Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sin and separation, 3.11

Genesis 3:1-24
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

14The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

16To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” 17And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

20The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. 22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
We talked about this story on Wednesday during supper and scripture. There are so many layers to the passage, and it was a great discussion. Today our purpose with this passage is pretty specific, so there are a lot of topics and questions we’re not going to address.

God put the man and woman in a beautiful garden with everything they needed. They had all kinds of plants to eat; trees for shade and flowers to perfume and beautify their world. They lived peacefully with the other animals in the garden; there was plenty to go around and nothing to fight about.

The garden was beautiful and peaceful; it was God’s garden, and God liked to stroll through it in the evening. Take a moment and imagine what it would be like to walk in the garden with God. Picture that closeness and comfort.

There was God, there were people and there was unity. The man and woman were one with God; words like law, religion, discipleship, and sin wouldn’t have made any sense because God was simply there, the center of the universe. Then everything changed; it changed so much we can even truly imagine our way back to that garden now.

For whatever reason, the serpent wanted to separate humans from God. So with half-truths and subtlety the snake slid a wedge between the woman and God. In place of the trust between that first couple and God the serpent slipped not only doubt, but suspicion: “God only told you not to eat from the tree because God is jealous and wants to keep the best knowledge for himself.” In place of contentment with a perfect world, the serpent stirred up a desire for power and knowledge that wasn’t meant for us.

As soon as the man and woman ate the forbidden fruit everything changed. Instead of comfort in their skin; they felt self-consciousness and shame about their bodies. Instead of joy in God’s presence, when God came walking through the garden the people hid from him. Where before there had been obedience out of love and trust, there was guilt and fear because they knew they had done wrong.

As soon as God started asking questions, guilt became accusation: the man blamed his wife while the woman blamed the serpent. Authority, painful childbirth, hard work for our food and exile from the garden quickly follow, and the next chapter finds the first couple’s children wracked with jealousy to the point of murder. In place of a garden, our world became a mess.

My favorite modern theologian is Paul Tillich. Tillich has shaped the way I think about some central parts of the faith, so I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t give credit where credit is due. His goal was to strip away the baggage from faith-words so we can recover their true meaning and embrace them in a new way.

Tillich talks about the word “sin” and how it has been weakened to mean nothing but breaking rules, often even man-made rules. In the Bible sin is a power that separates us from God. It is not just actions that go against God’s will; it’s first the universal human situation of being separated from God. Tillich often uses the word estrangement in place of sin: there’s a painful gulf between God and people like the gulf between separated spouses or parents divided from their children.

Individual acts of selfishness, dishonesty, lawbreaking, abuse etc. are results of our estrangement from God. The power of sin shows itself in individual sins. This passage from Genesis is the classic story of our estrangement from God, from our neighbors and from our world. It is our situation; everyone’s situation. We are divided from God and from everyone around us. Even in our closest relationships we find miscommunication, heartache and distrust.

Power in the Blood, 3.18

1 John 1:5-10
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

            One of the cool things God does in scripture is give us different ways of looking at things. If you have trouble connecting with Paul’s writing, maybe John will help you see things in a different light.

            In this section John is making two basic points: we’re all sinners in need of God’s grace, and our faith calls us to live differently, to leave sin behind. These two truths are woven together because following Jesus pushes us to do better, but it also reminds us how far we still have to go. The other connection that brings our sin and our calling together is that Jesus’ blood cleanses us from sin, moving us from darkness to light.

            John talks about lying a lot in this passage. If we say we follow Jesus, if we say we’re walking in the light, but we keep walking in the darkness of sin, we’re lying. Following Jesus means leaving the darkness behind and seeking Christ’s light in everything we do.

            At the same time, we’re also lying if we say we’re not sinful. Even while we follow Jesus and try to do the right thing we keep falling short. That’s a fact of life; even though Jesus changes our life and makes us new, we won’t be perfect until Jesus returns. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes and get better at following, but the more we learn from Jesus the more obvious it is that we are not all the way there yet. So we’re only fooling ourselves and even making Jesus look bad if we claim to be sin-free.

            We’re lying if we claim to be innocent, and we’re lying if we claim to be disciples while continuing in our sin. Instead of either of these dishonest traps Jesus calls us to confess our sins and to trust him to cleanse us. As we put our trust in Jesus and honestly confess, Christ’s blood washes us clean.

            It’s hard for us to understand blood making us clean. Many of us struggle with the whole idea of Christ’s cleansing blood. On the one hand we struggle with why Jesus had to die because it seems so unfair. And on the other hand we wonder how his blood can make us clean anyway. We think of blood as dirty, even dangerous.

For people of Jesus’ time animal sacrifice and the blood related to it was a natural part of religious ritual, like singing or prayer. That was the case for most religions in the Middle East and it was true for Israel’s faith as well.

            When the temple was dedicated thousands of animals were sacrificed to make the temple holy to God. Blood was splashed against the altar to clean it and make it ready to offer sacrifice on. The Law of Moses goes into great detail about how many of what kind of animals would be sacrificed for different purposes at different times. The whole idea seems strange, maybe disgusting, to us now, but for our ancient ancestors in the faith sacrifice was a basic part of faith and life. The Letter to the Hebrews is the most detailed explanation of the ancient way of thinking about sin and how blood cleanses from sin.

            When we studied Hebrews in seminary one of my teachers explained it like this: The Temple was a special place that connected heaven and earth. During the year sin built up on the temple because it was close to the people’s sin. We can picture that sin was like a sludge that built up on the temple. Each year the sin had to be cleaned off by rituals of confession and forgiveness including sacrifices of atonement with blood.

            The author of Hebrews talks about how the sanctuary on earth was a copy of the true sanctuary in heaven. The sanctuary on earth had to be purified with animal sacrifices, but the perfect temple in heaven had to be purified with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. The blood of animals could take away sin temporarily, but animal blood couldn’t deal with sin permanently; only the blood of Jesus could do that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Social sin, 3.4.12

Amos 5:10-24
10They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; 17in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord. 18Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

I’m not going to lie to you: these first three weeks of Lent are going to be challenging. We’re going to be talking about sin, which can feel very heavy. I like preaching about God’s love much more, and God’s love is always at the heart of the good news we proclaim. At the same time if we don’t face our sin we can’t change our life. Know that I am not speaking as someone who is telling you what you need to do as if I’ve got my act together. I need repentance as much as anyone else. I’m hear as one wrestling with faith and scripture right along with you.

Amos is a little hard to follow in small pieces like this one. The powerful biblical message of social justice is clearer as part of the whole Bible more than in individual texts. You may understand Amos’s message better if you read the whole book when you have a chance; it’s pretty short so that’s manageable.

Amos lived in the eighth century before Christ. He grew up in the Southern Kingdom of Judah but spent much of his prophetic ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

            For both Israel and Judah, faith was an important part of how they saw themselves. God had chosen them as God’s special people, so they were different from the other nations of the region. Throughout Amos we see references to offerings and religious observances, which makes it clear that religion was a big part of life in Israel and Judah.

            Unlike in our own time, people stopped working, buying and selling for the Sabbath and for the first day of the month, which was also a day set aside for worship. In our passage Amos refers to people wanting the “Day of the Lord,” the time God would firmly establish His kingdom on earth. The people of Israel looked forward to God’s kingdom because they knew they were God’s chosen people. Religion was important to Amos’s audience in a big way.

            God commanded the Sabbaths and festivals the people observed. God commanded the offerings and sacrifices Amos talks about. God commanded them, but Amos says that they are not the most important part of following God. Compared with justice, worship and sacrifice don’t even register in God’s priorities.

Israel is called to build a just society where everyone has enough and all people are treated fairly. If society isn’t built on the foundation of justice, all the sacrifices and offerings in the world won’t make up for it. If the poor aren’t treated fairly, worship rings hollow and singing is just noise in God’s ears. When the “Day of the Lord” comes, Israel will be on the wrong side of God’s judgment because of the way they treat the poor.

Amos talks about Israel’s sin not in terms of following the rules or showing up for church, but in terms of justice for all. The people are doing everything right when it comes to worship, but they are not right with God in terms of their community life. He especially criticizes the rich for building nice houses while others go hungry.

I wonder what Amos would say about our culture where we have such great abundance while many are trapped in poverty. What would Amos say about buying big screen TV’s while 25% of the kids in our country struggle with hunger and billions of people world wide live on $2.50 a day or less?

            The causes of poverty are varied and complex, but the fact that thousands of people die of hunger and preventable disease every day is a scandal and a sin. At the most basic level it comes down to valuing lives differently. Whether we admit it or not, we believe that American lives are worth more than other lives.

            Differences of race, language, nationality, education, sexuality and more divide us and make it easier to see others as less human than we are. The powerful use those divisions to keep things the way they are, to keep their power intact. People with a bigger piece of the pie than their neighbors are encouraged to fear others and protect their share while people with less are taught to envy those with more and fear those with less.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Breaking the rules, 2.26

Deuteronomy 6:17-25
17You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. 18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, 19thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

20When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” 21then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.

23He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. 24Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. 25If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”

Matthew 5:17-24, 43-48
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

            Welcome to Lent. Traditionally in the church Lent is a time of fasting, reflection and repentance. During this 40-day period we think about Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of his ministry. We also think about his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

            Christ’s death and resurrection are the heart of our faith and they are too big a mystery to take in all at once. Lent gives us time to embrace that mystery by helping us imagine we are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. We’re invited to journey with Jesus and reflect on everything that separates us from him, and to imagine what a new beginning in our faith and life could look like.

            To help us on this journey our Lenten sermon series will be about sin and the cross, two crucial and related parts of the Christian faith. We’ll be studying the same passages during supper and scripture on Wednesdays, so if you’d like a little more time to digest these passages, it would be great to have you with us on Wednesdays too.

The first three weeks, we’ll explore three different ways of looking at sin. This week we’ll talk about sin as breaking the rules, doing things that God doesn’t want us to do or not doing things God does want us to do. Next week we’ll talk about sin on a bigger level, the way culture and structures that we are a part of are sinful in themselves. By that I mean things like sexism, racism, homophobia and economic injustice; big picture issues that keep people from the abundant life God wants for everyone. The third week we’ll talk about sin as a symbol for everything that separates us from God and from other people.

The second half of Lent we’ll talk about three different ways of thinking about what Christ did on the cross to save us. Each of these weeks will more or less fit with one of the ways of thinking about sin. So March 18th we’ll talk about how Jesus’ death takes the punishment that we deserve for our sins so we can be forgiven. The next week we’ll talk about how the injustice that Jesus was so fearless in confronting led to his death at the hands of the powerful. Finally, on Palm Sunday we’ll talk about how Christ’s death on the cross shows us the depth of God’s love and the length to which God will go to break down the barriers that separate us from God and from our neighbors.

My hope with this series is that we’ll be encouraged to understand and confess the ways we’ve turned away from God and the barriers to a fuller life of faith. Then we’ll understand the power of Christ’s love for us on the cross so we can trust that love more deeply. Hopefully, we’ll arrive at the cross on Good Friday with a stronger faith and greater love for Jesus so we’re ready to embrace his death and prepare for the new life of the resurrection at Easter and beyond. Throughout this season, like any other time, I’d love to hear from you how I can help you grow in faith and experience the grace of God more fully.

            For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about sin is breaking the rules. Our passages for today talk about God’s rules for the chosen people of Israel. We call these rules the Law, which means not just law but also teaching.

The Ten Commandments are the core of God’s law and many of the more specific regulations in scripture are basically practical examples of the Ten Commandments in action. The passage we read from Deuteronomy comes soon after Moses reminds the people of the Ten Commandments. When Moses talks about covenant or instruction or law, if we think about the Ten Commandments we’ll have a pretty good idea what he’s talking about.

Moses talks about God’s law as a guide for the people of Israel as they enter the promised land. Moses knew he wouldn’t be with the people any more and he knew they would face new temptations and challenges when they came to their home. Rules would help the people stay on track, so God gave them the law.

God’s law was also a reminder of the people’s history and their connection to God. As the generations got further away from the exodus, Moses and God knew the people would need to be reminded that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The law was a reminder that they hadn’t gotten to where they were by their own strength or goodness, but because of God’s love. The law wasn’t just a set of rules, but also reminder that they belonged to God.

Jesus pushes the law even further but keeps us focused on the point, not the details. He says he comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Then he gives several examples that take a commandment and make it stricter. The commandment says, “Don’t kill.” Jesus says, not only that, but also don’t insult or demean people. The commandment says “love your neighbor;” Jesus says love your enemies too.

Jesus makes the commandments broader: love isn’t limited to those inside the community but includes even to enemies. Strict obedience to the “rules” isn’t enough, either. It’s not enough not to kill; Jesus calls us to avoid even the violence of insulting others.

Like the original commandments, Jesus’ version provides guidance for a new community in a new situation. As we seek to follow Jesus today, his rules still guide our actions. Also like the original commandments, Jesus’ words remind us who we are and who we belong to. We follow Christ’s commands because we are his people. As God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and gave the people rules for following God, Jesus leads us out of slavery to sin and guides us to a new life following him.