[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at The Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on August 11, 2018.]
I imagine that most of us here are familiar with dinner parties held with other brethren where we sit with people we kind of know but don’t necessarily know all that well and are searching our brains looking desperately for something witty or clever to say and hoping we don’t say something awkward. On the other hand, these conversations can, when done well, lead to people who may know each other shallowly over the course of many interactions to know each other deeper, and to become closer friends. Over the years, as we spend time with each other, we better understand the sort of family that God is putting together through us, one member at a time.
It is not only we ourselves, though, who have to worry about awkward interactions. The Bible is full of accounts of awkward interactions, made uncomfortable by the knowledge of what was going on the one hand and the thwarted desire to escape being known on the other hand. The first awkward conversation in the Bible, in fact, takes place in Genesis 3:8-13. Let us turn there, and examine the awkwardness of this familiar conversation and some of its implications for ourselves. Genesis 3:8-13 reads: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.””
What makes this such an awkward conversation? Let us note that a large part of the awkwardness is because Adam and Eve were trying to hide from God. Anytime a conversation appears where one or some of the parties are trying to hide or run away from the others, any interaction between those people is going to be awkward and uncomfortable. Had Adam and Eve approached their impending conversation with God with anything other than panic and fear, it would have been much less uncomfortable. We know that after this interaction God pronounced a curse on Satan and the pain of childbirth and the hard labor men would be subjected to, but the real awkwardness comes here in the beginning of that conversation, which is why I have focused on precisely that part. Another aspect that makes this conversation awkward is that God is asking a lot of questions–four of them to begin with. In many ways, these questions are rhetorical in that God already knew the answers to them, but they are questions meant to bring out confession on the part of Adam and Eve. Only Adam and Eve don’t react that way, rather seeking to make hollow justifications or blame others for their sin, a pattern most of us continue in our own awkward interactions with others. Let us focus on one of these rhetorical questions that God asked here: Who was it that had told them they were naked and so encouraged them to hide in shame and fear from their Father and Creator? Who was it? [waits for answers] I want you to keep this in mind.
When we move beyond this original awkward conversation that set the pattern for a great variety of awkward conversations that followed, it is worthwhile as well to ponder how it was that God viewed the Church of God that he created in the wilderness and after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because we see similar patterns being said about both the people of Israel and the Israel of God. In Exodus 19:5-6 we get an early glimpse of what God wanted Israel to be. Exodus 19:5-6 comes shortly before the giving of the ten commandments, and it gives the vision of God for how Israel was to be: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”” Here we see that Israel was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, something God had the authority to give since He had the earth to give as He chose, having made it, but only if Israel obeyed His voice and kept His covenant, which is precisely what Adam and Eve had not done.
We see this identity of the Israel of God repeated in a very familiar passage in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Most of us have heard this particular passage repeated over and over again, but let us get a sense of what God is trying to say. In fact, let us begin with verse 4, so that we may get the context of what God says in verses nine and ten: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”
What is Peter saying here? For one, it should be clear that he is quoting a few scriptures to point to Jesus Christ as a living stone, and the chief cornerstone of the temple that God is building through those who are called and chosen. He quotes, for example, Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, and Isaiah 8:14 to clinch his point about the way that Jesus Christ was rejected by men but chosen by God. And he points out that the people chosen by God were themselves outcasts and misfits on this earth as well, but were made into a royal priesthood and a holy nation–notice the similarity to what God told the Israelites at Sinai. Israel had been oppressed in slavery for generations, and yet it was God’s intention to make them into a glorious nation, if they would hear His voice and obey His word. And it is precisely that quality that God emphasizes over and over again. Those who hear His voice and are obedient to His word are to become part of His family, and those who are rebellious trip and stumble over the living stone that is Jesus Christ and hobble around spiritually as some of us hobble around physically.
It should be noted, though, that Peter makes it clear that the blessings in being a part of God’s family are not because we are glorious in ourselves. Neither were the ancient Israelites, who were not very impressive former slaves and whose whining and complaining in the wilderness and whose persistent disobedience to God throughout their history were a source of continual torment to God. Nor is Peter alone in emphasizing this point about the lack of earthly credentials that believers tend to have. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 tells us again about this familiar divide between believers and unbelievers, and points to the modest earthly status of believers: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.””
Here again we see the same pattern that Peter spoke of in 1 Peter 2. Those who trust in their own wisdom and who do not hear the voice of God find the workings of God with mankind to be a stumbling block and offensive to their ideas of how things should be. The world expects that God should call those who are famous and glamorous and honored and respected by all, and are offended that God should call those who are obscure outcasts. But as was the case with ancient Israel, God does not want believers to glorify in their own talents and their own abilities and gifts, as if we had credit for the extent that we were wise and noble, but rather God wants us to appreciate His generosity towards us, so that we may understand that we are nothing without Him, but everything in Him, through Him, and by Him.
In this light, therefore, I wonder why there are such divisions within the family of God. Why is it that there are such cliques among us? Why is it that we snub and exclude other brothers and sisters because we do not consider them cool enough to want them to associate with us? Why is it that we cannot even bear at times to be polite to fellow brethren, much less friendly with them? Why is it that we sometimes cannot even bear to be in the same building as those whom we snub and act so rudely towards? Who told us that God was calling people who were cool, who were easy to get along with, who were socially graceful, who everyone would gravitate towards? Has not God always called those who were viewed by the world with contempt so that He could manifest His power to transform them into His sons and daughters? Why should it be any different for us now than it was in the time of ancient Israel or in the writings of Peter and Paul? Who is telling us that we can look down on our fellow brothers and sisters, no matter how awkward and odd they may be? Is it not the same being who told Adam and Eve that they were naked and so they should hide from God the same way we hide from our brethren? Why should we listen to him?