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 eternal...in you.

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