06 October 2015

The Privilege of Sonship - John 1:9-13

The Privilege of Sonship
John 1:9-13
Kevin Rees — October 4, 2015 - audio file posted at:

The welcome of all welcomes sits against a backdrop of the rejection of all rejections.

Welcome.  It is a simple thing.  I would venture to say that this very morning three-quarters of us have this word emblazoned somewhere in our home—on a welcome mat, in a wreath, clutched in the concrete hand of a painted garden gnome—“You’re Welcome Here.  Come On In.  Make Yourself at Home.”  Such a simple concept: welcome.  If someone holds the door for us, we say, “Thank you.”  The customary response is, “You’re welcome.”  If we invite someone to a meal, we answer the door and say, “Welcome to our home.  Please come in.  May I take your coat?  How do you feel about spastic dogs?  If you are uncomfortable I will put them out back.”  Why?  Because we want others to feel welcomed.

Welcome.  It is such a simple thing to say.  Do we mean it?  Don’t rush into that answer too quickly.  Do we sincerely offer our welcome?  Okay, to whom?  Certainly not to everyone, right?  We cannot logistically have everyone in the community over for dinner—we would be overrun and under-budgeted.  Certainly not to the pedophiles on the FBI’s sex offender list, right?  Those individuals are not welcome into our home where our children’s safety is of paramount importance.  So, who gets our welcome?  To the migrants, like the refugees who flood the borders and overwhelm the social infrastructure of Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—do they get our welcome?  Is it the same kind of welcome we give to next door neighbors or traveling evangelists or Aunt Bertha in for the night from Philadelphia?  What about the undocumented workers from Latin America?  What about the IRS agent?  What about the visibly desperate man who came by begging for money earlier in this day, but who circles back around to ask your wife for $10 more dollars when you are still at a meeting and it is dark outside?  Is he welcome?  Would your wife agree with you on that one?  Would your kids? 

I can see the level of discomfort rising in this room.  But please relax!  We must discriminate in our welcome.  It would be foolish and irresponsible not to filter some while allowing others.  I know there is a political metanarrative that runs with this theme, but that is not at all where I am leading you today.  I merely want to probe the concept of welcome and ask about who gets a welcome and who does not.

After all, there are many aspects of welcome.  There is a home welcome—that is very intimate and highly selective.  What about a community welcome—that is less “close to the heart”?  Some of you know my family history; one that I am quite proud of.  My older brother and sister are African-American, adopted in the early 70s as babies.  I, the Anglo-baby, was the oddball in the family demographic until my younger sisters were born 4 and then 7 years after me.  But when we moved to the urban sprawl of Washington D.C. in 1977, there was only one neighborhood realtors would show to my parents.  All others communities were unofficially “off limits” because of our family portrait.  We were, “Not welcome.” 

Well, there is also a national welcome—who is allowed to call “the land of the free and the home of the brave” their home?  Jihadists, supporters of ISIS, IT spies from China, militarized Marxists from Venezula, or how about Austrailian hacker Julian Assange of WikiLeaks or American intelligence personnel Edward Snowden who intentionally leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents and who fled to Russia?  Who is “Not Welcome”?

But even still, there is a church welcome—who is truly welcome here at Tucker Street Church?  Once again—don’t answer that too quickly for it is a multi-layered scenario.  There is the gut-level, “Everyone is welcome here at Tucker Street Church,” which is true; which I hope continues to flourish especially to the vulnerable ones in our community.  But what about the other end of the spectrum: the extremely vocal, highly conservative Christians?  Are they welcome here, too?  What about those precious people who don’t like to be zeroed out or called upon to pray?  What about people who can’t bring themselves to commit to anything?  What about those people who can’t read sheet music, who have no appreciation for church history, who don’t see the value in liturgy or even partial liturgy?  Are they welcome here?  You see, it is a tricky question.  This is why churches trend toward homogeny over time; it takes great energy to be welcomers.

By the way, this that begs a corollary set of questions about first time visitors—what do they see and feel and know of our welcome at our church?  How would they view our church?  Putting fresh eyes on the entire Sunday experience—top to bottom from signage to order of worship to unexplained traditions to sermon length to quirks that are invisible to long-time members.  From a newcomer’s perspective—what does Tucker Street Church exude of welcome?  It could be a very healthy exercise for us to do sometime.  But it will call for courage because it will probably point toward the need to adapt, which is possibly one of our weaknesses at this and most churches.  But let that one cook for a little while.

Suffice it to say, welcome is important but difficult to do well.  We are marked by our failures more than our successes.  Who we welcome, how we welcome, when and where and why we welcome?  But also the flipside of those perennial questions.  Who do we not welcome, how do we contribute to the unwelcome of some, when and where and why do we communicate “You are not welcome here”?

I must say, “You are not welcome here” are some of the hardest words to swallow—whether spoken or unspoken.  Like Mark Twain put it: “It is better to be alone than unwelcome.”  I have been welcomed kindly, warmly, sincerely, generously by tens of thousands … but the few dozen times I have been categorically unwelcomed are the ones I remember in detail.  I am not even an extroverted person—I have learned how to do extroversion as a trade skill with great exertion—however, my default setting is alone or in small settings with a book or a with game on.  For extroverts, presumably, unwelcomeness might be even more devastating.  But whatever our personality, “You’re Not Welcome Here” is a pill.

But let me say this with all sobriety—we, as the human race, have failed miserably with regard to welcome.  We might get a barely-passing grade with welcoming Christians, maybe slightly higher grade with welcoming others who are already like us.  But when it comes to welcoming God, we flunked out.

Our text today, although it is one of the brightest statements in the Bible, first gives one of the saddest commentaries in history.  Our God, the Creator, the true Light that lights everyone in the world, Jesus Christ our Savior came to the world that he created and got this response: “You are not welcome here.”  The whole world is guilty of this.  The nation of Israel is guilty of this.  You are guilty of this.  I am guilty of this.  But Jesus swallowed the insult, stood on our porch, and offered a reverse hospitality through the door we closed in his face.  You do not welcome me, not as a fellow human, not as a brother, not as Savior, but I am willing to welcome you—not merely into my company nor my good pleasure, but into my very family.  The turn-around is staggering.  To the very ones who initially rejected him, Jesus gives the second chance.  Yes, you refused to understand me; preferring your darkness to my light.  True, you rejected knowing me in a relationship; knowing my gospel message, knowing my character.  But my offer stands—to all who receive me, who believed in my name, I offer you the privilege of sonship into the family of God.  This is the welcome of all welcomes set against the backdrop of the rejection of all rejections.  You can’t get this invitation in any other way—you can’t earn it, you must accept it on faith.

9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

I.             But to All Who Did Receive Him

The various layers of unwelcome are impossible to overlook.  We the world who enjoy and depend upon Jesus for light and life and even more specifically Israel the covenant people who were tasked with, among other things, the duty to stand as a watchman on the city wall for Messiah—none of us recognized or received Jesus.  But there was and there is still today a small portion; a minority … a remnant who came to recognize him as the Savior by God’s grace.  To this remnant who receive him there is a transformation that occurs.

By definition, a subgroup is different from the whole.  Our text says, “but to all who did receive him”—this creates a distinction.  The Greek conjunction could be translated this way, “as many as”—which suggests that while all would not be too many who receive him, only a minority do.  But Isaiah prophesied to this minority reception of Messiah, “Who has believed what he has heard from us?  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?  […] He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:1,3).  He was invited, anticipated, but left out on the porch, and more so … deliberately nailed to a tree for shedding light on that which we preferred to keep hidden.

Let’s linger on the active refusal to receive Jesus that the world gave.  No thanks.  No reverence.  No relationship.  Probably not even a positive thought.  If we meld it into the migrant crisis in Europe; Jesus is like a migrant at our border.  But with a couple of major difference: (1) he is not an alien—he is a countryman, and (2) he is not a refugee, but the opposite of a refugee.  Is there a word for that?  Yes, there is—it is a missionary.  Refugees flee from war.  Jesus, our Missionary God, rushes into the warzone.  But we stop him at the border.  We say, “You are not welcome here.”  Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).  This reception; this welcome is the offer of salvation.

On a lighter side, salvation is like a Christmas gift.  There can be a box wrapped with your name on it under the tree.  But even though it is for you, it is not your own possession until you receive it.  Maybe you disbelieve the sender of the gift has good motives.  Maybe you insist on solely providing for yourself in a posture of self-sufficiency, thank you very much.  Maybe you are sulking in the other room.  I don’t know why—it is not rational—but the gift is not received until it is received, opened up, tried on, and knowing the character of the gift giver, Jesus … cherished.  It is not too good to be true, but so good it must be good.  There are some who reach out and receive this gift; this offer … who open the door.  Are you one of this remnant or receivers of God who came to the world; who visited our own community … who, like John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Are you among the minority that welcomes him here?  Perhaps today is the day—even if you had been cold to him before, warm to him now with full reception.

II.            Who Believed in His Name

The two sides of the same coin, so to speak, are receive and believe.  You can’t have one without the other; just like you can’t have faith without repentance.  They are fused together and interchangeable.  The grammar shows us how receive and believe fit together—“all who did receive” are “those who are [continuously] believing in his name.”  The reception is punctilear while the believing is present tense participle; on-going.  We do not have to receive the gift of salvation over and over and over.  No, it is a one-time transaction with the ongoing characteristic of belief.  But notice the object of our belief—we believe in or into his name.  He is the object of our faith.  We do not have faith in faith.  We do not have faith in good works.  We have faith in his name; which is a way to summarize his entire personhood and work.

Can you see how Jesus flips everything around for the better; transforming evil into good?  He comes to our country where he received no welcome but welcomes us into his country where we will never be turned away.  He extends out his name which we despise and esteem as a non-valuable, but that very name is the bridge he is offers us to climb out of the cursed family of Adam and into the blessed family of Jesus; that name at which every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11).  And just think, he allows us to use his own name thereafter.  We pray in this name.  We preach in this name.  We baptize in this name.  We go forth under the banner of this name.  We recognize one another through this name.  We adopt this name as our new family name.  But even more than our adoption of his name; he adopts us legally, fully, eternally … which brings us to the principle blessing.

Are you trying to dissect receiving Jesus from believing him?  It cannot be done.  There is no way to be receptive to him without also believing in him.  He doesn’t leave us that option.  We cannot be a fan without also being a follower.  It is as simple as a heart-felt “yes” to Jesus’ work on the cross as the only door to the family of God; to forgiveness of sin and eternal life.  Belief in Jesus is the hinge on which eternity swings.   Have you settled the issue of faith in Jesus?  Settle it today.  Give him your “yes” today.

III.           He Gave the Right to Become Children of God

This is where we have been heading all morning—“but to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  This is the privilege of sonship! 

Contrary to popular belief, it is not biblically accurate to say that all people are God’s children.  This is sentimental, but off the mark.  All people are God’s creation.  All people are image bearers of God and likeness sharers with God.  All people are the beneficiaries of God’s love.  All people are God’s possession.  All people might even be described as God’s “offspring” as Paul allowed in his sermon to the Athenians, quoting from one of their own poets to build a bridge to the gospel where he argues that we are able to be much, much more than mere offspring of God (Acts 17:28-29).  All of these have dignity and purpose and joy.  But not all people are able to claim the vaulted privilege of sonship to God. 

We are not automatically in God’s family simply by virtue of being alive.  Naturally, we are actually named “children of wrath” and “sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2,3).  However, while naturally we have no hope of escaping our cursed family tree, spiritually we can become something we were not previously—children of God.  The Jewish readers would have scoffed at the suggestion that their Jewish ethnicity was insufficient to qualify them to claim sonship with God.  They would likewise balk to hear John remove from the equation linear descent from Abraham through Isaac as the way to trace back to the family of God.  On the contrary, only by receiving Messiah Jesus into the innermost part of the heart by believing that he is who he says he is and did what the Scriptures say he did is one called a child of God. 

But notice that it is God’s sole act.  We, the children, do not petition for acceptance.  No!  It is the prerogative of the Father to name his children.  This privilege is afforded to us through the merits of Christ—he earned it, he shares it, he will keep it.  In the same vein, there is an obscure but beautiful promise that we, the redeemed, will each receive from God a new name that no one yet knows (Revelation 2:17).   These are benefits of sonship; by-products … blessings. 

But it is stressed three times for emphasis that this whole arrangement is not something we did or generated or even thought up.  This is from God alone.  “Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  It is not a DNA thing; it is not a good work thing; it is not even a human decision thing—God pulled this off beginning, middle, and end.  We receive it.  We believe it.  But we can never claim any part of it!  Just like any adoption!  The child does nothing to find a parent, to win the parent’s heart, to sign the legal documents necessary, to pay the fees and dues, or even to keep the parent’s good pleasure.  All of that is from the parent to the adopted child.  It is a flood of grace and love.

But from that point of adoption onward, there is a new status, a new name, a new family, a new group of siblings, a new address, sometimes a new citizenship, sometimes a new language.  “Behold I am making all things are new” (Revelation 21:5). 

At the start of the day, we were looking at our inescapable crime of failing to recognize the true Light in our midst and our refusal to welcome our Creator into our home.  But by the end of the day, we are called out of darkness into his marvelous light, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son, adopted out from our cursed family of Adam as sons of disobedience and children of wrath being welcomed into the very family of God by grace through faith.  This is quite a reversal!  This is quite a moment.  This is the day that the Lord has made; today is the day of salvation.

The lines are drawn.  The borders are fixed.  We are either in the family of Adam or we are in the family of Jesus.  The Scriptures do not leave us any margin here.   I know I think it a lot, but I don’t say it often enough, however now is the time to do as Paul commanded the church in 2 Corinthians 13:5.  The church!  Not the godless masses in the marketplace, but to the church he said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.  Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test.”  It is very easy to be in church yet without being in Christ.  It is possible to be aware of God, to know facts about God, to even use the vocabulary used by God, yet without being adopted into the family of God.

I want you to examine your welcome of Jesus.  In salvation, yes, but also in day-to-day life.  His welcome of you is stellar, but what is your welcome of him?  Have you been warm to the thought of him visiting you, but then do you keep him out on the porch?  Have you put the fence up at the borders of your heart like Hungary did last week?  Have you shut the door because you don’t want him to see the inside of your house, so to speak?  We do not have to be ready for him, we just have to receive him as he is, believing in his name.  The clean-up is the by-product not the prerequisite of sonship.  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

28 September 2015

The Struggle of Sonship - Matthew 4:1-11

The Struggle of Sonship
Matthew 4:1-11
Kevin Rees — September 27, 2015 - audio file posted at

Our true temptation, underneath all the other temptations, is to disbelieve our identity in Christ.

For the record and with the speakers pointing toward the entire universe—as well as toward my own cavernous soul—it is a fact: “Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities [of spiritual darkness] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him[self]” through the cross (Colossians 2:15).

It may seem to some juvenile to state the obvious, but because our text today prompts me to state the obvious, I state obvious.  We have a spiritual enemy.  Although our enemy has been publicly disarmed and shamed by Christ, he still prowls the spiritual landscape on a limited tether and without teeth, so to speak, “like a roaring lion seeking for some to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  The devil and demons and their corrupt spiritual hierarchy which pull the strings of our world systems are real entities.  They are unseen but actual beings.  They are not supernatural but they are superhuman.  They vigilantly work to eclipse the gospel of Christ, to derail our faith in Christ, and to harass the kingdom of Christ.  Even though the sons and daughters of God are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are, therefore, not able to be possessed by other spirits anymore, we can still be oppressed and negatively influenced by demons as we give spiritual openings and footholds to the evil one (Ephesians 4:27, 6:11; Timothy 3:6-7).

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the Developed World stereotypically shrugs off spiritual warfare; labels it superstition and laughs at those who believe a spiritual battle exists in the unseen realms.  However, the vast majority of the Developing World assumes and fears that the spirits infiltrate and influence the seen realms; laughing at those who believe any differently.  C.S. Lewis found a way to summarize both worldviews at the beginning of his clever book, The Screwtape Letters (p. 3), “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a [secularist] or magician with the same delight.”

That being said, today’s passage is not about the devil.  It merely includes the devil.  He is a secondary player.  Our passage is about Jesus who, though he is aggressively tempted by the devil, remains faithful to his true self—which was just pronounced by the Father in the previous verse.  “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  His identity is what the devil targeted.  I submit that our identity is what the devil still targets today.  But using Scripture as his voice, Jesus holds his ground.  We should be emboldened to do the same.  Let Scripture be our voice and Jesus our anchor.

As I suggested last week, Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.  This week, Jesus succeeds where Adam failed.  Adam had a garden, had food, had companionship, had a clear “job description” and personal affirmation, had daily walks with God in the cool of the day, and yet he quickly succumbed to the temptation of the devil at the dawn of paradise.  [A tragedy that shatters any argument that our environment makes us what we are.]  Jesus, however, shouldered the wasteland of the ramifications of Adam’s rebellion—the hunger of an uncooperative creation, the loneliness of his blame-shifting, and the silence of God—and remained faithful in the worst environment. 

Sonship is a struggle.  Its struggle, however, is not a waste.  This struggle has a galvanizing effect.  This struggle, since our good God permits it, helps us to put down roots; anchor bolts deep into the true bedrock of identity—into what God says is true about us.  It is not what the world says, not what the devil says, not what our physical body says about us that is our true self.  It is not even we ourselves who shape our identity.  It is God’s word that tells us who we are.  And mark it down—what God says about our identity is where the temptation will strike.  There might be other factors—like hunger, fatigue, and fear—but our true trial is to believe in what God says about us, the world, himself, and our relationship to him as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ.

For as famous as this narrative is, I have never before noticed or heard preached the direct correlation to the sentence of declared sonship one verse ago.  The Father says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  And in the very next instance every one of those phrases is directly or indirectly challenged by the devil.  So, if you are the Son, then why are you uncomfortable here in the desert?  If you are beloved, then why don’t you prove the Father’s love for you by jumping from an impossible height where there would be hundreds of eyewitnesses and therefore hundreds more followers?  If you are well-pleasing to the Father, then why do you have to suffer before he elevates your fame?  Each time, I believe, Satan is attacking Jesus’ identity.  And I believe the pattern continues with us—underneath all the other particulars the enemy wants us to doubt that we are children of God, objects of divine love, and that God is somehow causing us to suffer by withholding good from us.

I.          Tempted to Provide for Yourself (vv. 1-4)

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.
3 And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."

What is striking about the first verse is that it is directly the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness.  Mark 1:12 makes it even stronger: “The Spirit immediately drove him into the desert.”  Does that make God guilty of temptation or the instigator of sin?  Absolutely not, although I have heard it taught!  The Spirit compels Jesus to go into the place where temptation is likely, but does not actively tempt Jesus with sin.  He does not entrap Jesus, or anyone.  Although he does test.  The difference is motive.  Is God’s motive evil or pure in driving Jesus into the desert?  It is pure.  Is Satan’s motive evil or pure in suggesting that God is withholding good from Jesus?  It is evil.   God defines goodness.

James 1:13-17 holds the edge of God’s distinction from evil—he is never the author of sin but remains sovereign over all things including sin and its effects.  “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.  Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.  Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” 

After he fasted for 40 days and nights—just like Moses did on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:28) and just like Elijah did after Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19:8)—“then he became hungry.”  It is after this long fast that Jesus became hungry suggesting that during the experience his hunger was supernaturally suspended (Alford).  But when hunger set it, then it became a knob that the devil began to turn.  But Jesus’ temptation was not about hunger; it merely pivots on hunger.  It is about his sonship.

“And the tempter came and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’”  The enemy is given three different names in this narrative; one in each temptation: tempter, devil (which means slanderer or accuser), and Satan (which means adversary).  He is named well for he is deceitful, hateful, and murderous although he cloaks himself in reasonability, in false concern, and in hollow power.

He begins with this word “if” which largely parallels the tone in Genesis 3:1, “Did God indeed say.”  Whereas in English we have only one way to use the word “if”—in Greek there are three ways.  The first way is to assume that the subject matter is true.  The second is to concede to the high likelihood of the subject matter to leave the result undetermined.  The third is to leave the possibility that the subject matter is true but more hypothetically.  The grammar indicates that Satan uses “if” in the first way—he assumes the subject matter is true, although he still contests against it.  It could be thought of as a “since”—“[Since] you are the Son of God, command….”  No, he is not making a true statement, but he is using partial truths to cloak his ultimate evil purpose.  Not everyone with a Bible is from God!

This is my paraphrase—So God says you are his Son?  Okay, then why has he driven you out here without food?  If you were really the Son, then the Father would have provided for you.  So, things being what they are, since you are the Son [just dripping with mockery, I imagine], then provide for yourself.  You have the power, if you are the Son of God, so what is stopping you for using your power to provide for yourself.  Order these stones to become bread—it is your prerogative as the Son of God to eat well.

The reasonability of the temptation is slick.  Satan makes sense from a certain point of view.  You are hungry—this is accurate.  You are the Son—this is accurate.  You have the power—this is accurate.  So set your own table and have your own meal.  But this is absolutely contrary to who Jesus is.  The Son trusts the Father’s provision so completely that he resists the temptation to provide for himself.  The Father is providing for the Son, even if there is no physical provision; even that is a good gift from the Father.  The Father sees that the Son has a need greater than physical nourishment; he is providing that non-food meal.  And Jesus allows the words of Scripture to give him voice, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

II.         Tempted to Protect Yourself (vv. 5-7)

5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple,
6 and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, 'HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU'; and 'ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'"
7 Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is written, 'YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'"

“Then the devil took him into the holy city and had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple.”  Even the most casual of students will notice that the order in Luke 4 differs at this point in the sequence of the temptations from Matthew and Mark.  But don’t assume that small variations somehow becomes inconsistencies or reasons to doubt the biblical account.  Not at all.  Each writer has a different main idea and a different audience in mind.  Matthew and Mark use time words, “then,” “immediately,” “again,” whereas Luke uses geography words “from the Jordan,” “into the wilderness,” “up [upon a mountain,” and then finally into the heart of Jerusalem, which is where Luke is showing that Jesus is heading the entire time.  The gospels do not contradict themselves.

So, sequentially, Jesus is tempted by the devil at the pinnacle of the temple.  The temptation begins like the first, but with a subtle adaptation.  “If [since] you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”    Satan concedes, with heavy mockery, that Jesus is the Son as before, but then, after Jesus so masterfully handled the Scripture in the previous interchange, Satan mimics Jesus’ use of Scripture … or so it seems.  “For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”  Quoting Psalm 91, Satan, is attacking Jesus’ identity.  If the Father really thinks you are the Son, then prove it; force the Father to show the entire city of Jerusalem that he names you as his son by jumping down from the highest point of the temple; which was the tallest building in the world, probably, at that time.  If God is your Father, then he will protect you at all costs—just like Psalm 91 promises.

Ah, but Psalm 91 does not promise physical protection at all costs.  Satan leaves out the heart of the 91st Psalm—“For you have made the Lord…your dwelling place” (vs. 9) and “Because he has loved me, therefore I will deliver him” (vs. 14).  Satan has cut out all aspect of a loving, spiritual relationship.  He makes it seem like a physical promise to rescue the faithful from all physical harm with an “angel parachute” (A.T. Robertson).  That is simply not the case.  But see how Satan adds to his use of partial truths a surface-level handling of the Bible?  But that does not deceive Jesus. 

He can see through the mind games and the mishandling of the Word of God and so he counters back, with Scripture.  “On the other hand it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:16).  Satan is suggesting that Jesus, once again, take the initiative.  Before it was to take the initiative to provide for himself.  Now it is to take the initiative to protect himself; or at least to provoke God’s hand of protection.  Jesus doesn’t banter about interpretation; he simply and powerfully stands on truth.  I don’t have to protect myself or pressure God into protecting me.

Temptation is so slippery.  But faith always responds to God; it never precedes God.  Can God save Jesus from the effects of gravity?  Yes.  Did God tell Jesus to go to the top of the temple and jump?  No.  If he had, then Jesus’ jump would be faith.  But since he didn’t, then Jesus’ jump would be presumption.  Faith and presumption are never the same thing.  Our faith is never totally blind.  It is always preceded by God, by his word, by the clear guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Faith responds.  God precedes. 

I’ll never forget when this temptation to provoke God’s power on my behalf first pierced my heart.  I was 16 years old and I had just become a Christian a few months back.  My good friend, Josh, and I were in gym class running our required mile when I told him of my radical conversion.  Without missing a beat, he said, “Oh yeah?  Then tell that mountain to move and I’ll believe it.”  I was crushed, since I was unable to move the mountain.  “Was my conversion real?  Am I really a son of God?  Have I really been born again?”  Only later, months later, did it occur to me, “Wait a second.  God didn’t tell me to tell the mountain to move.  If he had, then I could have.  But since he didn’t, I couldn’t.”  Josh, of course, was long gone.  But I learned a life lesson.  Faith responds.  God precedes.

III.        Tempted to Promote Yourself (vv. 8-11)

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory;
9 and he said to Him, "All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me."
10 Then Jesus said to him, "Go, Satan! For it is written, 'YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'"
11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As slippery as ever, Satan—having been resisted by Jesus masterfully—adapts one last time.  In a moment’s time, he whisks Jesus away to a tall mountain to observe “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”  There, Satan ratchets up the intensity of the temptation to its fullest level.  He doesn’t bother to quote Scripture anymore since there are none that can be twisted this far.  He doesn’t bother with any more first class condition statements where the subject matter is assumed true.  He uses a second class condition now, where “if” is less likely.  “All these I will give to you, if you fall down and worship me.”  Satan negotiates as Jesus’ equal.  But Satan is not Jesus’ equal.  Never was he, nor will he be Jesus’ equal.  Satan is infinitely lower that Jesus, infinitely duller, infinitely doomed.  Jesus refuses to engage.

That being said, three times in the gospels Jesus does refer to the devil’s temporal, temporary power as prince or ruler.  For the small sliver of time when Jesus and Satan conversed, Satan held a title.  “Now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).  “The ruler of this world is coming.  He has no claim on me” (John 14:30).  “The ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11).  His throne is usurped, no doubt, but the physical earth was Satan’s domain for that time but no longer.  It is not beyond God’s power to remove this tyrant in a moment; with a word.  But there at this lofty site, Jesus is most glorified by resisting him.

“Go, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:13).  In other words, “If the Father were really well pleased with you then why would he march you to the cross?  You can have it all now.”  In this third temptation, amazingly, Jesus does not bicker with Satan about jurisdiction.  He leaves all timing issues to the Father to promote and to rip down.  Jesus will not make a name for himself.  He has aims, but he relinquishes all selfish ambition.  The temptation is to take the initiative in forcing his own promotion; even bypassing the pain of the cross.  Satan offers Jesus physical domain and physical glory in exchange for spiritual deference; for worship.  You don’t have to wait anymore.  You certainly don’t have to suffer the cross.  Look, you can have it all right now if you just show me this small gesture.  None of your earthly subjects will see; just bow the knee and it’s done.

“It’s done,” is right.  For if Jesus reached out for the shortcut, then he would have lost his sinlessness and been disqualified from dying as the sinless sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.  But Jesus was tempted with what was already his!  “The earth is mine and all it contains” says the Lord (Psalm 89:11; cf Exodus 19:5; Psalm 50:12).  All the kingdoms of the world and their glory are already Jesus’ inheritance.  Jesus knows this.  Satan knows this, although he still thinks he can alter it.  It was the same with Adam and Eve; they are tempted with that which they already have—goodness, freedom, and wisdom accessible through their relationship with God.  The kernel of this temptation—for Adam and Eve as well as Jesus—is the autonomous control of the timing and the cost.  Jesus will be given a name that is above every name, but it is not until the Father grants it.  Satan is tempting Jesus with bypassing his obedient relationship with the Father.  It was the same in the garden.  It is the same now.  Why wait for God to come around?  Seize the day.  Grab for the brass ring.  God may never show up anyway; this is your chance.  Be the master of your fate; the captain of your soul.

Look at these temptations.  You must provide for yourself because God certainly has left you hanging.  You must protect yourself because God certainly has not brought the firework show you thought he would bring.  You must promote yourself because God certainly takes far too long and requires far too costly a price.  How modern they sound!  But no!  A thousand times NO!  We have been given everything we need for life and godliness in Christ Jesus as sons and daughters of God.  Every temptation seeks to undercut that identity as sons and daughters of God.  Every temptation, however, has been resisted by Christ and broken by the cross and proven meaningless in light of the Resurrection and the Life who stands today as your one and only hope for life and life abundantly.  Will you succumb to tricks or will you believe in the Son of God?

Satan’s temptations sound reasonable in isolation, so ask the one who resisted to shine his Light on all!

21 September 2015

The Declaration of Sonship - Matthew 3:13-17

The Declaration of Sonship
Matthew 3:13-17
Kevin Rees — September 20, 2015 - audio file posted at

Our adoption as sons and daughters is wholly dependent upon Jesus’ sonship.

Sonship is a term that is foundational to Christian formation and Christian thought.  It is a term of status; of core relationship.  “Who are we?” and “Whose are we?” go hand-in-hand.  Although our society is increasingly individualistic, our soul is not.  In our proverbial “gut”—as revealed in holy Scripture and borne out in personal experience—we are fundamentally relational beings so much so that to deprive or isolate a human of any or all key relationships is a considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment.  But the question of our sonship—although it is foundational to our sense of self and our search for significance—itself needs a foundation as well.  Our adoption as sons and daughters is wholly dependent upon Jesus’ sonship.  To jump to our status (or non-status) as sons and daughters without first establishing the bedrock of Jesus’ sonship is both unwise and dangerous.  Therefore, today we will attempt to anchor our question of identity as sons and daughters into the mountain of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

Toward that end, let me give just a small peek into my story; my fear that, when yanked into the light, proved to flood insight upon this question of spiritual identity.  I propose that we all have a core fear that is so threatening yet so connected to our sense of self-worth and self-survival that we voluntarily and involuntarily, consciously and unconsciously, build entire systems; labyrinths of fences to protect that core fear from ever seeing the light of day.  Some of us can hide or mask this core fear better than others, but I submit that all humans have a core fear around which orbits much of what they would define as “normal.”  Some fear abandonment.  Others fear embarrassment.  Perhaps others fear death or pain or loss of control.  I feared inadequacy; that I or God or my key relationships would answer negatively the question, “Does Kevin have what it takes?”  “Is Kevin enough?”

I mentioned last week a concept that I often call “the orphan heart.”  This was my orphan heart.  I feared exposure as being inadequate, incompetent, and a “net drain” on society.  So, as all orphan hearts do, I compensated against the gravity of this core fear.  It wanted to pull me into despair, into paralysis, into insignificance, so my orphan heart compensated by leaning ever more toward idols of perform better, of working harder, and of thinking more cleverly than my peers.  You may say, “That sounds like pursuing the American Dream, Kevin, with a can-do attitude and a competitive spirit that is rewarded in the marketplace.”  I will allow that my orphan heart produced some results that the world applauds, but in truth it was the spirit of antichrist because it took me away from not toward the cross of Christ.  Rugged individualism—or anything else even religious zeal—if it takes me away from repentance and faith in Christ to do for me what I cannot do for myself, is demonic and corrupt and fatal.  If I am trying to save or protect myself instead of trusting Christ to save and protect me it is nothing less than self-righteousness.  Like Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.”

All the while, there was this tireless core fear.  Even after I became a Christian, this battle raged on—Am I enough?  Am I significant?  How good is good enough?  What does God really think of me?  I both loved and hated that passage where the Master spoke words of affirmation and reward over his faithful steward, “Well done my good faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23).  I craved those words but deeply feared they would never be said over me; my heart was pierced because this core fear was still the sun around which the planets of my identity orbited.  So I tried harder, saw fewer results, and felt increasingly estranged from God.

What does this have to do with the doctrine of spiritual adoption?  I tell you this, the orphan heart has the power to eclipse truth… but only if we afford it this power.  Its power has been broken by the victory of the cross of Christ, but we can and do splice the severed power cord as counter-intuitive as that sounds.  Our sin is not rational.  We love and hate it at the same time.  It makes no sense; the orphan heart makes no sense but then again it seems “normal.”  We are conflicted.  Unless in faith we bow to what God says is true of us, we are conflicted, tormented, and dominated by the very fear we vigilantly seek to control.  We give a defeated foe access to the core questions of our soul; we give the microphone to our enemy to speak words of our identity—words that God has already declared over us in Christ.  He whispers, “You’re mine.  No one else wants you anyway.  All you do is eat the food and fill the plumbing.  You’ll never escape.”  But God shouts, “You’re Mine!  I want you.  You don’t have to perform to earn my love.  I give it freely.  I hold you my hand and no one can snatch you away.” 

We cannot answer our questions of identity based on or inside of ourselves.  We have to seek and believe answers from somewhere/someone else.  There are many answers submitted but only one who speaks the truth.  We need his truth more than we need bread.  We need Jesus.

Today’s passage is the first public appearance of Jesus on the page of human history.  True, he was publicly announced at his birth by the angels, celebrated by the shepherds, visited by the Magi, and worshipped by the parents, but he stepped onto the public scene by stepping into the waters of baptism.  Although we will follow Matthew’s account, Luke adds the detail that Jesus was approximately 30 years old at the time of his baptism (3:23).  Thirty is also the year that the priests would begin their ministry which involved a special washing with water.  While the Levitical priests were at the Temple getting washed and fitted for their linen tunics, the Melchizedekian priest was identifying with the message of repentance at the Jordan River with a very unusual, very unconventional, and recently very famous prophet—John; the first prophet in 400 years and the last prophet of the Old Covenant whom Jesus identified as the figurative reemergence of Elijah to “clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1).

Baptism was not new; it was there for people who converted to Judaism and adhered themselves to the covenant nation of Israel.  What was new was a baptism of personal repentance.  Then and now, baptism gives public, outward profession of a personal, inward confession.  It shows the world what had already occurred in the heart.  It is not magic; not a ritual by which or through which we receive grace.  It is a testimony that grace broke through—it broke through our hardened shell of sin and it breaks out again in the form of this watery witness.  It is for believers.  It is unto the world.  “I hereby go on the record; Jesus is mine and I am his.  I have no other hope than he.  He did what I could never do.  I cling by faith to his offer of forgiveness of sin and his gift of life eternal, not works.” 

Like the Ethiopian told the evangelist Philip in the desert in Acts 8:36 after he believed in Jesus, “See here is water, what prevents me from being baptized?”  It originates from the believer as the Spirit gives him guidance; incredibly important but never coerced.   The Ethiopian’s bold question hangs in the air still, “See here is water, what prevents [you] from being baptized?”  I put it to you—today is the day of salvation.  If you want to be born again; today is the best day—“Here is water.” You, too, can give public testimony through baptism that you made peace with God through belief in Jesus Christ as your one and only hope for reconciliation with the Father.  If you have been previously born again, there is no need to repeat the transaction—if honest and exclusive, then it is forever, ironclad.  But if you have never “gone public” about your relationship with God through faith in Christ, “See here is water, what prevents [you] from being baptized?”

However Jesus, although he was baptized, he had no spiritual need for baptism since he had nothing over which to repent.  For that reason, John tried to prevent Jesus’ baptism.  “Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he permitted Him.” (vv. 13-15).  What Jesus is beginning to do is (1) to identify with John’s ministry as authentic and from God, (2) to affirm the message of personal repentance of sin, (3) to show solidarity to all who had taken this step of faith to enter the waters of John’s baptism, and (4) to begin to portray the greater “baptism” that was his to enter voluntarily.  In Luke 12:50, speaking of his death, Jesus sheds light backwards to the importance of his earlier and lesser baptism by saying, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.”  His death is the reality that all baptisms symbolize.

The roles are reversed between John and Jesus.  John had been the one to allow or deny baptism, but now it is Jesus who instructs John to allow him this important beginning.  “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting upon him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’” (vv. 16-17).  John gave prophetic testimony that Jesus is the Messiah—“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  The Spirit gave visible testimony of Jesus.  The Father gave verbal testimony to Jesus.  The Scriptures bear unflagging testimony to the identity of Jesus as Savior and God.  Even Satan will give begrudgingly a back-handed assent that Jesus is the Son of God in the desert temptation (4:3).  Baptism is very public.

In addition to being a public testimony, baptism also portrays death and resurrection; a voluntary entrance into the death that God has provided coupled with the hope of the resurfacing of the life that God has promised.  Jesus is, in marching toward his own cross, also retracing the arduous journey of Israel’s history.  Jesus is going to succeed where Israel failed, speak where Israel remained silence, remain silent where Israel spoke out of turn, and obey the Father in all ways.  He is the true Son.  In retracing Israel’s history, several key passages come to light, most notably Isaiah 42:1—“Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights.”  Jesus is the suffering servant of Yahweh.  Israel, the nation, does not have the good pleasure of God (1 Corinthians 10:5) but Jesus does (Matthew 3:17).  Judaism, the system, does not have good pleasure of God (Hebrews 10:6, 8) but faith does (Hebrews 10:38).

I.          This One Is (vs. 17a)

Let’s now pause to consider just the last sentence.  God the Father’s public declaration of sonship to Jesus is the bedrock on which our adoption as sons and daughters is built.  Like visual appearances of the Spirit, verbal utterances of God the Father are exceptionally rare in the Bible.  Nearly all the vocalizations that come from God can be directly or indirectly linked to Jesus, both before and after Bethlehem, in line with his most appropriate names: The Word and the Exegete of God (John 1:1, 18). 

But there are three utterances of the Father over the Son—one at his baptism, one at his glorious appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration, and one in reference to his suffering, death, and resurrection.  “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17)—at his baptism.  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.  Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5)—on the Mount of Transfiguration.   And on the road to the cross having finally entered Jerusalem Jesus prayed, “Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’  But for this purpose I came to this hour.  ‘Father, glorify your name.’  Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again’” (John 12:27-28).

Here, the Father affirms Jesus publicly, exclusively, and truly: “This one is.”  Not this type of person metaphorically.  Not cloaked code language or conditional statements.  “This!”—emphatically!  Not the idea he represents.  Not the moral example that he illustrates.  But this particular man before the eyes of the world right here and now.  “This one!”—singular masculine demonstrative pronoun.  Not might be.  Not could be.  Not I have high hopes that he might pull it off.  “This one is!”—already and in continuous motion, he is right now the one and only Son of God, Savior of Sinners, Light of the World.

What has Jesus done at this point?  Nothing.  What has Jesus taught at this point?  Nothing.  What miracles has Jesus performed at this point?  None.  Yet, the Father speaks in present, active, continuous language—“This one is!” 

I love that fact that the Father is boasting about Jesus.  There is no passive-aggressive pressure to perform; no “you better make your family proud” nonsense.  This is a dream sentence for those of us with orphan hearts who deal with daily family pressure to perform, worsened by threats of embarrassment or ostracism or rejection or blame.  This sentence from a father-figure—any authority figure in our sad, small stories—would have been a game-changer.  Jesus never knew displeasure from the Father, not until that nanosecond when Jesus bore our sin upon his shoulders on the cross and the Father turned his face away.

II.         My Beloved Son (vs. 17b)

“This is my beloved son.”  This phrase is more than our colloquial, “‘Atta boy!” when junior learns how to walk or use a spoon or sign his autograph in cursive.  A “son” in this culture, with this heritage, is the family heir.  He is the one who will continue the family name. 

It is quite important to name a son in the ancient Near East, and even in ancient Greece and Rome.  Not only is it culturally shameful to lack sons, it is economically dangerous to lack a legal heir.  But that being said, not all children … not all boys … are given the title “son.”  That fact alone will unlock the controversy in Genesis 16-21 about Ishmael and Isaac.  Speaking from a Greco-Roman perspective, Paul will make a huge deal about this in Galatians that “children” are not the same as “sons” (and “offspring” are even lower on the social totem pole.)  In some families in the ancient world there was uncertainty even among natural-born boys about whether or not the father will not adopt a better suited candidate as his “son” and heir from outside the family.  There was no certainty—and therefore no social or legal significance—given to children until the father pronounced in public the verba solemnia: “You are my son.”  Once again, Jesus never had any uncertainty of his status with the Father

Of course, with Jesus we are not talking about a physical lineage to God the Father.  Some cults and world religions mistakenly suppose that Jesus is the linear descendant of God the Father like Hercules was a linear (and extramarital) descendant of Zeus.  In biblical thought, however, a “son of” someone denotes representation, legal equality, character similarity, and essential connection that goes far deeper and far further than a simple DNA match.

But notice the modifier—“This is my beloved Son.”  He is the Son on whom I have given my love.  It is more than being lovable; it is an act of the will that the Father has bestowed his love on Jesus.  Jesus is the Beloved; the “Loved One.”  It describes their relationship.  It is generously loving; not with wages or allowances, but fully loving quite separate from performance.  Performance-based acceptance that says, “You first prove that you are worthy of love, and then I’ll give love,” is absolutely foreign to the Trinity and gospel. 

III.        In Whom I Am Well Pleased (vs. 17c)

“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”  What a full sentence!  If it were not enough that Jesus is the eternal object of the Father’s love, the Father speaks full approval.  Again, long before Jesus did anything, the Father says, “I am well pleased in Jesus.”  He is my soul’s delight.

Have you ever been someone’s delight?   Have you ever know a father’s delight?  What every father should say to his children, God the Father pronounces upon the God the Son. 

The only question still remaining is this: is there any way for us to be or have our heavenly Father’s delight?  Is there any way that he would ever delight over us the way that he delights over Jesus?  It is an infinite gap; an impossible dream.

But wait—there exists a final arc of that circle; a final piece to that puzzle.  It is found in Ephesians 1:6 and it has done more to heal my orphan heart than any other truth.  Let this wash over you.  Let it sink it.  Let it dissolve any doubt.  Let it sooth every wound.  Starting in verse 5, “He predestines us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved.”  Did you see it?  Through adoption we are recipients of his kind and generous grace—but where?  “In the Beloved.”  Who is the Beloved of God?  Jesus Christ.  Through adoption we are spiritually placed in Christ; in the Beloved of God … the one in whom the Father is already and eternally well-pleased.  We are, through kind insertion, through faith placed into the Beloved, and therefore into God’s delight.  We are hidden inside the Beloved—Jesus.

My fear is quieted.  My love for and hatred of those words which I may never hear—“Well done my good and faithful servant”—is forever solved in Christ.  I will hear those words.  I am the delight of God.  Why?  Because I out-performed my peers?  Never!  I am and you are the delight of God because we have been adopted through faith in Jesus and graciously placed in him so absolutely, so truly that whatever the Father spoke over the Son is, by derivation, spoken over us.  I am not enough.  I am not adequate.  I am not lovely.  I am not worthy.  But I have shipwrecked onto the shores of Calvary and found that Christ’s goodness is good enough to cover me too.  So hear it now, through Christ, as your own divine declaration of sonship: “This is my son/daughter in whom I am well-pleased.”  That’s our new birthright.

15 September 2015

The History of Sonship - Ezekiel 16:1-6

The History of Sonship
Ezekiel 16:1-6
Kevin Rees — September 13, 2015 - audio file posted at:

To understand who we are in Christ we have to know who we were apart from Christ.

I believe that Jesus Christ rose to life from the grave and calls any and all who believe him to be the one and only way to peace with the Father to share in his resurrection and his eternal life.  This is the bedrock of my and our spiritual identity—“Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called the children of God.  And such we are!” (1 John 3:1).  Hallelujah, what a Savior! 

But the story does not begin there.  Our story mercifully pivots on Calvary and gracefully becomes a triumph, but it starts as a ruin; a tragedy, a gut-wrenching lament.  Notwithstanding there is a strong need to “connect the dots” all the way back to the beginning.  My spiritual genesis and your spiritual genesis goes back to the same place.  True, there may be minor variations that arise deeper into the plotline, but we all share a common history.  Our spiritual history begins in orphanhood. 

I am not speaking of physical orphanhood, although that may be true for some of us in this room today, rather all of us begin as spiritual orphans abandoned by all, left to fend for ourselves.  It is a heartbreaking beginning point.  And as with most heartbreaking stories, we would often rather mute the volume or change the station than press on.  But press on!  There is a functional necessity in our quest to understand who we are in Christ by first knowing who we were apart from Christ.  We have to know who we were or else we will never know fully who we are.

Maybe it is because of the universality of this spiritual orphanhood that so many of our classic stories deal with or overcome abandonment.  Have you ever noticed how many of our most enduring tales begin in a place of abandonment?  I didn’t have to think hard at all to come up with a long list: Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Anne of Green Gables, Mary in The Secret Garden, Sara in The Little Princess, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Cosette in Les Misérables, Heidi, Cinderella, Snow White, Pollyanna, Adam Farmer in I am the Cheese, and of course Harry Potter.  King Arthur was an orphan.  Romulus and Remus were orphans.  Moses was forced into a state of abandonment before his adoption into Pharaoh’s household.  Even Jesus was adopted—although he was not abandoned by his true Father in heaven, he was enfolded into the humble family of Joseph.

Orphanhood is our spiritual genesis.  We may have a regal family crest or a colorful clan tartan or an ancestor buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but we do not truly come from a noble family or a venerable family tree—not spiritually.  We come from a cursed family and a ruined vine.  This is a sad but inescapable truth; there are none of us who are good, no not one (Romans 3:10).  Although wars have been fought over the imagined pecking order of national identity or tribal identity or racial identity—though I maintain that all humans form just one race—our spiritual identity is estrangement, rebellion, and orphanhood.  We are in an equally desperate situation; our condition is slowly but universally fatal.  We need help.  We need family help; but from a different family.  Ours left us for dead.

At this point, we must borrow an ancient story to give our spiritual genesis a voice.  Most peoples of the world did not record their stories even half as well as the Hebrew people, who were meticulous scribes.  So, even though we must hijack one of their stories, and even though we must maintain a distinction for the Jewish ethnicity within its telling, the Scriptures give us full permission to draw major application from the Hebrew stories.  Paul said it clearly in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”  

Therefore, we turn to an ancient Hebrew story—an allegory, rich in imagery and symbolism—to learn of their spiritual genesis as well as our spiritual genesis.  But hear this, just because it is poetry and imagery does not make it less than true.  It is absolutely true; so true that it requires vivid analogy to communicate it best.  Please also hear this caveat on the outset: this story is an R-rated story.  I am leaving out most of the R-rated elements for the sake of our young ears.  But make no mistake—our God is a straightforward God; he tells it like it is.  And when we are resistant to acknowledge the audacity of our sin, God can and will ratchet up the intensity so that we will learn.  I urge you to read the whole story at home today, but prepare for tears and anger because it is awful—necessary, but awful.  And it is entirely true—true of Israel, true of humanity, true of them, true of us.

The character in this story is Jerusalem, personified at first as a girl; an infant daughter.  But the hero is God.  The narrator is the prophet Ezekiel who is prophesying from captivity in Babylon.  Ezekiel was taken in the second of three waves of deportations from the city of Jerusalem: the first in 606, the second in 597, and the third in 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was finally burned to the ground.  God speaks to the prophet directly and gives him purpose of this prophetic allegory—verse 2—“make known to Jerusalem her abominations.”   They are into the second decade of their exile but they are still stiffnecked about their sins that predicated God’s removal of them from the Promised Land.  The Hebrew text is much more forceful—“cause her to know her detestable deeds; her idolatry” … constrain her to look in the spiritual mirror and gaze upon her own true self; her own spiritual genesis because she is loath to do so on her own.  She refuses to look at it.  She refuses to acknowledge it.  She refuses to repent from it.  Ezekiel, you must cause her to know her own story.  May we learn from her unwillingness to learn.

“Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite” (vs. 3).  Whoa!  These are fighting words.  Every Jew would be scandalized by these words.  God is not polite.  He is slapping them with inconvenient truths.  But inside this gritty first sentence is a strong clue that God is speaking an allegory.  Physically, the Jews were distinct from the Canaanite, Amorite, and Hittite people groups—they were Shemites (we say Semitic today), descended from Noah’s son Shem where the promise of God is traced.  But spiritually—figuratively—they are pagan through and through; enemy combatants of God who have been placed under the curse of God, devoted to the ban, set aside for destruction, perverse and wicked.  You are worse than the Babylonians who now enslave you.  You are even worse than your “sisters”—Sodom and Samaria.

“And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths” (vs. 4).  These allegorical parents of yours didn’t even want you.  They threw you in the ditch to die.  They didn’t even show you a shred of humanity or kindness.  You were aborted, abandoned, abhorred.  The very nations to which the Jews had appealed, had tried to build alliances with against the Babylonians, had tried to appease with money and with religious pluralism betrayed Jerusalem when the heat was turned up.

Every sphere of life is infected by this initial rejection—both then and now.  Biologically, they didn’t even cut the umbilical cord so that the decay of the placenta would quickly infect the infant and cause death.  Ceremonially, they didn’t offer any gesture to purify the baby according to the religious cleansing customs.  Medically, they didn’t rub with salt, which was the practice to treat any sores and aid the baby toward general health and hope for a long life.  And emotionally, neither the mother nor the father wrapped the baby in clothes for security, warmth, human contact, or love.  This was worse than hatred; this was apathy.  “No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born” (vs. 5).

I feel compelled here to give voice for the most vulnerable in our society—the unborn, newly born, and recently born infants.  These children are gifts from God, they have life, they deserve full human rights, they bear the image of God as much as any other human and are thereby imbued with the dignity of their Creator so much so that harming them or dishonoring them is, by proxy, harming and dishonoring God himself.  “Red and yellow, black and white all are precious in his sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  Period.  If you have a problem with that, be assured that Jesus will take it up with you later having warned, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

This baby in our allegory is abandoned; left for dead.  I don’t want to belabor the point, but the driving force of this prophetic story is that the audience might come face-to-face with the truth.  “Jerusalem,” God says through his prophet Ezekiel, “this is your spiritual genesis.”  This is your history.  You think you are going to take your chances in the world without a vital relationship with me—but don’t be fooled.  You are as helpless and hopeless as this baby thrown in the roadside ditch.  You cannot survive alone.  But we Gentiles in the church are no better off.  We, too, are like that baby—spiritually as good as dead.  I’ve heard people say that they figure that they will just face their Creator on their own terms; that they don’t need an antiquated Savior; that death is probably nothingness anyway.  But here we lie in our amniotic fluid gulping for air and waiting for death—this is our portrait; our history pressed into a few minutes of agony while the globe keeps on spinning.  This is our story.  Own its tragedy

I.          “I Passed By You”

But God, in the grand and archetypical sense, does what only God can do … what God always does with the most vulnerable—he intervenes.  One visit: three distinct actions.  He passed by.  He saw.  He said.  Three divine fiats—he intervenes in our low estate, he recognizes us in our true condition, and he reveals his plot-shifting edit to our story.  “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’”

The passing by of God is not a casual phrase.  It is loaded with meaning and significance.  It is the word from which the Hebrew people derive their very name—‘eber—which means to pass over.  Their national identity is linked to the Passover deliverance when the Angel of the Lord passed over their households in mercy if they were covered by the blood of the lamb.  Israel passed over or through the Red Sea and began their new identity. 

Not coincidentally did God, when Moses asked to see God’s glory, say “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name […] and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But […] you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.  Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:19-22; also 34:6).  In a shocking turn-of-phrase Jesus pulled this same word out of antiquity and surpassed the glory afforded to Moses by applying it to himself.  “And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:48-51). 

It is not a chance event when God passes by.  He is not only visiting; he is intervening, self-identifying.  But notice that God passed by—he didn’t bypass.  These are totally different!

II.         “I Saw You”

The first divine act is intervention.  The second divine act bestowed upon this abandoned baby girl is recognition.  He sees her true need.  He is not so appalled by the gruesome scene that he just turns his face away.  He sees.  He stares.  He perceives.  He recognizes.  “I saw you wallowing in your blood.” 

It is heartbreaking to cross paths with abandonment.  It is heartbreaking.  How I wish we could just continue to sip on our caramel macchiato and pretend evil does not exist.  “Don’t show me heartbreak, because then I might have to get involved.  I would rather remain ignorant, thank you very much.”  But of course, that is not what God does here.  He does not avoid the discomfort.  But notice this gem—the focus of his gaze is not the blood, but the person: “I saw you.”  Not the train wreck, but the passenger.

One of the things that people lose when they go through heartbreaking abandonment is personhood.  She is the sad story.  She is the orphan girl.  She is the charity case.  After all, what can you except with what she has been through?  But God sees “you.”  I have been resisting the story of our desire in Uganda to adopt two young boys who were abandoned—a desire that proved to be not in God’s plan for that season in our lives.  But these boys were literally thrown away; left for dead.  And they were not the only ones.  We had the privilege every Friday afternoon to spend a couple of hours playing with many of these children.  And one of them who had grown up out of the baby house and had started school, was teased by other orphans (or near orphans) as the latrine baby.  He was the one thrown into and rescued out of the latrine.  He was labeled; and labels are often dehumanizing.  But the fact that the other orphans would establish a pecking order of desperate situations is shocking—humanity erodes. 

But this is what the baby needed most at that instant—personal compassion.  It is not all she needed, but it is what she needed at that instant.  “I’m not a case file; treat me like a human.  I bear God’s image.”

III.        “I Said to You”

The first divine act was intervention.  The second was recognition.  The third was revelation.  God spoke significance.  God spoke power.  God spoke life into the orphan girl.  “I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’” 

The power of the spoken word—the pronouncement—is the fulcrum of the story.  It is miraculous.  It is redemption.  It is resurrection.  “Halt, Death, you shall not come any closer.  Life now has claim on this infant girl.  She’s mine.”  And that is really where the symbolism takes us: adoption.  Although the word “adoption” doesn’t appear, the gesture is thoroughly adoption.  No one cared, but I care—so live!  No one intervened, but I intervene—so live.  No one recognized you, but I recognize you—so live!  No one spoke words of truth, inclusion, acceptance, blessing over you, but I will speak over you—so live!

It is a command—live!  Don’t give up.  Live!  Don’t be polite.  Live!  Don’t let your assailant steal your last word.  Live!  God gets the final say.  Live!  I remember a friend of mine was contemplating suicide and growing rather passive about it, as though it were inevitable.  And my counsel was as shocking to him as it was to me, for I didn’t rehearse it.  I said, “No!  Get angry about this!  Don’t be polite with depression.  Don’t relinquish your last word to despair.  Rouse up!  God gets the last word.”  Live!  And if that were not enough to raise even Lazarus from the tomb, God says it again, “I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’” 

And live she did!  But her story takes a sharp turn for the worse.  This is that R-rated part that I will leave for you to lament over this week.  But know this, because our time is short, even though adopted we still carry forward an orphan heart; an orphan worldview that colors everything we see and experience.  If we do not lay even our orphan heart at the foot of the cross in exchange for the mind of Christ, then we will never leave our abandonment behind.  Everything God gave her, she used to seduce and serve other gods.  His gifts, his favor, his election—she used to fuel her apostasy.  It is our story just as much as hers.

Let me set up the rest of the chapter for you.  It may seem strange to our modern ears but the ancient allegory quickly moves from adoption to marriage.  He spoke life into her.  Then he spoke exclusive intimacy with her; the marriage covenant.  The infant Israel is rescued and adopted at the Passover.  The young nation is then united in covenantal bonds to God at the foot of Mount Sinai.  But Israel proves to be unfaithful to her vows.  This only reinforces our application about carrying forward our orphan heart even into our post-adoption life.  Even though grown up, she is still the orphan girl at the deepest levels—unable and unwilling to trust, unable and unwilling to love, unable and unwilling to relinquish control, unable and unwilling to rest in the provision and protection of God her Husband.  Yet through all of her abominations, God is saying, “Remember.”  Remember what I did for you.  Remember what you couldn’t do for yourself.  Remember the words I spoke to you and the words you spoke to me.  Remember.  Remember (vv. 22, 43, 60, 61, 63).  The vows of covenant were broken, but there in the ruins God declared, “I will establish for you an everlasting covenant, then you will remember.” 

We were the ones abandoned and yet we have become the one who abandons.  This is the orphan heart.  We were the victim and yet we have become the victimizer.  This is the orphan heart.  But God promises to break the cycle.  He extracts our orphan heart at the new covenant and gives us a new, pliable heart that, among other results, will cause us to remember God.  If we begin by remembering, then we begin well.  Remember our sonship.  Remember our adoption.  Remember our words of covenant.  Remember our forgiveness.  Remember our helplessness.  Remember our Savior.