But . . .

Read Genesis 2: 15-17

There are many words in the English language, something like 250,000 thousand, depending on how technical you want to get. Of those words, most adults know in the range of 25,000 to 30,000 on average, and children as young as four know roughly 5000 words. That’s a lot of words. This morning, though, there is one key word that I want to look at. It’s a common word, we use it every day. It’s only three letters long. The word is but.

“But” is a conjunction. It links two parts of a sentence, perhaps with some sort of disclaimer or proviso, or presents an alternative to the first part. Unlike other conjunctions like “and” and “or” “but” sets up conflict, or the potential for conflict. John would like to have pizza for dinner but Mary wants to get burgers. There is a question there, a question that has not been answered. What are John and Mary going to do for supper? They both can’t get their way. The word “but” leaves everything up in the air.

“But” may also offer opportunity. My blue golf shirt is in the laundry, but the green one is clean. One option is unavailable, another one may be just as good. At the same time, there is also limitation here, because that first choice is not available. But is a small word, yet a vital one.

This isn’t a lecture about grammar and sentence structure, though. This is a sermon. The reason for this explanation to start is that we’re going to look at a number of passages of scripture this morning, each one of which prominently features the word but. From them, we can see the whole gospel laid out in front of us, step by step.

We read the first of the passages already, from Genesis chapter 2. It’s an invitation and a restriction, with a warning built in. You are allowed to eat the fruits of all the trees of the garden, apart from one. There is one tree that is forbidden to eat from, and with good reason, because there is death attached to the fruit of that tree.

Much can be made of this passage, of this warning, of this ‘but’. Why would God create such a tree in the first place if consumption of the fruit would be deadly? Perhaps it could be suggested that it served some other useful purpose, perhaps the wood was of particular value, or the flowers beautiful to behold, or the shade it offered unsurpassed. That is all speculation, of course. Even if that tree served some other useful purpose, why place it in the garden in the first place, and in a prominent location? In the next chapter Eve does mention that the tree is located in the midst of the garden. It was noticeable, not hidden away in a dark corner somewhere. The fact that God mentions the tree with such a specific warning, and in such a specific place, indicates that it is important and that it was placed there for a reason, it was not some random happenstance placement.

Why was this tree there at all? Why is this but present? God could have omitted it, but He did not. Any number of benefits may have existed for that tree, however I would suggest that the tree was created and placed in the garden as a test, a test of obedience.

Eve mentions the location of the tree in the next chapter. That’s not the only thing that happens in the chapter, of course. The fruit of the tree was consumed, the warning ignored, and thereby sin and death were invited into the world, and here they have remained. That warning, that but, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat, it has proven entirely accurate, and all too often each of us partakes of that tree, not in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical one, in that we know good and evil, we know right from wrong, and like Adam and Eve so long ago, we choose poorly.

Even the smartest and wisest of us will choose poorly. Turn to 1 Kings chapter 11 to see an example of a wise man who made foolish choices. 1 But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; 2 Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. 3 And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. 4 For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.

Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. He had unsurpassed wisdom, and he had great wealth and power as well. He could have whatever it was he wanted. Well, sometimes getting what you want is exactly the wrong thing.

Those of us with children should know about this. Kids might want to stay up really late night after night and eat candy and ice cream for every meal. But of course that would be terrible for them, as it would be for any of us, really. Our bodies are not designed to operate like that, with not enough sleep, not enough vitamins, and too much sugar. We might want that, we might think we would enjoy it, but it would destroy us in the long term.

Solomon, he chose to follow his heart. As wise as he might have been, his heart, not so much. His many wives, they turned his heart away it says in the verses that we read. Of course they did, what with 700 of them. I daresay his heart was turned before he got to number 699. His heart was well turned I would imagine. He was diverted from following God and doing what was right, what he should have done, what he fully knew and understood was correct. He knew that worshipping false gods was an offense to the Lord. But he chose to do so anyway.

Solomon had been richly blessed by God with all manner of material, mental, and spiritual blessings, but, and here is the but with Solomon, despite his wisdom, despite his success, despite his wealth and power, he became distracted and undone. What distracted him, what diverted him, although certainly we could learn a lesson in that, the cause doesn’t ultimately matter. The result does. His heart was turned away, and he turned from God’s ways, he turned to idols.

I’ll leave it at that with Solomon. Now none of us are going to get married 700 times, I think that’s a fairly safe bet. But every one of us here, no matter how old or how young, our hearts can so easily be turned away. No matter how much we have, or how little, no matter how God has seen fit to equip us and bless us, our hearts turn so easily. As it says in Jeremiah 17:9, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. It doesn’t, or it shouldn’t, take all that hard of a look inside to tell us that this is true.

Solomon followed his heart. His heart was foolish and corrupt. Adam and Eve, I don’t think they were thinking all that rationally when they chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Were they following their hearts as well? Anyone who says you should follow your heart, and it’s easy to find many voices that will tell you that, from self-help books to songs on the radio, that is terrible advice. Your heart is not going to make wise choices. It will make foolish and selfish ones instead. And you know what, you might not even recognize there is a problem.

Speaking of not knowing there is a problem, I’d like to read a verse from Joshua chapter 7. 1 But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.

For context, this takes place immediately after the defeat and destruction of Jericho. None of the Israelites were to take any spoil from that city, absolutely none, but this man Achan, he did. We’re not going to read the entire chapter, but if we did, we’d see that he took some gold, some silver, and a garment, a goodly Babylonish garment, it says in verse 21. We would also see that no one else was aware of this, not until things started going wrong. Israel had won a great victory at Jericho, now they were handily defeated at nearby Ai, because the Lord was no longer with them due to their disobedience.

How’s that for a but? The sin of one man disabled and distracted and damaged an entire nation, and it’s not like he was the king, or, really, anyone especially remarkable. If Achan had not coveted and taken of the forbidden spoils, there is absolutely zero chance that we would know his name, or that we would be talking about him this morning. But because he did, because his actions derailed the conquest of Canaan and undermined the success of Jericho, now we remember him, and not in a good way.

I’ll point out that like Adam and Eve, and like Solomon, Achan chose to disobey, he chose to disregard what the Lord had instructed and to do his own thing, go his own way. As happened with them, his actions had a ripple effect that went far beyond his own immediate sphere. Achan brought damage to Israel, and if we read through the chapter we would see that he brought about the deaths of thirty six Israelite soldiers, as well as the destruction of his own immediate family. Solomon went astray himself, but his actions set up the division of Israel into two separate kingdoms. Adam and Eve, their actions brought sin into the world, and death by sin.

All three of these incidents, all three of these events punctuated by the word but had a profound result, and each one is a close up snapshot of a much larger problem. This brings us to the next passage I would like to look at, in 2 Kings chapter 5. It’s only one verse that I’d like to read, you don’t need to turn there. 1 Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honourable, because by him the LORD had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper.

This is the beginning of a fairly well known Bible story featuring interesting characters and diverse applications. It’s the story of Naaman, who served a foreign king and a foreign god, and who was cured of his illness by obedience and faith, in spite of reluctance and hesitation. It’s the story of a little girl, who although a slave in a foreign land still remained faithful to her God and served in her own small way. It’s the story of a miracle that took place despite multiple people getting in the way. And it’s the story of an opportunistic servant who cared more for gain than he did for God.

It’s a great story, one could you easily preach several different sermon on, but we’re not going to look at it in detail. We’re only looking at the last five words of that one verse – but he was a leper.

Naaman was a big deal. In this verse he was described as prominent, influential, honourable, a mighty man of valour, a military leader. He had an impressive resume, he was going places. The king of Syria valued him enough to send him for what we can only describe as controversial and experimental treatment, go to Israel and seek for healing from a prophet there, from some other God. Considering the amount of money and goods that Naaman brought along to pay for this healing, consisting of 6,000 pieces of gold, ten talents of silver, that’s hundreds of pounds of silver, and ten changes of clothing, and you know this was high quality clothing, not something he picked up at Value Village or the Nearly New on his way by, Naaman was either exceedingly wealthy or uncommonly well funded. Maybe both.

But he was a leper. If I was doing some sort of audio-visual presentation this morning, this would be the point where you’d use a record scratch noise. Naaman was all these other impressive things, but he was a leper.

Naaman, or at least what we are told of Naaman, is different from the other examples we have looked at this morning. Adam and Eve, Solomon, and Achan all had a choice, and they chose to do wrong, they chose to transgress. Naaman, he did not choose leprosy. Now, obviously, no one would ever actively choose leprosy, but you can make choices that invite bad results. If one drinks and gets a hangover, or overeats and gains weight, or if one doesn’t wash and follow proper hygiene and then gets sick, well, those are things that could have been prevented, could have been avoided if different choices were made. That’s not the case here. There is nothing we know of him to suggest that there was anything he did to bring this upon himself. Indeed, Naaman likely did not have a way to avoid his illness. It came upon him, it afflicted him, in spite of whatever choices, good or bad, that he may have made. In a way, you could almost say he was destined to it. He was born into a world with leprosy, and it got to him.

In the Bible, leprosy is often seen as a picture of sin. It makes a very apt comparison, for leprosy is a disease that separates, a disease that consumes, it is a progressive disease, and a disease that causes shame and offense. It is an affliction that will not improve on its own, you don’t get over leprosy like you would the measles or the common cold. It needs to be treated and cured, or it will be fatal. And it is a disease that exists within, often without obvious signs.

We don’t have much leprosy around today, and less all the time, down to less than 200,000 cases now as compared to over five million cases in the 1980s. We think of it as being a grotesque disease with the sufferer’s fingers and toes dropping off, but that comes only in advanced cases. It’s common for someone to actually have the infection for more than five years unnoticed, and it may take as long as 20 years before any symptoms are apparent. You know what one of the first symptoms is? A decreased sensitivity to pain.

That’s why people with leprosy lose fingers and toes, because they suffer minor injuries, feel no pain, and so do nothing to treat the wound. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. It’s unpleasant, but it serves a useful purpose.

That’s another way in which leprosy is like sin. If your heart is filled with sin, you will not notice that things are wrong. You will not care that you have fallen away, that you are moving farther and farther off the path, that you are distant from your creator. Your heart may be turned away, but the sensitivity is so far gone that you don’t even notice it. Sin and corruption brings a creeping numbness with it. Once we become accustomed to it, it no longer seems so offensive to us.

It still remains sin, though. It remains offensive to God.

There are many problems in the world today. I’m sure you can think of a great number, we’re not about to try and list them all. Ultimately, though, the problems on this earth all stem from sin. It shouldn’t take all that deep an analysis to realize this. Pick any problem you can think of, and the roots of it are in sin, and that’s assuming the problem itself isn’t obviously sin to start with. Take something as basic as selfishness, for example, and think of all the problems that arise from that.

What is sin? It may range from gross transgression down to minor failings, but ultimately, sin is missing the mark, falling short of the goal. God’s standard is perfection, and to achieve anything less is sin. Active rebellion against God may be more offensive than passive neglect, or accidental error, but all are still wrong. If I have a balloon and whether I poke it with a thumbtack, or I slash it with a chainsaw, or if I let it go and it catches a sharp corner somewhere, in any of those cases, the balloon goes pop. Sin is no different. The result, though, is a lot worse than a busted balloon.

Sin has always been offensive to God. It was in the days of Adam and Eve, it was in the days of Solomon and of Achan, and it is today. I’d like to read a few verses from Genesis chapter 6 to illustrate just how serious an issue this is.

5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

This was more than 4000 years ago, and even then sin was such a problem, it had grown so great that the Lord decided that he would remove man from the earth. That’s what sin does, ultimately. It destroys. God cannot tolerate it, cannot allow it to remain unresolved. All the poor choices from Adam and Eve on down had lead to the point where the Lord was about done with humanity.

You’ll notice, though, that there was no but in those verses we just read. That comes in the next verse. 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

All of our previous buts had something going wrong, had danger or trouble or failure implicit in the context. Things were looking up, looking okay, but something was there to derail it. Now, when things were at their worst, Noah found grace.

It is a wonderful thing, grace. Undeserved merit or favour is the general definition of grace, and it is a beautiful thing to experience. My children appreciate it when we graciously allow them to have something special that they have done nothing to deserve. Grace is not earned, it’s not like wages, where you get a paycheque at the end of the workweek based on the hours you’ve put in. Thankfully not, because the wages of sin are death. That’s the wages we have all earned from our actions, from our failure to live a perfect life.

Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Noah may have been better behaved than most of the people around him, but he did not earn this grace. He did not deserve to be spared from the flood. But he was, not because of his own goodness, but because God spared Him. He warned Noah of the doom to come, and Noah prepared for it with the construction of the ark. Noah no doubt warned others, he had many years in which to do so, and in 2 Peter he is referred to as a preacher of righteousness, but his preaching fell on deaf ears. In the end only Noah and his immediate family were spared. The world at large was doomed, but Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

It’s not about Noah, though, it’s about the grace, and it’s about the Lord. Likewise, our standing before God, any grace we hope to receive, is not about us, it’s about Him.

There’s good news though. And it’s packaged with another but. Turn to Romans chapter 5, we’ll look at a few verses from there. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. 8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.

The previous examples we have looked at involved people, well, and the first one was about a tree, but it was concerned with the conduct of Adam and Eve. People, it seems, all fall short. But God, as we see here, God does not. While we were sinners, while we were opposed to His ways and were His enemies in general, He commended his love toward us. I had to look that word up to see what exactly was the meaning behind commend. In other translations we have shows or demonstrates, which are pretty good indications. The original Greek word means to place together, or to stand with. That is the same grace I spoke about a minute ago. God does not hold back His love, keeping it out of reach for all but the most deserving. He holds it out for us, He extends it to us, He places it with us. We were sinners, but God saw fit to extend love to us. Christ died for us, not because we were righteous, but because we weren’t. We needed salvation, we needed the price paid for our sins, and that price was punishment and death. We are saved from wrath through Him.

But God is such a simple phrase, but so much turns on that. We were sinners, but God loved us. We were His enemies, but Christ died for us. We were destined for wrath, but God justified us by the blood of His Son. We were unworthy, we were not good or righteous, but God paid the price anyway.

We looked at how man has missed the mark, dropped the ball, chosen poorly, or downright rebelled and turned away. It’s obvious that none of us is deserving of God’s grace, none of us has earned our salvation. And while you might say that you haven’t directly disobeyed God and did what you were specifically told not to do, like Achan, or Solomon, or Adam and Eve, if you think that you’ve never broken any of God’s laws, if you claim to never have violated even one of the Ten Commandments, for example, then you are either a liar or a fool. If you say you have never coveted, never desired what someone else has, or if you say that you have never taken anything that was not yours, or that you have never dishonoured your parents, well, if you claimed any of those things, you would have to be lying to do so. That’s another failing, right there. There is none righteous, no not one.

You might say that there are many people far worse than you are, and while that may be so, that’s not really the issue. There are people better than you as well. It’s not about how good you are, because that will never be sufficient. It’s about God, it’s about the price that was paid for you. It’s about believing in Him to save you.

We’ve looked at six different passages this morning, and each one turns on a different but. Our final passage is from Hebrews chapter 11. I’ll read verse 6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

God rewards those who seek Him, and that requires faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, as verse one of this chapter tells us. Without faith it is impossible to please God, and logically that means that in order to please God, faith is a requirement. None of us has seen God face to face, none of us witnessed any of the events described in this book, and none of us has experienced eternity. It requires faith to trust that God will save you. Frankly, it requires faith to believe that God exists at all, as the verse says, even though the evidence for God is strong, but that is another topic for another day.

Without faith it is impossible to please the Lord. Faith is essential. We cannot earn our salvation, it is the gift of God. That is not a price we can pay. We can, however, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We can trust in what He has said, and we can diligently seek Him.

The human race has made a royal mess of things on this earth. But God is not confined and restricted by our failings. While we were yet sinners, He commended His love toward us. No matter what but you might claim, no matter what objection you might raise, God’s grace is greater than it. No matter how deep your shortcomings, the salvation paid for by Christ’s blood is deeper still.

If you have already put your trust in Christ to save you from your sins, and I hope that you have, then you already know how great this salvation is. We all need reminders, though, from time to time, of just how significant this truly is, of how deep God’s love for us is, that no matter how foul our offense, while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

If you have not taken that step of faith, then I would advise you to look at the world around, and ask yourself if things are going well. Look at the people around, and ask if they are deserving of an eternity in heaven. Look at your own heart, and ask if it is not deceitful and wicked, no matter how decent your outward behaviour might be. Ask yourself if you can solve any of these problems, if you can fix any of those things. Then ask yourself if the God who created the universe, the God who made and formed you, the God in whose eyes Noah found grace, ask yourself if there is grace for you.