Genesis 10-12, Psalm 4, Matthew 4
The call to follow God, the Tower of Babel and the temptations of Jesus
Genesis 10 – 12
Genesis 10 provides a lengthy genealogy of the descendants of Noah. It links some of them to various tribes, peoples and locations in the ancient Near East. Genesis 11, however, is the focal point. Here we find the iconic story of the Tower of Babel, which has fascinated children in Sunday school for generations.
We are told that the peoples of the earth spoke just one language. Using brick and mortar, they tried to construct a city and a tower, which they hoped would reach heaven. God is again anthropomorphized as in Genesis 3, where God saw Adam and Eve walking naked in the Garden of Eden and spoke to them.
Here God “came down to see the city and the tower,” which humans had built and ascertained that they were one people and spoke one language and had significant capabilities. So, God said, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Gen. 11:7) God then scattered them across the face of the earth, and the location of the tower became known as Babel for this is where God confused their ability to communicate with one another.
In an interesting analysis of this passage, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, offers a different explanation of this story in his book The Dignity of Difference. Sacks notes that when everyone is forced to speak the same language and think the same thoughts, you have a dictatorship. This is something that God did not want.
Hence, by allowing the peoples of the earth to speak different languages and live in different groups with different customs and traditions, God gave rise to freedom, plurality and democracy, where each group was free to express and preserve its unique differences. This in many ways is the chief challenge of our age. Can we accept and respect the differences of others and share the earth together?
In chapter 12, we learn about one of the great promises of God and see the utter fallibility of one of the major figures of the Bible. In the opening passage, God tells Abram, who will one day be known as “Abraham” and is seen today to be the spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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.” (Gen. 12:1-2) This is a mighty promise.
This is one of the first great “call narratives” of the Bible. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s call to build an ark might be considered earlier call narratives. A “call” from God almost always comes by surprise. We are too old or too young, unequipped or uninterested, not ready or feeling hopeless after waiting so long, when God knocks on our door. The call almost always requires something that will challenge our status quo. In this case, Abram must pack up his wife and move to a foreign location, trusting completely in God and leaving behind family, friends and everything familiar.
At the same time, a call almost always involves a promise. If you do this, says God, then “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great…” Here is the tension, where an individual must wrestle with an opportunity and the promise of God that lies before him or her against the familiarity of life as it is and the cost of changing one’s life in order to accept the promise of God.
So, Abram and his wife Sarai accepted God’s promise. They packed their bags, took their nephew Lot and traveled through the land of Canaan, where they built an altar to give thanks to the Lord before continuing their journey. As they entered Egypt, Abram, age 75, urged his attractive wife, Sarai, to say that she was his sister rather than his wife in order to avoid being killed by men who desired her.
Word spread of her beauty, and she was taken into the Pharaoh’s house as one of his concubines. Abram, in turn, was given flocks of animals and female slaves in return for his “sister.” When a plague descended upon Pharaoh’s house as a result, Abram’s lie was detected and Pharaoh confronted Abram and cast Sarai out of his house.
The Bible is full of famous figures, but most of them are people like you and me who struggle to do the right thing and often make questionable decisions. Jesus is the only flawless character in the Bible. Each of the other figures is marred by imperfections. Scripture reminds us that God can take earthen vessels like you and me and transform us into significant instruments of God’s love, justice and peace. There is hope for each of us.
“Answer me when I call, O God…” is the prayer that each of us unconsciously utters as we strive to address God. The psalmist trusts that “the Lord hears when I call to him.” (Ps. 4:3) This comes about only after regular prayer and Bible reading, which allow us to build an authentic relationship with God and learn how to comprehend and communicate with God.
The psalmist says that when we are disturbed we would be wise to “ponder” these things in silence and in prayer. By being in a right relationship with God through prayer, the careful study of God’s Word and faithful actions, we may “lie down and sleep in peace,” trusting that the Lord is with us. (Ps. 4:8)
This chapter gives birth to the liturgical season that the Church calls Lent. Prior to initiating his ministry, Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Matt. 4:1) This verse is easy to pass over, but it is important to reflect upon. When I was contemplating leaving my profession as a journalist to enter the ordained ministry and trying to discern my vocation, a wise priest in Tennessee told me, “I do not believe that anyone is ever called by God without going through a wilderness period.”
His words rang true. Most of us pass through at least one wilderness in our lifetime. A wilderness is a dry, desert-like place, where we wonder whether we shall survive and get through it to something better. For some the wilderness is battling an illness or suffering the loss of a loved one. For others it is the death of a dream, a marriage, an important relationship, a job, or encountering significant failure.
These are just a few of the wildernesses that humans undergo. Each of them tests what we are made of and forces us to look within and beyond for help. Working through a wilderness experience is often what brings us to our knees and leads us to encounter God as we realize that we cannot rely solely upon ourselves. We need greater help – help from above.
It is out of these wilderness experiences, however, that we develop our ministry. Those who have battled an addiction, come through a divorce, weathered a major illness or rebuilt their life after having lost a loved one are often those best equipped to help others who are just beginning to face something similar. By utilizing what we have learned as we passed through our wilderness experience and having come out on the other side, we can assist others who are just entering a similar desert place.
So, it is with Jesus. He spent 40 days and nights alone in the desert praying and fasting before he began his ministry. This time in solitude and silence fasting and alone before God, forged his soul and prepared him for all that would follow. It was here that he was tempted by the devil and confronted the false self which exists within every human being. This false self tells me that I am what I have, I am what I do for a living and I am what others think of me. Yet, this is not what I truly am. It is my false self.
In the midst of these temptations, Jesus had to affirm that he was the Son of God and not the willing pawn of the temptations posed by the devil. There are two words in ancient Greek for “if.” One means “if” as “if there was a possibility that this were true.” The other means “if” knowing that this actually is the case, as in “If water is a liquid…,” which it is. It is the latter form of “if,” which appears in this story, signifying that the devil knew for certain that Jesus was the Son of God, when he said, “If…”
One beautiful thing to note is verse 11, where we read, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” So often when we go through a wilderness period such as a grave illness or a profound loss, some of the people whom we would have expected to be there to support us are not as helpful as we would have imagined. Perhaps it is because they simply cannot comprehend what we are facing. Yet, others – sometimes complete strangers or passing acquaintances – appear like angels in disguise. They offer help when we would never have imagined ourselves relying on them in our time of need.
Jesus then learns that his cousin John the Baptist has been arrested. The clock is ticking. Jesus senses his call to serve God, and yet he knows beginning now that the environment in which he is called to serve is fraught with danger. It reminds us that there is almost always a cost to be paid for serving God.
We read, “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…,” which is a direct quote from Isaiah 9:2. Here we see one of the first echoes of Scripture, where words from the prophets or other parts of the Bible will reappear and shed new light on events unfolding in the Christian Scriptures. The Psalms, followed by the Book of Isaiah, are the two most frequently quoted books of the Old Testament quoted by Jesus and the authors of the gospels.
Following his time in prayer in the wilderness, Jesus begins his active ministry. Almost all of Jesus’ most important actions are preceded by a time of significant prayer. This is a wonderful model for us to emulate. Hence, before calling his disciples – the 12 people upon whom Jesus would build the Church and establish Christianity – Jesus prayed.
This time in prayer gave Jesus clarity, which helped him to select an unlikely crew of persons, 11 of whom were willing to suffer death as martyrs in order to spread Christianity to remote areas after the death of Jesus. Jesus uttered these famous words to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew as they hurled their fishing nets into the sea, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt. 4:19)
We are told that they “immediately left their nets and followed” Jesus. My hunch is that there is more to this story than this brief sentence. Those who “immediately” followed Jesus were probably searching for deeper meaning and significance in their lives. They may have heard something in advance about the character of Jesus that sparked a profound interest within them, but regardless, they chose to accept his call, and they followed him. This is the second call narrative that we have read about today. The cost was to leave their families, friends and work. The promise was that they would become “fishers of men.”
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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.’ (Gen. 12:1-2)
And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ (Matt. 4:19)
It is helpful to read the Bible each day at the same time and in the same place, if possible. This establishes a rhythm and pattern to your day. Just as a runner usually does not run early in the morning one day and late in the night the following day, but rather at a regular time each day, so a spiritual athlete does well to establish a regular pattern as to when he or she spends time each day with God.
In what ways do you sense God may be calling you to move forward and change direction in your life? What would be the cost? What is the promise that God extends to you, if you make this change?
Gracious God, when you extend a call to us there is often a sense of attraction as well as a sense of fear that overcomes us. Help us to listen closely to your voice and to overcome the fear that would prevent us from following your invitation to serve you in new ways. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania