Sunday, December 27, 2015

Eternity in our Hearts

Welcome to Bethel Chapel as we approach yet another New Year’s Day. The Earth -  this beautiful green and blue marble that we call our home -- has made another lap around the sun. Very shortly, we will greet the year that we call 2016, perhaps with parties and toasts and hugs and kisses. In a few days, we’ll draw a line across the arrow of time, calling things on one side “last year”, and things on the other side “this year”. But making divisions in time is something that people have done ...for a long time.  

After all, here we are in the middle of history, we give this very important place we find ourselves the rather modest title “now”. We call everything that comes before the “past”, and we call everything that comes after the “future”. Here and now, we call it the “present” -- because it is a wonderful gift, isn’t it?

So here we are, stuck in the middle of history, and (if we stop to think about it) marvelling at the mystery of it. As the Bible says, “God has set eternity in the human heart.” But the end of that verse says: “yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Time is full of mysteries.

There are scientific mysteries with time. Scientists tell us that the passage of time depends on how fast you are traveling. They say that if you were to build a fast enough spaceship and take a tour around the galaxy, by the time you return you might be younger than your children. They call this “time dilation” and it is a consequence of what we call “special relativity” after Einstein. Time is full of mysteries, but we don’t need to be troubled by those mysteries, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever -- and it is in him that we put our trust. I don’t pretend to understand time dilation, but here’s another one that nobody pretends to understand...

How did time “begin”? We know that the universe had a “beginning”, and we know that time and space are closely connected. So the beginning of the universe was the beginning of time. But what could it possibly mean for time to “begin”. After all, for something to begin usually means that there was a “pre-beginning” -- that is, a time that it was not, and then a post-beginning -- a subsequent time when it was. But that won’t work with time, because “before” time, there was no time for the pre-beginning to exist. We don’t understand this. We can’t understand this. The best we can do is recognize that God created time, not by being “before” time, exactly, but by being “outside” time -- by being greater than time.

But the most amazing thing about time is that it could accommodate God Himself. That’s right, the maker of time, the one responsible for the creation of the universe, the one who is bigger and greater and “outside” time -- He entered time in order to demonstrate his love for his creatures “inside” time -- creatures like you and me… and this event is what we’ve been celebrating in the season of Christmas, of course.

For the creator of time to break into time is like an author writing himself into his book to help his characters. It would be like a painter painting himself into a painting to help his subjects. But it is bigger than that -- because Jesus is not just a representation of God in time (like a character in a book or a portrait in a painting); Jesus is God Himself. And Jesus entrance onto the stage of time was of such significance that more than two thousand years later, most of the world uses what we call the Gregorian calendar -- separating time into “B.C.” (before Christ) and “A.D.” (Anno Domini -- the year of our Lord). Sure, folks can change the labels, but the reality is that every time you sign and date a document, every time you celebrate a birthday, there is a built-in reminder of Jesus’ birth. After all, if God breaks into history, you know that it is going to have a lasting impact.

This last year, we had a series of sermons on the Apostles Creed, and there, sure enough, Christmas features prominently in that creed. It reads:
(and) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
  who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
(there’s Christmas)
  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
...and on the third day he rose again from the dead. (and there’s Easter)

Christmas and Easter: the landmarks on the Christian calendar, and the most world-changing events in human history. But now that Christmas is over for another year and Easter is another few months ahead of us, it is quite reasonable to ask that very sensible question “what about the in-between times?” What about that incredibly important space of time we call… now.

With Christmas and Easter, we see the drama of God’s plan for history. And as amazing as it is, it sometimes doesn’t always seem to address what we’re going through. What about when relationships fail? What about when our health gives out? What about when circumstances conspire against us, and sure, we can be consoled with the messages of Christmas and Easter -- that God has sent his Son to be our Savior; that he died and rose again to conquer death once and for all. But how do we cope with the struggles of day to day? How does God’s plan in history help when we can barely get along with those we live with, or when we are burdened by the injustices we face in the world?

Well, in order to answer these questions, in order to help us in those in-between times, in order to address the challenges of life in the “now”, in order to appreciate all that God has provided for us for life, let’s consider Jesus’ “in-between-times”. After all, a lot happened to him between “[being] born of the virgin Mary” and “suffer[ing] under Pontius Pilate” (in the creeds, we might get a comma in between those lines; in the gospels, we have pages and chapters of amazing). So let’s consider Jesus’ “in-between-times” this morning and see how it can benefit us as we live our lives day to day.

Reading from Luke chapter 4 (starting at verse 4):
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So let’s honor Jesus this morning by letting him define himself, and let’s pay close attention to how he chooses to describe his own calling (because that’s what an “anointing” is, isn’t it?). His chosen ministry is to reach down and touch the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the brokenhearted -- all the challenges of our “in-between” times. You see, Jesus is well aware of the heartaches and tragedies of life. He knows what it is to be poor; he appreciates the feeling of being trapped in one’s circumstances; he knows what it is to be oppressed, and blind; he isn’t preaching oblivious to the challenges of life. He is speaking into our lives with great authority, preaching deliverance in spite of all those challenges. In John 16:33, we read: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus would speak into our lives this year? Wouldn’t it be amazing if, by listening carefully to him, this scripture would be fulfilled in our lives? But that’s the key, isn’t it: if we want Jesus to speak into our lives, we need to let him speak to our hearts.

So this morning, I’d like to call your attention to the rest of this remarkable passage. Here, in one situation, we’ll see Jesus acting in great power to deliver the oppressed. And we’ll also see him more less decline to act at all in another situation. But be prepared to be surprised: Jesus might act completely contrary to our intuition.

Let’s read from verse 31, the first demonstration of Christ’s ministry after his public declaration of his mission:

Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath he taught the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority. In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. All the people were amazed.
Before we continue, perhaps a word needs to be said about demons. Many people today make fun of the notion as a throwback to primitive thinking. I’m not so sure about that. Demons are smart enough to know that they have all manner of devious tactics available when people imagine that they don’t exist.

But whatever else we might say about it, it is clear that this demon was a force of evil, a force of oppression, a bitter element destroying the life of the man involved. And it was also a force of power: the people didn’t have any resources or strategies to address it. But Jesus, entirely in keeping with his stated mission, releases the captive, and brings deliverance for the oppressed. And as we were reminded last week, the people were amazed. This kind of thing was so far beyond their experience or expectation, that they knew that in Jesus they were dealing with something altogether new, and different and wonderful.

But now let’s pause for a second and ask an important question: What did this man do to deserve such wonderful deliverance? What, indeed. The demon inside him has him under complete control. The influence is evil, and self-destructive. And it is very much opposed to Jesus and anything he stands for. This man had no ability to do anything deserving of such grace. This man did not, in fact, do anything deserving of Jesus intervention. But that’s the theme that keeps coming back as we study the life of Jesus, isn’t it. He doesn’t go looking for people who deserve his intervention -- he, instead, goes looking for people who need his powerful deliverance. This is so important. God intervenes in our lives in our need. And I don’t think that it hurts to recognize that need, and come humbly before him for grace.

So the deliverance of a demon-possessed man is the first example Luke gives us in which Jesus demonstrates the power and authority that he has to execute on his calling. But I skipped a long part of our chapter, didn’t I? What about verses 23 to 31? There, we see an entirely different dynamic in play. Instead of deliverance, the people in those verses are rebuked. (v 24)

Jesus said to them: “Truly I tell you, prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Whoa! There’s a different kettle of fish! In the first case, you have a man oppressed by a demon. In the second, you have a synagogue full of respectable men. On the one hand, Jesus speaks in power and delivers the man from his suffering. On the other, Jesus speaks in judgment, and tells the people that they will by no means observe his power. But what’s up with that? Wouldn’t we expect him to be gracious to the good and upright and firmly opposed to the evil and nasty? And yet we find precisely the opposite of those expectations, don’t we?

What’s going on? Well, I wish I could tell you, exactly, but I can’t. As much as I might like to construct a formula in order to explain Jesus behavior, the text doesn’t really let me get away with that. In fact, the text might strongly suggest that the desire to impose such a thing on Jesus is precisely the problem of the people from Nazareth in the first place. There’s the hint of it at the end of verse 22 -- it looks innocuous enough, doesn’t it? ‘“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked’.

You see, these people had seen Jesus grow up. They might remember his voice changing. They might have seen him learn to walk, or heard him learn to talk, or observed any other one of the many opportunities to see him as a vulnerable child. They put him in their own terms. “Isn’t this [just] Joseph’s son?” Terms that they understand; terms that make them comfortable; terms that put a label on him, that they put him in a little box so that they don’t need to take him particularly seriously.

But far too often, we do the same thing, don’t we? We think we can “own” Jesus. We think that we have him all figured out. We think that Jesus is a buddy, who will (of course) operate where and when and how we need him to. And he’ll also give us the space we demand the rest of the time. Have you ever noticed that every possible political position has someone trying to shoehorn “what Jesus would think” about this or that hot-button issue? Guess what? If anyone thinks that “what Jesus would think” is to support their pet cause, they don’t know Jesus at all.

As we were reminded just last week, the Jesus we find in the gospels was continually amazing everyone. They were surprised, again and again and again, at his words and at his behavior. If we think we have Jesus “tamed”, and if we think we know what Jesus thinks, if we are so arrogant to think that we have him all figured out, then it is almost certain that we are making it impossible for him to work in our lives. What irony. But there it is. Whenever we insist upon dealing with Jesus on our own terms, rather than letting him shake us up on his terms, we end up disinviting him into our lives. Instead, we need to be ready for Jesus to shake us up.

This last fall, I had the pleasure of attending a birthday party for my father-in-law. He had just turned 90, and in attendance were four children, twelve grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. The second of the great-grandkids was two years old, and he was delightful, and polite, and well-behaved for going on five hours. Throughout the evening, this dear two-year-old received lots of good quality attention from a certain great-Uncle (not me, in case you are wondering). They played catch; they played hide-and-seek. But as the evening progressed, it seemed that the more love that great-Uncle poured into this boy’s life, the less the young man seemed to appreciate the grace that it represented. By the end of the evening, he was behaving as if he could snap his fingers and Uncle would immediately do his bidding -- as if he “owned” his Uncle James.

But the youngest of children often display the most natural of behaviors, don’t they? Without having had it worked out of them, they behave in the way that we are all inclined to behave. And I wonder how often we inhibit grace by taking it for granted. I wonder how often we are in the situation of not seeing Jesus power in our lives and being slightly irritated (like the citizens of Nazareth), because we -- deep down -- imagine that we deserve more.

So we first saw Jesus working in power for the deliverance of the oppressed, and then we saw Jesus declining to perform on the other. But what is the lesson here? Jesus’ powerful presence rests entirely on grace. It acts entirely in our need. And it cannot be manipulated or domesticated. Oh. And it is also unfailingly amazing.

So let’s come humbly before the God of all grace this morning and pay close attention to those remarkable words that the disciples heard from heaven: “this [Jesus] is my Son,” God thundered, “my Son whom I love, listen to him.” -- let’s listen to Jesus this morning!

And considering that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” it should come as no surprise that Jesus call today is the same as it was in those Bible days. “Follow me” he said to his disciples then. Today, he says to us, “follow me”. And if we are to be his disciples and follow him, the least we can do is to remind ourselves of who he was, what he considered important, and the directions he gives for living. Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Hear his words speak to your hearts this morning when he says “follow me”.

Of course, that word “follow” involves discipline. That’s what it means, after all, to be a disciple. In fact, I’d like to challenge every one of us this morning. Between today and Easter, choose one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), and read it through. Read it carefully. Not too fast, but not too slow, either. Don’t think of it as a “new year’s resolution”. Instead, think of it as an act of devotion. If we were to all grow closer to Jesus in 2016, it could very well have a remarkable impact on our lives and on our community.

In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul writes: “Now is the favored moment - now is the day of salvation.”

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Falling out of Love

Last week, Peter began our series on Old Testament foundations with a sermon on Creation. And as God, in his infinite wisdom, displayed his power as he put the universe together, we see from Genesis 1 that he repeatedly stands back from His creation, and says “it is good.” If anyone here has ever been part of a big successful project, you know this feeling: you see the pieces coming together and deep inside you have this wonderful feeling: “it is good”. If anyone has ever written a piece of music or painted a picture, you complete a phrase or a corner and deep inside you have this wonderful feeling: "it is good". Six days, six times: light - “it is good”; suns and planets - “it is good”; vegetation - “it is good”; animals - “it is good”; all good,  And then, toward the end of the creation account, God has made Adam and Eve, and he says “it is very good” -- after all, that’s the reaction you have when you get to the end of a big successful project, or a composition or a painting -- And as Peter described so powerfully last week, human beings are what God had in mind from the very beginning.

Scientists have just starting to understand this more fully. Here’s a book (Nature’s Destiny) discussing the fact that the more we look at the characteristics of nature, the more it looks like humanity was somehow designed into it from the start. Here are two quick quotes:

It is as if from the very moment of creation the biochemistry of life was already preordained in the atom-building process, as if Nature were biased to this end from the beginning.” And “[we see in the] details science’s relentless progress toward an unexpected conclusion -- that the universe was intentionally designed for human beings”(!)

And God said, “it was very good”. Then, having accomplished the most extraordinary engineering feat of all time, he rested. But “hold on”, you might say -- something must have gone terribly wrong. When we look at the world as it is today, “very good” isn’t usually the description that comes to mind. In 2003, a popular song described the world in these words:

Whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness and equality
Instead of spreading love we're spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading us away from unity

If you listen to the news, you realize that the world is no longer “very good” or even “good”. Something is broken. Something needs fixing.

Now this one is w-a-y too big for me, but this is related to how I spend my day job: I fix things. I’m an engineer. Please don’t judge me for it; that’s how I’ve been trained. And the first thing that an engineer does when introduced to a problem is to try to understand it down to the ground. As Albert Einstein wrote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.

So let’s carefully consider the problems in our world this morning. And let’s not immediately assume (in our season of federal elections) that those problems are due to some government policy or that they can be solved by some other government policy. Instead, let’s get to the heart of the issue. Let’s understand the essence of the problem. How do we understand the source of injustice in the world, the source of inequality and the source of instability? To address this very important question, we need to go back to the very beginning -- to the first three chapters of Genesis and to the Garden of Eden.

At this point, no one could blame you for inwardly saying “oh boy” -- and perhaps even cringing a bit. After all, our society makes it very uncomfortable for anyone who takes Adam and Eve seriously. “You don’t really believe in Adam and Eve, do you?” they will ask. “Well, why not?” I might reply. In response, I often hear this most curious of claims: “Don’t you know that science has proven that Adam and Eve never existed?” As someone trained in the sciences, I figure I must have missed the publication of that experiment. So I ask “Oh really? How did it do that?” And the answer that I get is typically (often with a bunch of hand-waving), “You know... evolution.” Well, I do know evolution, but it simply cannot possibly do any such thing as “prove that Adam and Eve never existed.

The closest thing to “scientific evidence” against Adam and Eve is related to what was once called “Mitochondrial Eve”. It is an interesting story. You see, in each cell of your body, there are bits of DNA. Some of your DNA exists in your cells’ nuclei, and we call it your genome. But you also have bits of DNA in your cells’ mitochondria, which we believe are entirely derived from your mother. In 1987, a paper was published claiming that this mitochondrial DNA could be a kind of “molecular clock”.

The idea is simple: and it is like a crime scene investigation. If you saw a spray of shot on the wall of a building, and you wanted to know how far away the shotgun was when it was fired, what would you do? Well, you’d need to first measure the shot dispersion, and then you’d need to know the dispersion mechanism -- what kind of shell, what kind of gun -- that kind of thing. If you knew the dispersion and the rate of dispersion, you could estimate the distance between the gun and the wall when it fired.

And the “molecular clock” idea is just that. If we measure the dispersion of mitochondrial DNA around the world, and if we knew how fast it disperses, then we could estimate (roughly) how long ago we all shared a common ancestor. So that’s what they did. They measured the dispersion in mitochondrial DNA from 145 people around the world. But the other part of the equation is tricky. How do we know how fast such DNA changes? Well, in 1987, they didn’t, so they used the best guesses from that time. Their results were published far and wide - appearing on the cover of Time and Newsweek. According to those best guesses, that early female ancestor of all humans lived roughly 200,000 years ago -- hardly in keeping with the Genesis account.

But the story doesn’t end there -- just the coverage in the popular press. You see, in 1998, a number of scientists came up with a clever way to actually measure the how quickly mitochondrial DNA changes (they measured the differences over a family of people with a known family tree!) But guess what: they found that the mitochondrial DNA dispersion rate was roughly twenty times faster than the best guesses of 1987. And that means that within the error bars, the early female ancestor of all humans lived around the time that the Bible says that Eve lived. The estimate according to their measurements would have her living about six thousand years ago.

Now please understand that this is no “proof” of anything. There have been hundreds of papers published on the topic since then, many of which have tried to counter this result. It is, however, something to keep in mind if anyone ever tries to deceive you about what science has to say about Adam and Eve. And it is also a good example of just how science journalism works: you see, if a published scientific estimate challenges the Bible, it will be published with trumpets and fanfare. If a published scientific estimate agrees with the Bible, you’ll never hear of it in the news -- you’ll have to go to the scientific journals (the journal Science v.279 - by Ann Gibbons - for this one) to find it.

You see, the real reason that folks will give you a hard time for paying attention to Adam and Eve -- the reason for the mockery and the ridicule -- is not that they have examined the story and found it untrue. Instead, they are scared of the story -- it is too true. At its heart, it pulls back the curtains and reveals the truth about the human condition. You see, to learn about the important aspects of human nature, it won’t help us to study the genome. If won’t help us to study the behavior of monkeys or fish or gorillas. It won’t help us to scan the brain. Since the time it was written down, one of the very best ways to understand human nature has been to read the story of Adam and Eve.

So this morning, let’s learn a bit about humanity from this remarkable story. Let’s start by considering what the text tells us about how things were before the “fall”. This is good for two reasons. First, as an engineer, one of the most important means to understand a problem is to appreciate how things were supposed to work. Second, once we appreciate that the story is worth paying attention to -- once the text demonstrates a deep understanding of human nature -- then we will be more willing to let it teach us the more difficult lesson.

Genesis chapter 1: the first thing we discover from the text of Genesis is that humankind has been created in the image of God.

So God created mankind in his own image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.

While we might not be able to appreciate all the implications of being made in God’s image, we understand clearly that whatever else it might mean, it certainly means that we are not just another animal. And, of course, the evidence is strongly in favor of this conclusion. We simply need to look around us. Skyscrapers, symphonies, space shuttles, sneakers, skateboards, submarines -- there are no hints that any of the animals care about any of these things. We are not just any other animal, and you should be really, really skeptical of anyone who wants to tell you otherwise.

But that’s not all, in Genesis chapter two, the next thing that we learn about the human condition is that it was Adam’s job to be the gardener in Eden (verse 15: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.). And this happened even before sin entered the picture -- when things were still “very good”. We sometimes forget that. You see, work can really and truly be a blessing rather than a curse. In the Old Testament, the Bible says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” In the New Testament, we read, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” Following this advice might not be enough to make you happy, but ignoring this advice might just be a guarantee that you won’t be happy! And once again, the text is in sync with our experience here: I hope each person here has had moments of fulfilment in good work.

The third lesson we encounter from Genesis chapter two is that we have been made for community (verses 18-24). God recognizes that it was not good for man to be alone, and he made a suitable partner for him. Friendship is a gift from God. Relationship is a gift from God. Communication using language is also a gift from God -- to enable those relationships.

So far, so good:
  1. we aren’t just animals (obvious from looking around),
  2. we’re designed to work (hopefully, we’ve all derived fulfilment from working hard, so that’s confirmed, too), and
  3. we’re designed for community and friendship. (no controversy there!)
These three critical aspects of the human condition are called out explicitly in the book of Genesis. In contrast, scientific journals have nothing to say about any of them. So if you think that fulfilment in work and friendship and communication are important to your lives, then you must agree that the story of Adam and Eve is worthy of our attention.

And just in time, too, because when we turn the page to chapter three, we encounter the challenging part of the story. Here, in the first temptation, we discover that we are really, really easy to deceive. We don’t like to hear this truth. We want to pretend that we are wise, and logical, and perceptive and strong. But we aren’t. Someone comes along and tells us a pretty little lie, and we cave in so fast, it’s pathetic. And in this truth, we discover that the source of injustice and the source of inequality and the source of instability is not an external one -- it is not something that we can legislate away -- the problem is inside us.

And so (you know the story) Satan, speaking through a serpent, approaches Eve, and begins -- as he always does -- by trying to undermine her confidence in God’s word: “Did God really say that?” he asks. That should be such a red flag! It is so sad that we so often don’t seem to recognize this question for what it is. As night follows day, this devious question is followed by the temptation to sin. And in this case, this temptation is nothing less than the most primal of all temptations: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

There it is: Enlightenment & Morality. Becoming like God; knowing good and evil. No surprise that the devil makes his temptation seem so lovely - seem so attractive - seem so desirable. Enlightenment & Morality. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But built into this so attractive of proposals is a subtle and fatal poison: you see, once we set God’s words aside, we don’t actually know good and evil. Once we disobey God’s instructions, we don’t really know good and evil. Instead, we just convince ourselves that we now know good and evil. And that’s a trap that it is impossible to escape from on our own.

The fact is that this isn’t just a story going back thousands of years. This isn’t just a sin implicating Adam and Eve. No! The genius of this story is that it so accurately describes the state of every man, woman and child on the planet. We actually think that we know better than God when it comes to right and wrong. We set ourselves up as the final judge and arbiter of morality and truth. And the consequences are disastrous!

Before the “fall” -- before Adam’s sin -- it was obvious that the Good was an objective Truth. That is, Good exists above whoever was observing it, and It has priority over any observer. After the “fall”, we instead hear people saying such nonsense as “that may be good for you, but it is not good for me” -- as if the subject (that is, the person doing the observing) has priority over the good, rather than the other way around.  

But let's go back to our text, and take a look at the consequences there. Once again, there are three. Once again, they are called out explicitly in Genesis; and once again they resonate with our experience.

What is the first one? Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, were ashamed, and hid from Him. (chapter 3:8 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... and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.) And this is also what we find in the world: everyone naturally wants God to keep out of their business. After all, for those (all of us, now) who pretend to be able to decide what is good and evil, the Judge of all things - the One who truly decides what is actually Good and actually Evil - cramps our style, and makes us really uncomfortable.

Second: whenever anything goes wrong, or feels wrong, it is always someone else’s fault. Adam blamed Eve (3:12). Eve blames the serpent (3:13). And so it goes down through history. But this is simply another echo of the “fall”. After all, if I get to define what’s good and what’s evil, it is only a baby step further to redefine everything that I do as “good” and everything that inconveniences me as “evil”.

Third: both relationships and work are now full of challenges. (v. 16-19) When every man and woman imagines that he or she is the ultimate standard from which good and evil can be judged, what happens when two or more people get together? Unless there is agreement on every detail, there is bound to be conflict -- exactly as we find throughout the world.

The “fall” damages the image of God in every one of us. As we impose our own personal vision of good and evil on our work, we are no longer able to find pure enjoyment and fulfilment in it. Instead, we complain about the conditions or the compensation, and compare ourselves with others. And when we impose our own personal vision of good and evil on our relationships, we are no longer able to find the community we need in them. Instead, we blame the other person for any problems, and pretend that our feelings have priority over the truth.

And so we have seen this morning, the opening chapters of Genesis demonstrate a profound understanding of the human condition. We are by no means just another animal, we’re made for community and to find fulfilment in what we’ve been designed to accomplish. But we’re broken. Each of us, rather than acknowledge God’s right to determine what is good and what is evil, each of us sets ourselves up in that place, pretending to have that right on our own, and in so doing, we break faith with our Creator. We are being unfaithful to the one who deserves our complete allegiance. Our constant desire and habit of judging everything around us is by no means an expression of a pure heart. Instead, whenever we judge those around us, we reveal the consequences of the fall in all of its shame, and taken to their logical conclusion, they result in the complete and catastrophic breakdown of relationships and of society.

In this state of rebellion, we are entirely unable to recover on our own. We continually deceive ourselves as to our ability to judge anything and everything. It is only by the grace of God that we are preserved, giving us the opportunity to finally accept His remedy, His solution to the human condition. Next week, Andy will have the opportunity to describe God’s wise and reasonable plan for our salvation. But as you can well imagine, at least part of the solution to a problem that begins with our breaking faith with God is to come to the place where that faith is renewed.

Not only is that the story of scripture, both Old Testament and the New, but it should also be the story of our lives: when we acknowledge the mess we’ve made of it, and ask God to have mercy on us, throughout the scripture He demonstrated compassion, providing atonement and reconciliation for his failing children. I’m sure that you, like me, will be looking forward to Andy’s sermon next week.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reasonable Worship

Have you ever been to court? I went to court once. It wasn’t fun. I don’t recommend the experience. But as so many good stories do, this story started at camp, not Frontier Lodge, but a camp named Bayside outside of Halifax. Unfortunately, it began with a small tragedy: one of the young campers had fallen out of her bunk and broken her arm. Some counsellors were assigned to drive her into town and take her to the hospital. But since the only available cars were counsellor-cars, we thought it wise to send along a second car ... just in case the first one broke down. And, sure enough: one of the cars didn’t quite make it to the hospital -- but it was the second car -- the one that I was driving. It was a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle, and the throttle cable had broken. As you likely remember, older Volkswagens had their engines in the rear, and the cable was a long one connecting the gas pedal at the front to the throttle in the rear. It broke when we were only a half-block from the gas-station on the outside of Halifax. My co-pilot, Chris, wondered if we should try to push the car, but I had a better idea: with those old Volkswagens, with the rear hood up, you could sit across the rear bumper, slip your arm under a big steel brace, and govern the throttle with your finger. I convinced Chris that we could make it to the gas station that way. And so we did. But the gas station attendant was not at all pleased to see us, and was quite vocal about his displeasure, so we looked at each other, shrugged, and decided to drive the further roughly eight blocks to the hospital. Well, we didn’t make it. We were close - we could see where the first car was parked. But our progress was impeded by the convergence of six police cars on our position. Halifax clearly was having a light crime day... Anyway, the patrolman found an obscure infraction to give me since it was much less expensive than, say, not wearing a seatbelt. But my friends felt (with some justification) that the ticket should be contested, and they agreed to support me in court. What were we thinking? Anyway, we went. And when it was our turn, the judge might as well have been speaking Swahili -- and yet she was clearly quite insistent upon receiving an answer. But... I didn’t speak Swahili. If only I could determine what she found to be an acceptable answer. I think I answered “no”, and her gavel came down hard as she loudly pronounced… a date. October 20, I believe it was. “Next!” someone bellowed, and we walked away, entirely bewildered. And we walked into an office-looking room and sheepishly asked for an explanation. The clerk there was very kind, and she explained that October 20 would be the date of my hearing. Oh dear -- I was going to be in Ontario starting in September, and returning for a court date was going to be many times more costly than the original ticket. The clerk recommended that I simply pay the fee, and explained the procedure to me. I have no idea what we would have done without that clerk. But in case you ever wondered, this is one of the things that lawyers (or legal clerks) are good for. It was too bad that camp counsellors couldn’t afford lawyers. I was clearly way over my head in that court. The judge was absolute ruler there, and I didn't understand what was going on. But that kind clerk explained things in words I could understand, and gave me sound legal advice -- for free. Well that’s exactly what Paul is doing for us in our text this morning (Romans 11:33-12:2). Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Here, Paul is inviting us to take a peek into the courtroom (perhaps even the throne-room) of God -- the righteous judge, who will judge the world with justice, who is able to save and to destroy, who knows the thoughts and intents of the heart and will reveal even our most closely-guarded secrets -- to get a glimpse of His Majesty, and to humble ourselves before his power and wisdom. Paul cites two Old Testament passages here, and they share a common theme: simply stated -- God is God and I am not. When a Pharisee like Paul made such a citation, he would expect at least some familiarity with the full text that he is referencing. In Isaiah 40, we read: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Similarly, in Job, a passage that Peter drew our attention to two weeks ago, we find that the “most righteous man on Earth” -- that is, Job himself -- responds with these words: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…. I [now] despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Yes: humility is appropriate in the throne-room of the Almighty. By making reference to these two Old Testament passages, Paul is simply setting the stage! And it is a little like my experience in the courtroom: I could not possibly fathom what I was being told by the judge. My bad, of course. Hundreds of years of legal proceedings meant that her way of doing things and the words that she chose were right and good, and if I couldn’t follow, that was my problem. But we are in the same situation with God, only more so. He is God, and we are not. And we, by virtue of our very existence, find ourselves in his domain, under his rules, and subject to his decisions. We might not like it -- but that doesn’t change a thing. So how do we respond? What is the sensible response? What is the most reasonable course of action under our circumstances? When I found myself in that courtroom there was a kindly legal clerk, who made the most sensible legal recommendation under my circumstances. In exactly the same way, Paul is helping us -- and he gives us sound legal advice for navigating the rules in force in the domain of Almighty God.(Chapter 12:1): He begins: I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God,
And that word translated “beseech” is elsewhere translated “urge” or “counsel” or “beg”, and it literally means “advocate” -- really: it is a legal term recommending the sensible course of action. “I advocate therefore” he says -- and that word “therefore” simply points to what has come before -- to the fact that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable! And from him and through him and to him are all things. In an environment that is completely beyond our control or understanding, we would do well to pay close attention to that recommendation. But notice the beautiful addition to the stage that has already been set: Paul adds God’s great mercies to the already referenced majesty and perfection of God. If God’s only attributes were his holiness and justice, surely we would be crushed under the weight of it. On the other hand, if God’s only attributes were his love and mercy, there would no need to do anything at all. But put them together, and how do we respond? What is the recommendation? I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. That word translated “reasonable” -- in Greek, it is “logikos” from which we get our word “logical”, of course. (some modern translations actually translate the word “logikos” as “spiritual”, which is a little strange, but it would take too long to explain -- for now, let’s allow that “logikos” should be translated “logically”). So Paul is simply saying “in view of the circumstances that you find yourselves in (on the one hand the greatness of God, and on the other hand, His great mercy) let me tell you what is your most sensible course of action: to present your bodies as living sacrifices. This is “reasonable worship”. This is “logical worship”. Paul is saying that if we really knew how the universe runs, if we really understood how everything works together, if we had any idea of how great and awesome and loving and kind Almighty God is, then we would not even so much as hesitate: we would immediately put our lives on the line for him. And note that Paul doesn’t say that it is appropriate to sacrifice our goods, or to sacrifice our money, or to sacrifice our time. When we sacrifice our bodies, we are explicitly offering them to go places and do things that we just wouldn’t do otherwise. “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”. I wonder what kind of impact it would have on our community if every member of Bethel were to wake up every morning with this sacrificial attitude. Please also note that the scriptural understanding of sacrifice is somewhat different from our modern understanding. The idea of "sacrifice" in the Bible is closer to the idea of "sacrifice" in the game of chess. In chess, if you lose a piece and it results in a better position, that's called a "sacrifice". On the other hand, if you lose a piece and it result in a worse position, that's called a... "mistake". After all, Abraham presented Isaac to God on the altar of sacrifice, but God provided a substitute, and gave Isaac back to his father. Similarly, the landmark sacrifice in the history of Israel was the passover lamb. And while the lamb itself was sacrificed, the family was told to eat it in its entirety -- to make a feast and a celebration of it, and to share that feast with their neighbors. Finally, the noteworthy sacrifice of Jesus is the path to victory. Jesus scorned the cross and its shame for the joy set before him. So when Paul advocates that we present our bodies as a living sacrifice, it by no means contradicts the abundant life that Jesus gives us. And while Paul is at it, he reminds us of the rules for sacrifices in the Old Testament -- it was considered a grave sin to bring a second-rate or defective animal to the Temple for sacrifices -- so we need to work toward a sacrifice of our bodies that is holy, and wholly acceptable to God. But how, you might ask, can we possibly achieve that? Paul gives us a good answer to this good question in the following verse. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." As we consider the presenting of our bodies as a living sacrifice, Paul gives us its parameters. First we see the conflict: the world is continually seeking to make you operate according to its rules. Don’t buy in. The world is continually expecting you to dance to its tune. Don’t play along. The world is continually attempting to influence you according to its values. Don’t give in to its coercion. Instead, be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Or, in other words, change the way that you think. Of course, that’s another way to say “repent”, isn’t it. Because, after all, repentance should be like breathing to a Christian. As Rosaria Butterfield writes: “Repentance is not just a conversion exercise. It is the posture of the Christian. . . . Repentance is the threshold to God.” Don’t imagine repentance is just something that you do to become a Christian. On the contrary. If it were, the word “repent” would not appear seven times in the messages to the seven churches in Revelation. If it were, Paul would not tell us in Colossians 2:6 to continue in Christ just as we have received him. Instead, we received Christ with the attitude of repentance, and it is the same attitude of repentance that is required to keep our minds renewed in him. To illustrate the principle of mind-renewal, here's a little puzzle...[on power-point] suppose you have a birthday cake and a really long knife. If you make one full cut through the cake, you end up with two pieces, of course. But what if you make two full cuts through the cake? Well, if the two cuts don't cross, you get three pieces, and if the two cuts do cross, then you get four. But what about three cuts? (This is where it gets interesting). Of course, three parallel-ish cuts will yield four pieces. If only two of the three cuts cross each other, you get five pieces. If one cut crosses both of two non-crossing cuts (or if three cuts all meet in the middle), you get six pieces. If all three cuts cross the other two, you get seven pieces. But what about eight or nine? Any idea how you can get eight pieces. Let me show you: you need to cut across the third dimension -- cutting each of the four pieces in half vertically. Now, I'll confess: I constructed this problem in such a way as to make it really difficult to get the right answer -- I really wasn’t being fair. I showed you the birthday cake from the top -- so that there was no hint that I was even allowing you to think about that third dimension. But this is exactly what the world does all the time. Whenever there is any issue that is a challenge to the church, the world - that is, far too much of our news and our entertainment and our education -- "frames" those issues in such a way that the answer that they want to reach is the only answer that seems available. To mix metaphors, the world wants you to look at everything through its “special” set of glasses. The teachers of the law did the same thing to Jesus in the gospels. In a crowd of hot-blooded patriotic Jewish men, they craftily came to Jesus hoping to trap him: Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away. Do you see Jesus’ remarkable wisdom here? The Pharisees see no way out for him. As far as they are concerned it is a yes or no question - that's how they "framed" it. If he says "yes (that is, we should pay tax to Caesar)", they know that he will lose the respect of the crowd. But if he says "no (that is, we should not pay tax to Caesar)", then they can turn him over to the authorities. But Jesus doesn't fall for it. Instead, he sees beyond their frame. He isn't limited by their frame. God's perspective is always bigger - his ways are higher than our ways - oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's. One of the wisest and cleverest answers to any question in history. And if we want to renew our minds, if we want to be transformed, there is no better advice that I could give you than "pay attention to Jesus". And the amazing dynamic of it is this: the more you fix your eyes on Jesus, the more your life will be transformed, and the more your mind is renewed, the more you will want to pay attention to Jesus. You see, Jesus doesn't just have witty comebacks for those wanting to trap him. He also breaks free from the frame when he wants to help people. Do you remember the woman at the well? One of her great concerns was that her people, the Samaritans, had taught her that the right place to worship God was on Mount Gerazim. But she knew that the Jews taught that the right place to worship God was at Jerusalem. As far as she was concerned, there was no way out of this conflict, and she brings the question before Jesus: (she says)
"Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

But Jesus isn't constrained by her inability to see beyond those two mountains -- listen to his response: Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father... true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him..." When we can break free of the thought-constraining frame of the world -- the one they construct to distract us from the truth, when we allow our minds to be renewed so that our thinking is transformed, then we will see our Lord and Saviour for who he is - with all of the depths of his riches and wisdom. That is what it was able to do for that Samaritan woman. Her next words to Jesus are now focused on the real issue: (she says)

“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” And Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” And it is this same dynamic that represents our “logical worship”. It is only by fixing our eyes on Jesus that we can continue to transform our minds. In this way, we will be able to stand against that most effective tactic of the enemy -- to constrain our thinking -- usually by deceptive means. Such deception takes its toll in churches throughout the world. Some Christians are tempted to proclaim a message of rules and regulations. Sure, it might provide great guidance for exactly how to live, but this is no gospel at all; it is legislation, and it is really just legalism in disguise. Other Christians -are tempted to proclaim a message of acceptance.. Sure, it might contain the truth that God loves us exactly as we are, but this is no gospel at all; it is affirmation, and it is really just license in disguise. As far as the world is concerned, there is no third option. The world cannot see beyond the interval between legislation and affirmation. But God opens up that new dimension -- and provides salvation by way of... transformation. For we did not receive an affirmative gospel; And we did not receive a legislative gospel; Rather, we received a transformative gospel. This is the transformation that we receive in Jesus -- this is the new creation that marks those who are found in Christ. Because there is no salvation in affirmation. And there is no salvation in legislation. There is only salvation in transformation. I’ve already quoted Dr. Butterfield, but I’d like to do it again. She writes: “The internal mission of the Bible is to transform the nature of humanity.” As we escape from the confines of the world’s thinking, as our minds are transformed by the renewal of the Holy Spirit, then we can truly bring our bodies to God as an act of true worship. And then and only then will we be able to understand the good, acceptable perfect will of God in our lives. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe - Hebrews 12:28-29