One Sixty-Seven, Week 2 — The “The Oldest Religion In The World” Sermon Rewind

For sometime now, I have been amazed/saddened/perplexed at all the ways people say to God (in so many words):  I know better.

So I put it into a sermon.  Labelling the serpent’s seed of doubt in the woman’s mind as the Oldest Religion In The World, I walk the people of the church through Genesis 3:1-7, piled on some Proverbs 1:7 and I Corinthians 3:20 and landed at this bottom line:

You don’t know better because he really does know best.


Have you ever been in one of those situations where you’re in an audience, meeting, or class & the expert is up in front and  it occurs to you:  “Wait a minute.  I know better.”  It starts pretty young I suppose; sitting in a middle school or high school class, teacher seems kind of out of touch and out of date, and as they’re teaching you you realized with that brilliance reserved only for adolescents:  “I know better than that.”  Later, you get a job, and you’re in a meeting, and there’s the boss up in front droning on with unreasonable goals or not credible clichés and you think “I know better.  Goodness, I could DO better.”  And you bet everyone around you is thinking the same thing.  Or on a team, with a coach, strategy & tactics being thrown back & forth and it’s “No no no.  I know better. I’m the one playing.”

            Wow, one time I was in a debate one time – a real life, on a platform debate about a  dicey subject – and the other guy says in front of the room, “I could make Talbot’s argument better than he could.”  GRRRRR.  And speaking of me, I bet that many of you, depending on how long you’ve come here, have thought on more than one occasion while I’m preaching., “Wh-what?! Hot air alert! I know better!”        

            Turns out this tendency goes back.  Back back back back. Way back. To the point that you realize “I know better” is in fact the Oldest Religion In The World.  In the beginning, in the early chapters of Genesis, just after the man & woman were made & married & are enjoying paradise in the lush, verdant, fertile land known as Ededn.  And as many of you know they had total freedom in that garden with one teeny tiny exception in 2:16-17:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

But of course, that one exception meant there was a whole lot of OTHER they COULD eat.

            And that brings us to Genesis 3, which opens with this odd note in 3:1:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Now: a talking snake. Genesis presents it devoid of emotion or exclamation.  We’d be like A TALKING SNAKE?!  NY POST headline.  Genesis doesn’t even say the snake is Satan or Satanic … that’s much later, in the NT.  Even the word “crafty” there – that’s not necessarily a negative thing.  Yet the talking snake’s first words – “Did God REALLY say …” ­ ­— is that how it opened the conversation?  Do we come into the conversation at a mid-point in the dialog?  Towards the end? Or is this the icebreaker, the pick up line?  Hey Baby! Of course, in these early chapters of Genesis, we ALWAYS want to read between the lines & the author wants us to read the lines.

            And in the lines there’s enough here.  Because those first RECORDED words sow seeds of doubt, plant in the mind of the woman, “you know you really might know better.”  So the woman answers – and in the ancient mind, a woman was NOT to talk to a stranger, NOT to do so in public, and definitely not, not ever, don’t do it even once, ENGAGE IN CONVERSATION W/ A TALKING SNAKE.  Just don’t.  OK for us, today; faux pas for them, then.  But look at her answer in 3:2:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,

We may eat from the fruit  of the trees in the garden … now stop right there.  Look at all she COULD do!  And yet there’s something in ppl from the very beginning the focuses on their freedom but on what is forbidden.  She goes on in 3:2b-3:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

(emph must not touch) … and with that OMINOUS music plays on the Genesis soundtrack.  Because God DIDN’T say that thing about touching in 2:17; his deal was only eating.  So she is adding to his words; something is foul in Denmark … though a talking snake might just have given us the first clue.  (And she even softens the “certainly”/”surely” to just “will die.”)

            Anyway, the snake LEAPS at that opportunity (though snakes aren’t great jumpers, I know) in 3:4:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.

 You won’t die.  Why not?  3:5 tells us:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

 For God KNOWS … but you (and I) really know better than God.  And that, of course, proves to be an offer the woman absolutely cannon refuse and she does this in 3:6:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

And we have been dealing with the consequences of that seduction, that doubt, that bite ever since.  Ever since that moment we have had a sneaking suspicion that God is keeping something from us; that he is holding back and that more importantly he is holding us back.  His control ultimately prevents our contentment. 

            Because what I realize in 167 is that for the 167 hours a week that you aren’t here is that there are serpents all around.  Not all of them talk.  Some of them sing.  Some write.  Some blog.  A lot act.  Some are professors, others are anchors.  A few are investigators while others are therapists.  A preacher or two; a politician or ten.  Talk show hosts. Everyone ever named Kardashian.  For the most part, just like their ancestor in Genesis 3 they sound wise, sensible, and appealing.  And like the guy in Gen 3 the ultimate consequence of their wise sensibility is deadly.  The modern serpents tap into the deep desire that you have FROM THE BEGINNING OF ALL OF US! to know better than God.  Because “to be like God” is really an offer of the possibility of being better than God.  Or best of all, being your own God.

            So … listening to that still small voice of all those serpents there are so many things that we decide we know better.  Like … is there a hell?  I know Scripture is pretty clear that such a realm exists, but really, a good God wouldn’t and I know better ….  Or … parenting … I know Proverbs says spare the rod & spoil the child  but  I know better so my child and I will decide on his punishment together!  Or I know that Jesus said whoever loses his life for my sake will find it but I know better and my main goal in life is to be true to myself!  Or to find myself!  Whichever or both! To be true to the ME I find! 

            Or I know the whole of Scripture is real clear on marriage boundaries for sexual intimacy, but I know better and doesn’t it MAKE SENSE you should live together before marriage? Trial run? Test drive?    Or, golly, even with stirrings that I have inside I know the bible says (repeatedly) that self-restraint is a virtue and self-expression is not but I know better and if it feels natural TO me it must be good FOR me.  Or I know the bible speaks of generosity and even tithing but I know better because I did the retirement math.  Or even I heard once that my body is not my own; it was bought with a price, but I know better because it’s MY body, after all.  Even I know God says not to get drunk, but I know better and I know that a little weed never hurt anyone.  It’s legal in Colorado!  Over and over, we set ourselves up in defiant (or even ignorant) opposition to the will of God because we have heard the serpent’s wise and sensible voice and ultimately the serpent is us.

            So I don’t know exactly HOW it all happened in Genesis 3 because the author just gives us the lines, but I definitely know how it continues to happen in 2018.  And I see the ruined relationships, wrecked families, empty churches, and broken bank accounts to prove it.  Because in every case the serpent overpromises and underdelivers; what we thought was wise turned out to be folly; what we thought would free us actually ensnared us.  Time and again we are fooled by foolishness. 

            Why?  Oh, look at 1:6 again:  desirable for gaining wisdom.  Except it’s the wrong wisdom, the world’s wisdom, which I Cor 3:20 already told us was foolishness in the eyes of God.  Instead look at Proverbs 1:7:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools[a] despise wisdom and instruction.

Oh wow.  I put those words above my study desk in college for four straight years and it gave me all kinds of perspective.  Because here it is:  You don’t know better because he really does not best.  Yeah, you might on occasion know better than your teacher, boss, coach, or PREACHER, but you never, never know better than your God.  The wisdom of Prov. 1:7 & I Cor 3:20 is not so much used to manage a crisis as much as to prevent one in the first place.  It’s a decision you make, in advance, in a season:  I don’t always know WHY God says what he said, but I’m going to follow it first and figure it out second.  You don’t know better because he really does not best. 

            It all makes me think of the time Muhammed Ali was on a plane & wouldn’t buckle his seat belt.  The flight attendant kept insisting.  He kept resisting.  Finally one final time in the tug of war, he said, “But Superman doesn’t need seat belts!”  And she answered, “And Superman doesn’t need a plane, either.”  You don’t know better because he really does not best. 

            Or it’s like this classic show some of you remember: AV Father Knows Best.  So he does.  More than you know. You don’t know better because he really does not best.

            But really it’s like this note I received.  Listen: 

The first day I visited GSUMC I was timid and uncertain.  I had a little bit of WOW but even more of a peaceful feeling.

With each visit, I was learning.  The church has change the way I choose to live.  I had a good life, a great job.  However, my fiancé and I had built a house and were living together with the intent of getting married someday.  Long story short, I realized that not being married (though it seemed practical) was wrong and in the end we did not have the kind of love needed to get married.  Decisions were reversed, the house was sold, and I moved twice before settling in to my own home.  Although difficult it was also freeing.  I can be a bit of a control freak and often make the practical decision over the right decision.  That, of course, doesn’t work.  The most important thing I have learned:  when walking with God, all I want is within reach.

Yep, that’s what happens when you turn a deaf ear to this century’s serpents and open a willing heart to the word. You don’t know better because he really does not best.

            Because here it is:  all disobedience is the result of a trust crisis.  It comes from a sneaking suspicion that God is not good, that his NOs are really out to crush.  Even from an understanding that the bible is itself, from cover to cover, one long NO.  It may be a library, but it’s a library of fun-quenching, soul-killing NO.  But when you surrender to its wisdom even before understanding all its rationale, you realize that every NO is laced with love.  And comes alongside a whole lot of glorious YESes.  His commands conserve our health, our relationships, and our sanity.  The truth is much more like that study they did of children on playgrounds.  And on OPEN playgrounds, the children had hesitation and anxiety.  Put a fence around it and let the merriment begin!  Maximum joy is within God ordained boundaries; moral misery lies beyond them.  Every time you think you know better than what you’ve read, what you’ve heard, what you’ve been taught … you DON’T.  Turn the snakes off.  You don’t know better because he really does not best.

            Because let me tell you: I have found the greatest freedom in admitting all that I don’t know.  All I could never figure out on my own.  All that I have received from on high.  Things about eternity, sexuality, money, my body.  All of it.  It’s why I love what Paul says in I Corinthians 2:7: READ. See that?  He doesn’t soft pedal God’s wisdom, doesn’t apologize for it, doesn’t mumble it.  He declares it!  With conviction and with joy!  He embraces how odd it is to follow a wisdom that is literally out of this world.  You don’t know better because he really does not best.

            I kind of wish someone had told that to Louis XIV before he died.  Which, we’re a little late since that happened in 1717.  Anyway, to dramatize his greatness, Louis gave orders that at his funeral the cathedral would be dimly lit with only a special candle set above the coffin.  So it was done.  And then as the service began with thousands in attendance, Bishop Massilon began to give the euology.  Then he stopped, reached down and snuffed out the candle, saying, “Only God is great!”  And so he is.  Recognize & received that greatness and its wisdom today.  You don’t know better because he really does not best.