Monday, July 14, 2008

Exiled (Genesis 3-4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
July 13, 2008

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Today we are starting a new series that will take us through the summer until Labor Day. I got the idea for this series from a video we watched this spring on what it means to be a “missional church.” The sermon is not about being missional, though I will continue to talk a lot about us being a lighthouse and a searchlight in this neighborhood as we strive to reach those beyond our walls. Rather, what caught my attention was a brief statement the speaker made while talking about Israel in the Old Testament. He pointed out that until a certain point in their history, the Israelites conceived of God only in lighthouse terms [that’s my description of it]. In other words, God dwelled in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel and in order to draw near to God, you came into the camp into closer proximity to that dwelling place of God on earth.

What completely turned this understanding of God on its head was Israel being conquered and taken into “exile” by the super-powers in the world at the time. The Temple was destroyed, the holy city of Jerusalem was left in shambles, and the people were taken far from home and far (they thought) from God. The Exile was not only seen as physical separation from home and God, but as punishment for unfaithfulness and a spiritual separation. In many ways, Exile was explained and experienced as the earthly consequences of individual and corporate sin, and it was a time of great sorrow and despair.

And then, the Israelites found something surprising. God was not just in the holy Temple or the holy city. While they continued to long for home in hopes of also returning to God’s favor, the Israelites discovered something that was a foretaste of the Gospel – the great “Good News” of the New Testament. God was not far away, waiting for them to journey back home; God was there with them in Exile. This brings us to our texts for today.

Exiled from Paradise (Genesis 3)

I’m just going to highlight one part of the story of the Fall, and that is the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. As you know, God created them and put them in a paradise, the Garden of Eden, to serve and worship Him and enjoy God’s presence. When Eve listened to the Lie and Adam disobeyed God’s command, the consequence was to be death. We must never forget that is the consequence of sin. Sin equals death.

God’s first great mercy was to delay death, and Exile was the consequence. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, from paradise, and were not able to return. The immediate consequence of their disobedience, their sin, was to lose the closeness of being “home with God” and to be put out into a world of their own making. But here’s the interesting and hopeful part: God followed them out into the world, for we continue to read of God speaking to humanity, as we’ll see in the next story.

This is the pattern that will continue throughout the Bible and human experience. God made us for relationship, worship, and enjoyment of Him, we sinned and turned away, God forestalls the judgment of death and allows us to endure separation or exile as a temporary state before death, and comes after us to offer us a way back home.

Exiled from God’s Presence (Genesis 4)

In Genesis 4, there is a second story of Exile. Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel, make an offering to God. When Cain’s offering is not pleasing to the Lord, he becomes angry. Note that Cain had not yet sinned – in v. 7 God says, “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” But Cain does not master sin, and anger turns to murderous rage and he kills his brother.

There are swift and severe consequences for this horrific sin. Cain is exiled from family, from productive working of the ground (farming), and most of all, from God’s presence. We read that Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in Nod, making Exile his home. Did God come after him? We don’t read of it there. Was his sin too great? I’d like to suggest that God did go with him. God somehow marked Cain in such a way that others who might see him and want to take vengeance would be deterred. Somehow, even in severe judgment, God went with Cain, to direct others away from his deadly choice. What I cannot say is what would have happened if Cain had turned around and thrown himself on God’s mercy. He did not, but chose to make his home in Exile. That appeared to be his self-chosen fate. But God did not abandon him; he abandoned God.

The Implications of God’s Pursuit

More of this pattern will become clear in coming weeks as we read of exile from family, exile from society, self-imposed exile, and other situations where God does not abandon us. But in anticipation of all that, consider two implications coming from the character of God revealed in these stories.

First, God is not waiting for you to get your life together in order to know you or for you to know Him. God is not a waiting God, but a seeking God, and comes to you wherever you are, even if that feels like some kind of exile. Are you in the depths of depression? God is there. Are you living in a way that is disobedient to God? God is right there, nonetheless. Are you far from your literal and spiritual home? God is right there. That can be scary news because sometimes we feel a little better with some distance from the one we have offended. But ultimately and most significantly, it is Good News, because the hopes of you earning your way back into God’s good graces is slim indeed! God is where you are. That’s huge. Though humanity abandoned God, God has not abandoned us, but come after us to bring us home. That is Good News! If you are here and struggling with being connected with God, hear the Good News in this, God’s Word: God is with you in Exile and would like to welcome you home.

The second implication has to do with how we understand church. This is the difference between being only a lighthouse church or also being a searchlight church. If God is not a waiting God, who is waiting for folks out there to come find Him in here, then neither should we be waiting, come-to-us Christians. The mission of God is out there – and that is where we should be.

We’ve participated in that mission in an extraordinary way through VBS at Brighton Place this past week. We had the first VBS last Thursday night and it was far beyond my wildest imagination. We were expecting 5-10 kids and more like 30 showed up, with some older siblings joining in the fray. I was also amazed by the response from our church - about 12-15 people... a middle schooler, a high schooler, a college student, a 20-something, a couple of parents of small children, several in their 40s and 50s... and here's the part that really got me pumped (okay, there are several things...): this was not a church program, but a group of people who have heard me for two years running challenge every member of the church to find a personal ministry and mission. The staff didn't plan this... we had nothing to do with it. The elders didn't form a committee or call planning meetings. This was initiated by two parents who caught a vision for the children of our neighborhood and they ran with it. They didn't recruit volunteers heavily - just said, "If you can join us, come on!" So everyone who came did so because the Lord moved them to do it... everyone there wanted to be there, wasn't guilted or pressured in to it, but sought out this opportunity to love our neighbors.

Here's the other thing that amazed me... I just about melted into a weepy puddle when a single mom and her 11 yr. old daughter conducted the lesson (again, not handed to them, but planned entirely on their own because they felt called to this). They did a skit on the parable of the wedding banquet. The 11 yr. old was dressed up fancy and was throwing a party and sent out invitations to all her rich and powerful friends - her mom delivered these to various kids sitting around, who had been dressed up as baseball star, doctor, mayor, etc... - each then read the excuse on the back of the invitation as to why they wouldn't make the party. Finally, the mom returned to say that no one could come - all the powerful people were busy. And the 11 yr. old sends her mom back out to invite everyone to come to the party. Then they read the verse about how Jesus came for the poor, the lame, the blind... and man, the Gospel was preached to all those gathered 'round. It was electrifying.

One bonus... near the end of the invitations, one was given out to a really cute 4-5 yr. old girl who couldn't or wasn’t interested in reading her lines. Instead of making an excuse to not go to the party, she went running up to the 11 yr. old (who had been playing with her for the past hour), hugged her, and said she would come to her party. I'm about to start crying again typing it on my screen. Wow. For those who have ears to hear...

We’ll have another opportunity to do VBS-on-the-road on July 24. God is on the move. I invite you to come be a part of pointing to a gracious God who comes to find you where you are. Amen.

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