3/23/2014 Sermon – “Where Are We Going? #3: Are We There Yet?”

Jerusalem - the Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives behind.  CN - 2011
Jerusalem – the Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives behind. CN – 2011

This series is called, “Where Are We Going?” If you’ve been in worship over the last few weeks you know where we’re going.  Where are we going? Jerusalem.  In the gospel stories that describe the life of Jesus, this is one of several trips to Jerusalem that Jesus has made with his followers, and it happens to be the last one (but we don’t know that yet).  In that photo, you see the general area where the events of Holy Week took place.  That’s our destination.

Here’s a little trivia:  how old was Jesus when he was crucified? Most will say 33, but the gospels never say that.  There is one verse in the Gospel of Luke (3:23) that says Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.  Then there seem to be three different times that Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover, which happens once a year.  Thirty-three.  Could he have gone more than three times?  Yes.  Could he have been older?  Sure.  By the way, at that time, thirty-three was around late middle-age!  So, he wasn’t necessarily the young person we like to picture sometimes.

Jesus has been repeatedly telling us what will happen when we get to Jerusalem for this Passover.  There is a reason he is called the “Lamb of God.”  (John 1:29)  What happens to a lamb at Passover?  The lamb is sacrificed for the sin of the people.  When we get to Jerusalem, there will be a confrontation, a betrayal, a trial and a horrific execution… and he will rise from the dead; he’s been saying it all along.  But we don’t get it; we only hear what we want to hear, see what we want to see, and honestly, he confuses us sometimes.

There’s a reason he goes to Jerusalem to go through this suffering for us:  our natural rebellion toward God, our separation from God, is the sin that will die with him when he dies. In the New Testament, Jesus is compared to Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery (Hebrews 3).  Jesus is leading us out of captivity to our sinful selves, toward the freedom we find in the new life God gives us when we believe in the living Jesus.  It’s worth taking a look at the trip those first people of God took toward the Promised Land.

This leg of the journey is called, “Are We There Yet?”  That might give you a little hint about how that trip went, and we will look at how we walk with God on our own journey.

Wastewater runoff pond in the Judean desert near Jericho, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Wastewater runoff pond in the Judean desert near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Exodus 17:1-7.  From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

One of the themes of Lent is of taking a trip from one place to another spiritually – a spiritual journey.  The readings are about the things that happen to the Hebrew people on their way out of slavery, walking toward the Promised Land.  The gospel readings tend to be stories about things that happen to Jesus as he is walking to Jerusalem, walking toward the cross.  He has told his people what will happen there.  Through Christ, the people of God escape the slavery of sin and move on to new life through their faith in him and his resurrection.  We trust God to give us what we need spiritually.  We believe in Christ so that we can embrace new life and face the future with confidence.  New life in Christ is our Promised Land.

God has what we need.  On your journey, you should be able to see progress.  Can you tell that you are in a different place from a year ago?  Five years ago?  The trip isn’t easy, and it’s tempting to complain.

Manheim youth during a 2013 mission trip in the Dominican Republic.
Manheim youth during a 2013 mission trip in the Dominican Republic.

Everybody who has ever taken a trip with kids knows about complaining.  There used to be a TV commercial for a car that has families in 3 or 4 different countries each in that car, going on a trip, probably a vacation.  In different languages, the kids all complain, “Are we there yet?” or “I need a bathroom!”   Complaining is a universal language.  As the kids get older, it becomes a joke, a tradition, and a reflex action.  They’ve done it since they were little.  I think I’ve heard it every time I’ve taken a group of high school kids somewhere.  Somebody has to say it as soon as you hit the road or it wouldn’t seem like the trip is starting out right.  It’s a joke with roots in a basic truth. We just got in the car and we’re driving.  Are we there yet?  Say it with me: Are we there yet?

Hopefully, as we grow older, we move away from the tendency to complain.  This is one of the hidden agendas of the trips we take with teenagers.  On a mission trip, we hope the kids will see some things that will get them thinking about how “miserable” their lives are back home.  It’s not really about making them more thankful for their stuff.  It’s more about learning how poor people can be so happy.

But this isn’t just a teenage behavioral issue.  Complaining has been a spiritual problem for God’s people for thousands of years.  For the Hebrew people, it seems God was never good enough, that God never did enough. The pillar of fire, the column of cloud, the defeat of the entire army of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the salvation of the people — not enough. And they complained.

Desert hills near Bethlehem, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Desert hills near Bethlehem, Palestine. CN – 2011.

“Moses, why did you lead us out here? We’ll die out here! We’re thirsty. It’s dry. It’s hot. My feet hurt. I need a bath. I’ve got a blister. My sandals are too tight. Egypt was better. Egypt had water. Egypt had beds. Egypt had security. Our children need water. Even our cows are thirsty. It’s not like home!” (you’re allowed to think of your own complaints here.

It took the people of Israel 40 years to get to the Promised Land because of their complaining (see Numbers 14:26), not because they were lost and not because it was so far away.  As they wandered, God simply waited for the complainers to die off.  The amazing thing about this story is that in spite of the complaining, God gave them food and water anyway.  The complaining just made the trip to the Promised Land longer.

Every people of God, including the church and each person in it, is going from Point A to Point B.  We need all hands on deck. God has given us a mission, and we need everybody’s help to get us there.  God said, “Go” and every week we say, “Yes, Lord, we will.”  We sing “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”  We sing, “Fill My Cup, Lord.”  God gives us faith and fills our cups, (they are not half empty; they are way more than half-full) and God gives us a mission to reach the people who are thirsty.  God would have us reach out to all those driving by on Main Street who have no idea what happens here, and are thirsty for something more.  Thirsty for the Living Water we talk about each week. Thirsty for Jesus.

All of us could find something to complain about on this trip, and there’s nothing wrong with differences of opinion.  The problem with the Hebrew people’s complaining was their lack of trust in God.  Their immediate problem was thirst.  God had just brought them through the Red Sea (it was just back there).  God had already given them water once.  God had just started to give them manna every day – this bread-like substance that kept them nourished.  They are thirsty again and complaining bitterly.  What should they have done instead?  Ask God.  Together.  This is what Moses keeps showing them how to do.

It was a faith issue, an opportunity for faith.  Could God supply their need?  Yes. God is waiting to be asked.  For the people of God, this is always the problem.  Something we need?  God is waiting to be asked.  Amongst each other, the solution could be as simple as offering a compliment for every complaint.

It was also a collective reaction.  You can imagine contagious emotion running through the crowd.  It had turned into a lynch mob.  This has happened repeatedly with the people of God.  It’s why scripture is always cautioning to hold issues as privately as possible for the sake of the health of the body.  In the gospel story, when do you see lynch mobs?  The woman caught in adultery and…  Jesus before he is crucified.

Our culture would rather have us blast away at each other for the sake of pride, for the sake of revenge, or being right, or winning.  When we offer healing and wholeness and love to the community in the name of Christ, unnecessary complaining creates problems you may not even know about.  And gets in the way.

Just after Kathy and I graduated from college we joined a church where we met a couple named Dick and Ann.  They were old enough to be our parents; Dick was a deacon in the church and Ann led the women’s bible studies; we really looked up to them.  Once a year, together, they did the sermon when the pastor was gone and everybody agreed that these were some of the most moving worship services they had ever been a part of.

Dick would talk about some issue of Christian life from a man’s point of view, then Ann would talk about it from a woman’s perspective.  It was very effective.  Dick and Ann even preached in other churches sometimes.

Dick once told us a story about a side of his personality that few people ever saw, and how he had been forced to deal with it.

lawnmowerOne spring Saturday morning, Dick went to Sears and bought a lawnmower.  You know how it feels when you buy a new lawnmower, when it’s all shiny and new, before it gets gunked up with grass and dirt?  He was in a great mood when he lifted it out of the back of the car and walked it to the edge of the driveway.  He adjusted the push-bar and read the little directions by the throttle to make sure he knew exactly how to start it.  Throttle on start; pull out the choke.  Pull on the rope.  Nothing happened.

Pull on the rope.  Nothing.  Pull. Nothing.  Pull.  Nothing.  Pull.  Nothing.  Not even a sputter.

Push in the choke, adjust the throttle.  Pull.  Nothing. Pull.  Nothing.  He did this for 15 minutes.  Ann poked her head out the garage door.  “Wow!  Great new mower!  How’s it work?”

“Fine!  I’m busy, okay?”

Ann had a good sense for Dick’s style of communicating and body language.  She decided not to offer to help and went back inside.

Meanwhile, Dick’s face was bright red from bending over and the veins in his neck were starting to stick out.  He had had it.  He opened the back of the car, dropped the mower in – just hard enough to vent anger but not hard enough to break it – and drove back to Sears.  With the radio off.  He pushed the mower inside the store, went straight to the lawn-care department, and found a clerk.

Speaking through clenched teeth, he said, “I just spent the last hour and a half of my day off dealing with this mower, which I bought here this morning.  Not only is this mower supposed to be the most durable mower I’ve ever owned, it is supposed to be easy to start.  Well, I can’t get it started.”

The clerk stepped from behind the counter and began looking over the mower.  He played with the controls and gave the rope a pull.  Nothing happened.

Dick kept going.  “This was the perfect day, too.  I can’t mow tomorrow and I’ll be out of town all week.  I really needed to use this mower.  That’s what I get for coming in here during a sale.”   Now some of the other customers were starting to stare.

The clerk said, “You really needed to put gas in it.”  He was holding the gas cap with a very patient expression on his face as if to say, ‘This happens about three times a day.'”

Dick was speechless.  He had never felt so stupid in his whole life.  All he could say was, “Oh.”  He started to push the mower toward the parking lot exit and the clerk walked next to him.  As the clerk opened the door for Dick he said, “Oh, by the way, I enjoyed that sermon last week.”

Dick told us that at that moment, he made a vow that he would never publicly criticize anyone, or openly complain about anything, ever again.  He went home and mowed his lawn.

Prayer

O God, you are so loving and patient with us, but we aren’t very patient or loving with you.  We expect life to be perfect and complain that it’s not.  As we walk along in our faith together, maybe we think a little too much about the safety of the good old days instead of the challenges of the future.  Sometimes we want to go back to Egypt.  Forgive us for our lack of trust in you and our resistance to following where you lead.  Now, Lord, feed us so that we can feed others.  Through your Spirit, show us what we can do to make a difference in your world.  Help us find real ways to accomplish the mission you’ve sent us on to bring Christ to our families, to Manheim, and beyond.  Amen.

3/16/2014 Sermon – Where Are We Going? #2: “Charting a New Course”

Hiking
Hiking the “Abrahamic Trail” in Palestine – one of the routes between Galilee and Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

I’ve called this series, “Where Are We Going?” This trip we’re taking with Jesus started out in Galilee and we’re headed for Jerusalem, from north to south.  Where are we going? Jerusalem.  It’s about a 10-day walk, about 120-140 miles or so, or maybe two weeks if you’re taking your time.  Parts of it are physically demanding (see photo).

Jesus has a mission to accomplish for you and me.  It involves confrontation, betrayal, a trial and a horrific, R-rated execution. There’s an empty tomb at the end of this trip, and that’s pretty great, but for now, we’re walking along with Jesus and that’s not on our minds.  As we walk along, he’s told us all these things will happen, but honestly, sometimes when Jesus talks we don’t quite get what he says and tune it out.  He’s learned to know that about us.

There’s a reason he goes to Jerusalem to go through this suffering for us:  our natural rebellion toward God, our separation from God, is the sin that will die with him when he dies.  Then, when we believe in him, when we trust Jesus with ourselves and tell him so, there is a new kind of life that begins is us.  Do you know what I mean when I talk about a “trust fall?”  Blindfolded, or with your eyes closed, you lean back and trust that your team will catch you.

There’s story about two Maine fishermen out in their boat, caught in a fog.  They can just barely make out the coastline, but have no idea where they are.  One of them says, “Well, let’s just get out the “Coast-wise Pilot” and have a look.”

So they get out this book of maps.  And after they fumble around for a few minutes one says, “The page we’re on is missin’.  Tore right out of the book!”

And the other says, “Well, Bert, we’re just gonna have to sail onto the next page!”  (from the “Bert and I” stories by Marshall Dodge).

It’s a powerful, mysterious, new thing that God does in us when we believe.  The believing we do in Jesus is like a spiritual trust fall.  We “Chart a New Course.”

John 3:1-17.  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

JOH 3 16 on bannerJOH 3 16 in eyeblackThink of some of the places where you have seen “John 3:16.”  On banners behind goalposts at televised football games, and in the eye-black that some players wear. At the bottom of shopping bags, on restaurant place-mats or table-ware, and on billboards.  It’s definitely one of the most important verses of scripture, and it’s worth taking close look at it in its context to get a fuller impact.  Let’s get beyond the bumper-sticker!

Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  That does a lot to set the stage.  Usually, the Pharisees were the bad guys in the gospel stories.  In the Israel of Jesus’ time, they were the aristocrats, the minority in control – political and religious leaders.  They were wrapped up in the status-quo and believed God is worshipped by doing your best in obeying God’s laws, down to the fine print which they wrote themselves.  They were the leaders of Jewish society, but this was not a democracy; Pharisees passed leadership along through family lines.  Pharisees set themselves above the common people and for the most part, the people hated them.  The first or second century people in Palestine hearing this story say to themselves, “Oh, Jesus is talking to a Pharisee; this should be good!”

John the storyteller goes on:  Jesus, the poor carpenter/teacher/miracle worker from up north (Galilee) is in Jerusalem for the Passover.  There are lots of people around; the city is crowded. Nicodemus, who was probably embarrassed (or at risk?) to be seen talking to Jesus during the day comes to him after dark, and starts the conversation with a compliment:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” (3:2)

Nicodemus is impressed with Jesus.  Or is he?  Now, you have to keep in mind that the only things Jesus has done up to this point in the gospel is be baptized by John over in the Jordan River twenty miles away, turn some water into wine back home in Galilee, and assault the merchants outside the temple.  No major teaching or healing yet, and not exactly good public relations with the Pharisees.  Nicodemus might have set out to have this night-time conversation with Jesus just to test him a little.  John the writer sets it up like a stage act, like part of a play.

In this conversation, Nicodemus is the straight man.  Think about comedy teams for a moment (there aren’t many anymore, are there!).  Abbott and Costello, for instance. Look them up.  Bud Abbott, the straight man, was not funny by himself.  Lou Costello would have seemed like a very strange person by himself (psychiatrist material).  In a good comedy team, one person says funny things or does funny things, and they are only funny because they are standing next to a “normal” person who usually doesn’t “get” what’s going on.

Instead of responding to the compliment in a way that Nicodemus would understand, Jesus says something only the audience understands.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3:3) 

Jesus just set Nicodemus up.  In Greek, born from above can also mean “born again.”

Nicodemus thinks the things “normal” people think; he says the things normal people would say.  Remember, he’s a Pharisee, one of the people who think you get to God by following rules and paying close attention to the fine print. That’s normal.  He takes Jesus exactly at his word: ” How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4)  He is thinking “born again,” literally, when Jesus means “born from above.” Nicodemus is thinking physical life, physical birth, and Jesus is talking about spiritual life, spiritual birth, the life God gives to people who believe.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (3:5)

The punch-line!  In this conversation, Jesus is the one we want to listen to.  We are supposed to make a comparison between Jesus and Nicodemus.  When Jesus speaks, he turns to the audience and winks as if he is saying, “You get it, right?”

Water?  Baptism?  Remember?  When we are baptized, it’s a sign that we are sorry for sin and open to God.  If we are open to God, if we have faith, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives.  We don’t get to God by being religious and following rules like the Pharisees; In Jesus, God reaches out to us!  We believe and we’re born from above. An supernatural act of God in response to faith.  It’s a gift!

Nicodemus doesn’t get it.

“How can this be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?  (3:9-10) 

As if to say to the audience, here is an educated religious/political leader and he doesn’t get it, but you get it, don’t you!

Now Nicodemus steps back into the shadows of the stage and leaves Jesus in the spotlight.  As Nicodemus steps back, the religious rules disappear with him; the rules that made us good most of the time and guilty all the time.  The normal standards we set for ourselves or let other people impose on us… fade away.  All the things we do to get to God are gone.  All the things we do to earn God’s love are gone.  Only Jesus is left.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  (3:16)

This part of the story ends without telling us what happened to Nicodemus.  Was he any different after talking with Jesus? Was his mind changed?  Did he ever “get it?”  At the end of the gospel Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus (19:19-40).  Apparently, he became a believer.

The real question is whether we get it.  “God  so loved __(you)_______ that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish…”

God speaks to us like Abraham in Genesis and says, “Come to a new place I will show you.”  Start fresh.  Chart a new course.

This is the simplest thing and the hardest thing to ask of anybody. And it’s so easy to be stuck. In our personal lives, it’s so easy to stay where we are, even if it’s painful, just because we’re used to it. We hang on to destructive attitudes and habits and relationships, no matter how painful they are or how much damage they cause, because it’s just too frightening to move to a new way of thinking or living. Some of us have held on to our hurts for so long we can’t imagine life without them. Some we learned when we were very young. Maybe we grew up in a world where we were never good enough, could never please the people we wanted to please, and never experienced love in an unconditional way. Some of us blame everyone else for our problems. And God says, “Come to a new place I will show you.”  Start fresh.

Get rid of the heavy stuff that makes it so hard to move. Get rid of your past, don’t hang on so tightly to the present, and trust God with your future.

The hardest thing for some of us is the believing. We’ve heard that there are others who believe, but taking that first step of faith, of complete trust in God, is a hard one.  An Arab proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s about trust. It’s about being open to change, open to being in a new place. It’s about moving. But you don’t have to pack up your stuff and move to be in a new place.

hand on doorknobThis new life God gives through Christ is hard to describe, but has results in real life.  One day this week, somebody here will come home from work frustrated and be tempted to take it out on their husband or wife or the kids, but then walk away to cool off. A new beginning. In another house somebody will reach for a bottle, hesitate, and close the cupboard door, or maybe even dump it in the sink. A new beginning. In another home, a brother will call home for the first time in years, and say, “I want to talk. No, it won’t be an old argument.”

These are new beginnings that spring from the New Beginning. This is starting fresh. New beginnings don’t get headlines, but our families are the ones who will know.

 Prayer

God, help us clear our minds, clear our thoughts, and open our hearts so that we can hear you.  Lift our blindness so that we can see you.  Give us a clear picture of a hillside with a cross at the top, an empty tomb, and a living Jesus who stands in front of us with his arms stretched out, waiting for us to believe.  We are sorry for the sin that put him on that cross, and we believe in him as the Lord of our lives.

God, we pray for those in need, for those who are hungry, for those who are in pain, for those who are lonely.  We pray for ourselves.  Lift us up, give us peace, fill us with your Spirit, give us opportunities to serve you with our new lives.  We are yours.  Amen.

3/9/2014 Sermon – Where Are We Going? #1: “How We Got Here”

Hiuking in northern Palestine. CN - 2011
Hiking in northern Palestine, on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. CN – 2011

If you took each of the gospels, these short books that are at the beginning of the New Testament, and opened them each to the middle, you’d find something kind of interesting. The front of part of each of those books, the first half (more or less) is a basic introduction to who Jesus is.  You learn that he is more than just an amazing guy who teaches profound things and causes miracles to happen.  He is the human embodiment of God.  In the second half of each gospel, you learn why he is here, why he came.  The first half of each gospel takes at least 30 years (or so) to complete.  The last half of each gospel takes about two or three weeks to accomplish and we’ll be walking.

It’s in those two or three weeks that Jesus takes his people on a trip they will never forget.  The people walking with Jesus will never be the same.  This trip starts up in the northern part of Palestine where Jesus is from, a place called Galilee.  Where are we going?  To Jerusalem. It’s hard for us to know it as we walk along, but Jesus is on a mission to save you and me.  It involves confrontation, betrayal, a trial and a horrific execution. There’s a surprise ending that you might know.

I’ve called this series “Where Are We Going?” and I just answered that question.  We’re headed for Jerusalem with Jesus.  Most of us have walked this path before, but this time, let’s be asking ourselves, “Why is Jesus doing this?”  None of us asked Jesus to do this – what’s the motivation?  To understand why we need to go “there,” we have to know how we got “here.”  So, we begin at the beginning.

Genesis 2:15-17.  The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

The Bible, from beginning to end, describes how God stepped into history to save people, and it begins with that story from Genesis.  Tradition says that Moses wrote Genesis – an explanation of how humanity got to where it is, spiritually.  It’s a little window into the soul of all of us.  God says, “Live this way, prosper, and be happy.”  But we say, “Let’s try something else.”  It’s the story of what we do with the gift of free will.

Bill Cosby does a routine that I think explains it pretty well, a paraphrase of that story you just heard.

Whenever your kids are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to his kids.   After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve.  And the first thing God said to them was: “Don’t.”

  “Don’t what?” Adam asked.

  “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit, said God.”

  “Forbidden fruit? Really? Where is it?” Adam and Eve asked, jumping up and down excitedly.

  “It’s over there,” said God, wondering why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.

  A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and he was very angry.

  “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the First Parent asked.

  “Uh huh,” Adam replied.

  “Then why DID you do it?” God asked, exasperated.

  “I dunno,” Adam answered.

God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set and it has never changed. But there is a reassurance in this story. If you have persistently and lovingly tried to give your children wisdom and they haven’t taken it, don’t be so hard on yourself. If God had trouble handling his children, what makes you think it should be a piece of cake for you?

DSCF0082The situation is easy to imagine: Adam and Eve living in a garden full of God, animals, and fruit.  The story says that their job was to take care of the place.  Till it and keep it.  That means the first job opportunity in the world (for humans) was farming and landscaping.  So, we were originally meant to be cultivating the garden, taking care of the plants and animals, making everything grow.

But there’s one animal we can’t seem to manage, an animal with an attitude – a serpent – who raises an interesting question:  when we know that God doesn’t want us to do something, does God mean what God says?  We’re supposed to eat from these trees, not that one over there.  Hmmm… did God say?  The serpent has distracted the garden managers from their job and touched a button, and the button is called “Control.”  There’s a conflict with the management with an easy solution:  we could have sent the serpent packing, but now we’re thinking… we want to be in control, we want to be in charge.  We want what we want.  Who is in control?  Me or God?  Being my own person, I decide to do what I think is best for me at the time.  I want control. I can always apologize later.  The scenario of sin always starts with the question: did God say?  And it ends with our house of cards falling.

The end of this story has us outside the garden, feeling shameful and blaming the creature we were supposed to be managing.  We got fired.  Is that fair?  Doesn’t God love us?  If God loved us, wouldn’t God just be firm, give us a stern talking-to and let us back into the garden?  Then we could get on with life as if nothing happened.  One of our control issues is that we think we can make God into our image.  God should be more flexible!

But the problem is that something did happen – something with consequences.  And outside the garden, we are helpless, unless God wants to do something about our situation, and it’s a good thing God does.  God sends Jesus to the rescue.  Jesus clears the way for us to come back into the garden, back into our relationship with God. Through our faith in Christ, our sin dies with him on the cross.  That’s why he goes to Jerusalem.That’s the simple version of the history of salvation.  The word “sin” isn’t in the passage, even though sin is the theme, sin defined as separation from the God who loves us. Eve and Adam learned the hard way that sin has consequences.

On a rock 2It’s not a hard step to accept that human beings are sinful, that they are less than perfect, and everybody is affected.  But what can we do about it?  We are sinful human beings, therefore…  what?  Follow the rules?  Be as good as we can be?  What standard do you use?  Will you ever be good enough?  Whom do you compare yourself to?

When I was teaching in a Catholic high school, I knew several kids who were planning on entering religious orders so that they could get some control over their lives.  They thought that if they just joined a group of people with lots of rules, if they became priests or nuns or brothers, that eventually, because of the discipline imposed by the rules, they would be able to live stable lives.  I never heard the priests or nuns or brothers say this; it’s what the kids thought.

But this is what many people think that all they have to do to get back into the garden with God: be good and live according to the rules.  If you think this, you have a hard question to answer: if you could make it back into the garden by yourself, if you could color between the lines on your own, follow the rules and do favors for God – if you could save yourself, why did God bother to send Jesus?

We each know about this separation, this wall between God and us.  The symptoms are different for everybody.  There is some part of each of us that has us turning our backs on God.  A choice that goes wrong.  Maybe the best way to illustrate that is think about a moment in your life about which you could honestly say, “Whoa.  I wish I could have that back to do over.”  Or not do.

I love AA’s 12 steps.  They work in every situation that calls for faith and don’t necessarily have anything to do with alcohol.  The first three steps go like this:

1.  We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. 

The word alcohol can be replaced by almost anything.  You can say… We admitted we were powerless over “fill in the blank” – that our lives had become unmanageable.  Or, you could just admit that you are powerless, period.

2.  [We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

In other words, give up the need for control.  You know it’s all a house of cards.  God is waiting to embrace you.

3.  [We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. 

Surrender to the God who loves you.  The first words of faith are always, “God help me.”  And God does.

Faith in Christ is where we start – there is a void that needs to be filled.  God gives us each other to walk this road together; we do life together.  The reason that we are here is to help our friends and family know that there is more, that life will not ever be perfect, but through Christ, God has opened a door to a new kind of life that can give you hope and help you live.  And now our job as believers is to bring as many people as we can back into the garden, using all the tools, and skills, and gifts God gives us.

Prayer

O God, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross and resurrection, we examine ourselves.  We realize how imperfect we are, and how much we need you; we are empty and need to be filled.  We have taken your good creation and scarred it with our selfishness and thoughtlessness; we have abused our brothers and sisters, thinking only of ourselves.  Forgive us, God – thank you for your forgiveness.  You reach out to us through Christ and walk us back into the garden to be with you. And even beyond forgiveness, you stay with us, giving us the strength we need to overcome the temptations and struggles that confront us day after day.  Thank you for the life you give us through Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.