Sunday, March 25, 2012

Divine Humility - Philippians 2:1-11 - March 25, 2012

Last Sunday afternoon Elizabeth and I hopped into the car and headed east to North Carolina to check on my dad and to spend a couple of days with him.  The time with my dad was meaningful and I loved the time driving back and forth with Elizabeth.  One of the serendipities of the trip was that Elizabeth and I had the opportunity to have breakfast with my nephew, Chris.  Chris is a gifted artist in his own right, but has found another love that is shaping his career. He has started riding bicycles competitively in something called Alley Cat Races. As a result he has become a bicycle technician at a major sports store in NC.  He helps build and repair pretty high end bicycles.  He told us about one of the things that sometimes happen to him that drives him a bit crazy.  He told us that when he is building or repairing a bike that inevitably you come to a moment when you will have one set of parts in one hand, another cluster of parts in another hand, and you wished you had a third arm to help pull some other parts of the puzzle into the act…and in the moment when everything is in that precarious position just about in position but not yet in place– a customer will ask for help.  He has to drop everything, meet the customer need, and start all over again.  I can picture Chris standing up and leaving a pile of parts on the floor, all important, but unless they are put together in just the right way they lay their pretty useless.

We come to week four of a six week sermon series entitled; “Pursuing God – Pursued by God.”  The intention of this series is to look at the unfolding of the gospel story throughout Scripture.  The first week we looked at Genesis 1 and 2 and heard that we are created in the image of God to walk in relationship with God. Kristin Rogers brought our second message from John 1, Chapter 1 and proclaimed that God’s redemptive story begins at the beginning. The heart of God is a redemptive in nature. Last week we looked at the story of Adam and Eve and that tree in Genesis 3. The story helped us hear that humanity – that we - makes choices that break our intended relationship with God.

If the story ends with the fall, or in our failures, we would only know hopelessness, heartbreak, and despair. If the story ends with the fall, or in our failures, we would gather on mornings like this one to sing songs of agony and woe.  But this morning’s service has taken a dramatic shift, pulling us from the earlier stories born in the dawn of creation to songs about Jesus.  Our time at the table this morning declares without apology that just when the things seem darkest God stepped in to make a way change the story.

I keep thinking about that pile of parts, each of value but useless until someone does something.  I come with a fundamental belief that we are all broken in some way. On our own we find ourselves stuck in a pile of broken parts longing for someone to do something.  Sometimes our brokenness is obvious to others.  Sometimes we have become good enough at disguising it that others might think we are whole.  But down deep we know better.  We know our secret shames and our quiet pains. We know where we struggle with a broken heart, a broken trust, a broken marriage, a broken faith, a broken spirit, or a broken way of life.  We know that over and over again we have promised to do better – to be better – only to find ourselves living in brokenness again.  We know who we want to be and how we want others to see us, only to fall short.  Just when we think we have got it almost all back together something happens.  We keep trying to fix ourselves and we find ourselves in a heap again.

In Philippians 2 Paul brings a word to his favorite church.  I can imagine him picturing each face in that small congregation as he writes them.  He thinks through and spells out different ways each of them have found wholeness and joy in Christ.  Paul wanted them to understand that whatever of merit they found in their lives started at the feet of Jesus.  They were people that had been redeemed and restored, renewed and rebuilt. The source for their renewal found in the encouragement, the comfort, the fellowship, the tenderness, the compassion known only in a right relationship with God. They could only know these things because of Jesus.  They were to be a Jesus people in how they lived and how they expressed themselves to others.  As redeemed and restored, renewed and rebuilt people they were called to live lives beyond themselves – lives reflecting Christ’s love and selflessness.

With these words still floating in the air, Paul takes another step.  He wants them to understand the real power behind their lives.  Jesus came not because of whom they were – or who we are – but instead comes because only God could change the story.  Only God could fix what was broken.  Paul offers one of the most powerful gospel truths; God was willing to become like us for us to know his love and grace.  When we were powerless to do anything about our spiritual condition – when we were fallen – broken beyond repair – God, in an incredible act of divine humility, chose to become one like us that we could see him face-to-face. God understood we would never find our way back to Him unless he walked beside us and called us by name.  In this grant act of divine humility created the bridge between our brokenness and His holiness and made the way for us to be restored to the relationship with God we were created for.  I want to come back to the closing half of our focal passage and look at it again. It reads;  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; Who being in very nature God. did not consider quality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in the human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Christ did for us what we could not do.  In the midst of the agony of brokenness Christ makes the way for our salvation.  Mark 10:45 tells us: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

But, we must be clear.  For Paul, and for me, there is always and forever a linkage between the grand act of divine humility and grace and God’s expectations of His children.  Paul tells that wonderful church in Philippi that the same attitude – the same humility – the same selflessness – the same willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the others – seen in Christ - is to be on display in their lives.  There is no room for arrogance.   If you are sure you have all the answers then you are on the wrong side of the Jesus story.  There is no room for selfishness.  If you think the story is all about you and what you want, you are on the wrong side of the Jesus story.  If you are looking for status, power or position, you are on the wrong side of the Jesus story.  If it is about what you can command or control, you are on the wrong side of the Jesus story. As redeemed and restored, renewed and rebuilt people we were called to live lives beyond ourselves – lives reflecting Christ’s love, humility, and selflessness.

We were created by God in His image to walk in a real and intimate relationship with Him.  God’s heart of redemption is seen at the beginning of the beginning.  We make choices that break our relationship with God and others. In a grand act of divine humility and grace, through Jesus, God makes the way for our redemption- makes the way for us to come back home.  I keep thinking about that pile of parts, each of value but useless until someone does something.  God could have chosen to leave us in our brokenness but God acted on our behalf. This is not a new story, but rather is the Jesus story, the Gospel story; its our story.  As we prepare for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter morning may we choose to live lives that are a reflection of the love of God that makes us who we are. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

“Paradise Lost”- Genesis 3:1-9 - March 18, 2012

It is one of those symbols that come to mind even with those nominally touched by the Church.  It is the apple.  It has come to symbolize the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, changing humanities walk with God forever.  This story is the fodder for grand literature and grand exaggeration.  I always wondered why the apple was chosen as the fruit for the story.  The passage itself does not describe the fruit. In fact, the traditional rabbinic teaching was that it was clearly not an apple.[i]  So if traditional Hebrew thought would have never tied the apple to this story, why do we? With a little research I discovered it was based on an old Latin pun tied to the publication of the Bible in Latin called the Vulgate.  The pun sings; by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted mālum (evil).So with an apple in hand we look to our narrative for the morning that finds to Adam and Eve in the Garden and the problem at the tree of knowledge looming just ahead of them. 

Throughout the first two chapters of Genesis we listen as God gives them the gift of every plant, every tree, every fish that swam in the sea, and every animal that walked on the face of the earth.  God gave them everything, save on thing.  We hear in Genesis 2:8 and 9, 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then in verse 16 and 17 we hear God’s only prohibition, a directive given for their benefit; And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” So, with everything you can imagine laid in front of them, with the Garden teeming with trees filled with fruit and animals ever present to meet their need for food, we find them, both Adam and Eve, standing there in front of the only tree that God had directed them to avoid. 

This picture does not surprise me, does it you?  How many of you can remember a story from your life when the thing you were most drawn toward is the one thing you were supposed to leave alone.  How many of you can remember the one place you wanted most to go was the one place your parents had forbidden you to go? But the tree is not a divine joke planted by God to tempt Adam and Eve.  It was much more important than that.  

But as we begin to move into focal narrative we immediately have a problem. When we read the Adam and Eve narrative, whether we realize it or not, we have been taught to actually think a very different version of this story.  In 1667 the great 17th Century English poet, John Milton first published a ten book poem entitled, “Paradise Lost” in an effort to explain the ways of God to man. Milton tells the story of the dawn of creation, the struggle between good and evil angels, and the story of Adam and Eve.  This poem is considered one of the greatest works in English literature and it has shaped the way our culture thinks about our focal narrative this morning.  Hear a simplified version of Milton’s own summary of this part of his grand poem.  It says; Satan returns to earth, where he chooses the serpent as his best disguise. Next morning, when Adam and Eve go forth to their gardening tasks, Eve suggests they go in separate directions. With great reservation, Adam finally consents. The serpent finds Eve alone and approaches her. She is surprised to find the creature can speak, and is soon induced by him to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam is horrified when he finds what she has done, but at length resigns himself to share her fate rather than be left without her, and eats the fruit also. After eating, they are aroused with lust and lay together, then fall to restless sleep. They waken to awareness of their nakedness and shame, and cover themselves with leaves. In their emotional distress, they fall into mutual accusations and blame.[ii]

You may have never thought about it, but the reality was that John Milton’s grand poem would have been more readily available to the people of England then the Bible would have been.  The King James Version of the Bible was not completed until 1611, but for an extended period of time it would have been way too expensive for most common people to possess. Milton’s version of the story found its way into pulpits, to schools, and across the breadth of the literate English population.  The timing of its production meant that it would have been in the hands of the leading voices that gave birth to our nation.  The problem is that Milton’s version is radically different than how the Bible tells the story.  We have to unravel the two to clearly hear what I believe God intends for us to hear in this narrative.  Milton offers his poem as a way to explain God’s way to men.  I believe that his very presupposition is flawed.  While I love his visceral image of “Paradise Lost”, I believe the purpose of this narrative is to help explain the broken relationship between God and humanity.  This is a story that introduces us to sin.  This is a story that introduces us to brokenness.   It is a story that matters because all of history and the story of our relationship with God hang in the balance.

Natalee Gates read the narrative passage as a whole earlier in our service.  We listened as she read the Biblical account of the exchange between Eve and the serpent. I want us to take a closer look at parts of the conversation that give us a clearer understanding of what is being said and what part of our cultural story we need to set aside. As we listened to Natalee read we heard Satan twists the word of God and the words of Eve. Remember that God had instructed Adam; “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Notice that this instruction predates the introduction of Eve on the world stage. In our passage Eve takes center stage. The serpent will address her specifically in his effort to turn the way of God.  But it is important to pause here for just a moment. I imagine that many of the women in the congregation are now sitting there thinking, “Great, now is the time when he tells us that women are responsible for the humanity and the corruption of all of mankind.”  Hang on with me.  I know that you have heard that before, but they were wrong.

 In Paradise Lost Milton tells the story that Eve faces Satan alone.  She has convinced Adam that they should work a part for the day.  So, innocent Adam goes wandering off to his task only later to be drawn into the evil plot at play.  Good pulpit pounders will quote 1 Timothy 2:13-14 which reads; “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (NRSV) But it seems Milton and those that lay the sole responsibility at the feet of women forget Romans 5:12-14  and I Corinthians 15: 21-22  that lay responsibility at Adam’s feet. But most importantly they forget that the Genesis text itself tells us in verse 6 reports; She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  It is interesting to read how ancient rabbis and theologians across the ages have struggled to deal with this passage.  Some of speculated that maybe Adam arrived late in the story and was their just as Eve made her choice. Their problem is that there is no way to try to make the Scripture read this way. [iii] So let’s be clear, the story of “The Fall” is not a female story – or a male story – it is our story – all of our story.  It is the story that shows the moment Adam and Eve had the choice to follow God’s word or claim the way of deception that will break their walk with God.  Their choice is our choice.

So now we come to the moment the serpent speaks the twists and the turns of God’s word and God’s way begins; “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” 4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  If you listen closely you hear that Satan turns God’s simple command not to eat of the tree of good and evil into something much, much more.  Eve is confused and Adam is no help.  Adam and Eve had a simple choice.  God had given them everything and commanded them not to eat of one tree.  It was not a point of temptation.  It is the tree of good and evil because it is the symbol of our choice between following God’s word and way or our own way.  You know what happens next, they take a bit of the forbidden fruit of the tree. (take a bite of an apple)

Their choice is made and now the consequences begin to be played out. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” This part of the story breaks my heart. Adam and Eve we created for a relationship with God.  They got to walk and talk with God face to face in the cool of the day every day. 

I imagine Adam and Eve hid there in the garden, covered as best they could, fearing death.  In God’s response we see the first taste of God’s grace; death is withheld and the possibility of a relationship is retained.  Things will be different.  There was a price, a punishment, for these two and those who would follow them. A casual read of the Genesis account will tell of a life of labor and pain that will follow.  But the price is actually much higher.  While some will grieve the loss of paradise of the garden and the life of labor that followed; the price of sin was that their walk with God was broken.  Sin got in the way and gets in the way in our lives. The story of Adam and Eve and the garden tells us in our choosing our way over God’s way humanity broke our relationship with God.  Easter will tell us that ultimately God will have to do the unimaginable to pave the way for redemption.

[ii]  “ PARADISE LOST ~ THE SUMMARY PARAPHRASED: A simplified version of Milton's "Arguments" for each book of Paradise Lost,” Available online at,  on March 15, 2012, , New Arts Library,. 1999, All rights reserved.
[iii] The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Created In His Image" - Genesis 1 & 2 - March 4, 2012

This morning we begin a Lenten sermon series entitled, “Pursing God – Pursued By God.”  Over the course of these weeks we will look our story with God that carries us from the beginning of the beginning in creation to the cross where God’s heart of grace is on display.  I am hopeful that over the course of these six weeks we will learn a lot about who we were created to be and about the God that created us, loves us, and makes the way back home for you and me. 

We begin at the beginning at the dawn of creation. I love the story that Kristin read to us earlier in the worship service. (The Dreamer by Rylant) It beautifully describes the wonder of creation.  The illustrations are equally striking. They draw you in and helps give you a sense of the marvelous spectacle of God’s creation.  As I first read the book and thought about the young dreamers that God created I could not think about what happens when you put a blank piece of paper and crayons in front of a child and let them go.  In minutes their imaginations flair, and with a flurry of activity and joy the blank piece of paper becomes something incredible, if only in their eyes. In that moment, in the face of a child you get a glimpse of the creative wonder of the hand of God.
Even as an adult there is something wonderful about getting sit down with a fresh box of 64 Crayola crayons and a coloring book.  It is funny to watch the thrill grandparents get when the color with their favorite little ones.  If you watch them for a couple of minutes you begin to wonder who is having more fun coloring.  While I loved the colors in my Crayola box, over the years I have begun to appreciate that God had a box of colors larger than the ones I used to hold.  I always liked the color blue, but when Beth I took a cruise last May and the ship was far from shore I saw an ocean blue that was deeper, richer, and more remarkable than any blue I had seen before.  On a drive from Texas to California I saw a sunset set against the red hills along the New Mexico-Arizona border that glowed with an orange hue that took my breath away.  When Beth and I lived in Southern Thailand, just before the harvest, the rice fields teemed with a vibrant green that that could make you stop and stare.  The wonder of God’s creation never ceases to amaze me.  But Scripture tells us something even remarkable; there is within all of us hint of the great artist that created all that we see and who created us in His image. He calls us his children and we call him our God.

We hear in the very first chapter of Genesis; 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Did you hear that, you were created in the image of God? So often we see our flaws rather than to appreciate that the same God that created the wonder and beauty of all of creation saw humanity – saw us – as the culminating ultimate act of creation. God sees you as more beautiful, more wonderful and more incredible than the Grand Canyon, the Igwasu Falls in Brazil, the Swiss Alps, St. Barths in the French West Indies, or anywhere else you can imagine because you are a reflection of the image of God. You were created in God’s image

 In the verses that follow in Genesis 1 we hear God give us the gift of and responsibility for the birds of the sky, the living creatures that move on the earth, the seed-bearing plants, every tree, in fact the rest of creation.  God gave the bounty of creation to us to a means to care and sustain us.  God gave it to us as a gift of beauty and wonder.  Gad gave dominion over creation as a gift as tangible symbols of his love and provision for us. 31 God saw all that he had made, and all he had given to us, and saw it was very good.   

When we turn the page to Genesis 2, we hear the Bible re-tale the story in even more intimate personal terms.  We hear; 2 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  I cannot help but think about the picture of Bob Willis shaping a face with clay as a part of a class at the House of Clay.  Here we see God fashioning us from the mud of the earth and then with a divine kiss of life God gives us a living soul. This living soul is breath from God’s breath.  This is more than the story of the beginning of life – it is the story of the beginning of the living soul design to be sustained and nourished in a relationship with God.

The story of God’s artistic creation of the world continues; 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. Adam understood this gift was not like the others.  The gift of a helpmate was not something over which he was given dominion, but rather she was given as a compassion that shared the distinction of being created in the image of God.  We hear this in Adam’s love song; 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” When Adam sees Eve he sees that his time alone has ended and understands that she is like him in his eyes and the eyes of God.  

Too many come to this creation story looking for an explanation of how the whole of creation came to be. They struggle to create timelines and look for scientific evidence to validate their arguments against the theory of evolution that is equally virulent in its attempts to proclaim itself as fact despite the leaps of faith in science it requires.  Hear me loud in clear, I come to these stories and begin and end at the same place; “In the beginning God,” before there anything God, and everything was created by God in God’s time and God’s way.  But, what these two creation narratives tell us is more important than an establishing an effective supportable scientific understanding of how things began.  It is the story of why things began and the nature of the relationship between God and humanity – of the story of the Creator and the ones He creates in His image.

In the seconds after a babe is born parents and grandparents strain to look at its face and see if this little one shows some kind of family resemblance.  Never mind that some time will need to pass before the child’s features are defined enough to actually identify family traits, we want to know that this little one is more than a baby, it is one of us.  The God that created us in His image and shaped us for a relationship with Him looks at us and longs to see that we have chosen to look like him in how we live. God desires to see glimmers of his nature reflected in our life and faith.

We were created in the image of God for a relationship with God. The spiritual longing for forgiveness and reconciliation with God comes from the depths of who we are as those created by God.  When we hear the words of John 3:16 that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son we know that God is pursuing us with love and grace that we might be reconciled by him for the kind of relationship we were created for.  It is not an either or but is instead both and. Our story with God is both seeking God and experiencing being sought by God. Our story is that we are created to walk with God like Adam and Eve in the Garden and the breadth of Scripture is about when the relationship was broken that God was willing to do the unimaginable for us to walk with him again – to be his children again – for him to be our God again.  We are intended to walk with God so often and so closely that our mannerisms begin to model His; that our heart for others begins to model His heart for the world; that our feet carry to the same kind of people and places where Jesus walked. 

As you look in the mirror and you look across your life, does the family resemblance show? You are reflection of God’s divine artistry. Is your life colored by His heart, His forgiveness, and His grace in your relationship with others? Have you painted your life with God’s joy? Have you allowed God to mold and shape you with His will and way? You and I were created by God in His image to walk with God and to relish in the beauty and wonder of the world God has given us. We cannot – we must not – settle for less.