Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Mystery of Grace

We’re returning to the topic of God’s curse. Last week, after I explained a bit about God’s curse, I raised a question. What does this say about our God? Today, I’m going to look more closely at what exactly God did when He cursed Adam and Eve. Then, I’ll raise a different question.

So, what was God’s curse for Eve? Here’s the first part.

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.Genesis 3.16
 There’s more going on here than what you might think. This word for ‘pain’ is not limited to physical pain. It also includes emotional pain. In Genesis 6 the verb form of this word is translated ‘grieved’. So, this curse isn’t limited to what happens at the birth of a child. It’s also about every day that follows. It’s about the emotional pain of a mother’s anxiety about her children. Eve is being cursed as a mother.

Here’s the next part of her curse.
Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.
Here, we get into Eve’s relationship with Adam. Her desire referred to here is not a good thing. Her desire is about controlling her husband. The same kind of desire shows up when God is talking to Cain.
… sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. Genesis 4.7
Just as sin’s desire for Cain is about control, so is Eve’s desire for her husband. And just as Cain needs to respond to that threat by ruling over that sin, Adam must, likewise, respond to Eve. So, this second part of Eve’s curse is about God condemning her to suffer conflict with her husband. Here, Eve is cursed as a wife.

Then, there’s the curse that God pronounces on Adam.
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3.17-19
Adam was designed to enjoy his work, to find it a satisfying, creative outlet. But God changed that. Now, it will be filled with difficulty and frustration. Instead of getting excited about bumper crops of fruits and vegetables that were a joy to nurture to harvest, Adam is cursed with lots of sweat that produces thistles and thorns. So, along with the conflicts that Adam will have with Eve, the job will also be a problem. Adam is cursed as a husband and as a worker.

Now, these curses cover a lot of territory. First, they are not limited to these two people. Last week I told you that when God cursed Adam and Eve He also cursed all their descendants. These curses are also ours. So, women from that day to this one are cursed when it comes to their children and their husbands. And men are cursed in their marriages and in their jobs. These curses will look different in different people. But when you trace things back into hearts you’ll find the same dynamics. The curses of God continue to today.

It sometimes doesn’t look like they continue. But they do. Over the centuries we have made matters worse by how we have responded to these basic curses. Some men have avoided the frustration of work - and they have done that by being lazy. And some women have avoided the anxiety of children. They refuse to have any. Marriages can seem to be free of any conflict. But that can be because manipulative wives are quietly getting their way or because intimidating husbands have molded docile wives. Things may look different, but the basics of those curses are still here. God’s curses continue to today.

I’ve just described the human condition. We all live in a very cursed and very broken creation. There’s conflict and frustration and anxiety. As you consider all of this it’s important to keep clearly in mind that the essence of the problem isn’t what’s going on around us. The problem is who we are. There is something twisted within us. And that something is twisted because God has cursed us. That is why we find ourselves in those hard situations. This is the human condition. This is reality.

That was the explanation. Now, for the question. And it’s a question that every society has asked in one form or another. Can we be changed? Can we become something better?

There have been those who have answered with a very clear, ‘No’. And so, the right response is obvious. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Let’s pursue as much pleasure as we can. Nothing else makes sense. Maybe the pleasure will deaden the pain. But even if not, it will at least distract us from it.” That is one very popular option in our culture.

There are others who have been more optimistic. They are sure that there are things that we can do that will bring about some change, even dramatic change. So, they develop some rules for living. And the claim is that if we follow these rules there will be change. Has it worked? Has there been change? Consider something like those twelve step programs. Have they changed anyone? You have to admit that lives have been dramatically changed. And seeing that change fuels the optimism for programs like these. Here’s something that works. Or does it?

This is where you need to remember what the real problem is. Isn’t it good that someone who was habitually drunk is now living a sober life? Isn’t that a good kind of change? Yes, it is good. But has it dealt with the real problem? God has cursed us. That curse has very powerfully changed us into something much less than what we were created to be. Superficial changes, like being sober, are not the solution to God’s curse. Sober husbands and wives still have to deal with the consequences of God’s curse as they deal with each other, their children and their jobs. The change that is needed goes much deeper than drinking habits.

So, back to our question. Can we be changed? Can we become something better? You know the answer. It’s a resounding, ‘Yes!’ Jesus has come. He has come to change people. But you know that. You could have guessed that I would get to this point even before I began the sermon. So, let’s go a little further. What does Jesus do to effect this change? He deals with the real problem. He deals with God’s curse. Jesus removes the curse, and the effects of the curse. Some of that change happens in a moment and some of it happens over a stretch of time. But it happens.

And how does Jesus bring about this change? Here I want to introduce a new phrase: the mystery of grace.

When Jesus wants to change people they will be changed. He will act in His gracious manner and do whatever it is that He does so that the effects of the curse are pushed back a little more. He uses means, tools, like sermons and praying and Bible reading and more. But - and here’s the thing - these good tools have no power to change anything. Only Jesus has power to change us. And He changes us at a time He thinks best. We can’t make it happen. And we can’t even make it stop when He wants it to happen. Jesus changes us, and He does it when He feels like it. The mystery of grace.

If you’re going to get a hold of this mystery of grace you need to understand some things.

Here’s the first. Your problems are worse than you think. The struggles that you have as you deal with life find their roots in what happened to Adam and Eve. God cursed them. In doing that, God cursed you, women in one way and men in another. And so, there is something wrong deep within you. It is not an accident of circumstances, something that happened to you because your father was distant or your mother hovered over you. Those kinds of things can make it all worse. But the root problem is that God cursed you. It’s huge, and it’s not something that you can fix.

Here’s the second. As bad as your life is, it can become better, much better. Jesus has come to change people. He has come to change you. The Son of God has come to undo the curse of God and all of its effects. There is hope. He can do what you cannot do. You can be changed.

Then, there’s the third thing, and this is more involved. Whatever change that happens to you is on Jesus’ timetable. You do not control it. You can’t. There are things that you can give yourself to, those tools that Jesus uses to bring about change. But whether He uses them or not is up to Him. You need to do what you are called to do. But then, you need to wait for Him to act. And He will - when He thinks it best.

This is important because we have all been trained, to one degree or another, to take control of our lives. How often were we told that we will become great Christians if we read our Bibles and pray and go to church and stuff like that? We listened and did those things. And it worked! We saw change. It was an exciting time. But then, over time, something happened. There was less change. The excitement calmed down. And it wasn’t because we stopped using those tools. No, we still used them, but we didn’t see the change, not like before. And so, our zeal for those tools faded. And our expectation of change also faded. And life became ‘the same old same old’. Why? We thought that we could change ourselves. Using the tools was the key. But now we’re not so sure. The myth of control has led to discouragement.

In all of this we didn’t understand the severity of the problem. We didn’t realize that it was about more than just some bad habits. We didn’t realize that it’s about God’s curse. We were told and believed that we had enough control of our lives so that we could change things. We could change ourselves. But we don’t have control of things. Only Jesus does. The mystery of grace.

Now, if you do grasp what’s really going on, it shows. First, you are optimistic. Jesus has come to change people. He has come to change you. You believe this. You expect change. Let’s call this joy. Second, you still use those tools. But you use them not as if you were in control. You use the tools so that Jesus has what He needs to change you whenever He decides to change you. Let’s call this humility. Third, you find that Jesus is changing you. Being optimistic because of faith and having renounced control you see Him act and deal with the curse. You see real change. Let’s call this the mystery of grace.

So, for those of you who are wives and mothers, anxiety becomes peace, and the desire that resulted in conflict becomes a desire that results in harmony. And for you men, your work becomes something that increasingly satisfies. Jesus has come to deal with the curse and change you.

So, understand the real problem and embrace the only solution. Believe the Gospel and watch Jesus change you.

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