This is our third week in a yearlong series following Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. The first two weeks we read the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 and talked about what happens when we put them together to see what they mean. This week we are going to explore the story in Genesis 3 verses 1 through 13, which is often called “The Fall.” Christians tend to either over-emphasize this story or totally ignore this story. As you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t want us to do either of those. I think it would be almost impossible to come to this story without a lot of assumptions already in place. But as much as you can, I invite you to put those aside and simply listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
This is the Word of God, which is for all people. Thanks be to God.
Because this story is so familiar, I’d like to start by stating very clearly what it does not say.
It does not say that humans are inherently evil. In fact, it shows that evil is a distortion, a perversion, of our inherent goodness. If your version of the gospel starts with how wretched and lost humans are, then you have missed a crucial point. The reason God cares so much and works so hard to restore us is because we were good in the first place. To be fallen also does not mean we are no longer good. We are each and all still wonderfully created in God’s image AND ALSO we live in a state of fallenness.
This story does not say where evil comes from. It doesn’t bother to explain why there’s a walking, talking, crafty snake in the garden. Based on what we read in the Bible, ancient people had almost no interest in philosophical debates about the nature of evil and where it comes from. That’s a very modern preoccupation. Ancient people saw enough sickness and death and disaster that they knew evil was real, that the world is a broken place. We want to debate about evil because it’s such a shock to our otherwise insulated lives. The harder things are for people, the less they seem to focus on WHY it’s hard. When it comes to evil, knowing “why” isn’t going to help us fix it. This story allows us to simply accept evil and brokenness as a reality in the world. Which we have to do if we are going to get on with the business of fighting it as God calls us to do.
The story also doesn’t say that woman tricked the man. It says that he was with her and she gave him the fruit, so we can’t say one way or the other if he knew what he was doing. In the ancient Hebrew culture, and in the cultures around them, men had power over women. Male-dominated society is as old as the world, and this story demonstrates that. For ancient people, this was a story about why women had hard lives and were dominated by their husbands.
So if this story isn’t about the inherent depravity of humans or the origin of evil or the moral weakness of women, what is it about? In short, this story is about sin. That’s not a word that a lot of progressive churches use, but I’m not willing to give it up. It is an authentically historically Christian word and we don’t have any other word that helps us say what we mean. So what do we mean by sin?
I’ll tell you what I mean. I think we need the word sin to explain why humans are so weird. Think with me for a minute about how many times a day you have the experience of knowing what you should do, and deliberately not doing it. We all do this in big ways and small ways. We usually know what’s right and good for us and others in most situations and sometimes we just flat out won’t do it. That’s so weird! We’re not dumb. We’re not masochists. And yet, we do not do what we know is right. Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot like that? The short answer is sin.
We humans who have divine goodness at our core are broken. We’re not vile, or shameful, or unrepairable, but we are most definitely broken. We are all good and we are all broken. This must be a universal truth because it keeps us all on the same level. That’s what this story gives us. We are all created in God’s image and we are all broken. We are broken by what is done to us, and we are broken by what we do. All of us. I’m no better than you are, and you’re no better than anyone else is. Race, class, age, sex, religion, politics – none of that makes any of us any better or any worse than anyone else. We need this story to remind us of that because we are constantly tempted to compare and rank ourselves, and act like we are better than someone else. This story says that we are all the same, equally beautiful and equally broken.
Did you notice where the brokenness came in? It happened when we believed a very particular lie. Did you hear the lie? The lie of the serpent, the doubt it planted in the mind of humanity, is that God is holding out on us, that there is something we need—in this story, it’s the knowledge of good and evil—and that God doesn’t want us to have it. The lie is that God is not trustworthy and we need to watch out for our own interests. That is the original lie. And when we fall for that lie, we begin to live in brokenness instead of wholeness. When we don’t trust God, we begin to experience shame and fear and we start blaming others. That’s what happens in the story. When we stop trusting God, we becoming increasingly isolated from ourselves (that’s the shame); we become increasingly isolated from God (that’s the fear); and we become increasingly isolated from others (that’s the blame).
As a result of human’s lack of trust in God, the whole system falls apart. The distortion of sin begins to affect all of creation. Sin is so much bigger than just our individual actions, although of course it includes those. Sin is not just the things that we do that are against God’s design for us; sin is the fact that we can’t help doing things that are against God’s design for us. Sin is not the bad things we do; sin is the reason we do bad things. Sin is a force in itself. It is so powerful that we can’t overcome it on our own. No matter how much good we do as individuals, we can’t fix the distortion. Someone else is going to have to intervene. And that’s what Jesus does.
If the original lie is that God is not trustworthy and that God is holding out on us, Jesus comes to prove that wrong. His whole life was motivated by love for us. He showed us in the flesh, in human form, in earthly life, that God is entirely trustworthy. And in Jesus’ sacrificial love that led him to the cross, he showed us that God is most certainly not holding out on us, that in fact God holds nothing back from us.
The opposite of this Genesis 3 story is a passage in the New Testament book of Philippians chapter 2, verses 3 through 11. It says:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, (and this next part may have been one of the early hymns of the Church)
who, being in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Sin comes from our pathological need to protect our own interests, and Jesus intervenes for us by willingly giving up his own interests. Sin still exists but through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus offers us a way out, a path back to wholeness. In his life, he shows us once and for all exactly what God is like and what it would be like to live a human life free from the slavery of sin and the power of death. In his death, he conquers sin. And in his resurrection, Jesus conquers death. By God’s grace, we participate in Jesus’ death through our faith and our baptisms, and so we can live free from the slavery to sin here and now, although we will still commit individual sins. Christ’s resurrection is the downpayment, the promise that everyone will eventually experience the resurrection of the body and the restoration of creation. So eventually, when we are also resurrected, we will also overcome the power of death.
That may feel like a long way from Genesis 3 for you. But one of the great benefits of making the road by walking it together this year is that we can take the time to put stuff together. The Bible is not a book of isolated, one-off stories that don’t relate to each other. And it’s not a book full of high and lofty ideas that have nothing to do with our regular lives. This is a gorgeous library full of stories and poetry and practical wisdom and history and social commentary and letters that can all help us understand and cope with what we are facing here and now. God is now and has always been up to something in the world; there is an arc to this story, it’s going somewhere. We can take a few steps back and see the bigger picture.
This story in Genesis 3 is a story that keeps happening. We all struggle to trust God. We all are tempted to believe the lie that God is holding out on us; that God is not giving us a good thing that we need. And when we start to grasp at what we think we need or what we deserve instead of trusting God, we fall into shame and fear and blaming others. When we stop trusting God we becoming increasingly alienated from ourselves and from God and from each other. But it’s not hopeless. In all the ways we get things wrong, Jesus gets them right and invites us to join him, to follow him and live in trust and wholeness. Trust is a choice. A choice that is really hard for some of us. But not impossible. We won’t ever get it perfectly right. But God doesn’t ask us to. God simply asks us to walk in trust and turn away from shame and fear and blame. Amen.