Sermon: The Pair on the Ground

03.09.2014     Preaching Text: “…God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be just like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

Linda has a refrigerator magnet that reads: “It wasn’t the apple on the tree that ruined everything…it was the pair on the ground.”

This, of course, is an obvious reference to today’s reading from Genesis having to do with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. In brilliant mythological terms (‘myth’ in this instance meaning ‘true,’ not ‘false’) the inspired author of our text weaves an intricate story about how and why the world is the way it is.

I would even go so far as to say that without an appreciation for this story (and the truths it communicates) the entire biblical story falls apart; it is rendered meaningless. For the story provides the sole rationale for why God intervenes in history, ever-attempting to right the world’s wrongs.

Put in simpler terms, if there were no problems in this world, or, and this is perhaps of equal importance, if humans could fix these problems themselves, God would have no need to get involved in human affairs.

But, as we know, beginning with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, the Bible treats as its main concern God’s ongoing efforts to reconcile the world to its Creator, culminating in the coming of the messiah, Jesus Christ. But if the world isn’t broken, the whole idea of a messiah makes absolutely no sense.

In antiquity there were a number of stories (or myths) that sought to explain why evil and suffering exist. Perhaps most notably, ancient Gnosticism held that the world was created not by a benevolent, loving God but an evil Demiurge, or deity. The result of this line of thinking was that the material world is, by definition, necessarily evil, including, I might add, our bodies.

In studied contrast, the biblical idea is that the world was created good, but that all the disorders of this life are caused by and embodied in this one singular act by Adam and Eve, the archetypes of humanity.

The Fall is an oft misunderstood concept. But in our reading this morning we are presented with a basic truth. Having been created good, Adam and Eve know no evil (or suffering). In their innocence, they only know God and God’s ways. Complete innocence is, after all, completely innocent!

But then the serpent arrives on the scene, tempting these innocents with the one thing forbade by God – to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The central point of the serpent’s ploy is found in this one sentence: “…God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be just like God, knowing good and evil.”

This is what has come to be known as the “Original Sin.” And it has to do with the greatest temptation we human beings can know (by far!) – the desire to play God.

Yet when Adam and Eve succumb to this tantalizing fantasy, their lives immediately hit the skids. With haste, they are removed from the idyllic Garden of Eden, forever cast out, East of Eden, to live with the bitter memory of Paradise Lost, flaming swords barring their return.

Now they (we) must live inexorably in a world set against itself, with the things intended to work together for the good of all creation now working at cross purposes. The result, biblically, is that into the world is introduced for the first time suffering and death.

Again, the main problem with life, and the cause of the world’s brokenness (a brokenness any sentient being knows all too well), is that human beings try to play God! With this the biblical prescription for human flourishing is transgressed – for paradise exists only when creation serves its Creator.

Again, biblically, the idea is that in seeking to chart our own course, we deny God’s sovereignty. In so doing we cut ourselves off from the only one who truly knows who we are and what we need.

Fast-forwarding to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we encounter the divine antidote to our existential malady. In a passage that seeks to define Jesus as the “new Adam,” we see Jesus, as representative of true humanity, reject all the devil’s ploys to entice him into making the same mistake Adam and Eve made – to play God.

Three times he is offered the opportunity to deny God, to chart his own course, to prematurely forgo his suffering with a quick fix. Instead, Jesus will trust God and God alone, rejecting out of hand the lure of human expediency, power, and might. Under no circumstances will he place his trust in anything or anyone other than God.

For the vast majority of its history, Western Civilization accepted as true this basic biblical insight (or ‘myth’) that life’s travails are the result of humanity’s misguided attempts to replace trust in God with trust in one’s own self. At some point, however, “to thine own self” became our mantra, despite Shakespeare having placed those words (in his play Hamlet) on the lips of Polonius, an indisputable fool.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has described our age as having given rise to what he calls the “immanent frame,” the belief that the world is a completely natural order over against any possible transcendent or supernatural one.

Modernity, in other words, celebrates what he calls the “buffered self,” a self that is bounded and self-contained, which has no recourse to anyone or anything beyond it, so that it is I who determines who I am and what I will be.

In contradistinction, for most of the West’s history, life was thought to possess greater mystery, depths to which human powers alone could not plumb or fathom. It was not a world framed solely by immanence, but shot through with the spiritual as well.

In the wilderness, Jesus is tested. And through this testing, he models faithful behavior. Biblical faith teaches that God uses such faithful, patient suffering to remove our weaknesses and build us up.

For one, as Timothy Keller suggests, it humbles us and teaches us, removing unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows how fragile we are, and reveals to us Westerners how little actual control we have over how our life goes. It shows us how vulnerable and dependent on God we’ve always been. And it leads us to examine our lives and see our weakness, as it often brings out the worst in us.

Beyond that, suffering can change our relationship to the good, helping us see what things have become too important to us. A classic example might be a reassessment of our focus on career. Such a “reversal,” Keller says, can help us “invest more of our hope and meaning in God, family and others.”

In addition, suffering is a test of our connection to God. “When times are good,’ he writes, “how do you know if you love God or just the things he is giving you or doing for you?” Suffering, then, “reveals the impurities or perhaps the falseness in our faith in God.” Such suffering draws us closer to God, closer than what might otherwise be possible.

Finally, suffering serves as a kind of prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, “especially if they’re going their own trials.”

In the wilderness, Jesus demurs when offered an escape from his trials, choosing not the way of Adam and Eve but choosing God’s way. And in and through his ordeal he becomes for us our model for remaining faithful in the midst of our own trials. Amen.