Category Archives: Sermon Notes – 2020

Noah and a Grieving God – Jan. 26, 2020

British editor and Activist Siobhan Dowd turned to writing books for young adults, when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 2004. Before her death she would write 4 young adult novels, but only one was published before her death. She also had outlined and contracted to write 2 more books.

While all her books have won numerous literary awards, it was her last unfinished novel that has taken the world by storm. The dark fantasy novel “A Monster Calls” was completed by Patrick Ness and turned into a movie in 2016.

“A Monster Calls” is the story of 13-year-old boy named Conor O’Malley, who is trying to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Conor vents his emotions by way of drawing and daydreaming. At night, he suffers from a reoccurring nightmare about an old church near their home that collapses and falls into a large hole.

One night at 12:07am, Conor wakes to find a large Yew tree, near the church, has come to life and transformed itself into a large twisted monster. Throughout the book, the Monster reveals three stories that confronts Conor’s hidden emotions.

No one can see the monster but Conor, that is because the monster is a manifestation of the boy’s unbearable grief.  In the end, Conor must face his own fears and come to understand his deepest, ugliest feelings that are far worse than any large twisted monster.

As is the case with many books written for young adults, it is an amazing insight for anyone who has experienced grief; young or old. Obviously, there is much more to the book and story, but if you want to know, you’ll just have to see them for yourself.

Here in the United States, about 2.5 million people die annually. And each person leaves behind an average of 5 people who are grieving. That means, at any given time, over 11 million Americans are grieving here in the US. But the problem with grief is; there is really no time limit. And dealing with grief is not an exact science. Truth be told, there are probably a lot more folks grieving than we know.

While I have read a lot of definitions for grief, few rise to the level needed to really capture its scope. The reason is, grief is a multifaceted emotion, that includes almost all the emotions we experience when we deal with a loss. Grief often comes from the loss of a loved one but can include almost any loss we face.

When we think of grief, we often think of the loss of a spouse, child, relative or a friend. Yet grief is also experienced with the loss of a pet, a job, a relationship, or any number of other things. And grief can manifest itself in anger, depression, guilt, fear, shame, sadness, confusion, loneliness, anxiety or even numbness. It’s no wonder we try so hard to avoid it!

Grief has been described in a couple of ways that I think are helpful. One is that grief is like a shipwreck, were the waves just keep coming, for what seems like a very long time. Another is that grief is an emotion that twists us and ties us in all kinds of knots; kind of like the twisted tree of emotions in the story ‘The Monster Calls’.

In our scripture passage today, we enter the life of Noah; but most importantly, the heart of God. In Genesis Chapter 5, we have a brief accounting of the 10 generations between Adam and Noah. Over the last few weeks, we have looked in depth at the Fall of Mankind to the first murder in the story of Cain and Abel.

Today we jump ahead to the life of Noah. Noah was 500 years old, when he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Now, don’t ask me how they measured their ages because I have no idea. Even in dog years, that would put Noah at over 71 and he still had a lot of life ahead of him!

Chapter 6 verse 5 begins like this, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of mankind had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. And so, The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” 

Here we read that God’s heart was deeply troubled. Other translations read; God’s heart was full of pain, God’s heart was broken, God’s heart was ripped asunder, and finally, that this caused God to grieve.

Most, if not all of us, are familiar with the story of Noah and the flood, but many people speak of God’s anger and wrath, not his pain, sorrow and grief. In fact, throughout the Bible, God should be known more for his unjust suffering than for his anger. So, why do we get this so wrong?

In the Old Testament, we often read that we should be in fear of the Lord. Fear here should be translated; awe, healthy respect and wonder at God’s amazing greatness. Unfortunately, for many generations, preachers have tried to scare people into faith. That is really missing the message of the Bible.

Our God is a God of patience, forgiveness, longing, grace, mercy and love. Only, when God is pushed to the edge of insanity, does he respond with destruction; and then, only with deep pain and sorrow. For instance, let’s look at what brought this all on.

Remember, God created a perfect world, one He called very good, but then the Fall brought the knowledge of Good and Evil into the world. The message was, eat this fruit and your eyes will be open and you will be like God. God was trying to protect us from knowing evil and all the pain and sorrow that comes with it. But Adam and Eve were enticed and mislead.

Mankind now knows so much more and must deal with all the trouble God was trying to save us from. Now we know the pain of sin and the consequences of evil. Cain killed Abel and the world just continued to spin out of control.

Within 10 generations, we read these words, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of mankind had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5)

This is like Sodom and Gomorrah. On earth, God could not find ten good men or women. How do you go from ‘Very Good’ to only evil, all of the time?

God was heart sick, he was devastated. It reminds me of how the book of Judges ends, it reads, “In those days, Israel had no king; essentially, no moral compass, and everyone did as he or she saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

They did not love God or their neighbors. Selfishness reigned and chaos ensued. All hell broke loose on earth. And I imagine God wept. The Hebrew word for God’s sorrow or grief is “Nacham”, it means to draw the breath forcibly or to give a deep painful sigh.

In Biblical times, they believed that the heart pumped blood and that was our life essence. Life was in the blood. But when it came to our emotions, they believed they originated in the internal organs. Feelings came from our gut, our spleen, stomach and intestines. That is why when we are emotionally sick, our stomach knots up and we get so twisted up inside.

Have you ever been emotionally sick? I have. I have been so emotionally overwhelmed that I lost weight, couldn’t sleep, laid in constant worry and sadness and wanted to die. It is a horrible way to live. Now, imagine God going through that ‘over our sin’. Imagine, as a parent, watching your kids fall, in a major way; maybe to a place where they cannot get help or refuse to get help. And finally, descend to a place where there is no hope.

My guess is, whatever we feel, God feels far worse and much deeper. Aristotle once said, “God is an Unmoved Mover”; in other words, he set the world in motion and left. Yet the Bible says that God is nothing like that, he suffers pain down to the very core of his being. And now,

God is thinking of doing the one thing he never wanted to do; to reverse his creation and wipe out all the evil.

It is almost like God cannot bring himself to do it. He was looking for any chance to save or salvage whatever he could. That is when he turned to Noah. There was only one guy left who has not bent to the whims of the world. Only one man who still had a shot at carrying mankind forward. Only one man who still had an abiding faith, respect for God and a heart of obedience.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like Noah. Sure, he was not perfect. He could complain and fuss, but he would be true to God and never give up. Noah tried to turn the tide, but no one will listen to him. Everyone thought he was crazy. Who builds a boat in the middle of nowhere? At a time when they had never even heard of flooding.

It takes a lot of faith to build an Ark. It takes a lot of faith to attend church regularly, read your Bible, attend Sunday School, or Bible studies and pray, especially when most people don’t. But that is not all. You see, it also takes a lot of love and compassion to want to stop the heart of God from breaking.

According to the Bible, Father God is not the only one who grieves. So does God as the Holy Spirit and God in Flesh, as Jesus.

In Psalm 78:40 we read about Israel’s rebellion, “How often they rebelled against him (God) in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland.”

Isaiah 63:10 reads, “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; Therefore, He become their enemy, and He fought against them.”

Finally, we all know how Jesus was treated. He was rejected, abandon, betrayed, beaten and finally crucified. Isaiah 53:3-5 conveys these words about Jesus,

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely, he took up our infirmities and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace, was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Finally, Ezekiel 18:30-32 reads, “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, people of Israel? For ‘I take no pleasure in the death of anyone’, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and Live!”

Rev. John Piper once wrote, “It is not for God’s lack of compassion that men perish, but for a lack of heart that delights in the God of compassion because of our hard and rebellious hearts.”

You see, we are most like Jesus when our hearts break for the same things that breaks his heart. Jesus wept, for his own loss and the hurt others felt for the loss of a friend. He also wept over Jerusalem, for all the lost people. And I believe, he still weeps for every lost soul who sins and stands in judgement.

After the Flood came and left, God took it upon himself to make a covenant with us. Through Noah and every generation that followed, God wanted us to see better and brighter days. And his mercy still reigns. The truth is, I cannot stand to see God’s heart break anymore, it tears apart my very soul.

So, this morning, I now invite you, to join me in a prayer of confession.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We confess we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and by what we have failed to do.

We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will. We have broken your law. We have rebelled against your love. We have not loved our neighbors, and We have not heard the cry of the needy.

We are truly sorry and humbly repent. Forgive us and show us mercy, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, so that we may walk faithfully in the Glory of our Lord, through the glorious grace of Jesus Christ. It is in His name, we pray. Amen. 

Your assignment this week is…to go out and live in a way that others see Christ in you. We have hope for a reason, because God through the life of Jesus, rescued us. We are forgiven and redeemed. Live like resurrected People, Easter People, that Jesus gave his life for. Imagine how that would change the world!

May it be so, Amen.

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper” – Jan. 19, 2020

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburg, Scotland in 1850. His father’s family built lighthouses and his grandfather on his mom’s side was a Presbyterian Minister in the Church of Scotland. From an early age, Robert was fascinated with the concepts of good and evil.

Robert lived a relatively short tragic life, but he also wrote some of the most wonderful, thought provoking stories, such as; ‘Treasure Island’, ‘New Arabian Nights’ and ‘Kidnapped’. But it was his novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” published in 1886 that people still talk about today.

The novella is an examination of the duality of human nature, expressed as an inner struggle between good and evil. Some say it is the struggle between our animal barbaric side and our sane civilized one. In the story, Dr Jekyll is the good doctor who sees his meekness as weakness. His altered version, Mr. Hyde is adventurous, brazen and evil.

Many scholars see these two characters as extensions of Cain and Abel in the Bible. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson, himself, mentions Cain in the short novel. “Dr Jekyll said, ‘I incline to Cain’s heresy, he used to say quaintly, ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.”

So, as Cain and Abel were yoked together until one killed the other, so were Jekyll and Hyde.

Last Sunday, we looked at the Fall of Mankind. Sin marred Adam and Eve, the animals and the earth. In the end, they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden to fend for themselves in the world. But the fallen world was not as pleasant as God’s peaceful garden. In the new world, they found both blessings and curses. Adam went back to gardening and discovered blisters for the first time. He also raising animals, but now they could be dangerous, if he was not careful. I don’t imagine it took too long before they longed for the old days.

For the first time ever, Adam and Eve have sexual relations. But just as God promised, there was pain in childbirth. Eve names her first son Cain which in Hebrew means; brought forth or acquired. Later, she gave birth to another son, named Abel. His name means vapor or breathe.

The Bible is unclear if Abel being born later means within minutes meaning they were twins or that Abel was born maybe a year later. As they grew, Cain took after his father and worked the fields. While Abel found solace caring for the animals, he was a shepherd.

As any parent knows, each child has their own personality and demeaner. Such was the case with Cain and Abel, and so tensions arose. An older child thinks the younger gets preferential treatment. And the younger child can be envious of the older child’s position in the family.

As Disney often says, ‘It’s a tale as old as Time’, the struggles of one sibling against another or, as it is most often called, Sibling Rivalry. Who is liked the most, who is pampered the most and who is the favorite child? This finally comes to a head before God. Both boys decide to bring an offering to the Lord. The Bible says, “In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But, Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.

The insight here is that Cain just brought some fruit, but Abel brought the best portions from the best cuts of meat. Now, before we get sidetracked, I want to make one quick observation; What they brought is less important than why they brought it.

Hebrews 11:4 reads, “By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.” In other words, Abel was humble and thankful. He gave for the right reasons, and with the right heart. In comparison, Cain did not. Scripture gives us no deeper insight than this, Cain had a heart problem.

Hosea 6:6 reads, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” So, the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but not on Cain and what he brought. I am sure Abel was elated and he must have run off to tell his parents.   And there stood Cain, frustrated, sulking, hurt and finally angry and feeling belittled.

The truth is, Cain should have been happy for his little brother, but he was not. All he could think about was himself. He must have thought, “The oldest son always is less appreciated.” I think, he was having a pity party.

Then God spoke to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” In other words, why are you feeling so sad and rejected. He continued, “If you do what is right, you will be accepted. But, if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; and it desires to have you, you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

The Interpreter Commentary has this quote, A famous lawyer is reported to have said in a newspaper interview, “Everybody is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of reading the obituary notices.”

Cain is playing with fire. If he does not listen to God and respond appropriately to his brother, his anger will overtake him. He has freedom to choose what will happen next. But he must master his sin. What sin? In this case, his anger and rage. He must learn to manage his emotions.

We have no idea how much time goes by, but at some point, Cain went to his brother to talk. “Now, Cain said to his brother Abel…” In some translations, that is where the sentence ends and there is a long pause. We do not know what spoke about. Jewish scholars believe an argument broke out between the two brothers. Theorizing about this mystery, the Jewish historian Josephus spoke of Abel’s respect for justice and virtue, and Cain’s complete depravity. Philo of Alexandria believed that Cain was the indirect offspring of sin and that he was pure evil.

Put another way, the duality of man was rent or split between Cain and Abel. Abel was seen as all things good and righteous and Cain was seen as total depravity; just like Jekyll and Hyde. In other words, Evil was born in full in the flesh of Cain. Now, I do not buy that claim; but in just a moment we will see how this all ends. Cain said, “Let’s go out to the field.” If this is true, what happened next was premeditated. Cain already had in mind what he wanted to do.

Scripture says, that while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. One take away, is seeing how sin can escalate and destroy very quickly. Within one generation, we have gone from lies and denials to murder. While all sin is equal in the eyes of God; to us, they have gone from bad to the absolute worst!

A beast had been unleashed. Pandora’s box had been opened. From this point on, brothers do not fare well in scripture. They often seem to be in conflict, think; Shem and Ham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers or the Prodigal and his sibling.

Another scholar gives this insight, he writes, “In the ancient world, there was often conflict between farmers and shepherds. Many folks believe that the story of Cain and Abel set a precedent and reveals why the tension between these peoples still exists.”

Contrary to many ancient theories, I do not think Cain was all bad. I think he simply failed to master his emotions. I also find it hard to believe that Abel was all good. One of the ways to interpret Abel’s name in Hebrew is ‘vanity’. Maybe that should give us some insight. As far as I know, there was only one perfect person; Jesus.

Yet nothing justifies this murder. This was a tragedy of immense proportions. It was the first life or death conflict. The first human loss of life. The first loss of a loved one. And the first need for a funeral. Nothing could have prepared Adam and Eve for the death of this son!

Enter God. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” This was Cain’s opportunity to confess; to admit what he did. Cain shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know”. Then he adds, I think, in a snarky voice, “AM I my brother’s keeper?”  (Gen. 4:9)

His sarcasm, a cutting remark, revealed his disdain for God. In Hebrew, keeper can also be translated as; guard, watcher, protector or shepherd. Certainly, he should be all of these for his younger brother, but he was not.

One commentator writes, “Cain’s attitude reflects the statement, “I am not responsible for anyone but myself. Almost blaming, he implies, ‘It was your job God to look out for him, but you failed. Can’t you keep track of your own creation?’

God’s reply is swift. “What have YOU done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) Early Hebrews believed that the life of a person was in the blood. So, the very essence of a person, even after death, could cry out for justice to the Lord.

The jig was up. The ground finally fell out under the feet of Cain. There was no fight left in him. The truth is, you cannot one-up God. He knows everything and there is no escape. No matter how smart you think you are, you are NOT God.

That is when God rendered his verdict and punishment on Cain. “Now, you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from Your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gen. 4:11-12) Cain must have wilted when he said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen. 4:13-14)

One question should come up here, “What people?” Aren’t there only Adam and Eve and Cain left on earth? Maybe he is referring to future generations? Some Scholars suggest that Adam and Eve may have already had some daughters, since daughters are seldom mentioned in scripture. The truth is, we just don’t know.

Finally, the Lord said to Cain, “Not so, anyone who kills you will suffer vengeance 7 times over. Then, the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” (Gen. 4:15)

What exactly is the mark of Cain? Was it a tribal mark, like a brand? Possibly a Tattoo?

There are clues in scripture.

In Ezekiel 9:4, the Lord called upon a man and said, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” And Revelation 7:3 proclaims, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”

Early Jewish writes proclaimed that the mark of Cain was a discoloration, like a birthmark. It was the sign of a sinner. How many people have birthmarks? Most, if not all of us? But not many have them on the face. Some writers speculated, if God was very angry, he would turn your whole face dark. (Yes, racism started very early on!)

Cain’s curse was, that he would have to live with what he did to his brother and family. God not only allowed him to live but He protected Cain. Many today still believe Cain got ‘far less than he deserved’. But I am not so sure, maybe time would bring a change.

You may have noticed, Cain declared, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” He seemed to have no remorse for the death of his brother, the pain he caused his family or the way he treated God. Such is the problem with evil. One definition for evil I read said, “It is selfishness or the inability to be attuned to others and their needs or feelings. For most of us evil is irrational, unexplainable and unthinkable.”  

Two quick thoughts here; first, in hurting or killing others, we also hurt or kill ourselves. Second, Cain’s actions against his brother was ultimately an attack on God. Matthew 25:40 records these words, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.” (That can be good or bad)

Like Cain, we are called to master our sin before it destroys us. Cain’s anger and hate left unchecked, led to murder – but it didn’t start out that way. Cain was ultimately not in charge of his emotions. Jesus warns us in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister ‘without cause’ will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

The Aramaic translation for ‘Raca’ is worthless, empty of meaning or empty-headed. Once you dehumanize or dismiss someone, it is easy to cause them harm and feel no remorse. That is, in many ways, what Cain did to his brother. 1 John 3:1-12 reads, “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother.”

Finally, 1 Thessalonians 5:22-23 reads, “Reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. And may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are our brothers and sisters Keepers. While it is easy to become short with one another, we are called to master our emotions and to not sin. We do that, be seeing and believing that we are all God’s beloved children. Nothing should come between us!

Your assignment is…to do something kind for another this week. Maybe a random act of kindness – or better yet, do something for someone who is closer than a brother or sister. Love as God loves you, — even when you don’t feel like it!  May it be so, Amen.

The Fall of Mankind – Jan. 12, 2020

Ray Bradbury was one of greatest writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. You may have heard of Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man or the Martian Chronicles. Although Bradbury was raised Baptist, the family rarely attended church and he rejected an angry God who sent people to hell.  In the end, he claimed inspiration from all faith backgrounds, but only claimed to be spiritual. He once said his favorite book of the Bible was the Gospel of John because it spoke of God’s love. Before he died, he stated that love was his religion.

But there was one principle he took from his faith journey and that was that humanity was violent, cruel, depraved and self-destructive. There was no perfect Utopian society if mankind was involved; on this planet or any other.

In summing up his work, Canadian Journalist Jonathan Kay described it like this, “He showed me that the most exotic adventures in life always lead back to an examination of our ‘original sin’ — the space in our hearts as inky black as outer space itself.” What makes this quote so interesting is Jonathan Kay is Jewish and most Jews do not believe in original sin, but he does. The funny thing is, many Christians today are rejecting Biblical Truths.

In a Pew Study done in 2018, 80 % of Americans say they believe in God but only 56% believe in the God of the Bible. Half of Americans say the Bible is true and the word of God, the other half think it is a work of myths and fictional stories.

97% of people (even those with no faith) believe God loves everyone. 87% believe God has rewarded them – and 50% believe God has punished them. Only 67% believe they are sinners.

65% of Americans believe everyone sinners, but most people are still inherently good. And most think our sins do not deserve punishment. 59% of Americans reject Satan is real and 75% reject original sin. In fact, many question if sin is real at all and choose to call all sin mistakes.

Only 1/3 of all believers think Jesus helps us overcome sin, most believe they have to work for their own salvation. And 64% of Christians believe everyone gets to heaven, regardless of how they live. The belief that God loves and accepts anything we do, continues to grow. And why shouldn’t it?

In 2018 one of the most popular books was Linnie Thomas’ book ‘There is no Hell’. Also, still on the top of many Christians reading lists is Phillip Gulley’s ‘If Grace is True’. It states, if Grace is true, Jesus didn’t need to die for us because we were already forgiven.

In Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’, he questions if anyone really goes to hell. Even after they die, he writes, God gives people a chance to be forgive and move on to heaven. He has re-imagined the Catholic idea of purgatory (a waiting room) after death.

Many scholars say this might be our own fault. Many denominations have rejected the teachings of the Old Testament, claiming Jesus made it unnecessary. But if we reject the Old Testament, we lose the foundation for which Jesus came and in the end, we reject him as well.

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) 

And if you believe the teaching of the Bible, you cannot dismiss 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

In Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. He created everything from the foliage to the animals and finally he created mankind. A-dam in Hebrew means man.  Because the Man was lonely, God created for him a woman, he named her Eve which in Hebrew means One who lives. We simplify by calling them Adam and Eve.

In this garden world, Adam was to care for the earth and the animals. Eve was his helper. They were created perfect and would live forever. They were also self-less. There was no envy, pride, fear, shame or sadness. And even though they were created with freewill, they were obedient.

God gave them free reign to do as they pleased and eat what they wanted. With the exception, that they must not eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if they eat it, they would die. To be fair, he gave that instruction to Adam, who in turn told Eve later.

The thing was, they completely trusted God. They had a great relationship with him. But all of that was about to change, as we enter into Chapter 3, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Let’s break this down, a serpent, snake or dragon like creature was talking to Eve. You would think this would have been a warning. You see, when God placed Adam in the garden, the animals did not talk. Adam was not an old school Dr. Doolittle that talked to the animals; he just named them.

So, that leaves us wondering, “Who or what was this serpent?” Revelation 12:9 gives us some insight. It reads, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Isaiah 14:12 reads, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star (sometimes translated Light Barrier or Lucifer in Latin), son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!”

This fallen angel, we call Lucifer, was an angel of light. He rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven. There is no description of him, but he desired to be worshiped like God. His was the sin of pride. He, it says, was the one who led the world astray.

He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

We do not know if she added that God said she shouldn’t touch the fruit or if Adam told her that to keep her far away. But up until this point, it had been a good deterrent.

 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Make note, that is the first lie told in the Bible. Also, make a note of John 8:44, Jesus said, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Father of Lies means the one who gave birth to the first lie. In this case, that is the serpent in the garden.

So, “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 (what?) with her, and he ate it.” Just to make it clear, Adam was also deceived by the serpent, he was right there with Eve.

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they realized they were naked; so, they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  Then the man and his wife heard the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

 Then the man answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (we hid!) And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Now, just to make it clear, God knows where they are hiding, and he knows what they have done. It is kind of like a mother staring at a child with cookie crumbs all over its face. She knows what the child has done, she just wants the child to admit it.

This is the part where scholars are mixed. Was the fall due to disobedience or by what happens next. Because if they just admitted it, since they were deceived, God could forgive them. But we never find out. Adam said, “The woman ‘You put here with me’—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” He is essentially blaming God and Eve.

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Again, no one really took responsibility for what happened. They passed the buck. But many scholars today suggest that Eve was the most honest.

Either way, trust with God was shattered and the Fall of Mankind was the result. Lucifer, the bright angel of God, was tossed out of heaven for interfering in and destroying God’s creation. And Adam and Eve would one day die, and suffering would plague the world.

The animals, the people and the earth itself was cursed, it tells us in Genesis 3:14-19. That sin would be passed down through every generation, it was like a computer virus that contaminates everything. We call that Original Sin.

Paul writes in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way, death came to all people, because all sinned.

Then in Romans 6:23 he writes, “The wages of sin is death.”

Sin always destroys. And there is only one way out of it. “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It was by his sacrifice on the cross, that we are redeemed. Not by our own power. Ephesians 1:6-7 reads, “To the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”

 While many thought Original Sin was outdated in John Wesley’s day, he continued to preach it in his sermon called ‘Original Sin’.  In the sermon, Wesley makes clear he understands human nature has been so thoroughly corrupted that we have no possibility of any goodness at all in ourselves – or in our patterns of thinking, apart from God’s grace intervening.

 He writes, “But was there not good mingled with the evil? Was there not light intermixed with the darkness? No; none at all: God saw that the whole imagination of the heart of man was only evil. It cannot indeed be denied, but many of them, perhaps all, had good leanings put into their hearts; for the Spirit of God did then also ‘strive with man,’ if happily he might repent … But still ‘in his flesh dwelt no good thing;’ all his nature was purely evil: It was wholly consistent with itself, and unmixed with anything of an opposite nature.”

Ouch! Wesley loves to throw around words like Good and Evil. But what does he really mean? Does he mean that people cannot do anything good? Surely we can. We do, don’t we? What he means is we can never save ourselves by working our way out of this mess. Only the grace and mercy of God will save us. But we must confess to God, repent and live according to his will.

Wesley concludes his sermon this way, “Know your disease! Know your cure! You were born in sin: Therefore, ‘you must be born again,’ born of God. By nature, you are wholly corrupted. By grace you shall be wholly renewed.

“In Adam you all died: In the second Adam, in Christ, you all are made alive. You that were dead in sins, but he has aroused you: He has already given you a principle of life, even faith in him who loved you and gave himself for you! Now, go on from faith to faith, until your whole sickness is healed; and then you will have the mind of Christ Jesus!'”

The Foundation of our faith and the coming of Christ is founded in the Fall of Mankind. We are sinners saved by grace. It may not be pretty, but it is the truth.

I want to end with this very short story. A new Bible teacher was trying to teach her class of small children about the nature of sin. But she hit a snag when he started telling them that we are all born in sin. Many of the children looked puzzled. So, she tried to define what sin meant. Finally, one little girl very seriously said, “I wasn’t born in sin. I was born in November.”

So, if you were born in November, this sermon doesn’t apply for you. (Just kidding!) We all Need Jesus. And the Good News is, He loves and wants to forgive us all. His word is his promise and his death and resurrection is the guarantee. Your price has been paid, you just need to call upon the Lord and confess, repent and begin a new life in Jesus.

Your assignment is, to read through and put up John 3:16-21 where you can reflect on it. The Light has come into the world, you have nothing but sin to lose and everything to gain.

May it be so,   Amen.

Born Again: A Brand New Start – Jan. 5, 2020

Timanthes of Cythnus was an ancient Greek painter in the 4th century BC who studied under a respected art teacher. After several years, the teacher’s efforts seemed to have paid off when Timanthes painted an exquisite work of art. Unfortunately, the student became so enraptured with the painting that he spent days gazing at it and gave up painting anything else.

So, one morning when he arrived to admire his work, he was shocked to find it blotted out with paint. Angry, Timanthes ran to his teacher to protest, at once, his teacher admitted he had destroyed the painting. “I did it for your own good. That painting was retarding your progress. Start again and see if you can do better.”

Timanthes sulked and complained but eventually took his teacher’s advice and later produced ‘Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, which is regarded as one of the finest paintings of antiquity. Playing on his own emotions of grief, Timanthes rendered a painting that depicted the anguish, sadness and sorrow of those about to witness a man being put to death by stoning.

While none of his original paintings have survived, a painting that incorporates his original work exists and is on display in Naples. His work is known through the writing of Pliny, who speaks of the artists’ great skill at depicting emotions like no other in his day. An insight brought on, only when he had to start over again.

Over the years, I have heard people talking about wanting to make a brand-new start. After High School, some of my friends moved to New York or California so they could make a clean break and start all over. They said they wanted to be in a place where no one knew their past.

Personally, I have never enjoyed the process of moving and having to re-establish my identification; switch mailing addresses, getting a new driver’s license, finding a new bank, ect.

Plus, it isn’t always easy to build new relationships from scratch. I suppose it would be ok if I were an extrovert, but I am not. So, going off the grid to get a new start seems radical to me.

Maybe it is the frustration and the desire to resist change that is most difficult for me. Take for instance, Cindy and I played the game ‘Trouble’ the other day. When the other player lands on your exact spot, they send your peg back to the home base. After making really good progress, only to start over again is frustrating.

In the movie “Up in the Air”, George Clooney plays a professional corporate downsizing expert named Ryan. Ryan and his partner are hired by big companies to come in and fire employees. It is also their job to help those being let go, to see the bright side of the situation.

As you may imagine, it would be a terrible difficult job. But Ryan was good at identifying factors that may make things easier. For instance, on one application he sees that Bob, left his job as a chef to work for a big company. So he asks, “What made you leave your dream job to work for a big company?”

“A large paycheck”, Bob answers. Then Ryan asked him, “But did it make you happy?”

He continues, “A lot of people take jobs that make them miserable, all for the money.

Maybe it is time for a re-start. Maybe it is time to pursue that dream that you left behind.” Bob thinks about it, then nods his head. Maybe this could be, for him, a chance to start over again.

I have to think that Nicodemus was more like me when it comes to change. In fact, experts tell us that only 2 out of 10 people see opportunity in starting over 8 out of ten prefer things to stay the same. Most people avoid drastic change in life. Yet Nicodemus must have seen something special in Jesus.

Our story takes place in John Chapter 3. Verse one begins, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. And he came to Jesus at night.” There is a lot of information here for us to break down. First, Nicodemus is called a Pharisee. They were a select group of men, never more than 6,000, who had taken a sincere vow before three witnesses, that they would devote every moment of their entire lives to studying and obeying the Ten Commandments, as a way of pleasing God.

It also says that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of 70 plus the High Priest, charged with the oversight and defense of their faith. So, it was his job to help the council provide guidance for the people in matters pertaining to God, worship and to challenge any who would seek to lead the nation astray.

Nicodemus was an expert in the law, a scribe, and a teacher. If you had a question, he was the final word, as to the truth of the word of Torah. Finally, just for one last bit of insight, Nicodemus in Greek means “Conqueror of the people”.

Next the Gospel of John says, “He came to visit Jesus at night.” There are several reasons why he might have made this late-night journey;

First, maybe he was afraid to identify himself with Jesus. Some might assume that be being seen with Jesus would mean he was endorsing him or his teachings. Something he was not ready to do.

Second, some scholars point out, that a late-night visit may not be a friendly visit. Legitimate conversations were to be held in the light of day, in their culture. Was this meant to be a challenge?

Third, others point out that the visit seemed to be prompted by Nicodemus’ curiosity. He had certainly heard about Jesus and now he wanted to see things for himself. The truth may actually be found in all three theories, as we will see when we look at this encounter.

Nicodemus speaks first, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miracles you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)

In this sentence, Nicodemus is speaking for more than himself, he said ‘WE’. We know that you are a teacher. Rabbi means great scholar or teacher. In particular, one who has come from God. Then he adds, “For no one could perform miracles or signs as you are doing unless God was with him.”

This may be his own interpretation because other Pharisees questioned or refuted Jesus’ relationship with God.  And so, there seems to be an opening for Jesus to explain himself, instead he changes the subject. He quickly shifts from his role as a miracle worker to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Why the sudden change of focus? What is happening here is; that Jesus is taking the focus off himself and turning it back on Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was saying, “We know that you are a great teacher when we saw your miracles.” Jesus is saying, “You are blind. You cannot see the work of the Kingdom of God, because you are not born of the spirit.” Clearly this upset Nicodemus, when we hear his reply,

“How can a man ‘be born’ when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second-time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Can you hear the sarcasm and anger? Some interpret this as if Nicodemus is confused by Jesus, but he is not. He is clearly upset. I will explain more in a minute. First, I want to deal with this topic, the kingdom of God.

Pharisees believed that when God gave us the 10 Commandments, His work was done. God gave us the Commandments and now it was our job to keep them. In essence, our salvation was in our hands. And they were experts at proclaiming and obeying the laws.

Jesus was saying that all your education, all that you have done since birth is not enough; you still need the work of the Kingdom of God, by way of the Spirit of God. But they believed that our destiny was pre-determined at birth and it could not be changed. This must have blown the mind of Nicodemus! To be re-born by the Spirit was a radical new concept.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

Again, there are several questions that arise here. The first is what does it mean to be born of water and the spirit? The second is what does it mean to be born again. And finally, what is the work of the Spirit here?

Many faiths interpret this passage as meaning we must be baptized by water, but that is not what Jesus is getting at here. Many people get baptized but it may not change their heart. That is because Baptism is an outward sign, that God is doing in inward regeneration. The change comes from God, not us. We do not get to heaven by our baptism.

In fact, scripture itself likens Baptism closer to death then birth. Colossians 2:12 reads, “Having been buried with him in baptism, we are raised with him through the power of faith in God, who raised him from the dead.”

In the Torah, water indicated cleansing and purifying. (2 Kings 5:13) So, by water and the spirit meant, we must be cleansed and transformed by a spiritual re-birth that was quite literally, out of our own hands. And the only way that happens is if we come humbly and seeking the will of God. 

The second question is, “What does it mean to be born again?” (John 3:3) A better interpretation would be, what does it mean to be born again from above. That is what it means in the Hebrew language.

As you might have guessed, this harkens back to what John the Baptist said about Jesus in Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

‘By fire and the spirit’ or ‘by water and the spirit’ is about a deeper cleansing of the soul. That is what Jesus brings by his death and resurrection that takes away the sin of the world. And it is fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, what then is the work of the Spirit? Surely, this must have been the hardest thing for Nicodemus to grasp. Even though the Spirit had been with God since the beginning, he was almost invisible; like the wind that blows where it will. And the fulness of the Spirit would not come, until Jesus ascended to heaven. The work of the Spirit brings us transformation and insight into the ways of God.

Naturally, “Nicodemus’ reply is, “How can this be?” (John 3:9)  “You are Israel’s teacher”, said Jesus, “And do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe, if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12)

Nicodemus was supposed to know the Torah inside and out. How could he miss that God was the creator in Genesis and that God can also re-create if he so chooses? It is not up to any person to limit the work of God. (they underestimated Him)

Jesus continued to teach Nicodemus, but we never see what the impact was on him at that time. Did he leave highly offended? Did he finally believe? All we know is that later, he shows up with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. (John 19:39-40)

Did Nicodemus ever hear Jesus teach, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?”  (Matthew 18:3)

One last thought about being born again from above or become like a child. While a baby is a new creation, a baby is not fully mature. To become born from above, then implies, that we will spend the rest of our lives discovering and developing what it means to be in the will of the Father. Each day as we pray, read scripture, and worship; we move closer to God and we mature as his beloved children. Our faith is a journey, not a destination. That is why being born again shouldn’t simply become a box we check off. And it shouldn’t be something we say to belittle others who do not know Jesus as Savior.

I want to end with this short story, one that is humorous but also enlightening. Listen,

An angry newspaper subscriber stormed into a reporter’s office and demanded an apology because he had been mistakenly put in the obituaries section of the paper. The reporter said, ”I never write retractions, but what I will do tomorrow is list you in the new birth column and give you a brand-new start.”

So, I want to ask you this morning, “Are you born again from above? You should know it by the fruits of the spirit, which are; Do you love Jesus with your whole heart, and are you pursuing the things of God? Do you love others as God has loved you and do you forgive?

John Wesley said, “That the New Birth is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life, when he raises us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness; that is the power of His Grace”.  

Let us pray, as we start this new year…Amen.