The most shameful moments of all are when we are stripped naked and exposed before the gawking eyes of a watching world. Folk rock legend, Bob Dylan observed, “Even the Presidents of the United States sometimes have to stand naked.” Even the King of glory came into this world as a naked newborn, and died on a cross, stark naked. He knew what it was to be stripped bare of all glory and exposed in shame. Adam and Eve must have felt that way after their glory was exchanged for naked shame. The world is full of people who have been stripped bare physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But we possess a heavenly righteousness that will cover them, if only we will open wide the doors to clothe the naked.
[Text: Matthew 25, Genesis 2-4, Revelation 3:17-20]
St. Paul wrote, “I glory in the cross.” But there was no glory in the cross. The ancient philosopher, Seneca wrote about crucifixion in his Dialogi. We could sum up all that he says in a few words:
“Man’s capacity to conceive such a diabolical death machine surely proves that a beast lurks within the human soul.”
Cicero bragged with Roman pride, “Crucifixion is a thousand deaths in one.” Christ’s execution began when they stripped him stark naked. Forget artists’ depictions of Jesus in a loincloth. St. John’s gospel said that the executioners even removed his undergarments and gambled for them. First Century writers like Artemidorus tell us that the condemned were always crucified stark naked as a statement that justice had stripped them of the last vestige of dignity. It was the Roman way of saying, “We are unmasking this criminal and letting the public see the naked truth.”
The 1st Century Jewish historian, Josephus writes in his Antiquities that the Romans especially delighted in crucifying Jews naked. Ancient Jews detested public nakedness. Orthodox Judaism never forgot that Noah’s son Ham brought down God’s curse for uncovering his father’s nakedness. There are at least 73 Scriptural prohibitions against “uncovering the nakedness” of others.
For a Jew to be stripped naked before the eyes of a gawking public was the ultimate humiliation. It also added to the torture of the crucifixion as swarms of flies and mosquitoes would cover the victim’s exposed body. An ancient prophet, foreseeing Christ’s crucifixion 700 years before, speaks for all Jews when he says that the crucified Messiah was “one from whom men hide their faces.” (Isaiah 53:3) We turn our faces away because the reality is too shameful to behold. Thank God that artists modestly cover our LORD with a loincloth. But on that horrific day, there was no covering. The pioneer newscaster Edward R. Murrow was right:
“Most truths are so painfully naked that people like to dress them up a little.”
Is there a humiliation worse than being stripped naked? When I was ten years old, my foster mother tried to cure me of wetting the bed. In exasperation, she made me stand on the porch draped in urine-stained sheets. A cardboard sign said, “This boy wets the bed.” Our house was across the street from the school. It seemed that the whole world passed by that morning. She must have thought that she could shame me out of wetting the bed. She only managed to shame me! My darkest secret was exposed for everyone to see. I didn’t even have a loincloth. Imagine Jesus covered, not with a urine-stained sheet, but the most grotesque sins of his people.
I feel the profoundest sorrow for anyone who is stripped naked in full view of everyone—like the politician who has been caught in scandal. Now he stands exposed before a media-saturated public and gives his mea culpa. His wife stands beside him, bravely smiling in the glare of his public shame. They might both long for loincloths that would allow them some shred of dignity and privacy. Or the celebrity athlete exposed as a fraud who used performance- enhancing drugs. Or the spouse who has been caught cheating. Or parents who embarrass their children by cajoling them to perform in front of guests, or the husband who jokingly puts down his wife at a dinner party, or bosses who put employees in situations where their weaknesses are exposed, or the church lady who undresses others through gossip cleverly disguised as “prayer requests.” Every one of us has had those awful moments when, like the woman caught in adultery, we have been dragged into the public square by self-righteous sadists who delight in exposing others.
If you have ever been so exposed and embarrassed, that you wanted to go somewhere and hide, Jesus feels your pain. He will say on Judgment Day, “…I was naked and you clothed me…” (Matthew 25:36) Jesus is the King of kings who sat enthroned in glory, clothed with radiant majesty. But he laid aside that glory. He came into this world as a naked baby. Soon after, he was wrapped in rags. He died the same way he was born: stark naked. Successively, he laid aside his glory, then his royal robes, after that his carpenter’s apron, followed by his peasants’ robe, and finally even his loincloth. In the end, there was nothing left—not even the smallest shred of dignity. It was humiliation in its rawest form. Some 2,000 years later, he is still naked whenever anyone else is stripped of dignity and exposed to ridicule or self-loathing.
But, we have been called to clothe the naked—whether it is physical or emotional. “…I was naked and you clothed me…” We reply, “Lord, when did we see you naked and clothe you…? (Matthew 25:38) He responds, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) This morning, we want to give you a scriptural primer on nakedness. This is the principle we hope you grasp in this edition of Recognizing Jesus:
Fig leaves cover nothing, and reveal everything.
Come with us to the Garden of Eden. Nakedness is central to the biblical story of humankind. Before Adam and Eve ate the Forbidden Fruit, and plunged the world into sin, Genesis 2:19 says, “The man and his wife were both naked, and felt no shame.” This is the defining description of the paradise our first parents lost. After they disobeyed God, this is the first description of paradise lost in Genesis 3:7, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” It’s not that they didn’t cognitively know that they were naked before they ate the Forbidden Fruit. Their nakedness didn’t give them a second thought. It was natural and comfortable. Now they look at themselves and one another and are filled with shame. Then they hear the voice of God. Shame turns to fear. Those are always our first two reactions to sin and failure.
Adam and Eve run into the trees to hide. They fashion aprons of fig leaves to hide their nakedness. In the end, those fig leaves hide nothing from God—or even themselves. But they reveal everything about their fallen nature. Ever since, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve have covered themselves with fig leaves. We wear our masks and perpetuate our masquerades. We pretend and we pose. American playwright, James Baldwin wryly observes,
“Our manufactured identity is the garment with which we cover the nakedness of the real self we are afraid to reveal to ourselves or others.”
None of us really want everyone to know who we really are. We need at least some loincloth—some shred of dignity—even if it is manufactured like Adam and Eve’s apron of fig leaves. The Bible gives four fundamental truths about nakedness:
1. THE GLORY OF NAKEDNESS
Again, Genesis 2:25 sums up Paradise before it was lost: “The man and the woman were both naked, and they felt no shame.” The biblical creation story could have used other metaphors to describe what a world without sin looks like. But it chooses this one, because it describes humans in the fullness of God’s image and glory.
Why weren’t they ashamed? First of all, God looked at the apex of his creative genius—and his first reaction is recorded in Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…”
Adam and Eve’s identity was set in how God viewed them. Theirs wasn’t a good self-image; it was an awesome God-image. They looked into God’s eyes and saw their reflection. A baby is born. That newborn doesn’t know whether it is male or female, beautiful or ugly, black or white or some other color in between, rich or poor, smart or stupid, destined for greatness or mediocrity. Then the baby looks into its first mirror—the eyes of a doctor, a nurse, a mother, a father, siblings, or grandparents. As the child develops, there are a thousand new mirrors: playmates, classmates, people who either love or hate, laugh or frown, encourage or ridicule. And the child develops a sense of who he or she is. Along the way, that little person learns what gets a happy response or a smack in the face. He learns the tricks that get approval, and the taboos that earn disapproval. She discovers what earns applause and rewards. Too soon children discover that one has to pretend and lie to get along or ahead in life. They learn how to navigate the pitfalls of society and climb the ladder of success. They assemble a wardrobe of costumes and collection of masks to be worn when the curtain rises. Some rebel and refuse to play the game. They quickly become outcastes. Others become very good at the games people play. Deceiving others, they even deceive themselves.
But Adam and Eve didn’t have to play games or wear masks. When Adam rose from the dust, the first person he saw was a smiling God. When Eve came out of Adam’s rib, she saw a smiling Creator and a wildly excited husband. It was very good! God came and walked with them in the cool of the day. They were children basking in the presence of the proudest parent who ever existed. They didn’t have to hide anything because there was nothing imperfect that should be hidden. Because God felt good about them, and they felt good about themselves, they felt ecstatically good about each other. They could strut their stuff in the innocent and unbridled joy of knowing that all is well, clean, and wholesome. Weep for a world of insecure, broken, ashamed people who now scurry around for new ways to pretend and pose—because Adam and Eve couldn’t leave well enough alone. Mourn for the naked who have nothing in their closet to cover their shame. How tragic that Paradise was replaced by fig leaves.
2. THE SHAME OF NAKEDNESS
Satan began to work on their God-image. He seduced them to look into the mirror of doubt: “Did God really say…?” He lied to them when he said, “God has withheld the best things from you. He knows that in the day you eat the forbidden fruit, you will be like God himself.” He baited the hook of deception, and they took it hook-line-and-sinker. The truth is: they were already like God. They had been created in his image. Satan still baits the hook. He tells us that we have fallen short. Madison Avenue piles on messages that if we would buy this product, or drive that car, or use that hair product, or drink this brand of beer—we will somehow be happier, and feel better about ourselves. Politicians remind us we are victims of an unfair system, and if we elect them to office they will give us all the things to which we are entitled. The world is divided into haves and have-nots, the 99% and the one percent—and we suddenly feel very ugly and poor. Lucifer hasn’t changed his strategies since the very first deception in Eden. He even said to Jesus, “If you fall down and worship me, I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” So we go through life discontent with ourselves, our parents, spouses, society, and state of affairs—believing the slogan of a hamburger chain jingo: “You deserve a break today.” Enough is never quite enough.
Immediately after they took the bait, Genesis 3:7 says, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Shame is the first consequence of sin. We don’t understand the utter awesomeness of this moment in history. We have never had a moment without sinning. David spoke for all of us when he wrote, “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) We didn’t even have to look into the eyes of others to know there was something dreadfully wrong. Adam and Eve entered the world with laughter; we entered with a scream, and leave with a sigh. But they had never messed up once. Perfection is something we strive for, but it is a vain attempt. They were perfect. We sin countless times every day, but they had never fallen short of God’s glory. Hold your breath in awe when you read, “…they made coverings for themselves.”
After shame came fear. They heard the voice of God, fled into the trees for cover and hid. They knew that God was no longer pleased with them. They suddenly felt very vulnerable. In their eyes, God morphed from parent to predator. Now everything is reversed. The man said, “The woman you gave me is the cause of all my troubles.” He now gets his sense of identity from the other person in his life. He is now human-focused rather than God-focused. He now feels bad about her, and even worse about himself. As a result, he is angry with God for messing up his paradise by creating the woman. It is still the same today. We find our identity in the circumstances in our life, rather than God. We become people pleasers rather than God pleasers. We live for others’ approval rather than heaven’s applause.
We all know that if people knew everything there really was to know about us, they wouldn’t like us. Television star, Camryn Manhelm said, “I don’t even like to be naked in front of myself.” The Prussian Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck famously said, “I have seen three Emperors naked and the sight was not inspiring.” So we cover ourselves with fig leaves. Billionaire Howard Hughes took all the mirrors out of his hideaway hotels so that he wouldn’t have to look at himself deteriorate. English social critic John Berger quipped, “If we should be stripped bare, we would not be so worried about the shame of nakedness, as we would people laughing at us.” Such is the state of those who fell in Adam and Eve.
3. THE COVERING OF NAKEDNESS
Adam and Eve knew one thing: they needed a covering. So do all of us. Humorist Mark Twain wryly observed, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Jesus often spoke of the hypocrite—from the Greek word, hupokrites. It was a word for actors on the Greek stage. These ancient thespians quickly changed character by putting new masks in front of their faces. Matt Damon once said, “Hollywood actors get paid insane amounts of money to pretend to be someone they are not.” But all of us pretend to some degree to be someone we are not. I love this comment by Robert Hutchens: “The college graduate is presented with a sheepskin to cover his intellectual nakedness.”
Thank God, for another sheepskin. We read that, though Adam and Eve are now terribly fallen, they are still wonderfully loved. Genesis 3:21 says, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This is the gospel in Genesis. God has already told Eve that a Son will come who will crush the Serpent’s head. Now he gives an illustration. Though he said that they would die in the day they ate the forbidden fruit, Adam will live for 930 years more. But already they have been disconnected from the life source that turned a pile of dust, and later a rib, into living soul people. They are already beginning to whither and die—like a plant uprooted from the garden.
But God gives them hope by killing an animal. I believe that it may have been a sheep. For the first time Adam and Eve see the reality of death. They watch that animal in its death throes as its blood spills out on the ground. Then God skins the animal and covers our first parents. I believe that God is telling them that his Only Begotten Son will someday come to earth. He will die as the sacrificial lamb to pay the penalty for their sins. Later Abel will make his sacrifice of slaughtered animals because he has heard this message of hope from his parents, Adam and Eve. Then God skins the animal and covers his disobedient children. I believe that he is giving them a message of hope: “My Only Begotten Son—the Second Person of the Triune God—will cover your sins with his righteousness. When I look at you, I will see only his goodness.”
Jesus is the end of wearing fig leaves. Adam and Eve cover themselves; Jesus is stripped naked. Adam and Eve hide behind the trees; Jesus is hung naked on the trees for God and the whole world to see. Adam and Eve feel shame and fear; Jesus is covered with shame and, the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane, is driven to suicidal despair because of his fear of facing the full wrath of God on our behalf. He literally becomes sin. He hangs on the cross like the forbidden fruit. But, when we eat of him, we find new life.
Jesus reminds us of all this in the beatitudes of his Sermon on the Mount. When we realize that we are bankrupt in spirit, then we can mourn. This is repentance. We are driven to meekness. Like St. Paul, we know that we are the chief of sinners. So we hunger and thirst for a righteousness that is not our own. God declares us righteous because of Christ’s righteousness which now clothes us. We have received his mercy, so we now give mercy to others. We no longer have to play games or wear masks. God is pleased with his Only Begotten Son, and therefore pleased with all his sons and daughters who have put their trust in the Risen Savior. We become pure in heart—no pretense, no posing, no pretending. The masks are thrown away. We have peace with God, so now we have peace within. Now we become peacemakers, bringing peace to others. We may be persecuted for this, but we will become the lights of the world. Have you put your trust in Christ? If you have, you can throw away the fig leaves and find freedom to live transparent and truthful lives.
4. THE EXPOSURE OF NAKEDNESS
Yet, we still go back to old wardrobes to dig out old costumes and masks. Jesus speaks to Christians in the ancient church in Laodicea, but he could just as well be speaking to us: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness, and salve to put in your eyes, so you can see.” (Revelation 3:17&18). This is a rebuke to all of us who do not see as Jesus sees. Matthew 25 reminds us that the reality of our salvation is proven by a Jesus perspective and lifestyle. “…I was naked and you clothed me…”
Noah’s son Ham uncovered the nakedness of his father and exposed him to gawking eyes. God was angry. That same God came to earth and covered the shame of an adulterous woman whose sin was uncovered and exposed by a self-righteous mob. He told her to go and sin no more. He didn’t cover up the truth. But he did cover up her shame. He did so that day, and later on the cross.
I remember the young fellow that my sister brought to dinner at our house. He spilled spaghetti down the front of his shirt. He was mortally embarrassed. I was delighted. We find a too easy pleasure in the public exposure of other people’s sins and failures. It makes us feel better about our own dark secrets. My father picked up his plate of spaghetti and spilled the whole thing down the front of his shirt. He took the attention off the young man and put it himself. In that moment, he covered a young man’s nakedness. Jesus took a whole world of our sin and dumped it on himself. He took our shame the day he was stripped naked. That’s why I am going to the Laces of Love concert. I don’t want children to be embarrassed by going to school in Collier County without shoes. I want to give my support to putting shoes on naked feet. That’s why I share the plan of salvation with people. I want them to have their shame and sin covered by God’s grace so that they can leap for joy in the presence of their heavenly Father’s presence. That’s why I gave a Faith Promise pledge to expand Covenant’s mission at home and abroad. People whose nakedness has been covered know that they must cover the nakedness of others.
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