Created to Belong: The Hospitality of God

Preaching: Brian Keepers

Text: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-13, 21-24

There are certain questions your kids ask that you never forget.

 Questions that open up conversations that get etched into your memory and stick with you over time.  Some of them are funny.   Daddy, since your eyes are blue, does that mean you see everything in blue?

 Some of them are uncomfortable.  Mommy, where do babies come from?  Does Daddy know?

 And then there are those questions that catch you by surprise and have a way of haunting you.

 My oldest daughter asked me one of those “catch you by surprise” questions several years ago, when she was eight years old.  We were sitting at the breakfast table, and out of the blue she said:   “Dad, do you ever feel like you don’t belong?”

  “Well, ah…yes, I have times I’ve felt that way,” I stammered through a mouthful of granola cereal.  I turned the question back on her: “Do you ever feel that way?”

  “Yeah, I feel that way a lot.  I just wish, you know, that the other kids at school would accept me.”

 She said it so matter-of-factly, without even looking up from her cereal bowl.  Which made her words break my heart all the more, the way she seemed to have just sort of accepted this reality in her mind that she’s different from other kids and doesn’t fit in.

 I remember struggling with all of these issues of identity and belonging as a kid, but it is another experience entirely too watch your own child struggle through it.  How is it that, before kids can even read and write, they’re already figuring out how to tease and exclude others, who gets invited to birthday parties and who doesn’t, who gets to join in games at recess and who gets left out, who gets to sit with you on the bus and who has to sit alone?

 From the moment we enter this world, we are being measured, tested, evaluated, and compared with others.  As infants we are slotted into percentiles (with weight and height and even the circumference of our heads!).  In elementary school we are handed number two pencils and standardized tests to see how well we perform.  And it doesn’t get any easier from here.  Ours is a culture of performance where the pressure is on to make the grade, meet expectations, measure up and look good.  And if we’re honest, so often our harshest critic is the face that stares at us each day in the mirror. 

 At eight-years old, my daughter was already giving voice to deep longing within every human heart, which is this…

 We were created to belong… with a desire to be known and to know others…for connection and relationship.  To know that our lives matter, that we are worthy of love and acceptance.

 Can I put my daughter’s question in the space for us this morning, and ask you…

 Do you ever feel like you don’t belong?

 What if I told you that God made you to belong—to him, to others, to this world?  That God created this world and has made room for you and desires you to flourish and be whole?  That your life, your story, is part of a story that is bigger than just yourself?

 Would you believe me?

 The Bible opens with the book of Genesis, which tells the story of how, in the beginning, God created this universe and everything in it.   There are really two different creation stories in Genesis, and they both go together. 

 The first, Genesis 1, gives us a picture of a transcendent Creator who is awesome in power and majesty—a God who creates this entire universe and everything in it by the sheer power of his Word and his Spirit.  God says, “Let it be…” and it happens!  And after each act of creation, God declares it “good.”  

 This first story of creation gives us a cosmic, bird’s eye view—like we’re getting a view of God’s creative act from the Hubble space telescope.  We are pulled into the wonder and awe of swirling galaxies and spinning planets and fiery stars.  The earth suddenly exploding with vegetation and flowers and all kinds of living creatures.

 Then there’s a second creation story, the one we heard earlier, in Genesis chapter 2.  It gives us a different picture.  Instead of viewing God’s act of creation from the Hubble Telescope, Genesis 2 shows us God’s act of creation from here on earth, from the ground up.  Genesis 2 gives us a picture of a God who is imminent, a God who is not far off in the distance but who is present with us, who gets his hands dirty and forms us and rest of the creation by playing in the dirt. 

Whereas Genesis 1 tells us “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”, Genesis 2 switches the order: “In the day the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…”

Take both of these stories together, and we are given an incredible picture of who God is and what God is like—a Creator who is awesome in power and who is intimately present with us.  What both of these stories show us is that God, at his heart, is a God of hospitality.  The first act of God—creating the earth and the heavens and everything in it—is an act of hospitality.

 Not hospitality in the Martha Stewart sense of the word.  But hospitality in the truest biblical sense of the word, which is all about making room for others and embracing others with unconditional love.

 God is supreme and self-sufficient, all powerful and perfectly sovereign.  God didn’t need to create the earth and the heavens.  God didn’t need to create us.  And God wasn’t obligated to make room for us in the world, in relationship with him.

 But this is precisely what God does.  In his extravagant love, God forms humanity from the dust of the ground, and breathes his breath into our nostrils, and we are given life.  And if that were not enough, God creates a world, a Garden, and puts Adam and Eve in it—a place for them to belong.  And God gives them purpose, shares his power, by allowing them to till the earth and keep it.  Two words, “till” and “keep”, that are not about exploiting or abusing but “serving” and “protecting.” 

 It’s such a beautiful picture of the way things are intended to be.  The Hebrew word is shalom, and it means deep interconnectedness, flourishing, wholeness.  God says to us: You belong.  You belong to me.  You belong to each other.  You belong to the creation and it belongs to you.  This is what it means to bear God’s image: to recognize that every human being, every person, is inherently worthy of love and reflects the image of God.

 But then something happens.  Something tragic.  There are two significant trees in the Garden.  One is the tree of life, and God says, “eat from this tree, and every other tree, all you want…save one.  This tree here, this one tree in the Garden, is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and you must not eat from this tree.  For the day you do it, you will surely die.”

 God loves us unconditionally, but his love has boundaries.  And his instructions to Adam and Eve were not a prohibition for its own sake; rather it was a prohibition for their own good, for their own flourishing.

 But then there’s a serpent, the craftiest of all the animals that God made.  And the serpent twists God’s truth and convinces Adam and Eve to tell themselves a different story.  “Did God really say…” “God isn’t concerned about your own good; he’s concerned about keeping you in your place, keeping you from becoming like him.”

 And Adam and Eve take the bait.  Before they bite the fruit they bite the lie and start to question God’s trustworthiness, doubt God’s love for them.  Can we really trust God?  Does he really love me?  Will he really provide and care for me?  Or do I need to take matters into my own hands and look out for myself?

 I know what its like to be tempted by that fruit.   Do you?

 Stories are powerful things.  The stories others tell us and we believe; the stories we tell ourselves and believe.  Stories about God.  Stories about ourselves.  More than we realize, our stories shape the way we think, feel and live.

 Adam and Eve start to tell themselves a different story about God, about themselves, about each other, about how to flourish in the garden.  And the focus shifts from God at the center, trusting God, loving God, and seeing themselves and each other as God sees them.  Now the focus is on themselves, their own anxiety and fear.  Can God really be trusted…? 

 They act out of their anxiety and fear and they eat the forbidden fruit instead of trusting God.  They take matters into their own hands, move from being content to be like God to wanting to be their own gods.

 And now we’ve got a mess on our hands.  Shalom is disrupted, broken, shattered.  Their relationship with God is broken.  Their relationship with each other is broken.  Their relationship with creation is broken.  Their relationship with themselves is broken.  And our experience is now not one of belonging—to God, to each other, to the world—but one of isolation, loneliness, disconnect and shame.

 It’s one of the most striking parts in the story.  Before they ate the fruit, when things were the way God intended, Genesis tells us, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (2:24)

 Which is to say that they were completely vulnerable, comfortable in their own skin (literally), and there was no shame.

 But now, after their act of distrust that led to disobedience, we’re told “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked.” And they are flooded with shame.  This story is not primarily about sex, its about something much deeper.  It’s about trust, and it’s about vulnerability and embracing our worth and calling as image-bearers of God.

 We need to pause here, because this is such a critical part of the story, and the experience of every human being.  There’s a reason that Brene Brown’s Ted talk on shame is the most highly watched Ted Talk still today.  Shame is a real and crippling experience for most of us, dare I say all of us?

 Whereas embarrassment and guilt (which can be good things) get at the way we feel when we do something we shouldn’t do or don’t do something we should, shame is something else all together.  Shame strikes at our core identity, our deep sense of worth.  Embarrassment or guilt says, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am a mistake.” Embarrassment or guilt says, “I failed at that effort.” Shame says, “I am a failure.”   At its heart, shame whispers to our souls: “You are not worthy of love.  If you are to be loved and accepted, you have to hustle for it.”

 Adam and Eve are naked and feel shame, and so they for a second time take matters into their own hands.  They stitch together fig leaves to cover their vulnerability and shame.  Really?  Fig leaves?  Is that really going to do the trick?  I bet that was the man’s idea!

 Whereas love embraces vulnerability and moves us towards each other, shame leads us to cover up our vulnerability, to self-protect and withdraw.  We hide.  We hide from God.  We hide from each other.  We even hide from ourselves.

 And this is the crazy thing: we were created for belonging—to be connected to God, to one another, to ourselves, to creation.  We most deeply crave to be known and loved as we are.  Yet, in our anxiety, fear and shame, we do the opposite!  We self-protect, we conceal, we pretend and put on a front to look good, we withhold ourselves and pull away.

 The story could have ended here.  I suppose you could say it should have ended here.  But it doesn’t.  I absolutely love the next part.

 God seeks his children out.  Though his love has been spurned, though his children have distrusted him and disobeyed him, God comes looking for them.

 God calls out to his children, who are hiding in the trees, “Where are you?”

 It’s another one of those questions that catches you by surprise and haunts you.

 Where are you?

 God’s not asking it for himself, as if God is ignorant of where his children are hiding.

 He asks it for their sake.  He asks the same question of us for our sake.

 Where are you?

 It’s not a rebuke thundered from the mouth of an angry disciplinarian who’s about to fly off the handle.

 It’s an invitation spoken in the sorrow and love and grace of a broken-hearted parent.

 Where are you?

 Where are you hiding?  Behind what are you hiding?  How are you self-protecting?  In what ways are you still trying to perform, please, hustle, control, keep me and others at a distance?

 Where does your shame have you stuck?

 Name it.  There is power in naming.  Shame thrives in secrecy.  It loses its power when you name it.

 And come out of hiding and into my presence.  Trust me.  Let me remind you of the true story of who you are, why you were made, of how much you are so deeply and extravagantly loved.  Loved not as you should be but as you are.

 After Adam and Eve shuffle out of hiding, heads down in shame, and play the blame game, God shows tough love and explains the consequences of their distrust and disobedience.  And there are consequences.

 But these consequences don’t change the fact that, at their core, they are still loved by God.  They still belong to God, although they will now have to live east of Eden and life will be hard.  They still belong to each other.  They belong to the world.  God is not finished.  Not with them, not with the story.  The rest of the Bible, with all of its different stories and authors, will tell a cohesive story about how God will be reckless and extravagant in his love to restore shalom and set things right.

 And he gives a preview in a simple and beautiful gesture.  God takes them in their place of shame, in their vulnerability, and he does for them what they cannot do for themselves (God knows they already tried).

 God covers their shame. 

 They tried to cover it up.  Covering shame and “covering it up” is a world of difference, let’s not confuse them.  “Covering it up” won’t work.  It needs to be covered, they need to be covered, clothed in the grace and the love of God.  And that’s exactly what God does.

 And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Our shame, our sin and brokenness, needs more than just being covered up.  It needs to be dealt with, healed, removed.  We need to be forgiven and made whole.  Only God’s grace can do this.

 All of this is a precursor to another who would come—a man from Nazareth named Jesus Christ who would be stripped of his own clothes, humiliated on another tree, cut off and isolated from everyone, abandoned even by his closest friends.

 One who, as the very embodiment of Love and Hospitality, would go the distance to find us all in our place of hiding, take our shame upon himself, so that by his wounds we might be healed.

 Restored in our relationship with God.  Restored in our relationship with one another. Mended in our relationship with ourselves.  The whole creation healed and made new.

 And he covers us with his very garments of righteousness, clothes us with himself—his very life and love—and makes us new.

 Do you ever feel like you don’t belong?

 Can I tell you today that there is one who loves you, is seeking you, calling out to you to come out of hiding and come as you are, with all your shame, and let him cover you?

 What is your only comfort in life and death? asks the Heidelberg Catechism. 

That I am not my own but I BELONG…in body and soul, in life and death, to may faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

 In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Fellowship Church