Unless the Lord Builds the Church

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper


"Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain" (Psalm 127:1).

The first ten and a half chapters of Genesis are a special part of the scriptures. The stories there are of a totally different character than in the rest of the Word. Written in pure allegory, they constitute the earliest writings of mankind, written at a time when the spiritual world was very real and very close, and when it was common to think about how the things in the natural world corresponded to and represented the things in the spiritual world. These stories are "factitious" in that they tell us true things, but at the same time they not about real people or events. It is clear that Moses borrowed these stories to serve as the basis and beginning of his own work, the factual history of the Patriarchs which begins with the call of Abram. These stories constitute a fragment of what is known as the "Ancient Word," a collection of stories and allegories about spiritual things that is now lost, except for the portion that has been recorded in Genesis.

The stories of the Ancient Word have been included in Genesis in order to tell us about the history of the churches that were established by the Lord in the very earliest days of the human race. The Garden of Eden tells the story of the ideal state in which the very first men lived, and the Flood tells the story of how far they fell when they began to choose lesser goods, and how they eventually created and turned to evil which led to the destruction of that church. The story of Noah and the Ark tells about a different church that was created to meet the different needs of mankind after evil had been set loose in the world. The story of the Tower of Babel tells how that church, over a period of many years, also declined from its pure initial state and eventually became the purely external church that was established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It is useful for us to study the story of the Tower of Babel, because the church that it tells about was structured very much like our own, its people were like us, and were subject to the same kinds of temptations and limitations that we are. By studying the failure of the First Ancient Church, perhaps we can learn how to avoid a similar decline in our own church; and since each individual is in a sense a church, how we can lead our lives in such a way as to avoid a similar decline in our own lives.

Scripture tells us that in the beginning, "the whole earth had one language and one speech" (Gen. 11:1). This tells us that at first, the First Ancient church was unified, for all the people on earth followed the same general doctrine, signified by language, and the same way of life, signified by speech (see AC 1285:2). However, this does not mean that the external forms of worship were everywhere the same. The doctrines teach that there was a great variety of forms of external and internal worship; that there was variation among nations, among peoples, and within individual families, but yet they were as one because they all shared the essential principles of doctrine. All branches of the First Ancient Church were as one because they lived in mutual love and charity, their end was the common good, the Lord's kingdom, and the Lord Himself (see AC 1285:3).

It would be useful to mention as an aside that this same principle is as true for us today as it was for them, that there need not be division in the church. No matter what form the church takes, there can be unity and agreement where mutual love and charity reign in the church. There is division and exclusion when the loves of the self and the world are the leading principles. The holiness of worship depends on the quality of charity, for "to the extent that the Church, or a member of the Church, departs from charity, its (or his) worship departs from what is holy" (AC 1292:2).

The Lord has provided churches so that people may be able to find the truth that they need in order to live their lives in such a way as to prepare themselves for heaven. Truth is the standard by which they can judge their lives. Truth is the one thing that they can understand and receive even when they do not wish to. Truth is the foundation of any church, and therefore, the greatest enemy of any church is falsity.

There are different kinds of falsity, some less harmful than others. For example, the falsity that comes from ignorance is not as harmful as falsity arising from evil desires, for it does not come from the heart, but by accident. Falsities that are the product of innocence and ignorance do little harm, provided that the person has not confirmed himself in them (see AC 1295:1). But falsity from evil desires comes into being when the origin of the falsity is in the will, that is, when the falsity originates from someone fabricating a lie for the sake of hiding some evil, or for the sake of defrauding someone else. A person who is wholly selfish, or wholly dedicated to his love of the things of the world does not acknowledge any truth, except when he can twist it to his own advantage. No matter what church such a person attends, and no matter what forms of worship he follows, it will be unholy, for the "unholiness of worship is attributable not so much to the actual worship as to the nature of the worshiper" (AC 1295:2).

Everywhere in the Word, whenever a stone is mentioned, truth is signified. A brick, however, can be considered a man-made stone, and therefore when the scripture tells us that the people substituted brick for stone, it is telling us that in the falling First Ancient Church they began to substitute man-made falsities for the truths that had been there before and which were from the Lord (see AC 1296, 1298). At the same time, the fact that they were substituting asphalt for mortar tells us that they were substituting self-love for charity (see AC 1304).

So what we have so far is a picture of the people in the ancient world beginning to fall away from the established principles and life of the church, replacing the truths from the Lord with qualifications and reasonings that allowed them to justify acting in a less than charitable fashion. Such trends, as we can observe in the world, tend to feed on themselves and accelerate as they descend, and so it soon became time for the Lord to execute a judgment on that failing church and establish a new church from its remnant. So we are told in scripture that "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ...'Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech'" (Gen. 11:6,7).

The Lord is omniscient and omnipresent, which means that He is everywhere present, and knows all things from eternity (see AC 1311:1). And because of His perfect knowledge of the states of men on the earth, He also knows when the time is right for Him to make a judgment upon a failing church. The timing is important so that all the evils that are present can expose themselves and be removed. It is similar to the medical principle where certain infections are allowed to come to a head before they are lanced and treated so as to be sure to remove them all by letting the infection develop fully. Evil corresponds to such infectious diseases, and the spiritual treatment is similar. The Lord judges evil when it has reached its furthest limits, for every evil has limits to which the Lord allows it to express itself. But once the evil begins to cross that boundary, it incurs its own particular punishment. In order to understand how this works, we should think about how when someone commits an evil without getting punished immediately, he imagines that the Lord does not care what he does. But later, when he has been caught and brought to punishment, he supposes that this is when the Lord sees his evil for the first time, and in fact then believes that it is the Lord who is punishing him (see AC 1311:2).

It is important to note the reason why in this place, when the Lord refers to Himself, He uses the plural, saying, "Let us go down" (Gen. 11:7), is because the Lord Himself is never really angry and never punishes. Such punishment and judgment that is carried out in the spiritual world all take place by means of spirits who serve that particular use, and in fact, in the case of the evil, they are punished by other evil spirits. Therefore He refers to Himself as "Us" to tell us that He is assisted by spirits in such matters (see AC 1320).

Once people begin to substitute self-justifying falsities for truths, their life loses its correct orientation, and they cannot be held back from the evils that they desire to do unless the Lord steps in in some way to restore them to some form of freedom and order. In simple cases where the evil has not yet become a part of the will, this is done by the pangs of conscience. In other cases where the evil has become more mature, it might be necessary to be caught doing something evil and being punished for it; but in any case, if the state is not broken, no hope remains for the spiritual life of such a person, and so the Lord acts as strongly as possible within the framework of preserving spiritual freedom to break the death spiral of evil. In our scripture passage, it is said that He confused their language so that they "may not understand one another's speech" (Gen. 11:7). Again, it is only an appearance that the Lord has punished or confused them. In fact, they confuse themselves through their own evils, for evil is its own punishment, and falsity confuses the mind.

The tower was called "Babel" because it was in fact a monument to self-love, and the word "Babel" corresponds to the love of self. (AC 1326) Self-love is nothing else than the proprium, that is, that part of that is wholly from himself and not at all from the Lord. Because this proprium is formed from natural things, it receives all the influence that flows in from hell, and once they have been received in the proprium, they can then flow out and attack the mind and will. Consequently when self-love or the proprium is present in worship, such evils are present too. This influx from hell through the proprium which stirs the love of self is the origin of all profanation in worship. Insofar as self-love or the proprium introduces itself into worship, internal worship departs, that is, internal worship ceases to exist (see AC 1326). Internal worship consists in the affection for good and in the acknowledgment of truth, but to the extent that self-love or the proprium intrudes or enters in, the affection for good and the acknowledgment of truth depart or go away (see AC 1326).

The first Ancient Church was the parent and was more untarnished and innocent, and in the beginning, everyone regarded charity as the essential. That Church started to decline, chiefly because many people started to divert worship to themselves so as to set themselves above others. When the danger of profaning what is holy was consequently near at hand, the state of this Church was altered, its internal worship perished, but its external worship remained (see AC 1327:2). The reason internal worship was allowed to perish and external remain was to prevent what is holy being profaned. Any who does not believe in the existence of a life after death, but who nevertheless has external worship, cannot profane the things that belong to eternal life because he does not believe that they exist (see AC 1327:3).

The First Ancient Church fell because the people chose to turn away from the truth from the Lord and turned to things that supported the loves of self and the world. What happened to the First Ancient Church can happen to any church. And when we reflect on the nature of modern society, with the tremendous pressure on each of us to earn and consume and to fill our lives and homes with more devices and objects, we should be able to see that the threat to our spiritual well-being is as strong now as it ever was. We are constantly tempted to do selfish things, and to acquire more signs of worldly success. The more attention we pay to such things, the less time we have to pay to achieving our spiritual goals -- and we all know how busy we all are.

Since what is true for the church is also true for individuals, the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel is that we must not allow external things to become dominant over things that have enduring spiritual value in our lives. It is obvious that we cannot simply ignore the natural world, for if we do we will soon be without food and shelter and we shall die. But the same thing is true at the other extreme: if we spend so much time thinking about and preparing for the world of nature that we ignore the things that nourish and protect the spirit, if we do not provide spiritual food and shelter for ourselves, our spiritual life will end. We must strive to find that balance that allows us to live a safe and comfortable life in this world without putting our eternal spiritual lives at risk. In order to establish that balance, we must reexamine our attitudes from time to time, and must realize that we cannot lead our lives by the doctrines taught in supermarket magazines or the financial page of the newspaper, for "unless the Lord builds the house... (text), that is, unless the church and the lives of all those who are in the church are being directed and guided by the Lord's truth, we will labor in vain. AMEN.

Lessons: Genesis 11:1-9, Matthew 7:15-27, AC 1316