By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 19, 2023
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1 Samuel 16:1–13 (ESV)
1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.
The past few years have been rough. I do not know if this is true for most of you but for me they have been rough. In 2020 as a member of the Yearly Meeting Elders board, I with the other elders had to come to some sort of decision as to how we would approach the pandemic. This might not seem like it would be something that would be weighty, and for some you might think that it was not a big decision, but it was. It was huge. It was one of the most stressful meetings I had ever attended. We had to make a decision with incomplete knowledge, knowing full well that half of everyone would believe the decision was wrong. We made this decision. We made it not knowing if our Meeting would survive.
The Friends church, when compared to other religious societies, is not large. The largest meeting within our Yearly Meeting would be considered a small church in most other denominations. We are small, yet we have a strength that goes beyond our size. We are small, mainly due to our structure. We do not vote. We develop within our various meetings as sense of the meeting. Some might describe this as seeking unanimous support, but this is not exactly true. Some describe it as seeking unity, this is true but it is not always the outcome. To gain a sense of the meeting, requires that we have discernment. We need to understand those we are working with, and in the case of our Monthly Meeting, God. In 2020, we had a sense of the Meeting, and yet we were uncomfortable with our decision. Did we close the book of history upon our Yearly Meeting? Did we succumb to fear? Did we move forward in faith, or did we publicly expose faithlessness? These are questions that have strong opinions and these discussions then trickled down to our local meetings.
We all made decisions, and we must live with those decisions. When our doors closed, and we joined for worship online we had no idea with how it would end up. I thought I had been here working for ten years, only to have the church close because of a disagreement of opinions. The first Saturday night I stared into a camera getting ready to record a message three years ago, I thought I killed our meeting. I thought I had, as an elder and pastor, failed the very people I claimed to love and serve. And I was afraid.
Then July came, the restrictions were lifted and we as a religious society of Friends decided that it would be ok to reopen our doors. We decided together, but even then, we had struggles. Would we follow the recommendations of our local governments or not? The entire cycle began again. Differences of opinion reared and again we had to make an attempt to discern a path forward. No matter what decision we made it did not change the way I felt. I stood by our decisions, but I questioned myself every step of the way. I wondered if I had failed. I wondered if I had missed some opportunity to reflect the light of Christ into the darkness of the chaotic world. I still question. I question because I am human. I know my weaknesses, and I care about those around me. I look out and I say prayers of thanksgiving when I see people that I know have health concerns, sitting among us. When I do not see someone, I say prayers of protection and hope. And there are times I feel lead to say words that I know will hurt, and I stand here looking at the words I have written, and I question everything. And yet I speak the words. I speak the words because I do not write messages on a whim, I write only after hours of prayer and study. And I only write when I sense a clearness to proceed.
We do not know the future. We make decisions based on incomplete data at best, and we move forward with hope. We move forward even when it does not make complete sense because we have faith. When we closed the doors for Covid three years ago, I was afraid that we might never open them again. I was afraid that many would find a more entertaining YouTube worship leader and would migrate away. I was afraid I would find a more entertaining YouTube worship leader and would decide to just stop. We just did not know.
Samuel was in a place like this. He did not know. He was a prophet of God. He was the man that was supposed to have all the answers. When the people demanded a king. He went to God in tears thinking he was a failure. Samuel thought Israel was rejecting his own leadership, but God informed him that Israel was rejecting God. In Judges there is a common phase saying, “In those days there was no king in Israel: Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Many believe that this was a phrase of condemnation, I think it is positive. God was their king. They were supposed to live with each other in community reflecting the law of God. I do agree that they failed at living up to this ideal. They wanted to be like everyone else, they wanted a king. So, Samuel found them a king. He looked over the tribes of Israel and he saw Saul. Saul was tall, strong, wealthy, he was the ideal candidate for a king. Samuel anointed Saul, and God allowed it.
For a while Saul was a good king. But like most humans, personal ambition began to cloud his judgement. He began to rely on his own knowledge instead of seeking advice from others. And suddenly he is caught with a bunch of looted cattle God commanded him to kill, but Saul justified his actions because he was going to give some of them as a sacrifice.
Turn after turn, Saul made decision based on his own gain and with each step he lead Israel to reflect the kingdoms of men instead of the Kingdom of God. And as he did this paranoia began to set in. When you live your life seeking only personal gain, the fear of losing what you have becomes greater. Saul, like most dictators, could not trust people. He believed that everyone was out to get him and demanded loyalty oaths. He did this because Samuel had told him that God rejected him as king. Saul knew his time was short.
Samuel did what was right, but he did not like it. He grieved over Saul. Saul was his king. He was the leader of his nation. He trusted this man, and this man failed him. I have been betrayed, I have watched as people I respect have been ill-treated, and I have felt that myself. I understand how and why Samuel felt the way he felt. He was instrumental in putting this man in this position. He anointed this man; he advised this man. Samuel invested his life and his reputation in this man. Saul failed, Saul was rejected by God, where does this leave Samuel?
God says to him, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go…for I have provided for myself a king.”
God understands our emotional states of mind. He should because he created them, and through the incarnation Jesus experienced them. God understands Samuel’s feelings. I do not want you to misread this passage and come away thinking that God does not care. God is with Samuel during this time of lament. And he is with us as we struggle through our own bouts of disappointment. God understands, but God is not bound by time and space like we are. Samuel believed that Saul’s rejection by God was God rejecting all of Israel. God is not being uncaring, but he is telling Samuel, this is just one man. Sure, he was king, but one man will not stop God. How long will you grieve this one set back? How long will you focus on this one bump in the road? How long will you live focused on failure when tomorrow is a new day?
“For I have provided for myself a king.” God says. When I began reflecting on this passage, I found that there is a reoccurring theme to this chapter. That theme is around the verb “to see”. Samuel sees only failure and rejection, that is why he grieves, but God says how long are you going to sit here blinded from reality. And he tells Samuel, I have Seen for myself a king. The word translated as provided is raah or the verb “to see’, God sees, and God will provide. He does not leave the people he loves and calls by His name completely alone. Samuel sees rejection and loses heart, and God tells him not to grieve because He sees the king.
We can get caught in a whirlpool of despair, at least I can. I bring up the trials of Covid, because it was the most difficult aspect of ministry I have faced. Everything had to change. The things I once relied on were not available anymore, and I along with everyone else had to figure it out. I was afraid. And yet, I had hope. I had hope because God had already begun to reveal a direction to us. We already had a YouTube channel set up. And we were already participating in digital space. At the time it was just luxury, but had we not listened and allowed one guy to set up a camera on the front row of our meeting for worship, we might have been in trouble. God saw our way through, before we even needed it. And God sees a king where Samuel only sees rejection.
God urges Samuel to go to Bethlehem to speak to Jesse and his sons. Samuel tenses up. He knows that Saul is already irritated, and If Samuel goes out to Bethlehem it can only lead to questioning. Saul has spies, he has these spies because Saul is a paranoid dictator that sees the people he rules as potential enemies. And Samuel asks God, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” Samuel is caught in grief and despair over the rejection of Saul by God, but Samuel also fears Saul. Samuel, like us, is caught between worlds. He wants to serve and follow God, but he is also aware that he lives in a world that often opposes God. At times following God may require paying a price.
“Saul will kill me,” Samuel pleas. I sat with this phrase as I prayed this week. I reflected on the various moments in my life where I felt led to speak or act, knowing that there might be a consequence. I have spent the past three years in this place. Will we speak, will we act, will we stand for what is right even if those with power may threaten us? I sat with this passage and I thought about the early Friends. Those people who so strongly believed that all people were equal and sought to honor that of God in all people. Those early Friends that were thrown in prison because they refused to use pronouns. Yes, I say this because it is a hot topic. The early Friends were imprisoned because they would not refer to the nobility with plural titles. Friends did not believe that those among the nobility were better than anyone else, so why should they use a plural pronoun for a singular person. They were imprisoned because they supported equality. All people have dignity because they bear the image of God. And a king or peasant equally bears that image. I wonder what those early Friends might say in today’s situation. Would they respect the pronouns or not? I think the answer is they would respect the person.
Saul will kill me. Samuel is stuck. If I do what I believe God is leading me to do, the people of the world might reject me. And if I do what the world accepts, I might in turn reject God. We might look at Samuel as being a coward in this moment but put yourself in the story. Each of us has been in this position in one way or another. We have had to make a decision, we have had to make a stand knowing that someone somewhere, someone we might respect or want respect from, might reject us. I have faced this dilemma at work. I have been in this place in meetings I have participated in. I have been in that place right here in this very meetinghouse. Will I say what I believe I should, and face rejection? Or will I say what I know people want to hear and get praised? Samuel is not a coward but a realist. And God again meets him in that situation.
“Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do.” Some say that God is being a bit deceitful in this moment. But it was Samuel’s job to offer sacrifices. This is a time and place before the establishment of the temple, so sacrifices were not centrally located. When the king was going into battle Samuel would go to the king and offer sacrifices. When the prophet went to a town it was perfectly acceptable for them to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the people, and for them to share a meal with the community. God is not being deceitful, God is telling Samuel to do what he is called to do. God is telling him to continue to serve him no matter what the world might think. His job was to offer sacrifices because he was a priest and a prophet. His job was to go to the communities of Israel because he remained the last of the Judges. Samuel’s job, his ministry is not determined by humankind, but God. God in this moment was affirming Samuel and showing him his love and provision. Do not worry about Saul, just do your job Samuel. Do what God has called you to do, be who God has made you to be.
Samuel goes to Bethlehem. He meets with the town elders, who were a bit upset to see him at first. He invites Jesse and asks him to present all his sons to him. Eliab, the eldest comes in and Samuel thinks that this is the anointed one. And God rebukes him. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
This is one of my favorite passages. It is something that I remind myself of nearly every day. It goes back to the common theme of this chapter, “To See”. Samuel is looking but he is not truly seeing. This is the lesson of this whole section of scripture. Often I am asked about what I think about the status of the church today. People ask me if I am worried about the current trends. I will admit that I am concerned, but I am not worried. I am not worried because I think the emerging culture around us is in a lot of ways more honest than we have been in previous generations. This is important. The emerging generation is more concerned with meaningful life and lifestyle than being right or wrong. This scares some, but for me it is a breath of fresh air. When we seek meaningful life, that means there is searching. And when there is searching there is activity. “To See, To know, to hear, to be” are all involved in this quest. This is right where God and Samuel are in this passage. Do not look on his appearance, God says, look deeper. Look at the heart.
The concept of the heart is important. It is symbolic, God is not looking at our literal heart to make sure our arteries are free of cholesterol blockage, but He is looking at the core of who we are, our character. The heart is what makes you, you. God is telling Samuel that the world looks at a façade built to give an impression. We use these masks to hide and deceive. We build up these images of what we want and put people in the box. Since the invention of Television, people in America care more about the image of their leaders than what the leaders say. Are we looking or seeing? Are we concerned with the image we exude or are we focused on the heart?
Three years ago, I stood here alone in a cold empty meetinghouse. I stood staring at cameras and computer screens wondering what the future might hold. We faced one of the greatest struggles of the church in generations, and we came through it stronger than we were before we faced the trial. We discerned together that it is best to preserve life than to meet, and we encouraged our meetings to use creative means to continue the work we were called to do. And I can say today, the Friends church is stronger today than we were three years ago because of it. But that does not mean we do not face more struggles as a church, as a community, or as individuals. Much has happened since the covid lock downs. Each of these struggles also carries with them the potential for great harm or can propel us into greater strength. I want us to consider how we approach our future. Are we grieving rejection? Are we fearful of conflict? Or do we have hope in Christ? Jesus faced struggles. He faced rejection. He faced betrayal, loss, and injustice. He faced every manner of temptation that we face in life, yet without sin. He came down from heaven taking on human life so that he through his life, death, and resurrection, he can lift us up to glory. Can you see? Can you see past the postures of humanity to the heart? Will we, like Samuel, look past ourselves and see the king? And will we walk forward into the mists of unknowing with the faith that God will provide? Will we shine light into the chaotic darkness and see ourselves and the person next to us for who they are, an individual bearing the image of God, so loved by their creature that while they were still sinners rejecting him, Christ saw them.
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 12, 2023
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Exodus 17:1–7 (ESV)
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not? Such words many of us have asked. We may have asked them throughout these past few years. We might have uttered such words in the past months, or possibly even this very day. Is the Lord among us or not?
As I sat down to write this week, my mind stopped in this place. I wrote those words and stopped. I even opened up a new document to retype those words thinking that maybe if I just retyped them I could move forward. I did this three times. I do this because I am a very honest person. I would love to say that I sense the presence of God every moment of every day, but that would be a complete lie. I do not sense God’s presence all the time. There are moments where I wonder. I remember during my childhood I would climb a tree in our yard and would sit in the branches wondering. And if the sunset was particularly weird casting a red tint to the earth around me, I would sit in that tree in tears wondering why I was left behind. There is a reason I do not like eschatology, and that is the main reason. I was so worried about being left behind that at times I forgot to actually live.
I might be too honest as a pastor. I admit that I do not know a lot. I admit that if you ask me a question, chances are very high that I will not have an answer that you would find profound. I admit that most of the time I struggle through life wondering what the point is. Some might find this unsettling, but I am ok with who I am. I do not know but I have always been curious. That is probably why I would climb the tree and cry when the sky was red because I figured my curiosity killed the proverbial cat. But through the years my curiosity has deepened my faith. I ask questions, and I believe that God does provide answers. The answers that I receive at times are odd and most would not understand because usually the answers tend to be “does it really matter?” I am ok with that answer. It tells me that maybe in all my seeking and searching, in all of my curiosity I have missed the point.
I have been a pastor for twenty years, thirteen of those years have been right here at Willow Creek. In those twenty years it has been rare for me to speak out of the Old Testament. I do not know why that has been the case. I have read the books, I have studied them, but there is so much history and connections that weave throughout that I have always found it too difficult for me to stay on point. But my mind is curious. I have questions and I am completely happy just reading about various passages that I have come across in scripture. I can spend hours reading why translators used one phrase instead of another. I find it fascinating when people I respect can look at the same passage and see completely different things, which scares some people but for me it just gets me going.
And then I come to this passage. It is a story I know well; I should be able to just write something down in my sleep, but instead of writing my mind seems to get stuck. “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according the to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.”
They were moving from the wilderness of sin. I have read about this place countless times in my life. I know that this is a desert they cross early in the Exodus. When we think of Exodus most of us think of the calling of Moses, the Plagues of Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea. We then know that they travel for forty years and God does some things, but we do not really worry about it from there. But these places they visit and what they do in those places have interesting stories.
They cross the Sea and they go into the Wilderness of Shur, and they go three days into this wilderness and they find no water until they come to Marah. There is water at Marah but they cannot drink that water because it is bitter. The people grumble against Moses, “what shall we drink?” Which is a perfectly good question when it comes to traveling in the wilderness. This wilderness of Shur is mentioned a few times in scripture. When Hagar flees with her son Ishmael it is toward Shur they are running, and it Shur is often referred as the western boundary to which Israel’s battles are fought. I find this interesting because Shur can be translated wall, but archaeologists have never found any ancient fortifications east of the Nile and west of Sinai. But it can also be translated as a verb meaning to watch. Which would suggest that this might be considered the Wilderness of The Watchers.
This gets my mind racing. The Watchers are a mythical group of spiritual beings in Hebrew literature that are believed to be the Sons of God that married the daughters of Men that prompted God, out of dismay, to flood the earth. And the offspring of these unions were known as the men of renown or the Nephilim, or giants. In many ancient near eastern religions they refer to these men of renown as the gods or the founders of their societies. In ancient Greece the Watchers could be the Titan and the Nephilim the god of Olympus. In Babylon, whose founders came from the land of the Hittites in southern Turkey, Gilgamesh their first king, and the one that survived the Mesopotamian flood epic, was a believed to be a demigod, or hybrid child of a deity and human union. Do you understand why my mind races? The tribes of Israel are walking across the wilderness of the Watchers, and the water is bitter. And they grumble. They grumble because they are walking through this wasteland, a land they once believed to be the dwelling place of divine beings, a land that they believed should have been filled with all the water imaginable, and instead of hope they find bitterness. Marah. Yet God is with them in this place. He tells Moses to throw a log into the water and that log transforms the bitter pool into water sweet to drink. And after they drank of the waters of Marah, God said to them, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your Healer.”
They leave the Wilderness of Shur and they enter the Wilderness of Sin. In this wilderness between Elim and Sinai, they face another trial and they again begin to grumble. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” In the wilderness of sin, God commanded Aaron to speak to the people, and after Aaron spoke they looked over the wilderness, and the cloud of God’s presence appeared. And Moses was commanded to speak for God, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” That evening God provided for Israel’s hunger. Quail covered the camp as the sun began to set, and as the dew in the morning lifted the wilderness was covered with flakes, which later became known as Manna. God provided meat and bread in the Wilderness of Sin. And for the next forty years the tribes of Israel ate of the bread of heaven.
Now they are leaving the wilderness of Sin, and they travel deeper into the deserts. They came to Rephidim. They have their quail and their manna, but there is no water. I grew up in the dry lands of Kansas, I might identify with these Wilderness wanderings more than I should, because I know that water is life. We protect water, we terrace our land to catch as much water as possible and to direct excess water to what we call waterways, which are large grassy areas that will slow the water down and prevent soil erosion and filter as many chemicals and sediment as possible before it enters streams and rivers. We build these things to protect the water and the soil, because it is water that provides for our life and lifestyle. God lead Israel out of the Wilderness of sin to a place where water was not available. And Israel quarreled with Moses and grumbled against God. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
This is not mere complaining but conflict. Moses says to God, “they are almost ready to stone me.” Water is more important than food, because all living things require water. One could make a case for the rule of three here. An average human could survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. I do not wish to put this to the test, but it is significant. Water is important. We need water to maintain our health. If I ever had a health concern the first thing my grandmother would do is give me a glass of water. I will not tell you the second step to her cure-alls, but water was always number one. Israel is without water and it is getting serious. Wars have been fought over sources of water. Even today near the center of most geopolitical conflicts access to water is present within the conflict.
Moses in fear, cries out to God. And in this instance, something interesting happens. In the Wilderness of Sin, the cloud of the presence came when Aaron spoke. Here God tells Moses “I will stand before you there on the rock.” Moses and the elders of the tribes walked away from the crowds for all to see. They climbed up upon the rocks before them and the people saw the presence of the Lord in front of them upon the mountain. And when they saw the Lord on the rock, Moses struck the rock with the staff he used in Egypt, and water began to pour out. Moses and Israel knew that place no longer as Rephidim, but as Massah and Meribah.
Israel travels through the wilderness. They move symbolically through their own history, through the wilderness of Shur, or the Watchers. And they face a trial, will we trust God or turn to back to the kingdoms of men? They trust God and they move deeper into the wilderness, into the wilderness of Sin. The wilderness of Sin. In Numbers this is called Zin not Sin, and some people argue about that, but I find it interesting that here it is Sin. They grumble again. And as they move beyond the trials of sin, they face their greatest struggle.
We are in the season of Lent. The time of year many Christian traditions participate in fasts as they join with Jesus in the Wilderness where He was tested and tempted by the devil. This is why it became difficult for me to write this week. My mind is ricocheting from Genesis to the Gospels and from Revelation to the Garden. And in my mind, I stand with Israel in this moment asking myself, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
We are all traveling through a wilderness. We all face struggles. Some of us have struggles thrust upon us from outside, and others face struggles from within. I do not want us to focus on which struggles are most important or where to place the blame. A struggle is a struggle, and for each of us that struggle is monumental. We are in the wilderness.
Then my mind took another squirrel moment and I began to think about the seasons. Lent is near the end of winter. Winter is a wilderness. Winter is dark, bleak, and cold. We love the first part of winter because we have Christmas, but winter remains for two months beyond Christmas. CS Lewis wrote of Narnia, “It was always winter but never Christmas,” when the land of Narnia was under the spell of the White Witch. I see this as the time after Christmas when winter continues. It is a yearning for the light in the darkness, a hope for Spring. Lewis purists will probably argue with me on that but I think it is appropriate, because all of Narnia is walking through the despair of Winter looking toward the thaw that never seems to come.
Lent is a journey through the wilderness. It is that final sprint through the end of winter to the emergence of life beyond the dark days of despair. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Is it always winter but never Christmas? Jesus in the wilderness, and we are there with him. The author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to hemp in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Jesus knows the struggles we face. He knows hunger, sorrow, and betrayal. He knows what it feels like to be misunderstood and misrepresented. He knows the joys of plenty and the suffering of want. He knows injustice and acceptance.
Israel walking through the Wilderness of Shur, Sin, and Meribah the presence of God was with them. Jesus, God Incarnate became Israel. He became the light to the nations, and through him the reconciliation of all that was lost. Jesus was in the wilderness. He was there with Israel and he is here with us. Though we may be in a place of testing and quarreling, of Massah and Meribah, he is near. In our time of questions and despair he hears our voice and he stands upon the rock before us telling us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”
Through the Wilderness of Shur and Sin Israel walked. Hungering and thirsting. Questioning and seeking. They struggled with the ideologies of the kingdoms of men and the hope of the Kingdom of God. But they had to choose. Will we follow? Will we believe? We may not walk the same path but we too wander through the wilderness and face similar trials. We walk individually and together as a community. We walk. But as we walk Is the Lord among us or not?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 26, 2023
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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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