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The serpent said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’.?” (Genesis 3:1) Of “any tree in the garden.” Really? What is the serpent doing here? What is the serpent’s goal? God had said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden except for one, that one, the one in the middle, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The reality of what God had said and the serpent’s distortion of it are as different as night and day. In reality we have a generous God freely offering the abundance of his creation to us; in the serpent’s words we have a sadistic god dangling his fruit in our face while greedily hoarding the goods to himself. What is the serpent doing? He is destroying Eve’s faith in her creator. He is portraying her maker as callous, unkind, unreasonable. And he succeeded.
“You will not die” said the serpent. “For God knows that when you eat of it you will become like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Genesis 3:4-7
It wasn’t a difficult decision – not really. I mean, “she saw the fruit was good.” She saw the benefits. Why wouldn’t God want her to know good and evil? Will God really miss just one piece of fruit in a whole garden? I mean, God isn’t going to eat it anyway, is he?
What kind of decision was this that Adam and Eve made in the Garden? The command was so clear. God’s goodness so manifest. His abundance so evident. What sort of people would make this sort of decision?
People like you. In fact you make this decision each and every time you transgress God’s Word. Yeah we throw excuses up. “Did God really say that?” “Does this really apply?” “Isn’t that a little ridiculous?” You see the effects of the serpent’s work are still in play in our world. God’s Word and our reason are not always harmonious. Why? Because the words spoken by the serpent sunk deep down in Adam and Eve’s hearts and it poisoned their image of God. It destroyed their trust in Him. And we, born into their family, have inherited the same distrust and disregard for our God. We, born into their family, have inherited the same proclivity to trust in our own reason and to do things our own way.
You see we don’t sin just because some little dude in a red jumper suit eggs us on; we sin because ultimately we trust in ourselves and in our own reason more than we trust the God who created us.
That is why we need Christ. That is why God did not leave Adam and Eve to vanquish the serpent themselves, (God knew they would continue to listen to him rather than do so anyway) but rather promised that one day the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.This day began when Jesus Christ became incarnate through the virgin Mary – when He entered our world as the seed of the woman. For in Jesus Christ God has vanquished the serpent, our ancient foe. In Jesus Christ God has entered into our sinful, rebellious family and brought us back to God. In Jesus Christ you are no longer the sinful man, women or child you know yourself to be, but rather the Holy, Redeemed, Child He has created you to be. Did God really say that? Yep, and He told us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, He (or she) is a new creation. The old has gone, the new is come.”
“Bones” is one of my favorite TV shows. The show details the relationship between the brilliant but often pop-culturally ignorant forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and down to earth FBI agent Seeley Booth. Together, Bones and Booth solve gruesome murders, which usually means they have to identify the remains of some poor soul found who-knows-where.
Bones is incredibly smart and is often able to discern the minutest details about a person’s life just by looking at their skeletal remains. In this regard, she is a modern Sherlock Holmes. To the less brilliant (i.e. everyone else in the show), Bones can come across as being too scientific in her approach and is often accused of being cold and out of touch. At one point early in the first season, Bones defends her method by stating that she can see the faces of those who have been murdered, she can tell what kind of life they lived, how old they were, and what they looked like simply by looking at their bones.
For Bones, murder is the dehumanization and devaluation of a person. She sees her work as giving a person back their humanity, their value, and their identity.
The defense of her approach gives insight into Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:21, 22, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Jesus looks at our attitudes towards others in the same light as murder. When we insult another person or call them a fool we devalue them and in a sense try to steal away part of their humanity. But it is a difficult thing for us to simply change our attitudes. In fact, it is impossible outside of the redemptive and creative power of the crucified and resurrected Christ.
In his death and resurrection Christ redeemed us and gave new value to our humanity and still does as he represents our frail selves in perfection before the throne of God. Through his death and resurrection Christ has made us new creations. Through the power of the Holy Spirit may we have the courage to humanize rather than dehumanize and to call each other brother or sister rather than fool.
17. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” 18. I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ Luke 15:17-19 ESV
You may recognize these lines from Jesus’ famous “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” For those of you who may be less familiar with the story or who have simply had a long day, the parable involves a father and his two sons the younger of whom demands his share of the inheritance and proceeds to squander it in a far away country. As he begins to be in need a severe famine comes over the land and he finds himself with nothing – no friends, no family, no money, no more share of the inheritance, and no food. Perhaps worse is what he does have; the guilt of sin, the shame of bankruptcy, the degradation inherent for a Hebrew person who is required to work with pigs (an “unclean” animal in Hebraic culture) estranged relationships with his father and his family, and the knowledge that he has made his own bed.
“But when he came to himself,” these words are an important turning point in the parable. I have understood them in the sense that, “And then the young person repented, came home, asked for forgiveness” and on that basis was welcomed home and forgiven. I no longer believe that to be a correct understanding of what Jesus is saying. It is not wrong in every regard – the prodigal does make a confession of sin, he does come home and he is welcomed home and forgiven. However, he does not ask for forgiveness, nor is his confession of sin the basis upon which he is welcomed back.
The prodigal knows he has sinned, but he does not ask for forgiveness. There is no indication that he imagined his father would forgive him. No, the best he is hoping for is employment – to be treated as a hired servant. He is not returning home in order to gain reconciliation; he is going home because he is underpaid and starving.
All this serves to make the actions of the father in this parable all the more stunning. When he sees his son coming he does not wait for him to arrive, prepare a lecture or determine whether he had need of another employee. No, the father runs to his son. He embraces him, kisses him, tells him “all is well.” Notice he does all of this before the prodigal can say even a word. The father, whom the son has sinned against, is the one whose desire it is to be reconciled with the prodigal. The motivating force behind this reconciliation is purely the father’s love for his wayward boy. Yeah, the boy begins his speech and verbally applies to work for his father – after all, maybe he is hiring, but even here the boys desire is more to supply his own needs (food and money) than to accomplish his father’s agricultural work. Meanwhile, the father’s heart is fully displayed in open love and affection for his wayward boy. “Kill the calf” he shouted. “We are going to celebrate. My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
All this is spoken in the presence of tax collectors, sinners, pharisees, and scribes for our good. Why? So that we might know the radical heart of God.
Vicarious. It is a strange word, but it has quickly become one of my favorites. It is difficult to know when one has learned a word or first started using it, but for theological purposes I began using this word when I read Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace by James B. Torrance last year.
In his book, Torrance uses the word “vicarious” fairly often and the way he uses it has significantly expanded my understanding of the work of Christ. “Vicarious” is how Torrance gives interpretation to the Incarnation of Christ. Here are a few quotes from the book for you to mull over.
“In our name, he lived a life agreeable to the will of God, in our name vicariously confessed our sins and submitted to the verdict of guilty for us, and in our name gave thanks to God. We pray ‘in the name of Christ’ because of what Christ has done and is doing today in our name, on our behalf.” (p. 46).
In this quote, Torrance is speaking about prayer and what it means to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Later on, Torrance continues to describe the benefits to Christians that Christ’s vicarious work in the incarnation brings.
“It is supremely in Jesus Christ that we see the double meaning of grace. Grace means that God gives himself to us as God, freely and unconditionally, to be worshiped and adored. But grace also means that God comes to us in Jesus Christ as man, to do for us and in us what we cannot do. He offers a life of perfect obedience and worship and prayer to the Father, that we might be drawn by the Spirit into communion with the Father, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord.’” (p. 65).
“To do for us and in us what we cannot do.” Simply beautiful. I won’t say too much more but this is, at least for me, the beauty of thinking of Christ’s incarnation vicariously. I, as a human being, am hopeless, frail, and broken. But Christ came to earth and did for me and in me what I could never and would never be able to do. Praise and glory be to him.
Torrance, James B., Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3).”
Imagine the impact these words of Jesus must have had on Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He is described in John 3:1 as a “man of the pharisees,” a “ruler of the Jews.” He was among the class of people who were respected and looked up to by the Jewish people of his day. He, and the other pharisees, were diligent in their efforts to live out the law – to do what God has required. And to him, to Nicodemus, whose whole life had been dedicated to observing God’s law in order that they might be included in God’s Kingdom, Jesus said, “No one can see, or enter, the Kingdom of God unless he (or she) is born again. The work Nicodemus had been doing was not sufficient to grant him entrance into the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to be “born again.”
My friends Sean and Anne, (well actually just Anne) recently gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Julia. As I am writing this, she is approximately 50 hours old. She is flesh of Sean and Annie’s flesh and bone of their bone. She looks just like Anne. This of course makes sense; she is their daughter.
“Flesh gives birth to flesh” Jesus says, “And that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” To be brought into the world is a joint act between humankind and God. To be brought into the Kingdom of God is an act of God. It is only through the work of God that any person can be born into the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus spoke with Nicodemus he knew full well that Nicodemus’ acts would never bring Nicodemus into the Kingdom. If Nicodemus, or any of us, was ever to enter the Kingdom it would have to be a work of God. As Jesus spoke with Nicodemus about this He brought up the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness and alluded to the time when He would be lifted up on the cross. Jesus knew that His own death and resurrection would be the means through which we and Nicodemus could be born again.
Today, through the power of God’s Word, and the waters of Baptism new life is created in His people. Through these same means faith is created, new birth is accomplished and the saving work of God is carried out. Praise be to God.
As I stood in the Cenex garage waiting for my car to be repaired, I started thinking about faithfulness and whether or not my car could be deemed faithful.
It’s been through an accident or two and has had to have its tires changed more than it probably should have, but in general I have trusted it. It has made several long trips through mountains and deserts. It kept my wife and me safe during our short stint in Southern California. And my son’s car seat fits safely and securely in the back seat. So as I stood in the maintenance garage, I thought of these things and weighed it against its current condition and wondered if it was still that car. Why did it leave me wondering in the snow about how to get to work? Why didn’t it start when I needed it to?
The problem turned out to simply be a bad battery so I guess it could be argued that the car itself wasn’t unfaithful, just the battery. But still… at a time of need, my 2002 Ford Taurus failed me and my assessment of it as a faithful vehicle faltered. (It’s a good thing I had another 2002 Ford Taurus sitting in my driveway ready to pick up the slack.)
Faithful is the kind of word we use to describe something that will not leave us surprised and cold in the snow wondering how to get to work. It’s also how we describe someone who will not leave us or do us wrong. A wonderful song about faithfulness comes from the band Journey in the song “Faithfully”. In it, a couple is struggling with the distance between them, but is determined to be faithful to each other.
The fact that a song like that has come to be at all betrays the reality of unfaithfulness in our lives. Because we all know what unfaithfulness could feel like and how hurtful it can be, faithfulness is something we all carefully look for and desire.
Scripture describes God as faithful. The pains and hurts of this world often make it seem like God is distant, like he doesn’t care, but the Scriptures remind us over and over again that God’s faithfulness is, well, faithful. He is there for us. Always. God does not leave us waiting in the snow seeking another way. Ever. God doesn’t cheat on us, though we certainly cheat on him. Thankfully.
“Your unfailing love, O LORD, is as vast as the heavens; your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the ocean depths. You care for people and animals alike, O LORD. How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. You feed them from the abundance of your own house, letting them drink from your river of delights. For you are the fountain of life, the light by which we see. Pour out your unfailing love on those who love you; give justice to those with honest hearts.” – Psalm 36:5-10 NLT
The trip from Park River to Grand Forks is a pretty mundane trip. There are no mountains, big cities, significant landmarks, or even coffee shops on the way. The destination isn’t even that exciting (unless you are going to a Sioux hockey game). I guess when it comes to road trips, going to Grand Forks is like going to an ice cream store and ordering vanilla.
Even vanilla ice cream can be made exciting with the right combination of chocolate powder, chocolate candies and hot fudge sauce. In a similar matter all one has to do is add a group of junior high kids to the Grand Forks road trip and suddenly you have an adventure! Add in a flat tire, a gas station with a broken nozzle attached to its air compressor and an impromptu visit to a friend with an air compressor, and some very, happy-to-be-together and out-of-Park-River kids and the adventure gets even better.
Our destination was the climbing wall in the Grand Cities mall. The students had a great time and I learned a different way of facilitating than I was used to. McDonald’s was a hit after. What struck me more, however, were some of the conversations the kids had on the way there. Among the many conversations concerning various games, phone calls, and random goofiness were conversations recalling spiritual truths they had learned from Bible Camp, youth group and Sunday school. And it wasn’t just that they were discussing spiritual things, it was that they were boldly (and sometimes fiercely) proclaiming truths from God’s Word. While there was no opposition to them in the van, they were preparing themselves to defend the truth of God’s Word that they had learned in various public settings. It was fun to hear the content. It was fun to hear the passion. It was a joy to observe from the driver’s seat their unity of conviction.
I guess as I pulled out of Park River I was thinking that Grand Forks was my destination. The conversations in the back seat reminded me that our true destination is Heaven. It also reminded me of Psalm 145:4, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” May we be faithful in sharing God’s Word with our youth in order that they may “commend your works” and “declare God’s mighty deeds.”
I was struck recently by a sermon I read by James B. Torrance titled, “Why Does God Let Men Suffer: A Sermon on Job.” In this sermon, Torrance states two propositions. The first is that at times God sends suffering to God’s people as an act of punishment, but that it is done out of God’s love much like a father might discipline a child. The second proposition is that Job shows us that suffering does not have to mean that we are being punished for our sins (at least not directly).
But that isn’t what really struck me. Rather, it was Torrance’s answer to my question. See, I’ve struggled for a long time now with the inequality of suffering and its potential effects. When I worked as a chaplain intern at a hospital a few summers ago, I met many patients and their families who were struggling with their own very real and immediate sufferings and pains. Because of their trials, many of them were brought to new levels of faith in their relationships with Christ. They were given something through which to endure and so what happened is that I found myself lacking something that they had because I had not suffered as they did. So I was left with the weird and nebulous position of wanting what they had in such a way that I was almost inviting suffering upon myself to achieve it. Almost.
But then through the Holy Spirit, Torrance opened up the cross of Christ to me in a way I never before realized. Christ suffered on my behalf. Previously, I had only thought of that in the sense of Christ suffering for the forgiveness of specific sins. But now I have been shown that when the curtain was torn it wasn’t only for that reason (though that is an extremely good and important reason), but rather that the Holy of Holies was made available to all who are in Christ because Christ suffered as Job suffered, but only greater. Through Christ’s suffering, we have all now seen God with our eyes.
This isn’t to say that a person who undergoes suffering won’t receive a benefit that others are unable to understand. They have paid a cost to do so. But Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our High Priest who has in every respect been tested as we are, yet remained sinless and we are able through him to approach the throne of grace with confidence and boldness. The curtain has been torn. Christ’s suffering did for us what Job’s suffering did for him and we are able to say with him, “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my eyes.”
With great excitement the children gather around the young adult. They are ready to run around, play, laugh and have a great time. The game, “Smaug’s Treasure” is quite simple. One participant designated “Smaug” endeavors to guard some random object designated as the “treasure.” The other participants form an ever fluctuating (but ideally set and defined) “circle” with a radius of roughly 10 feet around “Smaug.” At Smaug’s invitation select participants with “blue” on or “summer birthdays” etc. try to steal Smaug’s treasure. If they are tapped by Smaug they are “out.” If they succeed then they become the new “Smaug.” Smaug, by the way, is the name of the fire-breathing dragon from The Hobbit by J.R. Tolkien. It’s a fun, silly game. Usually no particular spiritual lesson is imparted. Usually.
On Saturday we welcomed nearly 30 1-3 graders. One of the two lessons for the day came from the book of Numbers chapter 22-24. It is the story commonly known as “Balaam’s Donkey. It is the only story in the Bible in which a donkey talks. It is also the only story in the Bible in which a king hires a sorcerer to put a curse on his enemies (who just happened to be the Hebrews). It is a pretty straight forward story. King Balak sees the Israelite people coming. He has heard what they have done to several other kings and naturally does not want them to conquer his land. Seeing that he does not have sufficient military strength to drive them away he decides to hire Balaam to put a curse on them. God, of course, is not about to let this happen. I invite you to read the story.
The thing about most Old Testament stories, is that you never really grasp the full meaning of them without understanding them in the larger context of what God is doing throughout scripture. Children often need help with this. In the 12th chapter of Genesis, God makes some marvelous promises to Abraham. Among them, are promises of land, many descendants and most significantly the promise that through Abraham, God would bless all the people’s of the world. God’s promise was to bless Abraham and to bless the world through Abraham. King Balak’s will was to curse the descendants of Abraham – the people whom God had promised to bless, and through whom God had promised to bless us.
Throughout the story, God intervenes again and again in order to protect His people. He is like “Smaug” guarding his treasure. God simply will not allow His people to be cursed by Balaam – they are too important to Him. God works through a fascinating and surprising turn of events to protect His people and uphold His promises.
The stakes are higher than may appear. You see it is not just a matter of one people occupying a land or winning a battle. No, God’s promise to bless all the people’s of the world is a promise that finds fulfillment through a very special descendant of Abraham – namely Jesus. Through the skills of Balaam and the occult, King Balak’s actions threatened to destroy the very people through whom God would bring us the Messiah. In this way Balak’s actions represented a direct threat on our salvation. The Good News is that God loves us far too much to allow any king, sorcerer or power of evil to thwart His good and gracious plan to bless and save us through His Son Jesus Christ.
May you know, like many of the children who camp to this Saturday find yourself trusting in the promises and power of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.