Consider the people who built the tower of Babel. They might, to modern eyes, seem very religious. Didn't they accomplish great things? Didn't they seek with all their might to get to heaven? They had goals, they had dreams, they sought better for themselves. They were organized, they planned, they achieved, they accomplished. Isn't this commendable? But what they sought was not what God had asked of them, what they accomplished was not worth the trouble they put into it, though they would have denied this to the end. They sought to become great, to make a name for themselves. The goal of their religion, the pinnacle at the top of their tower, was their own glorified selves instead of God.
Sometimes we also think of climbing up to heaven by works and effort and continual improvement. But does God ever ask us to climb up to heaven? Have we forgotten that, in the beginning, God used to walk on earth; that he only withdrew his direct presence from this world after our sin? Even if at Babel they had succeeded in building their tower, they still would not have gotten to heaven that way. Not only was heaven not at the top of the tower, but they were seeking their own glory instead of God's. The kingdom of heaven is where God is glorified, not just a place that happens to be up high. And we too can work very hard at seeking a higher ground and being better, but if our greatest goal is our own betterment, then we are self-worshipers and idolaters.
And if we strive, the purpose of striving cannot really be to reach God, since He is already here with us. As Paul says, "do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend to heaven?' that is, to bring Christ down, or 'Who will descend into the deep?" that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. But what does it say? 'The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart." Where God meets man is here on earth. The word is not far from us. It does not have to be chased or pursued. As Christ says, "I will never leave you or forsake you." God is not at the top of a ladder that we climb; he is God-with-us, he is Immanuel. God meets us in His word, and He meets us in Christ, here on earth. He meets us in our humility. How often, trying to seek him, have we forgotten that God is already with us, and have instead left the sheep-pen? Have we thought that God was not in such a humble place as we have, or in such a humble life and service?
And when we remember our works and our striving -- for what writer in the Bible does not ask us to remember them? -- let us remember what God says works are for: "that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." When we come down to earth and humbly feed the poor, visit the sick, look after widows and orphans in their distress, then people glorify God. And we discover what Christ has told us all along, that he was already among us: "I was hungry and you fed me. You did it for me." That is true religion.