Each autumn, after Labor Day, as a church we turn our hearts and minds back to the Old Testament and begin another journey through the Bible. From now through Advent, we will study the Old Testament. From Christmas to Easter we will study the story of Jesus as told in the gospel of Luke. From Easter to summer we study the New Testament. We follow this pattern because the Bible is large and confusing. And by studying it in order, we begin to see the arc of God’s plan. The major events of the Old Testament start to make sense to us. This is very important, because the Old Testament was Jesus’s Bible. Everything that he did was rooted in the stories and symbols of the Old Testament, and the better we understand them, the better we understand Jesus.
The other reason it’s important for us to know these ancient stories is because the world is a crazy place. Many of us are quite literally addicted to scrolling through social media, always looking for something new. In the US we live in a 24-hour news cycle. New information, usually not encouraging information, is coming at us constantly. The news about coronavirus changes rapidly, so rapidly that I can’t keep up with it. I don’t know about you, but I am overwhelmed by this. Which is why I keep returning to our sacred text. These stories ground me. Our ancestors in the faith have been finding truth, encouragement, correction, and hope in these stories for 3,000 years. To say that the Bible is “authoritative” means that it has the power to “author” us. If we allow them to, these stories tell our stories; these stories are our stories. These stories give us the framework we need to interpret what’s happening around us and to us.
Because we live in the US in the 21st century, often the first question we ask is whether these stories are “true.” To which I would give the always helpful answer of “Maybe.” There is no way to verify the facts of most of these stories. Really smart researchers and archeologists and historians who love Jesus disagree about the facts of these stories. But the “truth” of stories is about more than facts. Stories are “true” when they teach us something we need to know about the world. Stories can be “true” without being factual. One of my favorite quotes is from the British author G. K. Chesterton who said, “We don’t need fairy tales to teach us that dragons are real. We need fairy tales to teach us that dragons can be defeated.” So whether you believe the stories of the Bible are always 100% factual or whether you don’t, we all need these true stories to teach us about the nature of God and about the world and about ourselves. I usually won’t spend any time at all talking about the facts of these stories. But I’m very interested in the truth of these stories.
This morning we will start at the very beginning, because that’s a very good place to start. The first book in our Bible is Genesis, which means beginnings or origins. Genesis contains our origin stories. Ancient people were not able to study biology, astronomy, and neuroscience like we are. So for the people who wrote them, these were not “how” stories. These were “why” stories. They were written in order to explain why certain things were the way they were. Which means we can use them to help us think about why things are the way they are.
That’s what I’d like you to keep in mind as we read a story that you probably all know whether you grew up in church or not. At least, you think you know it. You know the basics of it. It’s the story of The Fall, the first sin, Adam and Eve and the snake and the apple. This morning I’m going to ask you to do something extraordinarily hard: I’m going to ask you to try to listen with fresh ears. Don’t get ahead of the story and tell yourself what you already know. Listen along. Listen to what it actually says.
Let me give you just a little background before we start. Just before the story of the Fall, God has created people. The story says God created an adam from the adamah, which is like saying God created an earthling from the earth, or a human from the humus. God creates a person from the ground. And apparently it’s not good for this one person to be alone. So God uses part of that first person in creating the second person. For ancient people this helped to explain why we need each other, why we feel connected. We are all part of one another and we are designed to be in community, not in isolation. These first two humans are the Male and the Female, the man and the woman. And they live in a garden that they are charged with tending, which contains many trees for food, including a tree of life, and also a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but that fruit they are not allowed to eat.
Now, here comes our story. Let us listen now, with fresh ears, for the word and the wisdom of God.
But the serpent was shrewder than any animal of the field that Lord God made. So it said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from all the trees of the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the trees, we may eat. But of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat of it and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
The serpent said to the woman, “You most assuredly won’t 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.”
Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a thing of lust for the eyes, and that the tree was desirable for imparting wisdom. So she took of its fruit and she ate. She also gave to her husband who was with her and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made for themselves loin-coverings. And they heard the sound of Lord God going to and fro in the garden in the wind of the day. So the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Lord God in the midst of the Tree of the garden.
Then Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
Then the man said, “Your sound—I heard it in the garden and I was afraid. Because I am naked, I hid myself.”
Then God said, “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the Tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”
Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me—she gave me of the Tree, and I ate.”
Lord God said to the woman, “What did you do?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.”
Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you did this,
Cursed are you above all the livestock
and above every animal of the field.
On your belly will you go,
and dust will you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put animosity
between you and the woman—
between your offspring and her offspring.
He will crush your head,
and you will crush his heel.
To the woman Lord God said,
“I will greatly increase your pain from conception to labor.
In pain will you give birth to children.
Your desire will be toward your husband,
yet he must rule over you.”
Then to the man Lord God said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate of the tree which I commanded you, saying, ‘You must not eat of it’:
Cursed is the ground because of you—
with pain will you eat of it all the days of your life.
Thorns and thistles will sprout for you.
You will eat the plants of the field,
By the sweat of your brow will you eat food,
until you return to the ground,
since from it were you taken.
For you are dust,
and to dust will you return.”
Now Adam named his wife Eve because she was the mother of all the living. Lord God made Adam and his wife tunics of skin and clothed them. Then Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. So now, in case he stretches out his hand and takes also from the Tree of Life and eats and lives forever,” Lord God sent him away from the Garden of Eden, to work the ground from which he had been taken. And God expelled the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden God had cherubim dwell along with the whirling sword of flame, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.Genesis 3
This is the Word of God 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 we aren’t going to use this story to condemn the depravity of all people or debate the philosophical origin or evil, or demonize women, then what is this story good for? Why do we need to keep this story when it has been so badly misused by some religious communities for so long? Here’s why I think we need it. And I’ll say that for many of these insights I’m indebted to a book called Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink.
Actually this story has a lot to do with the principalities and powers we were talking about last week. This story reminds us that first and foremost everything is created good. The world is good. We are good. And when they are functioning in their originally-ordained way, the powers are good. The powers are designed to provide the structure we need to order our lives. The created nature of everything in God’s good world is good.
BUT, also, all these good things are broken. Not vile, or shameful, or unrepairable, but 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. 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.
We also need this story to remind us that we can’t fix the world. As much as we progressive Christians like to think that the salvation of the world rests on us, it doesn’t. We have all broken something that we can’t fix, whether it’s a plate or a relationship. Accepting this is huge relief to us; this is actually good news. When we accept that what is broken within us and between us and around us is something that we can’t fix entirely on our own, then we can stop feeling so responsible for everything.
This doesn’t mean that we give up. Far from it. We keep working and living and waging spiritual warfare. But we are modest about the outcome. We live in reality. We know that every successful revolution eventually becomes the establishment. We know that all movements are led by fallen humans and are never going to live up to our ideals. We know that we will never perfectly fulfill our own ideals. If we accept this reality, then we can learn to live and work within it, instead of being shocked and crushed and angry every time things don’t work out like we want them to. We can find the balance between doing nothing and doing everything. Remember the quote I shared several weeks ago: We are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are we free to abandon it.
Finally we need this story to bolster our trust in God, to strengthen our faith. The place where everything starts to go wrong in this story is when the woman mistrusts God. She doesn’t trust that God has her best interests in mind. She doesn’t trust what God has told her. She thinks she needs to do it herself. And that’s when things break down. This story reminds us that we can trust God. And that even when we sin, God restores us. God does not in fact kill the humans for eating from the tree. God is the one who makes clothes for them, who helps them cover their nakedness, who soothes their sense of shame in a way they weren’t able to do for themselves. Yes, there are consequences to their lack of trust. God sends them out of the garden, apparently for their own good, because they shouldn’t have the knowledge of good and evil AND live forever. Their brokenness opens up new possibilities for danger and God removes them from that, even though that grace feels like punishment to them.
Ultimately, God is the one who will fix all of it. Jews and Christians have interpreted the judgment against the serpent as a promise that God’s Messiah will one day be victorious over all evil. Christians recognize that victory has been won in Christ. And so we trust that God can fix the brokenness in us and around us. We can’t fix all of it, but we can choose to trust, to have faith.
I hope you can see that whether you believe this story is factual or whether it’s true for you in some other way, this story has the power to author us, to help us write our stories of redemption. There is nothing that we can break, nothing that can be broken in us or around us that God cannot fix. We are not responsible for saving the world. God has already done that and continues to do it every day. Because this world is fallen, we only get glimpses of salvation right now. Flowers growing through cracks in the pavement. But it’s real. Those glimpses of glory are a promise, a downpayment if you will, of God’s ultimate plan to bring everything into alignment under Christ. We are good, we are fallen, and we are redeemed, all at the same time. Amen.