October 28, 2012

The End of Creation

So this morning we are in the second week of our series, Married Well.  The big idea for this series is that while getting married is easy, staying married isn’t.  Being married well is hard beyond what a lot of folks find themselves equipped to handle.  And since marriage impacts all of us at one time or another, in one way or another, this is a topic worth addressing.  We started in on this last week by working to establish a foundation on which we can build a framework sufficient to help us increase the likelihood of our being married well instead of being merely married.  We did this by taking a look at what the Apostle Paul wrote about marriage in his letter to the church in Ephesus.  I argued to you then that in spite of these words being culturally difficult, we need to not join in with the crowd missing out on the theological forest for the interpretive trees.  Yes, it’s not very popular culturally to talk about wives being submitted to their husbands.  But, when we heard the same verse we’ve heard many times before using that awful word (or so we’re taught to think) in a more culturally palatable way (“wives, be understanding and supportive of your husbands”), all of a sudden we were able to lift our eyes from the anthems and angry speeches that so often bog us down and receive what Paul was actually trying to communicate.  And what was Paul actually trying to communicate?  He was giving us the foundation we sought.  He was laying out the model we can use in structuring our own marriage relationships in order to have the best chance to face the rest of the difficulties of the journey from a more positive place.  As Paul makes very much clear when you take his whole words in context here the model for our marriages is Christ and the church.

Now, we didn’t spend a lot of time last week unpacking this model.  Part of the reason for this is that we were out of time.  The other part is that we are going to spend this and three out of the next four weeks exploring this foundation in some detail as we build on it.  There is one comment Paul made in his model making efforts, though, that I want to dwell on for just a minute this morning because it leads pretty nicely into where we’re going to go.  Near the end of his words to husbands, Paul made the argument that modeling our behavior toward our wives after the pattern of Christ and the church makes perfect sense because we are already one with them in marriage.  In other words, because the husband and the wife become a single, interdependent person with two centers of consciousness in ways that have echoes of the Trinity, loving the other according to the definition of love I have attempted to hammer into your heads for the past couple of years is the same thing as loving ourselves.  In both his day and our own, this is a remarkable idea.  This is a blow-your-hair-back kind of idea if you think about it.  I mean, apart from the church, people never thought or think about marriage in this way.  Any two-becoming-one language in marriage ceremonies today is a direct result of Christian theology influencing the way we think about these matters.  In every other culture in the world, marriage is a contract of some sort.  The whole idea of marriage being about love at all is a distinctly Christian one.  Yes, there has been a general understanding that a closeness and intimacy needed to be involved.  Yes, even in arranged, contractual, politically expedient marriages husbands and wives have fallen in love.  Yes, among marriage partners in cultures unshaped by the Gospel there has been an understanding of the need for a mutually beneficial partnership.  But to think about two people actually becoming one person?  That’s radical.  That’s insane.  That’s physically impossible.  That’s mathematically impossible.  I mean, a partnership?  Sure.  But one person?  No!  I’m me and she’s her.

Anyway, Paul knew his audience was reacting to this two-become-one idea much like we might and so before giving his concluding thought he offered a bit of Scriptural justification to make his point.  Do you remember what he said?  Let me read it again: “That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body.  And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife.  No longer two, they become ‘one flesh.’”  What he does here is to quote from the book of Genesis.  In Genesis 2:24, when Moses was putting a concluding thought to the creation narrative before launching into the story of the Fall he wrote this: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife.  They become one flesh.”  But, and this is really interesting, Paul quotes this verse out of Genesis and goes on.  He doesn’t unpack it.  He doesn’t explain it.  He doesn’t try to clarify it.  Nothing.  In fact—and this plays into the credibility of the text because if he were just trying to make himself sound smart this was not the way to do it—he goes in the other direction.  The only comment he makes about this verse is that he doesn’t understand it.  Hear what he said again: “This is a huge mystery and I don’t pretend to understand it all.”  To which I want to say, “Come on, Paul!  You throw out a bomb by saying that husbands and wives are one flesh.  Then you toss readers the bomb-making manual you used as if you were going to help us diffuse it.  And then you offer the supremely unhelpful nugget that you didn’t really know what you were doing in the first place!”  What are we supposed to do with this?  How are we supposed to handle this “huge mystery”?  What does it mean that two become one flesh?  I mean, I talked about it yesterday in the wedding I did.  Was I going in blind like Paul?  Have I figured out some deep meaning here to which Paul didn’t have access?  No, I haven’t.  And we’re probably not going to completely solve what he couldn’t figure out.  But in the meantime, what we can do is to examine that primary text a bit more closely and see what kind of conclusions we can draw from there.

Well, as I said, the primary text here is Genesis 2.  While everybody is pretty familiar with Genesis 1 (creation), and most folks have at least a passing understanding of the contents of Genesis 3 (the forbidden fruit), we’re not as familiar with Genesis 2.  I mean we all know about the rib part, but not very much from there.  No, what Moses does in Genesis 2 is to present the creation narrative from another, more intimate angle, and then to wrap up the whole story before launching into the next one.  In other words, Genesis 2 really proclaims the point at which the principle actions of creation were completed.  The first story of creation does this in Genesis 1, but from a jetliner perspective.  Genesis 2, though, takes us a lot closer and allows us a glimpse of what things looked like on the ground.  Thinking thematically for just a minute, it lets us see that creation wasn’t completed simply when God created people and that was that.  If you have your Bible with you, open it up to Genesis 2.  I’ll start reading, again from the Message, in v. 5 as we see if we can’t make at least a bit of sense out of Paul’s mystery and in the process learn the point at which creation was completed.

The story begins pretty straightforwardly: “At the time God made Earth and Heaven, before any grasses or shrubs had sprouted from the ground—God hadn’t yet sent rain on Earth, nor was there anyone around to work the ground (the whole Earth was watered by underground springs)—God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.  The Man came alive—a living soul!”  Here is what creation was like: a wild place.  It was untamed.  God’s garden was a beautiful mess.  There was much work to be done in caring for it.  This is one of the reasons He created people in the first place: to tend His creation.  He formed the man out of the dust and then gave him life—He breathed the breath of life, the spirit of life if you will, into his body.

Now, the next couple of verses just give us some information about where the Garden was located.  These are important words because they root this story historically and geographically.  The original hearers of this story would have known where these places were.  Eden was a real place.  The Bible is rooted in an historical foundation.  Thus, if the place was real, then perhaps the people were as well.  But, for our purposes this morning, we can jump over these as with a couple of exceptions we don’t know where any of the places are, and focus on the people.  Let’s pick back up at v. 15: “God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.  God commanded the Man, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil.  Don’t eat from it.  The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”  Now, we’ll save the debate regarding why exactly God felt the need to put a tree in the garden the man couldn’t eat from and then tell him about for another time.  Suffice to say for now, we have to keep in mind that this was all before sin entered into the world.  The sinful tendency to want what we are not supposed to have was not present in the man and every indication is that prior to the perspective twisting induced by the serpent in the next chapter neither he nor the woman had any problem staying away from the tree.  Well, everything we’ve encountered so far in the story has been merely by way of context.  These are the conditions in which the first man was living.  He was in perhaps the most beautiful garden the world has ever known and blessed with the opportunity to care for it in a day before weeds and rot would make the job difficult and, ultimately, futile.  He had the freedom to live according to his chief purpose—which was to bring glory to God by recognizing Him for who He is (part of which means obeying His commands which he was graciously afforded the opportunity to do in the Tree)—absent any temptation to do otherwise.  This, if anything, should have been a situation in which God declared everything, “Good.”

And yet, the very next words recorded as coming from the mouth of God are what?  “It’s not good…”  Forget for a minute that you know what the rest of that sentence says if you do.  What could possibly be not good here?  Perfect climate?  Check.  Perfect job?  Check.  Perfect person?  Check.  Now, we might think of some things that could be added to make things more perfect—a big screen, a library full of books, a really comfortable chair; a kitchen stocked with all the best snack food, the internet and a device to access it, and so on—but in our most honest moments we all know these wouldn’t have added anything helpful to Eden.  Yet God is clear: it’s not good.  Ah, but what isn’t good?  The rest of the sentence is so important here: “It’s not good for the Man to be alone…”  We weren’t created to be one.  Remember what Moses told us in chapter 1?  The man and the woman were created in the image of God.  God isn’t one.  He’s three-in-one.  Okay, but why would God put the man there by himself if He knew it wasn’t going to be good.  Well, that one is a mystery.  Perhaps to create a teaching moment for the rest of human history.  The point, though, is that this loneness was not the ideal state of affairs.  Creation isn’t completed yet.

So what’s God do about it?  He determines that He will solve the problem: “…I’ll make him a helper, a companion.”  The translation I normally use up here puts it like this: “I will make him a helper fit for him.”  Now, just as a bit of grammatical explanation, the word translated “helper” here, ezer, does not carry a sense of inferiority at all.  This isn’t like a domestic help helper.  In the remainder of appearances the word makes in the Bible it is used almost exclusively of God.  God is routinely described as the helper of His people.  The helper He endeavors to create here is a helper in that sense.  Before God gets to actually creating this helper, though, He pushes through with the teaching moment.  From v. 19: “So God formed from the dirt of the ground all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air.  He brought them to the Man to see what he would name them.  Whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name.  The Man named the cattle, named the birds of the air, named the wild animals, but he didn’t find a suitable companion.”  In other words, God parades all of creation before the man in order to see if he will find anything suitable to be his helpmate, to solve this problem.  And, no surprise, he doesn’t.  In other words, created still isn’t completed.  So when does it wrap up?

Look at what happens next starting in v. 21: “God put the Man into a deep sleep [God was the first anesthesiologist].  As he slept he removed one of his ribs and replaced it with flesh.  God then used the rib that he had taken from the Man to make Woman and presented her to the Man.”  God opened up the man and took something out of him in order to make the woman.  He was rendered more incomplete in order to be made fully complete.  And I know the text words the man’s reaction like this: “The Man said, ‘Finally! Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!  Name her Woman for she was made from Man,’” but to our ears that sounds awfully strange.  Yet strange as it may sound, this was a love poem.  The man, who though without sin is still fully a man, is presented with this naked woman for the first time and breaks into poetry.  “Whoa!  This is it.  She’s what I’ve been looking for.  She’s like me.  All those other animals were great and all, but she is something totally different.  In her I see myself.  Not in a mirror-like way, but in a complementary, completes-me sort of way.  This, this is what I’ve been looking for.”

Verse 24: “Therefore,” because of all of that; because of this understanding, this completion, that’s happened, “a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife.  They become one flesh.”  Creation wasn’t complete until the man was complete.  The man wasn’t complete until his ideal helpmate had been created.  But once she had and the two had become one, creation was complete.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.  The man was joined with what had been taken from him.  Their two bodies were brought together until they were a single body in an intimacy as spiritual as it was physical.  They were fully naked before each other and yet without a single shred of shame.  It was the model to which all other human relationships could look, but especially the essential unions between husbands and wives, in order to find vision and direction.  They became one flesh.  Yes, there were still two bodies, but in the union that took place, this first marriage ceremony, these two people, both parts of a single body, were reunited, were made one again.  They completed each other and so completed creation.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.  In all marriages since then, this initial perfect union is made again.  The two parts form a single body in mind, spirit, heart, and will.  Because the woman completed the man in a way nothing else in creation did (and vice versa), the two were able to come together in a union that completed them both.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.

So does this solve Paul’s mystery?  Do we have all the answers?  No, because with Paul, I’m not sure how exactly this works.  Well what’s this add to our foundation for marriage, then?  It adds this.  The union that happens in the marriage relationship goes far beyond two people simply coming together as partners.  It goes beyond two people joining forces to accomplish together what neither of them could successfully on their own.  It goes to the place where two totally unique individuals blend their lives, their personalities, their passions, their wills, their everything together in a way so complete that a full and total separation won’t ever happen.  If you are married, you are a part of your spouse in a way that goes beyond what you’ll probably ever get your mind around.  This should radically alter how you think and behave toward her.  When you treat him in a way that is demeaning or hurtful, you’re hurting yourself.  When you are unloving toward her, you are being unloving to yourself.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.  If you are experiencing the completion of creation in this way (folks who are not married for whatever reason can very much still experience the fullness of creation, but in other ways), to behave in ways that cause even the slightest bit of separation is to act in ways that disassemble the very fabric of creation.  Forget not being relationally smart, it’s an act of destruction that threatens part of the foundation of creation.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.  Why act in ways that undermine this?

Now, is this a scary thought?  Oh yeah.  That first man and woman were able to stand before each other naked and without shame.  Moses is of course speaking literally here as clothing wasn’t yet necessary, but he’s also speaking metaphorically.  There was no sin in either the man or the woman giving them cause for shame.  The same can’t be said for us.  We have baggage in our past of which we are rightly ashamed.  Our personalities are broken.  We’re emotionally broken.  We’re spiritually broken.  Some of the brokenness isn’t our fault, but a lot of it is.  And yet the first structure we must build on our foundation is this becoming one flesh, this standing before one another without shame.  The church is able to stand before Christ without shame because of the grace of justification.  That’s a big, churchy word to describe the miracle of God not holding our sins against us anymore and behaving toward us as if they had never happened.  It’s just as if we’d never sinned.  In the making one flesh that happens in marriage we forgive our pasts, reconcile completely with and to one another, and stand naked and unashamed.  And by forgive our pasts, I mean both theirs and our own.  Because if you can’t stand before your own flesh and be without shame there’s something wrong—take that as narrowly or as broadly as you like.  By God’s grace we figuratively disrobe and embrace each other, reenacting the very completion of creation and by this becoming more complete ourselves.  Now, is every day as one flesh smooth sailing?  Do you always like yourself?  Of course not.  You know that in your own lives.  We still do things that make us want to hide.  But the joy and intimacy we are able to share in being one flesh, in being naked and unashamed, overruns the fear of being known.  I know myself better for knowing her.  I am more complete.  Creation was completed when the man and the woman were one flesh.  May you know this intimacy in your lives too, whether with your spouse or with your Savior or both.  This is the kind of intimacy that Christ designed the church to share with Him.  I pray you’ll know it fully.