Always the Plan

This morning we kick off a brand-new teaching series with the Advent season fully in view. When we are celebrating Advent, we are celebrating the season of preparing for the arrival of Jesus. But understanding that just got me thinking: How did God Himself prepare for Jesus’ arrival and what exactly does it mean that He prepared for it? Starting this morning, in this series we’ll explore God’s plans and how they worked themselves out over the course of human history all with our salvation in mind. To get you thinking about complicated plans and to have a little fun together, check out this YouTube video and then read on.

Always the Plan

So, wasn’t that cool earlier? Can you imagine how much work went into just setting that up? I’ve got to admit: If I took the amount of time involved in setting up that contraption—I mean, it spanned something like four different rooms of that house and then went outside—I’d have a lot of trouble pulling the trigger to start it. It kind of makes you wonder just how many times he got it started and then had to start over because something didn’t quite work; or how many times everything worked except the final ball didn’t make it into the cup. Yikes! Talk about monumentally frustrating.

Just for grins: Does anybody know what that kind of contraption is called? It’s called a Rube Goldberg machine. And while you may chuckle at that name, Rube Goldberg was actually a real person. Rube was short for Reuben. Rube was trained as an engineer around the turn of the 20th century, did that for a little while, but then became a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He soon moved to New York where he worked for several different papers as a cartoonist for the next several decades until his retirement in 1963. While he wrote a number of different comic strips over the years, the one for which he is best known was called The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorganzola Butts, A.K. In this strip, Goldberg would draw schematics for the Professor’s hilariously intricate contraptions to perform simple, everyday tasks. These inventions eventually became known as Rube Goldberg machines. Today, engineers look for opportunities to turn Professor Lucifer Gorganzola Butts’ crazy contraptions on paper into reality. The results are usually pretty entertaining. You can find many examples on YouTube.

Perhaps the question you’re wondering about right now, though, is what any of this has to do with the Advent season. Why are we talking about Rube Goldberg machines this morning? Well, the simplest answer is that a couple of weeks ago I began ruminating on something the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in the ancient region of Galatia and Rube Goldberg was the first place my mind went. What? That doesn’t happen to you as well?

Let me share with you what prompted this crazy logical leap and see if I can convince you I’m not more than a little off. In Galatians 4:4, Paul wrote this: “When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [and daughters].” Now, you know that everything in the Scriptures comes with a context. Paul says this particular bit in the context of a bigger discussion about our salvation and how exactly it works. His point is to focus our attention on all that God did to allow us to become a part of His family. It’s a pretty remarkable idea all by itself. But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me: If Jesus came when “the time came to completion,” what other translations called “the fullness of time,” that implies something pretty powerful. Namely, Jesus’ arrival and the impetus for our celebration of Christmas, didn’t come out of nowhere. It wasn’t something that God the Father threw together at the last minute. He wasn’t surprised by something and so did this in a kind of panic mode. It wasn’t like that at all. If Jesus was sent to earth at just the right time, then that implies God was waiting for it. But, God being God, He isn’t really one to sit around on His hands and idly wait for things to happen. If Jesus came at a certain time—the right time—then for all the time before that, God the Father was preparing for when the right time came.

Now, stay with me here. If God was preparing for Jesus’ coming, and Jesus’ coming meant salvation, that means God was preparing for the advent of salvation; salvation for you and for me; indeed, salvation for everyone who would receive it. The question this begs for me is just how long God had been preparing for salvation. And, if the preparations were very long, just what exactly did these entail? Well, when you start to take in the story of the Hebrew Scriptures—what we call the Old Testament—it begins to become clear that these preparations were extensive and detailed. The intricacies God had to work out to see us able to enter into a relationship with Him make anything devised by Rube Goldberg look like something a toddler created. They don’t even compare. That crazy setup you watched a little while ago may have seemed complicated, but it didn’t even begin to compare with number of steps involved in God’s bringing salvation to all people.

I’m not sure if you can feel it yet, but this is an astounding idea. This is an idea worth our attention. As we move forward in this season of Advent, I want to explore this idea with you in a brand-new teaching series called, All Planned Out. After taking a week off next week to just celebrate the season together during this time in lieu of our normal choir cantata, we are going to spend this Advent season thinking through this idea that God put so much careful planning into sending His Son to earth for our salvation. Along the way we are going to encounter a number of pretty incredible stories that will reveal some pretty amazing aspects of God’s character. This will all culminate in a worship service just a couple of days after Christmas in which we together wrap our hearts and minds around just why exactly Jesus came and what that means for our own lives. You won’t want to miss a single part of this journey.

As for this morning, if we are going to look back to see where God’s plans for our salvation began, we’re going to have to go back to the very beginning. Just like every Rube Goldberg machine has a point at which the whole thing gets kicked into motion, so did God’s plans for the salvation of people. Now, the apostle Paul tells us that God knew He was going to send Jesus in eternity past, but the first time we catch of glimpse of this comes way before the New Testament begins. It comes way before any of the prophets did their writing. It comes way before even the histories of the history books were being lived by the people of Israel. To see this in sequence, we have to go all the way back to when the dust of creation itself was still settling.

Now, many of you perhaps know the creation story. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” The beauty of our universe unfolds from there in marvelous detail. God creates all we see and don’t with a word. Light, land, and lavish landscapes all are spoken into existence one after the next, after the next. Then come the creatures that will fill the earth. The seas, skies, and savannahs are suddenly teeming with life. This is the power of God who can make something beautiful where there was once nothing. And after all this glorious beauty makes its appearance, God reveals He has saved the best for last. One last creature, this one bearing His own image. “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.”

Genesis 2 goes on to describe the creation of people in even more intimate terms, and leaves us by the end of the chapter in a place where everything is perfect. Creation is complete and the people God made to be the stewards of creation are perfect in righteousness and holiness. The man and the woman are rightly related to each other and to God Himself. Everything was just right.

Then comes chapter 3. It begins rather ominously like this: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You can’t eat from any tree in the garden”?’” What follows from here is a tragic scene in which the serpent successfully plants a seed of doubt of God’s goodness in the hearts and minds of the man and the woman. And I say “the man” with the woman because although she is in the limelight here, the text later reveals that he was right there with her the whole time, watching this all unfold with a depressing passiveness. The serpent successfully convinces them that in commanding them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the only rule in the entire world at that point in time—God was keeping something good from them. He was doing this arbitrarily. He was afraid of their being too much like Him. Something so good that God would keep it from them and for Himself must be good. The longer they look at the fruit of this tree, the better looking it becomes. They begin to desire it more and more for themselves. Then, in a moment rich with tragedy, they eat it. They do the one thing God had told them not to do. He had given them leave to enjoy themselves to the fullest in any way they chose, but they chose to go after the single thing He said they weren’t to have.

Now God’s perfect creation was perfect no longer. It was a field of white on which a black dot had been dripped. The problem was this was a spreading stain. The longer it sat, the further it would spread until the whole thing was covered.

Well, put yourself in God’s shoes. How would you handle this? What would you do if something beautiful you had made was shattered because your children didn’t do what you had told them to do? You might blow up in anger. You might sit and stew. But whichever larger approach you take, there will probably be some sort of consequence for the behavior. God is a good parent just like you’re striving to be. He did the same thing. He looked at the man and woman and basically said this: “You wanted to try and do life without Me? I’ll give you that chance. You’re going to work really hard, but it will all come to naught. Your relationship with one another will be fractured now as well. Nothing will be the same anymore. It’ll be worse.” Then He kicks them out of the Garden to go make it on their own in the world.

Here’s how it actually unfolded: “He said to the woman: I will intensify your labor pains; you will bear children with painful effort. Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you.” Then to the man: “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it.”

And if you were to stop there, justice definitely would have been served, but the story wouldn’t be very good. Creation would have been broken and that was that. Not a terribly encouraging end. Where’s the salvation whose origins we are exploring? Well, for this we need to look just before God said anything to the man or the woman. You see, when it came to handing out punishments for disobedience, God didn’t start with the man and woman. He started with the serpent. Listen to this from Genesis 3:14: “So the Lord God said to the serpent: Because you have done this, you are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal. You will move on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life.” Now, there’s a lot we could dig into there, but we’re not going to do that now. Instead, look with me one more verse forward at the next thing God says: “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

There it is. There’s what? There’s the salvation we’re seeking. Huh? How? Isn’t this just explaining why women are generally afraid of snakes? While that’s a cute interpretation of this, no, it’s not. This is looking at something entirely larger than that. What God is describing here is a perennial conflict between the serpent and its descendants—a poetic reference to Satan and his minions—and the woman and her descendants—that is, us—that will ultimately end with one of her descendants crushing the serpent’s head. Any guesses as to who this is talking about? If you’re having any doubts, just go with the number one Sunday school answer. This is a prophecy that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.

Fine, but why does this matter for us. Yes, Jesus was predicted in Genesis. That’s great. It’s a good apologetic for His being the Messiah, but it’s pretty vague. And how do we even know this is Jesus. Certainly the Israelites for whom Moses was writing this couldn’t have known that. Well, we know it’s Jesus because of the New Testament, but that’s not the real key here. Forget for just a minute about Jesus—have you ever heard a preacher say that before?—and think about not only what God is doing here, but when He is doing it. He is promising the end of evil and the destruction of the one who introduced it…before He has even started handing out all the punishments for participating in it.

Think about that. Imagine if your kids royally blew it. I mean, like, not just a little messing up, but a gigantic, stinking pile of garbage blown to smithereens by a blast that left remnants covering everything within range. Can you manage that? Now, imagine yourself pausing before you started handing out punishments and saying, “Look, I know things are bad now, but I’m going to fix all of this eventually.” I’ve got to admit: That’s a little harder to imagine for me. In that moment, I’m probably angry enough that all I’m thinking about is the punishments I’m going to hand down. I might even take a little pleasure in the punishing. It’s probably more accurate to say that promising I’ll make everything right—the one who didn’t have anything to do with the mess dripping down the walls—is right close to the furthest thing from my mind in that moment. And yet, with our God, this assurance of salvation when the time was right was the first thing on His mind. Well, it was the first thing on His mind before dealing with us. He doesn’t have any patience with the serpent, but we got this grace first. Oh, that doesn’t mean the punishments weren’t still coming. He is a just God. But His justice was tempered with mercy before it even left the starting blocks.

And it gets even better. Read just a little bit further to the first thing God actually did after He finished handing out curses and punishments. Any guesses as to what this was? You might have heard about Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden and God’s assigning angels with fiery swords to bar the entrance, but that’s not the first thing God does. Look at v. 21 here: “The Lord God made clothing from skins for the man and his wife, and he clothed them.” Got that? The first thing God did to these two idiots who had royally screwed up His previously perfect creation was…to give them a gift that would help them fare a little bit better as they started off in the new direction their sin had caused their lives to take. And think just a bit further about God’s clothing them. How did He do it? He made clothing from skins. Where did those skins come from? Presumably an animal. In other words, an animal died to provide them a covering—literally. Well, in what other context in the Scriptures would animals provide people with a covering of sorts? How about the sacrificial system laid out in the Law of Moses? And what was the ultimate, logical end of the sacrificial system? Jesus’ death on the cross. In other words, some of God’s first words in the aftermath of the Fall were to promise salvation, and His first actions were to foreshadow it.

Let me put why this matters as plainly as I can. When it comes to God’s intentions and efforts toward people, salvation was always His plan. Even in the midst of the biggest mess the world had ever seen—in part because it was the first and only mess the world had ever seen at that point—God’s plans were for our salvation. Salvation was always God’s plan. Jesus’ birth and the advent of that salvation was not something haphazardly thrown together at the last minute. It was always God’s plan. Salvation was always God’s plan.

Here’s what that means for you: If God’s plans were for your salvation then, they haven’t changed now. If He planned for your salvation when the dust of the Fall was still settling, do you think there’s any chance you’re going to be able to do something that will cause Him to deviate from those plans now? Salvation was always God’s plan. It still is God’s plan. This is a salvation you can experience and in which you can share. In fact, God’s plan has always been for that to happen. Salvation was always God’s plan. We are entering this morning into a season of preparing for the arrival of the Christ child, but you don’t have to wait at all to enter fully into the gift He came bringing with Him. You can know the salvation of your soul right here and now. This was and is God’s plan for you. Salvation was always God’s plan. We’ll celebrate that in style next week, but if you’ll come back in two weeks, we’ll see together just how God began to work those plans out through history. You won’t want to miss that.

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