Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Extraordinary: Genesis 3

The Extraordinary                                                       12/11/16

Genesis 3, Luke 1:39-56

There once was a woman named Hannah.  She was in a polygamous marriage, and her rival Penninah, year after year would taunt Hannah for one simple reason:  “Penninah had children, but Hannah had none”.

Year after year after year of being taunted nearly broke down Hannah.  Her  husband would come to her and she would cry and he would say, ‘aren’t I worth more than 10 sons’ and she probably replied back that that wasn’t the point.  She had wanted children.

Hannah finds herself in the Lord’s house one day, weeping bitterly as she prayed.  Put yourself in her shoes, imagine a time when you wept bitterly.  As she wept she made a promise to God:  if you let me have a son, I will give him to your service”.  

The priest in that time was an ambivalent man named Eli.  He hears her crying and assumes she is drunk.  When Hannah tells Eli that she has been praying out of her great anguish and grief, his answer is for her to ‘go in peace, and may God give you whatever it is that you had asked for.”

I assume that God had heard Hannah’s prayer, rather than the half-hearted blessing of the priest.  Indeed, the Lord remembered Hannah, and she gives birth to a young boy named Samuel.  Samuel means “heard by God”.

After the boy is old enough, he is sent back to work at the temple.  This time, Hannah prays again:  My heart rejoices in the Lord.

God has heard.

The river of bitter tears that Hannah prayed did not start with her, but they had come to her from long ago.  In fact, we can trace tears back to the Garden of Eden.

The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid.

If the scene wasn’t so pathetic, it would be humorous.  Their voices calling out from behind a tree when God asks where they are.  But it wasn’t funny at all.  Sin had entered the world.  Shame and separation were already hard at work.  God calls out, “where are you?”  What does he hear?

Fear            I was afraid

Shame        I was naked

Distance    So I hid

Blame        The woman you put me here with

Deception  The serpent deceived me

The first sin wasn’t eating the fruit;  it was hearing the serpent.  Did God really say?   Well, in fact, yes he had.  Opening one self to challenge God’s integrity and word is the beginning of the end of paradise.  Tragically, we see this in the first response, when it is incorrectly identified that they cannot touch the fruit, or else they would die. God is not recorded as having said this.  They heard wrong.

We see our LORD God taking one of his treasured walks, looking forward to seeing man and women and their enjoyment of paradise, only to hear something horrible had gone wrong.  We long for paradise to return, so that we might once again be with God when he comes to walk in the garden.  But before that great day comes, there is work to do.

God clothes the shame filled man and woman.  Many read the text that some sacrifice had to be made in order for the skin of clothes to be given. 

Praise be to God, for commanding the cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life with their flaming swords.  They guard the tree, but also, “the way to the tree”.  At any cost, the man and woman must not get to that tree of life.  God drives them out of the garden.  He has heard enough.

The good, the very good, the garden, the unity of the man and woman, the rivers and the gold and the cool of the evening, and the tree of life, and all the trees of the garden; all of it changes.  Paradise is lost.  Only God has the power to restore it.

We will start to see the plan emerge in the coming chapters:  a people will be made from an old couple past child bearing years, as good as dead Scripture says, though one who had faith to believe God would do what he promised.  From that chosen nation the Messiah was to come.  Before he comes, God would send prophets to keep the people on track.  These prophets call the people to stop their fear and shame, their distance and blame, their self-deception. The prophets will call the people to face the living God, by grace, by faith, because they had heard the promise, and because God heard himself swear that promise.  Samuel is one of these prophets.  And Hannah sings the faith to her son as she sends him off to the temple.

A millennium after Hannah and Samuel return to dust, two women meet in the hill country of Judea.  They are relatives.  Older Elizabeth greets young Mary, and she feels her son jump for joy in her womb when Mary greets her.  Elizabeth has felt the power of God.  Blessed are you, she tells Mary.  Blessed is the child you will bear.  Elizabeth considers the favor of God that has come to her.  Why her? She wonders.  And then before the answer comes, she blesses:  “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her”.  Elizabeth had heard the Lord.  Just like Mary had heard the Lord before getting up and going to the Hill country, which must have been some endeavor with a child growing inside you.  But faith sometimes equips us to do things beyond our strength.

After greeting her relative, Mary then sings a song.  It is a new song with clear roots from a song sung 50 generations before.  My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. 

On this 11th day of December, in the year 2016, we continue to look to these two amazing women who heard God.  They inspire us.  The story of the Garden has affected all of us. It is literally in our dna, in our bodies, in our souls.  But God has heard the human plight.  He has set up the answer, and prepared Elizabeth and Mary to be a special part of that.

Mary’s song ends with a reference to God’s help to Israel; that God remembered to be merciful, just as he had promised Mary’s ancestors.

Did you hear that?

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Extraordinary: Genesis 2

The Extraordinary                                                       12/4/16

Genesis 2, Luke 1:26-38

Today we encounter an extraordinary vision of God’s intent for humanity.  We also hear of the angel Gabriel’s call to Mary, announcing God’s will for her, one of blessing and importance.

We consider God’s intent for humanity on this second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016.  We are gearing up for Christmas, and all that it has come to represent in modern American society.  Emotions of grief and loss are heightened, concerns about relatives and where to celebrate holidays can cause anxiety, decisions about gifts, and who to get them for take people off track.  Schedules fill up, and pressures related to the end of the calendar year add to everything else.  Is this really the most wonderful time of the year?

It can be, to the extent that we welcome Jesus Christ into our hearts and understand ourselves as God intends.  How does Genesis 2 awaken us to God’s will for humanity?

It can be hard to consider a world before sin, yet this is the report given in Genesis 2.  Scripture proclaims that it was good, yes, very good.  God had created paradise, and placed man there to eat and live and experience the goodness of the Lord.  God’s intent was for humanity to live in paradise, forever.

Perhaps to our astonishment, paradise did not mean sitting around being lazy.  The purpose of paradise was not to be working on your tan, sipping ice teas, waiting for someone to bring your favorite foods.  God’s intent was for humanity to work the garden, and take care of it.  God implants a sense of purpose, and the goodness of doing God’s work within man. 

God’s intent includes freedom for humanity.  God speaks that man is free to eat of any tree in the garden.  This includes the tree of life.  It seems that Humanity could go and eat of this tree, and experience its life.  God’s intent is for humanity to know and live freely.

God’s intent for humanity also includes responsibility and accountability in decision making.  God warns not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The Hebrew word for ‘know’ is a term of intimacy.  Eating of this tree would make its eater intimate with good, but also intimate with evil.  And this intimacy would bring death.  This is perhaps the most universal of verses in Scripture:  all of us have known good and evil. 

God’s intent is for man to be helped.  We were not meant to be alone.  We were created for community.  This is true of our relationship with God, and one another, as well as the intimate relationship of husband and wife. 

God’s intent for humanity to rule over the animals is given before the fall into sin.  God’s intent for the animals of creation is that they will have provision and care from man.  Adam names the animals.  The implication is that he becomes familiar with their patterns, studying them and applying appropriate name.  We see here the power of the name, and its potential to shape us and direct our ways.

Without the knowledge of good and evil, man and woman knew no shame.  In one of the websites provided in the bulletin, guilt is defined as what is experienced as the result of a broken law, where as shame is the consequence we feel when we face one another.  In the garden, humans were able to face each other, and this is God’s intent for humanity.

Next week we come to the part of the story where the knowledge of good and evil comes upon the creation.  But today is that reminder that God’s intent for the creation is life giving, delightful, and amazing.  We were created for relationship with God, and God’s breath of life within us.

Today’s reading from the gospel of Luke reminds us that God also has intent in a fallen world.  We know good, evil, and shame have come to us, but God’s plan was to restore humanity to his intent. This would be accomplished by the perfect human living shamelessly, living perfectly and being atonement for the people.  This intent is seen in the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, becoming fully human.  It is a miracle from the start. 

Mary teaches us that God values humility and trust.  She offers herself to God’s service.  She will bear the son who is great, the Son of the Most High, the Son of God.

It is Jesus Christ, who in his first advent accomplishes salvation.  It is in his second Advent that he will bring us to paradise.  By the grace of God, we will one day experience God’s good intent in its fullness.  Though, as Mary knows, it did not come without a cost.



The Extraordinary: Genesis 1

The Extraordinary                                                             11/27/16

Genesis 1, Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 117

Last week, on Christ the King Sunday, we introduced our multi-year journey throughout the Bible entitled The Extraordinary.  We started at the end of Scripture, which shows a delightful picture of Jesus Christ ruling over the new heavens and new earth as King of kings.  This is the direction that history moves toward.

Today, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 27th 2016, we begin in Genesis.

The Extraordinary story of Scripture starts out with the Creation  narrative.  We all know this.   Unfortunately, many know this because people have brought our human dysfunction to this marvelous beginning story.  So as we set out, I want to identify three attitudes that we do not have to live.  If we find ourselves having one of these attitudes, we should discard it as quickly as possible, in order to encounter the Extraordinary God who predates the beginning of all we know.  We will then remind ourselves the best way to read this story.

The first dysfunction is every expression of attacking the Creation story.  This shows itself in a variety of ways:  the great lengths people go to try to disprove something, in uglier moments the mocking and name calling.  The opposite dysfunction is the need to defend the Creation story.  God doesn’t need defending.  He speaks the truth, and the truth stands on its own.  Third, and this is especially difficult in the internet age, the dysfunction of having to know it all right now, every last detail and possible meaning, immediately, so that we can decide if we believe.  God doesn’t work on those terms. Genesis 1 is about the claim that God is the Creator.  We do not have to perform an exhaustive search of humankind’s historical understanding of the created.  We don’t have enough time, nor the brain capacity to take it all in.  Genesis 1 isn’t a final exam, it is an extraordinary introduction.

The best way to approach the beginning of this extraordinary story is simple:  Listen and obey.  That really is our call as believers:  to listen to the Lord, and do his will.  If we do this, we don’t have to approach this text with embarrassment, or a sense of fixing someone who doesn’t believe, or attempting to understand everything before we believe.  We have to listen to what God says, and then obey him.

But since we’ve already read the text, and we probably felt an inner impulse to either attack it, defend it or master it, let’s use a historic and scientific tool that is helpful for finding out the truth.  Let’s call upon our friend, the Scientific Method.  This is a process used by learners in experiment to test observations and answer questions.

If you need a refresher, the basic scientific method is this:
Purpose     Why are you doing this?  What question do you have?

Hypothesis         What do you think will happen?

Materials             What did you use?

Procedure            What did you do?

Results                What did you see?

Conclusions        What did you learn?

What I am about to say, I say with great reverence and respect.  Let’s put what we know of the Lord in Genesis 1 through the Scientific method.  What will we find?

Purpose:  Why is God doing this creating work?

We aren’t given enough information in Genesis 1 to know why God created the heavens and the earth.  Yes, other places in Scripture tell us why, but not here, not yet.  We simply learn that at the beginning of all that we have come to sense, there God existed, and that he created.

Hypothesis:  What did God think would happen when he created?

Again, other Scriptures inform us more than our morning text.  But we could say that God’s intent was that creation would be good, and when he saw it, he declared it good.

Materials:   What did God use to make the creation?

Two things:  his power, and his word. 

One of my favorite theological sayings was written by a Pastor named G. Campbell Morgan, who, writing about Genesis 1:3 said:  “God spoke to nothing, and it listened”.  What a wonderful thought, that God is all powerful.  He could have spoken the cosmos into being in a nanosecond without any effort.  He might have taken 7 days, with 24 hour periods, to do such matters.  He might have taken 4 billion years, or 400 billion years, because God is timeless, and not threatened or bound by time (He is the only one for whom it literally is true:  He has all the time in the world).  The point is, God is powerful enough to do these things, his way. 

And to show that power, his wonderful majestic power on display, he spoke, “And God said”.  God’s word was, and is, powerful and sufficient.

Procedure           What did God do?

He provided a litany of magnificence!

On the first day, He created Light and Darkness.

On the second day, he created sky to separate waters.

On the third day, he created land, sea and vegetation.

On the fourth day, he created the sun and the moon and stars.

On the fifth day, he created creatures of the sea and the birds.  He blessed them and told them to multiply.

On the sixth day, he created living creatures according to their kind, and humans.  He gave humans, made in God’s image, their orders for successful life.

On the seventh day, God rested, and made the day of rest holy.

Results                 What did God see?

God saw what he created, “it was good”, until he looked at the 6th day of work, which was “very good”. 

I find this magnificent.  Of all the things we can learn about God, the start of this story emphasizes that his work is good, yes, very good.

Conclusions        What did God learn?

Now, the Presbyterian in me is a little nervous, for God in his timelessness isn’t described as learning new things as history unfolds, but, we could say,

That God’s intent is proven by his works.  And God reserves a day in the week to be holy, and to rest from work, however good that work may be.

We will be journeying through the Extraordinary through the different seasons of life, and different seasons of church calendar.  This Advent, the story of the angel visiting Zechariah and Elizabeth is telling.  It speaks to God’s intent and God’s good work.

John and Elizabeth had wanted a child.  And when the time is right, which by the way, was very different than the natural order of things, God sends the angel to tell this good news to John.  John doesn’t believe, and therefore, he loses his voice.  The easiest path would have been for Zechariah to listen, and obey.

My prayer for the church is to believe in the God who creates, the one we meet in Genesis 1, right at the beginning.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. May we not lose our voice because we don’t believe.  For the creation story reveals the Creator.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.

One more time, let’s review the three dysfunctions identified earlier:  If the primary way you read Scripture is as a skeptic, you are invited into a new and better way:  the life of faith.  Faith and truth are friends, not enemies.  As someone with a question, or something that you want to find out, your job is to use the right materials to observe the experiment occur as it was intended. 

If the primary way you read Scripture is to prove it to someone else, you can be at rest, and live a life of faith.  Jesus Christ is the Savior.   Our life is about celebrating Advent, both past and future.

If you have to know, here is something to know:  Only God knows it all. 

Finally, to all of us:  may we keep it simple:  When it comes to God, listen and obey.  For here is a wonderful thought for us.

If we are to be godly (that is, like God), then what is the first thing that we read of in this extraordinary story to be like God?  The answer is to Create.  We are not called to be God (impossible), but to be godly, and if we listen to God, and obey God, we will be creative forces in his world on behalf of all the creation.  We will be ambassadors of peace and goodness, righteousness and mercy, grace and truth.  Even our rest becomes a witness that God alone is able to save by his power and his word.

The Extraordinary: Jesus Christ as King of kings

The Extraordinary                                                                 11/20/16

Revelation 22


Our story starts out in Trenton, NJ, in a conference room for the Division of Child Protection and Permanency.  Two possible tracks are created for every child that enters the foster care system:  re-unification or adoption.

Having been involved in the system as a Foster Parent, these two tracks are intriguing.  Re-unification means that children who have been taken out of their home will be reunited with their parents after the parents satisfy the state’s requirements for children to return.  Adoption is the creation of a new permanent family (often nicknamed ‘the forever family’) when the state formally terminates the rights and responsibilities of biological parents, and then rules that those rights and responsibilities are given to adoptive parents.  In adoption, the child becomes a full forever member of the family into which he or she is adopted.

In creating these two tracks, the state was on to something big.  Hidden in the government’s layered complexity of process, definition, legal ramifications, and broken, difficult family dynamics is an extraordinary story.  Children can be reunified with the family that they were born into, or for some, they can enter a more hopeful story by being adopted. 

Simply put, this is the same story that Scripture tells.  Scripture includes the story of two redemptive tracks.  Both lead to the same Lord.

Hebrew Scripture tells the story of Israel, with whom God makes a covenant and wills to bless the world through his chosen people.  Hebrew Scripture (what Christians also call the Old Covenant, or Old Testament) tells us of Israel’s wanderings, faithlessness and rejection of the LORD.

The New Testament, after announcing Jesus Christ as Israel’s Messiah by his atoning work, proceeds to tell the story of new family members being added to the Covenant.  The Gentiles, that is, the nations previously outside of God’s covenant, are allowed to enter relationship with the True and Living God.  We do so by being adopted into the family.

Extraordinary news!

Now I need to take one step back and clarify something.  All children that enter the foster care system do so because of some level of breakdown in family life.  The parents have done something to involve the state’s entry into the conversation of what is best for the child.  This is where the metaphor breaks down for our sermon series. God the Heavenly Father, and Creator of heaven and earth, is not the problem.  We are. 

In fact, humans have brought so much dysfunction to the story that it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if no Scripture had been written at all.  If God had just washed his hands of humanity, no one could have accused him of injustice.

The Extraordinary story is that God makes covenant.  He chooses the people Israel to be his people in this world, and the people by whom the Messiah will come.  And after he comes, there is still more extraordinary:  the nations are invited in.

In the coming weeks and years, we are going to become familiar with this extraordinary story of the Bible.  We are going to revisit stories that are more popular, or at least recognized within popular culture, as well as stories that we are less familiar with.  But all along, we are going to encounter an Extraordinary God.

In case you are wondering:  The definition for extraordinary from the Oxford dictionary is…

1.  very unusual or remarkable, unusually great

The word is a late middle English word, from the Latin extraordinarious, or extra ordinem, which meant outside the normal course of events.

That God intervenes in human history is extraordinary, literally outside the normal course of human events. That God redeems is extraordinary.  And that God will right the world with his son Jesus Christ as King of kings is extraordinary.

Today, we start our journey by looking at the end of the extraordinary story of the Bible:  Revelation 22.  We do so on Christ the King Sunday, November 20th, 2016. We do so on this last Sunday of the Church Calendar year, before our journey of Advent, which announces the new church calendar year.  And this year, Thanksgiving is in between the end and the beginning.  What a special season of God’s goodness!

Do any of you read the final page of a novel before you sit down to read a story?  I’ve heard it done, though if reading a novel, I don’t want to know if the Butler did it.  To me, that is kind of the point of reading the book in the first place:  to find out.

Turning to the end of the biblical story is always a helpful practice for Christians.  We can not grow tired of the good future that the Lord has promised his people.  “The one who has this hope purifies themselves” (I John 3:3). 

Today, we remind ourselves that there is but One King:  The Lord God.

Today, we remind ourselves that this King’s intent for creation and for humanity is good, gracious and life-giving.

Today, we remind ourselves that however far we feel from the certain reality that Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, we can turn to him and find the righteousness of God.

          --no matter how much we have sinned

          --no matter how far we have gotten off course

          --no matter what systems threaten us or neighborhood

          --no matter what little decisions we’ve made along the way

                   that over time have distanced us from our Maker

          --no matter what anxiety robs us from God’s life for us

          --no matter what apathy we have fostered

          --no matter what prosperity has divided our focus

          --no matter what idol we have falsely served

          --no matter what disease or difficulty has entered us

          --no matter what work of the evil one has made its way into

                   our lives

          --no matter what


No matter what, the Extraordinary is before us today.

“Come!  Let the one who is thirsty come, and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17)

Revelation 22 speaks a picture of eternal life that is good and pleasing, and fulfills human life with its goodness and justice.  This is the way of life offered with Jesus Christ as King.

“They shall see his face” (vs 4).

Revelation 22 reminds its readers not to put anything in the place of God.  “Don’t do that!  Worship God” the angel warns John (vs 9).  Jesus Christ the King should be first.  That is the only appropriate order.

Revelation 22 warns us against adding to, or taking from what the Lord has spoken.  God’s word alone speaks to us the salvation that we need.

Revelation 22 tells us the King is coming soon!  His servants welcome that word:  Amen, Come, Lord Jesus (vs 20)

Revelation 22 ends with a blessing, a benediction:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.  Amen”.

We will need God’s grace for our journey.  But make no mistake:  God’s story is Extraordinary!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.  Amen.