From Babel to the New Jerusalem


Biblical Text: Genesis 11:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

How does the Spirit work? That might be a question that leads to a just-so-story. But just-so-stories don’t give the Bible, and its author the Holy Spirit, enough credit. Such stories can be manipulative. If you are taking Babel as a just-so-story, the real purpose is to say “know your place”. It would be the Biblical Icarus, and God would be the capricious Zeus. But that is not the story told at Babel and Pentecost.

The story told is of a God who saves us from the worst of ourselves. The story told is of a Spirit that takes the wounds of sin an glorifies them. No longer are all the languages a reminder of how sin turns us inward, but they are a testament to the width of the love of God. The new creation comes not through compelling force or manipulative story, but through an invite to the heart. God’s will is done, the New Jerusalem is built, one heart (one stone heart turned to flesh) at a time.

A Contract or a Covenant? (If Covenant, what type?)

Today is Parson and Parson’s Wife’s anniversary. With three kids our celebration is Chinese Takeout. But the occasion gives me the occasion to reflect on just what marriage is anyway.

First some background grist. The first marriage: Genesis 2:18-24. Jesus on Marriage and Divorce: Mark 10:1-12. Paul reflecting on the same passage: Ephesians 5:1-33 (small subset Ephesians 5:22-33). G.E.M. Anscombe on Chastity. If you have the time or interest all those are worth reading and pondering. The Anscombe article is at the same time short and profound. She is a philosopher, which usually means prose so thick and obtuse it can’t be read. That is not the case with Anscombe. The prose is dense, by which I mean each sentence and paragraph make a point and are like the proverbial iceberg where what is said is resting on a much larger body unseen, but the prose is also clear.

One quote from the Anscombe piece.

Humanly speaking, the good and the point of a sexual act is: marriage. Sexual acts that are not true marriage acts either are mere lasciviousness, or an Ersatz, an attempt to achieve that special unitedness which only a real commitment, marriage, can promise. For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language. It is part of the creation of humanity and if we’re lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it. If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.

That quote contains the basis of the title question and the theological confusion of the present day. American culture (and western culture in general) is currently rolling through the logical necessities of changes in its presuppositions. The most recent one is what has been called gay marriage.

Part of the American genius is in the creation and regulation of temporary partnerships – think corporations and contract law. But I call it part of the American genius because Americans have been thrown together and have been making contracts well before even the revolution. The Ur document of this sort is the Mayflower Compact. Written in Nov of 1620 before the Pilgrims disembarked at Plymouth. Quoting – “…these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws…” In that document you find both the idea of covenant and the idea of combining ourselves. America is not without the idea of covenant, but its genius is in the contract. It is at its best when both are present and remembered, but in our day we are more like a people with only a hammer. American’s hit everything like a nail with the hammer of the contract.

Back to Anscombe, “For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club.” That statement rests primarily on the Genesis passage, but also on Paul’s expression in Ephesians as marriage being the symbol of Christ and the church. The verbs that apply to a covenant are to cut or to seal. To cut a covenant is a very literal translation of the Hebrew reflecting Genesis 15:7-21. God promised Abram offspring and land and sealed the promise, the covenant, by walking between animals cut in half. The meaning is that if I break this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me. When you cut a covenant you are saying what should never happen, the unity created to be cut in half. And we did not create the marriage covenant. God ordained it in the Garden before sin.

Somewhere around 1964 the understanding of marriage in America shifted from that covenantal understanding to a contractual one. Contracts are temporary partnerships. Contracts are entered into for the mutual increase of both parties. They do not create one party. When the contract becomes more onerous than beneficial to one party, it gets renegotiated or revoked. In 1970 Ronald Reagan signed a bill that created no-fault divorce in the state of California. Prior to that to receive a divorce you would have to show cause. The real purpose of showing cause was to show that the animals had already been sundered. It might have been getting hazy in memory, but a covenental understanding before no-fault was still operating. A divorce was granted only when the unity had been destroyed already. The one flesh had already been torn apart. With the advent of no-fault, marriage was now a contract. If I created it, I could also ended it as long as “affairs were settled”, i.e. the contract came to a negotiated close.

When marriage is just another contract it makes no sense to bar anyone from creating that contract. Gay marriage as a contract makes perfect sense. For that matter so do all kinds of other arrangements. Anyone who can find the marriage contract beneficial in whatever form would find no bar from it. But as Anscombe said in that first quote, “If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.” Marriage as a contract has in a very significant way ceased to be marriage.

The portion of Genesis that Jesus quotes is “the two shall become one flesh”. And he adds the statement, “what God has joined together, let not man separate.” God has put two together. And the purpose is the creation of one flesh. The marriage act itself is a creation of one flesh, but closer to the truth is that the children who come from that act are in fact one flesh.

Marriage is the covenant for the creation and rearing of children. That is its primary intention. There are other things that might come out of it, but they are secondary goods to the creation of one flesh. If you undermine the primary intention of marriage, you have undermined marriage itself. That has been the American project for about 50 years give or take to the point that it is questionable if it is possible to truly enter a marriage in the United States. Instead we contract to use each other for mutual benefit, until that contract becomes disadvantageous to one of the contracting entities.

Now all of this is written as a reflection on what marriage is in its perfection. The good or model marriage is Christ and the church. Do we all live up to that? No way. It is one thing to confess our failures (i.e. sin), it is another thing to deny that sin all together. If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. We can manipulate our understanding of marriage all we want, but if the truth is not in us, it only leads to meaningless suffering, as opposed to the sufferings of Christ.

Stewardship 3: What does faithfulness look like in Stewardship?

This is a link to post #1 in this series.
This is a link to post #2 in this series

Short Recap. Stewardship is part of the sanctified life or part of living the gospel. It would be easy to make a law of it, but we break the law. That is what the law does. It shows us where we fall short. But, the law remains a good guide of how God intends for us to live. Instead, by looking at the parables of the talents and mina, what God desires of the sanctified life is faithfulness. God has given every baptized Christian the Holy Spirit indwelling. God has given a mix of gifts to every church. What He is looking for is faithful use of those gifts. The return is not really what matters. God will bless that. The amount of original gifting is not what matters. That varies and is from God. What matters is the use. The faithful Christian does not bury the talent or wrap the mina in a cloth, but he/she uses them or you can even say puts them at risk.

Now the question is what does a faithful use look like? What I want to start with is the Ur-Story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4:1-16. Take a minute to look read the story.

In Gen 4:3 how is Cain’s offering described? “In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering from the fruit of the ground.” Now I’m going to get a little geeky here. The “in the course of time” translation is fine, but the Hebrew Idiom is literally more interesting – “it took place at the end of the days”. In other words, Cain finished everything first, and as an afterthought said, ‘maybe I should offer something to God.’ Compare that description to Abel in Gen 4:4. You can read the pretty translation at the link, I’m going to skip to the geeky one – “Abel himself moreover brought in from the female firstborn of the flock and from the fat ones”. Catch the difference? 1) Abel himself, the implied contrast is that it wasn’t Cain himself that brought the offering. 2) Abel brought in the firstborn of the flock. (I’m not going to read anything into the ‘female’ portion of that. If you want to push it you could say that offering a female was more valuable in that the female would produce milk and more sheep.) 3) Not just the firstborn but also the fat ones. The sheep that had been well fed and taken care of.

So, where Cain’s stewardship was an afterthought given without a real measure of thanks from the remains of the day, Abel’s was the first part in every way. Abel acknowledged in his offering where everything came from. Cain was checking off a box. Abel was living the gospel. Cain was living the law.

God favors Abel’s offering, but Cain’s he pays no attention to. Cain gets angry at this. [Enter grumbly voice] Stupid God, doesn’t like everything I’ve done for him. I’ll show God. [Voice off] God even warns him the sin is at his door. He needs to get control of it. But we know the rest of the story.

But for our stewardship study the message is plain. If you are treating stewardship as a law. If you are coming in at the end of the week or month out of cash and offering $5 in the hopes that God will superstitiously bless you, you are treading the path of Cain. You would be better off not putting that in the plate. Instead the gospel stewardship is a recognition of where all good gifts come from, and the deeper recognition that sacrificing the first and the fat is not a “dead weight loss”. That God is a God of abundance and living the gospel is having faith in Him to provide for all our needs.

There are all kinds of questions and buts and ifs and legal codicils that could be raised. If you want to the comments are open. But I’m out of space for today. For the next part please read Mark 12:41-44 or Luke 21:1-4. We’ll talk about some of those buts, and then transition into some very practical matters.

Stewardship 1: The messy side of the gospel

One of the planks of our vision statement says that we grow and engage the faith. The church has many euphemisms. It also has many fine words. Too often what I have found is that fine words also have euphemistic meanings. And the church has worked to promote the euphemism because it is easier than the hard work of teaching the good word. It is easier until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, things have stopped working. We are teaching the good words and wrestling with them.

One of those fine words with a euphemism is stewardship. The euphemism that we all know is: 1. It is budget time and the pastor’s salary is at risk. 2. A pet project needs some money. 3. We will talk about time, talent and treasure, but what we really want is your treasure.

The good word is much more complex. Something like: the proper use of what is not actually yours.

Good stewardship is a theologically deep and complex problem because it lies on the messy side of the gospel. Lutherans like to talk about law and gospel or one big theological word – justification. The entire reformation split was over justification – how God makes us right with himself. The reformers answer was pure grace. The law shows us our sin and the gospel pronounces the grace of God over that sin. So, there is a sense that we can say that we are saints. We are baptized, and in baptism God has connected us to His son Jesus Christ. We are justified, declared righteous, in Jesus Christ through baptism. End of story, right?

Well, it would be if at baptism God also decided to rapture you. But then there would be no one left to baptize the next person. No, we live in tension that we are now saints, but not yet fully realized. Christ has already won the victory over sin, death and Satan, but we still struggle. One little word can kill them, yet they seem so strong. Welcome to the messy side of the gospel.

The big theological term for this is sanctification. When Luther would write in the small catechism his explanation to the 3rd article of the creed, “…the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith…” he was compressing the Christian life. All too often the churches of the reformation fight the last battle. Constantly on the lookout for anyone who might be teaching works righteousness we miss that fact that if surveys are to be trusted – nobody is worried about God being judgmental and having to appease him or thinking they can. In other words they’ve accepted the gospel, but it is not the costly gospel of Jesus Christ but a cheap gospel substitute. We get scared away by the messiness of sanctification and retreat back to the bright line justification. In the words of the writer of Hebrews – we stay with the milk. (Heb 5:11- 6:3)

Stewardship is squarely on that messy side. We confess the creed. We believe our justification. How then do we live? Stewardship is really a word that describes how we use money (and other good things from God) in a sanctified way. Our entire lives are a form of stewardship.

I promise to get more concrete as we move into this series, but before that I’d ask you to read two biblical stories: either Matt 25:14-30 or Luke 19:12-27 and the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

The length of days…

One of our Sunday School students (4th grader, smart kid) asked a series of questions that included the length of life of the people in Genesis. A typical answer is something like – “well, how do things work when they are new vs. when they are old? So, a earth that had just become sinful, probably works better, right? You can see the ages getting shorter as you progress into the book. All the bad stuff in the swamp leeched out, after the apple.”

Here is a NYT article
on trees that live to 4500 year because of being away from bad stuff in a harsh environment. (The bad news, why its news, is that we’ve managed to foul even the high mountain spaces up. See, fits neatly into the sin/creation groaning line of thought.) Here is a list of the “normal” lifespan of trees. A normal pine can live 450 years. These pines lived 4500 years or 10 times longer. Gee a long lived person today lives 95 years. Those people in Genesis lived 950 years. (Methuselah 989 years). Roughly 10 times longer. Ok, all you scientists can now snicker at the silly pastor. But there is a modern example of much longer life that is now being ended by the effects of sin. But I’m just a poor benighted fool.

Genesis, theology, evolution and modernity

Last week’s Sunday School and Bible class was basically Genesis 1 & 2. These also came up in the Thursday bible study. When your great hope is resurrection or re-creation, your understanding of the original creation becomes important. Also when as a protestant you rest on biblical authority, how you interpret is important. And the tendency when the core is attacked is to push back hard – to have scientists who say theology and religion is a bunch of junk, and on the other side to have religionists who say that science just doesn’t know what its talking about. Think Daniel Dennet and Ken Hamm. Both groups want to say choose, and if you don’t then well you just aren’t a real scientist or christian.

Tim Keller is the founding Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This paper is the best thing I have ever read on this subject. If you have ever had any questions, doubts or thoughts, go read it! It is a perfect piece of pastoral theology. An informed layman or woman can read it and understand it, but it does not back away from serious questions or from positing serious answers.

To the person looking for mathematical certainty, you’re never going to find it. What Keller does best is step back from the shouting and apply some simple reason.