Sermon, Sunday March 13: 20/20 Hindsight

Rev. Stacy Swain 
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7                        

Matthew 4:1-11                                                                      

           In the passage that Massie so adeptly read for us this morning, the biblical writer uses ancient story and myth to help us understand something about God, ourselves and our place in all things.  He writes of God making heaven and earth. He writes about how God fashioned, Adam the human one out of the very stuff of creation so that in our being we may share creation’s most fundamental elements.  The writer tells us how God breathed God own breath into the nostrils of the human one so that we may know life enlivened by the divine.  And the writer tells us that God set this human one, down in the garden, gaving the Adam a place in the natural order of things.

            God made Adam and Eve and gave them all they needed, but  God also had expectations of them.  They were to serve God by tilling and keeping the garden, to be its caretaker and they were to not to eat fruit from one particular tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

           And their life was good, — very, very good.  Through that ancient story we can see the truth of what God’s intends for us —  We are created from the stuff of creation itself.  We are not lost and alien people.  We are a part of all things.  We belong to the world and in it we find our purpose and God’s expectation for us.   

           Now for some of us, we do not read the words from Genesis literally.  For some of us, they are more myth than fact.  But I heard it said once that myth is history people forgot, and for me that is true.  For this creation story, I believe, could only be written by someone who himself had experienced, felt in some part of his being this Shalom of the Garden, this rightness of dwelling with God and with all things.  Felt in his life the fullness of life as God intended.

          And today, somewhere in the far corner of our being, it is still there.  Somewhere in our primordial memory, I believe Eden lingers.   

           But the story of Genesis continues, doesn’t it and we know all too well what comes next.  The tempter slithers in.  The forbidden fruit is eaten and Adam and Eve, tumble out of paradise, bringing all of us with them.         

          Now for many, that may seem like the end of the story.  From there on in things just get more and more complicated and messed up for the human race until we arrive at the point where we are today.  And as I  heard the news of the earthquake and tsunami on Friday and saw the images of destruction on the nightly news; as the scene then flipped to the escalating violence in Libya, punctuated by an updates on congresswoman Giffords,  I was sure tempted to think along these lines — that that sweet shalom of the Garden was indeed lost forever, gone far beyond our reach.  Those scenes on the evening news seemed proof positive that we are indeed a fallen people in a fallen world. 

           But I tell you, it is far too simplistic and I believe bad theology, to see the trouble in the world as God’s punishment for some fundamental flow in humanity.   If you see the troubles in the world in this way then it is easy to slide into thinking that there is nothing really that can be done.  I saw a posting on the web yesterday that went so far as to say “said why pray to God for the people of Japan when God is the one who sent the destruction?”   It is far too simplistic and I believe bad theology to point to the destruction, violence and loss as the mark of  original sin upon us or worse upon the sinfulness of others.

           For if we fall for a moment into this kind of thinking, we have learned nothing from the ancient biblical writer of Genesis.  We have learned nothing about what God wants for and how we are to be in relation to all things.  God made the garden and placed Adam and Eve within and gave them all the needed for abundant life. This is God plan for us.   The emphasis of the story is not on a vengeful and punitive God but on humanity that can be too easily tempted to think that we have no need of God and that we have every right to ignore God’s expectations that we care for the garden and all that inhabit it.

           Now I have heard some say that Adam and Eve really are not responsible because God should never have but the serpent in the garden in the first place.   But the biblical author knows that temptation is a part of living and that even in the presence of temptation, God believes in us and has expectations of us.  God believes in Adam and Eve and gives them the charge of tilling and keeping the garden and that includes keeping an eye on the serpent, keeping an eye on temptation.

           For temptation comes to us in many guises every day.  I found myself sorely tempted as I watched the news about the devastation in Japan.  I was tempted to close my heart and turn away.  Tempted to try to forget the footage of that huge wave and the boil of destruction in its wake  I was sorely tempted to turn away and shut it out.  Tempted by a voice that said, there is nothing you can do about it any way so why put yourself through the pain of watching and reading about this.  Better to tend to your own needs.   You’ve got enough work to do without taking on the sorrows of people you don’t even know.

           How tempting it is to think like Adam and Eve to think of just ourselves without taking into consideration our place among all things, our place with God.  I find it incredibly poignant that just after Adam and Eve bit into that fruit, just when they were expecting to be anointed with heavenly knowledge of the wonders and workings of the universe, they looked at themselves and saw nakedness.  They looked at them selves and saw for the first time that they were not enough, that they needed something more.  That they needed clothes.  This was not the wisdom of God that they were after, for God saw them as blessed and beautiful, this was the projection of their own smallness of vision, distorting their perception of themselves and their surroundings.  Eden was gone for them because they could no longer perceive the Shalom of the garden.

           Now Jesus knows these Genesis lessons, and yet the temptation is there for him as well.  The devil in the wilderness uses the same approach as the serpent in the garden to try to trip him up.  The devil insinuates that Jesus, as Son of God, has the power to take his destiny upon himself.  Why be hedged in by God’s expectations?  Why not turn the rocks into bread – and meet his own need?  Why not make the angels catch him and show everyone how special he really is?  Why not rule over all that is – why play second fiddle to God?

            But Jesus is not duped.  He knows that life without God is no life at all.  Life without God is to follow Adam and Eve.  Jesus may be hungry and tired and he may even know the trials that are to befall him on in his ministry of salvation, he may even be able to see the cross on his horizon, but he remembers emerging from the baptismal waters of the Jordan.  He remembers the Spirit of the Lord descending from heaven in the forum of a dove, and he can still hear the voice saying  “this is my son the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Even in that wilderness with the tempter at his side, Jesus dwells with God.  He knows who made him.  He knows that he is a part of creation and he knows what God would have him do.  Even there in the wilderness with the tempter at his side, Jesus dwells in Eden still.     

           During our wilderness times, we may be tempted to think that the garden’s Shalom is truly lost to us and that God is out to get us.  We may even be tempted to think that the best we can do is to hunker down and just take care of our own needs.  But remember this is the lie that is exposed through the Genesis account. For Theologian and Pastor Stanley Hauerwas says, our being able to read the Genesis account as a Fall Story, as a story of sin, is actually a sign of Good News.[1]   It is good news because, he points out, whole doctrine of the fall, the whole idea of original sin came about only after early followers of Jesus experienced the Risen Christ in their lives.  They could name what was as fallen only after they felt the rush of new life that came to them through being in Christ.   The Apostle Paul, who was literally knocked off his horse by an encounter with the risen Christ, was the first to understand this Genesis creation story as a story of fall.   For only after Paul, who had been making a career of persecuting the early followers of Jesus, had an encounter with the very Christ he was persecuting, did he realize how fallen he had been.  So it was by the light of resurrection that those early church father’s penned the doctrine of original sin, of our fallen nature. 

           To make a very crude analogy, it is only when one is in great shape, does one realize how totally out of shape one had been in before.  Only when one can run up three flights of stairs and not get winded does one realize how physically compromised one had been.

           From the light of our life with Christ we can see the story of Adam and Eve through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and when we do we see its teachings.  We can see that far from being a story of the condemnation of the human kind, it is a cautionary story that teaches us that circumstances will tempt us into thinking that we are better off narrowing our focus and thinking only of ourselves.   But in these times, let us remember that we stand with Jesus, not with Adam and Eve.  We stand fully grounded in the expectations God has for us.    So let us not be tempted hunker down in self serving ways.  Let us keep from simplistic answers and bad theology.  For we cannot waste time getting entangled by the smooth talk of the tempters tongue.  Let’s let the tempter be for now.  He is sure to be back, but for now there is plenty of work to be done in this garden of ours.  Lot’s of tilling and keeping to be done.  And we are just the ones to do it!  Praise be to God.  Amen.    

[1] Stanley Hauerwas draws heavily from the work of James Allison in his work Joy of Being Wrong (p. 261).  I cite the thoughts of Hauerwas from his essay “Sinsick” which appears in Sin, Death, and the Devil (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2000). P. 18