A Creation Theology…of Sex?

Q:  My understanding of the Catholic theology of sex is that the only sex that is without sin is intercourse between a husband and wife that is “open to life” –– meaning that the only permissible means of birth control is having sexual intercourse only during a wife’s infertile periods.  What bothers me most about this teaching is that it may be true.  If so, this means that the use of condoms and/or a vasectomy as a means of birth control would be willful disobedience to the will of God.  I have a hard time determining whether or not this theological teaching is an articulation of God’s truth or a form of man’s legalism.  What does the Bible say?

Before launching into this issue, I want to thank this reader for asking such an honest and vulnerable question, and for giving me permission to post it here.  It is an honor to be asked this kind of ethical question of another person, something that I do not take for granted.  I want to honor the reader in return by offering the best answer I can.  Since this blog is dedicated to reading the OT and not to the particulars of Catholic theology, in this post I will not seek to either argue for or against the teaching of the Catholic church regarding sexual ethics.  But the reader here is quite correct that neither condoms nor a vasectomy are acceptable means of birth control as sexual ethics are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see ¶2370, p.629).  

[Note: I myself am Anglican, not Catholic, although generally I have a high regard for the ethical teachings of the Catholic church.]

Rather, my aim in this post is to investigate the perspective of the OT text in regard to sexual ethics, particularly in the creation narratives (i.e. Gen 1-4).  In short, I’m seeking to answer the question, What is a creation theology of sex?  I will then seek to apply the results of that theological investigation in order to provide some kind of answer to the question at hand.  But I need to offer a caveat that, in my opinion, there are many aspects of life and spirituality concerning which the Bible does not prescribe rigid laws.  God has created us as creatures of conscience, which is a gift of God to us to help us navigate life.  In my opinion, the issue of whether the specific Catholic teaching being referenced here is “an articulation of God’s truth or a form of man’s legalism” finally can only be answered by the married couple themselves in their relationship with God.

A creation theology of sex must start with Gen 1:26-28.

Then God said, “Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our resemblance; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of the heavens, and over the beasts and over all the earth, and over all the crawling creatures that crawl on the earth.”

     So God created the human race in His image;
     in the image of God He created it;
     male and female He created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of the heavens, and over all the living creatures that crawl on the earth.”

In sum, there are three theological arguments to be made from this short paragraph of text concerning the human condition in regard to sexuality.  First, all humanity is created in the image of God, both male and female persons.  In other words, both masculinity and femininity together express the image and likeness of God. Neither masculinity alone nor femininity alone can suffice, and neither gender identity is more or less “divine” than the other.  Rather, it is the case that masculinity requires femininity, and femininity requires masculinity, both simultaneously, in order to fully express the image of God.  Second, the entire human race, both male and female, is blessed by God.  There is a sanctity to being human that extends beyond simply the fact of having been created.  As humans, we stand in a special relationship to God; even as sinners, we are not cursed.  The ground has been cursed, but we as people remain blessed simply on the basis of being human.  Thirdly, all humanity has an inherent obligation to our Creator to procreate for the purpose of filling and managing the planet Earth.  This is a collective responsibility to God that we bear as a human race, hence the human phenomenon of sexuality (in all its enormous complexity).

For each of us as human beings, our maleness or femaleness––although marred by sin–– is God’s creative design for our personhood.  We are engendered sexual beings because we are human beings, and to be an engendered sexual being is profoundly good and right and wholesome, in and of itself, with no qualifications, because we are blessed by God.  In other words, a person’s sexual identity intrinsically carries no shame whatsoever.  Period.  Full stop.  But we mustn’t end there, because the third axiom adds a dimension of purpose to our sexual identity as engendered persons.  Collectively as humans, God has created us as sexual beings to carry out a specific function in the world, that is, to procreate and manage the planet that God has entrusted to us to steward.  And if sexual identity is created for a specific function, then it is only natural that there could be limitations placed on sexual expression in order to ensure that its function is fulfilled. For example, let’s say I make a hammer for the purpose of driving a nail, but try to drive a screw instead. I could cause unnecessary damage because I have acted outside the inherent limitations of the thing that I have made.  These limitations derive from the intended purpose for which I, the maker, designed the hammer.

But there is still more to say about this notion of God’s expressed purpose/function for human sexuality.  This brings us to Genesis 2:24.

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife; and they become one flesh.

Here the narrative is terse and does not explain what is meant by the term “one flesh,” but it is clear from Paul’s writings in the New Testament that he understands the term as a reference to sexual union (see 1 Cor 6:12-20).  So in addition to the procreating function of sexual expression that is explicit commanded in Genesis 1, there is also a uniting function for sexual function that is implicitly stated in Genesis 2.  God has created sexuality as the means by which a man and woman both unite to each other and procreate with one another.  So far, so good, says the Catholic catechism.

But Catholic doctrine then takes this a step further, affirming that God has created these two functions for human sexuality as both universal and inseparable; and this makes all the difference for the question being asked.  Part Three of the Catholic Catechism, entitled “Life in Christ,” includes a section on the “fecundity of marriage”:

¶2366.  Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful.  A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.  So the Church, which is “on the side of life” teaches that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life.”  “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”  [Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.628]

The definitive element here is the phrase “each and every marriage act”––meaning sexual intercourse––which is NOT a quote from Holy Scripture but rather from the Catholic doctrinal document called Humanae vitae (Eng. “human life”).  Thus, the primary question being asked by the reader is whether the Catholic catechism is correct when it affirms that God has indeed created these two functions of sexuality as both existentially inseparable and universally applicable.  If so, then the Catholic doctrine is unassailable and must be followed in order to adhere to God’s natural law for human sexuality.  But if not, then there is room for varied application of these two functional principles.  So how can one evaluate whether the Catholic claims are indeed correct?

First, one should note that the Bible itself does not stipulate either the inseparability or universality of these two functions for human sexuality.  This decision is left to the reader, which may itself imply a kind of answer to the question; that is, perhaps this question is rightly considered a matter of personal conscience (similar to Paul’s advice in Romans 14 concerning the Christian observance of the Sabbath), which would of itself negate the absolute “universal applicability” of these functions. 

Secondly, the fact that the Catholic catechism specifically affirms that children are a “gift” from God also implies that perhaps the unitive and procreative functions of human sexuality are not quite as existentially inseparable as the catechism states.  This seems reflected in the Genesis narrative itself, since the procreative function of sexuality is stated as an explicit command (Gen 1:27) whereas the the unitive function is stated as an implicit fact (Gen 2:24).  This would seem to indicate that the unitive function is a genuine constitutive reality of human sexuality––that is, that sexual expression serves to unite persons whether we like it or not.  But this plainly untrue concerning the procreative function of human sexuality, because not all sex leads to procreation, as many people can painfully attest.

Thirdly, there are several instances in the Scriptures where the biblical writers as well as Jesus Himself affirm and emphasize the unitive function of sexuality as well as God’s desire that such a union should not be broken (see Gen 20:1-18; Prov 5:15-23; Mal 2:10-16; Matt 5:27-32, 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; 1 Cor 7:1-16).  However, I do not find the same kind of emphasis in Scripture concerning the procreative function.  The biblical writers seem quite concerned that married people should be faithful to one another and remain united to one another.  The biblical writers do not seem concerned nearly so much that married people should be producing children.  I think the biblical exegete can make a compelling case that God has created an imbalance in this functions for human sexuality, with greater importance on the unitive function but not to the negation of the procreative function.

In the end, I cannot specifically answer the question of the reader, whether the Catholic sexual ethic is divine truth or human legalism.  However, I think I can confidently say that the Catholic sexual ethic goes beyond what is expressed in the creation narratives, that is, it exceeds a biblical creation theology.  But whether the Catholic ethic exceeds the bounds of natural theology (a.k.a. natural law) is quite another matter, one to which I must appeal to conscience.

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Food is Fuel, Food is Art

Although many do not realize it, the beauty of God is an aspect of His nature especially revealed in the Old Testament.  This has fascinated me for a long time, but in recent years a particular play on words in the Genesis creation account has captured my attention – a literary twist that brings this attribute of God to the foreground.  Apparently, God had beauty in His heart when He created the world.

The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. [Gen 2:9a NIV, emphasis added]

Earlier in the story, God made it quite clear that the trees He planted were intended for human sustenance.  Vegetation on earth serves a utilitarian function, to keep living things alive.  In the second chapter of the creation narrative, however, the Genesis story includes an important detail that helps illuminate the purposes and character of God.  God created trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. The artistic beauty of vegetation is mentioned alongside its pragmatic function in the world.  Yes, food is fuel.  But to God, it is so much more than that.  Food is art.

But there is more here.  These two simple phrases are placed in a deliberate order: “pleasing to the eye” comes before “good for food.”  This careful wording is no accident; later on in the story, their order is intentionally reversed.  The function of trees to provide food seems secondary to the primary purpose of pleasure.  Oddly enough, the pleasure mentioned is not of taste but of sight!  The text does not say that God created food that was tasty on the tongue, but food that was beautiful to behold.

What does this show us about God?  In the story, these two short phrases highlight God’s extravagant goodness.  He could have made our food ugly, or bitter, or both; and it would have been enough.  But God is lavish in His gifts, because He blessed us twice by delighting both our mouths and our eyes.  Not only does God meet our physical needs via His creation, but He does so in a way that demonstrates His flair for the aesthetic, the colorful, the beautiful.  God is not merely a cosmic brick oven spitting out our daily bread.  No, God is an artist – who paints His very own beauty into the ordinary, everyday things of our lives like fruit and herbs and mushrooms.

So the earth is good and green; but then, something happens – the great twisting of the world.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” [Gen 3:6 NIV, emphasis added]

The order has been reversed. Under the enchantment of the serpent’s temptation, the woman and man no longer see the world as God created it. They see that the tree is first “good for food,” and then “pleasing to the eye.”  They have exchanged the artistic for the practical, the beautiful for the dutiful, the lavish for the mundane.  Instead of delighting in God’s extravagantly good gift of beautiful food, they lust after the selfish knowledge of good and evil which they suppose will make them gods in God’s place. Before, they had known only “good.”  Now, they have been twisted by their own sin.

How does the twisted become straight again?  Through Jesus, of course, as the rest of the Bible goes on to tell us.  However, I believe there is a practical lesson from this creation text for us to apply.  Through God’s gift of art, we can recover the delight of God’s extravagant goodness in the world around us.  We can view the earth as God created it, that is, NOT as a mere purveyor of resources for our consumption, but as the canvas on which He has painted His divine grace.

In Christ, God has given us new life to re-align us with His decreed purpose: to till the earth and harvest its bounty, and to care for the trees and the animals in the same way that God cares for us.  God has made us co-artists with Him, so that His glorious creation might not be marred by human selfishness but will continue to display the resplendent beauty of His holiness.

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Christ, the Serpent-Slayer

St.George.Icon

Scripture Readings:
Gen 3:9-15
Ps 118:19-29
Luke 1:26-38
Rev 12:1-12

Manuscript:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

O God our King, by the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ on the first day of the week, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life:  Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great Day; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. [1]

 

Why should we boast of Arthur and his Knights,
Knowing how many Men have performed Fights;
Or why should we speak of Sir Lancelot du Lake,
Or Sir Tristrum du Leon, that fought for Ladies sake,
Read old Stories and there you shall see,
How St. George, St George, he made the Dragon flee;
St George he was for England, St. Denis was for France,
Sing, Hony soit qui maly pence.

These are the first eight lines of a 17th century lyric ballad entitled, St. George and the Dragon.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of St. George, the knight who kills a great dragon with his mighty spear Ascalon. Or perhaps not. But surely you’re familiar with the name.  And although you may not realize it, the imagery and iconography of this story has played an influential role both in western Christianity and western politics.  As the poem affirms, St. George is the patron saint of England, whose cross forms the English flag and part of the flag of the United Kingdom.  Both an American state and a European nation bear the name, “Georgia.”  And I could go on.  Anyhow, back to the poem:

To speak of Monarchs it were too long to tell,
And likewise of the Romans how far they did excel:
Hannibal and Scipio in many a field did fight;
Orlando Furioso he was a valiant Knight;
Romulus and Rhemus were those that Rome did build,
But St. George, St. George the Dragon he hath killed:
St. George he was for England, St. Denis was for France,
Sing, Hony soit qui maly pence.  [2]

And so the ballad continues for nine more stanzas, each ending in the phrase — Hony soit qui maly pence — which is Old French and roughly translated, “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it.” [3]   The ballad doesn’t really tell the story of St. George and the Dragon so much as reinforce the point over and over again that this story of St. George surpasses every other story of heroism, young or old.  In fact, the story of St. George and the dragon is so much better than any other that it is shameful for anyone to say, or even think, evil of it.  Make no mistake.  This story of St George and the Dragon receives high praise.  And if you believe the poet, it deserves the highest praise.

Now maybe you’re saying to me right now, “It’s Christmastime.  Shouldn’t we be talking about Jesus?  Why are you going on and on about St George?”  And you’re absolutely right.  We should be talking about Jesus instead of St George, and we’re going to do just that.  But keep this image of St George in your mind — a mighty warrior, astride a magnificent white horse, wielding a long spear with which he has skewered a black dragon through the throat.  Keep all these things in your mind, because we’re going to come back to it a little bit later.

But for now, let’s talk about Jesus.  Because it’s Christmastime!  When you think about Christmas, and you think about Jesus, what picture comes to your mind?  A baby, right?  A perfectly innocent baby, wrapped in pieces of cloth, lying on a heap of straw, with shepherds and animals all around.  This picture can’t be any more different from the knight on his steed slaying the dragon.  But where does this story actually start?  Is it before baby Jesus was born, when the angel Gabriel makes the announcement to the virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God? Or should we go back further than that, years and years and years, to a select group of holy men and women over centuries who boldly proclaim that one day, God would send a prophet who would die like a lamb going to the slaughter but who would save his people from their sins, a prophet who would be like a stone that the builders cast aside as no good until the Master Architect comes along and says, “Aha!  This is the one I will use as the capstone!”  No, we have to go back further than that.  If we’re going to tell the full story of Jesus , we have to go back all the way to the book of Genesis, to the story of the very first man and the very first woman.  It’s a story of talking serpents and forbidden fruit, a story about things we don’t like to talk about, things like temptation, and sin, and death.

You know the story very well, don’t you?  The story of the man and the woman in the garden of Eden, the two people called Adam and Eve.  God gives them a command.  God tells them they may eat from every tree in the garden except for one — the tree in the middle, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  So what do Adam and Eve do?  They do exactly what your children do when you tell them not to do something.  They do it anyway!  That’s what Adam and Eve did.  God told them not to eat from the tree, but they did it anyway.  Well, we’re all like that actually, not only children.  We disobey God, we hide, and God comes looking for us.  And that’s exactly what happens with Adam and Eve.  They hide from God, and God goes looking for them.  God talks to the man first, and the man blames the woman.  God talks to the woman next, and the woman blames the snake.  So God speaks to the snake.  And it’s these words from God to the snake that I want to talk about today.  These words are bad news: God curses the snake!  But these words of cursing for the snake turn into words of blessing for us.  For us, these words are good news!  Let’s read it:

The 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.
I will enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’

For centuries, theologians in the church have given a special name to this last verse, verse 15.    As Christians, we call this verse the protoevangellium.  That’s a big long Latin word, but it means simply, “first gospel.”  In the Bible, this is the first promise of the Messiah.  In His words to the snake, God says that He will put enmity, strife, tension between the snake and the woman.  But look again.  This conflict is not simply between the woman and the snake — it’s between the seed of the woman and the seed of the snake.  What does this mean?  First of all, it means that these words apply to all of us.  All of us are the seed of the woman, and all of us are in conflict with the snake.  Do you see that?  But in the very next line, God speaks of a battle of single combat, one warrior against one warrior, champion against champion.  God is saying that a battle is coming.  There will be one person, born of a woman, who will challenge the serpent and defeat him.  One day, far in the future, the Serpent and the Serpent-Slayer will face off.

This brings us to a question, doesn’t it?  Who is this serpent?  Read the story carefully now.  The book of Genesis never tells us who the serpent is.  This is very important to understand.  But we can guess that this serpent is more than simply an ordinary snake, because the serpent talks!  You’ve probably thought about this before, am I right?  How does the snake talk?  Besides the serpent, there is only one other animal who talks, and you know which animal that is.  Of course, Balaam’s donkey!  But the book of Numbers tells us that Balaam’s donkey talks because God opened its mouth.  God gave the donkey the gift of speaking just in that one story.  Genesis doesn’t tell us anything like this about the serpent, though.  The serpent simply speaks, as if the serpent always did so.  There is more happening in this story than what appears on the surface, but the book of Genesis doesn’t fully explain it.  To understand the story, we have to keep reading the Bible.  This is what we know: someone is coming, a person who will be born of a woman, who will one day raise his foot and crush the head of the serpent.  And in crushing the serpent’s head, his heel will be bruised.

Now, we must not rush past that part.  God promises — promises! — that the Serpent-Slayer will win the battle, but he will suffer in the process.  There will be pain in this victory.  There will be sorrow with the joy.  We read it even in the psalm.  What stone becomes the cornerstone (or capstone)?  Not just any stone.  It is the stone that the builders rejected!  Threw away!  Tossed into the rubbish heap!  The Messiah, the promised one, will not be just any person.  He will be “a man of sorrows,” the prophet says, “and acquainted with grief.”  He will be “despised” and “rejected by men.”  But God’s promise is that He will take the one who is rejected by men and make him the capstone of the gate of salvation.

But I’m getting distracted.  Let’s get back to the Genesis story.  The first baby is born.  Eve names him Cain, hoping that maybe this is the one!  Eve has another son named Abel, and Cain kills him.  Oops!  Cain was not the one.  Eve has yet another son, named Seth.  Maybe this is the one?  Nope.  If we keep reading the story, we see that Lamech thought that his son Noah would be the one!  But Noah wasn’t the one, either.  And so it keeps going on and on, generation after generation, each Israelite mother praying that their next child will be the one to fulfill the promise of God, the one who will bring the good news, the one who will finally defeat the serpent.  Every mother is hoping. Every generation is waiting.  And time goes on, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, and the promised one still does not come.  God chooses a specific nation for Himself, but they disobey him, just like Adam and Eve.  God shows them kindness and mercy and grace and forgiveness, but they still sin.  God gives them judges, and they still sin.  God gives them kings, and they still sin.  God gives them prophets, and they still sin.  God sends them into exile in Babylon, away from their homeland, and they still sin.  Finally, God simply stops talking to them.  Did you know that?  Because of their sin, God doesn’t say a thing to His people.  In fact, they start counting years since the last time they heard a true prophet in Israel.  400 years go by.  Hoping. Waiting.  Watching. Listening.  No judge.  No king.  No prophet. No Messiah.  No word from God.

Just … silence.

Then one morning, in a tiny village called Nazareth, a young woman named Mary wakes up and starts her day, which was just like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that.  Even after hundreds of years of silence, she still believes in God.  And as she is going about her day, suddenly, with no warning or advance notice, an angel shockingly appears.  And the angel speaks the traditional Hebrew greeting, giving her a title of enormous respect.  Gabriel says, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Can you imagine that?  God hasn’t spoken to anyone – not a soul – in over 400 years.  And when God decides to speak again, He sends His angel Gabriel, and the first words are: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”  What must have been going through Mary’s mind right at that moment?  Well, we don’t have to imagine, because the Bible tells us.  Luke 1:29 reads, But she was greatly troubled at this saying, and tried to discern what kind of greeting this might be.  Mary is incredibly confused, and rightly so, I should think!  Of course, you know what comes next:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus.

FINALLY!  Now is the appointed time!  Mary is the favored woman!  Jesus is the promised Son!  Oh, this IS good news!  This is the Christmas story we know.  Right?  The animals in the stable.  The baby in the manger.  The star in the sky.  It’s a wonderful story, and we are right to celebrate it during this short season of Christmastide.

But this is not the end of the story.  What about the serpent?  In the book of Revelation, the apostle John tells the story of Christmas again, in a very different way.  John speaks of a Great Dragon waiting with jaws open, ready to devour the Christ child as soon as He enters into the world.  But something happens that the dragon does not expect.  Christ, the Messiah, is taken to heaven before the dragon can devour him.  And who is this great dragon?  That’s right, the dragon is the ancient Serpent from Genesis, the devil, Satan.  John finishes the story that we started way back in Genesis.  What were God’s words to the snake?  He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.  Before Christ ascended to heaven, what happened to Him?  He suffered great pain.  He was rejected by the elders, priests, and scribes — the very people who should have recognized Him.  He was tortured and killed.  And, of course, He rose again.

In his version of the “Christmas story” in Revelation, the apostle John continues:

Then a voice is heard from heaven: ‘Now salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come! … Therefore rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’

Ever since Jesus rose from the dead, Satan knows that he is defeated.  So why does he continue to fight against God?  Revelation tells us; it’s because Satan is angry.  He is angry against God, and he is against God’s people.  Why is he so angry?  Because his head has been crushed, and he knows that he is about to die.  And who has crushed the serpent’s head?  Jesus, the same baby who all those years ago was born in the place where they kept the animals, because there was no room anywhere else.

Here is our lesson for today, my friends.  The serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden still slinks around the earth, prowling like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  Satan is not a mythical creature from some old story meant to scare children into being good.  Satan is real.  And Satan is still walking around lying to people, men and women, just as he lied to the very first man and the very first woman.  Here are some of the lies that Satan wants you to believe.  Are you ready?  Here they are:

It’s OK to sin, God won’t judge you.

You don’t have to repent, God won’t forgive you anyway.

You can do whatever you want as long as nobody finds out.

You don’t have to trust God, you can do it on your own.

In fact, you don’t even need God in the first place.

These are all lies, my friends.  They’re lies!  Now let me ask you something.  Have any of these thoughts ever gone through your mind?  If so, that’s Satan talking to you.  This is how Satan works.  He tells lies.  He lied to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden to tempt them to sin, and he lies to you to tempt you to sin, too.  All of us fight this battle with Satan, myself included.  Satan tempts ALL of us.  And we ALL sin.  We have ALL believed Satan’s lies at one time or another.  Listen to me now.  You’ve been bit by the serpent, and so have I.  And we’re all dying.  Here’s what you need.  Are you ready?  What you need, what I need, what we ALL need … is to reject Satan’s lies and believe God’s truth.  Let me say that again.  We need to reject Satan’s lies and believe God’s truth.

Satan says, “Don’t listen to God, you can be your own god.”
God says, “ALL have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.”

Satan says, “It’s OK to sin, no one will find out.”
God says, “Know this!  Your sin will find YOU out.  So repent!”

Satan says, “You don’t have to repent.  God won’t forgive you anyway!”
God says, “When you believe in Jesus, I PROMISE to forgive you.”

Satan says, “God doesn’t keep His promises.”
God says, “LOOK at Jesus!”

Look at Jesus!  Look at him!

How do you know God keeps His promises?  Look at Jesus.  That’s all you have to do.  Look at Jesus.  When God spoke to the snake all those thousands of years ago, He made a promise that one day a Son would be born who would crush the serpent’s head.  Look at Jesus!  God kept his promise.  You can look at the baby lying in the manger and know that God keeps His promises.  You can look at the beaten, bleeding man dying on the cross, and know that the Messiah’s heel has been bruised.  You can look at Christ risen from the dead, and know that the serpent’s head has been crushed.  Just look at Jesus.  The dragon has been thrown down.  And the dragon is angry, angry at God.  And if you decide that you will follow God, then Satan is angry at you, too.  But there’s good news, friends.  All you have to do is look at Jesus, and you will be saved.  That’s God’s promise.  And God always, always, ALWAYS, keeps His promises.

There’s a story in the Old Testament in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, when the Israelites are out in the desert.  The people start to speak against God and against Moses.  And what happens?  Poisonous snakes come out — the Bible calls them “fiery serpents” — and start to bite the people, and they start to die.  And the people come to Moses and they say, “Moses, we have sinned against God and against you.  Please pray to God, that He will take away the snakes from among us.”  What did the people do?  They repented.  You know the story.  Moses prays, and God tells Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and set it up.  Then Moses tells the people to look at the snake lifted up on the pole, and when they look at the snake, they will live.  And what happens?  Whoever looked at the snake, lived.  They lived!  Over a thousand years later, Jesus said to a curious man named Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up!”  And Jesus was lifted up; on a cruel Roman cross.  He was lifted up, so that we might live.  All you have do is look at Jesus and believe.  Just look.  Look at Jesus!  He is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Here’s what I want you to remember today.  Remember the ballad?  Remember St. George and the dragon, with the red cross and the armor and the spear and the white horse and the silly-sounding French phrase?  The poem is wrong.  It’s just wrong.  When you read the book of Revelation, it’s not St. George who wields the mighty two-edged sword.  It’s not St. George who rides the a majestic white horse.  It’s not St. George who defeats the Dragon or slays the Serpent.   It’s Jesus.  Jesus is the greatest hero who ever lived.  Jesus achieved the greatest feat of heroism.  And it’s the story of Jesus that deserves the highest praise.   So this Christmas season, as you’re thinking about Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger, and the angels who sang to the shepherds in the fields, and the wise men following the star in the sky — don’t forget that Christ is also the Serpent-Slayer.  And the next time Satan attacks you, the next time Satan tempts you to sin, the next time Satan tells you lies that are not true, remember!  Satan has already been defeated.  Don’t run.  Don’t hide.  Don’t worry.  Don’t give in.  Don’t give up.  Just look at Jesus, and believe … in HIM.

 

Let us pray.

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that the words which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may, through your grace, by so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. [4]

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 

Notes
1. Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), p.835.
2. University of California Santa Barbara, English Broadside Ballad Archive: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/34079/xml.
3. Wikipedia page, St. George and the Dragon (ballad).
4. Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), p.834.

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Where did Cain get his wife?

This is a fairly common question concerning the early Genesis text.  I myself have had the experience of sitting in a room with a few dozen Bible teachers from across southern Africa discussing how best to answer this question when it is asked by their students.  In my opinion, to answer it faithfully to the text requires that we articulate a layered response.

On the first and simplest level, the most straightforward answer we can give is that we don’t know.  The text simply does not tell us who Cain married.  The text only says that Cain married a wife.  A proper answer to the question goes deeper than this, but never beyond this simple reply.

In spite of the fact that we don’t know who Cain married, we can make some conjectures based on the story itself.  From the perspective of the narrative frame (and that phrase is important, I think), we can reasonably conclude that the story assumes that both Cain and Seth married their sisters.  This was the conclusion reached by the group of Africans I mentioned earlier.  However, we can’t be too dogmatic about this point because there is much that the text does not tell us.  For example, the text does not preclude the thought that God created other human beings concurrent with Adam and Eve, and there is another strain of humanity in existence unrelated to the family of Adam and Eve.  [This reading need not pose a theological problem in the text because of the specialized and ambiguous use of the Hebrew term adam in the story, but that argument must be saved for another post.]  Perhaps Cain married one of them.  I think this latter view is a highly improbable reading of the Genesis text, but it’s not impossible.

But on an even deeper level than this, I think we must also say that it doesn’t matter who Cain’s wife was.  In fact, I would argue that trying to figure it out misses the point of the story.  In the modern world, we have been conditioned to read stories journalistically, as if a reporter is watching the events unfold (or speaking to eyewitnesses) then writing down a record of events as they transpired.  But we know from the Primeval History itself that these chapters do not reflect a journalistic account in the strict sense.  The text that we have in our modern Bible cannot be dated any earlier than the time of Moses (c.1400-1200 BCE), even if some or all of the component stories embedded within the narrative existed before then.  [Again, I cannot explain here all the reasons why we know these things, those arguments will require a later post.]  The broad point here is that because we are culturally conditioned to read stories for “just the facts,” we tend to fixate on one fact in particular which is unknown to us: “who is Cain’s wife?”

I suggest that a better way to read the text is to focus on the story as a whole rather than individual facts about the story.  The Genesis text does not tell us who Cain’s wife is.  Rather, the text tells us that Cain did, in fact, marry a wife (Gen 4:17).  That’s wife (singular), not wives (plural), like his offspring Lamech (Gen 4:19, 23).  When we read The Story of the Heavens and the Earth as a united whole (Gen 2:4-4:26), we see that the narrative highlights three persons in consecutive order — Adam, Cain, and Lamech.  Adam marries one wife; Cain marries one wife; Lamech marries two wives.  This stands in contrast to the paradigmatic declaration of the institution of marriage in Gen. 2:24, which clearly articulates a union of two (and only two, male and female) individuals.  The details about these three men and their wives are discussed in conjunction with the progressive decline in the quality of relationship between each character and God.  Adam disobeys God and is ashamed; Cain murders his brother and is defiant; Lamech murders, boasts of his violent exploits, then dares to claim divine favor for his evil deeds.  As the story progresses, things are getting worse.

The exact identity of Cain’s wife is an unimportant detail to the story.  We don’t know who she is, nor do we need to know in order to discern what the story seeks to communicate to the reader.  The Story of the Heavens and the Earth shows us the deepening depravity of humanity in successive generations as time goes on from the creation of the world.  The inclusion of Cain’s wife as a detail, when considered in the context of the story as a whole and the characters brought to the forefront of the reader’s attention, helps illustrate this trend.

Posted in Questions, The Story of the Heavens and the Earth | 1 Comment

It Is Finished!

Scripture Readings
Genesis 2:1-3
Psalm 95
Matthew 11:25-30
Hebrews 4:1-13

Manuscript

Does your life feel like work? I already know the answer. YES!!! Everything is work! If you have a job, it’s work. If you are married, it’s work. If you have children, it’s work. Everything is work! Remember back when you were a child, and you would play, play, play … all the time. And then your mother would ask you to do some work. And what would you say? Oh no!!! Not work! Oh, I hate work! It’s just so much … so much … WORK!!! Then you said to yourself, “Oh, I can’t wait until I’m grown up, and no one will tell me to always work.” And then you grew up, and what happened? It just got worse, didn’t it? It’s not less work, it’s MORE WORK! You cannot go around it. Life is work. It’s work! Day after day after day. Week after week after week. Month after month after month. Year after year after year. Life is difficult, disappointing, exhausting, painful WORK.

Are you tired of it? Are you tired of working? Are you hurting from life? Today, I want to tell you that there’s good news. There’s good news! We can have rest from our work. True rest. Deep rest. Hopeful rest. Healing rest. It’s not rest for your body, although your body needs rest. Your body needs one day of rest every week. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about rest for your soul, rest for your mind, rest for your heart. I want to talk about the rest that God took when He finished creating the world. It’s God’s rest. And today, He offers it to us, to you and me, through Jesus.

The passage I want to examine today is Genesis 2:1-3. Let’s read it together:

So the heavens and the earth and all their host were completed.
And in the seventh day God completed his work which He had made.
And he rested in the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
So God blessed the seventh day and set it apart, because in it he rested from all his work that God had created to make.

What does the Genesis story say? For six days God has been working. You didn’t know God had a job, did you? Well, He does! His job is to create things. That’s what the verse means when it says that He completed his work. It means he knocked off work on Friday night. Every morning for six days, God has been getting up with the sun, putting on his work clothes, punching the time clock, working hard from sunup to sundown, creating the universe. He’s been shaping all the mountains of the earth. He’s been setting the stars in space, each one in exactly the right place. He’s been filling the sky with birds and flying creatures, filling the sea with fish and swimming creatures, and filling the land with every kind of living creature that you’ve ever seen. He even made a man and a woman, and at the end of the sixth day He looked at everything He had made and said, “Look! All of it is very good!” Then came the seventh day, and on that morning he got up and asked Himself, “Well, what should I do today? All my work is finished. It’s finished! Hmmm … I know! I’LL REST!!!”

Oh, doesn’t that sound good?!? [with a sigh of relief]

In Hebrew, that word “rest” in Genesis is pronounced shabath; in English, we say, “sabbath.” That word sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb that means, “to stop and rest.” So let’s say you are taking a long road trip, and it will take all day to get to your destination. Naturally, after a while you’re going to get tired, so you stop for a short break before continuing on. If we were speaking in Hebrew, we might say you took “a Sabbath.” You stopped what you were doing, and you rested. That’s what God did on the seventh day; He stopped what He was doing, and He rested.

But I want to challenge you this morning to ask the following question of the text. It’s one of my favorite questions, actually. Why? Why does God take a sabbath? Have you ever wondered that? Why does God rest from His work? Was He tired? Of course not! Genesis tells us that God created everything in the universe without the slightest bit of effort. God simply spoke … and it was! God rested because His work was finished. God didn’t take a break and then in the back of His mind worry about everything He still had to do. No, everything was finished. Finished!!! There was nothing more to be done. And when there was nothing more to be done, God rested.

Like at the end of the season when all the crops have finally been harvested, and that night you go to bed after the very last of it has been brought in from the field. No more worrying about worms or weevils. No more worrying about cows breaking through the fence and eating your crops. No more worrying about storms coming and destroying the fields. When you lie down to sleep that night, you know that there’s nothing left to be done. And you rest. Only of course, the next morning you wake up and there’s more work to do. But on the seventh day, God’s work was completely finished. So He completely rested. This isn’t just any kind of rest, my friends, it’s God’s rest. And the good news is that we, you and I, can enter into God’s rest today. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. Today. But there’s a wrong way and a right way to do that. First, we’ll talk about the wrong way, then we’ll talk about the right way, then we’ll finish by talking about how to have the true, deep, healing rest that God offers us.

If we keep reading in the Genesis story, what happens? The man and woman sin against God, and life becomes hard and painful as a result. They did not live in God’s rest. In fact, they couldn’t live in God’s rest because of their sin. And what happened to them? They died. This went on and on, generation after generation, and it’s still going on today. We’re born, we work, we die. But when we get to the fifth chapter of Genesis, we meet a man named Lemek. And this man Lemek had a son named Noah. That name “Noah” sounds and looks the same as another Hebrew word … do you know what it means? To rest. Why did Lemek name his son, “rest”? The Bible tells us. Turn over a few pages to Gen 5, verse 29. Lemek called out to him “Noach” saying, “He will comfort us from our work and from the painful toil of our hands from the ground that Yahweh has cursed.” Can you hear the heart of Lemek, crying out for comfort? His life is difficult, and disappointing, and exhausting, and painful. His life is WORK! And Lemek puts his hope in his son to give him comfort, and to give him rest.

So here’s my question for you this morning: Who is your Noah? Who are you hoping will give you rest from your work? Who are you trusting to give you comfort from your pain? Your children? Your wife? Your husband? Listen to me now. We are all like Lemek sometimes, trusting in other people to make us feel better, to give us rest from our work. And it’s often different for different people. Maybe for you it’s your mom or your dad. Maybe it’s your boss at work. Maybe it’s your boyfriend, or your girlfriend. It doesn’t matter so much who it is, what matters is that it doesn’t work. It never works! Other people cannot give us true rest, not the rest that our soul really needs. Other people don’t give you work. Did you know that? Other people don’t give you work, God gives you work. Work is one of God’s gifts, like food or sex. God created us to work. We won’t read it now, but it’s right there in Genesis 2. Look it up sometime. God Himself works, and so should we. Work is good and right and healthy and pleasing to God. But work is hard, and difficult, and tiring, and painful because of the consequences of our sin. And so, we need rest. We NEED it; and the sad truth is that we often look to others to provide it.

How did things turn out for Lemek? If we keep reading in the story of Genesis, we find out that the world is very bad by the time Noah is born. People are violent and cruel. In Genesis 6 it says that ALL the thoughts of the hearts of men were evil ALL the time. So God decided to judge the whole world and start over again with Noah and his family. Oh good! Things certainly will get better, right?!? Wrong! After the flood, things only get worse. People are just as violent and cruel and sinful and disobedient to God as they were before. Noah did not provide the comfort and rest that Lemek hoped for, because he couldn’t provide it. Listen to me now. The same is true for you. If you look to anyone other than Jesus for comfort from your pain and rest from your work, you will surely be disappointed. This is one of the most important messages of the Bible. Jesus is the only one who can give us real rest.

Why? Why is it that only Jesus can give you rest? Because only He can do God’s work. It was through Jesus that God made the whole world. It is through Jesus that God saves us from our sins. And it is only through Jesus that God gives us His rest. We have all sinned and disobeyed God; and only God is able to restore our relationship with Him. And He has done it, through Jesus! Jesus has done all the work necessary for us to have a loving relationship with God again. He lived the life we should have lived … a perfect, sinless life. He died the death we should have died … a cruel, painful death on a Roman cross. And as Jesus hung there, on that cross, in despair and disappointment and exhaustion and agony, just before He died, what did Jesus say? He said, “It is finished!” Finished! The work is DONE! There is nothing left to do now, except to … rest in God. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Even now, He is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, praying for us, that we would have God’s rest.

Do you know Jesus? Have you received Jesus into your life? Do you know what it’s like to have real rest? If you don’t know Jesus, look to Him for salvation from your sins. But maybe that’s not you today. Maybe you know Jesus, but you feel tired. And you’re hurting. Every day, week after week, month after month, year after year, feels like nothing but work. Bone-crushing and soul-crushing work. There’s good news for you, my friend. You can know Jesus’ rest. You can! But it’s not a lazy, sit-on-your-hands-and-do-nothing kind of rest. That’s rest for you body, which you also need, one day per week, in fact. I’m talking about the rest that God Himself took on the seventh day, it’s rest for your heart, for your soul. What does Jesus say? “Come to me, you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly of heart; and you will find rest for your souls.” You don’t have to work for it! Jesus will give it to you! Isn’t that good news? You see, God’s rest depends on God’s work, not your work. You don’t have to work for God so He will save you. You don’t have to work for God so He will love you. You don’t have to work for God so He will be good to you. Jesus has done all the work already! It’s finished! All we have to do is rest in Jesus.

So how do we do that? How we rest in Jesus? First, resting in Jesus is something we do every day. Look back at the creation story again. Have you ever noticed that every day has an ending except the seventh day? It’s true! The first chapter of Genesis says, “and there was evening and morning, Day One.” Then it says, “There was evening and morning, Day Two.” Day Three, Day Four, and all the way down the line to Day Six. But the seventh day never stopped. God is still resting from His work of creation. Each new day is the seventh day, repeated all over again. What does that mean? It means that every time the sun comes up, God offers us His rest again and again and again. The rest that Jesus offers is new every day

But God’s rest is not a passive rest, it’s an active rest. The author of Hebrews says that there is a rest for the people of God, and that we ought to strive to enter into that rest. The author quotes a psalm, Psalm 95, saying, “Today, if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.” What does God ask of his people? To listen for His voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us. And then not to harden our heart against Him, but rather to learn. Jesus wants us to learn how to be meek and humble, like Him. That’s not what it means to rest in Jesus! Jesus said, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; because I am meek and lowly in heart. He wants to give us a new heart, a soft heart, a humble heart, a restful heart. Doesn’t that sound good?

If it sounds so good, then why is it so hard? Why do we have to “strive” to enter God’s rest? Because to be meek and humble, like Jesus, means to accept disappointment, yet not get bitter. It means to accept our work, yet not give up. It means to accept pain from others, yet not take revenge. That’s what Jesus did. He embraced the difficulty, accepted the disappointment, accomplished the work, and endured the pain, even the pain of the cross, for us, so that we might have God’s rest. Here’s the real question: do you WANT to be meek and humble, like Jesus? Do you WANT to accept disappointment without becoming bitter? Do you WANT to accept work without giving up? Do you WANT to accept pain without taking revenge? There’s good news, friends. Jesus is waiting to teach you how to do that. More than that, He has promised to teach you that when you listen to His voice and learn from Him. Jesus will give you God’s rest. Jesus will give you a new heart. And you don’t even have to work for it. You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to keep trying harder and harder, hoping that one day you will achieve it! Jesus has finished all the work. Did you hear that! It’s finished! All that remains is to listen and learn.

That’s what Adam and Eve got wrong in the garden of Eden, they didn’t listen to God. Who did they listen to? Eve listened to the snake, and Adam listened to Eve, and no one listened to God. That’s the whole point of the story! Don’t you see? But Jesus lived the right way, He listened to God absolutely perfectly. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but TODAY — stop your working and trying to please God, and simply listen. Listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you through the Scriptures, speaking to you through other people who love you, speaking to you in your spirit, and in your conscience. Learn from Jesus. Don’t harden your heart. Simply … rest.

So I want to challenge you to do something this week to practice listening and resting. Every day this week, repeat this phrase as a reminder to yourself and as a prayer to God: “The work is finished! Just listen and learn.” [Repeat.] Go ahead, say it out loud with me, right now. [Repeat again.] Say it to yourself two times every day, the first thing when you wake up, and the last thing before you go to sleep. You can start today. Tonight, after you lay down to sleep, just say that phrase as a prayer to God: “The work is finished! Just listen and learn.” Then right after you wake up in the morning, while you are still lying down, before you get up, pray that phrase to God again. That’s all! It’s just a reminder to be listening for the voice of God speaking to you. Do it for six days. Then, after six days of praying that prayer to God, stop. And rest. Rest in what Jesus has done for you by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The work is finished. It’s finished! And because it is finished, your soul can have rest, today and every day.

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