And so our Lenten journey begins. The text chosen by the RCL for this First Sunday of Lent remind us that the journey to salvation began at a tree where salvation became necessary and ended at a tree where salvation was accomplished. Genesis 3 shows us the disastrous human choice that brought death in all its forms into the world. Mark 4 shows us Jesus reversing the choice of the first humans so that death could be defeated. Romans 5:12-19 reveals the double helix interconnection of Adam’s sin and Christ’s salvation, while Psalm 32 picks up the theme of covering sin that is so prominent in both the Adam story and in the Christian gospel. What we have on this First Sunday of Lent is so rich that one hardly knows where to begin.
The natural choice for most preachers today will be the story of Christ’s temptation because it is the first step on the Via Dolorosa that will take him to the cross. But I encourage you to go back farther, back to the beginning of the Dolorosa (the sorrows), when a single act of disobedience shattered the Shalom of Eden.
Critics of this story (and of God) wonder why in the world God would place a choice so momentous before Adam and Eve. We aren’t told the answer in the story, so theologians have labored long and hard to imagine one. The answer that makes most sense to me is that, without a choice, there could be no genuine obedience, no real love, no meaningful trust. If you can’t chose, you are a robot, a computer, a machine programmed to obey, love, trust. God didn’t want that. God wanted a creature in his own image capable of a real relationship. That required a mind and a will, and a command that could be obeyed or disobeyed.
The verses from Genesis 2 show how egregiously God stacked the deck, how he tilted things so that Adam and Eve would make the right choice. They were given nearly universal permission to eat of every tree in the garden. Even the tree of life was not placed out of bounds, until sin broke Shalom and they were exiled from the garden so they wouldn’t eat of that tree (Genesis 3:22-23). Everything was permitted, except one thing—that tree, the one in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In a world full of generous permission, there was one simple prohibition. God even told them the dire consequences of violating that prohibition. How hard could it be to obey?
Very hard! Or to put it in the reverse, disobedience was very easy. All it took was a couple of clever lies and a no brainer decision. At least that’s how it looks from a distance. And maybe that’s the point—to show people living at a distance from this disaster how their world could have become such a disaster. Whether Genesis was written for Israel about to enter the Promised Land (and being urged to be obedient to God, or else) or for Israel in Exile (and wondering how such a horror could have happened), the point is that sin is always cleverly disguised and it is always a foolish and deadly choice.
The issue at the heart of the brief conversation between the serpent and Eve is, whose word are you going to believe—the word of a wild creature or the word of the Creator of heaven and earth? When you put it that way, it’s a no brainer. But of course that is not how the serpent put it. He/it very subtly challenged the word of the Creator. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” God has said the exact opposite, of course, but to ask the question was to sow the seed of doubt.
And to tempt Eve to defend God, to move from a place of simple obedience under God to a place of advocacy alongside God, thus assuming a different posture toward God. As the venerable Old Testament scholar Gerhard Van Rad put it, Adam and Eve stepped outside “the circle of obedience and judged God and his command from a neutral position. And man’s ancient folly is in thinking he can understand God better from his freely assumed standpoint and from his notion of God than he can if he would subject himself to [God’s] word.”
Of course, Eve isn’t thinking of anything like that. She is simply answering a leading question about God’s word. Eve answers, “God did say, ‘You must not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.” Note how Eve’s altered stance toward God has changed how she hears God; she is adding to God’s command. God never said anything about touching that tree.
The serpent recognizes her vulnerability, so he contradicts God’s word directly. “You will not surely die….” God is lying to you. His word is not true, so you don’t need to obey it or fear the consequences. Then the serpent attacks God himself, God’s character, God’s trustworthiness by challenging God’s motive in giving the one prohibition in Eve’s life. “For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
There you have it—the heart of the rebellion, the root of sin, the reason Adam and Eve and all of us chose to disobey. It all goes back to the diabolical attack on God’s motive. God doesn’t want us to flourish, God wants to hold us down, God doesn’t want to share all his blessing with us. God is selfish, a spoil sport, a denier of human happiness. God’s commands are all about restricting our potential.
This story reveals the choice at the heart of human life. Will you believe the word of the serpent or the word of God? Whom will you trust? Whom will you obey? The choice to believe the serpent’s word was easy, because the fruit on that tree “was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom….” So “she took some and she ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate it.”
Sin is attractive and obedience is hard. That’s the gospel truth in this text. But obedience is the key to life, while sin is the first step to death. That’s the gospel, too. Oh, it looks as though the serpent was telling the truth, because Adam and Eve did not fall dead when they took that first bite of sin. “You will not surely die… but you will become like God….”
But they did die– to themselves, to each other, to God, and to their environment. Before sin they were not self-conscious. They were naked and they didn’t know it. They were not embarrassed about their God given identity. But sin killed that innocent sense of self. So began the great cover up that makes us mysteries to ourselves.
And they covered up in the presence of each other. That soon resulted in accusations and blame. The one flesh-ness God intended for them was shattered by sin, and human community began to die. Indeed, physical death will shatter the family before too long because of competition and jealousy.
And they covered up in the presence of God. God still walked in their world, but they hid because they were now afraid. Unbroken, unmediated communion with God was dead, though God would give his life to restore it one day.
And humanity’s peaceful relationship with the beauty of creation died that day, as pain and toil, thorns and thistles entered human experience. At the end of this sad chapter, they were excluded from a perfect world in which they were destined to live forever. As the chapter ends, they are dead people walking away from their home and into a grave new world. “You will surely die.” And they surely did. When sin entered the world, so did death in all its forms. (Romans 5)
And they did not become like God. They were already like God because God created them in his image. But they couldn’t accept the limits of being mere image bearers. They wanted to know everything, as God did. But that wasn’t possible. Oh, they already knew good, because they knew God, but they didn’t know evil. And then, they did know. Oh, how they knew—not just intellectually, but experientially, intimately; indeed, the word “know” in the serpent’s speech is the word often used to describe sexual intimacy. They were now one flesh with evil.
Now they knew good and evil, but not as God does—from above, from outside, with complete purity. And they didn’t know everything God knew; how could they, being finite? What the serpent offered them was impossible, a fool’s errand. Rather than expanding their life, it killed them in all ways. Ever since, humans apart from the grace of God have been the living dead, “dead in sin” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2, walking with stumbling shambling gait like zombies in the movies.
So, why would anyone want to preach on this text? Where is the Good News here? Well, you could preach it simply to warn people about the deceitfulness and danger of sin, to help them understand how the world got to be such a mess, to call them to trust and obey God even when God’s word is being challenged everywhere. Those aren’t exactly Gospel themes, but they are very important things to know.
Where is the hope in this text? Because the RCL cuts off the reading at verse 7, we don’t get to see God in redemptive action, beginning with the plaintive question, “where are you?” The only way to preach Gospel from our brief reading is to connect it with Jesus’ temptation in Matthew, where we see Jesus undo what Adam and Eve did. Confronted with not one, but three temptations, Jesus resists and obeys because he trusts the Word of God, rather than the crafty words of the Tempter. The temptation of Jesus summarizes all that sin offers to the world—the cravings of the flesh, the lust of his eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:16). Jesus responds to each with the Word of the Lord and stays in the circle of obedience, centered on God. By so doing, he saves us from the sin of Adam and Eve which we continue to commit. (Romans 5:12-19)
Among all the trenchant things Bonhoeffer ever said, here’s one of the best. Commenting on Eve’s attempted defense of and then rejection of the word of God, he said, “Whenever man attacks the Word of God with the weapon of a principle or an idea of God, there he has become the lord of God.” And taking the position of being “the lord of God” is not tenable, not sustainable, not life producing. Death must result.
As I meditated on this familiar story, I recalled a scene from Homer’s famous work, The Odyssey, which recounts the mythical voyage of Odysseus and his men. It was a voyage filled with bizarre dangers, like a giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead. But perhaps the greatest danger came from the Sirens. The Sirens were irresistible women who got the attention of unwary sailors with their incredibly beautiful songs. By mesmerizing sailors with their song, the Sirens lured countless ships onto the reefs surrounding their island, where ships were wrecked and sailors killed by the wild surf and jagged rocks.
Odysseus knew about the Sirens, so as his ship approached their island, he plugged the ears of his crew with wax to keep them from hearing their deadly music. He, however, wanted to hear the Sirens’ songs, so he had himself lashed to the mast of his ship. When he heard the songs, he struggled with all his might to get free, even though he knew it meant certain death. But the ropes held and the wax worked, so he and his men escaped unharmed.
Adam and Eve were neither lashed to a mast, nor were there ears plugged with wax. So when the serpent sang his sweet soft song of freedom and fulfillment, they were lured to their death, and ours. Mesmerized by this sly and lovely song, they forgot the Word of God and sinned for the first time and promptly died the worst of all deaths.
As I mused on these words, an old Roberta Flack song popped into my mind, the one entitled, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 Commentary