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.

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