After years of keeping my distance from the opening chapters of Genesis, I am now firmly in love with them.
I’d never really known what to do with stories like Adam & Eve in the garden, Cain & Abel in the field, and the Lord himself as both a tailor of leather garments and an artist of human ink (see below).
Until I realized that of all the origins Genesis portrays, it best captures the origins of human behavior. Patterns and motives begin here and are firmly imprinted into every generation that follows.
So it was with yesterday’s message, which focused on the stories after the stories in an effort to identify and define love.
And I think the message came close. Here’s the bottom line:
Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
In my preacher office, I have this enormous file cabinet with an equally enormous file drawer full of sermon stuff. I have files on every conceivable subject – from family to heaven & hell, to race relations to bible authority to Islam to salvation – and into those files I drop news stories, anecdotes, and stuff I fish out of trash cans that I think my help bring a sermon to life one day. Been working on those for 27 years. But I realized a few years ago that in all those years & all those files, I didn’t have a file on LOVE. Yikes! File on EVERYTHING related to Jesus, God, faith, & bible and I overlooked a file on LOVE?
Because love sort of is at the center of the faith, isn’t it? God is love, God so loved, Love one another, The greatest of these is love. … even if you don’t believe in this God or read this Word, you know this is in the faith. So it’s fair to ask what exactly is my problem with that no file. Lack of love? Maybe. Careless in file keeping? Uh, not likely. Half-baked pastor? Definitely.
But then I realized – and I hope it’s not delusional or self-justfication – that the problem may be with how we understand and define love. On the one hand we confuse love & romance and even start to define love as sex. Some of you remember that Bad Co song Feel Like Making Love, which is actually the least loving, least sexy song imaginable. On the other hand, when it comes to relationships of the non-romantic kind – parents & children, siblings, CHURCHES WITH THEIR PEOPLE – we confuse love with sentimentality. With permission. With indulgence. With giving ppl what they want. With feeling. With warm fuzzies. As if love is one great exercise is giving ppl what they want; a long walk towards indulgence. Every parent and, for very different reasons, many romantic partners, have heard that dreaded line: “If you love me, you will . . . ” And no one ever finishes that line with “you will discipline / punish me more.”
And so this effort to accurately understand and define and live love brings us to Week 3 of Nooks & Crannies. Now: we’re going to take a SECOND look at the two stories that we’ve looked at so far in the series – the First Family’s melodrama of secret keeping with Adam & Eve and grievance feeding with Cain & Abel. And in particular, I want to look at the aftermath of those two stories because they share an incredible & indelible pattern that I truly believe will show us what love does have to do with it. Take a look at 3:21 when God has had to banish the man & woman from the Garden:
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them
Now: what kind of animal? Where did the animal come from? Is God a hunter? Charter member of the NRA? Did he dare go after an endangered species? We don’t know cuz it doesn’t say – the Genesis author AGAIN is not interested in what interests us. What he DOES say is that in the middle of severe punishment God is all about protection from the elements and preparation for what comes next. He can’t allow them to continue in sin, there HAVE to be consequences but embedded in all that is this incredibly tender act of domesticity. God sews! On the Eighth Day, God sewed! Tenderness in the middle of turmoil. Redemption in the middle of rebellion. Look next at 3:22:
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
uh? “Us”? Ah . . . could it be that the Trinity is already being suggested? In any event, there is more protection going on here … because immortality in that state for A & E would be prolonged death. God’s not having it.
Then it finishes in 3:23-34:
So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[a] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Ah, for their own good and own protection he makes sure they can’t re-enter the garden that they’ve already demonstrated they can’t handle. It seems angry, rash, and VENGEFUL but on closer inspection it is anything but. Look at it with fresh eyes – loving eyes – and you see they have been simultaneously PUNISHED and ADORED. It’s not revenge. It’s love disguised as punishment.
And then Cain. Look at 4:13-14, Cain’s narcissistic rant when God has to exile him after he murders Abel:
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
I’m like “Cain, could you use the personal pronoun ANY MORE?!” And then look at the Lord’s emphatic disagreement in 4:15:
15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so[a]; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod,[b] east of Eden.
. Not so! You’re wrong! Part of the way I’m punishing you is that I am protecting you! And again we ask, WHAT WAS THE MARK? A tat? If so, what kind? Birthmark? We don’t know cuz it doesn’t say! But look at the result – Cain, a marked man (marked for revenge, marked for murder) and God RE-marks him. Now: he had to punish and exile because if he didn’t he’d be inviting more slaughter, starting with Cain’s! But note again: the punishment is just love in disguise. God is telling Cain, “I love you too much to let you get away with it!” What looks painful is actually protection. It’s not revenge on God’s part; it’s painful redemption. Beautiful, haunting, painful parallels in these first two stories of the First Family. Have to look in the nooks & crannies of Scripture to see well what’s going on in the nooks & crannies of this household.
And the end of Gen 3 & 4, I suggest, is the ultimate def’n of love. Not sappy, sentimental, or even sexual. But protective, passionate, protective. It’s NEVER the freedom to keep doing MORE of what got you in trouble in the first place. Love that doesn’t seek revenge in the nooks & crannies of families, but love that recognizes the road to redemption, the preparation for the next phase of life, is typically painful. That starting over requires a paying back. And if ever you’ want to learn love & live love from the source of love, it’s this. Cuz here’s what you need to know, to be, and to do in the nooks & crannies of your life & relationships: Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
Yes! You see how God doesn’t get revenge; he instead sets up A & E and C & A for what is coming next in their lives. These acts of incredible tenderness when he must have been feeling thunderous anger! He doesn’t indulge because there are things he can’t permit. We’ve looked at all the wrong scenarios to find love when it’s been staring us in the faces from the opening pages of the bible for longer than we’ve been alive. Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
See, in your family – parents & kids, spouses, sibling – and in this church – yes! How we get along! – we want redemption to be the goal. Redemption meaning a clean slate, a fresh start, and the supernatural ability to be right and get it right next time. And the road to redemption can be painful and bloody – just ask Jesus.
See, our issue with LOVE in our intimate relationships is that so many of us embody one pole or another. Some of you, in the face of rebellion, turn to REVENGE. I mean, that’s why my dad as an adult said in this incredibly matter-of-fact tone about his own deceased father: “I hated my dad.” Why? Because my dad was raised in what today we’d call an abusive household. A victim of DV. They didn’t have those categories in 1911 when he was born, but it’s what it was. And he had scar tissue from that for the rest of his life. It’s why some of you come to church with scars & bruises and why others of you are the SOURCE of those scars and bruises. Like that song Luka. Know why? Because there was never a strategy for REDEMPTION. Parent punishing child was a matter of REVENGE. To set them back, never to set them up. And I’ve noticed that abuse and DV USUALLY follows a season of indulgence or, more typically, a lack of attention. Mom or dad’s not noticing – cuz self-absorbed – and then they DO SEE stuff & explode as a result. I could be describing some of you right now.
So my prayer and my plea is that you, NOW, name what is going on and when you are in a place of calm develop a strategy involving redemption. How can my punishment prepare my child / spouse / sibling / church member for the next phase of life? Like the 15 yr old I knew in TX who got caught taking his parents’ car out & w/ peppermint schnapps on his breath. Two-fer! And somehow parents crafted a plan of punishment that didn’t exact revenge but instead redeemed. How do I know? Because that underage drinker a & driver became a 17 year old who led me to faith. He was never more adored than when we was punished & I am living proof of that. Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
But some of you are at the other extreme. A lot of parents tie up their dogs and let their kids run loose. You’ve become your child’s FRIEND. Hey – you know what really means? Your child has become your parent! Or you’ve indulged. You give them what they want in the moment so they won’t make a scene in public – done this, right? What you’re actually doing is creating an insatiable appetite for more stuff, more bling, more me. You can tell it in kids who can’t look adults in the eye because they’re glued in to their DEVICES. You know what? Indulgence now prevents independence later. You, too, because this is true – REFRAIN – need to set those boundaries, realizing that punishing is the most loving thing you can do; your discipline is protective. Exile, yes. Banish, yes. But woven into it is the sin and the marks. You’re not getting revenge; your preparing for life. Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
Which is why you can rarely do better than Paul Harvey:
We tried so hard to make things better for our kids that we made them worse.
I hope you learn to make your own bed and mow the lawn and wash the car.
I hope nobody gives you a brand new car when you are sixteen.
I hope just once that you learn humility by being humiliated and that you learn honesty by being cheated.
It will be good if at least one time you can see puppies born and your old dog put to sleep.
I hope you have to share a bedroom with your younger brother or sister.
I hope you learn to dig in the dirt and to read books.
I hope that when you talk back to your mother you will learn what ivory soap tastes like.
I wish you tough times and disappointments, hard work and happiness. That’s the only way to appreciate life.
But get this: some of you are the skin wearers and mark bearers. You’re in the middle of that loving punishment. For some, by parents. Others, by siblings. Some, by church. Others, BY GOD! Yeah, by God. If that’s you, I just want you to know again & again & again that you are never more ADORED by your family or by your Father than when you are being disciplined. It’s not exacting revenge; it’s providing redemption. Not a set back; a set up. Love is not always permissive but it is always redemptive.
And the Genesis stories share something else remarkable in common. Look at 4:1 and 4:17:
17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch.
Huh. That’s not by accident. New life. Embedded into the discipline is both the possibility AND THE PROMISE of new life. That’s the ultimate in redemption! Because we might even call it being born again. That’s what love has to do with it. It’s not easy, it’s not enabling, it is always hopeful.
And those are the kind of love stories that might just fill up a brand new Love file in my preacher’s lair.