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Let me tell you a story. It is not a funny story, but it is an important one. It might help you to understand why I am so bull headed and independent. When I went to seminary, I did not go to Moravian Theological Seminary, though I would today. I went to Asbury Theological Seminary near Lexington, Kentucky. I went there because I wanted to please my dad. Their hero at Asbury is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism; and Asbury is a Wesleyan-Arminian Seminary. Immediately after I arrived at Asbury, and embraced that ethos, I told my dad about it, thinking it would please him. My dad said to me, “Well, that is all well and good, but I am a Calvinist.” This put me in a difficult position. I wanted to please people. I wanted to please my dad—he was the reason I choose Asbury, and I also wanted to please my teachers and my fellow students at Asbury seminary. I found that I could not do both, as both my father and the teachers and students at Asbury took their theology very seriously.

Then I met Dr. Robert Lyon, a professor of New Testament at Asbury. Though Bob had to whisper it, especially within the confines of the seminary, he asked his students to take a different approach to reading the Bible. He told us not begin with a doctrinal approach. He told us to, “Have a high view of Scripture, trust it, and follow it where it leads.” We all have presuppositions when we approach scripture, and Dr. Lyon talked about them. He told us that people believe in Jesus Christ for the sake of the Bible. This is a scholastic approach. The problem with the scholastic approach is that if we find one error in scripture the whole approach collapses. We spend all our time defending the Bible. He told us that other people believe in the Bible for the sake of Jesus Christ. He said this is a relational approach, and it is the approach he saw in the scripture. People in the New Testament believed in Jesus long before the gospels were written down. Most of us believe in Jesus because of the witness of our parents, or of some friend, and only later do we begin to read Scripture, and work out our doctrine of scripture.

If we simply trust the scripture and follow it where it leads, we discover some marvelous things. Take for instance, the Six Days of Creation that we read about in the first creation story of Genesis. When I went to seminary, my grandmother told me that if I gave up the idea that God created the world in six literal days, logically, I had to give up all of Scripture. I could not trust it. I still hear fundamentalist preachers say this all the time. It is simply not true, for if we approach scripture without the presuppositions of a certain theology, that statement conflicts with the facts. Let me demonstrate.

First, consider the word “day.” The Hebrew word day does not always mean a day of 24 hours. It often simply means “a unit of time.” So, too, in 2nd Peter 3:8, we read that with God, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The truth is, if we believe that God is the Unmoved Prime Mover behind the Big Bang, then we can say that with God, a day is like more than a billion of our years, and several billion of our years is like, well, a minute, or even a second, in the life of God. As Christians we believe that God is eternal. God lives in eternity where time is meaningless. The Bible teaches that time is a part of creation—the sun and moon are created for signs, for seasons, for days, and for years.” (Genesis 1:14) According to the Genesis story, time, like everything else, was created for the sake of humankind. God understood that we human beings would need a sense of progress.

Now consider a few details of the creation story itself. When we read the first story of creation, in Genesis 1:1-2:4, we see that on the first day, God separated the light from the darkness, and morning and evening were the first day. Now this is interesting because the sun and moon—by which we get our light, were not created until day four. Now, if we trust the scripture, and take it seriously, we who live in the 21st century know immediately that the story in Genesis is not meant to be a scientific account of creation. If it were science, there would be a sun and moon before there was light on the earth. So where does that leave us. Some will think, “Oh, if this creation story is not science, it must be poetry. It is a beautiful, poetic account of creation.” That, I think, is an equally big mistake. The text of the first story of creation is more than poetry. It is theology, which is the study of God, and, I believe the queen of the sciences. We know it is theology because it names God 35 times in 34 verses. Now if this creation story is theology, what does it tell us about the sun and the moon? It tells us first and foremost that they are a part of the creation. This was explosive news for some of the first people who heard these stories told or read. Remember, the ancient peoples that surrounded Israel, whether the Egyptians or the Canaanites, worshiped the sun and the moon as gods. Yet, this story said to them, “The sun and moon are not gods. They are certainly important. One rules the day, and the other the night. but the sun and moon, like everything else, is just part of God’s creation.”

The primary emphasis of the first creation story of Genesis is to insist that God is the creator of all things, and that mankind is the apex of God’s creation. In the first creation story God made “adam” with a little “a,” meaning, “mankind” in God’s own image. The text declares, “in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Last week we saw that whatever else this means, it must mean that God gave human beings a measure of the Divine freedom. The animals are ruled by their instincts. We are not. We can go north in the winter. We can choose between right and wrong. God even gave us the freedom to disobey God.

The second story of creation is not just about the creation, it is about things as they are. (See Note: Theodicy) It is not science, and it is not poetry, it is theology. It attempts to explain why the world is like it is, and it roots those things in the attitudes and actions of three important players.

First there is Adam, meaning the man, the first man. Then there is the man’s helper made for him by God. Adam said, “I will call her woman, for she was taken out of man.” Many women do not like this story for in this story women are made subject to men. This story did not create that situation. It is just the way that it was. Men were stronger than women. A woman needed a man’s protection. It was a man’s world, and it would be for thousands of years to come. In the New Testament Jesus lifted the station of women, but that did not last. By the time 1st Timothy was written we read: (See Note on 1st Timothy)

12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Churches, who do not let women teach, or serve of church boards, take this text and other like it at face value. Moravians have women pastors, and teachers, and bishops, and elders, because we set these texts over against Galatians 3:27-28 and find them wanting. There we read:

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

According to the story, Adam was the first to be created, but in my mind it was the woman who took leadership in this first family. Eve was a smart cookie. Eve was wise enough to let her husband think he was in charge, and Eve was smart enough and sexy enough to get her husband to do what ever she wanted him to do.

Eve was smarter than Adam, and more ambitious, too,  but Eve was not as smart as she thought she was, for the serpent, who is the third major character in this story, deceived her.

The serpent deceived Eve with a lie. The serpent convinced Eve that God did not have our best interest at heart. First, the serpent misdirected her. He asked, “Did God tell you not to eat of any of the trees in the Garden?” Eve answered:

“We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

Then the Serpent told an out and out lie, the first recorded in Scripture. He said, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve saw that the tree is a delight to the eyes, and good for food, and desired to make one wise, so she ate, and she gave some of the fruit to her husband and he ate.

And the world changed. Suddenly the first pair knew that they no longer lived in a perfect world of carefree freedom. To this point they had been naked and not ashamed. That is no longer true. Their eyes have suddenly been opened, and for the first time they see their nakedness. In response to this change, they fashioned clothes for themselves from leaves, and they hid themselves from God, in the garden.

We cannot hide from God. God knows when we rise up and when we lie down. He discerns our thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139) We cannot hide, and neither, according to the second story of creation, could Adam and Eve. The first pair was transparent before God. God made a visit to them, and God said to Adam, “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Like men everywhere—remember, this story is about things as they are, the man tried to pass the buck. He said, “The woman whom you gave me to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) (See Note: The Woman Also Passes the Buck)

And you know the rest of the story. You know that God pronounced a judgment on the man and on the woman and on the serpent. These judgments handed down by God do not give us any new information about how things are for us, but they offer an explanation, albeit not a final explanation, of “why” things are the way that they are. Consider the punishments:

The man is punished through work. God cursed the ground and tells the man that he will eat his bread in the sweat of his brow. I do not regard my work as a punishment. I am among the fortunate few whose work and vocation go hand in hand. I am one of those whom Thomas Carlyle had in mind when he said, “Blessed is he who has found his work, let him ask no other blessedness.” But the truth is that for the vast majority of humankind, work is a terrible drudgery. If you don’t believe this, you have never pulled tobacco, dug ditches for Shutt Hartman Construction Company, or worked a double shift in a cotton mill.

The woman is punished through child bearing. A man may work hard, but no labor of man is harder than a woman’s labor. The author of 1st Timothy says that a woman is redeemed through bearing children, if she will continue in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty. When we talk about the sexual revolution brought about by birth control, we highlight the negative consequences, sexual promiscuity and the spread of sexual transmitted diseases. We forget that birth control has been God’s gift for many married women, because thanks to birth control they are no longer forced to bear child after child, simply to satisfy their husband’s sexual appetites. There is a new option. This is a recent development in our world that still benefits just a tiny minority of women. In this regard, I think the Pope should get on with the game!

The serpent is punished by having to crawl in the dust all his days, and God puts enmity between humankind and serpent kind. I know all about this enmity. I know snakes have an important role to play in our world, but as a rule I hate snakes, and I am reasonably sure that snakes feel pretty much the same about me. I once stepped down off a log onto the back of a Timber Rattler that was as big around as my arm. They say white men can’t jump, don’t you believe  them. And don’t believe that snakes are slow, either. By the time I came down, he was in the next county. Of course, the serpent of Genesis stands for more than serpent kind. If you take this talking serpent too literally, you miss the point altogether. The author Revelation identifies “the ancient Serpent” as the devil and Satan. (Revelation 20:12) Likewise, Jesus identifies the snake with the devil. In John 8:44 he calls the devil, “a liar and the father of lies.” It is a clear reference to the snake. It does this story a disservice to take it too literally. We know that Satan is much more than a talking snake that is still forced to crawl on his belly all the days of his life. In 1st Peter 5:8 we read that Satan goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Scarier still, in 2nd Corinthians 11:14, St. Paul says that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. That means that the very thing that promises good to us, frequently delivers evil.

Finally, I would mention that the man and the woman are expelled from the garden, and forbidden to re-enter. God put an angel with a flaming sword at the gate of the garden, paradise, to keep out the man, and the woman, and all their children after them, including you and me.

The Bible never uses the word “fall.” Nevertheless, theologians of every stripe and persuasion, Wesleyan and Calvinist, liberal and conservative, say that this second story of creation is really the story of humankind’s fall into sin.

Last week we saw that mankind is like the animals, we are finite, creatures of dust. “From the dust we have come, and to the dust we will return.” Yet mankind is also made in the image of God, and like God we posses a measure of freedom and choice. This dual nature means that we live in a halfway house, halfway between the animals and God. We struggle to live in this halfway house. We can’t stand being part finite, and part free. We are constantly trying to breakout. There are two ways out. Sometimes we deny that we were made in the image of God, and we throw ourselves out the door of our animal nature. We give in to sex and lust and the desires of the eye, like Jack Kerouac who’s goal in life was to sleep with 1,000 women. Sometimes we throw ourselves out the door of freedom. We pretend that our freedom is absolute, and greater than it is. A good example of this is Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is destitute, and he kills the old pawnbroker for her gold because he regards himself as superior to her—he is a great man who will do charitable things with her money. On a larger scale, this is what Hitler did when he convinced the German people that Aryans were a superior people who deserved to prosper and flourish, and that Jews were an inferior people who deserved to be exterminated. This is what some American militia did in 1792 when they smashed the heads of 96 Christian Delaware Indians at Gnadenhutten like pumpkins, and laughed to see their brains spill out. Some will say, “Some of those Indians fought on the side of the British.” This did not justify the killing of 28 men, 29 women and 39 children.

The fall is certainly a fall down into sin, and sin is more than an action. Sin is a power. Sin lures us. Sin snares us. Sin compels us. That is what St. Paul is getting at in Romans 7:15 when he writes, “I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It is impossible to overestimate the power of sin. Likewise, it is impossible to overestimate the spread of the infection. The late Herbert Weber, my first Senior Pastor, once told me that the one Christian doctrine that Christians and non-Christians agreed upon was the doctrine of universal sin! “None is righteous, no not one!”

The fall is a terrible thing—but there is some good in the worst of things. On the plus side, according to Eric Fromm, the fall of Genesis is also a fall upward, into self-awareness, reason, and imagination. Before humankind could make progress we had to know that we were naked. Our shame before God and our weakness before the elements, the wind, the rain, the cold, the heat, compelled us to use the minds God gave us to make progress in the world. Necessity is the mother of invention, especially when it is cold outside.

Now let me quit this section with a caution. Some people say that Adam and Eve possessed eternal life until they disobeyed God. The Genesis story itself does not say that. In this story Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they never ate from the Tree of Life. In point of fact God barred Adam and Eve from the garden “lest they eat of the Tree of Life.” Even a very conservative approach to the text, if it is honest, recognizes this. Oswald Chambers, the author of “My Utmost for His Highest,” put this into perspective. He said that Adam and Eve possessed the potential for Eternal Life, for God created them with the potential for holiness without which no one shall see God. “It was their task, “ he wrote “to transform (untested) innocence, into (true, tried and tested) holiness, through a series of moral choices, but they failed.”

Likewise, some people say that we die because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus never mentions this, but in Romans 5 St. Paul assumes it to be at least partially true. Even so, Paul steadfastly refuses to lay all the blame on Adam, the first and archetypical man. He put some of it on each of us and on all of us. In Romans 5:12 Paul says: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”

People ask me if I believe in the fall. I not only believe in it, I participated in it. I well remember the day I stole a box of Diamond Brand stick-matches from my grandmother’s kitchen on Cotton Street, and lighted a fire in the back alley of her house. I directly disobeyed my mother, and broke the 4th commandment. It is the first sin I remember, though I am sure that there were others before. It does not matter. I am solid in Adam. I am under the sway of sin and death. If I had been in the garden in place of Adam, I would have done as he did. There is only one who, “…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human form, became obedient unto death, even death of the cross. “ (Philippians 2) Jesus Christ was the last Adam (1st Corinthians 15), and the only way to escape our solidarity in Adam is to join ourselves to him in faith become solid in Him.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Note: Theodicy

Theodicy is an attempt to vindicate the goodness of God. Genesis transfers the blame for death and every hurtful thing from God to man. It is an answer, but not the only answer. In my view this answer is not nearly so satisfactory as the idea that in the Cross of Christ, God suffers with his people, and, in the resurrection of Christ, God gives us hope. Brunner has the Genesis story and the Cross in view when he says that the best answser for theodicy is not an intellectual one, but a redemptive one.

Note: The Woman Passes the Buck

The woman also passes the buck. Thus we read, “13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.’”

Note: 1st Timothy

It is my conviction that the pastoral epistles were written by a disciple of Paul incorporating genuine remembrances by Paul, but they are obviously set in a later time frame, when the church had become as much an organization as an organism, having bishops (and elders) and deacons.

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I received an email from Judy Gatewood that forms a perfect bridge from the sermons on Humor, to the sermons on the Heroes of Faith. It purports to be “a reading from Genesis.” I have been unable to find it there, perhaps you can. Judy quotes:

And God promised men that submissive and obedient wives would be found in all corners of the earth. Then God made the earth round. And God laughed and laughed and laughed.

We begin this series on the Heroes of Faith with a pair of anti-heroes, or villains, named Adam and Eve. In a real sense, all the heroes of the Bible are in a fight against Adam and his partners, and I use that word, “partners,” advisedly. Perhaps you remember the comic strip Pogo, written by the late Walt Kelly. It was Pogo who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is good theology. It means that no amount of interference and temptation from the outside is a powerful as the interference and temptation we partners of Adam have in our own hearts.

The senior partner in all crime against God is Adam.

Adam has two meanings in Hebrew. On the one hand “adam” means humankind, and it reminds us that humankind was taken “from the earth.” On the other hand, “Adam” is also a name, like “Adam Smith,” or “Adam Cartwright.” When someone in the Bible uses the name Adam they may be referring to a single individual, or to the whole race of man, or to both. For instance, when St. Paul refers to the man Adam, he refers to him as the representative of the whole human race. Thus in 1st Corinthians 15:22 the apostle says:

22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

According to St. Paul you and I are either in Adam, which means that we are a part of sinful humanity, and partners in crime against God. Or, we are “in Christ,” which means that our sins are forgiven, and we have received the promised Holy Spirit by which we were sealed against the day of Redemption. (Ephesians 4:30) The day of Redemption is that day on which all God’s promises to us will become a reality, including eternal life. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of being in Christ, for, as Paul writes in In 1st Corinthians 15:45:

“The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam (Jesus Christ) became a life-giving spirit.

Lets talk about the Creation for a minute.

Many times we speak of the story of Creation as if there was only one. By my count, there are more than half-a-dozen creation stories in the Bible. My two personal favorites are in the New Testament.

In John 1:1-3 we read:

“1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. ”

This means that Jesus Christ is co-creator with God.

Then in Colossians 1:15 we read:

“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”

“He” refers to Jesus Christ. I love that all things were created “in him,” whether visible or invisible. We might easily translate that all things were created in Christ whether known, or unknown. We don’t know all we want to know about our world and its creation, but we know that each bit of new knowledge we gain fits easily into the character of God as revealed “in Jesus Christ.”

There are two creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis, and each compliments the other.

The first story of creation is found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. The heart of this story is found in Genesis 1:27-28. It records the events of the 6th day of creation.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

There are two things I would have you to note.

Note that man is created. In this regard we are like the animals. We are creatures of the earth. We are finite. We live in one time and in one place, and our lives are marked by birth and death.

Note that man was not just created, but created in the image of God. We share the divine life. For almost three thousand years believers have debated what it means to be created in the image of God. It cannot mean that we look like God. We are flesh and bone, and in John 4:24 Jesus himself said, “God is Spirit.” It cannot mean that we have God abilities. We are weak. God is strong. The Bible teaches God is all-knowing, and all-powerful, and all-over. I believe that the fact that we are made in the image of God means that we posses a measure of the Divine freedom. The animals are ruled by instinct, but human beings are seldom left without a choice. The animals go south in the winter according to their instinct. We can travel north in winter. We can do right, or we can do wrong. Victor Frankel says there is one freedom that can never be taken from us: The freedom we have to choose how we respond to what life dishes out to us. Just this week a man facing a risky cancer surgery said to me, “If I wake up after the surgery and see the face of my wife, I know I will be o.k., and if I wake up and see the face of Jesus, I know I will be o.k.” That is a profoundly Christian Response. He has been freed from the fear of sin and death.

The 2nd story of creation is found in Genesis 2:4-3:24. According to the 2nd story of creation, God created a single individual by the name of “Adam,” or “the man.” God created Adam from the dust of earth, and breathed into him the breath of life. Once more we see that man is created like the animals, but we breathe the very breath of God. God made Adam, and then God put Adam in a garden, and told him to tend and keep it. Then, in an attempt to find a helper for “the man” God made the animals. In the first story, man is created after the animals. In this story the animals are created after man. There is no real contradiction. The first declares God saved the best for last, that man is the apex of creation The second story declares that man is preeminent. It is all the same. . In either case we are “the apple of God’s eye.”

As God made the animals from the dust of the earth, God invited the man to name the animals. The first task of science is naming things, so Adam can be said to be both a gardener (or a farmer) and a scientist. According to Genesis 2:17-18 the man gave names to the beasts of the field, and to the birds of the air, and everything else; but he did not find a fit helper.

The man was lonely, and disappointed, but God took pity on him. According to the story, God made a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he was asleep, God took one of the man’s ribs, and God used that rib to make a woman. When the man woke up and saw what God had done he said:

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.

When I was in 4th Grade at South Park School, WTOB Radio used to play a song that folded the two stories of creation together. Gene McDaniels sang it. It went:

HE took a hundred pounds of clay, and he said, “Hey listen!”
I am going to fix this world today, because I know what’s missin’.
Then he rolled his big sleeves up, and a whole new world began,
He created a woman, and—-lots of loving’ for a man.

In this act of creating human beings, male and female, God adds the possibility of human love to the reality of divine love, which God has always showered upon us.

God also introduces the concept of marriage. The Bible does not tell how the first pair married. There was no preacher, and no justice of the peace. Some say that God presided at the wedding. All we know is that Adam declares the woman to be “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” and then, the next verse declares:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife,
and the two become one flesh.

Flesh is important. It is worth nothing that in scripture marriage is always about a physical union, for the physical affects everything. Though the physical union can be broken, as in death or in divorce, the psychological and spiritual union that grows out of the physical union stays with us. In most marriages, this union becomes visible in the children that are born to the union. Truly, in marriage, two people, a man and a woman, become one flesh. Once we have sexually joined ourselves to another that other becomes a part of us forever. Young people thinking about rushing into sex should think about this.

This is another prime example of the way the Bible works. The Bible starts off talking about the first pair, the man and the woman, Adam and Eve, and then it starts talking about all men, and all women, even us, for the verse about “leaving” and “cleaving” it is written in the present tense, and all husbands and all wives are “one flesh.” This allows me to make a key point.

When we read about Adam and Eve we are reading about our selves. The story of creation of Adam and Eve is the story of our creation. The Bible tells this story in language that so pure and simple that even a child can understand it. However it would be a mistake to think of these stories as simplistic. These stories are not simplistic; they are the simplicity that lies on the far side of all complexity. They represent a timeless simplicity that will never be challenged or changed by the latest scientific discovery.

Does this mean that these stories are anti-science? I don’t think so. Let me see if I can draw it out.

First put yourself in the place of the people who first heard these stories. They were not schooled in science and technology. They lived more than 2,000 years before Copernicus, Galileo, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Thomas Alva Edison, Steve Jobs, or any other scientists or technologist we can name. By the standards of today, the people who first heard these stories were a part of humankind when humankind was still in its age of adolescence. Remember, High School students of today know more about the world we live in than Ph.D.’s of the 19th century. The gap between the adults of today, and adults of 3,000 years ago is even greater.

Now put yourself in the place of God for a moment. God knew that these stories would be read and told for thousands of years—almost three thousand already. God knew that these stories had to be told in such a way that they would be meaningful for people who assumed that the world was flat, and the sky just a dome that separated the earth from the heaven that was inhabited by God, and equally meaningful for people who would look at the limitless universe through a Hubble Telescope, and travel to the moon. In other words, these stories, inspired by God, had to be told in such a way as to appeal to young children, and to sophisticated adults including, engineers, and doctors, and scientists.

A distinguished scientist, and a devout Christian, once came to me and told me he was having a hard time relating his faith—which he said was firm, to the creation stories of Genesis. I knew his faith. He had survived the death of his first wife, the Second World War, and the death of a son. I knew his science. He had held a prominent position.

I told him that there did not have to be any conflict between his science and his faith. I explained like this.

I said, “Suppose you have to write a letter to a fellow scientists. You could assume a certain level of knowledge and use a specialized vocabulary could you not?” He said that he could. I continued, “Well, suppose you have to write a letter on the same subject to the eleven or twelve year old son of that scientist. Could you use the same vocabulary, and assume the same level of knowledge?”

“Of course not,” he said, “I would have to write to the level of the boy’s understanding.”

I asked him a final question. I asked, “If you were writing one letter to the scientist and to his son to what level would you write?”

He gave the answer I knew he would. He said, “I would write to the level of the son, knowing that the father could understand it, too.”

That is precisely what God did when God inspired holy men of old, moved by the Holy Spirit, to give us the creation stories of the Bible. God caused those stories to be told in language that is as sublime as it is simple. These stories speak to all people of all ages, whether an adults or a children. And these stories speak to people of all centuries, the 10th century B.C., or the 21st Century A.D.

I think I can make my point from scripture. In 1st Corinthians 13, St. Paul writes a commentary on our Christian knowledge of salvation. I think it also applies to knowledge in general. I think it certainly applies to the story of creation. The Apostle writes:

9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

What does all this mean? It means that we don’t know everything about our world, or even about our salvation, but each time we discover something new we can be sure it fits “in Christ.” More importantly, we know that even before God created the first Adam, he already had the Last Adam in view, and our ultimate destiny is not to be partners in the rebellion against God with the first Adam, and all who are solidly in union with him, but to enjoy God’s forgiveness, and the life of the Spirit, find our true destiny in the Last Adam, that is, in Jesus Christ.


Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Image “Adam and Even Driven from the Garden” from Dore Biblical Illustrations available at the Guttenberg Press and in the Public Domain.

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What the Bible Has to Say about Our Grins and Giggles

The story is told about a bagpiper who was hired by a funeral home to play for the funeral of a homeless and friendless man. The burial was to take place in a pauper’s grave, way out in the sticks. The piper was lost several times over. When he finally arrived at the graveside, late, the hearse was gone, and only the gravediggers remained. Looking down into the grave, he saw that the top of the vault had already been put into place. Feeling very badly because he had missed the service, he did what he could. He started to play. He played a series of mournful tunes, and then he played “Amazing Grace.” As he did, the gravediggers started to sing. When the gravediggers started to sing, he started to cry. Tears rolled down his face. Soon the gravediggers began to cry, too. It was a marvelous, magical, grace filled moment. When the piper finished playing he walked away from the grave with a full heart, knowing he had done the right thing. Just before he opened the door of his car, he heard one of the gravediggers remark, “I have never seen anything like that, and I have been installing septic tanks for twenty years.”

It was W.C. Fields who said, “We know what makes people laugh.”

Last week we looked at two things that make people laugh.

First, we saw that people laugh at the incongruous. We laugh at things that aren’t supposed to fit together, like snakes that trade frogs for whiskey and a piper playing bagpipes over installation of a septic tank. Then we took a close look at the very first written record of laughter, as it appears Genesis 17 and 18. The Bible declares that when the Lord God told old man Abraham and old woman Sarah that they were going to have a child they laughed. First they laughed at the thought of having sex and a child. They laughed at God; then they laughed with God, for they laughed for joy when God kept his promise to give them a son. They named the boy, “Isaac,” which means, “he laughs,” or “he will laugh.” And I will bet Isaac did laugh, too, as soon as he was old enough to learn of his miraculous birth.

Isaac’s name leads us to a second reason people laugh. Laughter is a spontaneous expression of joy, and we experience joy when we sincerely believe that we have gained something. Thus, a man who has been without a job laughs when he has found one. And a woman who has waited years for a proposal of marriage laughs for joy (and then cries for joy) when she receives a proposal and a diamond ring. And what about this: A friend told me that when he was in Vietnam, he had just vacated a portable privy when his camp came under a mortar attack. He ran for his foxhole, and dived in. As he did, he heard an explosion behind him. Looking back over the lip of his hole he saw that the privy he had recently occupied had been blown to smithereens. He told me he sat in his hole and laughed until he cried. Laughter is a spontaneous expression of joy, and we rejoice when we believe that we have received something, even our life.

Today we want to look at a third reason for laughter. We laugh at the misfortune of others.

This means that when human beings are safe, secure, and happy we look upon the misfortune of others who are not so safe, secure, and happy, and we laugh because it is their misfortune and none of our own. This is not particularly noble or ignoble, it is simply a part of our humanity.

All the great comedians—from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin have understood this, and they have used it to make us laugh.

Perhaps you remember the Super Bowl commercial, which opens with a little old woman carrying a sack of groceries. In the top of the sack is a bag of Doritos. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that a steamroller driven by a distracted man is about to run her over. Then, from stage right (or left) Chevy Chase swings into the scene on a rope. It appears as if he is going to rescue that sweet little, old woman, but he does not. Instead, at the last possible second, he snatches the bag of Doritos from the top of her sack, and swings safely away. We are left to imagine what happens to the little old lady, and we laugh. Hopefully, most of us laugh at the incongruity of Chevy Chase choosing a bag of Doritos over a fellow human being. However, there is no doubt that some people laugh at the idea of a little old woman flattened by a steamroller for the same reason that Kalahari bushmen laugh at the death throws of a waterbuck. We are just glad it is their misfortune and none of our own.

People laugh at the misfortune of others, and sometimes people cause the misfortune of others. The playwright, Jean Paul Sartre, was one of the leading figures intellectuals of the 20th century, yet when he started school as a boy, he felt very inferior. He writes, and I quote:

“(When I entered school in my teens) I was very small for my age, ugly, no good at games, and not much good at my lessons because my eyesight was so poor. They said I smelt bad, too, and maybe I did. But I could make them laugh. I found it was easier to make a lot of people laugh than just one, and that laughter was louder if I could direct it at a single little boy, even more miserable and friendless that I was. That is what I did.”

Unquote. It is said that an intellectual values ideas more than people. Sartre valued the idea of his own comfort over the person of a miserable friendless child.

Laughter often contains elements of cruelty.

Give that truth, I think it is of great significance that New Testament never indicates, not even once, that Jesus laughed.

I shall never forget when this first came to my attention. Though I had already been accepted in a seminary, I was still in the service, though. Knowing that I was to become a preacher, one of my sergeants called me over to his area to show me a picture he had slipped under the glass of his desk. He said, “It is a picture of Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus never laughs, but I think he did.” He went on to explain that he had found the picture of a laughing Jesus in Playboy, which he assured me, he only read for the articles

I did not know what to think of the picture, but I found what the sergeant said about Jesus never laughing in the New Testament very interesting. I borrowed a concordance, did a search, and confirmed his story. In the New Testament Jesus does not laugh. That one simple fact led me to a question that I have pondered for years, “Why not? Why doesn’t Jesus laugh in the New Testament?” After all, we believe that Jesus is not just “fully divine,” but also “fully human.” Would not one who was fully human experience the full range of human emotion?

The ancient Greeks believed that the twin masks of the muses, one laughing, and one crying, could symbolize not just the theater but also all of human life. Their Gods sometimes cried, and they frequently laughed, especially at the misfortune of human beings. Matthew Arnold summed up Homer’s Iliad when he wrote, “The gods laugh in their sleeve to watch man doubt and fear.” Likewise, several times in the Old Testament, the Lord God laughs. In Psalm 2 we read:

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

The God of the Bible does not laugh at our human misery. The God of the Bible laughs only at those human beings who are so naive as to think they can oppose him. Understandably, the God of the Old Testament does not cry. Why should God cry? God’s power is ultimate? What God wants to do, he does.

In the gospels Jesus is just the opposite. The Fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. For almost two thousand years, scholars of every persuasion have repeatedly told us that this story of Jesus weeping reinforces the idea that Jesus cares about us, as he cared about his friend Lazarus.

If laughter and tears are both a part of human life, shouldn’t Jesus also laugh?

Now, let us proceed carefully. We are really talking about two different things here: 1) On the one hand we are talking about whether Jesus recognizes our human need to laugh. 2) On the other hand we are talking about why the New Testament never mentions Jesus himself laughing.

Certainly Jesus recognized our need to laugh. In his book, “The Humor of Christ,” Elton Trueblood argues that Jesus used humor in the stories he told. The evidence is not irrefutable, but it is compelling. Likewise, even before the 4th Gospel tells us that “Jesus wept,” it tells us that Jesus attended a wedding at Cana. Not only did Jesus grace that wedding with his presence, when the host ran out of wine, at the request of his mother, Jesus turned six huge stone jars of water into wine. And when the host served that wine, the guests, who did not know what Jesus had done, happily observed that the host had saved his best wine for last. I will guarantee you that most of the people who said that were laughing, or at least smiling when they complemented their host. Jesus rebuked his mother because she forced his hand in turning the water into wine, but he did not rebuke the people who celebrated as they drank the water he turned to wine.

So, Jesus does recognize our need to laugh. Why then isn’t there a verse that declares, “Jesus laughed,” to balance the verse that declares, “Jesus wept”?

I have contemplated that question for more than thirty years, but only in the last few weeks have I have found an answer that satisfied me. It goes like this:

I have do doubt that Jesus himself laughed. The gospels report just a small fraction of what Jesus said and did, and he had lots of opportunity to laugh when he was “off the record.” At the very least I suspect that, as a boy, Jesus must have laughed at the sheer joy of living as he ran through the grass on a spring day in his bare feet, or played in the creek with his friends, or received a warm cake from his mother. If Jesus was fully human, he must have laughed, for laughter is part of what makes us human.

Yet, in the pages of the New Testament, Jesus does not laugh. There are several reasons he does not.

  • Some would argue that he does not because of the gravity of his mission. His time is short. His business is serious, the salvation of the world. There is no time for laughter.
  • So also, laughter is often—- not always, but often, a component of cruelty. The authors of the New Testament, inspired by God, knew instinctively that Jesus must never appear to be cruel or an advocate of cruelty, in the same way that Jesus must never appear to be violent, or an advocate of violence.

Matthew 5:21 and 22 serve to make my point quite nicely. Therein Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ (Laughter implied! WNG) shall be liable to the hell of fire. “

For a follower of Jesus to engage in random violence against another human being is tantamount to blasphemy! So also, it is blasphemy for a follower of Jesus to laugh not “with” but “at” another human being. In the pages of the New Testament Jesus does not laugh in order to remind us that some of the things that we laugh at—especially the discomfort of others, would only make him cry.

Laughter can be a great joy, it can transport us, albeit briefly, out of our troubles. There are instances in life where laughter can restore our balance, our courage, our sanity! But laughter can also be a shame, especially when we laugh at the misfortune of others.

That is the Joy and Shame of Laughter.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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The Joy and Shame of Laughter: What the Bible Has to Say about Our Grins and Giggles

(1 in a Series)(2nd in a Series on Sunday, May 26th)

Several weeks ago I heard a great joke. I traced it back to one of our oldest and most faithful members. If you object to it, just let me know and I will give you her name.

It seems that a Billy Bob was standing in his boat bass fishing when he saw a water moccasin with a frog in his mouth swimming by the boat. Knowing that frogs were great bass bait, Billy Bob reached down and grabbed the moccasin just behind his head, and shook the frog out of his mouth into his bait bucket. Immediately, Billy Bob had an angry snake in his hands. Thankfully, he was nobody’s dummy. He dropped his rod, grabbed an open bottle of Jack Daniels and poured it down the snake’s throat. When the snake was sufficiently drunk to make it docile, Billy Bob tossed it back into the water. Job Bob baited his hook with the frog, and continued fishing. After about a half hour he felt something strike his boat. Looking down at the water, he saw a water moccasin, and this time, he had two frogs in his mouth.

As most of you know W.C. Fields spent 60 years trying to make people laugh. Near the end of his life, Fields said:

We know “what” makes people laugh; we do not know “why” people laugh.

I am not sure I agree completely with Mr. Fields, but in my next two or three sermons—whatever it takes, I want to look at what makes people laugh, and then deal with the question that flow from it.

Today, in the story about a snake that trades frogs for whiskey, we demonstrated that people laugh at things that are incongruous, out of whack, that don’t fit our perception of how the world and all that it contains ought to fit together. Thus we smile at a three year old trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole. We chuckle at a 12 year old in a tuxedo standing at the end of a long line of kids in shorts and tee shirts waiting to get on a school bus. And we laugh when the wall of a building falls on Charlie Chaplin, and the little tramp emerges, standing in a window, upright, and unscathed.

We laugh at the incongruous—-at things that don’t add up in our view of the world, and how the people and things in that world are supposed to relate to one another.

One of the earliest written records of laughter is found in Genesis 17 and 18.

In Genesis 17 the LORD appears to Abram—-who is 99 years old, and says: “I AM God Almighty,” walk blamelessly before me, I will bless you.” God tells Abram that he is is no longer to be called, “Abram,” but “Abraham,” for he is going to be the “Father of Many nations.” Then the LORD speaks to Abraham about his wife, Sarai, saying, “No longer will she be called Sarai, but Sarah, for she will be the mother of nations.”

Hearing this Abraham falls on his face and laughs and says to himself, “I am a hundred years old, how can I father a child? My wife is ninety years old, how can she be a mother?”

Abraham laughs at the incongruity. The facts are unsuitable. They don’t fit.

In order to make things fit his vision of reality Abraham immediately petitions God, saying, “Oh that you would let Ishmael live in your sight.” Ishmael is already thirteen years old. He is Abraham’s son by Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, whom wife Sarah gave to Abraham when she saw that she herself could not have children.

Abraham’s request seems natural, and reasonable, but God is not about to let him manufacture his own method of fulfilling a promise made by God. God says, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”

This is great stuff. Abraham laughs to himself. But God hears, because God says that Abraham is to name his son Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” or “he will laugh.” God has already determined that He will have the last laugh, and it is a long laugh, because Isaac lives to be 180 years old, older than his father, Abraham, and older than his son, Jacob.

In Genesis 18 the LORD again appears to Abraham by the Oaks at Mamre. Abraham is sitting by his tent in the heat of the day, when three men appear. These men turn out to be three messengers from heaven who turn out to be manifestations of the One God. The men say to Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?”

And Abraham says, “She is in the tent.”

Then the LORD says, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

Now, just off stage, Sarah is sitting inside the tent, listening at the door. When she hears that she is to bear a child by Abraham, she laughs, and says to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

The essayist, Paul Johnson, says, “This little episode from Genesis is so fascinating that it makes one believe in the Bible as an authentic record.” He goes on to say, “This is not just the first joke ever written down, but it is the first racy joke ever written down.”

It is a racy joke because Sarah does not laugh at the idea of having a child—-she can’t even think that far ahead; Sarah laughs at the idea of having sex with Abraham, her Old Man, who is even more sexually challenged that she is.
But see how God responds to Sarah’s silly chatter. God says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say  ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”

Do you see what God has done? The question seeks to move the minds of Sarah and Abraham beyond the anxiety of the sex act between an old man and an old woman to the birth of their son, and to the fulfillment of the promise the Lord made to Abraham and to Sarah to make them, together, the father and mother of nations.

The climax of this episode in the continuing drama of Abraham & Sarah takes place when the Angel says, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”

And the anticlimax occurs when Sarah, realizes just Who It Is that she has been laughing at, and says, “I did not laugh

And the Lord responds, “No, but you did laugh.”

Yes she did, and she laughed at God, but soon she will be laughing with God. For when her son is born, she laughs for joy. And Isaac will laugh, just as soon as he is old enough to hear the story of how he came to be. It is interesting that the name “Isaac” translates as “he laughs” or “he will laugh.”

I love this story. It is about a miracle, there is no denying that; but it is about a miracle that requires human cooperation. God will do God’s part, but Abraham has got to do his part, too, and Sarah has got to do her part, and both of them have to have faith.

I suppose that St. Paul reckoned that Abraham had to have the greater faith. In Romans 4:18 he wrote, “In hope, (Abraham) believed (i.e. he had faith), against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told.”

I remember when this story first made me really laugh. Elayne and I had just arrived at seminary. Classes had yet to begin. I believed that God had called me to the ministry, and led me to seminary. And when we moved to seminary, we went out not knowing where we were to live. We then found our little duplex through a series of extraordinary circumstances that we thought marvelous, if not down  right miraculous. So, too, we had already made that house our own. The owner owned a paint store and gave us all the free paint we could apply. We had painted everything inside the whole house—every wall, and every ceiling. We had even painted the basement floor.

Then we moved in our furniture. Everything fit in just as it should except for one thing: We could not get our queen-sized set of boxed-springs up the stairs to the bedroom. The turning of the stairs, that led from the main floor, to the upper floor, was too tight, and the ceiling was too low. The mattress would pass, but the set of boxed-springs would not. For a week, we slept on that mattress and boxed springs, but we slept on them, downstairs, it what was to have been our living room. Then, one morning we got up, ate breakfast, and read, The Daily Text. The Old Testament text referred to this story about Abraham and Sarah. The text read: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

There is only one answer that a person of faith can make to that particular question, no matter how inexperienced that person might be, and I made it. I turned to Elayne and said, “That set of boxed springs is going upstairs, today. “

Then we walked into the living room where we were sleeping, drug the mattress off, and flipped over the boxed-springs. We pulled off the bottom cover that was held in place with staples, revealing five 1” by 4” boards that held the springs in place. Carefully estimating the minimum clearance needed to negotiate the stairwell, I then cut the slats at a place that would allow the boxed-springs at a place to clear the overhang. Then Elayne and I wrestled that set of boxed-springs up the stairs, screwed the slats back together with metal braces, and set up the bed. Then, in the joy of achievement, we laughed like Sarah must have laughed when she first saw eyes of Isaac. We laughed to think that nothing we had to do on that particular day, and nothing we had to do in the foreseeable future was too hard for us, because nothing was “too hard for the Lord.”

Sarah laughed at God, and God called her out for it, but God did not punish her for it. On the whole, I think it is better to laugh at the thought that God can do something wonderful for us and through us, than simply to ignore the thought altogether.

This relates to the question of “WHY” we laugh. Once we have laughed at something we never forget it. It has our attention. We remember it for a long time. I know that because of my personal experience:

  • I still remember the first racy story I ever heard, and I remember the one who told it to me. I was in 2nd Grade at South Park School.
  • I remember the first real date I ever had with Elayne. We went to the Robinhood Drive-In Theater. When the movie ended, I forgot to return the movie speaker that hung in the window of my 1956 Chevy Bel Air to the post that held it. Chevy made fine cars in those days. I pulled that post right out of the ground without breaking the window. Elayne laughed so hard, I knew she could never forget me.
  • Most of all, I remember a time when I laughed to know that nothing is too hard for the Lord. If God commands us to do a thing, whether in scripture, or in life, God’s command contains a hidden promise that God Himself will help us achieve it. That ought to make you at least smile.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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A sermon on Luke 24:1-11.

On my smart phone I have a database that includes the name of everyone who has been a member here the whole time I have been here. When someone dies, I simply remove the code, “COM,” which stands for “Communicate Member,” and replace it with the code “PHS,” which means “Promoted into the Higher Service.”

On a day like today, when I seen so many of you who have come back, just for Easter, I not only see you, all of you, but I see all your connections, including those who have been “Promoted into the Higher Service.”
We have a wonderful hope, but it has not always been so, not even among the people of God.

The Hebrew Bible is not very hopeful about life after death. It uses the word heaven (and its derivatives) more than 400 times, but always a place where God lives. Heaven is the place where God hung the sun, and the moon, and stars without number. It is a place where birds fly, and from which rain falls. In the Old Testament we human beings live under heaven, but when we die, we do not go up into heaven, we go down into Sheol. Sheol is not a nice place.

  • Sheol begins with the opening of any grave, including the most recent one, and its appetite and its boundaries extend beyond measure.
  • Sheol is the place where it was impossible to remember and praise God. (Psalm 6:5)
  • Sheol is the place where maggots form the bed beneath us, and worms the covering over us. (Isaiah 14:11)
  • Sheol is the place where we return to the dust from which we are made. (Genesis 2:7, Genesis 3:19)
  • Sheol has a huge appetite, and it is never satisfied. The more it eats, the more it wants. Sheol devours not just those who are old, ugly, sick, and impoverished; it devours those who are young and beautiful and full of the promise of life. It devours kings and queens, and great men and their families, and heroes and heroines. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.”

In Psalm 89:48 we read:

Who can live and never see death? (Or) Who can deliver his (or her) soul from the power of Sheol?

It is a retorical question. There was only one right answer: No one. Not one. Not even one. All of us live under the shadow and the power of death.
Jesus Christ recognized how little hope there was in the Hebrew Bible. In John 5:39, he said, “You search the scriptures, because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”

Did you get that? Jesus says that hope is there, in the Hebrew Bible, and that hope points to him, but he says that we have to search for it. I did search for it.

I found hope in the Law, but only with the help of Jesus. (Like his conversation with the Sadducees.)

I found hope in certain of the Psalms, but only because some of them are used in the New Testament as witness to the Resurrection of Jesus.

I found hope in Job 19:25-26 where in we read:

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.

That sounds very hopeful, and one might reasonably ask, in the time before Jesus’s own resurrection how can one be so hopeful?

I suspect that the author of Job, and certain of the Psalmists, had a hope for life after death simply because they had a relationship with God, and they trusted him. They believed that same God who had been faithful to them in life, would be faithful to them in death. One 20th Century rabbi put it like this: “I believe in the resurrection, because it is easier for me to believe that God raises the dead, than it is to believe that God will forget me.”

I also found hope for eternal life in the Prophets of Israel. The prophets applied God’s faithfulness not just to certain individuals, but to the whole nation of Israel, to the whole people of God. Their faith is most visible in Ezekiel 37 wherein the prophet speaks of a vision in which God showed him a valley of dry bones, and commanded him to speak God’s word to those dry bones saying:

Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

By the time of Jesus, a great many Jews held the hope of the prophets, especially those who were associated with or influenced by the party of the Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus. We know from the gospels, and from the Book of Acts, and from other contemporary sources what the Pharisees believed. They believed that, at the end of history, on the Last Day of this present age, the righteous dead who kept covenant with God and their neighbors, would be raised to Eternal Life in the heavenly kingdom. At the same time, sinners who failed to keep covenant with God and their neighbors, would be raised to Judgment, and to what some later called, “The Second Death.” There is a distinction between the first death and the second. Anyone with a knife, or a sword, or an ax, or a bottle of poison, or a tent peg, or a blunt instrument, or a gun, or a bomb, can deal out the first death. But God alone can dispense the second death, because their is no second death without a resurrection to life and judgment.

Of course, in the time of Jesus, there was still definitive no proof of the hope for life after death. The Sadducees were always happy to remind the Pharisees that the bodies of those who held the hope of resurrection still rested in their graves, residents of Sheol, waiting for a last Day that never seems to come.

Jesus himself challenged the Sadducees. First he challenged them from scripture. In Matthew 22:32 he said to them, “As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.’ He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

Then he challenged them in his own death and resurrection. According to St. Luke, it happened like this.

St. Luke says that Jesus died an innocent man. In Luke 23:4, we read that at the trial of Jesus, Pilate, the very man who condemned him to death said, “I find no crime in this man.” There was a crime, but it was ours, not his. St. Luke says that he was delivered into the hands of sinful men. St. Paul says, “He died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.”(1st Corinthians 15)

After the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, a good man, who was a dissenting member of the same Jewish council that condemned Jesus and handed him over to Pilate, went to the governor and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he wrapped the body in a linen shroud, and laid it in a new tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid. That tomb was nothing special. It was located in a garden, but it had no particular beauty, and no special powers. It is famous, later, and only because people said of it, “Jesus the Messiah once slept here!”
Of course, I am getting ahead of the story. Luke says that Joseph buried Jesus a Friday, on the day of preparation.

Saturday was the Passover, and the Sabbath, and all the characters in our story rested. While they rested, the tomb was silent, and the body of Jesus rested therein. Only God really knows what Jesus himself experienced during that Great Sabbath Rest. The Apostles Creed declares, “He went to the place of departed spirits,” or, sometimes, “He descended into hell.” In 1st Peter 3:19 we read that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.  We repeat that same line in our Easter Morning Liturgy. We dare not make too much of it. It is best to say only that the same Jesus who was active for our salvation in life, and in the act of dying, was still active for our salvation in his death.

Then, early, on the morning of the third day, which was the first day of the week, a number of women, including Mary Magdalene, who had watched Joseph place the body of Jesus in the tomb on Friday, came back to the tomb to say a final goodbye to him.   They went to the tomb to anoint him with spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews. It never happened. When the women arrived at the tomb, they had the stone rolled away, and when they entered the tomb they found it empty. The body of Jesus was gone. Suddenly, two men were there with them, and they were dressed in dazzling apparel. The women fell at their feet. In retrospect, the women, and all who heard their story supposed those men to be angels. They asked the women a question that must have stirred them deep in their souls. They asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And then they reminded the women of how, when Jesus was still in Galilee, he had told his disciples that “..the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24:7) And the text says that the women, “remembering his words,” that is, the words of Jesus, rushed to the house where the eleven had gathered with other followers of Jesus, and told them their story of an empty tomb, and how two mysterious strangers had reminded them that Jesus himself had predicted he would rise again. According to the text, the apostles and all the rest regarded the story of the women as an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:11)

We know from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:24), and from the Gospel of John (John 20:1-10) that the disciples of Jesus explored the empty tomb, but with one possible exception, the beloved disciple, as this is by no means certain, the empty tomb did not convince the disciples that Jesus was alive.

This should not surprise us. After all the apostles were descended from a people who lived among the Egyptians for 400 years, and though the Egyptians believed devoutly in life after death, making it a national pastime, the Hebrew Children never adopted their belief, not even after they saw the power of God at work for them during the Exodus.

Besides, there were too many possibilities with regard to an empty tomb. Over the years different people suggested that:

  • The tomb could have been empty because the women went to the wrong tomb. Over the centuries Many skeptics have suggested this.
  • The tomb could have been empty because some callous person had taken the body of Jesus away, and laid it in a cheaper grave, or and tossed it into the local trash heap. (John 20:2)
  • The tomb could have been empty, because some disciples of Jesus remembered how he said he would rise from the dead, and they took the body, and hid it, because they wanted to fool the people into thinking he was alive. (Matthew 27:62-64) The only trouble is, no one every figured out how such a hoax could profit anyone.

The Empty Tomb did not produce the Easter Faith of the apostles. They did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, until they came face to face with the Risen Christ. St. Luke says that Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the following ways:

First, Jesus appeared to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. At first they did not recognize him, even though he instructed them in  what the scriptures had to say about how the Christ had to suffer many things and enter into his glory. As they drew near their destination, the stranger appeared to be going farther, but they compelled him to take supper with them. At supper, he took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and the text says that he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Then he disappeared. This passage is dear to me, as I am never more certain in my faith than during a service of Holy Communion.

After this, the two disciples returned immediately to Jerusalem where they found their brothers, and must have said, “The Lord is Risen,” because the disciples responded, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon.” Luke does not furnish us details about that particular reunion, but St. Paul regards the appearance of Jesus to Peter as supremely important, and he lists Simon Peter first among those to whom Christ appeared. (1st Corinthians 15:3-11)

Finally, while all the disciples in that place were still discussing what had taken place, Jesus himself appeared among them. They were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And then Jesus presented himself to all of them, and asked, “Why are your troubled, and why do questions arise in your heart?” Then because they were troubled, and filled with questions, he invited them to examine his hands and his feet, no doubt still showing the marks where the Roman soldiers had driven the cruel spikes that fixed him to the cross, and to handle him, and see that he was not a spirit, but flesh and bones. And while they still  disbelieved and wondered,  Jesus moved them back into the realm of the everyday and he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it before them.

I love how Jesus reveals himself at first rather dramatically, “he appears among them,” yet in such simple fashion, “Have you anything here to eat?”

The empty tomb did not create faith in the resurrection of Jesus, but it does tell us something about the nature of the resurrection. There is a continuity between the Jesus who died, and the Jesus who was raised. He is the same, only more so. In this regard, St. Luke believes exactly as does St. Paul. In 1st Corinthians 15,  he talks about the difference between our bodies before death, and our bodies after death. It is obvious that he is thinking about the Death and Resurrection of Jesus when he writes:

42 What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.

The Empty Tomb does not produce faith, but it does shape the faith that is produced in us by a living Christ. It stands as the massive sign that God has not abandoned us in our little world of time and space, but, in the person of his son, Jesus the Messiah, he has entered it, shattered it, and begun its transformation. Because he lives, we, and those whom we love, will live also. The story that the women brought to the apostles was not “an idle tale,” nor was it definitive proof of the resurrection, but it does reveal the character of the resurrection for all of us.

Of course, some people are not nearly as concerned with life after death, as they are with life after birth. They want to know if God cares for them right now. He does.

When I was in seminary, I had a course on the resurrection of Jesus. At the completion of that course, I called my dad, also a pastor, and said, “Dad, we ought to present the proof of the resurrection.” He said, “No, we ought to preach the risen Christ with power to save.” It is true! The same Power that took Jesus out of the grave is available to us today, not just in the moment of our death, but in the midst of life. He saves us from sin, and death, and hopelessness in all its forms. He is God’s promise that God cares deeply about you. He is the Risen Lord who rules over all, and invites you into lasting fellowship with Himself.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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Last week we heard from a husband and a wife who live with their children in a country where it is illegal for anyone to share the Christian faith. In fact, they told us about believers who must guard the secret of their faith so closely, that they do not even tell their husbands, or their wives that they are Christians. The man who visited with us has a secular job, and he earns money at that job, so he can support his family. But his true vocation, his calling, is composing oral Bible stories that Christians in the country where he lives can use to understand and to share the story of Jesus Christ. He told us that he had isolated 31 stories from the Bible that he thought would make up a good core for the believers in that place.

When I met with him briefly on Thursday afternoon, I told him he was compiling “the Oral Canon of That Country.”

Our Canon consists of 66 books, 39 Books in the Old Testament, and 27 Books in the New Testament. The Oral Canon of That Country consists of 31 stories; there is quite a contrast.

In point of fact, Christians in That Country are re-entering a period of oral tradition not unlike that which was once the rule both in Israel, and in the Early Church.

A period of the oral tradition preceded both the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and the written canon of the New Testament.
Consider the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. If you search the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament you will find that the phrase “to this day” occurs 92 times. The phrase “to this day” indicates a gap in time, whether short or long, between the time something happened, and the time the story of what happened was written down. Let me give you just one example.
In Joshua chapter 4 we read that Joshua is about to lead the children of Israel over the Jordan into the promised land. At the command of Joshua, twelve men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, carry the Ark of the Covenant to the brink of the Jordan River, and the waters from above ceased to flow, and stood in a heap, and the river bed dried up, and Joshua led the children of Israel across on dry ground. And when they had all crossed over, Joshua set up twelve stones in the place where the feet of the priest bearing the Ark had stood. And the text declares, “(the stones) are there to this day.”

The period between the event, and when the event was written down, was the period of the oral tradition. The Children of Israel told one another, and their neighbors, the stories of what God had done for them. They told how God led them out of Egypt, and across the Red Sea. They told how God fed them with manna in the wilderness. Or, to use the example we just talked about, they told how God dried up the Jordan for Joshua, as he had once dried up the Red Sea for Moses.

Israel used many devices to help them preserve the tradition in stories, They used stones, and monuments, and songs, and poems, and mezuzahs, and body parts.

Yes, body parts. Martin Buber once wrote that God gave us Ten Commandments because we had ten fingers.

And what about a song? When Israel passed through the Yom Suph (Reed/Red Sea) as on the dry ground, and the armies of Egypt were swallowed up behind them, Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

That is a short little song, hardly worthy of the “top forty,” but scholars tell us it is the one of the earliest snippets of tradition in the Hebrew Bible. It may indeed go all the way back to the day that the Children of Israel marveled that God gave them victory over their oppressors in the sea.

And what about the Mezuzah? The Mezuzah is a little box, made of metal, in which the Jews put a tiny scrap of paper on which they have written a prayer that begins, “Shema, Yisrael.” These are the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; 5 and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Moses was all about the oral tradtion. In Deuteronomy 11 Moses told the Hebrew children to lay up these words in their hearts, and in their souls, and to bind them as a sign upon their hand, or between their eyes, and to teach them to their children, and to talk of them when they are were sitting in their houses, or when they were walking by the way, or when they lay down, or when they rose up.

Even after the Shema was written into the Law, it was still a part of the oral tradition.

There was a period of Oral Tradition before the New Testament was written down, too.

Scholars agreed that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again, at the festival of Passover, sometime between 30 and 33 AD.

The earliest of the four gospels, Mark, was not written down for almost forty years. The remaining three were written down over the next thirty years.

The earliest stories about Jesus in our New Testament are in the epistles of Paul. Paul was not a disciple of Jesus in the days of his flesh. In fact, he regarded Jesus as a blasphemer, and he was still persecuting the church when the Risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do are you persecuting me?” Paul tells several times that he received much of what he knew about Jesus as “tradition,”and then passed it on to those to whom he preached. Let me give you a few examples.

Paul passes on Jesus’s teaching about clean and unclean foods, and about marriage, and about divorce, and about the end of the age, etc..

Paul tells us that Jesus was betrayed, and that, on the night when he was betrayed, he instituted the Holy Supper.

Paul tells us that Jesus died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and on the third day, he was raised from death, in accordance with the scriptures. Paul tells us that the Risen Christ appeared, to Peter, and to the twelve, and to five hundred brethren at one time, “most of whom,” he says, “are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” He says that the Risen Christ also appeared to James, and to all the apostles. Finally, he says:

8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Some people think that Paul is the creator of Christianity as it exists today. What we just read is not the language of the inventor of Christianity. It is the language of one who joined the church, later, after it was well established, and only then because he could no longer deny the evidence he had seen with his own eyes. For Paul, Jesus had indeed been “…designated Son of God, in power, through a Spirit of Holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4)

Paul not only tells us about Jesus, his letters are a treasure trove of information about how the stories of Jesus may have been passed on.
In Galatians 1, we read how, after God revealed Jesus to Paul that he might preach him among the gentiles, he did not go up to Jerusalem to visit with those who were apostles before him. Instead he went into Arabia. Then after three years he did go up to Jerusalem and he spent 15 days with Peter, and with James, the Lord’s brother. He does not say what they talked about, but we can be reasonably sure that they did not just talk about the weather. I have no doubt that Peter eagerly told Paul all he remembered about his time with Jesus. And I am pretty sure that James must have told Paul about how, he, too, though a brother of Jesus, had once thought Jesus “beside himself” and had come to faith only after the Risen Jesus had appeared to him.

Then, says Paul, after fourteen years, he went once more to Jerusalem, taking Barnabas and Titus along with him. He says he went up to lay his gospel before them in case he had run, or was running, in vain. He says that on this visit he saw Peter, and James the brother of the Lord, and John, the son of Zebedee. He says that though they were regarded as “pillars of the church,” they added nothing new to his gospel. They just agreed that they would go to the Jews, and that Paul would go to the Gentiles, and that Paul should also remember the poor, which thing Paul himself was eager to do.”

There is one other pretty special episode in Galatians 2. Paul and Peter end up together in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. They are there for a covered dish supper. Peter gets into trouble with some of his Jewish friends, because those Gentiles were serving Barbecue*(*Actually Peter got into trouble just for sitting at table with Gentiles—I put in the part about the Barbecue to make it memorable.); and then he got into trouble with Paul for dumping his plate* (*Being insincere and leaving the Gentile table for the Jewish table). And Paul had to remind him that Christ Jesus was the end and perfection of the Law, and it was not by keeping kosher that one got back to God, but through faith in Christ. But my purpose is simply to remind you how wonderful it was for one Gentile Church to have a covered dish supper that featured at least two, and maybe more, eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. I have no doubt that Peter told them about what Jesus said and did in the the years he was a disciple of Jesus. Maybe he even told them how he denied Jesus not once, but three times just before his crucifixion. And maybe Paul talked about how he persecuted the church. I am sure he told them about his Damascus Road experience

Some people want to know, “Why didn’t the first Christians write the gospels down earlier?”

The answer is simple. The first Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus in the same way that you believe in the NCAA Tournament. They believed that Jesus was the first-born from the dead, but not the last. They believed that he was the first fruits of them who had fallen asleep in death, and that they themselves were the harvest. They thought that Jesus was coming back, soon, maybe today, or next Tuesday, and that at his coming, the dead in Christ would be raised, and they themselves would be changed, and they would all be caught up to meet him, and go with Him into the more immediate presence of God. They were too busy looking for him and for the future that was coming to them in him to spend too much time looking back.

Some people want to know, “Why did they write the gospels down when they did?”

They wrote the gospels down when they did because the first generation of witnesses, the apostles, and the first generation of believers began to die out, and Christ had not yet come back, and the last of the first generation and the first of the 2nd generation which was not the last, began to be concerned about how all future generations of believers would learn about Jesus. I suspect their attitude was like that of the man we call Luke, the beloved Physician, to whom tradition attributes the Gospel of Luke. According to J.B. Phillip’s translation, Luke introduced his Gospel saying:

Dear Theophilus, Many people have already written an account of the events which have happened among us, basing their work on the evidence of those whom we know were eye-witnesses as well as teachers of the message. I have decided therefore, since I have traced the course of these happenings carefully from the beginning, to set them down for you myself in their proper order, so that you may have reliable information about the matters in which you have already had instruction. (Luke 1:1-4)

It was after the first Generations that the gospels were written down, and the period of the oral tradition came gradually to a close.

Or did it? That delightful young couple is composing an oral tradition for their country, and the truth is that all of us have an oral canon, too. There are certain stories from the Bible that live just behind our lips, and when the occasion arises, we tell them.

This is true even of our children. In the years before John’s arrival, I regularly taught catechism. I always included a session on the Life of Jesus. I would stand before a blank page on a flip-chart, and I would ask the people in the room to tell about Jesus.

  • One said, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”
  • Another said, “Mary was his mother, and Joseph (as was supposed) was his father.”
  • “Jesus visited the temple when he was twelve because he had to be about his (Heavenly) Father’s business.” (“And he was already a Bible whiz, too!”)
  • “Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, by John the Baptist.”
  • “Jesus was tempted by Satan.”
  • “Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.”
  • “Jesus healed a man blind.” “And caused the lame to walk.” “And cleansed the leper. “
  • “Jesus wept.” “Jesus raised Lazarus from death.”
  • “Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass.” “And people welcomed him with Hosannas!” (Jesus did this to fulfill the word of the Prophet, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Zechariah 9:9)
  • “Jesus made a whip of cords, and cleansed the temple of the money changers.”
  • They remembered how Judas betrayed Jesus, and how Peter denied Jesus, and about how all the disciples forsook him and fled.
  • They knew how Jesus was rejected by his own people, and condemned to die by Pontius Pilate.
  • They remembered that he had been crucified between two thieves, died, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
  • They remember how, on the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead, and appeared to his disciples on many different occasions. And how he said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again to receive you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”

Those young people knew the Oral Canon of Confirmation. And that is not insignificant. St. Augustine said, that if we know His-Story, and if we know Him, and if we have faith, and hope, and love, we can grow as a disciple, even if, for some reason, we don’t have the Bible.

Augustine wrote when books were still rare and expensive. Today, we can buy a Bible for at the Good Will for a dollar, or we can get one from the Gideon’s, or we can download a Bible onto our computer for free. Even so, we need to lay-up the stories of the Scripture in our hearts, and one of the most important stories we can lay-up is our own Jesus story. Now you have heard my Jesus story before.

You know how I was living in San Diego on the night when I knelt down, stuck my finger into the air, and said, “O.K., God, if you are real, just touch the tip of my finger.” I have told you before that there was no touch, no shaking of the foundations, no bursting visions of light. Instead, I stook up and said, “O.K., God, I will do it your way. I will put my faith in your son, Jesus Christ.”

St. Paul had a Jesus story, too. I think we should finish with that. In Philippians 3:4-14 he writes:

4 If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, 6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12   Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

What is your Jesus story? What is your oral canon? How much of the gospel can you tell a friend later today, or a co-worker next week? Thirty-one stories? That is not a bad goal.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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