December 25, 2008

Two Questions the Church Must Ask

The following article was prepared and preached as a sermon. Some elements of the author’s oral style have been preserved. —Editors.

2008 1535 page16 cap popular song some years ago went something like this:
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love . . .
No not just for some but for everyone.”
Is that really true?
Doesn’t it sometimes seem as though a display of God’s raw power might make things easier for Him, and for us? A little more power and a little less love could show what God can do. A few dramatic miracles in the right places could remove any doubt of His existence. Power speaks to our age with convincing authority.
As I think about it, however, power can do everything except the most important thing: power cannot create love. True love is a response. It cannot be commanded.
One Day in the Garden
We have no idea how long God dreamed of the day when He would be able to interact with Adam and Eve—unique creatures formed in His own image (Gen. 1:26). I can imagine, however, God’s broken heart as He walked into the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve disobeyed Him. He came looking for them, but they were not to be seen.
2008 1535 page16The Bible says in Genesis 3 that when Adam and Eve heard God’s approach, they became afraid and went into hiding. How do you hide from God? What bush, what rock, is big enough to hide from God? God knew exactly where they were, but He asked anyway: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).
God’s purpose was not to condemn them for the mistakes they had made; He could have destroyed them as easily as He had created them. He knew of their encounter with the serpent, so why did He ask the obvious?
God came because He had no choice. Like a magnet, God’s love came searching for the ones He loved. He came, and He still comes, looking for those who are hiding. God still asks, “Where are you?” When they come from an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, those words have power! “Where are you?” He knew where they were, and that’s precisely why He asked the question.
It was much more than a question of geographical location; at the heart of God’s question was an entreaty: “Where are you in your relationship with Me? What caused you to hide? Are we still friends?” God was saying, “Have you already forgotten those walks we had together? Have you pushed aside those moments of sharing in which we opened our hearts with one another?”
Adam and Eve answered by pointing an accusing finger at God, then at each other. The question “Where are you?” was God’s gentle way of providing them with an opportunity to be honest with themselves; but it proved to be too painful.
Question One
Today, you and I are God’s hands and feet—His ambassadors. Today the church must ask the same question—first of ourselves, then of others: “Where are you?”
Where are we? Where are we as a body of believers? My pastor’s heart knows that within the sound of my voice are those who are hiding, those who are struggling. Some have been wounded by others, while others have lost respect for themselves and don’t know where to turn. They are hiding, perhaps, not so much from God as from their own mistakes, their own human natures.
In hiding, many are parting ways with God—often only an inch at a time, but that separation grows almost imperceptibly. To them, God’s voice in the Garden exposes painful memories—sometimes of damaging images of God taught by others, either by word or example. For some, the voice of God, the voice they once loved and revered, is now perceived as a voice of condemnation rather than an entreaty to return. Throbbing feelings of guilt, and at times anger, drown out the gentle wooing of the Spirit. God’s presence intrudes into the seclusion of those in hiding. It’s not always seen as an invitation to rejoin the family. They have become estranged from God and His church. They reject God because they feel rejected.
And what does God say when He finds one in hiding? Words of condemnation? Of course not! God simply asks the first of two critical questions the church must ask of its members and those within the realm of its influence: “Where are you?”
Within that question is the full assurance of hope for a new life—a new beginning by which the hurts, disappointments, and missed opportunities can be put behind. If only—if only—the hiding ones, the angry ones, the hurting ones could sense that when God knocks on their heart’s door it’s meant to bring healing and to restore wholeness, to help them find hope once again.
In God there is assurance. Can the same be said of us, the church?
Question Two
But “Where are you?” isn’t the only question the church must ask its members; there is another, in some ways an extension of the first. The church, if it is to be faithful to its mission, must ask it again and again. Originally it was asked by God with the same beckoning tones of entreaty as the first. This time, however, God asked it in a different setting.
While the first question, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9), was directed to Adam and Eve, a second question was addressed to Cain: “Where is your brother?” (Gen. 4:9).
When God confronted Cain with that question, “Where is your brother?” He was giving Cain yet another chance.
But Cain responded with a lie: “I don’t know.” Cain certainly knew where his brother’s corpse lay. The gnawing reality of his deed ate at him, and Cain responded to God with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain’s response was defiant and evasive. Was Cain supposed to be his brother’s keeper? The answer most commonly given is, “Yes.” Cain was supposed to be his brother’s keeper.
I would suggest, however, that the proper answer is an emphatic “No!”
“Keeper” Versus “Brother”
The whole issue with Cain in Genesis 4 turns on the word “keeper”—the word that he, not God, introduces. The verb form of the word occurs more than 450 times in the Old Testament. In all these occurrences there is not a single instance in which God expects a human to be “keeper” of another human.
The word “keeper” and other forms of the same verb were used frequently of God’s protective custody. God is the keeper of His covenant people, and of groups and individuals in it.
When humans are assigned a “keeper” role, it is normally for property or livestock. People “kept” foodstuff, flocks, money, valuables. When it came to keeping individuals it was usually as prisoners. History is replete with chapters of those who attempt to be “keepers” of those they wish to abuse and manipulate. “Keeping” is the hallmark of every form of slavery.
A closer look at the story reveals that Cain’s question was his attempt to evade his primary responsibility. While Cain knew he wasn’t to be his brother’s “keeper,” he also knew that he had forsaken the true role of a “brother.” Even though Abel was his brother, Cain had zero tolerance for Abel. He could not accept Abel’s opposing points of view, Abel’s worship being accepted by God, or Abel’s obvious acceptance by God.
2008 1535 page16Cain failed because he acted like a “keeper.” He failed because he was not a true brother. Six times in Genesis 4:6-14 the word “brother” is used. Six times the Bible emphasizes the special relationship between Cain and Abel. Before the murder, God tried to alert Cain to the dangers of his attitude. God intuitively asked, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” (Gen. 4:6). Despite God’s intervention, the anger in Cain’s heart moved him from a compassionate “brother” to a controlling “keeper,” from a protector to a murderer.
Then, like his parents, Cain tried to hide from God’s questions. But God’s love would not—could not—leave him. Once again, in the form of a question, God reached out to one who had fallen.
These two questions: “Where are you in your relationship with God?” and “Where are you in your relationship with your brother?” summarize all that God asks of us. These questions are reminiscent of Jesus’ reply to the question of which is the greatest commandment. He said: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt. 22:37-40).
Each question exposes us to who we are and who God is. Each question brings the possibility of restoration. Each question is prompted by love, not condemnation.
Sometimes the questions expose a spirit of rebellion that will destroy us and those around us if it’s not brought to God for healing. God makes His appeal to and through each of us. The story behind the question is insightful and speaks to our role as God’s ambassadors.
“Where is your brother, your sister?” is spoken from the heart of a God who cares deeply for those who have fallen, those who have made terrible mistakes. He cannot leave them alone. Mistakes don’t have to be the end of the road. Hope can be restored. But again, when God’s love is pushed away the guilty one blames the One who came to help, to guide, to restore. The story of Cain and Abel unlocks a deeper, prevailing problem in our homes and churches.
With this in mind, the insights provided by Ellen White are thought-provoking, even alarming: “Any man, be he minister or layman, who seeks to compel or control the reason of any other man, becomes an agent of Satan, to do his work, and in the sight of the heavenly universe he bears the mark of Cain” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 1087).
Love may complicate things. It may take longer, but it’s the better way. Cain’s way is built on condemnation and uses force to bring about conformity. While God does confront, He seeks to restore by love and respect, even those who have made mistakes—big ones (see Isa. 58:6-9).
What the Bible Says
Not long ago I was returning home from a trip to Korea. My seat partner was a young Korean. I’m not sure how the conversation evolved, except she was interested in the places I’ve traveled and asked what kind of work I did. I explained that I travel for the purpose of sharing hope. (My answer not only surprised her; it surprised me!)
She asked what I meant, and I shared with her some unusual experiences I’ve had while traveling. I told her of my wife’s visit with the man now in prison for murdering our niece.
Then she shared that at one time she had been very sincere about Christianity. She quit going to church because she had questions no one could answer. I chose not to play the part of “Bible answer man.” I simply continued to talk about hope despite the tragedies in our world.
Then she said to me, almost in desperation, “I want to believe.”
I continued to share stories about how hope was infused into the lives of people I’ve met. Once again she interrupted, “I want to believe!”
Then she explained that all the talk about heaven really didn’t make much sense. After all, who wants to be a spirit body floating around for eternity? she asked.
“Exactly!” I said. Then I explained that the Bible doesn’t teach that, but rather speaks about us having real bodies in heaven—so real that we’ll know one another.
Before I could say much more she blurted out, “What about hell, where people keep burning?”
“What kind of God would work a miracle to keep people alive so they could continue suffering?” I asked. And I explained that the Bible teaches God actually puts an end to all sin and suffering.
As we neared the end of our flight I shared with her a simple, four-point gospel presentation, and I could see new warmth in her eyes. After some discussion I asked if I could pray with her. She seemed a bit surprised, but she said, “Yes.” So in a plane some 30,000 feet in the sky we prayed.
There’s no way to explain the peace that seemed to come over her countenance, nor how much her words of appreciation meant to me. That day I witnessed a healing, a miracle right before my eyes.
Love in Action
Occasionally I hear that all the world needs is love. And in one sense, I agree. Often, however, that love has to be explained. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has at least 28 ways to talk about God’s love and grace—28 ways of sharing hope. I wish we would see them more as “signs of hope” than scripted doctrinal formulas.
That conversation on the plane revealed misconceptions about two of those Fundamental Beliefs that had all but snuffed out this woman’s faith. I have no question that God arranged for our seat assignments so that a “brother”—not a “keeper”—could bring hope and light into a woman’s life.
“There is a candle in every soul—some brightly burning, some dark and cold. Carry your candle; run to the darkness; seek out the lonely, the tired, and the worn.”
As you do, be sure to keep God’s two questions ever before you: “Where are you?” and “Where is your brother?” 
Larry R. Evans is undersecretary in the General Conference office of secretariat.