Promise (Foundations #3)

How God answers human rebellion

Isaiah 65:17-25

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Credit: iStockphoto

So far in this series we have seen

1. How God created the universe, and it was very good.

2. How humanity rejected God, rebelling against his love and goodness through Adam and Eve’s act of defiance.

Today we will see

3. How God answers that rebellion. As we do, we may well find ourselves challenged and surprised.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Let’s start with a promise:

I was a young boy, maybe 5 years old. My mother had to take me to the family doctor to get a needle: I suppose it was some form of immunisation. There was a problem: I hate needles, and my mother was probably not too good at dealing with freaked out children.
But she had a stroke of genius the week before I was to have that fateful appointment.
She walked me into the paper shop – that’s what we used to call the newsagent in the town I was born – and pointed up on one of the shelves. It was blue ray gun that looked something like this. It was a young boy’s dream toy. The 1963 version of a light sabre.
I looked at that ray gun, and imagined the fun I could have with it. I may even have believed that with such a weapon I could keep my older sister in line. My imagination was held with my mother’s promise: ‘if you don’t make a fuss about the needle, you will get that ray gun…’

Pifco side edit

In that moment of parental genius, my mother did something divine: she saw a person gripped with fear and foreboding, and spoke a promise which drew them toward a better reality.

The Power of God’s Promise

This is how promises work: they capture our heart and point us to something better.

It happens when a man slips a diamond on the finger of his fiancé.

It happens when two people sit down and plan the holiday of a lifetime.

It happens when a young couple puts a deposit on their first home.

A promise will meet us where we are and direct our vision toward something better.

The greatest promise of all happened in Eden. Humanity was trapped in their own rebellion from God. Overcome with fear, they hid from God instead of trusting him.

What was God’s core reaction to that rejection? By core reaction, I mean the response which best expresses the character of the Lord? Our answer is seen in how God spoke right into that rebellion, and challenged it with a promise:

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

Yes, human rebellion has its consequences. Grief, tears, pain, death and separation from God. What we need to see is how in the thick of all that, this gracious God set about his work of restoring his people and his world.

If you want to understand anything about God, this is where you start: God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace. His promise draws a fearful and fallen humanity toward a better reality. He would send a deliverer, a Messiah, to crush the head of evil once and for all.

God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace.

The Bible is really the story of God bringing this promise to fulfilment. The ancient writings of the Old Testament tell us how God opens the eyes of humanity to their own need and how he started to bring this rescue about.

We learn how he chose a relatively weak and insignificant people and formed them into the nation of Israel. Their call was to show what life was like when people lived in relationship with this God of promise.

We hear the manifesto for this fledgling nation in Ex 19:

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

The distinctive character of this nation living with God would be expressed as they lived by his commands (Exodus 20).

Israel’s history however, shows how they failed in their task. Despite his doubtless grief and anger at his people’s sin, God keeps working to bring his promise to reality.
He keeps calling his people back to life. While it is true that he meets them where they are, he refuses to leave them that way. He draws them into change and transformation. Despite their continued failing, and times where they are exiled and disciplined, he never breaks his word. He remains faith to his promise to deal with their rebellion, to restore them and their world.

The question that really interests us today is ‘What sort of restoration would this be? What does this promise entail?’

The Old Testament has many different voices and a rich texture of answers to that question. The most breathtaking vision of how this promise would come to fulfilment is found in the book of Isaiah.

Writing some 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah presents such a vista of hope and transformation that we can scarcely believe it. This is not because it seems untrue, but because it is so all encompassing and universal in its scope. Isaiah mentions three contexts in which God’s restoration will be seen.

First: God will act to reconcile humanity to himself. He will do this by dealing with the core problem of humanity: the rebellious disposition of the human heart.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, NIV)

How will that happen?

Isaiah says this rescue will come through one identified as ‘The Servant of the Lord.’ This servant will become a sacrifice. He will take on the form of an abject, innocent man who willingly suffers for the wrongs of his people (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Second: Not only does God promise to reconcile people to himself, his act through his servant will have such magnitude that it will will impact on human relationships and reconcile people to each other. Relationships will be healed and the human heart transformed to such an extent that evil and injustice and violence will ultimately be overcome (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Third: (as if the first two contexts were not enough) Isaiah’s panorama of promise widens to something absolutely stupendous. How? Well, we know that creation groans with the weight of sin and the smell of the fall. We see this in natural disasters, in animal predation and environmental imbalance. We see it in unjust societal structures, in broken communities, abusive institutions, in warfare and genocide. Isaiah, however, points us to a new day when the servant’s actions will not only change human hearts and human relationships, his work of rescue will transform all created reality (Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25).

This is what Isaiah is saying: People will be reconciled to God. People will be reconciled to one another. People will be reconciled to their environment, society will be healed, and the brokenness of our universe will ultimately be overcome.

There’s the promise: God will act – through the servant – whom Christians understand to be Jesus – to rescue people and their world from their rebellion and all its consequences.

The scope of the promise

What are we to make of all this? If we are trying to come to terms with the core realities of Christianity, with the central truths of who Jesus is, what does Creation – Rebellion – Promise mean?

The first implication is that God – and his plan of salvation – is as concerned with physical realities as much as spiritual realities. In fact, they cannot be separated. One is not more important than another.

Some may be surprised about this. They have focussed so long on heaven and ‘spiritual things’ that there is hardly a thought to this world or the crying needs of people in it. The truth is that the kind of spirituality which elevates spiritual above physical, soul above body, heaven above earth, does not have its roots in the Bible, but in ancient Greek philosophers like Plato. But because western culture has been built on this foundation, people almost automatically understand that ‘spiritual’ things are more valuable to God than physical. Isaiah’s words challenge our assumptions as much as the work of the servant will transform our culture.

We do need to take care, however. We do not know all the detail of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. And we should take great care with the symbolism and imagery employed by Bible writers. Will lions really eat straw like an ox? We don’t really know, but we do understand Isaiah’s intention: the sort of animal violence typified in the lion’s hunt will be a subject of a beautiful and radical transformation in the new heavens and the new earth which the servant will bring.

There are simply so many passages in the Bible which speak of a new world, a recreated and transformed reality where heaven and earth are reunited, that we cannot ignore them.

A second implication follows from the first: Christian ministry and mission is one of word and deed. Christians cannot seek to address spiritual matters while at the same time ignoring the physical needs of the world around them. Similarly, Christians cannot simply address physical needs of their world without also addressing the spiritual situation of people and society.

We observe this very clearly in Jesus’ ministry, where he not only taught the crowds who followed him, and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, he also fed them. Jesus addressed then whole person in his ministry. His church should do the same.

This is why when Jesus opens his ministry he not only talks about pardon from sin and rebellion, but of transformation of people and their world.

““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4:18–21, NIV)

This is why James the apostle says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14–17, NIV)

And it is why Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross as not merely impacting the human soul, or matters of faith, or religious ideas. He sees Jesus’ work as impacting the entire cosmos:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NIV)

The Impact of Promise: We Are a People of Hope

Perhaps the greatest implication is that God’s people are people of real hope! Christianity is a world affirming, creation redeeming faith. Christians are people who are not just thinking about the Bible, but because they are thinking about their world and the community in which they live.

Christians are people who don’t just have faith in their head and their hearts, they have faith in their hands. A Christian is not simply someone with religious ideas, or someone who has made some deep commitments. A Christian is someone who is active in living out their faith. Someone in whom the transformational work of Jesus is coming to increasing expression in their behaviour, their actions, their words.

This is why at Gateway Community Church we have three core areas of our vision and mission: we want to grow transformed disciples, we want to build a new community of people, and we want to take the positive and transformational change of the gospel into our local community. If we fail on any of those three counts, we actually fail the mission of God and we fail to be his people of promise.

Christians are not simply people who believe the bible, but because they believe the Bible they are also deeply troubled that

there are 30 million slaves in our world today

average life expectancy of indigenous people is some 10 years below that of other Australians

some of the most vulnerable people have no right to legal support or process even in our own courts

• there are people in our own community who struggle to heat their homes and put a square meal on the table

So, yes, we look at our world and it is not hard to sense the fall all around us. But God’s promise in Jesus meets us where we are and draws us toward a more glorious reality. It is a promise expressed in the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”

A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Did you know that? Because God is faithful to his promise, a new day is dawning!

Did you know that this is how God answers human rebellion?

Yes, there are consequences to this rebellion, and those consequences are dire. But God’s promise of a new and glorious morn is greater and more powerful than any threat of death or any penalty or curse of sin. This promise tells us One will come who will redeem us and our world from the curse of the law and from the ugly stain of our own rebellion.

There’s the promise, right there! And we are thrilled to hear that at the core of this God’s heart there is not retribution or anger or the rage of a despot, but something wonderful:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10, NIV)

Here is the miracle: through the lens of the Old Testament, we see God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 narrow, and come to sharp focus on a nondescript stable. A young mother had just laid her baby in a manger for his bed. And sharper still, thirty years later, as this son, naked again, is laid on the rough timber of a cross, and then suffers hell for his people and their world.

Why?

Because our God keeps his promises. And when his world is broken, he must act according to his nature, and get to work putting it all back together again.

Rebellion (Foundations #2) Group Questions

Group questions relevant to Rebellion – Foundations #2

Grab a newspaper or read an internet news channel – which stories show there is something wrong with our world?

Read Genesis 3

Referring to verses 1-7, what was so bad about eating from a tree which God had created good anyway?

What was the initial response of God to Adam & Eve’s actions? What does this tell you about the God we worship?

Can you think of any New Testament passages which underscore this core desire and emotion of God for fallen and rebellion people?

Read Gen 3:15 & 20 – what do these tell you about God’s ultimate plan for his world?

How would you answer those who say that the fall is merely symbolic, or a myth?

Col 1:15-20 points us to Jesus Christ as the One through whom God will restore his creation and reconcile it to himself. How does this impact on how you see your world?

How does this passage change the way you look at God?

What difference will it make in they way you live?

Foundations #2 – Rebellion

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Image: iStockphoto: © stphillips

Reading: Genesis 3

Not the way it should be…

The big day has finally arrived!

No, not your wedding day. Not your 21st. Not the big promotion.

It’s the day you get the huge Samsung curved screen TV.

It takes up half your lounge room. And before you install it, you have to extend the room by several meters, otherwise you’re sitting so close your hair stands on end…

Anyway, it’s all there. You have the chips. The dip. The Shiraz. And you’re hanging out for the final of Masterchef…

You turn it on, the screen springs to life, but all you can get is Extra – A channel dedicated to advertising stuff no one needs. But this is your new 65″ curved screen TV, so you watch a little Brazil Butt Lift, and then try another channel.

Extra.

But now it’s Dr Ho’s Pain Therapy. IN disbelief, you hit the remote again.

Extra.

And your next thought is… This is not the way its supposed to be. There’s something wrong with this thing…

In that moment of frustration, though you might not know it, you express a core truth of humanity and the world we live in: This is not the way it is supposed to be.

There seems to be a universal sense that things should be better than what they are.

That cancer is ugly and wrong.

That people should be honest.

That people should be able to walk down any street on any night and have no fear.

That politicians and orphanage workers can be trusted.

That some church leader is not going to abuse my child.

That people should not have to seek asylum ever.

Why do we have this sense, this deep rooted belief, that things should be better?

In this Foundations series we want to understand basic Christian teaching. The core message of what God is doing in the world. And one of Christianity’s core beliefs is that things should be better than what they are. The Bible tells us where that core belief comes from.

Sin… meaning what?

The problem is summed up in one word: sin.

And our problem is that our culture has no real concept of what that is.
Let’s do something on the fly: Fire up your browser and go to Google.com.au and starting type ‘sinful’

The first entries are generally things like ‘sinful iPhone, sinful colours, sinful chocolate, sinful dessert…’

See what’s going on?

Sin has become fun. Stuff you eat. Great experiences. Things we typically enjoy. Here’s the point: If Google’s definition is what people are thinking about sin, it’s no wonder we’re confused. Who needs to repent of eating a cake? Or chocolate?

In contrast to this, the Bible says our world is broken. And we need to ask, ‘how did this happen?’ If God created the world, “and it was very good”, how come it falls so far short of that today? How is it that human wrongdoing, or the threat of it, mars every workday, every child’s school day, every family holiday? [see Plantinga, p.8]

That’s the question. And we are not going to like the answer because the Bible says we human are to blame.

Read Gen 3:1-7

Adam and Eve had been told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But instead of obedience, they chose disobedience. Instead of trusting God, they chose independence. Instead of submission, they chose rebellion. Their action became humanity’s spiritual coup d’état. A seizure of power from the world’s rightful and loving ruler.

That first act of rebellion has affected all humanity. Relationships between people and people are a mess. Relationships between people and nature; people and God; people and themselves; nature and God – all polluted. The whole universe manifests the ugly evidence that things are not they way they should be.

Rom 8:19-22

How pervasive, insistent and ugly is this human rebellion against God. It stains every act. It pollutes every disposition. It brings brokenness into every life context. It affects all of us, right to the core.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV)

The lousy smell of rebellion makes its way into every part of life. Like those embarrassing times when you walk into an important meeting with some post canine material on your shoe. You can smell it. Others can smell it. And you’re thinking, ‘phwoah, what’s that funky smell… that’s not they way it’s supposed to be…’ And you realise, way too late, that it’s been your problem all along.

Is there anywhere in that room where the smell does not make its heinous presence known? So also, there is no part of life that is unaffected by human rebellion and indifference against God. This is what we refer to when we talk about total depravity.
We are not as bad as we can get. But the smell of the fall impacts every part of human personhood.

The analogy actually falls down because actually everyone has that mess to deal with, and not just on their shoe – but deep within.

Seen those images of Isis militants executing people in cold blood?

Heard the reports of institutional abuse from the current Royal Commission in Australia?

Noticed that in your relationships there is not only wonderful capacity for love and joy, but also dreadful ability for pain, hurt and rejection?

this sin, this smell of the fall, it is not just ‘out there’. It is right here in this gathering. It is in our hearts. It is part of us

We cannot always measure culpability for it, but this rebellion possesses appalling force. Simply by our habitual practice, we let loose a great, rolling momentum of moral and spiritual evil across generations. By doing such things, we involve ourselves deeply in what theologians call corruption. [Plantinga, p.27]

See, this sin, this smell of the fall, it is not just ‘out there’. It is right here in this gathering. It is in our hearts. It is part of us.

And God hates it.

Not simply because it violates his law, but more substantively because it violates his shalom. Because it breaks the peace he first poured into his creation.
It interferes with the way things are supposed to be. [see Plantinga, p.27]

Now we have all seen and heard the voice of militant atheism raging against Christianity and faith in God. These voices trouble us, and threaten us. We will sometimes find ourselves cowering in their icy blast.

But think about it: What can atheists say about our human condition? What hope do they offer? Every person who does not believe in the living Lord, what hope do you have?
What challenge, ultimately, do you offer to the ugliness, the evil, the injustice we see in our world? What have you got to say?

You have no solution. You present no hope for your world. You offer no prospect that things will ever be any different.

When the next abuser is unmasked; when the next grotesque injustice is perpetrated;
when the next family breaks down; the next marriage vow broken; the next time children weep themselves to sleep; all you can say is ‘this is the way things are and it will never be any different.’

What a hopeless way to live.

What a pathetic view of life.

Solution

So here is the question we all need to answer, right here, right now:

Do we just accept that this is the way things are?

Do you want to go on living with the belief that things will never change?

Do you want to deny that cry from deep within that there has to be another way, a better way, a way of hope?

This is why you need to trust God.

If we go back to that initial act of rebellion, right back in the garden, we see that the moment humans rejected God, the moment they turned their back on him, the moment judgement descended, this same God – his own heart grieving – promised life and hope.

Humanity is hiding, living in guilt.

And God is seeking, speaking grace (Gen 3:9).

To the serpent, the evil one’s agent of the fall, this God says

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

He turns the children of the women, ultimately children of faith, into polar opposites of evil. He creates an antithesis, an ingrained opposition, an enmity between those who seek to live for God and those who would persist live without him.

This God of hope promises that one day, One would come who would crush the head of evil for all time. One who would bring an end to the pain, the tears, the grief, the crying and mourning and injustice and deceit.

God’s plan is that his people, those who despite their wrongdoing and rebellion, would still trust him, that through these people he would show what life was meant to be like. He promised that ultimately, from these very people, One would be born who would ultimately crush this evil power, and start to bring things back to the way they should be.

We read the OT and we see how God chose a people as his very own. How he lived with them. They were his people, his priests, his holy nation. He would be their God. And We see them stumble and fall and fail, and lose faith.

But God stays remains faithful to his promises. His faithfulness knows no limit.

And all through the years He sent prophets who

“dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with open wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from valleys and seas, from women in streets and from men in ships.”

[Plantinga p.9-10]

The NT tells us that Jesus is the one to bring this new creation. He is our promised rescuer – more about that next week.

Be sure of this: through this Jesus God is answering the rebellion of humanity that has wrecked his world.

Writing about Jesus, Paul says

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20, NIV)

This is the peace we all long for.

It comes through Jesus, who lived and died and rose again. His birth, life, death, and rising are historically verifiable events. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates His claim to be creation’s rescuer, your Saviour, your very present hope.

through this Jesus God is answering the rebellion of humanity that has wrecked his world

This Jesus – in a way that we can scarcely comprehend – is awakening that sense in you that ‘things are not the way they should be’.

He’s telling you that your world is broken. That you are broken. That we are all broken.

His death and rising again show that he has the power to put us back together.

To deal with our rebellion.

Our fallen acts.

Our fallen disposition.

Our corruption.

And he is calling you to trust Him.

To come on board with his all powerful effort to make things right.

So that instead of being stuck in rebellion, we might be free, our world made right, and one day, at last, everything will be the way it should be.

[I acknowledge with thanks the clarity Cornelis Plantinga has brought to this discussion with his work ‘Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be – A Breviary of Sin‘ This book breathes the hope of Christ into any discussion of our deepest and ugliest realities]