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Friday, 26 July 2019

Genesis 2 The Trees of Knowledge of Good and Evil and of Life

For the rest of the summer we’re going to be looking at trees found in the Bible. The Bible is full of trees: from the first chapter of the Bible until the very last chapter of the Bible, you find references to trees and plants and the gifts they give us. Trees are an important part of the cycle of life that God has embedded as part of creation. Trees contribute to their environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, climate enrichment, conserving water, preserving soil, and supporting wildlife. During the process of photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide and produce the oxygen we breathe. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” Trees, shrubs and turf also filter the air by removing dust and absorbing other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. After trees capture unhealthy particles, the rain washes them to the ground.
Trees also supply us with many things that make our lives better: tree sap that can be made into glorious syrup, bark for canoes and utensils, wood for building and other purposes, fruits and nuts for food, and beauty to enjoy, among other uses. In Genesis 2, creation is completed in all its vast array, and it’s very good. Now God plants a garden in the east, in a place called Eden. It’s a garden filled with trees that are pleasing to look at and good for food. Right in the middle of the garden, where they’ll always be noticed, God plants 2 more trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. This is where God places the man, it’s the first home for humanity and humanity’s task is to take care of the garden, to discover the potential in everything and then help it all to flourish and be everything God has created it to be. We have a deep relationship with creation, having been made from dirt and then formed by God’s own hand and then being told to care for it.
We discover in the garden that we’re not meant to be alone; so, God creates a woman from the rib of the man because God saw that the man was alone and it was not good. Relationships are key to our health and our flourishing and are important to God as well. His desire is to have deep relationships with us, but he doesn’t force himself on us. God gives Adam and Eve the opportunity to choose relationship with him by commanding the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” There’s a choice here, a test of obedience and trust, Adam and Eve are able to eat from any tree in the garden, free choice from any tree except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
It’s so easy, and yet proves to be so hard. The tree is good, it’s designed and created just as God intended. For the Jews, knowledge is less about knowing stuff with our heads, for them, knowledge comes from experience, from doing or not doing something. It’s like teaching your children that the stove top is hot when you’re cooking, they know it because you’ve said so, but it’s only after they’ve touched the hot stove top that they really know that it’s hot when you cook. This is the kind of knowledge the Jews hear about when God calls the tree the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The choice is to trust God that knowledge of evil through having done it, is not the best kind of knowledge for us, that God’s word is good enough. Yet it’s hard because we often learn best by doing, and the reality is that because we know evil through having done evil, we recognise it quickly. We still face the same issue today. We look at who God calls us to be, the limits he places on us and we question God’s limits and commands. We’re told that if it looks good and doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s fine and don’t worry about what God says, after-all, the Bible an ancient book and doesn’t really apply today. The question is: do we trust God and put our relationship with him first, or do we satisfy our desires at the possible cost of our relationship with God? God allows us to choose.
This story is about being faithful to God. God doesn’t want a relationship based on rules and religious rituals, as God says later through the prophet Hosea, For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.” Just like you want your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your spouse to stay faithful to you because the relationship is precious to you, in the same way, God wants you to see your relationship with him as precious too, he wants you to come to him and tell him that you want to follow him, to live like his child.
Satan uses the tree to test humanity’s commitment to God by casting doubt on God’s commitment to them. Satan offers Adam and Eve the opportunity to step out of a dependent relationship with God and become independent, to be their own gods. As Bob George writes, “Adam and Eve choose lie over life,” they choose a relationship with themselves rather than with God, which explains why there is so much loneliness today, because we’ve stepped back from our best relationship for much less. Adam and Eve choose death over life and this is why we need Jesus; he chooses death on the cross, taking our sin and dying for us so that we can have life through and in Jesus; a new life where our best relationship is being renewed again. Paul writes in Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
The wonderful thing is that there’s another tree in the garden, the tree of life is there, right beside the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Matthew Sleeth reminds us, “The tree of life is always here, right beside temptation—just to remind you. Beside every bad decision in life, there is a good alternative.” Adam and Eve are kicked out of Eden so they cannot eat from the tree of life and escape death. Can you image a creation where sinners could never die and we would simply drift further and further away from God forever? There would be no hope because the penalty for sin could never paid, we could never experience a relationship of love and grace with God again, there would be no salvation.
Jesus uses the image of a vine rather than a tree in John 15, Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” When Jesus describes himself as the vine, it reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 1, that when we walk through the woods, when we take a close look at the trees and vines and fruit and nuts, and birds nesting in the trees, that we see God, that we can recognize him through creation, through the trees and vines.
Trees and vines provide life to their branches, they’re the source of life for the branches, and the only way that the branches can produce fruit and abundance. In the same way, our life strength and nourishment come through Jesus. If you are feeling wilted and depressed, Jesus can revive you, bring you back to your feet again with strength and hope. He does this through many different ways: Scripture, preaching, friends and family, through creation itself as you walk through the woods or along a stream or river, or work in your garden, or sip a cup of coffee and allow the taste, aroma, and energy connect you to the life giving relationship with Jesus he’s calling you to.
Just like oak trees produce more oak trees and pine trees produce more pine trees, being connected to Jesus, the vine, produces followers who look like Jesus. As you leave here this morning, take a look down the tree lined street and let the beauty of the trees remind you of the beauty of Jesus and the life that we have being connected to him.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Jonah 4 Angry at God

Is there anyone you find it hard to forgive, because they’ve hurt you deeply and God seems to have let them get away with it? This morning we’re wrestling with two themes that run through the entire Bible, how God is a compassionate God and how God is a just God. Both compassion and justice are rooted in God’s love. It’s easy to see how compassion is rooted in love, but justice is also rooted in love; both for the one being hurt, but also for the one doing the oppressing because justice is about drawing them back to God and God’s will for their lives and for the society at large. Justice is meant to transform hearts.
Jonah preaches destruction to the people of Nineveh and Nineveh, led by their king, repents and God shows them grace and compassion. Now we see Jonah’s reaction to God’s grace, and while it’s easy to condemn Jonah for being so angry over God’s grace, yet I get it. It feels so wrong when those who do something horrible and evil are shown mercy and seem to walk away without any sort of consequences for the brokenness they’ve caused, even if they have said “sorry.”
Jonah prays to the Lord, basically challenging God, I told you so, Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah’s praying scripture, Exodus 34,The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” But Jonah fails to pray the second part of this passage, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Our God is a God of both compassion and justice.
We see this especially in Jesus, who on Palm Sunday, looks down on the city of Jerusalem and cries for the people there, the same people who less that a week later will unjustly crucify him. Jesus, even while weeping over the people, takes their injustice and sins on himself, and pays the penalty for our sin on the cross because God is a just God and there needs to be justice done for sin and evil. In Jesus, compassion and justice come together and brings us new life, new beginnings for those who accept Jesus. We are connected to Jesus in his resurrection.
The Lord comes back to Jonah and asks, Is it right for you to be angry?” God intends for the answer to be “No,” because who can tell God what he should or should not do, yet Jonah’s unspoken answer is, “For sure it’s right to be angry, and you should be too because these people you’re showing mercy to are evil and hurt your people!” Jonah gives God a chance to carry through on his judgment of Nineveh by camping out east of Nineveh to watch God destroy them like he had promised. I get it. I’ve walked with way too many people who’ve been hurt deeply, so deeply it completely changed their lives, changed who they are, and then watched their abuser walk away free with a slap on their wrist, or even worse, with no consequences at all. Movements like #metoo or #churchtoo are so powerful, because they speak to a lack of justice, a failure for society to take into consideration the one who has been hurt. Hurt people need to see some form of justice done in order to find some healing in themselves. To be honest, wouldn’t it give you a tiny bit of pleasure to see justice done to Nineveh?
God shows Jonah a little grace by providing a plant to give Jonah a little shade. I always think of Jonah as being a grumpy old guy, but this plant actually makes him very happy, maybe even bringing a smile to his face, but that joy is short lived as the Lord then sends a worm to eat away at the plant and it dies, leaving Jonah unprotected again from the beating sun. God seems to have a bit of an in-your-face sense of humour here, setting Jonah up for disappointment. Jonah’s response is, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” This is the second time that as soon as something doesn’t go his way, Jonah’s response is, “Let me die, life isn’t worth living if I don’t get what I want.” Not only won’t God show justice to Nineveh and destroy the, now he takes away his compassion from Jonah, at least this is how Jonah experiences God’s action.
God asks Jonah, Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah doubles down on his whine with, “It is. And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Think about this, Jonah cares more about a plant that he didn’t plant, water or take care of over living breathing people, including children. God now asks Jonah, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” They may be enemies of Israel, but they are still people, all who are also created in the image of God, even if they don’t know it, this is what God means when he says they don’t know their right hand from the left; they’re ignorant about who he is.
Israel hears this story and challenge, and it’s a story of hope because God is a compassionate God, but also a just God who demands that they turn back to him. Israel is not as different from Nineveh as they claim; the rich and powerful in Israel also oppress the poor, the widows and those who were vulnerable, and God sends prophet after prophet to keep calling them back to him. The reality is that we so often hurt people because we go through life with a me-first attitude that comes so naturally. How many people are waiting for us to experience justice for the things we’ve done?
The story ends here with no answer from Jonah. I wonder how long he sits there waiting for Nineveh’s destruction before heading home. We’re still left with this question of how does compassion and grace fit together. God is complex, we don’t easily understand who he is. Sometimes he blesses the believer and punishes the pagans and other times he blesses the pagans and punishes the believers. Sometimes the punishment for injustice is quick and harsh, other times there’s unexpected grace. God’s not just a God of wrath or love, but as one woman in a Tim Keller Bible study notes, he’s both!
Jesus calls us into a deep and difficult faith. Hear who he calls us to be in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is easy to teach and say; it’s so hard to live out.
Jonah couldn’t, many people I’ve walked with who have been deeply hurt find it extremely difficult to live this out as well. I find it hard to tell the person who has been hurt to work on forgiving, it seems wrong to put that on the victim, and yet in forgiving, there is healing and we become more like Jesus in doing so. This is why Jesus calls those of us "who are weary and burdened, to come to him, and I will give you rest. take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your sols. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." The reality is that we can’t forgive in our own strength, we can't find healing in ourselves, we need the help of the Holy Spirit to forgive and show grace to those who’ve hurt us deeply. It’s also important that while we practice forgiveness, we also hold others accountable for their actions, for it’s not love to let people get away with hurting others, it is love to make sure they experience the consequences of their actions, but with the goal that they might be transformed, that their character becomes shaped by Jesus as they learn to love instead of hurt.
This is about our character, about who Jesus is shaping us to be. We find healing and rest in Jesus and as we find healing, Jesus helps us to forgive, even as we hold others accountable for who they are and what they’ve done. God will also hold them accountable for their actions. Compassion and justice can come together, but in a messy world, it can only be done through Jesus.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Jonah 3 Unexpected Grace

Jonah’s had quite a journey, running west instead of heading east, encountering a great storm and ending up inside the belly of a fish for three days. Just in case you wonder if this is really possible, the Smithsonian website mentions that “Sperm whales sometimes swallow squid whole, so it could definitely manage a human. In fact, there’s a story of a sailor being swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands in the early 1900s.” But Jonah’s story is not about the fish, it’s actually about people who have been so violent and evil that the cries of their victims rose to heaven and now the Lord is about to punish them, which is why he sends Jonah to let them know that they’re going to be destroyed in 40 days.
This is the first unexpected sign of grace, as the Lord doesn’t give up on Jonah, but offers him another opportunity to do what the Lord’s called him to do. Jonah doesn’t deserve the Lord’s grace, after-all he deliberately turns his back on God and rejects God, but God is persistent in both his call and his grace. So finally, after discovering that he can’t run away from the Lord, Jonah obeys the word of the Lord and heads to Nineveh. Grace is a big theme in the Bible and we see it time and again in Jesus’ life. There’s the Samaritan woman he meets at a well. She’s an outsider because of her life history and style, but Jesus treats her like a person and she responds by becoming his first evangelist, sharing his grace with everyone else in her village and many become followers of Jesus. Then there’s the woman caught in adultery; the men of the city are ready to stone her for her lifestyle, but Jesus shows her grace and protects her. When everyone leaves, he lifts her up and calls her to sin no more while showing grace, acceptance and forgiveness.
The thing about grace is that it’s powerful and can soften the hardest hearts, but at the same time, we can accept grace and still remain stubborn hard unchanged people. J.I. Packer writes, “God’s grace becomes wonderous, endlessly consoling, beautiful, and humbling only when we fully believe, grasp, and remind ourselves of all three of these background truths—that we deserve nothing but condemnation, that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves, and that God has saved us, despite our sin, at infinite cost to himself.” It’s only when we realize just what Jesus gave up for us by going to the cross and taking our sin on himself, that we begin to experience the wonder of God’s forgiveness and grace and are transformed. This is the beginning of gratitude shaping us and our lives so that we also become streams of grace flowing out into our communities and the people in our lives.
Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, a great city that takes three days to go through. Jonah heads into the city a day’s journey and preaches his message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” I may be guessing here, but knowing how much Jonah hates Nineveh, I’m thinking Jonah is enjoying preaching this message of doom to Israel’s enemies. Yet, as we’ll see next week, Jonah also knows that God is also a gracious and compassionate God and there is always a chance that things might not turn out the way he wants.
Then the unexpected happens, pagan Nineveh, violent Nineveh’s king hears the warning and actually takes it seriously, coming down off his throne, putting on itchy rough sackcloth as a sign of repentance, and sits humbly in the dust, making himself small before God. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Now remember that this story is being told to the Israelites, God’s people who have walked away from him over and over again, people whom God is getting ready to send into exile because they won’t obey his laws, and now they hear that their greatest enemy repents and listens to the Jewish God. This is meant to be a slap in the face to the Jews to wake up and repent and come back to God.
Nineveh’s only hope is that God will show mercy and grace to them. This is our only hope as well. Maybe we haven’t killed anyone, or oppressed anyone to the point where they cry out in desperation to God, but we all sin each and every day and there’s no way we can make things right with God. We depend on God’s grace found in Jesus who came to take our sin on himself and pay the price for our disobedience on the cross and rose from the grace after defeating death itself, all so that we can experience new life, and that we might show the world who Jesus is through our words and lives.
God is seeking change, seeking justice in Nineveh, for the people to change their violent and unjust ways. God desires societies and cultures to promote justice and righteousness. We are called to create communities where women and men, youth and children are able to flourish and discover their gifts and then be encouraged to use these gifts to help make the community a better stronger place for everyone. Time and again, God sends prophets to call his people to take care of the orphans, the widows, the foreigner among them, to protect the helpless and to be generous and gracious to them.
God’s not looking for us to say the right words or do the correct rituals in order to be saved, he’s calling us to the right kind of life and heart, as Isaiah 58:6–7 reminds us, Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
In our profession of faith classes, we watched a series of videos called For the Life of the World. These videos explored difference aspects of life and made us think about what living out our faith today looks like. Our faith is not a gift given to us to simply get us into heaven, our faith is given to us so that we can be a gift to the world, that we can bring harmony into all the areas of life, a harmony that sings with God’s voice into all corners of our world, shaping our world so it looks like Jesus’ prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The people of Nineveh join their king in repenting and turning from their evil ways. The question then becomes, how is God going to respond? “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” God shows Israel’s enemy unexpected grace and mercy. This is a grace offered to you, to everyone who believes in Jesus, who trusts in him alone for their salvation and who desire to live in obedience to Jesus, willing to be transformed by Jesus through his grace. I’ve worked with many people who believe that Jesus can’t forgiven them because their past was so messed, their sin was way much too horrible to ever be forgiven. They believe this because of the guilt they feel and they can’t forgive themselves, but God looks at us through his son Jesus who makes us right with God, who takes our sin on himself so we can experience new life again. This is grace, unexpected grace.
This is a grace that Jonah can’t understand and doesn’t want to see, a grace that seems too much to offer the enemies of God’s people. It’s a grace that is simply pure gift, pure God.