Friday, May 27, 2016

Somebody Has to Pay - Genesis 4

If I were to come up with a new title for Genesis, I would call it “Somebody has to pay.”
Imagine a child playing baseball in a vacant lot next to a neighbor’s house. He hits a long fly ball out of the lot and through the plate glass of his neighbor’s picture window, crashing through the neighbor’s glass coffee table. On the table is a large bottle of ink, which overturns and starts flowing onto the neighbor’s white rug. The neighbor’s cat, startled by the noise, goes to investigate, and tracks ink all over the house. 
Now we are faced with two serious problems. The first is this--how do we keep the mess from spreading? Someone has to catch the cat and sweep up the glass before it gets trampled all over the house. The second question is this—who’s going to pay for this?  It may be the neighbor, the kid, or his parents, but somebody has to pay!
That’s the way it was after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Once sin entered the world, it ruined everything! They sinned, but it didn’t stop there. Their sin was made worse in their son. Not only that, but the mess was continued in their descendants, running down through the generations, and multiplying in both intensity and effect until this very day. The mess is still spreading.
We try to stop it. We pass laws, set up rules, and regulations to try to contain sin. We urge people to go to church and be nice, and all that helps. But even if we succeed in containing the effects of sin for a while, we still can’t cure it. It’s not enough to just manage sin, we have to reverse it—otherwise we’re all doomed, unless there is a remedy for sin.
The Old Testament laws were aimed at containing and controlling our sinful nature, but they could not cure it. They could only contain it. It’s not until Jesus arrives on earth that we see anything which can actually reverse the effects of sin.
From the first day after the fall, people were looking for that remedy to arrive. In Genesis 3:15, God cursed the serpent, saying
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
This “enmity” between the seed of Eve and the serpent is a child, who was the seed of the woman. It is a promise of the Messiah, who will finally reverse the effects of the first sin. We read this passage and know it refers to Jesus, because we’ve already read the end of the story. The promise of the “seed” of the woman is a prophecy of the virgin birth. But Eve didn’t know that. It would have been the most natural thing to consider her firstborn son to be that “seed” that would interpose himself between Satan and humankind.  
She named her firstborn “Cain” meaning “I have gotten a man from the Lord”.  This name suggests what she must have been thinking. God promised a child who would stand between her and Satan. Now she had a child. Cain was going to save her. Thus, Cain, became the first “antichrist”—not one against Christ but one who is viewed as a replacement for Him.
Eve isn’t the only woman ever to see her children as her personal savior. We all hope our children will not follow our mistakes, but will redeem our family name. But our sins effect all our generations. God says in the Ten Commandments that He will bring punishment for sin to the third and fourth generation. This is not so much a direct action of God as a consequence for the actions we have made. Our children suffer when parents break God’s law. The sins we commit will expose our children to misery.  We are free moral agents, but we are all affected by original sin. Our sins in turn affect everyone around us.
The reverse is also true. Our righteousness and goodness becomes an example to our children. As we obey God, honor Him, and keep His commandments, we can make life better for our children. But unless we give our children godly influence and training, then they are likely to be worse, not better than we are. That’s why it’s important to raise our children in the faith. Even if we do give them all the right instruction and training and are the right example to them, they will still manifest sin, because they live in a sinful world and have sinful parents. 
Adam and Eve didn’t understand that at first, because this was the first time. They thought their firstborn son was perfect.  But sin is in us all, and Cain was not the messiah. This original sin was manifested in him, especially in his relationship with his younger brother Abel.
Abel was an unfortunate boy. His name in Hebrew can be translated “steam” “vapor” “breath” ----even “useless” or “nothing.”  Cain was special in his parent’s eyes, but Abel was nothing special. He was just an afterthought. They had already gotten a man from the Lord, this one was just a spare.
Cain was the favored son. He became a farmer like his father, inheriting the family business. Abel took care of the animals. Since they were vegetarians, the animals were kept for wool or domestication. Abel was purely secondary. It was less important work. Cain was doing the important job. They must have thought that even God favored Cain over Abel. Imagine then the shock when Cain discovered this was not the case! 
Once day the two offered sacrifices to God.  Cain offered the fruit of the ground. Abel offered up an animal. God had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s. Abel received praise for something he did, while Cain received nothing. 
Jealousy is a horrible sin, but it is really the same thing as pride. Pride is not how we view ourselves, but how we view other people. Whether we are good or bad, blessed or cursed, it doesn’t depend on how we compare to others, but how we stand with God. God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice had nothing to do with God’s acceptance of his brother’s sacrifice. The two sacrifices were independent. Jealousy and pride are born when we look away from God and look at others.  It’s no longer good enough or God to give us what we need and want. We must have what other people have.  Our happiness depends on being better than other people. This is the root of our unhappiness with God, and of all the wars and strife in the world. We think that because someone is rich or beautiful or loved, then they must have taken something away from us. But if someone is prettier than I am, it says nothing about my worth. If someone is uglier than I am, it does not make me more beautiful in God’s eyes.
Jealousy is irrational. It assumes a correlation that does not exist. Your poverty doesn’t make me rich, and your wealth doesn’t make me poor. Your sin doesn’t make me better in God’s eyes, and my sin doesn’t make you worse. Jealousy is based on the idea that God only has a certain amount of blessings to give. If we don’t get something, then someone got our share. Cain thought God should give him all the blessings. So, Cain reasoned that if Abel got a blessing that day, then it was at his expense. That’s why he killed his brother.    
Cain had never seen anyone dead. He didn’t know what “dead” was. He never understood the impact of his actions of murder. Do any of us really understand that a single act can echo down into the decades and centuries? Do we understand the cost of a single act of disobedience? Someone has to pay, and will pay for years. 
Cain tries to cover it up. He buries his brother in the field. When he is asked about him, he lies. He pretends nothing is wrong. But God knows, and soon everyone else knew it, too. 
God asks Cain what he’s done. He knows the answer already, but he is giving Cain an opportunity to confess. Instead, Cain lies to God. God is angry with Cain in a way, expressing that anger in harder words than he did with his parents.
Cain cries out, “My punishment is too great to bear!”  He’s not so much remorseful as afraid.  When you sin, are you sorry, or just afraid of the circumstances?  It’s not enough just to be afraid. There needs to be some empathic knowledge of the pain you have caused. The only sorrow Cain feels is for himself.
Somebody has to pay, and Cain is paying for his parent’s sins. God makes a mark on Cain’s forehead, which was a mark of God’s protection, not His judgment. It was a sign not to touch him, but neither could he live in the society where he had sinned. He had to go out. Sometimes when we sin, we can’t go home. 
But this is not the only payment. Sin continues to get worse. In 1924, we read the story of Lamech, Cain’s great, great grandson. He brags to his wives. 
I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold.”
He’s not even remorseful. He thought he was safe from harm, because God protected Cain. Cain’s sin became the excuse for his own.

 All the great sinners in the world---Cain, Nimrod, the Sodomites, the Amorites, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Huns, the Nazis, ISIS—even you and I, can trace our line back to that first act of disobedience in the Garden. Someone had to pay, and we will keep on paying forever. But it all stops at the Cross. Jesus Christ is the payment for sin. He is where it all stops. Cain may have thought he was the end of it, but he was just the beginning. It is only through the cross that payment will be made once and for all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Tempting Tree - Genesis 3

It all seems so unfair! God set innocents—Adam and Eve—in a garden of earthly delights. But right in the middle He set a tempting tree. Adam and Eve knew nothing of good and evil, but here was the ultimate evil, right there, like putting a chainsaw in a playpen. How could God put a tree like that in the middle of a perfect garden? True, He warned them not to touch it, but there was no fence around it--nothing to prevent Adam and Eve from doing what they inevitably did.
God wasn’t being neglectful. He was being wise. The safe way is not always the wise way.  Without risk, there can be no learning.
The tree was called “knowledge of good and evil.” As long as it remained untouched, it became the knowledge of Good. By resisting they learned strength and wisdom through avoiding temptation. When we don’t get what we want, we actually become better people. We learn to wait, and to make the best of what we have. Imagine this conversation:
Child:  Daddy, I need a new bike.
Parent: Why? Does your old one not work?
Child:  No, I just want it. 
Parent: So, you really don’t need a new bike.
Child:  Yes I do, because I want it real bad.
The child isn’t lying--he just doesn’t understand the difference between his needing and wanting. That desire becomes the source of our knowledge of something good. It’s the origin of blessing, learning to wait on God. 
But once we yield to desire, it becomes the source of the knowledge of evil. Our impatience teaches us disobedience, greed, and jealousy.
What’s the “tree” of temptation in your life? For some, it’s anger, lashing out at those who don’t deserve it. For others, it’s lust. It can be money and the things money can buy. Sometimes, it’s pride. Our temptations change through life, but they are always there, giving us always a chance for either greater good or greater evil.
God wants us to resist. Satan wants us to give in, because yielding, removes us from God’s protection and care, which leads us to ruin and destruction, just like it did with Adam. 
Genesis 3 is a case study in temptation. In the first temptations we discover the reason for failure, the results of that failure, and the remedy for failure. 
Verses 1-6 describes the reason for failure. It started with a snake.
“The serpent was more wily than all the beasts of the field.” 
Why did Satan use a snake? Because the animals were the one thing that Adam and Eve really thought they had under his control. Normally, the animals answered to him. Satan always comes at us from our unguarded side. Christians are guarded about the New Age movement, radical Islam, militant atheism, government abuse and authority, corrupt media, and so forth. But we should guard ourselves against things in our own home. The Devil can use, drugs, sex, and persecution to ruin us, but he more often uses things like gluttony, jealousy, greed, and pride. It’s our little “pet” sins that get us in the most trouble. 
Satan by questioning God. 

“Did God actually say, ‘You[a] shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

But there’s nothing wrong with asking questions to God, but this was a conversation between two of His creatures behind His back. They should have included God in the conversation. His presence is always with us. In every struggle, every moral question make prayer a part of it. Dr. Dennis Kinlaw once said, “True religion ends when we stop talking to God, and keep talking about Him.”  Leaving God out of the conversation was Eve’s first mistake.
Next, Satan questioned God’s motives.

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Satan says, “God is holding back on you. There’s this special kind of knowledge—good and evil—that God selfishly doesn’t want you to have, because if you have it, you’ll be like Him.”
God wasn’t holding out the knowledge of Good and evil. In fact, He was at that very moment teaching her good. Evil is the absence of good. The knowledge of evil isn’t good—it’s stupidity. To know evil is to be stupid. Eve was deceived that doing something stupid made her wise.
Next, he invited her to embrace evil, with the heart, head, and hands.

“So 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,[b] she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Her mind was deluded into thinking it would make her wise. With her heart, she delighted in it.  But with her hands, she decided when she took it and ate. Then, so she wouldn’t be alone, she recruited Adam, and had him eat as well.  Sometimes we desire first. Sometimes we start by being deluded. Sometimes we make a thoughtless decision and keep doing wrong, because we will not admit our mistakes. Whatever order it falls, it always involves the hand, head, and heart.
Then we see the results of failure. First, they tried to pretend it never happened. They sewed together fig leaves to camouflage their bodies. A futile gesture! You can’t hide from God.
God searched for them, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. This was mercy, not anger. He wanted to give them a chance to come forward. 
Adam started making excuses. 

“The woman you gave me, she tempted me, and I ate.”

Adam not only manages to blame his wife, but God Himself!
God patiently calls for Eve. She blames the snake.
“The serpent tempted me, and I ate.”
Now comes the time when God must hand out punishments. First, He punishes the serpent.

“Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”

Then He turns to the woman. 

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

This is not a curse on her body, but on her attitude. Childbearing and childrearing would always have been painful but with the curse it becomes much, much worse, because the joy is gone. 
Then he turns to Adam.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Adam’s curse is much longer. You will do your work, but you won’t enjoy it. As a protection against you, thorns and thistles to grow.  More than that, Adam will die, with eternal death after that.
But there will be a remedy for that failure. It will be presented later, but the first hint is already present in an unusual verse—Genesis 3:15:
 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
This is a prophecy. In the Hebrew concept of reproduction, offspring come from the man, not the woman. The only time there could be a “seed” of woman would be if there were no man involved.  Paul points out that the word “seed” is singular, not plural. One man—one seed--will come from a woman without a human father. He will destroy Satan. He will be wounded in the heel, but He will break Satan’s head. He will crush the works of the Devil.
Who can this be but Jesus—born of a virgin, nailed through the heel on the cross, who came to destroy Satan and all His works? Only He has the power to interpose Himself between the temptation of Satan and our lives. Without Jesus, we’re helpless to resist. With Him, we can build a new life.
Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. But the tree of temptation went with them. It bore fruit in their lives in a thousand forms. That tempting tree is still with us today. It’s in your life and mine. 
The only way to resist it, and the only way to reverse it, is to turn to Jesus, the seed of the Woman, and let Him beat it for us. 
Don’t let your temptations rule your lives. Give them to Jesus, and He will defeat Satan for you.  

The Marriage Ideal - Genesis 2: 18-25

I feel grossly inadequate to speak on the subject of these verses, and let me explain why.
My wife and I have been married forty-one years. Neither of us had a serious relationship with anyone else. We were virgins when we married. We have had a nearly ideal marriage. Though we have had difficult times, our relationship has remained strong.
Yet as the years go by, the rarer our marriage pattern becomes. There are very few of you who share our circumstances. Many of you are single today, and many of you have endured at least one divorce—or else your spouse has. The overwhelming majority of people are not virgins when married. Many have had multiple sexual partners. This is called “the new normal”--which or course means that couples like my wife and myself are abnormal. Some envy our relationship, but frankly, most just think we’re weird.
So how do I say what God says marriage was intended to be, when most of the world knows it as something else? It’s not that people are in rebellion against God, it’s just that what is normal is so far from God’s ideal that most would not recognize it. 
The marriage is foundational to all other relationships. It was the first relationship between two people in the world.
The first reference to it comes from Genesis 1:27 “God created man in His own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” The Bible uses “man” to include both sexes--co-equal and complimentary. Men are incomplete without women, and vice-versa.
Then in Genesis 2: 18, we see, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him.” The point here is that it isn’t good for us to be alone. We need others.  Loneliness is the first thing that God says isn’t good. We were created for community. This statement is as true for single as well as married. Marriage is a special gift that is not given to all, but community is for everyone.
One of my friends recently had a conversation with a man he led to Christ. He asked whether he was in a church. The man proceeded to tell him what was wrong with every church he visited, and how they were idolatrous and doctrinally incorrect, and how he couldn’t submit to any of them. He said his home was his church. This man was convinced that he only needed God, not others.
 This man was a fool. He claimed obedience to God, yet freely became trapped in the first activity God said was no good—being alone. He was alone not because there were no Christians or people around, but by his own choice, out of pride of his own opinions. 
We were designed for sharing our feelings, thoughts, and actions with others. We share it all electronically through phone, television, and internet. But while these devices help us to link together, they also keep us apart. They give the illusion of closeness, without actually sharing.
We ae not close when we meet, either. Superficial relationships do not really fulfill the deep need we have for intimacy. We need heart relationships, not just head relationships.
God brought all the animals to Adam and he named them. They became his pets. Pets are good, but they are not people. We cannot have an intellectual discussion with a poodle or get advice from a Siamese. We need people in our lives more than we need pets. 
People meet us as equals not subordinates. They teach us and we teach them. They correct us when we go astray, comfort us when we hurt, and sympathize when we have hard times
Marriage is the first institution where coequals come together. All other institutions—families, churches, villages, etc., are represented in this first institution. There are many forms of coequal intimacy apart from marriage, but they all started with marriage. It is the coequal nature of marriage that sets the stage for all community relationships.  
Just as we can’t treat pets as people, we can’t treat people as animals. When I hear a man call his wife ‘the little woman” or treat his kids as appendages of his own ego, or see a woman treat her husband as if he only exists to make her happy, then I see us treating people as some kind of lower life form. Inferior, not equal. It’s an inadequate understanding of human relationships.
People need other people, so God created a second person. The term He uses for her is ezer, “helper,” most often used for God himself as in “The Lord is my helper.” If we think God intended women to be servants to men, then we also must believe that God Himself is a servant to us. This relationship is not subordinate, but complementary. It is only when sin comes that the human relationships become corrupted by domination and control. God’s ideal in marriage is mutual respect and appreciation--two people thinking, feeling, and acting together. The same is true of every other relationship. People are not pets, slaves, or work animals. We are free and independent parties bound together by love of God and our loving commitments. 
When Eve appears, Adam appreciates her beauty.  She is literally the most beautiful woman in the world, because she is the only one. There’s no one else to compare to her. That implies something very profound, not just in marriage, but in all our relationships.
 Relationships are based on commitment, not comparison. I have the best friends in the world, because they are my friends. I have the best children in the world, because they are my children. I live in the best country in the world because it is my country. I have the best wife in the world, because she is my wife. She doesn’t have to be more beautiful than her neighbor, because I’m not looking at my neighbor.  My country doesn’t have to be the best, because I am not comparing it to other countries, either. This is where my home is and where I’d rather be. 
Modern relationships are based on shopping. We shop for the very best in friends, jobs, or spouses. If our wives or husbands don’t suit, then we can throw them off and find another one. But most of the time, when we think the other will be better, we are wrong. Our feelings about them are the result of our inner unhappiness, they are not caused by our feelings. 
Relationships are covenantal, not contractual. We love others for God’s sake, not for their own.
I cannot speak for all marriages--I can speak for my own. When my wife and I got married we both loved Jesus first. God has come first, not each other. That’s why we’ve stayed married. Putting God first before marriage was the best choice we ever made.
There are there reasons for this. First, because covenanting with God gave us a platform of stability in our lives, on which we built a strong family. Our children never had to worry about our divorcing. Their lives had an unshakeable foundation. Children need safety, and when they see their parents coming apart, they become fearful and afraid. It is important to keep that bond strong. Faith in God anchors marriage in something stronger than us.
Second, I always have someone to whom I can communicate. With all the moves we have had to make, we’ve always had each other. 
Third, there is someone always with whom I am not afraid to be myself, not who I appear to be in public. Friends, family and spouses know us, whether we like it or not. Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Your spouse is the one person who sees you naked and doesn’t snicker. 
In verse 24, the writer of Genesis breaks out of the story rhapsodizes about marriage Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Here he gives us the secret of a successful marriage.
Leave your folks. That means your birth family and the attitudes of that family. You are made part of a new creation--a new family. If you’re not willing to leave, don’t cleave. If there are habits or commitments that interfere with your marriage, be prepared to forsake them. Burn them addresses of your former girlfriends and never call them again.  Don’t cling to the past, but embrace the new reality of your position.
Cleave to your spouse. Do it, not because they are good providers, or because they are beautiful, or because they are funny, witty or handsome. Hold on because God says hold on! What part of “Till death do us part” do you not understand? We change much over the years--personalities change, good looking people turn ugly, ugly people improve, happy people get depressed and depressed people get happy. It’s only our commitment to hold on that keeps a marriage going. 
Be one flesh. You are two heads on the same body. Respect your individuality as a left hand respects a right hand, and give each other room to real, but always keep this in mind that if you hurt one, you hurt both. Divorce is sometimes necessary, but when it happens it is not is not a liberation—it’s an amputation. It is far better to find a way to stay whole than heal broken flesh.
Knowing full well that some of you have already failed, and some of you may fail, even so there is really nothing else to say. The marital ideal is what God intended, and I know it works. 
But when marriages fails, God doesn’t. When we are single and don’t want to be, God has not forsaken us. Christ’s death on the cross covers all our sins, and always promises us a new beginning. It’s not past mistakes we need to look to, but future triumphs. If you are single, then take the lessons of Genesis 2, and use them in all your relationships. Be faithful to the community where God has placed you.  If you are married, or if God brings someone later into your life to marry, then start by putting God in the center. Let your marriage be a covenant before God, started off right with Godly standards, and enter in for a lifetime as one flesh.  

Stay faithful and God will be faithful. Forget to put God in the center, and likely as not, you will fail.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Good and Evil; Life and Death: Genesis 2

There’s one part of Genesis 2 that we usually skip over without much thought, and that’s the rivers around Eden. The Bible records that the Garden of Eden is located between the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon and Gihon Rivers. It’s not important where exactly, but that it’s a real place with real boundaries. 

When God created us He placed us within boundaries. Later, humans would spread everywhere, but only after they had mastered life in Eden. It was a kind of nursery for the human race. In Genesis 1: 28, we were given the whole world, but in Genesis 2, we were only responsible for the land between the rivers. 

There was an experiment done with preschool children where they let them play in a small playground. They played all around the yard up to the limits of the fence. Then they placed them on a bigger playground and they played on every square inch. Finally, they put them in a field with no fence. But instead of roaming, the children stayed in a close huddle. They did not explore, because they were afraid. Boundaries rather than being restrictive are essential for emotional support. 

So it was with Adam and Eve. First, they had to stay within their boundaries. They lived under restrictions. If we don’t learn to be happy within boundaries, then we’ll never be happy without them.

It is clear from Genesis 1 that God intended Adam and Eve’s descendants to move beyond those rivers eventually. But first, God wanted them to thrive within the boundaries. They were not ready for full freedom. Those who are given too much freedom too soon in life never amount to much. 

Have you ever heard of the “26” club? That’s the term for celebrities who die around 26 or 27. They include James Dean, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Heath Ledger, River Pheonix, Tupac Shakur, and Amy Winehouse. Other celebrities died in their early forties and fifties--Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Pressley, Michael Jackson and Prince. They were given money, fame, and freedom and lived beyond their boundaries.  The result for all of them was disaster.

But what if their lives had been different. What if, instead of getting it fast and easy, they had more obstacles to face, greater restrictions and the help of someone who could truly manage them? I wonder how many would have stayed alive, and what these people would have accomplished over a long period of time if they had had boundaries. They might have lived long enough to deal with fame and fortune. Instead, all they got from unlimited freedom was disaster.

God placed man in boundaries. Boundaries help us focus on what is really important in life, and give us time to grow and thrive.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote a series of books called Boundaries, which address the need to respect the boundaries between our lives. We should not try to rule the world, or control the lives of those outside of our existence, but we should concentrate on thriving within the boundaries God has set. When we thrive where we are, then God brings other opportunities, but when we meddle in things outside our boundaries we take on too much, and we are crushed by the weight of the world. This is what the Psalmist means in Psalm 131:

“Lord, my heart is not haughty
Nor my eyes lofty,
Nor do I concern myself in great matters
Or things too wonderful for me
But I have calmed and quieted my soul
Like a weaned child on its mother’s bosom
So is my soul within me.
Yes, my soul is as a weaned child.”

Within these river boundaries, God planted two trees, which were called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. God gave them instructions that they should leave these trees alone, especially the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  

Now, if there were a government back then, it would never have allowed God to do this. Why put something as dangerous as these two trees in a nursery garden, where innocent people could stumble upon them? Wouldn’t it be better to plant them outside of Eden—say at the North Pole or the top of Mt. Everest?  Then no one could have been so foolish as to eat of them and die. 

But God did not do that. He put those trees right in Adam and Eve’s living room. God places temptation inside our boundaries, not outside. The greatest struggles we ever have are inside our own souls. If you can master your soul, then you master the world.

Before the first humans could multiply and have dominion over all creatures, they had to first learn to have dominion over themselves. If they could stay away from the tree, then they could stay away from all other temptations. But without learning obedience at home, they would never have survived in the larger world.

Temptation and evil are right inside our own houses. Whether it be pornography on computers, television shows we shouldn’t watch, the chocolate cake in the refrigerator, or getting along with our families, our own homes are the location of our strongest moral temptations. 

But if evil is present in our homes, so is good. We learn to enjoy the pleasures of daily life. We learn to witness in our relationships with family and friends.  We learn conflict resolution in marriage. We don’t have to leave home to help the needy. The best things in life are right within the boundaries God has placed in our lives.

If the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is within, so is the tree of life and death. 

A woman comes to the preacher and says, “My life is unfulfilled.  My husband is holding me back from happiness.  I can’t believe God wants me to stay in this marriage.  I have to get out.”

My first response is, “What part of ‘till death do you part’ did you not understand?”
My second response is that God places us all within boundaries. Marriage is a voluntary boundary, which we take on freely.  In marriage we become one flesh.  Marriage may be the Garden of Eden, or it may be hell, depending on what you make of it. What makes the difference is our willingness to make the most of life based upon the boundaries God has set for us. Some boundaries are thrust upon us. The commandments of God are such boundaries. So are the boundaries of age and birth. Other boundaries—like marriage—exist because we agreed to them. Either way, we never will enjoy life unless we live within the boundaries.

When we resent boundaries, we exaggerate their importance “God won’t let me do anything!” Not true. Mathematically speaking there are an infinite number of things you can do with your life. Your life choices are only limited by your imagination. The number of things that God forbids are finite. They are only as many as there are commands of God. We cannot conceive of all the good things God has given us permission to do. As long as we don’t do the things He doesn’t want, we can do a million things He does want. Our inability to enjoy life is mainly because of our lack of imagination.

Our ability to partake of the Tree of Life is limited by our knowledge of good and evil. If we reach out too quickly and try to snatch what God intends for later, then we never get the good tree. God limited Adam and Eve to Eden. Inside Eden, He only forbade them to eat of two trees. Everything else was fair game.

Some day in Eden, there was to be a Graduation Day. God had ordained the time. It was a time when having proven faithful, Adam and Eve would have been granted permission not only to learn about good and evil, but eternal life as well. They never made it to that day. They became impatient, and disobeyed the boundaries. As a result, the Tree of Life was forbidden. Instead, they got the tree of death.

As long as we are on this earth, we are bound by the earth. Our bodies have limitations. They grow old, get sick and die.  Yet Jesus Himself took on such a body and lived. His body only lasted him thirty-three years, yet in that time, He truly and fully lived. 

To live within God’s boundaries we must humble ourselves and do what God says. Obey His rules, but only for a little while. Then one day, God opens the door and lets us go freely.

Think of what God put in the garden!  First there was all the food he could ever want. There were animals of all kinds. Imagine playing with lions and bears! He had a beautiful wife, a perfect mate, and the two of them enjoyed all kinds of sexual and emotional delights. What more could you ask?  It was paradise!

Adam could complain about it. Sure he had vegetables, but no chocolate bars! How tragic!  Sure, he had animals for entertainment, but not even basic cable! Sure he had a wife, but why couldn’t he have two? When we sit and complain, we never appreciate what God has given.

What are you missing in life that would make you happy?  Nothing!  Everything you need to be happy is already here!  Don’t fret about what God has not given you, enjoy what He has given you.  If you look at it in that way, then your life is not hell—it’s Eden. 

Vision and Values Matthew 28: 18-20

Last week, I began a series of message about my values and vision for this church.

I have three immediate goals for the church. The first is to continue the cleaning and renovation of the church, both in its physical appearance, financial stability, and internal organizational structure. This is necessary to clear away the past so we can get on with the future. 

The second goal is to continue to renew our sense of community. Loving and caring for each other is as important as anything else we do. It does no good to build a great organization if we are not also a family who love and care about each other.  What does it matter if we grow into the biggest ministry in town, if we do it by forgetting to love any one of us? We go forward by first loving one another.

The third goal is to build a new vision for the church. That vision must be Biblical and easily understood by everyone.

A church vision is more than a church style. Many confuse the two. Whether we use contemporary or traditional music, wear robes or sandals, or cater to young people or old are questions of style, not vision. Styles change, but vision stays. It is how we interpret God’s call upon the church for all times 

Churches with vision may be traditional or contemporary, liturgical or informal—it does not matter much in the end. They may have many different kinds of people with many different interests, but that is just style and culture, not vision.  Churches with vision are not so much concerned about what they do, but why they do it. They understand what they are supposed to be doing, and can express in a few words what that vision is.

Over the years, my understanding of the vision of the church has changed. I want to express to you in the clearest way I can what I perceive now as the mission of the church.

I used to think it was simple. Just win people to Jesus!  I grew up in Southern evangelical churches where churches were just a preaching station for evangelism, but getting people to profess Jesus isn’t all we do. Long ago, I discovered if I speak the right emotional intensity, I could usually get young people to “come to Jesus.”   However, when they came, it usually did not last. Then the gains we made were temporary. Our world is full of people who claim to have found Jesus and lost Him. They backslid almost immediately. We are the most preached at country in the history of the world, yet godlessness and secularism are all around us. York County, South Carolina has over seven hundred churches, most of them Bible-Believing evangelical churches, yet we seem to be no better off for it. Gospel preaching isn’t the problem. Most of our churches seem to be focused on attracting people from other churches.  There’s more to the Gospel than just preaching it.  We have to live it.

The simplest, clearest vision of what the church is supposed to be doing is found in the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: 18-20,

 “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This passage has three parts to. The first part is the introduction. “All authority is given to me on heaven and on earth”

Jesus’ declaration of His authority is important for two reasons. First, He has authority over the church. He is saying, “Don’t argue with me. I have the right to declare the vision of the church.” If we think the church is a political activist organization, a social agency, a center for cultural preservation, or a society for promoting vegetarianism, then that’s our vision. Jesus defines the vision of the church according to His own wishes.

Second, he declares His authority over the world. He is also pointing out to us that when He tells us to do something, it can happen. He has the power to accomplish what He wants, and to preserve what we build, because He is in charge. God give us the keys to the world and says, “Go, take what you need to do My mission.” 

At the end of the Great Commission He says, “I am with you always.” We don’t have to go it alone. He goes with us. As we trust Him, things will happen. 

In between, in verse 19 comes the meat of the Great Commission. This is composed with four statements. First, he says, “Go into the world.” This is a participial phrase. It really means, “As you are going.” It isn’t so much a foray into enemy territory as it is just going about our daily lives.

“Make disciples of all nations.” “Nations” is the Greek word “ethnos” meaning any and every social group. The nations are not the disciples, but disciples come from all nations. Not everyone will be a disciple--only those who believe. We make disciples that are black, white, Hispanic and oriental, but we also make disciples who are bankers, homeless people, surfers, rappers, goths, Clemson fans, country music lovers, video game aficionados, and dental hygienists. We get disciples from every kind of person in the world.

Then “Baptize them.” Baptism was a rite bestowed by the Body of Christ. It was a sign that they had become part of the community.

Finally, He said, “Teach them.” God wants us to do everything He taught us to do.  

Jesus is describing a process, not a linear process as some think of, but a cycle. It looks something like the diagram shown here.

Usually, talking about it from the first box—“Go”. The first command. We start with go seek them in the world. Then we have make disciples, which we take to mean preach Jesus to them. Then we get them baptized, which is to get them in the door of the church. Then we teach them, which is like getting them to come to Sunday School. However, this is an overly simplistic.

The church in America doesn’t need to “go” into the world. We are already in it. There are seven hundred churches among us in York County alone.  We are in the world. I could preach a sermon this morning on going to church, but why? You’re already here. We’re here, but we are not making a difference. We’re here, but no one is paying attention. 

If our going is not helping, then let’s back the cycle up. One part leads to the next. It’s not our going, but our being taught to observe that isn’t working.

I had a friend named Joe who always looked as if he were sucking lemons. He wasn’t a bad guy, he just looked that way. He worked at a Salvation Army kettle over Christmas. He stood on the street corner and rasped, “God bless you” to everyone, but he just creeped everyone out. People would walk around the block to avoid him. His words were right, his heart was right, but his demeanor was wrong.

We’re out in the world, but our demeanor is not Christ’s demeanor. We’re saved, but we don’t act any different from one another. That’s why the world is not being made of disciples, because the examples we are giving them are not like Jesus.

We don’t just preach in the world—we live in it. Every moment of our day, every word we speak, every look we give is a testimony to our Savior. We can’t just go into the world--we must live like Jesus in the world as we go. 

The Greeks had a word for this—theosis. The Christian life is a process of becoming like Jesus. We are not just preaching Jesus, but we are becoming like Him, or else our words are wasted. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, and our obedience and willingness to follow the Word, we are Christlike. The closer we come to Him, the more potent our influence. We are salt, we are light, we are leaven.

 The other two commands of the Great Commission describe steps to theosis. Making disciples—catechesis—is our basic training. It is shaking off the old world, and adopting the new. The early church put its potential member through three years of training before they were baptized to learn what it meant to live and act like a Christian.

Baptism was an act of adoption. Jesus never intended for people to go out and act like Him alone. Can you imagine a world where everyone thought they were Jesus, and not one ever said, “Not yet, you aren’t!”  Or could you imagine being told that you were supposed to act like Jesus, then there was no one to help you? Actually, you don’t have to imagine it—it’s all around us in the church! Many Christians don’t think they need other Christians, to live like Christ, while others are convinced they can never live like Jesus, because there is on one to help them. We need each other, and the fellowship of each other, to achieve any progress to becoming like Jesus.

But once we have the basic training, and once we have the support of the church, then we can go on to learn to observe the tougher commands of God. Then, we can go out into the world, not to represent ourselves, but in the power and presence of Christ. 

We learn to observe the things He taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Love one another. Give to those who ask. Don’t worry about what you eat or drink, but seek first the Kingdom of God. Most of them seem as far above us as differential calculus is over the head of a second grader. But these are ideals that are set before us, realizable only over time through our seeking Jesus.

The vision of our church is, or ought to be to produce people who are like Jesus.  When we do that, then the world will sit up and take notice. The vision I seek in my life at this time, is to be like Him in all ways, and to help others become like Him in every way. 

Fruit of the Spirit - Self Control: Luke 4: 1-12

Today we reach the ninth fruit of the Holy Spirit—self-control. There are always some parts of our life that are out of control--first because we are human and second because we are sinners. Until we get to heaven, we are going to have trouble with self-control.

My dog Natasha is a good dog, but she’s still a dog. Sometimes on a walk she’ll see a squirrel and go crazy, or a jogger and leap to chase him. Even a well-trained dog is something impulsive and unpredictable. What’s true of the dog is also true of her master. When something riles me or when I’m under stress, or some temptation crosses my path, I leap impulsively like my dog. Later, I am ashamed of my lack of self-control, but unless I restrain my heart, I get in trouble. That’s what it’s like to have an undisciplined, fallen human nature.

Self-control is a problem in many areas of life. One is food. And another is sex. A third is anger. A fourth is language. James says the tongue sometimes seems to have a mind of it’s own. We also each have what used to be called “besetting” sins, which are areas of temptation that are stronger for us than for others. Modern language calls these addictions. They may include television, the internet, gambling, drugs, shopping, obsessive behaviors,--whatever! These parts of our lives seem constantly to be either out of control or about to be out of control. We promise ourselves that we’ll never do it again, but we keep failing to keep our promise. Fortunately, God in His mercy forgives our failings.  He overlooks our faults and loves us anyway, even though He wants us to change.

Self-control, however is not really about our failings. It is about how we can succeed in becoming better, healthier, and happier people. Let’s not look so much as where we fail as where and how we can find success, and become fully what God wants us to be.

When it comes to the fruit of the Holy Spirit, most people fall into one of two misconceptions. One misconception is that self-control is all about willpower. We leave “the Spirit” out of it. If we don’t have self-control, then we think it’s because we didn’t try hard enough. This is a very false, non-Christian concept. But so is the opposite misconception, that we can do nothing to produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that somehow the Spirit will hit us with a bolt from the blue, and we will become incredibly disciplined, loving, and joyful.  Both these extremes are wrong. Self-discipline is a process involving our cooperation and God’s Spirit, producing a personality change in us.

Once again, let’s look to the life of Jesus.  We see an example of Jesus’ self-control right at the beginning of His ministry in in Luke 4: 1-2:

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”

This story, as many will recognize is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ temptations. But saying that misses the point. Jesus began His ministry with a forty-day fast. Why?  Some people fast to get closer to God, but Jesus didn’t need to—He was God!  Others fast as penance for sin. But Jesus didn’t need to—he never sinned!  So why did Jesus fast?

I believe He fasted for one reason in order to fully experience humanity. He could not be the epitome of self-control unless he had proven it by denying Himself nourishment, even to the point of death, in order to recognize for Himself how hard self-control was for us. Every cell of his body demanded to be fed. He knows the hunger we feel when we must fast or diet. He knows what it means to deny urges that are God-given, natural and healthy. He could not begin a ministry that demanded self-control of him until He had been driven to the very limits. He demonstrated his self-control by denying himself the necessities of life,   

Jesus learned self-control the same way we did—by struggling with natural desire for the ordinary necessities of life. Without learning self-control in small things, we will never learn it in big things. 

Self-control may involve, self-denial, but they are not the same thing. Self-denial leads to self-control, which unlocks the vast potential of the human spirit within us. When we learn to deny ourselves and follow the Holy Spirit, then there is no limit to what we can attain or achieve. 

Self-control isn’t just going on diets and breaking bad habits. It’s also staying strong in hardship, being an example to others, staying on course to bigger and better goals, and pressing beyond our expectations. Athletes, circus performers, and virtuoso musicians do nearly miraculous things by learning to control their minds and bodies. Scholars becomes smart through years of rigorous intellectual discipline. Saints practice disciplined prayer. Self-control is gaining mastery over self, so we can master the world around us. 

Paul tells us in Romans 12 to present our bodies a living sacrifice to God. But we can’t present our bodies and minds until we first control them.  We cannot give God what we cannot control.  Self-control enables us to accomplish what God has before us.

What do you desire in life? Health? Wealth? Success? Godliness? Self-control is the path to achieving it. Jesus’ fast wasn’t just an incident in his life, but an essential part of fulfilling His destiny. He said “no” to His body, so He could say “yes” to the Father.  We must also do the same.  Jesus tell us in Luke 21: 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.”  Self-control is a tool that opens up all the fullness of life and satisfaction in following Jesus.

So, how to do we develop self-control?

First, recognize that we need to control ourselves.

God is not going to fix a problem in your life that you will not admit to having. We have to admit that our lives are out of control, and have a desire to change.

 Second, committing ourselves to being like Jesus, and doing whatever it takes.

Jesus’ initial forty-day fast was a gesture of submission to God. This radical submission had to start somewhere. Every attempt at repentance and self-control must begin with a willingness to follow no matter what it takes, and how long it takes.

In this journey, Jesus is our model. A sculptor who sets out to carve a statue out of a block of stone makes models and sketches before he ever lifts a chisel or a hammer.  Before we can go to work we must have a model. Jesus is our model. He is what we seek to be. There is no point in just practicing self-discipline to remake ourselves, if we have no idea what we are supposed to be. You have to make Jesus your model for life. Once you have the model, then you can begin the process of learning self-control, to build your live in His image. Then you do whatever it takes to become like Him in thought, word, feeling, and action. This is not easy, but obedience to the Father never is. Jesus paid the price for self-control. If He did, we should also.

Third, seek help from others.

No one can learn self-control without help from other people. Without help, we all fall into self-deception. We can easily lie to ourselves, because there is no one to catch our lies. Also, we do not possess in ourselves enough wisdom, strength or guidance to solve our own problems. We need help from God, but God usually offers that help and strength from other people. Pride makes us reject help from others. Wisdom seeks help from others. 

We all need three kinds of help from others.  First, we need a mentor. This can be a pastor, counselor, confessor, or coach--someone who has been a little farther down the road that we have and can give us sage advice. A mentor is not someone who has all the answers, but is someone who may help us find the answers.

Next, we need a friend and fellow struggler. This doesn’t have to be someone who is better or more mature than we are, but someone who will hold us accountable.

Finally we need a small group who will love us, support us, and encourage us. Jesus never intended that His people should suffer alone or celebrate alone, but that we should share our struggles. That’s why He created the church—to be a place where people may come and grow.

Fourth, measure success by consistency, not results.

Don’t let a lack of immediate results get you down. Suppose we resolve to walk an hour a day, because we want to lose weight. If we have walked an hour a day, at the end of the week we will have been successful, whether or not we have lost any weight. The weight is irrelevant; consistency is everything. 

Results are not as important as consistency.  We may not feel closer to God at the end of a week of devotions. Don’t be discouraged. Once we have gained self-control, results will follow in time. If we keep going, in time, God will bring results if we are faithful.

Fifth, forgive your failures and celebrate your victories.

When we exercise self-control, celebrate it!  Tell your support group, and let them rejoice with you! And when you fail, don’t beat yourself up about it. God has already forgiven your failures. Our failures should only be remembered as opportunities to learn from our mistakes. If you fail, you are no worse off than before you tried. You will fail at one hundred percent of everything you do not try. But you will succeed at some of the things you do try.

Jesus succeeded at self-control not because He was God, but because He was fully human. God did not have to live within a body that had human imitations, but He did, and in doing so he demonstrated that our very human bodies, minds and spirits may be made to obey. His humanity and self-control gives us hope. 

Whatever you are able to ultimately do, God can give you hope. We do not have to be out of control. With God’s help we can master our souls.