The Terrible Lie

There is a terrible lie going around.

A dark, evil, truly terrible lie.

After all God has given us, and all the safeguards he put in place to guide us back to himself, that ancient, terrible, original lie persists: God is holding back.  God doesn’t want us to be happy.

At the end of the day, that was the message of the serpent in the garden. 

God, desiring to share his love with his creation, and to make us his sons and daughters by adoption – allowing us to share in the glory of his presence – created a paradise where every need was met, and we were free to be ourselves without shame.

And God, wanting our love for him to be real – to be freely chosen, as true love is – gave the simple instruction that we should choose to stay away from the things that harm us, from the knowledge of the dark, isolated alternative that is a life built solely around itself, isolated even from the God who created all things.

But then came the lie.[1]

“Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’, came the crafty message.

“No, we can eat all sorts of fruit from all the trees… except one.  There’s just one tree that isn’t good for us; he warned us that it would hurt us – it would even kill us – if we touched it.”

“…Oh, my dear, you actually believe that?  Come on.  Your Heavenly Father didn’t give you that rule to keep you safe.  He’s holding back.  He doesn’t want you to be like him.  He doesn’t want you to be truly happy.”[2]

That’s the dark, terrible, ancient lie that has infected all of human history.  It’s the lie that all of us face each and every day.

The truth, from the beginning is clear – the signs revealed in creation to every people and nation, the truth revealed in the law and the prophets, the deep truth spoken by the Word made flesh, is just the opposite: God’s not holding back, he’s reaching out, continually with a free gift of grace.  He’s holding out his hand, and would even send the Son to seek out us lost orphans, to bridge the chasm between death and life, to adopt us as his children, to make that relationship with our Father possible once more.

God’s not holding back – he held nothing back, even humbling himself to become like us in every way except sin.[3]

The truth, revealed in part to all the great religions of humankind, and found in the person of Jesus Christ, is that God wants nothing more than for us to be like him. 

The serpent was wrong.  The lie of the world, the flesh, and the devil is wrong.  God wants us to be like him; he wants to make us his own children, heirs of eternity.

And, in that, he wants us to be happy.

…But this is where the lie becomes attractive, even irresistible.  We have a hard time understanding what true happiness is.  For us, happiness is pleasure, and as we move through our days, it seems we need a constant supply.

This is precisely why God asked us to trust him in the first place, though the serpent’s lie was no surprise.  Once we’ve experienced isolation; once we’ve experienced pride and jealousy; once we’ve experienced the pain of going without or being outdone, we lose sight of what really makes us happy, and we’re left thinking that this mess is all there is, that our purpose, our goal, is just this.

Our happiness is fickle.  As Paul says in Philippians, our god is our belly; it’s our appetites that drive us, and even a little indigestion or a toothache can turn my happiness into self-pity, or worse, bitter jealousy of those better off.

God’s call to us, God’s instruction isn’t to keep us from something good; the invitation to follow Christ, to learn to love what is really good, is the opposite: it’s so that we can experience what is truly good, and to keep us from the pain and isolation that is the alternative.

But the lie persists.

When I was young, we lived in Sibley’s Cove, a small fishing community in Newfoundland.  Our house was the last one out on the point, just up over the hill from the wharf and the fish plant. 

There were benefits – this meant that our road was the only side-road that was paved.  But there were drawbacks, as the large, dripping fish trucks would come and go several times each day.

Now, across the road from our house was, from my perspective, a beautiful, lush field of chest-height grass to run through, leading to the little brook where dad would take us fishing, and where you could jump across the rocks to get to our friends’ house.

As young kids, 4 or 5 years old, we had a lot of freedom – we could wander all the garden behind the house, we could go up over the hill and pick berries, we could go up to the vegetable ground or play on the mossy rocks behind the shed.  …But there was one rule: we could not cross the road.

…But that ancient lie persisted.

Even with the wide open space we had behind us, even with the swingset and the large driveway to ride our bikes, my sister and I would stand for what seemed like hours, imagining the fun we could have if we crossed the road.  Mom and Dad are so mean.  We won’t get hurt.  They just don’t want us to have fun.

Sound familiar?

Well, one day, I crossed the road.  As it turns out, chest-high grass in summer isn’t as fun as it looks… it’s really just full of bugs.  And, when I turned, ready to come back, the large, dripping fish trucks were leaving the plant.  Mom and my grandmother came running, screaming from the house, and the driver stopped, the loud rumbling of the engine and the cloud of early 90s diesel smoke adding some drama to the tears running down my cheeks. 

The rest of the day is a blur; but I knew one thing – Mom was angry.  …Or, at least, I thought she was.

The Lie has a Twin

That old lie, that something good was being withheld, has a twin: that God is angry.  Now, sure, my mom was angry: but even that which, from my perspective, was pure anger was, from her perspective, sadness and disappointment that I would disobey, and shock, even grief, at the danger I had put myself in, and the unspeakable harm that could have come.

But, no matter how things might look from our perspective, don’t give into the lie, and especially in this season of Lent.  God, by nature, is not angry.  God, by nature, is pure, unbridled joy, and his desire, from the foundation of the world, is to welcome us into that joy.  He’s looking at all of eternity, at the trajectory each of us has chosen, to move closer to what truly satisfies us – Himself – or to choose the dark, sarcastic world of isolation and contempt.[4]

But, if we buy into these lies – that God is withholding something good, and that he’s angry with us for wanting it – then, from our perspective, things change.

Perhaps you know someone who is bitter, or maybe you’ve been bitter yourself.  You see, there is nothing worse to a bitter person than someone who is joyful, someone who is truly happy, someone who is unphased by the minor setbacks along the way. 

From the perspective of a bitter person, joy is infuriating; it makes their skin crawl.  Joy mocks the very existence of a person who has chosen to be bitter; from their perspective, the warm, life-giving fire of joy hurts to be around; it burns.

But, to the one willing to receive it, joy, and the love that lets us flourish is contagious, and leads to life itself.

There’s a terrible lie going around.  Don’t listen to it. 

God is not holding back.  God wants you to be like him, even though that means, for now, taking up your cross and following Christ on what is, at times, a hard, hungry path through the desert.[5]

This Lent, through study, and self-denial, prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, learn to love what lasts instead of what fills our bellies.  Learn to love what truly leads to happiness, what is truly good, instead of what feeds our appetites.

For it’s through obedience that we experience God’s joy.  And that’s no lie.

Amen.


[1] “The Terrible Lie” is from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ remarkable theological paraphrase of Genesis 3 in The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan, 2007).

[2] Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

[3] Romans 5:12-19

[4] I’m not suggesting that God does not detest sin, but that where human joy is dependent (“I’m happy if…” or “I’m happy when…” or “this made me happy”), following Augustine, God’s joy is fundamental to his Triune being, and following Nehemiah 8 and Hebrews 12, our joy is found in God.  I commend this article by Tony Reinke, and this from John Piper.

[5] Matthew 4:1-11

The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

Exodus 24:21-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel lesson today invites us to follow with Peter, James, and John to the top of a high mountain, for what, on the surface, is perhaps one of the weirdest events recorded in the New Testament.

We’re familiar with healings – God demonstrating his power in Jesus over the brokenness and disorder of this fallen world.

We’re familiar with mighty miracles – Jesus calming storms, as nature itself remembers the voice that spoke at creation.

But today, on the top of a high mountain, something different happens.  Jesus, it says, is transfigured before them.  Jesus is changed or, literally, in the Greek, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis before their very eyes, as his face becomes bright as the mid-day sun, his clothes become dazzling bright, and Moses and Elijah, the prophets of long ago, appear with him, in conversation as three old friends.

It’s a situation unlike anything else we’ve read… or is it?

A surprisingly familiar situation

While this mountain-top experience may be difficult to wrap our heads around on first glance, and many a preacher has created all sorts of theories about why or how this happened, if we acknowledge – as we have throughout this season of Epiphany – that God is, fundamentally, in the business of revealing himself to the world, then perhaps we can bring these gospel events into focus.

And, together with that, I believe this is one of those occasions where one of the richest gifts of Anglicanism to the Church shines through – our basic belief, though we sometimes forget it, that God has given us the entire scriptures, and that it’s not acceptable to mine out the scriptural jewels that support our arguments, but that, simply put, the best tool to interpret scripture is scripture itself.

So, we read, after faithfully leaving their worldly occupations and committing to follow Jesus, and just a few verses after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we’re told in Matthew 16:21 that Jesus begins to teach his followers about the way of the Cross – that the Glory of God is revealed not in worldly power, but in “denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him”.

And then, some time passes.  But not just any amount of time — according to today’s lesson, six days pass.  This is now the seventh day; a point that should ring a bell and pique the attention of any faithful Jew or Christian well-versed in scripture.  After all, it was the seventh day, after the work of Creation had been accomplished, that God declared holy, and on which God revealed the intended glory of his creation: a peaceful garden that provided for all who lived in it, and in which humanity and all of nature were united in his presence.

But, for anyone who knows the Old Testament, this isn’t the first mountain-top experience on the seventh day.  As we heard today in Exodus 24, after God had led his chosen people into the desert, teaching them to trust in him for their daily bread, and teaching them not to serve themselves, but to be a people of justice and mercy, it was the Lord who said to Moses, “come up to me on the mountain”.

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

And, as we heard today, he was there 6 days.  And then, on the seventh day, from within a bright cloud upon the top of the mountain, God revealed Himself to Moses.  And what was revealed?  Well, the next 7 chapters of Exodus told God’s chosen people how they were to worship, and the details of how they were to build and worship in God’s House.  The house, the tabernacle, which, the Book of Hebrews tells us, is a copy of the heavenly sanctuary.[1] 

Moses, after six days, heard the voice of God in the brightness of the cloud on a mountain, and, we read this morning, he stayed on that mountain forty days and forty nights, receiving the Lord’s instruction, His message to be delivered to the people, and ultimately, the message, the light to enlighten the nations of the world.

But, if we know our Bibles, we know that as good as those 40 days were for Moses, they didn’t go so well for those whom he was supposed to lead. 

They, like many of us, think 40 days is a long time to wait for something; sure, God gave us literally everything we have, and sure, with him a thousand years is like the twinkling of an eye, but to commit to be faithful for a whole 40 days?  I don’t know…  So what did they do?  Well, they gathered up as much shiny gold as they could find – gold, after all, they had worked hard for – and made an idol that they could worship instead, and proclaimed a great festival to celebrate the work of their own hands.

Finally, after Moses goes back down the mountain to clean up that mess, God invites Moses up to the mountain once again, and Moses sees God’s glory revealed.  And, we’re told, that in the eyes of those wayward followers, those who had forgotten God’s goodness so quickly, those who were so quick to bow down and worship their own possessions, the skin of Moses’ face appeared to be bright like the sun, to the point that they were afraid to even come near him.

Now, fast-forward to the Gospel.  The disciples, after six days, go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and a bright cloud surrounds them.  Jesus, the light of the world, the source of life that enlightens every person, the light that pierces the darkness, is revealed to those who, while still sinful men, have denied themselves and have committed to following him.

And the light is dazzling.  The various Greek versions in the Gospels point to just how bright this was – it’s brighter than they had words to describe.  Not just a brightness that makes you squint, but a brightness that knocks you backward. 

One preacher[2] said the best analogy for us today is that it’s like the brightness of an arc welder, if you’ve ever seen one welder at work.  It’s the brightness of pure, unbridled energy; energy that, for those who are prepared with the proper equipment, can join mighty metals, building machines that literally move mountains.  But, brightness that, for those unprepared, without the proper mask, will actually burn your eyes; in Exodus, it’s that brightness described as a consuming fire – enormous power and energy that does wonders for those who are ready, but burns up those who approach unprepared.

And what happens in this cloud?  Well, we see that the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God who is outside of time and holds time itself in his hand, reveals that the eternal Word, the eternal voice of God, the Word that was God, and through whom all things were made, is Jesus.

Moses and Elijah, the great giver of God’s covenant, and the great prophet who revealed God’s promised future return, appear with Jesus, talking, chatting, as old friends.  It’s here that those who follow Jesus see God’s glory, and see that Jesus is the very Word of God from the Beginning.

And, from the cloud itself, comes again the great Epiphany: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”.  And, as God’s glory is revealed, as they see that inescapable power and light that either works wonders or utterly consumes, they hear the eternal message, the sound that has gone out to all lands says, simply: “listen to him”.

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

God wants you to be part of that, revealing Himself to the world around you though word and deed.

The incredible truth of the Gospel is that God wants to show you his glory – he wants to show you his great mercy, his incredible power to heal and to save.

But he won’t do it unless we follow him up the mountain.  And it’s a good thing, too.  All of us – every person – will one day see the glory of God.  If we’re prepared, if we’ve followed his lead along the narrow mountain path, if we acknowledge that all our strength and health and the blessings of this life are gifts to be used in his service, then we encounter his glory as the remarkable, dazzling, life-giving power that it is, and like the disciples who fell down to worship, Jesus reaches out his hand and invites us to stand in his presence.  But, for those who stay in the dust on the broad, easy plains below the mountain, those who rely on their own strength, who bow down to their own wealth or pride, that same glory of God isn’t life-giving, but all-consuming, just as the experience of an arc welder depends on whether or not you’re prepared.

We’re invited up the mountain.

Jesus invites us to experience his glory up on the mountain, the glory of his resurrection power revealed on the Cross on Good Friday and in Easter’s empty tomb.

But, first, we need to be willing to follow.

Just 40 days of obedience in the desert was too much for those whom God had rescued from slavery in a foreign land.  40 days of patient faithfulness was too much, as they molded an idol of gold.

Jesus calls you to follow him all the days of your life.

And as we learn that together, the Church invites you to 40 days of repentance and obedience, just 40 days of Lent, 40 days of preparation to experience the glory of God at Easter.

One day we’ll all see that glory face to face. 

Will we be ready?  Do we have what it takes to deny ourselves and follow Him?

Or is even 40 days just too long to lay aside the idols and excuses we have made?

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.