The Problem with Beacons

Genesis 11:1-11 (This message originally presented and recorded on Sunday, July 3rd 2022.)

Independence day weekend! Traditionally, we’d hear a message on the topic of freedom, independence, or justice. We might recount the wars and the biblical tie-ins to their call to arms. We could talk about the Constitution and the bill of rights. Identifying where scripture agrees and disagrees with some of these very American policies. However, today I want to talk about beacons. Beacons are symbolic and practical. Symbolic in the way they represent more than what you see. Practical in the way that they assist us in daily life. On this, July 3rd, 2022, three beacons come to my mind. 

Photo by Magic K on Pexels.com

Lighthouses, Steeples, Flags. Lighthouses tell people where the shore is, also illuminating their path, should they come that way. They can help one gain their bearings, to better navigate the waters they are in. Lighthouses are functional and meaningful. When GPS is not working, the night sky is cloudy so you can’t use the stars, a lighthouse can guide you back to shore. You know someone is there, manning that station. It has power. It represents hope in the dark and confusing situation you find yourself in. 

Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

Steeples (specifically topped with a cross) are a beautiful addition to church architecture. They function in a similar fashion to a lighthouse. It represents not only what this building is for: a place of worship to the one who died on the cross, but also a declaration of that building’s inhabitants. Their beliefs, what they trust and hope in. Most importantly, it stands as a place where people can draw toward when they are lost. Go to any big city without a map and if you find the symbol of the cross, whether it be the Christian cross or the red plus sign usually used by hospitals, these are symbols of safety and help. They are practical way-points for guidance (turn left at brick church) and they serve as symbols of the beliefs of those who find spiritual refuge beneath them.

Flags. Even today, flags represent the bearer’s belief system. A way to signal to others what they are all about.

This flag on the left means I’m a fan of the Chicago Cubs. The Christian flag represents certain things about Christian beliefs. The importance of the cross, the brotherhood of all believers. 

The American flag stands for several things Our shared origins, sacrifice and unity. I’ll talk a little more in depth on this later.

But why are we talking about beacons? These lighthouses, steeples and flags? And why haven’t we read the scripture yet? We will get to the scripture and I hope it will become very apparent. But here is the lynch pin. The problem with beacons is that any one of them can become like the Tower of Babel. So we need to be aware.


“What’s this tower of Babel?” Well you can read all about it in Genesis 11. 

The Big Tower People

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Gen 11:1-4 NIV

I find it interesting that they would say this. It’s as if they knew this outcome was likely. Think about it like this, the people here are descendants of Noah. Their ancestors had lived through a mass extinction-level event. As they begin to grow in population and generations continue to live and build in a certain area…there is a level of potential homesickness. “If we leave and spread out, move far away, how will we find our way “Home?” What will serve as a reminder, as a beacon to us?” 

As I read the scripture, I thought about it in those terms. 

And everywhere they might go, they could be the people who built the big tower to heaven. That would be their name. “The Big Tower People.” All the…distant relatives they might come across, they could point back to their big accomplishment. They would point to that beacon. They might even make an annual pilgrimage to it. The Big Tower. The Big Tower People. Impressive. Nothing is too much for us. We’re the big tower people!   Right? Wrong. This was a big mistake.

The big mistake of the people of Babel was Worshiping their own greatness. The Tower would represent and communicate that perceived greatness. It would beckon people back to the city of “greatness.”

Operation Displace and Delay

Something strange happened next in scripture. Something we don’t read about much outside this passage.

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”        

Gen 11:5-7 NIV

God did what!? He seemed concerned by these people. They were cooperating and speaking the same language. Why would that kind of unity be a bad thing? Why would a miraculous intervention be needed here?

I’m serious, do you know? Any ideas?

[Comments section at the end of the blog – Let me know your thoughts!]

I’ve always scratched my head on this. This time I began to think in context of what came before it. 

Stop and think for a second. The last time the people of the world were so unified, all going the same way, mob mentality…the last time the world was so full of people so unified in purpose, God sent a flood and wiped them all out…all but 8 humans and a male and female of each kind of animal, (give or take a few extra birds).

In Noah’s day, the people were unified in wickedness and violence

At the time of Babel, they were unified in the construction of making their own name great. To live for generations. To tell everyone they met: “look what my people did!” 

And what does God do? Scatters them from that place and confuses their language. Even if they tried to tell someone of their own greatness, they wouldn’t be understood. Even if they walked and walked and walked, they may never get back to Babel…for the beacon of their greatness and their city was unfinished. No real home to draw back to. 

I believe God displaced the people and confused their language in order to delay their unity regarding sinful desires. Violence, War, and to top it all off: Idolatry. 

What’s our solution? 

Worship not the beacon. 

A beacon is only a tool to guide and communicate. Look to the one True God for guidance and worship him alone.

Lighthouses are beautiful. They also help fill out a nice themed bathroom. Little statuettes of lighthouses, where our imagination journeys to distant shores, splashing water, seagulls, and the spinning light at the top. But wouldn’t it be strange if we began to look at lighthouse with adoration, affection and worship? Maybe not the lighthouse itself, but patting ourselves on the back for creating such a beautiful and useful structure? Does it sound silly to you when I say it like that?

Let’s get a little closer to home. Steeples. The highest point on the roof of a church, possibly a little bell tower, capped off with a cross. Steeples are iconic. I will say, I was a little sad when we started designing the logo for our church last year, that we didn’t have a steeple on top of our building. But some churches do. Placed high in areas of great prominence on the outside of their worship facilities, we will find a cross or other religious figures and symbols. Again, they identify something: Faith, safety. But even this kind of beacon can very easily become a point of contention. Even among fellow believers.

—-

Our family occasionally watches episodes of “Little house on the Prairie.” The setting for this show was the 1800’s mainly located in Minnesota. It was originally broadcast from 1974-1983. The lessons this show continues to teach are timeless. A particular episode, “The Voice of Tinker Jones” revealed something of church culture that still holds true today and has become fodder for many a sermon.

After church one day, the members gathered round in the schoolhouse that doubled as a church building. The minister shared his vision of a bell that would hang from the highest point outside the church, beckoning believers all over the prairie to come to worship. On school days, it could also be used to draw the area’s children to class. The discussion began with an agreement, “That sounds great, minister.” Then moved to, “What can we afford?” The idea of taking up a collection and sharing in the purchase of this bell started to take hold, perhaps settling for a bell that was “Good enough” but not top quality.

Then the local shop keeper’s wife spoke up and pledged they would donate the total amount for a top-notch bell. It sound good to several in the group, until she wanted a plaque with their name on it. A marker that identified their “generosity.” This obviously caused quite a stir. Feelings were hurt, names were called, sides were taken and the church began to split. Only a few families came to service and the minister was about to be recalled by his superiors over this division.

All because of a simple bell. A steeple. A Beacon. Something that had a practical use: guide people to church. Something that intended to communicate a message of hope. A message of love. And a message of unity. Now it looked as if it was not going to fulfill any of those characteristics.

Old Glory

Lighthouses, Steeples and yes…flags. Flags communicate practical information. They also stand for the people who display them. And flags, even these two up at the front of the sanctuary, they can be sources of great pride. Something to point to and say, “Wow! Aren’t we great?!” 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not stating that the United States of America or Christianity isn’t awesome. Both are great! In fact, if the USA wasn’t such a great and blessed nation, would people really be risking their lives to illegally enter the country? Would they really bother to go through all the red tape associated with become a naturalized US citizen? USA is a great place to live, but as we learned last week, a little humility goes a long way and pride comes before a fall.

Just to focus the topic, let’s look at the flag of the United States of America.

The stars represent the 50 states. It was last updated in 1960 after Hawaii gained statehood. The 13 stripes remind of our roots: the 13 original colonies. The colors stand for our values. Blue: Justice, vigilance and perseverance. White: innocence and purity…I would clarify purity of heart and conviction. Red: Hardiness, Valor and of course, the blood that has been shed to forge and preserve this union. It’s all very symbolic but, it is also all about us. The history of the USA is embedded in our flag, but not one elements directly correlates with the Almighty. Sure, our money has the phrase “in God we trust,” and that’s nice. But our flag that stands for who we were and who we are…is all about us. 

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

When symbols are “All about us” when beacons become about our greatness or our accomplishments, we tend to worship the beacon and ourselves and not the one who made us. 

And that, in a nutshell is Idolatry. It’s the sin that keeps on sinning. 

The next time in scripture that we hear about people making bricks, it’s while they are in slavery. The God of creation intervenes with signs and wonders. He sets them free from their oppressors. And one day, they are out in the wilderness and all of a sudden, their leader Moses  goes off to commune with God. The people get bored, afraid and insecure. They command their appointed religious leader, Aaron to make them a statue. Something they could worship as God.  He takes a collection of the gold riches these people were blessed with and he forges a golden calf for them to worship.

It was made by the hands of men. Forged with the gold from the people. 

Unity

Unity in idolatry. 

If you know the rest of the chapter, you know it doesn’t go so well for them when Moses gets back from communing with God. If you want some interesting reading this afternoon, check out Exodus 32 for the full story.

The problem with beacons is that any one of them can become like the Tower of Babel. A flag, a lighthouse, and yes even a steeple with a bell tower. Our response is to be aware. No one just trips into idolatry. “Whoops, I’m worshiping my own greatness!” “Whoops, I’m obsessing  about looks or money or fame!” 

How did that happen?                                    One decision at a time.

The good news is that if we are aware, we can take steps to combat idolatry. Just as people can be unified in sinful behaviors and selfish pride, they can be unified in humility, generosity, and sacrifice.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming: In the episode, “The Voice of Tinker Jones,” Tinker Jones was a kind and friendly traveling craftsman. He had a forge to make molten metal objects. He would kindly bless the children in the community with metal toys and sell the adults pots and pans. Tinker Jones was also deaf and mute. He never spoke. He probably couldn’t talk sense in to the people of Walnut Grove even if he had the ability to do so.

But much like the minister, Tinker Jones had a vision of a bell. But this bell would not reflect his own greatness or that of any one individual. He began to melt down some of his supplies. He was joined in by all the children who had benefitted from his kindness. They brought their metal toys to him and tossed them into the collection bag. The children scavenged the town for additional “donations” toward the cause. Even the most selfish of children, the shop keeper’s kids, gave their large collection of metal toys for the project.

Eventually the day came. Sunday Service in Walnut Grove. It seemed like it was the last message the minister would deliver. A church and a town was split. Hurt feelings ripped apart relationships and even affected businesses in the town. It looked like we’d have a very unhappy ending indeed.

But on that day, everyone was beckoned to church by the clear, loud “dig-dong!” It was the voice of Tinker Jones. It called the people of Walnut Grove to unity in worshiping the greatness of God, not the greatness of the bell or who provided it. If asked where it came from, the Deaf-mute man could only but shrug and continue ringing the bell.

The Greatness of Our God

How do we keep ourselves in check? How can we protect against making idols out of beacons? 

Awareness. Action. And Awe.

Awareness: What attitudes, behaviors, decisions am I making that put something or someone higher in my life than God?

Action: As you become aware of areas of idolatry, take steps to break them down. It will be specific to you, but God can and will help you through this.  

Awe: Take time to marvel, stand in AWE of the Greatness of our God. (Listen to the song below and just reflect on God’s Greatness)

When we do these things, we can be unified for the right things and not the wrong.

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