Sermon on Isaiah 13-14, 21 (13:1-3, 10-11, 19-21; 14:1-5, 9-10, 12-16; 21:1-2, 9-10); 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; and Revelation 18:1-6. Delivered 18 January 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The ninth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, Isaiah 8b-9, and Isaiah 10-12.
On the heels of tackling the Assyrian crisis and urging Judah to look to God in “trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2), Isaiah opens eleven chapters of Oracles Against the Nations. They begin with Babylon, sitting at the eastern end of the civilized world as the Israelites would have known it; and the oracles end with Tyre, sitting toward the west. Isaiah talks about Babylon and its fall, but we can see that he's speaking of more than just a city or an empire. Even during the days of Isaiah's early ministry in the eighth century BC, the city of Babylon was already a major center of world culture, and it represents the cultural dimensions of pointless human self-glory. Babylon signifies the cultural domination of sinful paganism, of prideful human culture set up in opposition to the kingdom of God. In our modern Western world, it often manifests in the life that we call 'secular', or worldly – though the religious impulse of the human heart won't be quelled so easily. Worship is hardwired into our souls, and if we don't direct it toward God, we'll find a distorted substitute. That's the story of Babylon. But Babylon is not new; it is as old as sin, and it's touched every time in history, from the age of Isaiah to the time of Rome to the Founding Fathers and on down.
The city of Babylon, in Isaiah's day, was the major exporter of cultural goods. Everyone admired how refined and sophisticated the Babylonians were. In our day, the United States of America is the greatest global exporter of cultural goods – especially the culture epitomized by Hollywood, by media outlets, by our corporations. I remember visiting a remote Kenyan village a couple years ago, up in the mountains, and spending some time with a few of the young men – and they started talking about a few of their favorite American films! And in the Kenyan cities, there isn't a place you can go, even in the most impoverished slums, where you won't find Coca-Cola for sale. We are the greatest exporter of cultural goods around the world, just as we look to European nations as the standard of refinement and sophistication – think Downton Abbey, think French cuisine and art, think German cars. Aren't America and Europe the “jewel of kingdoms” now (Isaiah 13:19), in a way?
But given our heritage as a supposedly “Christian nation” – something that some of us stress over and over – it can cause some problems. People around the world who don't share our faith look at our media output – at our movies, at our celebrity culture, at our news, at our sensationalistic focus on the outlandish and extreme – and think that this is the fruit of the gospel. And so they get the wrong idea – the idea that Christianity means selfishness, exploitation, violence, lust, immorality. That's part of the driving force of the resistance to Christianity in the Middle East – and what kind of witness is this? The 'culture' we export around the world is dominated, not by the values of the church, not by the values of the gospel, but by the values of elite media-producers, of opportunistic politicians, of unscrupulous corporations, of aggressively secular academic institutions. They all may applaud compromised churches, but in general they look at most of the nation as “flyover country” where people bitterly cling to guns and religion and prejudice; they deem a gospel of faith and holiness to be “unsophisticated”, “superstition”, “bigotry”. But Paul writes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18) – and make no mistake, Babylon is perishing.
The culture-makers of Babylon sneer at the countryside, at the ways of life cherished in rural America. That's not where the action is, it's not where the real 'thinking' happens, they say. It's a place to be escaped. And the culture-makers of Babylon sneer at the inner-city as doomed to stay stuck in its cycles of violence and poverty. But the church, in its purity, doesn't see as Babylon sees. No, we know that life outside of urban centers isn't a wasted life in a wasteland. We're here to tend the garden of God, “to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And the church knows that life in the dark belly of the city isn't wasted: as Jeremiah wrote, we actively “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And our hope looks forward to New Jerusalem, a life where the garden and the city will be one perfected union.
The culture-makers of Babylon disregard the church's witness. Babylon thinks it's hopelessly outdated to actually ask the questions we ask and offer the hope we offer. At its kindest, Babylon ignores us as undeserving of comment. More often, Babylon mocks us as undeserving of basic respect or serious consideration. In recent years, we've increasingly seen Babylon start demanding that Christians must choose: we can have our convictions, or we can have a place in society, but not both. I've lost track of how many times I've heard people remark callously about Christian workers facing a struggle of conscience: “Well, don't work in that field, then.” And we've all heard the news about Atlanta's fire chief, who lost his job – for what? For discriminating against anyone? No, he was cleared. What then? For writing a book just stating what Christians believe about sexual ethics.
Babylon's message is: “Submit to our sacred dogmas, or else make yourselves scarce.” And they ask, “You don't want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?” But the church of the martyrs is always on the “wrong side of history” – Revelation 17 history, that is, the large but limited scope of history that falls under Babylon's sway. But just the same, the faithful witness of the church is on the right side of Revelation 18 history – the unlimited scope of history that looks to Babylon's fall and beyond, onward toward the New Jerusalem. If we're following Jesus and thinking with his mindset in accordance with what scripture teaches – for, after all, “we have the mind of Christ”, Paul writes (1 Corinthians 2:16) – then we will stand on the right side of the Lord of History. But Babylon is on the wrong side of history's Lord, even if shortsighted eyes, glimpsing only the fleeting trends of the present, can't see far enough to believe that Babylon could ever totter and topple.
What do we do? We're called to give a persuasive witness – not in arrogance, not in anger, but in open-handed assurance of the gospel. We're called to answer accusations against us “with gentleness and respect”, carefully explaining our faith and its good sense in both words and actions so that “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter3:15-16). And we're called to “always be ready” to do this – to be prepared. So do we intentionally set ourselves to learning so that we'll be equipped to give a serious answer suited for the time, place, and people at hand? Do we intentionally set ourselves to holy living so that we won't be caught with a gap between our preaching and our practice?
Babylon is all about the pridefulness of human works. It's all about what we can attain or accomplish – in John Lennon's words, “No hell below us; / above us, only sky.” It's the impulse we see at Babylon's foundation: if we all work together in “the brotherhood of man”, if we just get rid of everything of value, then we can achieve a god-like task. That's the message of Lennon's enduring song. That's the heartbeat of the Tower of Babel: if we all work together and screen out anything higher, we can reach that sky, and we can master the world (Genesis 11:1-9). That's the message of Isaiah 14. The Latin translation may have rendered 'Daystar' as 'Lucifer', but viewed as a whole, it isn't about Satan; it's about human pride. Isaiah's heavenly images are borrowed from Canaanite stories of a second-class god trying to dethrone the chief god. Shocking enough – but Isaiah imagines a human figure having the gumption to try pulling that off! And that madness is what Babylon means: the human pride of trying, in effect, to replace God with our achievements – a project doomed to be exposed as a fraud, because we aren't the gods we so often pretend we are.
It can be easy to fall into these kinds of traps in the workplace, imagining that the value of a life is how high we climb the corporate ladder, or how much we get done, or how much bacon we bring home. But even in our spiritual lives, we may sometimes try to exalt ourselves by our works. We may fall into the trap of thinking that our own virtue will boost us up to heaven's heights, that we can find favor in God's eyes through being good enough that he'll just have to grant us a pass through the pearly gates. But that project fails. In the words of one of my favorite songs (Josh Garrels, "Cynicism"):
Self-promotion's how we function in this culture;
We fight for the spotlight with a peacock's pride,
And then condescend to all the lesser men
From thrones we made of paid accolades and a compromise.
There is no power that a man can have
Unless it's given to him from above;
Our ladders of success descend to hell:
Don't sell your soul and lose your one true love.
But the church's real message is a message, not of human achievement to press higher and higher, but of bowing downward in faith before the “High and Exalted One” who says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). Our closeness with God doesn't come from building a tower of human works; that's structurally unsound without the Cornerstone and Foundation that is Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:20), and our works are too weak to support the weight of our load of sin. No, real intimacy with God comes through repentance and humble faith. “I live by faith in the Son of God”, Paul said (Galatians 2:20). Do we define ourselves by what we do? Do we take pride in our accomplishments, and judge people by what they 'make' of themselves? Or do we live by humble faith, from which holy living follows?
Babylon is all about questing for a self-made legacy – at the Tower of Babel, they sought to build a name for themselves to avoid serving God's mission (Genesis 11:4). It wasn't about fulfilling the reason why they were made, the objective purpose that God had for them, which was to spread through all the earth and make it a holy place. The Babel project was about ignoring their objective purpose and instead making a subjective purpose for themselves, to be “self-made men”. In our world, we admire these “self-made men”, people who didn't 'need' any help, or so we say, in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But that's Babylonian thinking. And we try to give ourselves a legacy. We want to live forever on our terms. How much of culture is a result of people trying to live on through their work? How many broken dreams result from trying to live on through our children, to live vicariously through their lives? But the Bible tells another story. At Babel, they achieved only infamy – and who wants the name 'Nimrod' as a legacy, anyway (Genesis 10:8-9)? But God called to Abram, “I will make your name great” (Genesis 12:2). Not Abram making his own name great, giving himself a legacy. No, God would give him a legacy, because God defines his purpose. And that purpose was to turn Abram into Abraham, a vessel for God's blessings to sprinkle the whole earth (Genesis 12:3). To which story do we belong: Babel or Abraham? Am I trying to 'make a name for myself', or is my focus on faithfully receiving whatever God in his grace offers and then blessing others?
Babylon as a culture exalts the individual's act of will to choose a God-substitute and to remake the message to our own liking. Our world is rife with personally tailored 'gospels' cut down to exclude uncomfortable parts or enhanced with alien doctrines; our world is rife with idols under many guises. As a culture, we like to found our own private religions, custom-built for all our whims and wants. Don't like the God of the Old Testament? Go ahead, ignore it all from Genesis to Malachi. Don't like what the Bible says about caring for the creation? Go ahead, snip that out, and forget the hope of resurrection too, and replace it with an escapist heaven that leaves the earth behind for good. Don't like what the Bible says about marriage and sexuality? Sneer at it and offer some platitudes on loving everyone instead. Don't like the verse that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we are saved (Acts 4:12)? Time to ignore Jacob's ladder and build a tower to reach to heaven – as if that hasn't been tried before.
But the Bible calls us to be humble, and to partner with God, and to always put his will before our own agendas. Too often, we put our will before his. He calls us to “not give up meeting together” as Christians, “as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25), and to bear gently with one another's faults in love and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13). God wills our unity, that we may be one people just as the Father and Son are one God (John 17:22); but our fallen will is anonymity, and self-indulgence, and grudge-bearing. God calls us to live a holy life and to put aside pride; but our fallen will is to endorse sin and think it's no one's business to “tell me what to do”. He calls us to love the downtrodden (Deuteronomy 10:19); but our fallen will is to judge them as lazy and to moan about the inconvenience of getting our hands dirty. God calls us to worship him faithfully and go out to train all people in following Christ (Matthew 28:19; Romans 12:1); but in our sinful pride, we'd rather cling to our agendas of musical style, of building architecture, of making Christianity a once-a-week or private thing. How else can we explain leaving a fellowship of believers over something as petty as the shape of the building, or the color of the carpet, or the style of the music? God calls us to put a united mission first, and to submit our own personal tastes to the world's need for the Savior we know. Not that we're saved because we meet together or because we serve the poor or because we make disciples, but we're saved to meet together and to serve the poor and to make disciples, and these all help us grow into a holy human character that God, out of his love for us, desires us to have.
Some, reading about the fall of Babylon, suggest we should “come out from Babylon” (Revelation 18:4) by retreating out from the world, that we should have a stance of condemning the world and the evils of our culture, that we should insulate ourselves and our children away from any contact with the world. Is that how we should respond to Babylon? No, for Christ said he didn't come to condemn this Babylonian world; he came to redeem it from the weight of its sin and rebellion and error (John 3:17). Just as the Israelites gathered gold and silver from the Egyptians in leaving that pagan power behind (Exodus 3:22; 12:35-36), so Christians thousands of years ago talked about their relationship to Greek philosophers as “spoiling the Egyptians”, plundering the riches of what can be salvaged from their culture.
All truth is God's truth; and even the most corrupted thing bears the imprint, however distant, of a reality God created. Every good argument in philosophy, every true insight, every scientific discovery, every beautiful turn of phrase in literature, every creative use of cinema – it doesn't belong ultimately to Babylon, it belongs in the service of the kingdom of God. In Acts 17, preaching in Athens, Paul gladly took anything good in the Greek poets to point to Christian truth; and the New Testament is saturated in transformed Greek and Roman ideas, used to communicate the gospel. If we deny the scriptural truth that we are genuinely “in the world”, we may miss the chance to seize on tools God has given us for the work set before us. We are to judge them by the light of the gospel, and we are to avoid melting them down and making a golden calf out of them (cf. Exodus 32:1-4), but we're called to take them for good purposes.
Too often, parts of the church have resisted God's truth in God's name; we don't want to follow down that road. And if we refuse to be salt and light – publicly tasted, publicly seen – then our witness suffers. And we aren't just “in the world” as some unfortunate fact; Jesus says, “I have sent them into the world” (John 17:17) – a holy presence with a mission to live out, here in the world. We are not passive; we are active, and the tools of the trade have “divine power to demolish strongholds” that presume to oppose “the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). But neither do we triumph over sin through bad manners and flaring tempers. “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3). We have other ways to answer God's summons and to “rejoice in his triumph” (Isaiah 13:3). It isn't about preserving our rights, it isn't about imposing virtue from the top-down through force of law, it isn't about giving vent to splenetic attacks on the wickedness of the world as though we ourselves were immune. If we do that, then we have not “come out of Babylon” at all; we carry Babylon in our hearts. No, we live differently, and while we appeal to everything good in the culture, we sift it, we test it, and we transform it in light of the gospel, and so “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In testing even things within the church, we need to test them carefully, rejecting anything bad and welcoming the good (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
Centuries ago, the literal city of Babylon did fall – and Isaiah lamented: “I am staggered by what I hear; I am bewildered by what I see” (Isaiah 21:3). The human side of judgment is a tragic thing, because we were made for so much more than our low self-made purposes. But the fall of Babylon as a symbol, as a name for godless culture, still awaits: the final judgment on all sin that hasn't been left at Christ's cross and buried in his tomb. There is hope: to the people of God will be joined those who were once under Babylon's sway, “and Israel” – the global assembly united by faith to Jesus, the True Israelite – “will take possession of the nations” (Isaiah 14:2).
The fall of Babylon is good news for the world – but are we living by faith unto holiness so that it will be good news for us? As Ash Wednesday looms a month away from today, as we prepare ourselves in heart and mind for the self-discipline of Lent, that's the question that stands over us. Are we vigilant watchmen and winsome witnesses? Or are we in a “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, as Luther charged against the Roman Church in his day? More than just lamenting what we see around us, we need to scrutinize where we – as a denomination, as a church, as families, as citizens, and as souls standing before God – might have compromised in teaching, in behavior, or in attitude with ungodly cultural powers. And we have this assurance: “Whatever bondage the Church may fall into, God will choose her again” (Oswalt 1:313; cf. Isaiah14:1). And so, “resting in his might, lift high his triumph song, / for power, dominion, kingdom, strength to Christ belong!”