I rarely start a message with the bible. In the process of sermon design, I am much more likely to start with people’s lives and work from there to the bible.
And if it’s rare that I start a message with the bible, it is even more unusual for me to start a message with a bible passage that is not the passage for the day.
Yet that’s what I did yesterday. I started a message about Paul and Jesus with Abraham. And in the opening few sentences I referenced a story from Genesis 22 that, on the surface, has nothing to do either with Paul’s words in Romans 8 or Jesus’ death on the cross.
On the surface that is.
Below the surface . . . that’s where you’ll find out why I broke my own rule and began Best. Offer. Ever. in a way I just don’t begin sermons.
It’s a message that landed at Jesus endured the absence so you can enjoy the presence, a bottom line that prompted this artistic piece from a graphic design professional in our church:
Will it be weird for you all if I start a message just before Easter and that WILL look at Jesus’ cross through Paul’s eyes in Romans 8 . . . by looking at an ancient story from Genesis? Will you hold it against me if the launch pad for Jesus is Abraham who lived about 2000 years BEFORE Jesus came? And will you hold it even more against me if the story I want to glance at as we begin is one people often tell me is one reason they has such trouble believing what I believe? People say the story gives such a primitive, barbaric picture of God that who would want to follow that? And when folks say stuff like that to me, I am completely flummoxed for a good answer because I’m a better “think to talker” than a quick on my feet “talk to thinker”? Is all that OK. Sure, I knew it would be.
Because the briefest snapshot I want to give you is of a story some of you know well & others of you have never heard of before, but it comes from Genesis 22 (4k yrs ago!) where in this beautifully told tale, God tells Abraham to take Isaac, “his only son,” put him on an altar, and sacrifice him. And Abraham does it, right to the point where he has his knife raised ready to give his son up to God and at the last moment, in a scene of unbearable tension, God intervenes and says in so many words, “Just kidding! You don’t gotta go through with it!” Abraham almost but not all the way has to give up his son. And maybe you, like my mom, read that and in spite of the happy ending, you can’t quite believe in a God who would test a dad like that. Is it OK if I start this message there? Well, I already have, so there.
Why? Because Paul. Jewish. Descendant of Abraham. Memorized the book of Genesis as a whole. Why do I say that? H was bar mitzvahed, he was a scholar, and that’s what they did in those days! And Abraham’s story would have been so deeply embedded in his mind and in his vocabulary that it was part of who he was. More than that, Paul knew that Abraham’s story was but a part of the elaborate rescue plan God had been forging ever since our first parents blew it in the Garden. That God was shaping a people to be a light to rescue the rest of the world from itself. Paul knew that and knew that Jesus was the great culmination of the ancient rescue plan. We need rescue from ourselves – because I don’t know if you knew this or not, be we really are our own worst enemy. Some of you come into church today all-too-aware of this while others are oblivious. But it’s true. The temper you lost this morning. The unspeakably harsh words you spoke to the people you should love the most. The regrets you have and the shame you carry. The same sex attraction that sometimes overwhelms you. The gluttony that defines you. The impulsiveness that makes you ruin jobs, relationships, and even church.
You don’t like yourself afterwards in the wake of these things, they impact others, and it’s now making sense why I am saying you are usually your own worst enemy. Some people call this stuff character defects, others call it brokenness, but the oldest and most accurate word for all of it is sin. And know this: all of your issues are but symptoms of that most fundamental issue of sin. The sins you commit are all because you first have a hard-wired nature towards sinning. And here is the essence of sin: the absence of God. Think about it: when you sin, you choose to act as if there is no God. Both sins of OMISSION (good things you don’t do cuz you don’t care) and sins of COMMISSION (bad things you shoulnd’t oughta do but you do anyway.) You bring the absence of God into your life.
But here’s the other deal about that sin (or character defect!): there has to be consequences. Because if you don’t punish your kids when they act up, what are you begging for? More acting up! You can’t have that, so you gotta punish. God is not different. Rebellion has consequences and because God is so holy and can’t be in the presence of sin or defect, the ultimate consequence of sin is his absence. It’s like, “ok, if your sin comes because you act as if there is no God, I’m gonna give you what you want: no God.” The absence of God. Which we call hell. It’s why in prison solitary confinement is such torture . . . it doesn’t SOUND so bad to us who’ve never had it but it is the surest way to madness in a prison environment. Fascinating: absence is both the cause of and the consequence of our sin. We’re our own worst enemies because we wish there was no God and, w/o rescue, we head to an eternity where . . . there is no God.
Well. So now you’re thinking, “that’s fine, that’s good Talbot. You don’t usually hear talk such as that at a Methodist church, but I’m with. I feel like dirt now, but I’m with you. But I gotta ask you, preacher, ‘what in the world does all this have to do with Abraham! Why’d you start there?” Remember Abe from 10 minutes ago? The guy at the earliest stages of the rescue plan ALMOST kills his son, his only son. Lot of people: that’s so barbaric I can’t believe in that God.
Oh, well look at Romans 8:32 where Paul, THE BAR MITZVAHED JEW WHO MEMORIZED GENESIS says this:
32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Ah! No accident in that language! Paul, the descendant of Abraham is letting us know: In Jesus, God did what Abraham didn’t. He subjected HIMSELF to the same thing from which he had PROTECTED Abraham! Abraham & Isaac is not a story of barbarism; it’s a prelude to beauty! God includes the Abraham story to prepare you for the awfulness of what he actually went through! The beautiful ugliness of the cross. I love the bible! Genius connections that run through centuries of living and struggling! Linking Abraham’s “almost” with God’s “did it” puts what happened on the cross in an entirely new light. Because it lets you know in an entirely new way the obstacle God had to overcome on the cross.
Huh? Yeah, I never thought of it this way until I saw the Abraham connection. Why would it have been so hard for Abraham to “finish the job” with Isaac? Because he loved him! Father-son, parent-child, me-Riley . . . you know this. But did you also that also includes the Father & the Son within the Godhead? The Father didn’t discover Jesus while he was walking on earth! He didn’t adopt him because he looked down and thought “Huh, he’s a really good guy!” No! The Son & Father along with the Spirit have 3 in 1 forever. And those relationships are characterized by love. Treasuring, cherishing, fondness. Just like Abe had for Isaac; like I have for Riley. And look at what Romans 8:32 says: he “gave him up.” Unlike Abraham who ALMOST, the Father really did. I can’t understand it, I just believe it and for the first time in 2015, I’ve felt it. And once the Father overcame that obstacle, once he went through with the painful sacrifice of his only Son whom HE loves, well, everything else he gives to us is easy.
And look at why he gave him up: for us. Oh, wow. Not in spite of us, not for us to wear as jewelry, not for us to put on a steeple as proof we are a church, but for us. Because do you remember what Jesus cried out on the cross? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Total, solitary confinement. A momentary grasp of what an eternity of God’s absence is like. Hell on earth. For us. He takes the hell – he endures the absence – so that we don’t have to. And then, and then, it’s all clear. The rescue plan: completing what Abraham didn’t, a plan to bring people home, the cry on the cross, everything FOR YOU and here it is: Jesus endured the absence so you can enjoy the presence. He went through what we deserve – and the Father endured something profound by giving him up – so that by faith we can enjoy our Father’s house, where the son now dwells.
And it’s all for us. For you. For your divorce, a divorce you can’t honestly say was “all” her fault or “all” his fault. For your same sex attraction. For your temper. For your arrogance. For your gossip. For your self-destruction. For your underlying sin nature that leads to all those sinful acts. He did it, he suffered it, he endured it and somehow his endurance opens up the way for your enjoyment. Because here is some really cool news: remember I said that sin has its consequence? And that its consequence is the absence of God? But LOVE as a consequence as well! And the consequence of God’s love is presence with God, in your father’s house, in eternal rest. And on the cross, God’s hatred of sin collides with God’s love for you and LOVE WINS! For you! What Abraham started, Jesus finished and we enjoy. Jesus endured the absence so you can enjoy the presence.
The cross shows he’s not mad at you; he’s madly in love with you.
The cross reveals that he’s not ignoring you; he’s intervened for you.
The cross proves that he is not removed from you; he is moved by you and for you.
Jesus endured the absence so you can enjoy the presence.
But here’s the response needed: for you to look at the cross and admit you’re so messed up that’s what you need AND so loved that’s what you got. I mean, if God could have forgiven us any other way, he would have. But he couldn’t! He can’t. Forgiveness – PRESENCE – comes only through sacrificial absence. That’s just how messed up you are. That’s just how loved you have become.
A few weeks ago, a young boy was waiting for me in the lobby after church. I was yakking away to people and he and his mom stood there very patiently. Finally, when I was done with conversation, I asked, “what can I do for you?” And showed me a crucifix (AV), almost like a Roman Catholic wall ornament. “I’m going to put this up in my room,” he said, “and I’d like you to bless it for me.” Who would turn down a request like that from an 8 year old? So I placed hands on it and prayed, “Lord every day let this cross remind _________ what you went through to bring him home.”
Jesus endured the absence so you can enjoy the presence.