By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 26, 2023
Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV)
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 3:1–7 (ESV)
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
Over the past few years, I have spent many hours reflecting on this story in scripture. I do not fully know why, but for some reason I feel that if we understand this story, if we are able to see this story in completely, then maybe we might begin to understand what redemption means. Not to mention it is usually the first story that you read to your children when you open a story book bible.
I remember many late nights nine years ago when I would sit with Albert after either him needing to eat or just not being able to sleep, and I would rock him in the chair and read this story among others, I would continue to rock and think long after Albert had fallen asleep. I would whistle, “What Child it this” and “Be thou My Vision”. I would sing “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.” And I would think about the story we read in today’s scripture.
More than once as I have presented my various messages, I have taken us back to our first parents as I like to call them. I do not know why I began to refer to them in this manner, but I like it. It reminds me that these two individuals in some way are related to me and to each of you. These are not just figures in an ancient story set in Hebrew scripture, but these are our ancestors. They may have lived eons ago, but they are still our first parents. And Everything that happened to them all the good and all the bad, is part of our inheritance as their offspring.
We begin just after the narrative surrounding Creation. In the beginning, Moses wrote to us, God created the heavens and the earth. We get this step-by-step narrative, and every time I stop and contemplate creation, I am still left in awe. I have a degree in Crop Science and because of this I have studied various things from microbiology, to genetics, to milling science. I have been bombarded with theories, and I will confess, these theories have merit. But then I will take a step back and wonder. How did mutations in the genome not cause harm? So, I might understand the theories of Evolution, but this does not prevent me from the wonder of creation.
If we follow the creation narrative. We see a cycle life moving from simple to complex. And then on the sixth day of creation we are told that God, after He had created all the animals had a conversation, “Let us create man in our image.” And when all the creation was done God said that it was very good.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden.” This fifteenth verse causes me to pause. Do you notice that God put the man in the garden? For many years I had believed that the Garden was the entire earth, but if we are going to trust scripture, we are told that God created man outside the garden, and then put him into it. You might not think much of that, but to me this is significant. Our first parents, were created and then brought into communion with God. We were brought in to serve God in his garden, to work it and keep it.
The imagery of the Garden is something profound in ancient near east cultures. They often regard the throne of the divine to be on the top of a mountain, but many ancient myths also say that this place of divine residence is also a garden. This is significant because many of these cultures were semi-arid climates. Water was scarce and most families were one drought away from starvation. To them the realm of the gods would be up on a mountain. But on the mountain in the clouds the gods would live in a place where water and food were always abundant. When scripture says that God took the man and put him in the garden, it is saying that God brought humanity into his dwelling place. He created us on the outside, and brought us in.
In the ESV translation, we are told that we were brought to this garden to work it and keep it. Many translators struggle with this translation because it appears to contain grammatical errors. The words we translate as “work it” and “keep it” are feminine words and garden is masculine. In English we do not always understand this because much of our language does not make use of masculine and feminine words. In many other languages, like Spanish, this is important. The reason translators struggle is because they do not fully know what words these are attached to. But there are exceptions in the rules of grammar. If the word happens to be an infinitive. In English an infinitive verb is usually identified because it has the word “to” prior to the verb. And this is what we have here “to work it” and “to keep it”. But there is something about infinitives, at times they may refer to a continuous state or something that is to be on going. It is confusing, because usually if it is in a continuous state the verb ends with an “ING”. We do not have this here, nor does the Hebrew expressly state that it is an infinitive. And I am acting like I understand this but I do not. Grammar has never been something I have gotten a grasp of, but some scholars believe that this should be rendered, “God took the man and put in the garden of Eden for serving and for keeping it.” They see this as a continuous state of the infinitive verb because of what many might regard as a grammatical error.
We were place in God’s Garden, the place where God lives, to continually serve and keep it. We were place in this garden to serve God. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”
The trees mentioned in Genesis are also interesting. There are two special trees in the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. Just a quick side note, when they say things like knowledge of good and evil, it is a way of saying everything. It is the tree of the knowledge of everything. You might call it the Tree of 42, but that would be ridiculous.
These trees are unique to the Hebrew narratives among the near eastern cultures. There are other cultures that have a tree, the mythologies of the Norse have a tree, but of all the tree references in mythology there is usually only one, the tree of Life. Even in Christian tradition, in Revelation, we come across a tree again, and it is the tree of life. So why is this tree of knowledge here? I will get back to this, but for now we should move forward.
Last week I mentioned this story. I mentioned that the word translated as serpent could mean shining or shining one. So when this crafty creature comes to Eve I want us to stop and consider something. Eve has a conversation with this entity. Our first parents named all the animals, they knew the characteristics of these beasts, and yet Eve is talking to this serpent. Either Eden is like Narnia, or this is more than a mere serpent.
The snake has a checkered past in human history. The image of a serpent can be both positive and negative. We see this in some of the common symbols we still use today. The staff with the snakes wrapping around it has long been a symbol of medicine. The symbol comes from Greek mythology and represents the god of healing, and those that worshiped this god used snakes in their rites. I do not know why. But the funny thing about this symbol is we use the wrong one. The god of healing was represented by a staff with one snake but often the symbol used for medicine is a staff with two snakes and wings. This symbol does not represent medicine but the messenger of the gods, Mercury or Hermes.
The serpent in ancient mythology has many meanings, usually it represents eternity or continual renewal of life. This symbolism most likely emerged from observing the shedding of snake skins. And the use of the serpent in mythology is one of the oldest symbols ever used. But when we couple this with the other mythologies and symbols, we get something spectacular. The term in Hebrew translated as serpent can also mean bronze or shining, the symbol of the serpent can mean eternal, and is used to represent a messenger of the gods. And Eve had not qualms speaking to this being, in the garden where God lived. I mentioned last week that it was likely that Eve knew this serpent as a spiritual being or angel and as I continue to study this passage and contemplate the words as I pray, I fully believe that Eve knew this being as one of the beings within the Garden that served God, as a member of God’s council.
This serpent was crafty. God brought the man into the garden to serve and tend to it. God brought in the man. The angels were created to serve God in the spiritual realm, and now God brings in man to do the same. Do you sense some tension? There is a bit of jealousy brewing in the garden.
The serpent speaks to Eve and says, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” I want us to consider this question. The wording of the question is important. The serpent does not outright say did God tell you not to eat of a particular tree, but he says any tree. Eve is forced to explain. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said that you shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden.” Right here we get some confusion and I hope we can understand why Eve gets confused. “In the midst” can have one of two meanings and this is what the Serpent is preying on. It can mean in the middle, or in. The serpent was leading by saying in, “you shall not eat of any tree in the garden.” Eve counters by saying in the middle. This twisting of a word has Eve questioning, “is that what God said?” This messenger, this angel is causing Eve to be confused. And remember Adam and Eve are both here, Adam does not speak but later in verse six we are told that Adam is with her. He is silent as Eve struggles with this snake. So in her confusion she adds, “neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”
The serpent has her where he wants her. She is questioning God. In her confusion, fear begins to creep in. Does she really know the truth? And the forked tongued messenger continues, “You will not surely 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.”
This is where grammar comes in again. The Hebrew word for God in this place is Elohim. This is a plural noun. Because it is plural it can mean a couple of things. When early Quakers emerged in England, one of their protests dealt with pronouns oddly enough, but not like today. It dealt with the pronoun, you. You, at that time, was plural and thee was singular. The early Quakers refused to use a plural pronoun for any singular person, because they felt that all people were equal. Social convention at that time was that the nobility were referred with a plural pronoun, mainly because they represented both themselves and all that were under them. I bring this up because Elohim is plural. We often regard it as a name for God, but in Hebrew it can mean any spiritual being, from God the most high, to an angel, or a disembodied human spirit. So when the serpent begins to speak he is using Elohim singular and Elohim plural in the same sentence. God, singular most high, knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, plural angels, knowing good and evil.
This crafty serpent is using Eve’s confusion and envy against her and Adam. They see the shining ones and know of their power and position. Adam and Eve are terrestrial creatures, they are bound to the earth, and these spiritual beings are different, seemingly more. Our first parents began to think we could be more. We could be like angels.
She saw the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise. She is staring at the tree. Contemplating it. This one tree out of the many. God had given them all the trees of the garden, even the tree of life. All the trees but this one. This is God’s tree.
Scripture tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And God said not to eat of this one tree, the tree of the knowledge of everything. The symbolism here is vast. God is not only giving them a commandment, but an invitation to relationship. He is setting boundaries to establish a healthy relationship between them. This story is more than a story of the first sin, but it is a story of every relationship we have had, and will have in our lives.
It was not that God was denying our first parents knowledge and wisdom, instead God was asking them to come to him for that wisdom. God was asking them to gather fruit in all the garden and come to his tree to eat with him under the shade of his branches. He is letting them know that they will grow and mature, they will have a deeper understanding of the world around them as they tend to his garden, but there will always be something that they will not understand. It is ok to seek understanding, but slow down and take it in step do not rush in too quickly because there is always something more that we have not considered.
Our first parents look upon this tree. A tree they have passed many times, a tree they had not considered before because it was God’s tree, not theirs. And suddenly they begin to question God. Why would God withhold knowledge from us? Why would God not want us to become like the angels? Why is God being unfair? With cleverly crafted words this serpent gave a message of confusion and all at once our first parents lost trust.
This is the fall. This is sin. Often our theological books will call this the original sin, but oddly the word for sin is not mentioned until the next chapter of Genesis, when Cain is contemplating murder and God tells him sin is crouching at his door. The original sin is breach of trust, it is a broken relationship. Our first parents were living in the garden with God fully entrusting their lives to him. But when the serpent spoke, we began to question God’s motives. We began to think that maybe God could not be trusted. Eve looked at the fruit, she thought “I cannot trust God so I will trust in myself.” And she took the fruit and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. And their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked. This speaks to vulnerabilities and trust as well. Immediately, when they lost their trust of God, they could no longer trust each other. I am soft and squishy; you might hurt me if I do not cover and hide myself.
The teachers of the law one day came to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment was. And Jesus answered, to love God with everything you have and all that you are, and the second is like the first, love your neighbor as yourself. The greatest commandment is to trust and entrust. It is to put God and others before your own self-interest. The greatest commandment is relationships. And this goes all the way back to a tree.
The crafty serpent did not completely lie when he spoke to Eve. The truth is they would not die if they ate from the tree. The reason we die is because God could no longer trust us. He could not trust us, and we could no longer trust him or those around us. We die because God banished us from the garden and removed our access to the tree of life. We were banished because through our short-sighted desires, we flippantly threw our relationship away and once trust is broken it becomes difficult to restore. Our child tells a lie to avoid punishment and now we cannot trust them. Our spouse failed to mention something and now we do not trust that they will be where we think they are. We begin to push and probe until eventually we break trust completely. “Sin is crouching at our doors. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Will we trust? Will we return and restore our relationships, or will we lash out in fear and envy? Will we wait for God to reveal knowledge, or in our selfish ambition will we take matters into our own hands? Will we love God, embrace the Holy Sprirt, and live the love of Christ with others? Or will we continue in the cycle of neglected and broken relationships? The beginning of wisdom is respect of God, will we return to trust Him?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 19, 2023
Exodus 24:12–18 (ESV)
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
This week as I was considering this passage my mind wandered as it often does. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the book of Exodus, it is the story of the trials of Israel under the yoke of slavery in Egypt, Israel’s deliverance, and finally the establishment of Israel as a nation. But if we are to turn our attention only to this passage we need to understand the context.
When God confused the languages in Babel, we are told that he divided these various language groups into nations, and put these nations under the sons of God, of hosts of heaven. This might confuse some, if not all of you. It almost sounds as if I am saying that there are multiple gods. That is not what I mean, in Hebrew the term Elohim can mean many things, but basically it is spiritual beings. This could be the spirit of humans that have passed beyond the veil separating life and death, it can mean the beings we commonly refer to as angels. It can also mean God the most high. What Moses means when he says, in Deuteronomy, the sons of God, is angelic beings. These beings are not equal to God, and they are not equal to humanity. If we want to believe what is written in Deuteronomy, this would mean that each nation, each language group, had an angel set over them, but each of these angels could either encourage the people to walk toward God, or away. But out of all the nations, God chose Israel to be his allotment.
Israel, was not a nation when this announcement was made in Genesis. Israel was not even a tribe. It is important to remember this. When God judged the world at Babel there was no Israel, God relegated the entire earth to these lesser beings, and what did he keep for himself? The answer is nothing. God let our rebellious ancestors live just as we wanted. We chased after these spiritual beings, we wrote myths and formed religious cultic practices honoring them. And God allowed it to happen. And only after he gave the nations to the forces of chaos did God begin to work on his own allotment. In the land of Ur he called one man Abraham.
I want us to get a grasp on what God did prior to this point, because only then will we begin to truly appreciate the revelation he provides us in scripture. Egypt was a nation, Babylon in some form was a nation, Ur was a nation, all of these are nations that were in the areas occupied in scripture, but at that moment Israel did not exist. One man, Abraham of Ur, was called. This man was already an adult, he was married he belonged to a family that lived in one of the nations that God had allotted to another spiritual being, but out of that chaos He called out to Abraham, and this man in faith followed.
Abraham was told that he would be the father of many nations, that his offspring would be like the stars in the heavens. And yet Abraham had no offspring because his wife was barren. God chose a man with a barren wife to become the nation through which he would reverse the sin and rebellion of the world.
When Abraham was well along in years his wife finally gave birth to a child named Isaac. One child, when he was over one hundred years old. And Isaac then carried on this hope that God would make him the father of many nations. But much like his father, Isaac was not blessed with an abundant house. They had wealth, their livestock holdings, and their servants would make most people in those ancient times green with envy, but they did not have a large family. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the brothers, out of deceitfulness gained his father’s blessing, but this deceitfulness caused Jacob to live in fear most of his life. Jacob was blessed with a large family. Abraham had one son, Isaac had two, Jacob had twelve children. Finally the seed of nationhood is beginning to take root, yet Jacob lived in fear instead of hope. He stole the blessing from his brother and he shrewdly gained his wealth by trickery. If we were to just look at the life of Jacob without knowing anything else, we would find Jacob as being a man with questionable morals.
When Jacob returned to the land of his father, the land where his brother Esau resided, Jacob was afraid. He knew that he had lived a dishonest life, he knew that his brother had every right to be upset with him, and could extract revenge according to the laws of the kingdoms of man. Jacob knew all of this, and he still returned. He returned because he knew that he was running from the life he was called to and he needed to repent. And one night a man came to him, and Jacob wrestled with this man throughout the night. He struggled and fought, we are not fully told why, but at the end of the story we are told that Jacob eventually realized that he was not just struggling with a man, but something greater. Jacob wrestled until the man blessed him. And this is where Jacob became Israel, one who wrestles with God.
We now have the name Israel, but we are far from a nation. Abraham was promised a land; that promise was extended to his son, and to his grandsons. Jacob returned to this land so that he could reunite with that promise, but they were still far from being a nation. At this point Israel was a dysfunctional blended family of twelve sons from four different women.
Famine struck the land, and the tribes of Israel left the land promised to them for Egypt. They went because this dysfunctional family sold one of their siblings into slavery and after some time this former slave rose within society to become the second most important man in Egypt. Joseph invited Israel to live in Egypt and they were fruitful in that land. They were fruitful yet they were living outside the promise given to Abraham.
They were enslaved because they trusted in themselves and the kingdoms of men instead of their God. They looked after themselves. They became fruitful in this land, but it was not where they were supposed to be. God allowed this, but this was not his ultimate plan. Even Joseph the son sold into slavery recognized that they were living outside the promise and begged them to take his bones to be buried in the land that God had promised.
When we live outside God’s promise, when we live according to the kingdoms of men instead of God, we put ourselves at risk. The kingdoms of men are not always faithful. Egypt loved Joseph, he had brought them through a famine, and yet eventually the acceptance turned. Eventually Egypt saw Israel not as a blessing but as the source of all their problems. So, they made them their slaves. We can learn much from this story, but that is not the point today.
God heard the cries of his people while they toiled in bondage. They began to recognize that they were not where they should be, and they began to turn back to the God of their fathers. And out of Egypt, God called Moses and Aaron. He through great feats of awesome power, brough the might of Egypt to their knees and Israel was free. They marched out of Egypt into the wilderness. They wandered through the wilderness, being guided by the presence of God in a cloud and pillar of fire. And they made camp at the base of a mountain.
I think about mountains quite often. I love mountains. When I travel to Colorado, I like to imagine what the people that crossed the great plains heading west might have thought as their covered wagons neared the Rocky Mountains. The mountains take your breath away, but imagine if you had to try to walk, and push and pull a wagon up through them? Imagine trying to encourage an ox or horse to drag all your earthly belongings up over these massive rocks that reached into the heavens. This is the image I want you to have when you think of the scene. Israel, this massive group of people descended from Jacob, were walking through the wilderness and they came to a mountain range. Right in front of them was something that seemed impassable.
It was here, as Israel stopped and made camp that the presence of God revealed himself. They had the pillar of fire and the cloud, but they did not know exactly what those things were. When they came to this mountain, the cloud grew and surrounded the peak, and out of that cloud, God began to speak not only to Moses but to all the people.
As the people stood in shock, listening to the voice of God, Moses began to record what was said. And this became known as the Book of the Covenant. Once God had finished his monologue, they began to do something else. They built an altar, they made sacrifices and they put the blood of the sacrifices into two bowls. The blood from one bowl was ceremonially splattered on the altar, and the blood of the other was sprinkled on the people. This is the only time the blood of a sacrifice is split between God and the people. This ceremony is important. The book of the covenant was God’s call to the people, asking them to become his nation. The sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood was the ceremonial rite that bound the two parties together into the covenant. Then Israel shared a meal with their God at the base of this mighty mountain.
It is at that moment Israel became a nation. While they ate the meal, Moses read from the book of the Covenant. He reminded them of what they were bound to. And once this meal was complete, God called Moses to come up to meet with him.
This morning we are at the base of the mountain as we reflect of this morning’s scripture. I mentioned that there were nations prior to Israel; Egypt, Babylon, Ur, there were Amorites, Hittites, and other nations. Each of these nations, each of these people groups interacted with each other. They shared stories and had religious systems that overlapped with each other. They had different names for their deities, but there was something interesting about these religions, they were very similar. Each had a greater god and lessor gods. Each taught of their gods living in the mountains. High in the heavens where humanity could not quite reach. All these cultures had influence on the people that became Israel. Israel knew there God, but they did not fully know how to relate to God, nor how their God fit into the world system all around them. Because in this ancient world the most powerful god was the god whose people had the most power. This concept continued long into Israel’s history and we continue to see it in the writings of the prophets. But at the base of this mountain, God revealed himself to his people. At this mountain God became the God of a nation. And then he calls the leaders of this nation to come up and meet with him.
Moses takes Joshua, Aaron, and the elders up into this mountain, and they leave the people down below. He calls to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone.” Israel had just participated in a covenant ceremony. In those ancient days when a covenant was made, both parties would receive something to commemorate what was agreed upon. They would carve in stone or make markings in a clay tablet. Archeologist are finding these sorts of things throughout the Ancient Middle East. This covenant was agreed upon not just by Moses, but all the people, and now God is calling Moses up to retrieve the documentation.
The Elders, along with Moses, went up onto the mountain, and they waited. The Glory of God dwelt on this mountain, Mount Sinai, as a cloud covered it for six straight days. This would have been an awesome and fearsome sight. When scripture speaks of the Glory of God, it often speaks of light, and sometimes earthquakes. For six days the elders are up on the mountain. Lights flashing, the earth trembling, and a cloud surrounding them. Then on the seventh day, God calls out from the cloud for Moses to come further up. Our passage says that the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
I want you to picture this in your mind. A thunderous voice is calling down to you from the clouds, and a mountain is glowing. For me I would want to run away because when I picture this the only thing that comes to mind is a volcano, and I grew up watching movies about volcanoes and I do not want to be anywhere around one. And all the people heard God call their leader, Moses, to go on up into the very flames. Moses entered that flaming cloud and was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
This week is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the day where we celebrate the revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Jesus took his disciples to a mountain. He left some of the disciples down at the base, he took a few up onto the mountain, and then he moves further up again to pray. Jesus on this day is reflecting the very scene that we see here in Exodus. And as He prays, the glory of God shown around him, and his garments became like a radiant light, and with him. the disciples reported, was Moses and Elijah.
We have just listened to the story of Moses on the mountain. We have yet to hear about Elijah. Moses brought Israel to the mountain, and they became a nation. Once they entered into the land promised to them, they were to become God’s people and God, would be their God. But shortly after this Israel began to fall away. They fell because they had all these other nations influencing them. Nations that had a long history and wealth to prove it. They began to turn away from their God and chased after the gods of the nations. Elijah is the father of the prophets. He served during a time when the Baal was being worshiped in Israel. This is important to consider, because Baal worship is ancient, but Baal was not the most high god of that nation. The worshipers of this deity worshiped Baal as the intermediary between humanity and the higher god El. Many in Israel may have thought that they were staying true to God even while participating in these religious rites, justifying their worship as being to El not Baal.
Elijah was sent to tell them otherwise. On Mount Carmel Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to a godly duel. The priest of Baal were to cry out to the gods to light the fire of sacrifice. They chanted, danced, cut, and worked themselves into a religious frenzy but the altar remained cold. Elijah then took his turn and said a simple prayer. In response, God sent fire from heaven and burned the sacrifice, and the stones of the altar to the ground. Elijah then killed the priest of Baal and ran for his life. He stayed upon a mountain, hiding from the king and his evil queen. Elijah just witnessed this miraculous event, and he went to the mountain and hid in despair. He cried out to God, I am all that remains faithful. Only Me. And God visited Elijah where he was. A wind and a fire raged outside the place Elijah hid. And then a stillness. It was in the stillness that Elijah covered his head and went out to speak to God.
Moses entered the cloud, and Elijah exited the cave. And on these mountains, they spoke with God. Separated one from the other by hundreds of years, yet in that moment and in that place the Law and the Prophets met with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration.
Nothing going on today in the kingdoms of men is new to God. We might think that the world is crumbling all around us and we like Elijah are crying out to God that we are all that is left and the rest of the world is corrupt and without hope. We like Moses might be looking at the people around us wondering how on earth are we supposed to influence and lead these people that claim to follow God yet seem to turn away at the slightest discomfort. We struggle. We despair. We worry. We sometimes run. And like Moses and Elijah, God is calling us to come up to Him on the mountain and wait there. Come and wait, he says, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction. God wants us to stop looking at the world around us for our direction and instruction. He instead desires that we wait in prayer so that he can carve or write the law on and in our hearts.
Let us now repent and turn from the kingdoms of men, and return to God. Let us come up to him and wait. Let us lay down our fears, our struggles, our despairs, and our worries. And let us let God in his stillness write our future in our hearts. Let him create in us the people and nation he desires at this time and in this place. Let us wait, so he can make us into a people Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 12, 2023
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 (ESV)
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
Today we have our reading from Deuteronomy. This book is that last book of the Pentateuch, or the last of the five books of Torah. Torah in Hebrew can mean different things. We usually think of Torah as the Law, but there are other meanings. Another word that can be used when translating Torah is directive. I know that this might be mincing words, but there are slight differences. When we think of law, certain images come to mind. Some of us might get the image of the police, a courtroom, maybe even a job. But what comes to mind when we consider the word directive? It comes across in our minds just a bit less harsh, a bit less scary. The reality of the two words is that there is not much difference. They both carry authority, they both give direction. It is just one usually has prescribed consequences.
Image if we were to go to Ikea, and we make a purchase of one of their products. We open the box only to find that there is some assembly required. We are in luck because there is a booklet included that has directions. We know what we are doing, we look at the pieces and we begin to put in screws and anchors. We continue for a while only to find that all of a sudden there is a piece that we cannot seem to get in. What will we do? We open that booklet and we consult the directions. We begin to take things apart and we begin to put this product together step by step, piece by piece. This the concept of directives. It gives a clear and concise method to get the desired results.
What would happen if that little booklet was considered Law instead of directives? This is how I want us to consider Torah today. There is a point where the directions listed in the Ikea package do become law. This is when something goes wrong and we call customer service to demand a replacement. They could examine our construction and determine that the directions were not followed and therefore they are not to be held liable for whatever failure may have occurred. When the directives are not followed, we are responsible for the consequences. We do not face a fine or a potential jail term when we overlook step five in the directions, but we also cannot accuse Ikea of a defective product.
We often look at scripture from the perspective of legality. This is not wrong because there are consequences to actions. But how does this affect our relationship with God?
Deuteronomy is in many ways a reteaching of God’s directives. The word Deuteronomy is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and literally means copy or second law. When we read the other four books of Torah, we read about how we got to this place. Genesis speaks of creation and God’s purpose and mission for life. It continues to speak of human failure. But there is hope in Genesis because God does not give up on humanity even though it grieves him. We are deceived in the Garden of Eden by the serpent, or if we look at the word for serpent it could be translated as shining one or burning one. The word is like serpent because of the burning pain one receives when a person is bitten by a venomous snake. But these serpents of ancient days were often used to depict the ferocious power of God’s throne guards so in many ancient religious beliefs, the Serpent takes on a supernatural form. Adam and Eve were not just deceived by a snake, they were deceived by a shining one. They were deceived by a supernatural being that they believed to be a servant of the Most High God, but this servant was in rebellion and by its deception we skipped a step in the directions of God and faced the consequence of death. The curse of Adam is not original sin, but death. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are told, and the wage of sin is death.
Genesis continues. Humanity failed yet God does not give up. Two more times humanity rises and falls, the result of these failings were the flood and the confusion of the languages. And even through these failures, God remains true. God does not give up on humanity, instead God calls out of the nations of the earth one man through which God will reverse the failures of the Kingdoms of Men and restore what was once lost. From this point the Torah leaves the nations behind and focuses on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From this point on God’s revelation comes not to all people but his directives are given to one nation, Israel. And Israel is given the task of being the light to the nations. They are given this task not because they are great in themselves, but because God chose to restore all people, all tribes, and all nations through them.
Genesis begins the story. Exodus continues the story. Leviticus, the book we often skip, we regard as being filled with a myriad of laws, but if we consider the teachings within those directives, we might be able to see them not as law, but as a conversation between a teacher and a student. Then there is the book of Numbers. The title of the book is a bit misleading, because it is not about math, but is instead, this book takes us from the mountain where God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, to the banks of the Jordan where they will soon enter the land promised to them.
The first five books of scripture are not merely law, but teaching. They teach us true humanity and direct us to live with and within creation. They direct us. And Deuteronomy is, in many ways, Moses retelling Israel their story, it is Moses encouraging the people of Israel to remember what they experienced and carry that into the next stage of life. Deuteronomy is the commencement address. You were once children in primary school, you moved on to secondary school and now that you are an adult you will face challenges and struggles. Remember what you were taught and embrace life.
In today’s reading Moses tells the people, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” I find this verse interesting. Moses does not say I set before you today right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Instead, he says life and good, death and evil. We can interpret it as right and wrong, but does this really tell the whole story?
Life is a state of being, but it is more than being alive, it is a process. It is thriving. Death is also a state of being and a process. Death is the opposite of life both in the state of being and in the process. If life is thriving, death is withering. I rested on this verse a bit as I approached interacted with these words in prayer. And I considered these states and processes. I reflected on my own life, as I must come to grip with the reality that I am now encouraged by my doctor to watch what I eat. Am I still part of life or am I withering?
I am thankful that I have the background that I have. I grew up on a farm, I know livestock and plants. I know that the young heifers are full of life and energy. They are this weird mix of a calf and an adult cow still wanting to play and yet big enough to cause damage. They are full of life; they are thriving and yet their offspring are rarely the most desirable. Then there are the old cows, sometimes they are barely able to move. They look as if in any moment they just might fall over and break, yet these old cows will often produce wonderful offspring. We look at them as being at death’s door yet they thrive.
As we age, thriving takes on different forms. We might not have the energy we once had when we were teenagers, but that does not diminish our value. We often contribute more than we ever could. Moses begins this section not by saying I set before you right and wrong, but he says life and death. Thriving and withering. It is as if he is telling them, we have embarked on a journey together and now it is time for you to take the lead. If you continue as I have taught you, you will thrive, but if you are distracted and walk a different path, you will begin to wither.
Moses continues, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God , by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
If you obey the commandments. After is sat in prayer, contemplating the state of my life. I then began to reflect on the commandments. Throughout the Torah there are six hundred and thirteen laws or commandments. As I sat and considered all these laws, I mind was drawn back to a memory from when Kristy was in school. Kristy, as many of you know, is an artist. And artists often look at things in ways that people like me do not. When Kristy was in school many of her classmates were in their studios working on various things. During the studio time of their day I would often spend time with Kristy and her friends. We would talk and laugh. But I remember one of Kristy’s friends was working and I walked by and stopped. I was drawn into this work of art, captivated by it. It was a chair, a large formal chair. A chair that you might see sitting at the front of a church. And this ceremonial chair was covered with cones made from pages of a book, little spikes all over it. This friend, knew who I was and my back ground, she knew that I was a pastor, and she got a bit nervous when I took notice of her art. And I began to ask questions. She had cut pages out of the bible and curled them into these spike and glued them onto this chair, a chair that many members of the clergy would sit upon on a Sunday morning. I loved it. If I had money at the time I would have offered to purchase the chair from her but I was broke. This chair captivated my attention, and I remember asking her which book of scripture she used and begged her to tell me Leviticus. And I asked her how many spikes she had glued on, and she asked me why it mattered. This piece of art, a piece of art that was created to express the negative aspects of religion became a touchpoint where we could have a conversation. I encouraged her to try to get as close to six hundred and thirteen spikes as she could because that is how many laws there are in scripture. And we laughed.
I mention this chair because it looked horrific. It looked like a seat of torture, and yet there was beauty in it. Life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…
We can use scripture as an instrument as death instead of life. This is why I encourage you to look at scripture as directives instead of law. It is not that I am encouraging you to sin, or to disregard the commandments but I want you to learn and be encouraged by them instead of tortured. If you were to look through the six hundred and thirteen laws, at first you might become overwhelmed. But there is beauty in them. They teach us how to live our lives together. They encourage us to live our lives in balance with nature and with our neighbors. The law, no, the teachings of God if we read them from the mindset of life instead of death can allow us to thrive.
I would love at this moment to go through each of these laws, all of them and explore them. But unfortunately, my son would like to eat sometime today so I will have to leave that for later. We know many of the laws though, we see them blasted all over social media. But have we actually stopped to consider what God is telling us through them? You might be surprised that most of the laws are not actually about sin. You might think of the kosher dietary laws because that is usually a group that we all remember because we do not follow them, but did you know that even though these were part of the law, it was not a sin? Uncleanness was not sin, but exactly what it sounds like health and hygiene. Most of the six hundred and thirteen laws of scripture are the equivalent of the CDC asking us to wash our hands during flu season.
But then there are some laws that seem more important than others. When we think of the law or the commandments what are the first things that come to mind. If you have been to church for any amount of time or if you are a fan of Charlton Heston then the Ten Commandments is the answer. I took a class when I was studying for my master’s degree that explored the ten commandments in depth. To most of us we look at these as a bunch of rules that tell us what we should not do. And yes, that is true, but there is a beauty to them. It might surprise you but the commandments, those ten commandments start a conversation, one that Jesus himself continued in his sermon on the mount. The command not to murder goes beyond the taking of a life, but it speaks to honoring and protecting life. And this is not simply life as the pro-life proponents might say, but life as Moses speaks in today’s passage. The command to not murder is a directive to engage in all the things that will encourage growth. We should not kill, but there are more steps involved, we should protect. We should protect because the person next to us as annoying as they might be, is a bearer of God’s Image. And to take their life is to say to God that we do not respect what was pronounces very good.
As Moses urges us to obey the commandments, he is telling us to stop focusing on ourselves and our own pleasures and passions, but to use those passions to promote continued growth within our communities. “Then you shall live and multiply.” When Jesus was being tested by the various religious leaders, he was asked what the most important commandment is. Jesus replied and said that We should love God with everything we are and all that we have. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. He went on to say that all the law and the prophets are built upon this. All the law hinges on that one teaching. Do not murder, because it is not loving your neighbor as yourself. How should we love our neighbor then? We to start, don’t kill them. But the next step is to encourage them. But how should we encourage them? This takes many forms, and it depends on who they are.
Moses urges us to obey the commandments and we will thrive, but he explains something else too. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. Consider the command that Jesus gave us. What happens when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves? What happens when a husband does not love his wife as Christ loves the church? What happens when we fail to regard those around us better than we do ourselves? We begin to see things differently. They never give me what I want. They never do the things that I want to do. My needs are not fulfilled. And the list goes on. We begin to argue, we begin to fight. We begin to take people to court demanding that we get what we deserve. This is not always wrong, but is it thriving? Is it promoting life? It sounds a bit shriveled, dry, and dead. It sounds a bit like a chair of spikes instead of a love seat.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”
Imagine, Moses standing on a hill above the valley of the Jordan. Imagine the entire camp of Israel looking at the lush land below. They are peering into their future, a land flowing with milk and honey. A future filled with hope and security. And their leader stands before them with possibility as a backdrop, and he says set before you is life and death, blessing and curse. You get to choose one as you journey forward. You can choose Life or death. Thriving or withering. Blessing or curse.
We can look at the Torah as God’s law or we can look at it as his directives. They both have authority, but they have a different approach. One dictates and the other converses. One discourages and the other encourages. One brings death and the other promotes life. Paul speaks about the law in his letter to the Romans. He says that he would not have known what it is to covet apart from the law, but once he knew that law, sin seized the opportunity and produced in him all kinds of covetousness. And he says, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” How can the commandment promise life but instead bring death?
We choose. Will we encourage, or be consumed with fulfilling our own desires? Will we demand, or will we bless? Close your eyes for a moment and look over the valley that is the promised land. The future, your future is right there within your grasp. Israel walked into that promised land. They claimed it and took possession of it. And they almost immediately turned from the God that brought them out of the land of slavery. They cycled through blessings and curses and have their entire history. And the prophets cried out that it is not sacrifices but justice that God desires. So quickly we turn what is beautiful into something of torture. And why? We are deceived, and we are misguided. We want to be right so badly, that we forget to live. And suddenly a chair that brought rest, becomes a throne of pain. We are standing on the hill overlooking the promised land of our future. Each of us will walk into that land, but we will each have a different experience.
Shortly after Moses spoke these words to Israel, he turned to his friend Joshua and said, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in… Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Moses then turned to all of Israel with Joshua at his side and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers…It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
We are looking over the hilltop into the future. What will our future hold? Life or death, blessing or curse, thriving or withering. The choice is ours. While we were still enemies of God, Paul tell us, Christ died for us. While we were living under the dominion of deception, Christ, God incarnate, took on human flesh, lived a complete human life and took our penalty. He suffered injustice, ridicule and shame, for us and with us. And he did it so that we could walk into our future without fear. Because God so loved the world that he gave his only unique son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Eventually each of us will pass beyond the veil of life, and meet death, but that does not mean we cease. We can thrive even as we die. We can be an encouragement, even as we breathe our last breath.
As we leave this meeting for worship, as we move back out into our community and our homes, we are taking steps into that future we have just gazed upon in our mind’s eye. We go into that land with everything we need for the future we have chosen. That does not mean that we can conjure up the power to claim the riches of the world as a blessing for ourselves. No. that is not what Life with God is about. We have everything we need to live the life we choose. We can leave here today, as an instrument of God’s blessing to others, or we can exit these doors and embody the curse. Which will you choose. Will you love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others? Or will you walk into that future set before you with fear?
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