10 February 2008

Letting God be God

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-17 & Matthew 4:1-11

First Sunday in Lent/10th February 2008

Jesse realized he needed to go on a diet. It was going to be difficult. Just to make sure he would succeed, he announced his plan to all his friends and co-workers ahead of time. Jesse was a kindred spirit with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) who once said, “I can resist anything – except temptation!” Jesse’s co-workers were pretty good about giving Jesse moral support, until the morning he walked into an office carrying a box of freshly-baked donuts. “What’s with the donuts, Jesse?” one of them asked. “I though you were on a diet.” “I am,” Jesse said. “But I want you to know I wouldn’t have gotten these donuts if it weren’t for God.” That remark demanded an explanation and it came quickly, “You see, I was driving into work, and I knew I’d have to go right past the bakery. I just couldn’t get those donuts out of my mind – so I decided to pray to God for help. I said, ‘God, if you want me to have a box of hot, delicious donuts, give me a parking place right in front of the bakery. Sure enough, I found one – on my eighth trip around the block!”

We can rationalize anything, including the strongest of temptations, and even call on God to help us in the process. It’s true, isn’t it? We can be as crafty as any serpent in justifying our actions. Oh we are smooth and slick as we slither our way around what we ought to do and ought not to do. “I’m not living a greedy lifestyle of over-consumption; I’m just pursuing the American dream” – even more so now knowing those rebate checks will soon be in the mail. “I’m not hurting anybody when I cheat my customers; I’m just following the laws of the marketplace.”

We know what tempts us. Most of the time it’s not so much the bad or even overtly evil things that really tempt us or lead us astray, as it is the good things, or at least the things that appear to be good. Something as good as a piece of fruit or a donut can lead us off course. Beauty’s enticement, “a delight to the eyes,” (Gen. 3:6) can cause us to fall. Even the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge can have disastrous results. A character in Charles Baudelaire’s (1821-1867) short story “The Generous Gambler” (1864), recounts the only time he was ever truly afraid. It was when he heard a preacher shout from the pulpit, “Dearly beloved, never forget, when you hear anyone vaunt the progress of enlightenment, that the Devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” The greatest evils, the most dangerous temptations are not the overt ones, but the covert ones, the hidden and seemingly simple, subtle, innocent acts that cause us to stumble. Comedian George Carlin once said, “I’m not concerned about all hell breaking loose, but that a part of hell will break loose. It’ll be much harder to detect.”

But Genesis 3 is about more than the dangers of giving into temptation, of what happens when we submit to temptation, whether it’s fruit or a donut. Sure, we can plumb the depths of this Genesis text and discover all the ways we might resonate with Adam or Eve or maybe even the serpent, and then hold this story up in order that we, and especially our children, learn from them, primarily from their mistakes. Here is what we ought not to do. That’s one’s common way to look at this text. Indeed, these early chapters in Genesis slowly evolved into little more than a morality play, that is, a story showing us how God expects us to behave and if we don’t follow the rules we’ll be judged accordingly – indeed, have been judged, thrown out of the garden and forced to live forever east of Eden. In many ways, this is how the church has interpreted this story across the centuries: that there are consequences for our actions. Of course there are. But there’s more than ethics going on in this text.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did God really consign the entire human race to a perpetual state of sin purely because some prehistoric ancestor swiped a piece of fruit?[1] Think about it. Is this what we’re saying actually caused the fall of humanity, this one act with eternal consequences? Why didn’t God just forgive them, for surely God foresaw what the future was going to be? Why did that one act lead God to curse them and cast them off from paradise? It all seems kind of petty and even small on God’s part. Did so much hang on that one act? One slip-up followed by a slippery-slope of sin winding its way down through the centuries? Centuries upon centuries of blame, of blaming the ones who have come before us, centuries of saying “It’s not my fault.” “The devil made me do it.” It’s Adam’s fault or Eve’s fault. Centuries upon centuries of blaming women for everything that is wrong in the world and all the evil in the human heart. Theologians actually used this text as proof that women are morally and intellectually inferior to men. Women are “the weaker sex,” because if a man had been there at the moment by the tree, strong-Adam would not have yielded to temptation – yeah, right.

Sin is in the world because Eve picked a piece of fruit? Is this what we really believed is the cause of all the sin and evil in the world? Don’t say, Yes, too quickly. Because if you believe this then think about what you’re saying about God. You turn God into a petty, vindictive ruler, with an almost masochistic sense of justice. It’s a cruel picture of God. And yet, to a considerable degree, this is the image that we’ve inherited misreading this text. Robert Burns (1759-1796) parodies this belief in “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” the prayer of a Presbyterian minister who declares all “deserve [such] just damnation/ For broken laws./ Five thousand years ‘fore [our] creation,/ Through Adam’s curse.”[2]

We’ve misread this portion of Genesis, along with the Creation accounts because we assume this is a story of origins: the origin of the universe, the origin of humanity, and the origin of sin and evil. We often turn to Genesis to explain how we got here and got ourselves into this mess. And it’s precisely this kind of reading that has messed us up even more. I think we should shift the emphasis. Genesis is not answering the question how, so much as it’s answering the question what; less a question of why, so much as an answer to the question what. It’s making a statement – about what the creation is, about what it means to be human, and human in relation to God, which allows us to see the “what” of sin and evil.

The key to the text is the prohibition against eating fruit from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But what’s wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil, you’re probably asking. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to know? Why would God get mad at swiping some fruit? The serpent knows the answer. The serpent doesn’t tell a lie. What he says isn’t false, it’s true. But the serpent fails to tell the whole truth. He withholds a portion of it. It’s like any article in The Presbyterian Layman, they never quite tell the whole truth; about 80% of it is correct, but it’s the missing 20% that makes all the difference, that’s so destructive in its consequences.

The Hebrew word for “knowledge,” yada, means more than cognitive knowledge. It also means an awareness of judgment, of justice. To eat from this tree means to know enough to judge and judgment belongs to God alone. To eat of this fruit one becomes like God and in reaching for the status and authority of God is to reach beyond what is allotted to us. The fruit is a symbol, a metaphor, a mythic way to get at the truth, to say something profound about the human condition. The point is this: we are fallen, flawed creatures, inflicting untold damage and destruction upon this world, ourselves, and others. Not because of one foolish act a long time ago that we’re paying the price for. But because this foolish act is repeated, as it were, almost daily. We could say Adam is Everyman (“adam” is actually plural, it’s not a proper name, and means “of the earth or dust”) and Eve (which means “life”) is Everywoman. We could also say that Adam and Eve are both in every man and woman, earth/dust/soil come alive by the ruach or spirit of God.

The Genesis story says something profound about what it means to be human in order to help us see the mess that we’re in. Their humanity is ours. Their DNA is our DNA. Their fatal flaw is our fatal flaw, and it’s this: it’s our unwillingness to be human, to be creature, to live with limits and our unwillingness to allow God to be God. It is the desire to become more than we are. That’s the source of sin.

The human condition is sinful. It doesn’t mean that we’re thoroughly bad, because we’re not; neither is this statement meant to make us depressed and full of guilt. This is a gracious text to help us acknowledge the source of our sorrow, then confess that there is something about being human that won’t remain satisfied with being human. Sin is a force within and without us that tempts us to overreach, and every time we overreach by trying to be little gods, we fall. We can even be tempted by the good – but aren’t we supposed to be good as God is good, be like God? we might ask – yet it’s that reach, seemingly so innocent, that can become so harmful. Terrible things happen when we try to play God or think we’re God.

We sin when we forget that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. When we try to act like God, we will fall every time. When we prefer to judge others instead of letting God judge, we fall. When we make decisions that adversely affect the lives of others, we make judgments about life and death, which we don’t have the authority to make, and so we fall. Sin is not letting God be God, refusing as creature to live within our limits, refusing to be dependent upon the Creator, assuming control over everything. Refusing to trust God, we take matters into our own hands with monstrous results. We’re not paying the price today because Adam and Eve “fell” a long time ago. Adam and Eve are in here, in our hearts, and when we act like them, humanity falls and falls and falls again.

How we view what took place in Eden inevitably shapes how we understand what Jesus experienced, for us, in Jerusalem, and affects the way we understand ourselves as we continue to live east of Eden. Lent is a good time to explore these questions – which we have only begun to explore this morning.

To receive ashes at the start of Lent is to acknowledge our mortality, which is another way of confessing our limits, which is another way of remembering what it means to be a creature, to be human, to live, even with our flaws, without trying to become like God.[3] So much pain and suffering and evil in the world are due precisely to this overreach.

Here we can learn from Jesus. On the cross, Jesus took on this destructive force within us in order to wrestle us free from it and to defeat its power. That struggle began in the wilderness. That’s what Satan was trying to do to Jesus in the wilderness. Satan was telling the truth to Jesus, but not the whole truth. To give into those temptations would have meant that Jesus reached beyond his own humanity. He, too, knew his limits. In this sense Jesus was without sin and in doing so, here and throughout his life, graciously demonstrated for us what authentic humanity looks like, which includes, among so many other wonderful things, letting God be God. His grace within us allows us to do the same.

[1] I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Carlos Wilton, minister of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ, for succinctly and beautifully capturing the critical question posed by this text and for sharing his exegesis of this lection at the Homiletical Feast lectionary study group in Bradenton, FL.
[2] Presbyterian theologian, B. A. Gerrish, makes the point that original sin “does not mean that we suffer for Adam’s sin, but that others must suffer for our sins.” From his sermon “Sin” in The Pilgrim Road: Sermons on the Christian Life, Mary T. Stimming, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 89.
[3] Cf. the quotations from the worship bulletin: “This is the time of tension between dying and birth.” T. S. Eliot (1889-1965), “Ash Wednesday.” And, from the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, the first question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” Book of Confessions, PCUSA.

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