March 7, 2010

In The Beginning

What did people do before Christ? Have you ever found yourself asking that question? Maybe you haven.t ever given that much thought, but for those of you who.ve felt the comforting presence of our Savior through a troubling season in life, you very well may have wondered about this. Perhaps the question came more in the form: what did believers read before the New Testament? Well, let.s get a couple things clear right off the bat. First, there was a large chunk of history before the Incarnation. History didn.t begin in the year 1 AD. Second, there are two testaments in the Bible and before the New Testament was written (which includes the time from the beginning of creation until after all the events in the Bible happened), the Old Testament was simply called the Scriptures. But how did people enjoy the hope of Christ before He was around? I.m glad you asked. This month, as we make our final approach to Easter, I want to spend some time looking at just how folks who followed God before Jesus came kept following Him through thick and thin without Jesus or the Holy Spirit to lean on as we are able to do. As it turns out, the faithful among the Israelites enjoyed a vibrant hope and relationship with God and a big part of that was the result of the four passages we will look at together this month. Now, these four passages were written at very different periods throughout the history of Israel, but each played an important role in Messianic expectations in their own right. What I want you to see over the course of this journey is that while the promise of the coming Messiah may not hold as much wonder for us as it did the Israelites who first heard it, what we can glean from the treasures in the Old Testament is the fact that our salvation was not something devised last minute. It wasn.t like God came to another Noah moment and instead of destroying everything decided to save everyone instead. It wasn.t like Jesus was just sitting on the bench in heaven and God made a last minute bullpen call in hopes of throwing Satan a devastating curve ball. It wasn.t like God was working on the incredible stew of human history and at a point things weren.t tasting so great went off the recipe and improvised. Instead, God has been planning things out in minute detail since the beginning such that we are now able to have the intimate relationship with Him we had before the Fall and lost there. Let us go forward this month with our eyes open to see how God not only laid out His plans, but even told us about them so that when they happened we would believe in Him. This fact can give us great hope that when He said He is coming back to make things finally right, He.s going to follow through on that one too.

Let us begin our journey this morning, then, at the beginning. When God created the world, He created it perfectly. When He had finished creating, the text says that God looked over all that He had made and declared it very good. That.s high praise from a perfect God. Yet things were not to stay this way. You see, one of the great gifts that God gave humans in making us in His image was the ability to make meaningful and free choices. This didn.t take away from the fact that He is sovereign over His creation, but it did bring with it the possibility that we would choose other than Him. And choose we did. In Genesis chapter 3 we find this tale of choice and autonomy gone wrong; we find this tale of tragedy of how sin first entered the world, separating us from our Creator. Yet though this story is a tragedy, the picture painted here is not completely dark. As we see time and time again brilliantly illustrated in the Word, God speaks judgment here, but He also speaks hope. Indeed, God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope. He gave us the hope that one day the serpent that led us into temptation will get his due. He gave us the hope that one day we will be given a way out of the sin that separates us from Him and renders us incapable of becoming the people He made us to be on our own. Let us explore this hope together this morning seeing both the tragedy of sin and the beauty of grace.

For it is grace that led to creation. God didn.t have to create. The Father, Son, and Spirit was as joyful as He could have been on His own. He was perfect in love and community before there was a universe to be filled with people. Yet He created because He wanted to be able to share His love with us. Creation was about bringing Him glory by making people who freely came to love Him, thereby reflecting His character. In other words, creation was about God, but it was also about us. The rest is just details. Yet those details were truly glorious and reflected God.s character as well. One of those details was the garden in which our first ancestors were privileged to dwell. I don.t know about you, but I imagine as lush and full and rich a garden as my mind can conceive and then mentally double or triple that. Everywhere they looked there was life. Beautiful, glorious life. Surely they could smell life in the very air they breathed. Life flowed in such abundance because the creator of life who is Life Himself was present and active and nothing opposed Him. The first couple walked with God each and every day. There was never a time when they weren.t with God. Now, we think about something like that through our cultural lens and are perhaps nearly repulsed. “Ugh! Who wants to do church 24/7?” Such a reaction just shows how far we.ve come from the abundant life. Living with God day-in and day-out is not a never-ending church service. It.s knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that the source of life is with you constantly and that you are filling completely the purpose for which you.ve been created: to serve Him. This was the world before sin entered the picture. Eden: the place we gave up and have been looking to find ever since.

In this blissfully idyllic place, however, all was not well. At some point in the sequence of creation, there was an angel—the most glorious of all the angels in fact—who decided he wanted God.s job. So, from what we glean from a common interpretation of Isaiah 14, he led a rebellion against God and was thrown out of heaven along with all the lesser angels who joined his hopeless cause. This angel.s name was Lucifer, but he became known as Satan, the accuser and the tempter of humanity. All that brings us to Genesis 3. Find your Bibles and turn there with me if you would. You see, the utopia of Eden was only nearly spotless. There was one creature slithering through the Garden that didn.t belong. It was like death clung to it and the brilliance of the orchard faded slightly in its vicinity. The Tempter in the form of a serpent for at least the purposes of our story was making his way through the Garden to see what kind of trouble he could cause with this latest species God had created as the crown jewel of creation.

Start reading with me from v. 1 of chapter 3: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” Have you ever wondered, by the way, why a snake? Well, why not? How many in this room love seeing a snake slither across your path? How about when you have a loaded shotgun? That.s kind of what I thought. If that.s the general feeling towards serpents in this part of the world where the venomous variety are relatively uncommon, imagine how much more cozy people felt with snakes in a desert culture with lots of poisonous vipers. Snakes were generally viewed as evil creatures in the Israelite culture. They killed people and were unclean according to the law. Now, perhaps a dead animal would have been better in the story here since there wasn.t much more unclean than a dead animal, but who.d have believed a story about a talking corpse? And as an aside, note that the text is clear on the fact that God made the serpent. God created Lucifer who became Satan. There is no cosmic dualism in which good and evil, God and Satan battle it out, each occasionally gaining an advantage over the other as they work towards their respective goals. That.s not the Bible, that.s Star Wars. Going on: “He said to the woman, „Did God really say, “You can.t eat from any tree in the garden”?.” Now, I know the Devil is called the Father of Lies in the New Testament, but do you see any lies here? Me neither. There.s a reason he.s called cunning. He rarely tells an outright lie. He certainly doesn.t to the woman. Instead, he weaves a complex tapestry of half-truths which in the end are completely misleading, but which from any point in the weave seem to make perfect sense. And I know many people question why the serpent went first to the woman. Want the answer? The Bible doesn.t say. Any attempts to speculate on why will always and only be that. It is most certainly not to convey that women are somehow spiritually inferior to men.

In any event, after his question, the woman responds. And I should note that at his point, he already had her right where he wanted her. There.s a reason he.s called the Father of lies. He.s a good liar. We.re not going to out think or out reason the Devil. When we try we will only find ourselves tangled up in his weave. That.s why the Bible tells us to flee from temptation. Let.s continue reading in v. 2: “The woman said to the serpent, „We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, “You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.”.” I get this picture in my mind here of a playground scene where the class bully has singled out a kid with bad asthma and is trying to goad him into playing a game of kickball. “You mean your mom won.t let you play kickball?” “Yes, she will, I just don.t want to play!” From v. 4: “„No! You will not die,. the serpent said to the woman. „In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.. Then the woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom.” You see, what the Devil tries to convince us of is that sin really isn.t all that bad. In fact, God is trying to keep something really good from us in saying we can.t do this or that. God was just mean to the man and the woman in refusing them fruit from this tree that looks so obviously good. But this is part of sin.s insidious call and its dangerous misunderstanding on our part. Sin is not good. Period. And I know that our culture today often views sin as not such a big deal, but this is just part of the complex tapestry our Enemy has weaved. If he can get us to believe that evil is really good withheld from us for no particularly satisfying reason, he can convince us to do anything. And it doesn.t take big things to separate us from God. All the man and the woman did was eat some fruit…and take an active role in Lucifer.s rebellion.

The couple had heard God.s command. They knew the limits of their freedom. Have you ever thought about the way we say that? We talk about the “limits of our freedom” sometimes as Christians as if we really didn.t have much in the way of freedom; as if we were hunting dogs with jumbo-sized runs. That.s another clever lie of the Enemy. Let.s change our perspective a bit. God told the man and woman they could go anywhere in the garden and eat anything they wanted to…except for this one tree. There were a group of lions who climbed from the plains of the savannah to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro and when they got there they spied a glimpse of Madagascar. Seeing this beautiful-looking land off in the distance, they descended from the top of the mountain, headed for the shore, and could only just barely make out the land in the distance. “It must be the tip of some beautiful new continent,” they said to themselves. „Let.s leave this dump of a place called Africa and try to make it to this new, exciting place.” The man and woman had the wealth of the entire garden and left it because the fruit of this tree from which they weren.t supposed to eat—the only one mind you—looked better to them. It probably didn.t even taste very good. Continuing in v 6: “So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” When those lions reached the distant island, they came up out of the water, tired from their swim, and off in the distance they could just make out another body of water. Eagerly they ran over to it and discovered another sea. Their new, exciting land was a cheap imitation of what they had on the savannah, yet they couldn.t return because the currents wouldn.t allow it. We sold the farm and bought the neighbor.s field for a single nugget of Fool.s Gold. So how did God respond to all of this? If you noticed, He hasn.t really been in the picture yet.

From v. 8: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” You see, their norm up to this point was to walk with God. They lived their lives with Him every single day. Somebody might wonder why God waited until evening to confront the couple instead of doing it at the moment of the sin and we can really only speculate. I tend to think God was giving them some time to think about what they.d done before dealing with them Himself; like when you send your son or daughter to their room to think about what they.ve done before talking about it. And we know that the curses are still to come, but the real consequences of sin were immediate: they “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” We knew of our nakedness and hid it. We knew of our nakedness before God and hid from Him. The intimacy was gone. The close relationship had ended. No more could we walk in the cool of the evening with Him. I wonder if they could hear the sound of life leaving the garden. God could have left us there. He could have just scrapped the whole thing and started over. He could have walked away unaffected and left us to reap the full rewards of our sinfulness. But He didn.t. God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope. Verse 9: “So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, „Where are you?.” One of Noah.s favorite games is peak-a-boo. When he hides himself, Lisa or I will say, “Where is Noah?” Of course we can still see him, but the question incites him to come out. This is what God was doing here. Of course He knows what.s going on. He wanted to allow the couple a chance to come out on their own. And since the vile, beguiling nature of sin was still settling the man answers in v. 10: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Now the plot starts to thicken. The man and woman had been naked before and unashamed. Why hide their nakedness now? Verse 11: “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I had commanded you not to eat from?”

If the man and woman hadn.t yet realized the full extent of what they had done, they did now. Their sin-tainted thought process and lines of reasoning took over and they did for the first time what we still naturally do when confronted with our sinfulness: they punted. They hid. They tried to shift the blame to someone else. In v. 12, the man replies to God.s questions: “The woman You gave to be with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.” What a sad and pathetic picture. The first creature created in the image of God had rebelled against that image and now was trying to blame the rebellion on the forsaken image. And God could have just shaken His head and walked away. “You.re trying to make this My fault? Fine, try it without Me and see how well you do.” But He didn.t. God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope. It.s a good thing too because the woman wasn.t any better off than the man. Picking up at v. 13: “So the Lord God asked the woman, „What is this you have done?. And the woman said, „It was the serpent. He deceived me, and I ate..” Do you see the terrible effects of sin here? Sin naturally divides. Sin has never brought anyone or anything together. Oh we might see historical alliances formed on a sinful premise (like that between Hitler and Stalin in WWII), but such alliances are tenuous at best. Sin divided the man and woman from God, from each other, and from creation. All the problems that wreck havoc on our world today can be traced back to this moment in history. There was perhaps never as hopeless a point in human history as the heartbeats between verses 13 and 14. Praise His name that God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope.

Now that all the cards are on the table, God turns to the serpent. “Why not start with the man and the woman?” someone might ask. After all, they are the ones who perpetuated the crimes. But the source of the rebellion was the serpent. While we will never have answers for this, I wonder if the man and woman would have ever even thought much about the tree without the serpent.s prompting. The apostle Peter would later describe the Devil as a roaring lion on the prowl for someone to devour. Jesus Himself said it is better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the deepest sea than cause a child of God to sin. Though we get ourselves into plenty of trouble on our own now thanks to our individual sinful natures, that seed had to be planted. Because of all this God turns first to the serpent. “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal. You will move on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life.” Much has been made of this verse, but it.s not so hard to understand. Remember how much you love snakes? Sounds pretty cursed to me. And crawling on your belly and eating dust is a picture of submission and humiliation—like someone groveling before a king. Snakes didn.t walk before the Fall. Yet thus far in God.s addressing the serpent, there.s still not much hope for us.

The hope comes in v. 15. Verse 15 is often referred to as the protoevangelium, proto- meaning first, and -evangelium meaning good news. Listen to these treasured words: “I will put hostility between you and the woman [I think I.ve met exactly one woman in my life who loved snakes], and between your seed and her seed.” What comprises the seed of the serpent? Baby snakes? Certainly not. God is not talking to simply the serpent here, but to the tempter and accuser of humanity. All those who pursue paths of evil are the seed of the serpent. And as for the seed of the woman we don.t often think about this, but with which sex does the Bible most often associate seed? Men. Men have the seed, women have the garden. There has been only a single time in history when a child came solely from the woman.s seed: the Incarnation. The seed of the woman is Jesus. Was and is there not great hostility between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman? Absolutely! Still, we only have so far a description of history, no hope yet. The hope comes now: “He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” A bite on the heel from a poisonous snake can be very painful and very dangerous to the victim, but it does not necessarily kill. The venom itself can be utterly excruciating—from a cross in Latin. It may give the impression of death, but life can come again as if one were raised from the dead. Smashing the head of a snake, however, kills it beyond any chance of new life. What we see here is the promise of great pain from many future battles between the seed of the woman and the serpent, but the ultimate victory of the seed of the woman.

Sin truly made a mess of things. The first man and the woman and every man and woman since have taken the loving commands of God and thrown them back in His face with heartless calculation. We want the promised treasures of the distant, forbidden island. We stand on the shore looking out at what we don.t have instead of relishing the joys of what we do. And God could have just left us to it. He could have left us to flounder and ultimately do ourselves in, brought down by sin.s destructive power. But He didn.t. God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope. He gave us a promise of a way off the island. We were going to have to stay on the island for a while until the time was right for building the bridge, but the bridge would be built. And in the meantime He was going to make sure that we had what we needed to stay as close to Him as we could. Indeed, when Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden, God provide clothes for them and made sure they had the skills they needed to survive the harsh environment of the world. So what did people do before Christ?
They held on tightly to the promise of His coming. They clung to the assurance that the seed of the woman was going to crush the head of the serpent. We live in the age when the seed of the woman has come and crushed the serpent.s head. Yet the serpent still thrashes around, dying a slow death, trying to soak as many as it can in its venom before the woman.s seed—our Savior—returns to finish the job. My invitation to you this morning is to make sure that you have been washed clean of the serpent.s venom and are following in the ways of the Savior. Turn from the lies about the nature of sin and cross the sea to run free in the open lands of the kingdom. The damaging effects of sin still continue to hound you on your journey, but this is not a hopeless trek. For God didn’t abandon us to sin, He gave us hope. Will you make that hope yours this morning?