|Summer Vacation, June 2013: Around the Home-Place|
Monday, September 9, 2013
The Great Story: Good Start, Wrong Turn, What Next?
Preached on Sunday, September 8, 2013
Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 8:13-22
In 1971, I graduated from what they used to call “junior college”. For our graduation speaker we had John Madden, who was still a fairly new head coach for the Oakland Raiders. I remember that he gave a great speech but I don’t remember anything he said.
But it was fun. Coaches are fun to listen to because they never forget to stay close to the basics. For instance John Madden is famous for saying, “You can’t win a game if you don’t score any points.” John Madden also said, “To get more yards it’s best to move the ball from the line of scrimmage down the field.” Even I can understand that.
The Bible is a big book; a seemingly complicated book; seemingly a whole library of all kinds of books: there’s history, law, wisdom, poetry, predictions. But, in another way it is a very simple book.
You could call the Bible a war story (as it is in so many ways), but it is just as true to call it a love story. You know the old formula for romantic movies: God creates world, God loses world, God chases world, God wins world, God marries world. Genesis is like the opening chapter, and the Book of Revelation has the marriage and the honeymoon at the end. It really does. But even if you have the habit of taking a peek at the last page of a story (like I do, to see if the story is worth reading), you would never begin a story without reading the first page.
Genesis is the beginning of a long story that shows us who God is and who we are. It is a very personal story of love, and war, and hopes, and disappointments, and conflict, and sacrifice. A story like this can never be told by charts, and outlines, and manuals.
The Bible is like a huge, overflowing photo album. Do you remember those? You sit together with God on his sofa and you pass the bulging book back and forth, picking up the things that fall out, and you remember the big story through the many stories of the photos, and newspaper clippings, and invitations, and letters.
The Bible is not a textbook, but an object that you pass back and forth between you and God. It is useless without contact and intimacy. It is useless without questions, and listening.
The first chapter of Genesis is like the building of a dream house from a plan that you yourself have made. The creation follows God’s house-plan for a world that he would share with you. The plan, as we read it in Genesis, is organized by rooms and what goes into them.
When I was eighteen my family built our long cherished dream house. By calling it our dream house, I don’t mean that it was ever a fancy house. We talked about it for years before it was built, and it was intended to be a house not for just anybody, but for us. The house would be as perfect for us as we could imagine, or afford to build.
We fit the house, and the house fit us. It had a parental, master bedroom, and there were three bedrooms for us kids. The living room was away from the den so someone could be in the den watching television, and my dad could be in the living room listening to Dixieland. We wouldn’t bother each other, and the kitchen was in between.
I have told you that my dad had built a lot of furniture. The rooms of this house were designed to hold that furniture and make it look as if that furniture was made for that house, but the house was built to fit that furniture.
My room had a huge set of bookshelves. My room was designed for me.
The creation in Genesis tells us about the plan for the house that God would build for us and share with us. The plan shows us the house room by room. First it shows us the vast room of dark and light. Then it moves us into the room of sky, and air, and water. Then it moves us to the room where the water is cleared away to make a room of land. That is our room.
The plan gives us a tour of the house from the biggest room, which we can think of as the heaven of the heavens. It’s God’s special room. Then it moves through the rooms, to our room.
After showing us the rooms, the plan shows us how God furnishes and fills the rooms.
The first room is filled with the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the planets. Even though there are some humans living up there in the international space station, and though there are plans for more, that big room is still not quite the place for us.
The second room is filled with birds and fish. Some people sail, and water-ski, and fish, and fly, but that room is still not quite the place for us.
Our room is filled with plants and animals. This is the place for us. This is the place that fits us, and the place where we fit.
In God’s tour of the rooms, God takes us through them twice, each time moving from the farthest room to our room. The story of God’s creation is a story that moves toward us.
God is unimaginably amazing, but he is also amazingly humble. So The Great Story is about God’s desire for us. Creation shows his glory, but it also shows his love.
We know that the story quickly goes wrong, and that the rest of the story is about God handling the wrong and making everything right. In the Book of Revelation, when everything is back in place, when everything is made right, we are told this: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3)
The completion of the story brings us completely around; back to the simple basics of Genesis. It is the story of God and us.
But to truly know God and to truly know ourselves we have to see how the story has played out, and how it is still playing out. To truly know ourselves is to know that we have gone wrong. To truly know God is to see what he has done about us, and what he is doing still.
The answer God gives us, for this, is not in the form of a theory. It is in the form of a story. The most revealing part of the story comes in the part where God comes closest to us. The part of The Great Story that is most revealing about God and about us is the story of Jesus.
The Story of Jesus is the story of what God would do if he came into our world as one of us, and what we would do if we met such a God. The story tells us that we would misunderstand such a God and kill him.
It tells us that when God came the closest to us he took care of those of us in need, and he went on to die the death that we dished out to him. He took the worst we could do to him and he turned it to our salvation. He turned our worst into to our transformation. But it takes a story to tell this.
God made us for love. God made us in his image and in his likeness: a spitting image, a chip off the old block. God made us for a common life in which he would fit us and we would fit him. In other words God made us for love.
Ancient kings would have monuments built along the borders of their kingdom with their image and name on them. These images served to tell outsiders that these lands were ruled by a particular king.
We were created to be little monuments to God. We were created as little signs that would tell anyone who looked our way that this was a world created by a God of love. We were created to be the proof that such a God exists. And that shows us how far we have fallen.
As the image of God, we were created to share in the rule of God over his creation. We were not created to dominate the creation but to be inspired by the house plan of God with a place for everything and everyone, and everyone and everything in its place; everything functioning in balance, as a picture of harmony and as an image of love.
Adam and Eve did much, much more than sin against a command. They sinned against love. They chose suspicion and doubt over love. When they sinned, they chose running from God over confessing to God. They chose to make their own plans and to get their knowledge of good and evil on their own terms.
Everything God put in the garden was good, including the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but one of the things that God put in the garden was his rule to not eat the fruit of that tree. It was like a mother baking a pie and telling her husband and children not to eat it. Of course she made it to be eaten. Of course it was her plan that they would eat the pie and love it; but not after school, and not after work. She would want them to wait until after supper when the pie would fit the plan her love had made.
Adam and Eve decided that the fruit was good, but that the plan and the rule were bad. They decided that God who made the rule must not truly love them, or else he would let have eat the fruit now. So they gained a way of knowing good and evil that was false and bad.
This bad knowledge became part of our very nature, our spiritual DNA. The children of Adam and Eve never ate the forbidden fruit, but they inherited the bad seed of that fruit. It ran in their blood.
So when Cain and Abel grew up and made offerings to God, Cain decided that God’s acceptance of his brother was bad. Cain decided to rule over his brother (and to overrule God) by killing his brother. Cain killed one fourth of the human race in a single day.
The fruit that went bad is still in our blood. We try to reform and, when we do, we still find so many reasons to be ashamed. We organize constitutions and governments to help us govern well, and human nature manages to use our best plans in the worst ways; for selfishness, for greed, for show, and for the lust for power.
After generations of patience, God concluded that young human race was a failed experience that ought to come to an end. But God paused, and God chose the best people in the world (Noah and his family) to be the core of a new human race.
Even with the best possible people, it turned out to be the same old human race. Noah became a wino, and his sons mocked their father. The best of us carry the seed of the fruit that went bad in our blood.
God knew this would happen. God knew that he would have to bear with us and let us build a world that would tell the truth about ourselves. God would let that world go on, and on, and on as a gift of love that would hold a mirror up to all our faces and show us that we have to turn our faces to God.
After Adam and Eve had realized what they had done to themselves (and what it might mean to God’s plan) they were afraid to let God see them. Instead of loving, and trusting, and going to God, to see what he would do, they ran away, as if they could live as they were without God. That is the part of the story we write for ourselves every day.
They tried to make a cover-up that didn’t cover up anything. They tried to make clothing out of fig leaves. And when their individual cover-ups failed they tried to escape by blaming others.
God’s reaction to this was faithfulness and grace. He made clothing to cover their feeling of nakedness and shame. He made this clothing from the skins of animals, which brought a new thread into the story. It gave them, and us, the message that we cannot cover ourselves. Something or someone else must pay the price for our sin and for our re-creation.
God promised that the serpent (the Devil and the powers of evil) would go on to bite the heels of Eve’s children (and that meant biting us to keep the old poison flowing). Then God made the promise that there would be a son who would crush the serpent’s head.
This promise came true in the story of Jesus. The serpent’s forces crucified Jesus who was both the Son of God and the Son of Adam and Eve. Jesus was wounded in his hands and feet, just as if the serpent had bitten his heel.
Jesus crushed the serpent’s head; the power of the devil (the power of sin and death). He crushed them by meeting our sin and death on the cross and defeating them by rising from the dead.
By doing this he is able to give us life. He is able to restore his image in us and make his home with us again.
The Genesis part of the story makes the promise that this is a long, long story. God made this promise to Noah after the flood. “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22)
I often feel sorry for God; for all that he sees and puts up with; and for having to work through us. But that is only part of the great story.
The great story God wants us to know is the story in which his patience, and his continued presence, and his constantly faithful interference in our lives, and his sacrifice of himself to give us life, becomes our life. The great story becomes the place where we live in peace with God and with each other.