Thursday, January 27, 2011

On the Mountain of God [Third-Day Stories]

Hiking down Mount Sinai, Egypt, at sunset
How ready are we to hear or to recognize God's voice?  As I've been reading about Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, where he led the people of Israel and they received the ten commandments…I was reminded of a time when I too was told by God to bring someone to Mount Sinai and, no, I'm not kidding. I want to share with you a little later how that happened...but for now let me ask you this:  If you had three days to prepare to hear God’s voice, would you know what to do?  Moses didn’t…until God told him.

One of the difficulties we have in communicating with God is imagining where God is.  When we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven” some may think of God as distant and difficult to reach… in outer space or the twilight zone. In Jewish thought there is a helpful distinction made between three heavens: (a) The firmament, as in the "birds of the heavens" (b) The starry heavens and (c) "The heaven of heavens," or "the third heaven.” Now God occupies all three of these “heavens” – God is as far out and further than we can imagine, and as close as the air we breathe. That helps me when I think about speaking to God in prayer; knowing that the God who created both space and time chooses to meet us right here and now in this space and this time, which is why….

(i) God instructed them to set aside a holy time. “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow… because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people....On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightening with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast” (Ex. 19: 10-12, 16). There is something potent about an appointment.  There is something powerful about promising someone that you will be there at such and such a time on such and such a day.  The world could not advance very quickly without appointments, without the promises and commitments we make to one another to be there “on time” or at least close to “on time.” Renewing our relationship with God requires the same kind of intentionality that we give to our boss or our family, or the gym.  Indeed, the appointment we make with God every Sunday… or on our way to work or school, or in the living room before sunrise is the most important appointment on our calendar.  Notice that God showed up exactly when he said he would…on the morning of the third day (16).  God is always on time.  It was a revelation to me to think that when I set aside time to focus on God and his word; that it is not just for my benefit, but that God also desires it and misses me when I don’t show up.

(ii) God instructed them to set aside a holy place. “You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up to the mountain or to touch the edge of it….Set limits around the  mountain and keep it holy” (Ex. 19: 23).  I think it’s significant that the first place that God meets Israel is not in a building, not in a temple, not in a palace…but on a mountain.  If we are going to be intentional about meeting God we’ve got to get out of our minds the idea that we have to be in a church to do it.  Mountains can be holy places, a cathedral of trees can be a holy place, just as a library or a study or a bedroom can be a holy place. We have an outside God – a God who is continually calling us outdoors…and into the world… which means that Holy places also include any place in which we are loving and serving other people in Christ’s name. Now if you’re having difficulty hearing God’s voice, the first thing I would ask you is this: Do you have a place and a time?  Have you set aside a holy corner of God’s universe in which to meet the Creator for a few minutes each day?  You need that place and time…and God will meet you there when you set it aside.                                                   

(iii) Next, God tells Moses and the people how to adopt…a holy mind-set.  As human beings whose minds are clouded by sin, we need a new way of looking at reality in order to hear God clearly, a holy mind-set.  The first thing God impresses upon the minds of his people is the need to accept a new identity“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant you shall be my treasured possession … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Ex. 19: 5-6). Now Israel’s mind-set up to that point was more cranky than holy.  In Ex. 16: 2-3, not long after they were delivered from Egypt, we read that “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness [saying] ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  But God chose them anyway; chose them to be his treasured possession (cherished and beloved), chose them to be a kingdom of priests (people who help other people get closer to God)  and a holy nation (a nation defined not by their military arsenal or powerful gov’t, but by the goodness of their lives). That would be a great plan for any nation…and Israel was supposed to be the model.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of our true identity.  While I was in Egypt in the late 1980's on my way to the Sinai desert, I was walking with a friend through the temple of Luxor with its forest of 150 foot columns.  An Egyptian man came up to us and said to my friend Joan, “Ahhhh! You are a 5,000 camel woman!”  Now she was not feeling particularly attractive that day and so I took a picture of the two of them together.  When I got home, I sent her a copy of that picture and wrote on the back… “Never forget, you are a 5,000 camel woman!”  When I told that story to my wife, I added, "Baby, you are a 10,000 camel woman!"  And what I want to say to those who are reading this is, “You are a 10,000 camel child of God, and don’t forget it."  That’s what God was doing as he reminded rebellious Israel that they had a new identity as his people.

If the first step is to accept a new identity, the second step for the Israelites was to dress the part.  God says to Moses: “Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day” (Ex 19: 10). In other words, after weeks of walking through a dessert wasteland, they had to wash up and play the part of a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The other day, I was reading the blog of a teleworker who worked at home in pajamas and old t-shirts.  He said that if his clients saw him beside a 15 year old fast food worker, they would pick the teenager to do their website design.  But if your clients don’t see you, how important could dressing up be?  For an experiment, he decided to dress in slacks, a collared shirt and leather shoes for a week.  He found that (1) he wasn’t spilling food and coffee all over himself so much.  (2) When colleagues dropped by after short notice, he was ready for them.  He didn’t have to run in the backroom and say, “Just a minute.”  (3) He was getting everything done on his to-do list and more.  The point…dressing the part helped him be the part.  Dressing up like Christ, means imitating his prayers, copying his way of speaking and acting and loving; doing the things that we imagine he would do if he were us!  As we do that, as we play the part, as we try to use our mouths and minds and our bodies in God-honoring ways, we will inevitably fall short, sense our need, cry out for God’s help, and grow in closer communion with him.   

Adopting a new identity requires a change of mind.  Dressing the part requires a change of the will.  And finally, Israel is challenged to make God your first love.   OK, I admit that “making God your first love” sounds a lot different from Moses’ command for men “not to go near a woman” (Ex. 10:15) as they prepared for the third day…but I think it’s a valid reframe.  When it comes to hearing God’s voice and walking in his ways there are a number of things that want to claim our deepest passion.  Sexual gratification is just one of the these, but it’s certainly not the only one. Many have the idea today that they should be able to satisfy any and every desire…whether it’s the desire for food or sex or exercise or excitement…or revenge.  But none of these deserve first place in our lives… and in fact can destroy our lives if we let them reign over us.  In response, God may very well be calling us to back away from that habit or thing that has gained power over us, that is hurting others and is not glorifying to God.  More importantly, God may be calling us to put him first by redirecting those energies towards the needs of others, listening to a discouraged friend, feeding the hungry, righting a wrong, or sharing Jesus with someone far from God. The point is that God wants to be first, to be our first love… and anything that occupies that place is going to hinder us from clearly hearing God’s voice.

(iv) Finally, they listened to "all" that God had to say.  When it came time for God to speak, we’re told that he spoke “all these words” (20:1)  to “all the people”  (19:11).  The key word here is “all.”   They “all” listened to “all” of his words.  The message had two main parts, and they are summarized in the first three verses of Exodus 20.  The first word reminded Israel that God called them because of his steadfast love: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Before Israel knew the Lord, he called them.  Some feel that the Hebrew Scriptures portray God as a God of laws, while the New Testament portrays God as a God of love.  In truth, God’s steadfast love (his hesed) is a pervasive theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The second word reminded Israel that God is a God who gives commands (mitzvot): “You shall have no other gods before me.”  God blesses, but then God commands.  In fact, it is God’s hesed that empowers us to obey God’s mitzvot.  Y’shua Jesus came to embody and to show us, in person, God’s hesed and his mitzvot, his love and his will for our lives (his commands).  In fact, Jesus accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves: he perfectly obeyed God’s commands, and perfectly demonstrated his steadfast love..

My concern is that we hear only half of God’s message, the message given on Sinai and embodied in Jesus. Some of us hear only the first part, “I am the God who loved you and brought you out of Egypt…” but then feel like we can ignore God’s commands.  After all, we say to ourselves, God will love us no matter how we actually live.  We forget that if we truly loved God we would want to obey him and turn from what we know is wrong. Others of us hear only the call to obedience…and excel at keeping all the rules, but have forgotten that we were saved by his grace through Jesus our Lord, and that he wants us to pass on that grace by loving one another as he loved us.  In truth, we “all” need to hear “all” of God’s message (no exceptions here) We need both his empowering love, and his sanctifying call to obedience.  To the extent that we try to make excuses and deny either of these…we will fall into error and fail to come to know the true God. 

I was never a very patient hiker.  In fact, when I was 19, I remember grumbling and complaining when a girl plodded along in front of me; and later, when she was injured, I grumbled again that we would have to take her down the mountain cross country…that is until the guide pulled me aside and told me how selfish I was.  I’ve learned that sometimes God speaks to us through other people, and he was my Moses that day. And it’s because of that experience (God speaks to us through experiences too) that I ended up helping someone to the top of Mt. Sinai.  Joan, the 5,000 camel woman, was ready to give up and not even try to complete the three hour hike up the mountain.  She was really moaning and groaning, and I was so tempted to pass her and keep going; but then I heard God say to me, “Steve, I want you to slow down and bring Joan up to the top of Mount Sinai with you.”  “Lord do I have to?  Can’t you send someone else?”  “I’m sending you Steve.  Now go…”  It was time for me to accept a new identity, practice some new habits (like pretending I wasn’t so self-centered), and give God first place.  To motivate us both, we set a goal…let’s get to the top of the mountain by sunset.  We learned from Moses that it helps to have a place and a time to shoot for!  And you know what?  We made it to the top, huffing and puffing…just as the sun was going down! Up there, I opened my Bible and read those holy words… “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me….”  And I gave thanks for the love of God poured out through his only begotten Son upon a selfish man like me.  In the years since that day, I’ve learned that a hiking trail or a sanctuary, a living room or the bedside of a sick friend can be as holy a mountain as Sinai and that the same God who met his people on the third day, is ready to meet us there today.  Will you join him?   

Father God, we long to hear your voice as clearly and unmistakably as a thunderclap or a quiet whisper, but how often we’ve felt unprepared, apathetic, and disinterested. Captivated by the quest for more and more, distracted by business, and the need to satisfy any and every desire…we’ve forgotten the beauty of holiness, or the power of your words and ways.  We’re tired of sin and ready for renewal.  Let it begin as we set aside time and space to hear your word.  Empower our minds and bodies to receive, believe, and act upon your blessings and commands.  We want to know once more that a living room or an office cubicle, a shaded tree or a school bench, is as holy a place to ponder your word as a sanctuary or holy mountain could ever be.  Now reshape and renew us daily by your gracious commands that we might walk as Jesus walks, pray as he prays, serve as he serves, give as he gives, and love as he loves…in the strength and holiness of your Spirit.  Amen!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"God Will Provide..." [Third-Day Stories]

In times of suffering it may seem as though God is cruel and mean or his plan and purpose unclear. To some, the Bible may indeed seem to portray a God who is capricious and cruel… who tells Abraham, for example, to take his son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah.  Let’s read the opening verses of Gen. 22, some of the most unsettling verses in Scripture: "After these things God tested Abraham.  He said, “Abraham….Take your  son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22: 1-2).  There is nothing ambiguous about these verses.  “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”

This is a story that has troubled many.  Why would God ask Abraham and Sarah to sacrifice their one and only miracle son born to them in their old age, this child whom God had solemnly promised them twenty-five years before?!  The Bible tells us that it was a test…a three day test of Abraham’s obedience and faith in God; Abraham the man through whom God had promised to make a great nation, and indeed bless all the nations of the earth. And on this three day journey, Abraham and Isaac learned how God provides for and blesses those who honor him. Now the first way that God often provides for us in a time of trial, when his will or his ways may seem unclear…is through what we have already learned about him.  Let me explain....

(i) Because Abraham had trusted God from day one, he carried with him the knowledge of God’s character (Genesis 12: 1-3;  17: 20-23; 18: 32).  The moment of a crisis is not the best time to start learning who God is.  The moment of a crisis is not the best time to start exercising your trust in God.  It would be wise for us to develop our relationship with God before the crisis comes, and that is what Abraham did. Now Abraham (and Isaac for that matter) knew God’s heart by experience as they trusted and obeyed him.  Abraham knew, for example, that God had promised to bless him and make of him a great nation  and that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12); he knew that his plans for Abraham and Sarah were good.  Surely that had to be a comfort to him during this anguishing three day journey...

Not only this, but Abraham knew that God listened to his prayers because God heard his prayer for Ishmael (Gen. 17: 20-23).  Remember that Ishmael was conceived when Abraham and Sarah decided that they would take things into their own hands.  God had promised that Sarah in her old age would conceive and bear a child.  In the face of this seemingly impossible promise, Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar to conceive a child with (Gen. 16).  But no sooner had Ishmael been born than God informed Abraham that he was NOT the child of promise, though Abraham cried:  “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” (Gen. 17: 18).  Abraham loved Ishmael and was ready to bless him as his chosen heir, yet though God was clear that Ishmael was not the child of promise, he reassured Abraham that he would establish an everlasting covenant with Ishmael and make him the father of a great nation (Gen. 17: 20).   

One more thing Abraham carried with him as he walked this impossible journey with his only son, was the knowledge that God himself would never purposely destroy the innocent.  When Abraham questioned God about his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom  and Gomorrah (Gen. 18) he asked pointedly, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city, will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, …Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”   And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake…if I find forty five there…if I find thirty there…for the sake of twenty…for the sake of ten I will not destroy it!”  Yes, Abraham was assured that “the Judge of all the earth” would always do what is just.

These testimonies to the character of God were not only a blessing to Abraham but they continue to be a blessing and an assurance to us when we are walking through the fog of doubt or discouragement and wonder about God’s love for us.  God keeps his promises.  God is compassionate.  God does what is just.  These lessons, Abraham slowly learned as he walked with God over a span of more than 30 years and….

(ii) What Abraham had learned about God’s character in the past helped him to obey God in the uncertainty of the present moment (Genesis 22: 1-10).  When Abraham made the three day journey from Beersheba to Mount Moriah with Isaac, a distance of 45 miles, he sustained himself with the promises of God, the compassion of God and the justice of God. That’s why Abraham could say to his servant on day three, in sight of the mountain, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you" (Genesis 22: 5). He trusted that God would fulfill his promise and be true to his character – however impossible it seemed at the moment.  Hebrews 11: 17-19 says it best:“He who had received the promises [namely, Abraham] was ready to offer up his only son of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.  He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead….”   In other words, he had the sure hope that if need be, God would raise Isaac from death to keep his promise to him!  What faith…and we can be sure that Isaac -- who could surely have run from his 100 year old father -- shared that faith. 

Jill Briscoe tells about a time years ago when her husband told their eldest son David, “David don’t go to school on Monday.  You’re going to go in for an x-ray.”  "All right," said David. Now this was Friday. Monday came. David gets in the car. His face is as white as a sheet. His eyes are out like stalks.  Stuart said, "David, you're not frightened, are you?"  "Of course I'm frightened, Dad."  "Why?"  "I know what an execution is."  “Son, I said an x-ray, not an execution.”  He'd been thinking about that from Friday till Monday. The amazing thing is he turned up. But only because he trusted his dad -- his father.  What we’ve learned about God’s character in the past can help us to obey him in the uncertainty of the present moment.  And finally…

(iii) As Abraham trusted and obeyed God on the third day, a new dimension of God’s character and plan was revealed to him (Genesis 22: 11-18).  The moment of truth arrives, the climax of the story.  Isaac is willingly bound on the altar.  He could have escaped from his father, but he does not.  Abraham raises the knife in an incomprehensible moment of anguish.  And then...“Abraham!  Abraham!”  cries the angel of the LORD.  “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22: 11-12).  At that very moment Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.  He knows exactly what to do.  He goes and takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 

As Abraham and Isaac  surrendered to God in an impossible situation, a new dimension of God’s character and plan was revealed to them: “So Abraham called that place, ‘Yeh-ho-vaw' Yir-eh' / The LORD will provide’ as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’”  Literally, the name means “The LORD will see (to it).”  What exactly did God see to, and provide?  

God provided for a culture of life.  Remember that Abraham was called out of Ur and sent to the land of Canaan which would later become the land of Israel. We know from ancient religious texts that child sacrifice was common among the Canaanites; that it was a culture that had descended to the very depths of moral depravity, believing that the gods required the life of their children to be appeased. So when God restrains Abraham he was teaching him, on a basic level, that God cherishes human life and wants us to cherish it too (cf. Jer. 7: 30-31).   Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, was speaking to Christian students about the intersection of faith and politics one day when “A young woman stood and said “4,000 lives were lost today because of abortion. How can I vote on any other issue than that?” Another student responded, “Fair enough, but 9,000 lives were lost because of HIV/AIDS. What about them? And a third said 30,000 children died today because of needless disease and poverty.”  Do any of these statistics not grieve the heart of God?  As God called Abraham to be a distinctive people among the Canaanites, so he calls us to uphold a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death. 

Second, God provided an atonement for sin. When Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son!” he was speaking prophetically.  He was prophesying that the problem of evil would never be fixed by human beings alone but by God himself; the God who was willing to do whatever was necessary to bring redemption to this world.  Last weekend, 76 year old Dorwan Stoddard covered his wife on the ground to protect her from a barrage of bullets in the mass shooting in Arizona.  He was shot three times and killed; his wife was shot three times in the leg and survived.  Don’t we all hope that we would do the same for someone we love?  Friends Jesus our Savior, the Lamb of God did it for the whole world; he did what was necessary…he bore our sins on the cross as our sacrificial lamb so that we might know both the terrible cost of sin, and the incredible grace of God: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29)!

And because of all this, God provided a reason for hope.  It was on the third-day, when the world seemed darkest, that God revealed himself most clearly and most tangibly. If we have ever felt unsure of God’s voice, surrounded by clouds of despair and discouragement, Abraham’s three day journey gives us hope.  As we surrender ourselves to God in the midst of an impossible situation as he and Isaac did, we can know that he will not abandon us or forsake us.  Instead, God’s beloved Son has already gone to the darkest and most hopeless place imaginable so that we might know that nothing – not even death -- can separate us from his love. 

San Diego pastor Bruce Humphrey shared about a time when his teenage boy was in the hospital.  He says, “I’m thinking of the words a pastor said to me in the hospital lobby while our oldest teenaged son lay in a coma. “You know Bruce, God has a purpose for this.”  You want to know the truth? I wanted to hit him. Of course, I believed this at the level of head knowledge. I knew that God could redeem any tragic situation into something good. But his words seemed trite and unhelpful at the time. Contrast his words with another pastor friend who just wrapped his arms around me and held as I let down and began to weep. No words, we just wept together. One gave me theology. The other gave me connection.”  

What strikes me most about the story of Abraham and Isaac is that what they learned about God was more than theology, it was God’s heart. That God not only revealed that his name was “The LORD will provide,” he actually provided… first through the lamb, but ultimately through his Son.  Now that’s an example for us to follow.  One more word of counsel: When someone around you is hurting and in the pain of grief; that may not be the time to say the words, “God will provide” or “God has a plan” – but that’s definitely the time do the words. That’s the time to provide a listening ear.  That’s the time to provide a gentle presence.  That’s the time to provide your love and concern.  That’s the time to provide a meal, to give a hug, or to quietly pray. That’s the time to experience the provision of God’s grace as we provide for others in his name. That’s the time to do what God did through his beloved Son… when the Word became flesh and blood, and dwelt among us; as tangible as a tear, a healing touch, or a word of forgiveness. That’s the time to start living like Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and whose sacrifice of love is our reason for unshakeable third-day hope.   

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Let There Be Life...." [Third-Day Stories]

The Bible is both a wonderfully human and God-breathed Book: "an anvil," I heard Dr. Bruce Metzger once say, "that has worn out many hammers."  We can divide the Bible up by language, the earlier Hebrew Scriptures and the later Greek Scriptures. We can divide the Bible up by book and author: the Protestant Bible contains 66 in all.  We can divide the Bible up into categories like The Five Books of Moses, the Prophetic Writings, the Gospels of Jesus Christ, or the Letters of Paul.  

Another way to divide up the Bible, suggests John Ortberg, is by time frame (see "Holding Out Hope," Leadership, April 27, 2009).  There are, for instance, many "Forty-Day Stories" in Scripture.  Noah and his family spent forty days and nights in the ark during the epic flood.  Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness hiding from Queen Jezebel.  Jesus spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public ministry; and then after his resurrection the disciples waited forty days until the Spirit of God was poured out upon them.  Forty-Day Stories are often stories about watching and waiting upon God.

But there is another type of story that we see throughout Scripture and that is what might be called the "Three-Day Story.” When Israel was threatened with genocide, a harem girl, Esther, said that she would fast for three days; then go to the King to seek deliverance for her people. When Jonah was swallowed and sweating in the belly of the big fish, guess how many days he was there? Three days. Most significantly, Jesus was crucified and then rose again on the third day.  Over the next several weeks, I will be taking a look at these powerful stories (from Genesis to Jesus to you) and what they have to teach us about getting from despair to hope, from chaos to creativity, and from barrenness to new life…because from the dawn of Creation the power of the Third Day is God’s promise to each of us who trust in him.  As we read Genesis 1: 1-13 and the third day of Creation, we discover that 

(i) In three days God brings life out of chaos and barrenness. "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless void....Then God said, 'Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day (Genesis 1: 11-13).  The setting of the story of Creation and of Eden is Ancient Mesopotamia, the land which came to be known as Babylon and which today we call Iraq.  All the geographical clues point to this part of the world.  Now there were stories circulating in this part of the world about Creation which were known to the writer of Genesis; stories which had a very different accounting of how things came to be.

One of the most popular creation stories in the Ancient Near East was the Enuma Elish…and Genesis chapter 1 reads like a line by line refutation of that story.  I like to imagine that one day God impressed upon the mind of Moses or whoever penned the inspired words of Genesis ch. 1 a revolutionary new thought, “Man of God, you have heard many strange stories about this world's creation…but now I want to share the truth with you in the form of a beautiful poem.”   In the Enuma Elish there are many gods, but in Genesis 1 there is one majestic God who creates the heavens and the earth (Richard E. Friedman, Professor of Hebrew and Comparitive Literature at UCSD, and one of my former instructors, points out that there has never been a sufficient explanation for the rise of monotheism in the polytheistic environment of ancient Mesopotamia). In the Babylonian stories matter is eternal and exists side by side with the gods, but Genesis says that God is before all things and is the origin of all things.  In the Near Eastern myths, the sun, moon, and stars are all powerful and capricious deities, but Genesis says they are merely the Lord’s creations, telling of his glory. In the Babylonian stories, human beings exist only to cultivate and supply food to the gods, but Genesis says we are made in God’s image, created and chosen to rule over and care for the creation. 

Notice that on the first day God creates light…on the second day God creates water… and on the third day dry land.  Now, with all the elements in place to sustain life, God brings forth life itself… seed bearing plants and trees. Is this description of creation meant to be a scientific account?  No.  Science answers the descriptive questions “How?”  and “When?” whereas Genesis addresses the theological questions: “Why this universe and not some other?” and “Who or What is responsible for its existence?”  But having said that, the mind behind Genesis 1 is not disinterested in the concerns of the scientific mind.  After all, Genesis 1 is filled with patterns, order, harmony, and intelligibility.  From chaos to complexity, from formless matter to intelligent life.  Things are classified and categorized in groups…vegetable life, animal life, human life, each with the power of reproduction and seed bearing, unfolding in a progression of time periods: day one, day two, day three, morning and evening, morning and evening. 

It’s no surprise that Dr. Peter Hodgson, lecturer in nuclear physics at Oxford says that the Biblical description of an orderly universe created by one God and governed by fixed laws (not irrational deities) “provided just those beliefs that are essential for science, and the whole moral climate that encouraged its growth” (Nicky Gumble, Searching Issues, 91).  But the more important message is that we can know this one true God who is our Creator and his passion to bring order out of chaos and life out of barrenness morning and evening, day after day after day; and (get this) join him in that great creative enterprise too which is why….

(ii) Three days later, God commissions humankind to care for the Life that He created. Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness and let them have dominion….and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it… And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1: 26,28,31).  Listen!  What God did in the beginning, what God began to create on the Third Day (namely, life) he invited humankind to care for on the Sixth Day.  He invited us to join with him in the process of bringing fruitfulness, order, harmony and beauty into every arena of life as human beings made in his image. 

Notice how the same language used to describe the plants and trees - words like fruitfulness and fertility – is similar to the language used to describe humanity’s divine commissioning: "Be fruitful and multiply...and have dominion."  So let's go back and look again at Day Three and see if we can’t discern principles that might apply to human life as well, because the promise of the Third Day (like the Sixth Day) is…
        1. The promise of good soil (“the earth put forth vegetation…”) Though we may sometimes doubt it, God invites us to trust him to provide everything necessary for us to grow and thrive in this life.
        2. The promise of fruitfulness.  Genesis reminds us that these plants were fruit-bearing.  To be fruitful is another way of saying purposeful and productive.  You are no accidental fluke of random chance, God has created you for a purpose, and that purpose is “very good.”
        3. The promise of variety.  We read that there were trees and plants of “every kind.”  Variety is a mark of creation.  God’s promise is that each us of has been given a variety of gifts and abilities; and he wants us to be respectful of the gifts that each brings to this world, and to the fellowship of his people.
        4. The promise of seed (“plants yielding seed”).  These plants and trees had the power to reproduce according to their kind.  They were seed-bearing.  Every plant in this world has an ancestor that goes back to the very dawn of time. We have the power to reproduce what is in us, but only what is in us…whether pride, selfishness, anger and conceit, or the love of God planted and growing in our hearts. God invites us to leave a legacy, to plant the seed of faith, hope, and love in the hearts of the next generation. 

As a result we are called to trust in his provision.  There is a spirit of fear when it comes to finances and material things that is not honoring to God.  When we live life with open hands, both ready to receive and ready to give what God has given us…we will experience his blessing.  We are called to be fruitful and purposeful.  God brought you into this world for a reason.  He put you in your family for a reason.  He put you in your job for a reason.  He put you in your school for a reason.  You are called to bring the life of Christ to places of barrenness and chaos, just as God brought life into a barren world. We are called to respect and welcome the variety of people and gifts that God has assembled here in this fellowship of his people.  Everyone one of us is needed to do the work Jesus has called us to do; and the spiritual leaders we call and commission to serve and lead need our help. Finally, we are called to be seed-bearers with a generational vision.  Among us today is the 100th generation of children to be blessed by the Messiah; and God willing our children’s children’s children will sit on his lap too.  What seed of faith will you pass on as Jesus' follower to the next generation?

Living out the promise of the Third Day may sound thrilling or it may sound overwhelming… it may be tempting to either hide or immediately offer God some of our invaluable help; but before we do anything He calls us to do nothing…. 

(iii) On the Seventh Day, God shows us how to restore order, beauty, and harmony to the life He first brings on the Third Day.  And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2: 2-3).

God brought life on the third day.  Three days later he brought you and me on to the scene to care for the life he made.  But before we begin that new job…before we go to work on day one of the second week of Creation, he calls us to stop with him and to rest in his presence.  Why?  Because we’re going to need it! It’s called the Seventh Day… the gift of Sabbath Rest.  Jesus once said to his disciples after a time of busy ministry, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6: 30-32).   And again, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come! (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV).  

Years ago, my aunt and uncle owned and operated a large nursery on a Malibu hillside which had a "hot house" for tropical plants.  My brother and I loved to play in that large hot-house... amidst the large plants, broken glass panes, and dusty floors.  Now this marvelously imperfect place called the "church" is another kind of "hot house" -- a spiritual hot house for growing children of God (and yes, it has a few broken panes of glass too). Let me share with you one example of how I've seen it work...

About three years ago, a group of deacons in our church (lay ministers who help people with practical needs) visited and prepared food for some folks who were temporarily homeless.  One of our deacons invited a woman she met that day to our church.  It was perfect timing for her...and she immediately felt a sense of belonging as she came to worship and made some new friends.  Not long after she felt led by God to become a disciple of Jesus.  As she spent time with our congregation, she also learned about a man in our congregation who was in desperate need of a kidney transplant, and felt moved to find out if she could be a donor.  The medical team informed her that only a near relative could have been a closer match than she was...and so she made the decision to give one of her kidneys in a life saving operation.  Her biggest challenges, however, were still ahead... and her new church was able to provide some practical assistance and encouragement to her as she was getting her feet back on the ground, including the care and love of her baby girl.  Last Sunday, surrounded by friends from her church family, we blessed and prayed for her daughter in the Sacrament of Baptism.  It was a powerful moment for all of us.  As I look back on the last three years and their impact on her life (and ours)...I would say that God is working some big miracles in and through her life; and that the church had truly served as a "hot house" of emotional and spiritual growth.  That makes me want to "rejoice" and give thanks for God's goodness!

I would be so bold as to say that what God does here, in the wonderfully human and equally God-breathed place we call the church... is life giving.  That what God does here in the midst of his people renews the promise of the Third Day; that what God does here is to fill us with the power of the One who rose again on the Third Day.  So my prayer for you this year is that you would be Third-Day believers!  That as you trust in the Messiah, deeply rooted in the rich soil of his grace and truth, you would have everything you need to live a life of purpose and fruitfulness, of deep respect for the gifts of others, with the ability to plant seeds of faith and hope that would endure for a thousand generations after you!  In other words, "Let there be life, God's life, abundant and you.