Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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