Who is Jesus, and why it matters.

Not too long ago – earlier last week, in fact – I asked a group of Christian people “who is Jesus”?

The answers were good: He’s the Son of God; He’s the Saviour of the world; He’s the Lamb of God who died for our sins; He’s fully man but also fully God; He came to teach us how to live and to show us God’s mercy.

And I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”… those are all really great answers.  They’re all 100% true, they’re all essential beliefs for Christians in every time and every place.  But there’s one aspect of who Jesus is that I believe Christians often overlook, and that leads us to having a lopsided understanding of the Bible.

All of those answers: Son of God, Lamb of God, Fully man but fully God, and all the others are entirely true, but would have been a total surprise to any of God’s people in the Old Testament.  No, rather, as we read through the Old Testament, God’s faithful people are full of expectation, but it’s all tied to God’s promises.

Throughout the Old Testament, who are they waiting for? 

The Messiah – the anointed one who will fulfil the promises of God.

They’re waiting for fulfilment of the promises: through Moses, God promised that another messenger – greater than the other prophets – would come, a messenger who knew God face to face.[1] 
God’s people were waiting for that messenger greater than Moses.

God had promised to David that one of his offspring would sit on a throne that could never pass away, drawing in all the nations of the earth.[2] 
God’s people were waiting for the Son of David who would have an eternal throne.

God had promised to Abraham that, through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed through obedience;[3] but as we know all too well, humanity’s skill is disobedience, and with a few exceptions along the way, by and large Israel hasn’t done a good job of blessing all those around them. 
God’s people were waiting for one who would reveal His glory to the world

But first and foremost, what is that first ever promise that God makes in scripture?  That oldest promise – a solution to the mess that Adam and Eve have made for all people?

Genesis 3:15: “The offspring of woman will crush the serpents head”… not unlike John 3:15: “that everyone who believes may have eternal life”.

Jesus is the Son of God, He is the great Teacher, He is the Saviour.  But, [as we find ourselves reading about the baby of Bethlehem in the midst of Lent,] the essential point from the perspective of the Old Testament is that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises.

The turning point of all history.

As we read the Old Testament, you can fell the tension building.  When will these promised things happen?

But this is the climax of The Story, and my friends, it’s also the climax of all of human history.  The coming of Jesus, the eternal Word of God taking on our humanity, God-with-us in the flesh changes everything.  Seriously – there’s good reason we mark history as “before the coming of Christ” and “after the coming of Christ”, and we’d do well to remember that the coming of God in the flesh, God breaking into the midst of our fallen world to fulfil what we could never fulfil ourselves, really does change everything about the world and our place in it.

What do I mean?

God with us.

In the beginning, the intention was that we would walk with God.  Not some spiritual nonsense or happy feelings, but that we would walk and talk with God, we would enjoy His company face to face, that we would know Him as He knows us, and in doing so, all our needs would be fulfilled because we’d be hanging out with the literal Creator of everything.  All we had to do was trust Him.

But they didn’t.  So there was a divide.  Death entered the world.

Now don’t think of death as a random punishment; it’s not.  It’s simply the consequence for choosing to walk away from the Source of Life.[5]

And that was the beginning of the end, right there in the third chapter, on those first few pages of your Bible.  They chose to walk away from the Source of Life itself.

And because God is the very opposite of everything death is about – God and people simply couldn’t be in the same place anymore.  It’s not that God didn’t want them there – He wanted them there so much that the rest of scripture is about how He did that! 

It’s just that there are some things you can’t force and you can’t fake.  You can’t force love, you can’t force trust; and it does no good to fake them either.

Now, as we know, God didn’t abandon his people. God is continually reaching out to them, continually breaking into the mess of the world, continually calling people out to be part of His plan.  When people actually get close to God, amazing things happen!  Miracles and healings, prosperity and peace; Moses’ face lit up light a lightbulb compared to the dark world around him!

But even Moses couldn’t see God face-to-face, because he was infected by death.  That serpent’s venom was handed down from generation to generation, and there was no way humanity could escape it.[6]

This is the problem.  This is why humanity can’t ever carry out God’s plans or fulfil those biggest promises as the years go by.  From our birth in a fallen world, we’re all sharing the same human condition, separated from the presence of God.

But as Bishop Ed Salmon used to say when he was up to his elbows in grease, fiddling around inside the engine of the old cars in his driveway, “the only way to fix a broken system is to get in there and get your hands dirty”.

That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about.  Have you ever thought of it in those terms?

The Son of God born in a manger in Bethlehem, living as one of us, and being rejected, pierced, hung on a cross, and laid in the dust of the grave is God rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, breaking into a fallen world to fix what we could never fix on our own. 

Hebrews puts it better: “Because the children of God share in flesh and blood, the Lord himself partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death”.  A flesh and blood problem needed a flesh and blood solution.

And so, this week, and as we head toward Holy Week and Easter, I invite you to think afresh about the work of Jesus.  As we read through the life of Christ, I invite you to see God rolling up His sleeves and doing what we can’t do for ourselves. 

And as we frame it all in the lofty words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, I want you to reflect on the sort of love that shows.  Love that will strip off all the majesty of Heaven so that he could become the lowest of the low, as once again God uses those whom the world rejects to fulfil his promises.

And as you read the gospels, I want you to do your very best to connect it all back to Genesis.

In the beginning God wanted to walk and talk and live with men and women, but they rejected Him.  In Jesus, God walked and talked and lived with men and women, making himself so vulnerable, free to be rejected once more.

And then grapple with the fact that, our faith and our belief is that God comes among us again and again, in His Word, in the bread and wine – the flesh and blood solution to our flesh and blood problem – that we will share today, and indeed He comes any time two or three are gathered in this messy world to talk about our faith in Him.  This Lent, grapple with the fact that God, through the Messiah who fulfils all of His promises, wants to walk and talk and live with us, and reaches out, even today, even though you and I are free to reject him. 

…But then remember this faithful promise, also made by the one who keeps all his promises “… to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God”.  He keeps all of his promises – and for that we say ‘to God be the glory’, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 34:10-12; Hebrews 3:1-6

[2] 1 Kings 9:5; Jeremiah 33:17-26;

[3] Genesis 22:18

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

[5] Feel free to tell me that I’m undermining the wrath of God, but don’t worry: I certainly believe that judgment is real. I don’t, however, subscribe to any atonement theory that sees God as a jilted lover seeking revenge for Adam and Eve’s sin; rather, as a loving Father who is full of justice, there are consequences for their disobedience.  God’s righteous anger which burns against fallen humanity must be at their actions and decisions, since He ultimately and simultaneously loves them enough to send His only Son to save them.

[6] Though I’m focusing on the result (captivity and slavery to death) rather than the act of original sin, I do believe this to be a faithful rendering of the Augustinian idea of a seminal defect: that concupiscence and death are passed on in the “DNA” of humanity, which is precisely why a virgin birth is necessary: God injects an original, incorrupt line of human nature back into the human race.

God Builds a Nation

The Story chapter 2, Genesis 12-36

Genesis 12:1-3; 15:3-6
Galatians 3:16-18, 27-29
Mark 3:31-35

Last week, we saw that, in God’s unchanging “Upper Story”, a good God created a good creation where people made in His Image enjoyed beautiful, healthy relationships with God the Holy Trinity, with each other, and with all of creation. 

But, because no relationship can be forced, there’s the possibility that we can say no.  And when we did, what did we find?  Sin changes everything.

But as we read Chapter 2 this weekend, we see another aspect of God’s eternal plan revealed to us: what sin changes, only faith overcomes.

Our relationship with God was severed by sin, and there’s no way to get that back – no amount of sewing fig leaves or making sacrifices or doing good deeds can undo what was broken.  There’s no way to get it back… except by faith.

We were created to be a family – brothers and sisters, children of God Our Father.  But, our relationships with each other were destroyed, utterly broken by blame and jealousy and envy, picking sides and choosing favourites, lying, cheating, and stealing to the point where no one can trust another.  And there’s no way to get it back… except by faith: by the faith to actually believe and live as though we are brothers and sisters, children of Our Heavenly Father.

And we were created to be in relationship with creation, to rule over it in the same way that God lovingly rules over all things.  But instead, we war against creation, and our bodies bear the consequences as we wear out and return to the dust from which we were made.  But there is a way to overcome that broken relationship with creation, to find re-created and restored life beyond the grave.  And what’s the only way to get that back? By faith!

Yes, God’s grand story shows us that what sin changes, only faith overcomes.

God Wills to Build a Nation

In Chapter 2 you read the story of Abraham, the one through whom God would build a nation – a holy nation.

But it’s a surprising story, isn’t it?  Maybe you’ve been taught (through Sunday School songs about “Father Abraham” and his many sons) to see Abraham as a great and mighty figure, the patriarch over God’s chosen kingdom.  But when you actually read it all laid out, it’s not that simple, is it?

We often think of faith as something we choose: the choice to be here this morning, the choice to repent of our sins and see ourselves through God’s eyes, the decision (as the song says) to “follow Jesus” (no turning back, no turning back).  But those are all responses.  The eternal, unchanging truth that we see in Abraham is that God reaches out; God calls out to each and every one of us first.

God offers us faith; we then decide if we will allow that faith to fill us: if we want to be faith-filled, faith-full.

God calls us.

And the glorious truth we see in Abraham is that God’s purposes, God’s desire, God’s covenant is not conditional.  We don’t often stop to think in these terms.  But God doesn’t say “if you will follow me I will make you a great nation.”  He doesn’t say “if you will follow me, the whole world will be blessed through your line”.  He doesn’t say “if you will follow me, I will send my Son to take flesh through your descendants so that sin and death can be defeated.”

No.  What does God say?  God says, “I will.”  God calls Abram and reaches out with the gift of faith, because God has a plan – the same plan from the beginning.  Abram just has to choose how he will respond; will he spend his life being fueled and filled by that faith, or will he spend his days running from and fighting against the relationship that God desires?

And God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

There’s not a single person who isn’t made in the Image of God, created to reflect His glory, and share in the life and love of the Trinity.  There’s not a single person you know whom God isn’t calling, whom God isn’t offering that gift of faith.  The question is whether they, whether we, say “yes, fill me.  I want to be full of faith, I will, I choose to be faithful”, or whether we run from that call and go our own way.

God calls Abram, and God’s decision is to use Abram to make for himself a holy people, a nation through whom the rest of humanity can see God’s glory, and be saved from sin by the gift of faith.

Drawn Together for a Purpose

In that we see another big, universal, unchanging truth.  God calls us individually, but not for our own sake

And that’s a hard idea, because sin changed everything.  Sin made us individualistic; we were created for relationships with God, others, and creation, to be part of something much bigger.  So when God calls each of us, it’s not so we can be glorified individuals.  He calls us, and his purpose is to restore those relationships; not just so I can be holy and I can live forever, but that I can be part of a holy people that lives forever in relationship, reflecting the Image of God to each other, and the glory of God back to the source of life and light Himself.

God calls us, he offers the gift of faith, and he’s drawn us together for a purpose.

But it’s the choice, that response, that desire to be filled by faith – to be faith-full – or not, that changes how it plays out.

It’s a fabulous calling… but how did it work out for Abraham and this chosen family?

  • Scripture tells us Abraham picked up and moved alright, but He didn’t quite trust that God would protect his life, and lied twice, saying his beautiful wife was his sister for fear he’d be killed.
  • He didn’t quite trust God would do what seemed impossible in his wife’s old age, so he went to bed with his maid.  And Sarah gets jealous to the point that the maid and her son are sent out into the desert with nothing but some bread and water.
  • Issac, the promised child, finally comes, and there begins the story of a dysfunctional family of epic proportions.  Mom has a favourite kid, Dad has a favourite kid, and the two play off each other with elaborate hoaxes to trick one into inheriting God’s blessing. 
  • Jacob gets the blessing, but is afraid his brother wants to kill him, so he runs away from all that he inherited – only to fall in love with his first cousin… except then his uncle tricks him, so he ends up marrying not one, but two of his first cousins.
  • He finally patches things up with his brother, and goes on to have a dozen kids of his own… but what does he do?  Well, this child of promise follows in his parents’ footsteps, and picks a favourite son again!  How does that play out?  As you’d expect!

God made a decision; God made an unbreakable promise; God had a purpose to bless all of humanity through Abraham’s family line. 

Did he do that because Abraham was the best choice?  Because he was strong and mighty?  Because he had built himself a nice empire in a good land?  Because he was patient and had good child-raising skills?  No, not at all.

Not at all.  This family was a total mess.  Sure, Abraham wanted to be filled-with-faith, to be faithful, but if you want to see the effects of sin in a human life, look at Abraham, look at Isaac, look at Jacob!  Yes, God called Abraham, but we overlook that between Genesis 12 and Genesis 23, God calls Abraham 10 times, because Abraham needs it! And Jacob, who is to become the patriarch of all Israel, just can’t understand God’s grace until God finally wrestles him to the ground and pins him with his hip out of joint.  Then he understands God’s grace… only to go and play favourites with his sons, repeating his own parents’ failure.

The point is this: God uses broken people to fulfill His unbreakable promises.

It’s the idea in one of my favourite “motivational” posters: “when God put a calling on your life, He already factored in your stupidity”.  It sounds harsh… but read your Bible!  It’s true!

Not so different from ourselves.

But… God called them.  And he called that family for a purpose, drawing them together for a purpose.

And, because God is unchanging, the same is true for us.

God called a man, took him away from any chance he had for worldly power in his hometown, told him he would have countless offspring and be the great-grandfather of kings… and sent him to live in a tent as a squatter on someone else’s land.  God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.

And, seriously, look around.  We’re the inheritors of that promise.  We, along with our brothers and sisters at the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic churches,are the ones through whom all of Fort Smith is to be blessed and called back into relationship with God.

But look at us.  We’re a lot like Abraham!  We’re a congregation that’s past childbearing years; most of us are retired, we don’t have influence or worldly power.  Every time I hold an event, even yesterday, someone who has been in town for years said they had no idea we were here.  Like Abraham’s family, we’re richly, richly blessed, but in the eyes of the world, we’re ‘small, and of little account’.

But God has called us.  God made a decision.  God has said “you are my son; you are my daughter; I am your Father”. 

And he calls us and equips us individually, but not for our own sake.  We are children of Abraham’s promise; we have inherited by adoption God’s blessing to Abraham – yes, you are the one through whom God wants to bless the world and draw all people to himself. 

…And that sounds ridiculous, but believe me, it’s no more ridiculous than telling an old man in a tent that he’s going to be the father of kings; and whatever you’ve done, however you’ve been unfaithful, you probably haven’t pretended your wife was your sister, slept with your maid because you were impatient with God, and sent your mistress and son to wander in the desert, so believe me, if God can use Abraham, God can use you.

Because the bottom line is this: God’s calling is not dependent on our performance.  God offers faith.  Our job is to decide if we want that faith to fill us, if we will and desire to be faith-full.

My brothers and sisters – for that’s what we were created to be – sin changes everything.  But what sin changes, faith overcomes.  And, by faith, it’s through you that God wants to bless the world with eternal life.

May God draw us ever closer, and equip us for the work he’s given us to do.  Amen.

The Covenant with all Creation

Genesis 9:1-17

Throughout the season of Lent this year, our lessons speak of God’s faithfulness, and they do that in a particular way: each Sunday this Lent, our readings look at the covenants God has made with people, the promises God has made which establish a real and lasting relationship between the Creator and those He created in His Image and for His glory.

So this Lent, in this season of repentance and hitting the reset button on our lives, as each of us is called to renewed trust in God, to a renewed commitment to prayer and study of God’s Word, and a renewed zeal to live out our faith in the world, we get to be refreshed each Sunday with the glorious message that, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our faithlessness, in spite of all the ways we’ve turned aside from trusting in the Lord, God remains faithful, through it all.

What’s a Covenant?

So the next five weeks leading to Holy Week and Easter, we’re looking at Covenants in scripture… but the first question is simply, “what’s a covenant”?  What is is?

In scripture, a covenant is more than a contract; a covenant is more than a transaction where each party gets something in exchange for a payment of equal value.  A covenant establishes a relationship; a covenant is a promise that binds the one making it, it’s not just a promise, but a sure and certain statement of intent that changes forever how the two parties relate to one another.

Sometimes covenants work both ways, where two people make a covenant with each other at the same time, while other times, like in God’s covenant with Noah that we read today, it’s a promise that requires nothing in return.

The Heartbroken God.

And that’s the incredible thing in what we read today.  After Adam and Eve chose pride and disobedience over trust, we know they were cast out of paradise, and it’s the beginning of life as we know it, a life of labour and toil, work and pain, struggling to provide for our needs until we finally die and our bodies return to the dust. 

But, lest we think things are bad now, the Bible tells us that, for those first humans, things were unbelievably worse.  Genesis 6 says that people only chose evil, all the time; people only followed what was best for themselves, regardless of the consequences, and even the God-given, life-producing relationships between men and women were broken to the point that a wife was something to be taken at will.  That love, that trust, that sense of belonging and desire for relationship for which we were created was all but gone.  And then that incredible verse, Genesis 6:6, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled”.

It’s incredible – left to our own devices, left to labour and toil to survive, left to reproduce and fill the earth by ourselves, we become so self-serving that the almighty Creator himself regrets having even made a creature in his own Image, he regrets making a creature capable of knowing right from wrong, yet who chooses what is wrong for selfish gain.

And so we know what happens.  God, in essence, says ‘I know they chose to trust in themselves rather than the great I AM; but I can’t let them go on like this, it’s heartbreaking’, the Lord’s heart is deeply troubled.

So the Lord hits reset.  The Lord executes righteous judgment, letting those who trusted in themselves in life fend for themselves in death; and he finds one family, Noah and his three sons and their wives, who were not consumed with evil and selfishness, not killing each other for selfish gain, but faithfully doing the work God had given Adam and Eve at the start: being fruitful, taming the wild earth, and being faithful to their spouse.[1]

That’s the context, that’s the situation leading up to God’s covenant, not just with Noah, but with all creation.  We chose to trust in ourselves rather than God, but the result is so devastating, so heartbreaking, that God in his mercy just cannot watch it play out.

The Covenant with Creation

So, God starts over, not because of his failing, but because our failing is just more than he, in his mercy, is willing to bear.  And God does an amazing thing; an amazing thing that we’re going to see time and time again throughout Lent, and which each of us – if we’re willing to look – can see in our own lives.  God, though He doesn’t have to, though we certainly have done nothing to deserve it, chooses us even though we rejected him.

Noah’s family was the most righteous on earth, but let’s be clear – he didn’t earn God’s favour because he was perfect.  Remember, once he’s off the ark the first order of business was to plan some vines, make a big batch of wine, and pass out drunk and naked.  (Not a model we should emulate!) 

No, we don’t earn God’s covenant faithfulness; rather God makes a binding promise on himself because of his love and mercy.

And so God says to Noah, to your descendants, to all humanity, and to every bird, every animal, every creeping insect, every living creature on earth: I’m making a promise with you, not because you earned it, but because I am a merciful God, heartbroken at the evil humanity had chosen. 

And God’s promise, his covenant that he swore never to break, came in three parts. 

Now, when you think about Noah, you probably think about the promise not to use a flood to wipe people out again, but in reality, that’s only a small part, that’s like the appendix at the end!

No, God’s covenant with all creation through Noah is this:

First, humans now have the authority to kill and eat animals. (9:2-3).  Up until now, God had only provided plants for people.  In verse 2 that we read this morning, God causes animals to fear people, but gives those same animals for food.  Where, up until now, the only option was to break the ground, till the soil, sweat and labour to raise plants for food, God promised that we could benefit from the life that He provides to animals.  Though we chose to go it alone, though we chose ourselves instead of God, God will not only provide animals, but allow us to use them for our benefit.

Second, God, the righteous judge, gives humanity a share of his authority to judge wickedness and create a just society.  And it begins with stopping murder; one of the hallmarks of broken society before God intervened.  God declares in his covenant that we have the right to punish murderers, to use the Image of God imprinted on each of us to judge those who destroy the Image of God in another person; and with that comes a responsibility: God promises that he will demand an accounting from each person.

And then the last part isn’t just about the flood; it’s much bigger than that.  God promises at the end of chapter 8 that, though we don’t deserve it, though we tried to trust in ourselves, He would bless all creation with his provision.  Regardless of whether we’re good or evil, whether we serve God or ourselves, God makes an oath that He will continue to reach out in love, providing the essentials of life: He’ll provide the seasons, He’ll provide harvests and food beyond what we make with our own efforts, and He’ll ensure that the sun rises and sets every day, on the good as well as the wicked.

A Generous God.

Now, if we step back and look at the big picture, how incredible is this covenant? 

Humanity rejected God.  We said we’d go it alone.  Then we proceeded to steal and kill and turn marriage into a weapon to the point where God himself regretted making us.  But though we rejected him, though we continue to reject him, he freely offered of his goodness, he freely offered to continue to reach out, to continue to provide, for the Almighty God to become vulnerable enough to be openly rejected, just so we would have the opportunity to turn to him, to trust him, to enter into a relationship with him. 

And put that in the context of Jesus, the Son of God Almighty being born as one of us, being tempted, suffering rejection, and being willing to die on the cross, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because God’s heart is broken by the mess we make when we try to trust in ourselves, and he reaches out in love, time and time again, to make a way for us to return to the paradise of eternal life with him.

My friends, this is the good news.  This is the good news we’re called to share: that though we don’t deserve it, though we continue to reject Him, God reaches out to every person under the sun, calling us home, calling us back into relationship with him.

Though we’re unfaithful, God keeps his promises.  Let’s share that good news with a world that so desperately needs to hear it. 

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] If righteousness (Gen. 7:1) is contextual as part of God’s unfolding revelation, the commandments God has set to this point are to be fruitful and multiply, to become united with the spouse, to subdue the earth, and not to murder.