Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Ten Virgins

Imagine with me your gut-reaction if the preacher mounted the pulpit, perhaps with shame or perhaps without, and declared himself unprepared to preach!  By that exercise I want to make you feel something.  And what exactly are your feelings—embarrassment, anxiety, or maybe even anger? Whatever those feelings are—embarrassment, anxiety, or anger—hold them and let them continue to affect you as we open our Bibles to Matthew 25:1-13 and read the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.  What would you feel if you were found unprepared to meet Jesus?

To understand the story that Jesus tells, you have to understand ancient marriage customs among the Jewish people.  On the arranged day, the bridegroom and his close friends and relatives—the groom and his men—would leave his house and make their way to the bride’s house.  Maybe he was travelling from across town, or maybe he lived in another village.  Now once he arrived, there would be celebration and the groom also would enter into negotiations with the family over the dowry, or price to be paid for the honor of taking the bride as his wife.  I imagine the groom making what he feels to be a reasonable offer and the Jewish papa, stroking his whiskers and retorting, “For my daughter???  She is worth far more than that, far more!”  These negotiations sometimes would take a long time and would keep the rest of the wedding party waiting for the groom until quite late.  They probably did not begin until the day’s work was done and the evening meal was over.  Once he was ready to leave, there would be a procession through the streets after nightfall back to his home.  Waiting to join the procession were a group of young, unmarried women, who were the close friends and relatives of the bride.  Today we would call them bridesmaids, but literal translations simply refer to them as “ten virgins”.  These young ladies would apparently wait until the groom came out of the bride’s house and, from there, would attend the bride on the way to his house.  Everyone in the procession was expected to carry a lamp, and it was probably more of a torch than the small indoor oil lamps that we see in this picture.  When the oil burnt off and the torch went out, the head would again be saturated from a flask of oil and then lit off of another torch.  Festivities at the groom’s house would carry on for several days as the actual wedding ceremony.  There is no mention of the bride in the parable, and that reminds us that we should not try to overplay a parable by expecting to squeeze a meaning out of every detail.  So let us turn to the details that are most important.

1. The problem identified.  There is a problem—at least for five of the ten virgins and it’s important that we identify it if we are to understand the parable.  This depends on your perspective.  Now if you are a materialist, you may say that the problem is an oil shortage!  But that is not the case, because the five wise virgins insist that there is oil to be had from the merchants.  The five, in fact, leave for that purpose and miss the bridegroom’s appearance.  So the materialist would be wrong.  Another perspective is that of the socialist, who might say the problem is a lack of sharing!  There is no big-government program to redistribute the oil held by the five virgins among all ten virgins!  Well, sharing appeals to the foolish virgins, but the wise ones want no part of it because it will mean that everyone will soon run out of oil!  They would all be stuck in the dark halfway to his house!  But I would suggest to you that the problem is not lack of oil, nor lack of government welfare.  The problem is a lack of LOVE among the five foolish virgins.  If they loved the bride, they would have made sure to have enough oil to light the way for her procession on the most important day of her life.

Now someone may be wondering why I think love is the issue here, when the word doesn’t even appear in the story Jesus tells.  I see it because I know that nothing matters more to God than successful relationships—first the covenant we share with God and then the loving relationships we share with other Christians and other people.  Everything Jesus did, from taking a place within humanity to shedding His blood on the Cross, was done in love and for love, to make relationships succeed—and to prevent the greatest failure, which would be to be found relationally unprepared to meet Him when time ends and eternity begins.  Another tip-off is that Jesus divides people into categories of wise and foolish, and the distinguishing factor is the decisions they make or fail to make in reference to an important relationship.  And like the OT book of Proverbs, Jesus does not use the word fool to describe someone who was born stupid, nor to describe someone who lacked the advantages of education.  No, there are fools with sky-high IQ’s and with long diplomas and college degrees.  A fool is someone who knows the right thing to do and chooses differently, and the biggest fools of all are those who choose wrongly regarding love, regarding what is best for success in relationships. 

Let’s apply this to ourselves—and there is no hiding.  When Jesus comes, some of you will be found wise and some of you will be foolishly unprepared.  And although the foolish will offer 1,001 reasons why they are unprepared, the REAL reason will be a lack of love for Jesus.  Let’s consider three essentials to a successful relationship with our Lord, and consider that each is a readiness indicator:

So where does one get “oil”?  That begins with exposure to the Crucifixion, to the dying of Jesus on the Cross.  That gruesome spectacle, with an awareness of what all it signifies and represents, floods the heart with the love of God.  And it calls forth a response that either comes, or it does not.  Those whose response is at all reasonable enter, by surrender to Jesus’ Lordship, a covenant relationship bound with faith and with love.  This Christian regards the Bible as the collection of the Lord’s requirements (as well as the clear statement of His provisions and blessings), and can we imagine anyone at all moved by the Cross who would neglect to read these requirements?  The oil that will enable any of us to meet our Bridegroom begins with the love poured out on the Cross.  The supply flows not only from Scripture, but from prayers lifted to the Lord, and from the variety of blessings that come to those who engage in service and ministry in the name of the Lord.  The whole Christian experience gives ample preparation; it is the source of our “oil”.

The supply needs to be replenished with regularity, and so the Cross must be revisited again and again.  When there is a lapse of faithfulness or a fall into sin, it is to the Cross that we go and let it have the effect it must as we behold with our eyes yet again.  We go to the Cross at least once a week, because every time we take the bread and drink the red juice at the Lord’s Supper we are brought to His Cross.  And every time we go there, our oil is topped off.

2.      The problem intensified.  Now notice that the problem facing the foolish virgins is intensified by the delay of the Bridegroom.  He took so long that all ten fell asleep!  The meaning is plain.  Jesus said plainly that He was going away and that His return would not be immediate.  And He also was careful as he could possibly be to eliminate speculation about how long it might be or at what time He might return (even so, fools continue to make their predictions).  He only said that he would return at a time nobody expects, like a thief in the night.  It has been nearly 2,000 years and, guess what?  We are still waiting, aren’t we? 

The danger in the delay is that some might start to doubt that there will ever be a return, that it’s all some kind of religious fiction.  I mean people believe all kinds of silly things, and maybe especially when it comes to religion.  Many religious beliefs are silly fictions, if we may be honest.  And perhaps we Christians are under a silly delusion as well.  Maybe there will be no Second Coming.  Maybe we are waiting for something that will never happen—I mean, 2,000 years!  Do Christians have anything to show us why we should be on the edge of our seats all the time?  As a matter of fact, we do!  We serve a God who has already proven His ability to launch projects that would take centuries to complete.  Sending Jesus the first time, complete with prophetic predictions that came many centuries earlier is the best example.  By the time Jesus came, many had given up on waiting for God’s Messiah to arrive.  They held on as long as they could, but their faith gave way against the rush of the river of time.  Listen to Isaiah 46:8-10.  Only our God can predict the future, telling from ancient time what will surely happen only after long stretches into the future.  There is no other god and no other religion that can make claims like this, but our God has done things like this before, and we would truly be fools if we began to doubt Him now when Jesus is (once again) delayed for centuries.  We had better take His warning to be prepared seriously!  Jesus arrived on prophetic schedule—right on time!—after centuries of delay at His first coming.  And this same Jesus promises to return—and will He find us prepared?

3.      An unacceptable solution.  Finally, notice that one potential solution to the problem facing the foolish virgins is eliminated as unacceptable and unworkable.  They thought they could rely on others for what they should have supplied themselves and surely would have supplied had there been more love in their hearts. 

The parable teaches that no Christian can rely on another for “oil.”  Let there be no misunderstanding about this.  Jesus is not teaching that Christians should not help one another.  We help one another in a thousand different ways.  We provide:  help – encouragement – counsel and advice – prayer – support of all kinds!

But there are some spiritual provisions that no Christian can provide for you because they can only be gotten through a personal connection with Jesus! 

--I can pray for you, but I can’t say your prayers. 

--I can read God’s word to you, but I can’t make you believe it or force you to find room in your heart to appreciate it. 

--I can preach the crucified and risen Savior, but I can’t make you love Him.  In short, other Christians can help you in many ways, but they simply cannot be your Jesus!  Other Christians cannot get “enough Jesus” for both of you!  You cannot be saved by someone else’s Savior!  You have to find your own Savior; your own oil.

You have to have your own relational connection and you cannot rely on the connections of others.  There is a demonstration of this in Acts 19:13-16.  The sons of Sceva were trying to be “name droppers”, but they had no personal connection to Jesus.  They tossed against demonic forces the Name of Jesus, whom Paul preached.  The demons responded that, indeed, they knew Jesus.  And, they knew Paul. But they had no regard for mere name droppers, and they sent the foolish exorcists way bleeding!  And Jesus knew that some of His own followers would try to drop his name without actually bonding with Him (Matthew 7:21-23).  Notice that here, just as in the story of the ten girlfriends, the Lord shuts out people because He did not know them!  The same shortage leads to the same failure.

No, the only way you can be ready is by having your own living, growing, relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ!  But recall here, that the real problem facing the foolish is a lack of love—and it’s hard to love someone while you are waiting for a long time.  Some of you listening realize that you are running low on oil, and you know you would not be ready if Jesus came right now.  And you know deep down that your love for Jesus is not what it should be.  Listen, there is one place and only one place you can go for oil.  You can’t rely on other Christians, you have to go to the Cross yourself!  You go to the Cross, and let that image, you let that Person, you let that Message into your mind and heart.  Once you do that, you can choose to let or heart respond, or you can choose to prevent your heart from responding.  You can be foolish, or you can be wise—but nobody can make that choice for you.  And if the Cross is not powerful enough to achieve that there is no other way to salvation.  But you make up your mind, because Jesus is coming soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Laws, Sacrifice, and Mr. Miagi

I will admit that sometimes I have little patience for some passages in the OT.  I am now reading the Books of Moses, and sometimes I wonder why I invest my time reading about outdated religious rituals, dietary restrictions, treatments of skin disease, and the extremely tedious details of the construction of the Tabernacle.  But not only are there jewels of spiritual brilliance hidden within these dusty old Scriptures, the overall vision they create seems to me to be a perfect backdrop against which to view and understand the NT Scriptures and to make sense of the spirituality of the New Covenant.

I often say that my own Christian faith is Jewish to the core.  I happily and gratefully acknowledge that Jewish theology, Jewish spirituality and Jewish sensibilities are locked into the core of my own worldview.  This morning’s sermon will give us an opportunity to consider the value of the OT Scriptures, especially when we see the OT as the stage onto which Jesus appeared and accomplished His most monumental triumph on the Cross.  My intention is to set before us three specific ways in which the OT prefigures the arrival of Jesus.

I think it is important to consider both Judaism and Christianity as religions of blood.  It may sound a bit strange but one of the reasons I have such a deep appreciation for Judaism is that it grounds my own experience of spirituality in a truly earthly reality.  Judaism is not a philosophy pulled out of the wispy realm of intellect.  At its heart is a system of bloody sacrificial rituals, and that grounding in this-worldly physicality is not confined to the OT; when Jesus dies on the Cross He walks to it upon the bridge of OT blood-religion.

We are tempted to confine spirituality to a realm that is decidedly unearthly.  God himself is exalted beyond this realm and, although He penetrates this world with His presence, God is truly not part of this world.  He is the Creator and the world is His creation.  And so it seems right that our own spirituality should somehow be divorced from all that physically pertains to this world.  But in the thick part of our Bibles (the OT), God has denied us the separation of spirit and flesh.  They are inextricably tied together.

In the first place, we see the seemingly illogical approach to Jewish notions of being “clean” or being “unclean” before God.  On the one hand, one may become unclean by transgressing the commands of God.  Sin has the power to stain our inner being.  But on the other hand, one may equally become unclean through bodily discharges, or through dietary choices, or by touching a corpse in the process of committing the dead body to burial.  And however one becomes unclean, God tied the removal or purification from uncleanness to a system of sacrifice so bound up with bloody animal sacrifice that it is gruesomely disgusting to many of us who get our meat cleanly wrapped in supermarkets without ever experiencing the process of slaughter and butchering.

And we should not forget that many religions that developed in pagan antiquity were likewise bloody.  Some of these religions gave expression to a bloodlust that was primitive and frenzied even to the point of slaughtering human victims.  It is here that we find a clear departure for Judaism.  While the OT religion called for rivers of bloody sacrifice, there was no uncontrolled enjoyment of bloodlust.  The priests did not set themselves upon victims with wild enjoyment of cruelty. 

What we find is that instead of spontaneous thrill-killing, the blood was poured out only by the priests and the only through carefully prescribed rituals.  It is as though the blood is spilled only to fulfill some carefully devised purpose and with great forethought.  There are actually several basic categories of sacrifices, and some of these could have different functions.  There are sacrifices both of animals and of grain or drink offerings.  Animals could be used in burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin or guilt offerings.  I won’t take the time to explain the whole sacrificial system, but the point is that the blood of these animals was not shed to give some thrill to the guy with the knife, but to effect some kind of purification.  In fact, the priests were required to forge some sort of personal connection with the animal by first laying their hands upon its head.  I can only imagine that this connection touched off some feelings of empathy and sympathy, and a realization that some other living thing was dying in order to correct the uncleanness that originates with my own guilt.

We also need to explore the whole Jewish notion of “uncleanness.”  We find this described especially in the book of Leviticus.  The setting is just after God has redeemed His people Israel in the Exodus from Egypt and entered into covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.  Now that they are God’s people and now that He is their God, through the most solemn relationship, God tells them over and over again, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).  And then God spells out in great detail what exactly makes a person “unclean” (which means that the person has in some way deviated from the holiness that characterizes God).  And this uncleanness was not merely personal; it had social implications for the whole community of Israel and clearly had to potential to be infectious to other people if it was not cleared up and eradicated.  Especially, the uncleanness that erupted among the people was understood to contaminate the Tabernacle or the Temple, which is why the sacrifices took place here on the holy altar.  Also, each unclean act or sin was understood to accumulate in the physical geographic land—the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.  By polluting the temple and the land, anything unclean was somehow being made to attach to God; and God would not allow Himself to be soiled this way because He is exquisitely holy.  And God threatened that the impurity of the Jewish people might result in Him leaving the Temple or Tabernacle abandoned (and God made good on these threats several times).  And, God threatened that the pollution of human uncleanness would cause the land itself to vomit out the people who were under God’s ownership just as it had vomited out the previous pagan inhabitants of the land.

And so, the books of Moses declared plainly what did or did not make people unclean.  And when they felt the stigma of guilt, the remedy was through a bloody sacrifice of an animal and the matter had to be handled by religious officials.  It was as though the blood of the sacrifice were a sort of detergent that would scrub and purge the stain of unclean behavior, and only this cleaning would enable to person to rest comfortably in the presence of God.

Now there is a sense in which this whole system—drenched in the blood of innocent sacrificial animals—was nothing but a fiction.  We see this on the one hand where God rejects sacrifices because those who offered the sacrifices had hearts so unclean toward God that rivers of blood could not have cleansed them.  There was no repentance, no intention of mending a damaged relationship.  And on the other hand, we have the explicit declaration in the NT book of Hebrews, “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4).  That whole system really was a fiction.  Likewise, when we look at the rather arbitrary selection of foods that were considered clean/unclean, that whole system was also a fiction.  Eating a lobster, or a BLT was considered “unclean” in Israel, but we eat such foods and don’t think for a minute that we have become disgusting to God for doing so.  There is a sense in which true spiritual concerns are not bound up in such earthly considerations.

Why then was Jewish religion so bloody, and what possible significance could this have for we who embrace Christianity.  When I first thought this through, the 1984 movie Karate Kid was big at the box office.  A boy named Daniel was being bullied in a new neighborhood, and a karate expert named Miagi came to his rescue.  He agrees to teach Daniel karate, but first he has him come to his house and work chores for long hours.  First, he has him wash the cars in his collection and then wax them with very specific movements:  “wax on/wax off.”  Then he has him paint his deck and fences, again with very specific movements:  “brush up/brush down.” 

This goes on for so long that Daniel feels like the work is going to go on forever and feels that he will never get to start karate lessons at all, and so Daniel throws a tantrum and declares that he is done with the whole Miagi-thing.  But then the karate-master explains that the activities were not just busy work; the specific actions of the chores were actually karate moves, and they also strengthened the muscles that would perform those moves:  “wax on/wax off; brush up/brush down.”  And then Miagi attacked Daniel with punches and kicks, and Daniel responds instinctively with the moves he had learned from washing cars and painting fences.  The lesson taught by Miagi, at first, was cleverly hidden.

I saw that and realized that the OT sacrifices were like that in relation to the later sacrifice of Jesus.  God was teaching us that every decision in life, however earthly and detached from spiritual concerns it might seem to be, has ramifications for our relationship with God.  They are potentially defiling.  And God was teaching us that our approach to Him needs to be thoughtful and extremely considerate.  One does not simply saunter up to God supposing that God could not possibly reject us or consider us to be disgustingly unclean.  In fact, God was making absolutely clear that our worthiness to approach Him would be possible only through the sacrifice of some being other than ourselves.  As we conclude, let us all carefully read the fuller passage in Hebrews from which I earlier quoted (Hebrews 10).  We are allowed to see that the OT system, built in fiction, was a shadow of a reality that came when Jesus took the Cross.  The relationship with God intends to infuse us with His holiness.  And we dare not become unclean with sin.



Sunday, October 18, 2015

Lessons from Cain and Abel

Paul urges us to not be conformed to the world, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  To do that, it is vital to go back in Scripture to see how things once were, so that we will have perspective on our own day.  A little fish born and raised in muddy water is unaware of the mud.  How the perspective changes for those who read of times when waters ran clear....
Read Gen. 4.  How can you reach all the way to God?  Toss your inadequacies?  Bridge the distance?  That was the driver that caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit because the promise was that eating would make them like God, knowing good and evil.  That is the driver for many failed strategies early in Genesis for people to reach to God.  Now, Adam and Eve have children and the issue is still the same.  Cain and Abel would like to make it all the way to God, to close the distance.  But some things have changed even since Adam and Eve.

First, do not fail to notice that the environment has changed—and this is true for us as well as for these new children.  We share the new environment.  Adam and Eve were in Paradise, in the Garden of Eden, in an environment that was at all times pleasant and fulfilling.  But as punishment, they are cast out of the Garden into a new environment.  The designation for this new home is ambiguously described as “east of Eden.”  If you think about it, that means that God is thought of as being to the west, and so to move eastward is to move away from God instead of toward God.  Btw, if you look at the holy temple in Jerusalem, it was built with the most holy place—the very section of the temple where God was said to keep His presence—that part was to the west and so as a person left the temple, they would go out to the east and away from God.  And I say that because as we continue to read Genesis, anytime someone goes east, it indicates a move away from God.

Now the reason why the first sinners are banished from the Garden is because there is another tree located there—the tree of life.  And to eat of that fruit would break the final barrier that now existed between God and His human image-bearers.  If Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life, they would become immortal like God.  Now, immortality is a reasonable and worthwhile desire.  It is something that we should want, and it is something that God obviously longs to give us.  But not simply by eating fruit--not any longer!  We have sinned against God, and immortality can never again be had that easily again.  There are lessons to learn and deficiencies to overcome if we ever want to go all the way to God.

So the new environment, east of Eden, is a place of mortality.  It is a place where people live and die.  And yet another difference began with Adam and Eve.  Not only is the new environment a place of mortality, it is a place where sin has invaded to epidemic proportions.  Can you imagine how easy it would be to avoid sin if you lived in a sin-free environment like Eden?

  • Just think how easy it would be to tell the truth in a world where none of the people around you ever told lies! 
  • Just think how easy it would be to remain sexually pure in a world where everyone was sexually pure!  Imagine if the only people having sexual relations were married, and they only related sexually with their own (opposite-gender) spouses!
  • Just think how easy it would be to obey God in a world where obeying God was the normal thing for people to do!

But that is not the environment we live in, is it?  One of the strongest arguments against drinking alcohol it has to be consumed in a sinful environment.  Not only is alcohol a substance to impairs sound judgment and moral thinking, its effects are made worse because our environment is so corrupt.  I want to share with you a quote from Jim McGuiggan:

What produces alcoholism?  Loneliness and alcohol.  Rejection and alcohol.  Illness and alcohol.  Financial stress and alcohol.  Marital troubles and alcohol.  Parent-child crises and alcohol.  These, and a hundred more ills of society, combined with alcoholic beverages produce slavery to liquor.  The liquor industry doesn’t have its stills in heaven where all are safe from devouring pressures.  [The liquor industry] performs here on earth where the people of this nation brawl and agonize with a thousand inequalities, gross injustices, humiliation, shame and despair.  It comes at people already weakened by grinding poverty, or worse, a deep sense of inner futility….

That is already the environment in which Cain murders his brother, Abel.  Mom and Dad (Adam and Eve) had already sinned, and by this time had probably sinned in more ways than just eating forbidden fruit.  The children had probably seen their parents sinning.  They may already have a history of sin themselves.  And now as they pursue their own desire to draw near to Almighty God, there are more sinful strategies close at hand than the one pursued by the parents. 
Both boys offer their sacrifices to God, but only Abel pleases God and gets His favor.  Abel offered a blood sacrifice; while Cain who was a farmer offered a sacrifice of agricultural produce.  And it is not that God likes meat rather than vegetables, because later He calls for both kinds of sacrificial offerings when the sacrificial system of Israel's religion was fully developed.  Hebrews 11:4 places Abel at the very top of a catalog of people who might be called heroes of faith.  It says, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice to God.”  That means that Abel’s heart was more true toward his relationship with God.  The overtures of his heart were more sincere and well-intentioned and fervent.   And therefore, says the writer of Hebrews, “even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.”  He is speaking to us, if we have the ears to listen.

So why did Cain choose to murder Abel.  God had seen his unhappiness written all over his face, warned Cain that sin was crouching at his door like a coiled-up lion, ready to pounce and kill and devour him.  And God made it clear that Cain, if he were to survive that encounter with sin, would have to master it with total effort.  So it looks like Cain thought the best way to do that was simply to eliminate the competition.  He took his brother to a remote field, rose up against him, and killed his brother—the first recorded murder in human history, and the first death recorded in Scripture.

Obviously, this was a failed strategy.  Like his parents before Him, Cain finds himself once more standing before God.  Where God had said to father Adam, “Where are you?” now God asks his oldest and now only son, “Where is your brother?”  Cain has been exposed as the first in a long line of people who seem to think that as long as they are religious, they can treat other people as badly as they want.  What was he thinking—that God would say, “Oh, I see you’ve murdered your brother, but no big deal because you’re the guy who brought me all those lovely vegetables last week, aren’t you?”  Think here of the religious people, one a priest and the other a Levite, who passed by a severely injured man because they were on their way to worship at the temple.  Think of religious who will pray to God to help people in need, but are too stingy to give them from their own supply.  All through the Bible, the message is that anyone who fails to love the people who are visible will never find success in loving God who is invisible.  If you really want to connect with God, you can’t just be religious; you have to love people.  .  Many of them will sin against you (they have been impacted by the new environment), but your challenge is to love them anyway.

Notice that God’s punishment of Cain is stronger than what his father received.  Adam would be forced to work the hard ground in pain and sweat, only to watch it yield nothing but thorns and thistles.  But Cain loses the farm.  He is cast out as a man without a home, without a livelihood, to wander about like a refugee, seeking a place to call his own, but always moved on from one place to another.  This might not frighten us, but it filled the ancients with dread.  We are happily mobile, and leave our place to land in another distant place in the prosperity we call America.  But imagine being uprooted and dropped into the third-world--with its deprivations, and lawlessness, and threats to survival.  And would anyone like to guess in which direction Cain goes?  Well, of course, he goes eastward and settles in the land of Nod (which means the “land of wandering”). 

Finally, if you want to get to God, you had better take notice of something that God values above anything else, but something that people seem to regard with unbelievable cheapness.  Listen to this story from FOX News:

A 12–year-old boy was tortured and killed along with 11 other Christians weeks ago in Syria, in the latest heart-wrenching account of ISIS’ cruel brutality to trickle out of the black-clad jihadist army’s isolated caliphate.  Word of the murders, which occurred outside of Aleppo, came from a colleague of the boy’s father, a local ministry leader who works with the Christian Aid Mission, a non-profit organization assisting persecuted Christians overseas. ISIS militants cut off the boy’s fingertips, severely beat him and the others before crucifying them, according to the colleague.  “All were badly brutalized and then crucified,” he told the Christian Aid Mission in a conversation recounted to FoxNews.com. “They were left on their crosses for two days. No one was allowed to remove them.”  Eight other ministry team members, including two women who were publicly raped, were beheaded, according to Christian Aid Mission.  The eight were offered the choice of converting to Islam, but refused to renounce Christ.  They prayed as they knelt before the Islamic State militants, according to the ministry leader, who spoke with relatives and villagers while visiting the site.  "Villagers said some were praying in the name of Jesus, others said some were praying the Lord's Prayer, and others said some of them lifted their heads to commend their spirits to Jesus," the ministry director told Christian Aid Mission. "One of the women looked up and seemed to be almost smiling as she said, 'Jesus!'"

Have you figured it out—what does God value that people regard as cheap?  I’ll give you another hint.  Whatever it is, it goes really cheap at Planned Parenthood, where millions of American babies were killed in pure innocence, just as Abel was and with at least as much innocence.  The same cheapness shows in Chicago where the murders this year alone are over 400.  And this from the AP:  A baby girl was thrown from a sixth-floor window of a NYC apartment building to her death on Thursday, witnesses and police said, making her the third child killed that way in the city in three months.

God values life.  Life is His gift, and people must regard that gift as something cheap given the way they are so quick to murder others and to trash the gift that God has given others.  God told Cain that the ground on which Abel’s blood was spilt had a gaping mouth to swallow up that blood—not to hide it, but to cry out to God--to blab out loud the dark secret of the murder.  God knows every life that has been taken by every murderer who ever lived and God will avenge those whose lives have been taken and whose blood has poured to the ground.  But this sequel to the failure of Adam and Eve also ends on a note of God’s’ grace.  The first episode ended with man and women in shame, hiding behind fig leaves.  God in His grace covered them with skins.  Cain now fears that he will become a target of murder as a consequence of murder, but God prevents this by placing a protective mark (not a mark of stigma) upon Cain.  That mark will ward off dangerous people and will reserve for God to judge and punish the sin of Cain.

It seems that three primary lessons come to us:
  • We should recognize the spiritual dynamics of the environment that we were born into.  Sin crouches at our door also.  Its desire is for us; but we must master it.
  • We should recognize that religion that connects us to God, but has a disconnect from people, will never succeed in reaching all the way to God.  We are our brother's keeper.
  • We should recognize life as God's most precious gift and we should never take part in stealing that gift from another person.

The Enemy of the Woman and Her Seed

When I was a boy there was a TV show called The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors.  In one episode, Lucas McCain (Connors) is sacked out in his bedroll and when the other cowboys wake up they are surprised to find that Lucas is late getting up, since he is usually the first up, and they begin cajoling him about being a sleepy head.  He is laying there flat on his back under the blanket with his cowboy hat covering his face.  When even their boisterous teasing fails to wake him up, someone finally pulls away the hat and Lucas’ face is beaded up with sweat and his eyes are wide with terror.  It seems that in the middle of the night, a rattlesnake got under his blanket and liked the warmth so much that it refused to leave. 

Ever since the Garden of Eden, it has not gone well between humans and snakes.  Let’s go back to Gen. 3:14-15.  God has learned of the serpent’s attempt to lure the most prized creatures that God had created away from God in a rebellion led by Satan.  And the devil had succeeded; both the man and the woman were tempted to eat the forbidden fruit and in that act rebelled against the Creator who had given them not only life in paradise, but even gave them the privilege of wearing God’s image.  That privilege belonged only to mankind, and not to any other creature under heaven.

When God came to investigate, he started with Adam, who pointed the finger of blame at Eve, and she pointed the blame at the serpent.  God takes it all in and responds in reverse order:  first, He addresses the serpent.  The gist of it is that instead of achieving status and exaltation and raising himself above God by leading a rebellion, the serpent’s place will fall to the dust, in humiliation and defeat.  God is making absolutely clear is that He is by far the superior power in this fight.  We may be tempted to think that God and Satan--both superhuman in power--are equal but opposite powers (dualism).  They are not; God is vastly superior.  The devil set himself in opposition to almighty God, and God casts the serpent down to the dust.  
But it is what comes next that is especially interesting.  God determines that there shall be perpetual warfare between the woman and the serpent, and between the “seed of the serpent” and the “seed of the woman.”  Henceforth, as far as the eye can see, there will be two species that are enemies with each other.  And although the story picks up on the natural fact that we human beings do not like snakes, and the plain fact is that they do not much care for us either, aside from that this incident in the Garden of Eden marks the beginning of spiritual warfare.

The “seed of the serpent”, as this develops in the Bible, is:

  • Satan and all of the spiritual forces aligned with him in rebellion against God:  demons, fallen angels, and wicked spirits of every sort.
  • It would also include human beings who have lined up with the devil against God (John 8:30-47).  Here Jesus offers freedom or liberation because He understands that people who are caught up in sin are being held in slavery.  Ironically, those same people think that they are finding freedom for themselves by going where sin leads them.  And so, the people to whom Jesus speaks want nothing of the liberation He offers.  So Jesus drives the issue back and declares that freedom or slavery is determined by who your father is.  Jesus is the divine Son of God; His Father is God.  But since they are slaves, rather than children, that means they do not have a lasting place in God’s house.  And Jesus admits the truth of their claim that they are “children of Abraham.”

Let me tell you about Abraham.  As you follow the story of Genesis, wickedness among human beings spreads and multiplies until the flood of Noah.  Under those terrifying waters on which floats the ark, God puts all of humanity to death and scours His creation of sin, and wickedness, and evil.  The creation has been refreshed and cleansed.  But sin erupts again, and God calls a man named Abram, and the plot of the story demands that Abram (or Abraham, as he comes to be known), will be part of God’s solution to this epidemic problem.  From Abraham come the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and only they of all the nations of the earth can claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.  They are the children of God’s problem-solver.

But then Jesus comes and declares that it is not enough to merely be the physical descendants of Abraham.  The problem of sin won't be fixed by them.  What really counts is to be the children of Abraham in a spiritual sense.  Abraham was a believer; a man of faith.  And only those who shared his faith could properly be called his children.  And Jesus draws attention to the fact that the people to whom He speaks, although they are physically Abraham’s children, at the same time they are of a mind to kill Jesus.  That is something that Abraham, as a spiritual person, would never do.  And that shows that these people have a different father, a different spiritual father (read).  You see, these people are obviously part of the Satanic rebellion against God.  They are really part of the “seed of the Serpent” of which God prophesied in Gen. 3:15.

  • Finally, the seed of the serpent includes the false religions of the world.  Paul declared in 1 Cor. 10:20 (Rev. 9:20) that when the Gentiles offer their sacrifices to idols, they are really sacrificing to demons!

And so the seed of the serpent will be the enemies of the seed of the woman.  And who are her seed?  Well, on the one hand, these are the entire human race.  Eve becomes the mother of all living beings; every single human being can trace ancestry back to Mother Eve.  And so, Satan really is the enemy of every person who has lived and who ever will live.  But people will finally win the fight.  Even though Adam and Eve fell, and even though every human being to follow took part in the rebellion against God, they would be victorious over the serpent.

And at the end of v. 15, God declares in advance a winner and a loser in this enduring battle.  And suddenly there is a startling shift from the plural to the singular.  Suddenly God is not talking "they and them", about them plural in warfare against them plural.  Suddenly, this conflict boils down to "him vs. him"—one particular “seed of the serpent” against one particular “seed of the woman.”  And notice that God declares that there will be injury suffered on both sides, but the injuries will not be equal.  The woman’s child will strike injury to the head of the devil, but the devil-seed will merely strike the woman’s child on the heel.  One injury will be serious; but the other injury will be fatal.

What is this all about?  Well, the description of the seed of the woman is a peculiar way to refer to children, because in the Hebrew Scriptures, children are usually identified in relation to their father.  In part, this was because the ancient cultures sometimes were polygamous; in a given family there might be several mothers, but just one father (Jacob had 13 children to four mothers).  So why do we have reference to the "seed of woman"?  The day would come after many centuries that God sent His own Son from heaven to earth.  He was born of a woman and her name was Mary.  This birth began with a conception in which no human father had a part.  The virgin mother was impregnated directly from God as she was overshadowed by the Spirit, and they named Him Jesus.  Although it was cultural convention to identify a child with his father, this child was truly “the seed of the woman.”

The most famous and magisterial work of Paul was his letter to the Romans.  In chapter five, Paul set forth Jesus as the New Adam.  Where Adam had been a failure who was won over by Satan against God, this New Adam kept unbroken faith with God.  He stood against the Devil and never rebelled against God.  Each Adam performed a noteworthy act that brought a result for all people.  The first man, Adam, famously committed an act of trespass against God, and that act brought death--death to everyone.  But the second man, Jesus Christ, performed an act of justification, and that act brought life--to all of us.  What he means is that while Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, Jesus (the seed of the woman), even though He never joined rebellion, Jesus went to the Cross to suffer death.  And that death was the punishment that God set on the rebellion of Adam and Eve, when He declared that whoever would eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would die.  Jesus ate no fruit, but he took the penalty for those to whom the penalty for sin applied.  And in that moment, Satan had done his worst to injure the holy offspring of the woman--us and Him.  That injury was so serious that Jesus died.  But by the power of a gracious God, Jesus was resurrected to life.  He recovered from Satan’s injury and won a victory that takes in all of the other descendants of Eve who end their rebellion against God and give their faith to Jesus.  But more than that, when Jesus was crucified, that was a death-blow against Satan.  The death of Jesus defeated the devil and brought his rebellion against God to an end.

Paul has much more to say about Jesus and His victory, but I want us to turn to Romans to focus on just one verse (16:19-20).  The idea is that while Jesus dealt the death-blow to Satan, he though wounded will remain active for a while.  Until his demise,  you and I have been empowered to contribute to the downfall of Satan.  You know, there was an occasion when Jesus sent out 70 of His disciples on a mission and as they represented Jesus in their ministry to people, demons were cast out of people.  And when they returned to Jesus they related to Him with great excitement that even the demons submitted to them!  I mean, usually the demons had power over people.  But Jesus simply said, “Listen—you don’t know the half of it; I watched Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash.”  While they were casting out demons, Jesus was able to see into the invisible heavenly realms that that ancient serpent was cast down from lofty spiritual heights down to the dust, just as God had prophesied.  That downfall was the result of the work in ministry of Christians like us.  And just as in Romans 16, that great fall taken by Satan took place when the people of God became enemies of the devil.  It is not just the Cross-work of Jesus that slays the serpent; it is our working as the body of Christ that crushes his head.

Back in the Garden, after Adam and Eve tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, God did something unusual, something gracious.  He gave the man and the woman the skins of animals to cover themselves with—fur and leather.  And that means there had to be a death.  The animals had to die as a sacrifice as a consequence to human sin.  Follow this in the Bible, and it leads to centuries of sacrifices and the shedding of rivers of the sacrificial blood of animals until, on the Cross, Jesus became the sacrifice that made all other sacrifices obsolete.  The serpent struck His heel, but by pouring out His own blood, Jesus had crushed the serpent’s head and covered our shame.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gender in Genesis

This article is a sermon text from a series entitled, “From The Beginning.”  The impetus here is taken from the method taken by Jesus when He was asked to speak authoritatively on divorce.  The Son of God chose perspective on the current cultural situation from the ancient Scriptures in Genesis.  Jesus insisted that what is written there still speaks with an authoritative voice from God.  When Jesus addressed such issues, He sought out what was “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

Moreover, I recalled from decades ago the declaration that Genesis addresses the pressing issues of our day.  The statement has to be more true today than it was then.  This is the ninth lesson in that series, and the third to address gender, our creation as male and female.  I offer it much as it appeared in print on my podium, with minor editing and gratefully taking the opportunity to credit a few sources that inform the lesson.

I treasure Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood:  A Response to Evangelical Feminism (ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway Books:  Wheaton, IL, 1991).  Especially, I credit Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.’s chapter, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship:  Genesis 1-3” for a clear expression of what “male headship” is, and is not.  I also credit Wayne Grudem’s chapter, “Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them:  1 Peter 3:1-7” for a clear expression of a wife’s submission.  Any sermon addressing the touchy issue of gender would be derailed without clarity in these areas, and I appreciate that these clear expressions enabled me to speak on the issue clearly and concisely.

Also, I have drawn a quote from Dr. Larry Crabb (with Don Hudson and Al Andrews), The Silence of Adam (Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, MI, 1995).  I will confess to not having read the volume, and turned to it only to find an expression of the theme (p. 12).  I would expect this volume to draw from a pastoral counseling perspective.

Finally, at close I heartily recommend the lessons of Dr. Tony Evans, which I heard on radio broadcast.  I believe he has published this material with the titles, Kingdom Man and Kingdom Woman. 

Last week we saw that Eve led the first human pair into rebellion against God.  Today we are going to see why it is Adam who usually gets the blame for the Bible’s first sin against God.  It is Adam, and usually not Eve, who gets the reputation as the original sinner.

In earlier lessons we established that God created man and women to complement each other; to fit together relationally in a way that was an advantage both to him and to her.  And we also established that both genders share the supreme honor of being created in the image of God, and that suggests a certain equality between the sexes.  This morning we are going to explore another dynamic created by God in His overall design for gender relations.  Although man and woman are equal in bearing the stamp of God’s image, God has arranged us in a hierarchical arrangement, so that the male is assigned a position of authority or what is sometimes called “headship” and the female is assigned a position of submission to that authority.  This arrangement runs hard against natural expectations and, in fact, seems quite vulnerable to instability.  Failure comes easily if love and faithfulness go slack.

Before we go to the Scriptures to explore this theme, let’s clarify what we are talking about:

       First, as leader, the man bears primary responsibility for leading the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.  I like the term “headship”, and I mean by its use nothing beyond this limited responsibility.

       As a helper, the woman is submissive in the sense that she has a disposition to yield to guidance and an inclination to follow leadership.

       To make this arrangement work, God looks for willing submission by the woman.  Nowhere is a man—who is designated a leader—nowhere is he given authority to use force to coerce her submission.  That comes willingly, or not at all.

       For this arrangement to work, the leader and the helper have to recognize each other as equals.  That will bring both a humble quality to the leadership and an understanding quality to the follower.

       Although Biblical gender roles place her in an inferior position (a position of weakness), this has nothing to do with competence.  God did not make men leaders because they are superior to women.  Men are not superior to women.  And God did not make women submissive to men because they are inferior.  Women are not inferior to men.

       What we call “male headship” is the opposite of “male domination.”  He has no authority from God to assert his will over the woman without regard for her equality, her rights, and her value.

Some clarifications about submission:

       Submission does not mean putting a husband in the place of Christ.  The Christian wife first follows the Lord, and her husband’s headship should lead precisely in this direction.  If he goes another direction, she should still follow Jesus.

       It does not mean giving up independent thought.  Marriage is not a “one brain” arrangement.  Both partners will have lively thoughts and ideas about the future of the relationship, and both are valuable.

       It does not mean a wife should back away from efforts to influence and guide her husband.  He may decide against her input, but any wise leader takes input and gives it full and respectful consideration.

       It does not mean that the wife should give in to every demand of her husband.  Headship is not about him getting his way.  It is not even about bringing happiness to the marriage.  It is about bringing honor and glory to God.

       It is not an admission of inferiority and it does not mean being weak or timid.

Now, let’s go back to Genesis.  What are the indications that the relationship we have described is the one that God intends for us to accept?  First, you will recall that Adam, the man, was created first and that later the woman was created for him to be his helper.  Travel through time across the centuries and you will find the apostle Paul assigning to men the authoritative roles of leadership in the church that require them to be the ones who bring authoritative instruction and teaching.  In contrast, women are to model quietness as the expression of her submission.  And why, Paul, are men and women to accept these roles?  Paul said, “For Adam was created first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13).  In other words, God’s sequence in creating the genders was not arbitrary.  He could have created two genders in a single act, as He apparently did for all of the species in the animal kingdom.   But humans were to be different—the male comes first and is given precedence as the leader.

Second, notice that human beings collectively—both men and women as a group—are called “man” (Gen. 5:2).  God could have created woman first and then could have designated the whole human race as “woman”.  But He did not.  He refers to humanity as “man” and orders that from the creation of Adam in God’s image, before any human female yet existed.

Third, recall that God created Eve to be a helper for Adam, not vice versa.  Her creation is bound up with a support role to the man who has been given precedence.

Fourth, recall that the woman was created “out of” the man.  God took a rib out of Adam and from that created Eve, so that she is a derivative of Adam.  He existed first, and then she arrives as part of him.

Fifth, recall that Adam is given the privilege of naming the woman.  First he calls her “woman” (for she was taken out of man) and later he gives her the personal name “Eve” (because she will be the first mother of all living people).  Just as Adam was given the task of naming all of the animal kingdom over which he would rule as the assistant of God, so Adam assigns a name to the helper created for him as his equal and counterpart.  God does not tell Eve who she is; He allows Adam to name her.

So then, watch again how this plays out when the Serpent slithers into the Garden of Eden.  The responsibility for leading the partnership in a Godward direction belongs to whom?  It belongs to Adam; he has been appointed to be the leader.  But who does the Serpent approach?  Not Adam; he goes to Eve.  Now to honor Adam’s leadership, Eve should have either kept to a strictly Godward direction.  She did not; she was led by the Serpent into rebellion.  To be a truly submissive follower to Adam, she should either have held the course, or she should have deferred to Adam and said, “Satan, God has made Adam the one primarily responsible in such matters; you need to speak with him directly.” 

But wait a minute, Adam was there and, if that does not jump out as obvious, it is because Adam is apparently standing there quietly, listening but saying nothing!  Remember we said that the male has the responsibility for speaking and woman is to defer in quietness?  Well, here Eve is the one speaking and the quiet one is Adam!  What we are witnessing is a role-reversal, an inversion of the arrangement set forth by God.  Eve failed to embrace her femininity, but part of the blame for that has to go to Adam for failing to embrace his masculinity.  Satan goes to the Garden and he finds a failed leader and a failed follower.  Adam and Eve should have provided a unified front to defend the honor of God.  Instead, they became rebels against their Creator.

You remember that when God arrives to confront the rebellion and to get to the bottom of it, notice who God goes to first.  He goes to the man, because he had top authority and therefore he has top responsibility.  Btw, this is why when you read the rest of the Bible, responsibility for the first sin is usually given to Adam rather than to Eve.  His failure to speak up was a sin even before Eve bit the apple.  And God finds all kinds of finger-pointing going on:  Adam blames the woman for giving him the forbidden fruit and, truly Adam actually blames God because it was the woman that God gave me, you see, that caused me to become a rebel myself.  Then Eve blames the Serpent, and the Serpent had no leg to stand on, nor any finger to point.

Let’s now turn to the punishment that God dishes out, first to the Serpent (3:14-15).  I want to come back to this next week, but look at what God says to Eve (vs. 16).  She is punished with pain in childbearing.  It is not childbearing that is the punishment, but the associated pain (just as Adam will be afflicted with a different kind of pain).  And then God says, “Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you.”  To help us understand this, notice that the same words for “desire” and “rule” are found a few verses later (4:7).  The sons of Adam, Cain and Abel, are competing for attention from God, and God is favoring Abel over Cain and tells him that sin is crouching at the door and “its desire is for him” (meaning that sin is out to overpower him), but that Cain must rule over it.  Now since the statement about Eve is expressed in exactly the same terms, the apparent meaning is that her desire will be to overpower Adam, but Adam will rule over her.  She will assert herself against Adam’s authority, but that authority will stand because God has ordained it and has appointed Adam to that leadership role.

Then look at God’s response to Adam (vs. 17-18).  Before measuring out an appropriate punishment for his sin, God declares that the sentence will fall, first of all, because Adam listened to his wife’s voice!  Adam tried to blame her, but the blame was his because instead of speaking up as a responsible man, he was caught passively listening to her.  His punishment is not just work, because work is a good thing.  Adam’s punishment is work that is painful in the first place, and beyond that his efforts are destined to be incapable of being fruitful and productive.  It doesn’t matter how much he works; there will still be unmet needs and unfulfilled dreams and expectations after much frustration.

The challenge that is bound up in our relating as men and women is to join together in a way that truly honors God.  It means that we stand up to the Serpent by recovering our true masculine and feminine identities, and it means that we now have to do that not in the midst of Paradise, but in the midst of a painful existence.  And there is something essentially vital in the challenge of gender that is at the heart of what God wants us to master as we learn the lessons of life.  The three holy Persons in the Trinity of God have mastered the ability to relate and work together.  Even though each of the Three is equal in essence to the others, they are able to maintain this equality even when one of them takes a role of leadership while another person of God embraces submission. 

A word to the men:  I want to read a quote by Dr. Larry Crabb, author of many books including, The Silence of Adam.  The full title is, “God calls men to move beyond the silence of Adam becoming men of courage in a world of chaos.”  He writes:

The silence of Adam is the beginning of every man’s failure, from the rebellion of Cain to the impatience of Moses, from the weakness of Peter down to my failure yesterday to love my wife well.  And it is a picture—a disturbing but revealing one—of the nature of our failure.  Since Adam every man has had a natural inclination to remain silent when he should speak.  A man is most comfortable in situations in which he knows exactly what to do.   When things get confusing and scary, his insides tighten and he backs away.  When life frustrates him with its maddening unpredictability, he feels the anger rise within him.  And then, filled with terror and rage, he forgets God’s truth and looks out for himself.  From then on, everything goes wrong.  Committed only to himself, he scrambles to make his own life work.  The result is what we see every day:  sexual passions out of control, uninvolved husbands and fathers, angry men who love to be in the driver’s seat.  And it all began when Adam refused to speak.

And to our women, you need to recognize as we (men) do that being submissive does not make you inferior.  Being submissive did not make Jesus inferior.  And you need to recognize that God did not make men leaders because they are superior.  But we know and we want you to know that while submission is difficult, it is also not easy to take on the responsibilities of leadership.  And we need your support if we are to get beyond the silence of Adam and become the leaders that God wants us to be.

For both men and women, I want to recommend the lessons by Dr. Tony Evans.  He is a black preacher from outside of our fellowship.  And I mention his race only because his communication style is one that may be a challenge to people outside of the black community.  To be frank, Dr. Evans shouts at the top of his voice!  But if you listen to what he says in his lessons under the titles of Kingdom Man and Kingdom Woman, he will lay out the Bible view on gender roles and gender relationships.