Texans. (Do you think we might have certain issues with pride and security coming into a study of the Bible???) And as the teacher passed over a handful of passages describing missionaries (St Paul in particular) being run out of one town to the next and then the next, sparking multiple riots in some of these communities, and going to jail multiple times, he (the teacher of the Bible class) actually said he thinks Luke is writing this document as a way of “comforting the empire”.
I kid you not. The man said it just like that.
He thinks that all these accounts of all this mayhem that seems to be stirred up where ever the Gospel is preached (where it is said that Jesus is Lord, and where his resurrection is proclaimed) is Luke’s way of pointing the finger at wayward Jews and saying they are the ones responsible for all the unrest here, not Jesus!
I think that insidious rebellion is back among God’s people.
In the most gentle way I know how, I rebutted the teacher’s point. I raised my hand, offered a small nugget of insight based on the passage at hand, and declared that Luke is not comforting the empire; he is demonstrating that the Gospel is unstoppable despite imperial attempts to the contrary. Jesus is UNLEASHED in the tower, and it is only a matter of time. The empire’s days are numbered! (Okay, I didn’t exactly declare all of that. I was being polite and gentle as I could, actually.) And still the teacher persisted with his assertion. And not only that, but others in the class shot me down. I was not afforded a chance to speak again, I did not have the floor, and I politely backed off. But I was amazed that even with my very polite and limited challenge to this notion, the wagons circled up to block my rebuttal.
To me it felt like a $5 reaction to a fifty cent remark! And I think that is telling. I struck right at the pride and fear my classmates want to protect by saying Luke is comforting the Roman Empire, not challenging it.
But, hey! Who am I to say??? I am just a lowly street prophet disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed (not actually a Bible verse, but it goes a long way describing Jesus and his program, I think).
I am not in the comfort-the-empire, give-the-tower-a-pass business. I am in the Jesus-is-Lord business, and that is a challenge to anyone out there making a name for themselves. And if I am handling the word of God anywhere like he would want, then I have the whole Bible, and certainly that strange little story in Genesis 11, crushing the rebellion on the one hand and calling me to follow God into the wilderness on the other.
Please… If you are reading here… Let’s talk!