Sunday, September 25, 2011

Encountering God: In the Call

(A sermon based on Genesis 3:8-9 for Sunday, September 25, 2011)

The moving narratives of Genesis are meant, among other things, to help us understand what our experience as humans in this world and before God is all about. God had told Adam that he could eat from any tree in the garden except for the one called the tree of knowledge. But Eve and he ate from it anyway maybe out of rebellion or maybe at least partly because they had been told not to eat of it and, as we all know, what is prohibited just sounds good to us for some reason.

When they ate the fruit, something happened. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that, where before they had been in free and open communion with one another and with God, after they violated God’s commandment they sensed that they were somehow separated from one another and from God; they made leafy loincloths for themselves in an attempt to hide from each other and they then took themselves and their leafy camouflage to the trees in an attempt to hide from God.

Now, in a way, all of the Bible from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is the good news of God but it is accurate to say that we now encounter the first indication of what we might call the best news of all, namely, that God did not—that God does not—give up on his wayward human creation. God does not give up on us when we choose, despite all the grace he has shown us, to go our own way.

God does not give up on me. God does not give up on you.

And so it came to pass that Adam and Eve, huddled in their new (and no doubt irritating) garb behind some trees, had their first encounter with God after they had done what they had been told not to do and after they had placed themselves in a position where they had learned more than they were meant to know and had given up the freedom and peace they were meant to have. It was an encounter, please be sure to note, that God initiated.

All of us, as represented by Adam and Eve, misapprehend God’s grace as seen in God’s way for us; we take God’s limitless love and grace that leads to real life as something that limits our lives and ambitions and so we try to go another way. As amazing as it is, all human beings try to go their own way and unfortunately even disciples of Jesus are not exempt from that problem; even after we start following Jesus on his Way we will sometimes attempt to blaze our own trail.

The next thing we know we’re shivering in the woods trying to make ourselves very small so maybe nobody, including God, will see us.

Then comes the voice; then comes the call: “Where are you?”

It is amazing, really—despite the wonderful way of communion, fellowship, grace, and peace offered to us by God, we go our own way on purpose and we choose another way intentionally, but God comes looking for us, God comes calling for us. It is as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “(Adam) has not recognized the grace of the Creator which proves itself true by the fact that he calls Adam, by the fact that he does not let him flee” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (London, SCM, 1959), p. 84]. When we fall and fail, God will not let us go. God comes looking for us. God calls us. We need to recognize that grace for what it is: amazing!

“Where are you?” God called to the man. Have you ever wondered in what tone of voice Adam heard these words and in what tone of voice we are to hear them when they are directed toward us? (And make no mistake about it—they are directed toward us too because we all place ourselves in the same predicament in which Adam and Eve placed themselves—and most of us do so over and over. We all try to be our own god; we all think going our own way is a better way.) We might imagine God saying these words in anger or in harshness. I don’t hear them that way, though. It’s easier for me to imagine God saying them in sadness. But when I think about it, I am convinced that God said them—and that God says them—with gentleness and with compassion. That is how God speaks to us as we try to hide from God’s presence.

Here is the first act in the long drama of God wooing us back [cf. Ralph H. Elliott, The Message of Genesis: A Theological Interpretation (Nashville: Broadman, 1961), p. 47]. ; here is the first indication we get of “the furious longing of God” [the title of a book by Brennan Manning (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009)]; here is the first inkling we get of the “love that will not let us go.” We will see it throughout the Bible; we will see it throughout history; we will see it throughout our lives. Even when we don’t want God, God wants us! Even when we go hiding from God, God comes looking for us!

When Adam heard God’s question, his first reaction was to react out of guilt and fear: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” When God questioned him further and then questioned Eve, the deflections and the blame began to fly; Adam said of Eve, “She made me do it!” and Eve said of the serpent, “He made me do it!” Their reactions consisted of self-explanation and self-protection. And then they had to face the music.

I wonder how things might have been different for them had they simply said, “Here we are. We have sinned. We are so sorry. May we please come back to you? May we please be with you again? Is there anything we can do to undo the damage we’ve done?”

I wonder.

Let us compare Adam and Eve to Zacchaeus.

Adam and Eve were sinners who tried to hide among the trees from God. Zacchaeus was a sinner who climbed a tree to try to see Jesus. Adam and Eve, upon hearing the call of God, made excuses. Zacchaeus, upon hearing the call of Jesus (rather than “Where are you?” it was more like “There you are”; literally it was “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today”), got down that tree as fast as he could and gladly came into the presence of Jesus. Adam and Eve, upon being confronted with their sin, passed the blame. Zacchaeus did not wait to be confronted with his sin; as soon as he got into Jesus’ presence, he was so flooded with the grace of Jesus that he began to make pledges as to how he would change his life and try to make things as right as he could with those he had wronged.

Adam and Eve said with their words and with their actions, “I will hide; I will make excuses; I will keep trying to run.”

Zacchaeus said with his words and with his actions, “Here I am, Lord.”

God’s call is always, “Where are you?”

Our response makes all the difference.

Now we come to the Table of the Lord which is the Church’s way of remembering the Lord’s death until he comes. The Cross of Christ is God’s greatest “Where are you?”; it is God’s greatest effort to bring us back to him. The Cross and the Table are invitations to come out of hiding and to receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

What will your response be?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Encountering God: In the Limits

(A sermon based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 for Sunday, September 18, 2011)

It was a good and beautiful garden into which God placed Adam; it is a good and beautiful world into which God has placed us. Just as God told Adam to till, to keep, and to subdue the garden, so does God tell us to till, to keep, and to subdue the world. It is ours to enjoy, to develop, and to care for.

Adam’s good life in his good garden was not meant to be a no-holds-barred free-for-all, though, and neither is our good life in our good world. We can’t do whatever we want to do and have things remain good. The good life is not the life in which we do anything and everything that we might want to do, consequences be hanged. There are limits.

We tend to think that we encounter God mainly in the good things of life—in our families, in our enjoyment of nature, in our worship, and in our deliverance from hell and thus from the fear of death—and we certainly do encounter God in those places. But while we think of our encounters with God in those realities as positive, we tend to think of our encounters with God in the limits placed on us by God as negative. What I mean by that is that we think of the limitations placed on us by God as somehow being limiting to our lives; we think that they cost us something or that they take away some of the fun of life from us. We also tend to think that God places limitations on us—tells us not to do some things—in order to have a reason to catch us in wrongdoing and then to punish us for that wrongdoing.

So we tend to think of God’s “Thou shalt nots” as limiting and negative.

One of my goals this morning is to get us to think of our encounters with Gods in the limits that God sets as liberating and positive.

The first thing we should note is that in God’s way for us liberty and participation far, far outweigh limitation and restriction. God told the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.” Then God said, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…” (Genesis 2:16-17). And so God tells us that we may, in loving and trusting relationship with God, enjoy this wonderful life in this wonderful world but that there is a point beyond we should not try to go and that there is a boundary beyond which we should not try to reach. The bottom line is this: most things are for us but all things are for God only; knowing many things is our privilege but knowing all things is God’s prerogative. God knows the difference and God knows what is best for us.

The second thing we should note is that the placing of limits by God and the possibility of transgressing the limits by us are both part of the fabric of the world from the beginning. The tree of knowledge is there in the Garden along with the prohibition from God because God put it there. The serpent through which the temptation to eat of the tree comes is there because God put it there. There is nothing here of some outside force bringing sin about and forcing temptation on us; the possibilities are right there in creation from the beginning and God put the possibilities there.

So…it is necessary that we face the reality of the possibility that we will violate the limitations that God places on us and that we face up to the temptation to do so. It is also necessary that we accept our ability and responsibility to choose the ways we will go. All of these things are part and parcel of life in this world.

In the helpful words of John Gibson,

“Man” can either work for God and find happiness and freedom in serving him, or he can go his own way thinking he knows all there is to know, and live with the inevitable consequences. This the most fundamental choice that any of us is ever called upon to face, the choice between God and ourselves, between real freedom and the illusion of it, between Paradise and Hell, between life and death. [John C. L. Gibson, Genesis, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), p. 115]

We all choose what seems to us the greater way that is in fact the lesser way; we all—and maybe it comes in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood—try to seize more than is ours to seize and try to live our lives in our own way rather than in God’s way. We interpret the limitations that God places us in a negative way and we choose what we think is a better, more liberated, more satisfying way.

So far, everyone who has ever lived except for Jesus Christ has made the wrong choice.

The third thing we should note is that in actuality to accept the limitations placed on us by God is to experience the grace and love of God. It’s funny how we hear a “No” as being much more of a negative than it in fact often is. Most if not all children think or say at some point, when a parent tells them they can’t do something they want to do, “You don’t love me!” when in fact the limitation imposed by the parent just might be the most loving thing they could possibly do.

So the parent says to the child, “No, you can’t play beside the road.” A limitation is imposed. But do you hear what is also being said? “You can play any number of other places in the house or in the yard or in the neighborhood but no, you may not play in that one place where it is dangerous. Besides, I want you to have the freedom and the privilege of playing many other days in many other places. You don’t need to know what the freedom to play beside the road might lead to. I know for you.” The same words are implied when the parent says to the teenager, “No, you can’t go to that party where you and I both know there will be a most unfortunate lack of supervision.”

Good parents display their love and grace in the limits they place on their children; they place those limits precisely because they want their children to be able to live and love and thrive.

In an even greater way, God places limits on God’s children as a great expression of God’s love and grace. God says to us, “You don’t have to know everything or to take care of everything; you can’t do that, anyway. Just do what you’re able and gifted to do and leave the rest up to me. You have the great blessing of living in trust.” [cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), p. 52: “So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance, but trust.”]

You see, implied in the limit is a great limitlessness, implied in the “no” is a great “yes,” implied in the prohibition is a great permission, implied in the negation is a great affirmation, and implied in the possibility of disobedience is the possibility of great obedience. You are free to live not in grasping but in receiving, not in reaching to be like God but in being reached for by God, and not in anxiety but in trust.

The fourth thing we should note is that the grace and love of God are experienced in great abundance on the other side of our transgression of the limitations imposed on us by God. In the story, God told the man that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die and yet he does not die, at least not in the literal, physical sense, immediately upon eating the fruit. No doubt something in him died—his innocence, perhaps?—but he still had life to live and in the living of that life he would still have the opportunity to know and to be known by God and to love and to be loved by God.

Adam and Eve did what God told them not to do and in that was great loss. But on the other side was great grace. You and I have done what God told us not to do and in that is great loss. But on the other side is great grace.

In Romans we read,

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (5:18-21)

To put that in shorthand: our sin is great but God’s grace is greater! Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the tomb so that we might know the amazing grace of God that overcomes our sin! We all cross the limits that are placed on us by God in God’s love and grace but thank God that God’s love and grace know no limits!

We will thrive as we accept the love and grace in God’s “Thou shalt nots.” But we remember: we find the greatest love and grace in Jesus Christ who died on the cross that we might be forgiven for our sin. God’s grace is greater than our sin.