This message was preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, January 30. It’s the third in a series rooted in our congregation’s discussion of Max Lucado’s book Fearless. The texts for the day are Genesis 3:1-11 and John 3:16-21. At the end of the sermon there’s a video of Chris Tomlin’s Come Home Running, which my friend Adam sang in response to the message.
Maybe you know these, but I’ll try them out anyway. Here’s a little biblical humor for you. Where is the first mention of baseball in the Bible? In the big inning… Who was the first financial genius in the Bible? Pharaoh’s daughter, who went down to the Nile and drew out a little prophet. When were motorcycles mentioned in the Bible? When Joshua’s triumph was heard throughout the land. Does the Bible ever mention insurance? Sure; David gave Goliath a piece of the rock. I could go on. Unfortunately, I have a million of these. Perhaps you use your brain cells better. I hope so.
OK, one more question – only this time, it’s no joke. Who was the first theologian in the Bible? In Genesis 3, we meet the serpent, who represents the power of evil. The serpent is the first true theologian. After all, what is a theologian? Someone who talks about, who studies, God. Remember your Greek? “Logos” = ‘word’ or ‘study’; “Theos” = “God”. Theologians talk about God. For most of the beginning of Genesis, we see God as the creator, God as the giver of life, God as the one who gives shape to reality. We also see God as one who is intentional about being in relationship – creating humanity and breathing life into the man’s nostrils, presenting humanity with that which is good and pleasant, teaching humanity about the goodness of relationship.
And then in Genesis 3, we see the first instance of a creature talking about God, rather than talking with God. When the serpent talks with Eve about God, he speaks of God as an other. As one who does not share that which we are doing right now. Do you see what I mean? He makes God a concept, or an idea, rather than a person.
And in this conversation about, rather than including, God, the serpent says, “Do I get this right? You’re not supposed to eat from any tree in the whole garden?” In doing so, he distorts God’s words. Of course, God didn’t say that. Eve corrects him, but then enters into his error by adding her interpretation to God’s conversation. “Oh, no, we can eat from any of them, except for that one.” So far, truthful. But then she adds, “He says we’re not even allowed to touch it.” That’s not in Genesis 2. Eve continues down the road of making God an outsider, an “other”, or even an idea or a concept.
And, as you know, this conversation leads to an eating and a sharing of the fruit and a damaging of the entire creation. Genesis 3 tells a story about a conversation that questioned God’s character, competency, and authority – and not only questioned it, but rejected it. And not only did humans reject God’s character, competency, and authority, they put themselves in the role that God had reserved for himself. So far as I am concerned, the real tragedy in Genesis 3 is not that someone ate a piece of fruit; the real problem is that someone – all of us, really – indicate to God that while we think he’s a nice enough fellow, he’s not really the one who should be in charge. That should be, well, me.
And in Genesis 3, when humans begin to treat themselves as if they are God, there is an immediate realization that something is not right. All of a sudden, Adam and Eve notice that they are naked. All of a sudden, they experience shame. Whereas prior to this conversation there had been a great deal of openness, now there is hiding. They cover themselves. They run into the bushes. They conceal themselves from God and from each other.
Genesis goes on to describe God wandering through the garden looking for the ones that he loves. Now, I know that lots of times, I am working on a project and I walk through the room muttering, “Now where is that drill bit? I know I left it around here somewhere! What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I find it?” Beloved, that’s not God’s problem here. “Where are you?” is not a question of geography. He knows where they are. It’s a question of relationship. “I created you for intimacy and openness…and you are not those things any more. Where are you, humans?” There is a sense of loss and pain in the heart of God that he has to even be asking these questions.
You know the answer, of course. Where are Adam and Eve? They are lost. They are hiding. And they make it worse. Adam says, “I was naked, and I was afraid.”
Do you remember last week, when we said that it was up to God to tell us who we were? That our identity comes from God, not from something outside of God? Here’s a great example of that. “Who told you you were naked?” What a great question. “How do you even know what ‘naked’ is? Someone else has been speaking into your heart. Someone else has been trying to shape your identity. Someone else is messing with my creation…”
And rather than enter into conversation about that, the humans walk more deeply into dis-orientation. The man blames the woman. The woman blames the snake. In rejecting God, or in taking God’s place themselves, humans have upset the entire universe. Do you see that unfolding in Genesis 3? The relational balance that has been set up in Genesis 1 and 2 has now unraveled. Why? Because humans treat God like an idea and they put themselves in God’s place. Yet at the end of this passage, look at what happens: verse 21 describes how God goes to meet the people in the midst of this brokenness. In spite of the fact that they have treated him poorly and acted unwisely, God cares for Adam and Eve and demonstrates that by clothing them. He enters into the place where they are and insists that relationship is still his intention. Everybody knows who is in the wrong here, but God takes the first steps.
Everybody knows what is wrong here…
Let me tell you about one of the worst classes I ever took in my entire life. It was a class on the topic of “evangelism” – and it was designed to help people like me learn how to talk with other people about the amazing things that God has done in Jesus.
“The first thing we have to do,” the instructor said, “is to convince people of the reality of sin in their lives. We can only tell people about God’s love when they know that they are lost.”
And, like to overachiever that I can sometimes be, I went out and did that. I mean, I was eager to helpfully point out to my friends and acquaintances where they had blown it, where they were wrong, and just how sinful they were. It was not, let me say, my finest hour.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand: that my instructor must live in a different world than I do. Because I very, very rarely have to convince anyone that their lives are not the way that they ought to be. The people that I tend to hang around with already know that they’ve blown it. Most of my friends and acquaintances, like Adam and Eve, are acquainted with shame. They have been down the road of blaming – themselves, or each other, or God. Now, as I have said, it’s possible that my instructor was palling around with a different group of people, but my experience is that we know what it’s like to fall short. And most of the time, we get to be pretty good at hiding. Oh, we don’t hide in the bushes any more. We hide behind walls of denial, insisting that this may not be perfect, but it’s as good as it gets. We dive into our work, and keep on producing and producing and producing, hoping that someone will notice and love us for it. We numb ourselves with alcohol or some other drug, thinking that while we may not be able to experience a life that’s much better, at least we’ll be able to check out of this one every now and then. Some of us are just angry all the time, and that anger is a means of dealing with the frustration we experience when life isn’t as it should be.
Am I right? Do you know what it is to realize that life is messed up? Do you know how it feels to hide inside one of those behaviors? Yeah, I thought so.
And because I know how that feels, and I know that you know how that feels, I get pretty excited when I read John chapter 3. Jesus is talking to his friend, Nicodemus, and he’s said that if we want to be friends with God, we’ve got to go back to the beginning. We need a “do-over”, he says. Actually, Jesus said we have to be “born-again”, but I think it means the same thing. We get to start fresh with God. And just like God reached into the Garden of Eden and went to be with Adam and Eve in their nakedness and shame by clothing them, Jesus says that God has sent him, his son, into the world to convey that message of love and grace. “My whole life,” Jesus says, “is an opportunity for people who know that things aren’t right to find a way home. You don’t have to stay hiding in the bushes, or in your jobs, or with those drugs, or in that anger any longer. I’m here to tell you that God says you can come home.”
I could be going out on a limb here, but I’m betting that not many people in the room know who Hiroo Onoda is. Listen:
In August of 1942, Onoda joined the Japanese Army. He was trained to be an intelligence officer specializing in guerrilla warfare. In December of 1944, he was assigned to the Philippines, where he received his orders from Major Yoshimi Tanaguchi – to go behind the Allied lines and cause trouble wherever he could. He was expressly forbidden from killing himself, and Major Tanaguchi said, “it may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.” So Onoda and his squad went into the interior of the island.
You may have heard this, but on the afternoon of August 15, 1945, Japan announced that it was surrendering. On September 2, 1945, a formal peace treaty was signed. As I’ve said, you’re probably aware of that. It was, as they say, in all the papers.
But they didn’t get any papers in the jungles of the Philippines, and so Lt. Onoda and his squad of three soldiers kept fighting. In October of 1945, Lt. Onoda found a brochure saying that the war had ended, but he didn’t believe it. For the next few months, American planes dropped leaflets announcing the end of the war. Villages set up loudspeakers and relatives from Japan yelled into the jungle, imploring anyone in hiding to give up the fight. But Onoda and his men didn’t believe it. For years, they lived in the jungle, attacking islanders when they could, believing them to be spies for America. In 1949, one of his fellow soldiers sneaked away from the camp and surrendered. In 1954, another was shot and killed in a skirmish. In 1972, Lt. Onoda’s last soldier was killed in a clash with a Filipino patrol. When the Filipinos figured out that the dead man was a Japanese soldier, they renewed the hunt for survivors, but Onoda went deeper into the jungle.
In 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki decided to bum around the South Pacific for a while. “Hey,” he told his friends. “Maybe I’ll find the Abominable Snowman. Maybe I’ll find a giant panda. Maybe I’ll find a lost Japanese soldier.” Well, one out of three ain’t bad. He found Lt. Onoda, who at that time was 53 years old, and had been hiding in the jungles for more than half his life. He tried to convince Onoda that the war was over, but Onoda did not believe him. Suzuki asked him what would convince him, and Lt. Onoda said that he would only come out in response to a direct order from his commanding officer.
Suzuki went back to Japan and found Major Tanaguchi. They returned to the island and Major Tanaguchi read the orders indicating that all combat was to cease. On March 9, 1974, World War II ended for Lt. Onoda. He said, “We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy? Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?”
Can you begin to imagine that? In hiding for nearly thirty years? Lt. Onoda missed the original airing of every single episode of The Brady Bunch. While he was in hiding, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began preaching, rose to fame, led the civil rights movement, and was killed. Four lads were born in England, grew up in Liverpool, formed a little band they called “The Beatles”, made a few records, and broke up. Alaska and Hawaii became states. Heck, Onoda was in the jungle so long that the Green Bay Packers even managed to win a couple of Super Bowls!
As I said, people tried to convince him to come out – but he only left his hiding spot when his commander came to get him.
Some of you in this room, I believe, have an inkling of how it felt to be Lt. Onoda. When Jesus came into the room and said, “It’s all right. You can come home. You don’t have to keep living in a flawed reality. God sent me”, you trusted him. And you discovered that reality can change.
In church, we talk a lot about “sin”. Sometimes we tend to get lost in thinking about “sin” as a list of behaviors that really tick God off. Sin, to many of us, means lying or drinking or cheating on our taxes or our spouses. But I think a more faithful understanding of “sin” is to think of it as a condition in which we are lost in the jungle, or our lives are broken – that we are missing out on the best that God has for us. Sin is a disruption in the relationship with God for which we are intended.
The remedy for sin is grace – an invitation to be who we were created to be. Grace is the ability to let God be God, and me be me, and you be you. Grace is coming out of the woods and going home. Grace is a do-over.
Lt. Onoda? Two years after he got home, he married and moved to Brazil, where he became a rancher. Since then, he’s opened up a nature school for troubled youngsters. He’s started again.
The Good News of the gospel is that it’s not just characters in Genesis or isolated old warriors who get to start fresh. Jesus brings us word – Jesus is the Word – from, not the commander, but the Creator. It’s time to leave the bushes and the darkness of fear and anger and shame and disappointment, and trust in God to clothe us and to bring us home where we belong. Amen.
This is the song that was sung by Adam later in worship. As you reflect on the scriptures and the theme of this message, I’d invite you to take three and a half minutes and listen to the truth expressed herein.