In The Beginning - Part 4: "Falling Upward"
This week I'll be concluding the sermon series, "In The Beginning" the Story of Creation. Over the past several weeks we have been thinking together about the implications of our being created by a creative and loving God... What it means to be created in God's image, to be created to care for the Creation that cares for us...
Today we are going to be journeying into Genesis chapter 3--the chapter where it feels like everything starts to fall apart in the Creation story.
When I was a kid, this part of the story was often referred to as "The Fall," or the moment when "Original Sin" entered into the world. It's also the part of the story where lots of misguided theologians have done real violence to the Gospel by blaming women, and reading all kinds of things into the text that aren't there.
What I want to focus on, however, is a bit different. The one thing I want us to hold on to as learn together today is simply this:
"The story of God's love begins and ends with a blessing."
I am convinced that this incredible truth will hopefully change the way we read this chapter of Genesis. Because if you get this... if you really get that the story of God's love begins and ends with a blessing, it will change the course of your part of the story dramatically.
Before we go any further, let me ask you a question:
Who among us loves to jump ahead in the story? Anyone here? You are reading a book and you want to know how it ends--as you are reading it. Or you are watching a TV series and you can't wait to find out how it ends, so you search for spoilers everywhere to give you a clue.
I am that guy. My wife and I were watching Downton Abbey together---after it had aired. Let's just say that she was just a bit more into it than I was. I went online and found out that two of the most beloved main characters died before she could watch them. I wanted to know how it all turned out.
I taunted her a bit with this knowledge, but she threatened my life if I revealed it to her.
And I went to the end of the last Harry Potter book to see how it all turned out before I got halfway through the book. I just wanted it to end well, and I couldn't stand waiting.
I have another confession to make. Sometimes, I read the last chapter of the book of Revelation in the Bible---just to remind myself that it ends well. Because it does... end well. At the end of the Bible---Eden is restored--the world is made right...
Come on! You gotta love that!
So---there's a few of us who like to read ahead... But how many of us would start a book in Chapter 3?
Because this is what Christians typically do when it comes to the story of Creation. We might give Genesis 1 & 2 a cursory glance, but chapter 3 is where the real action is, right?
We can jump ahead and see that story ends well, but what happens when you begin the story badly? It doesn't affect the end, but it sure as heck affects the way you interpret the rest of it.
Because when you begin the story with a punishing, critical, exclusionist God, where do you go from there? I can tell you where you go---you begin to interpret the rest of the story through that lens---even the parts that seem to be all about love and forgiveness.
Let's be straight. Genesis doesn't begin at chapter 3---there's a whole lot of blessing that happens in chapters 1 & 2---what some theologians might call Original Blessing. And even though things don't go as planned in chapter 3---I would argue that there's more than a bit of God's blessing in this chapter as well. But you have to be paying attention to see it.
Let's do some digging in Genesis chapter 3 and see for ourselves:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
First things first... the serpent. In the ancient Near East, a serpent was a symbol of death and wisdom... chaos... and---to the ancient rabbis interpreting this text--a spirit of rebellion.
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Adam and Eve try to attain wisdom quickly, prematurely and impatiently, and it costs them. This was, according to the ancient rabbis, the first of what is an eternal struggle over which path to choose.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Everybody wants to blame somebody, right?
Then God starts explaining all of the consequences that will now befall upon them as a result of breaking the covenant. God explains how childbirth will be painful, women will be subjugated by men, Adam is going to have to work hard to make the land produce food...
All of this has to be understood in the language of covenant from the ancient Near East. The language of covenant was full of blessings and cursings. But in this case, it feels too simplistic to merely see this as God's punishment. These are the realities of life---and appear to be mere consequences of this new knowledge that Adam and Eve coveted.
I've often said that God doesn't punish us for our sins, God allows us to be punished by our sins---the consequences of them in other words.
At this point someone might chime in, "So did God create these people--and set them up to fail?" Good question. What's being lifted up here is the answer to that question. Adam and Eve made a choice---God gave them that choice because to force compliance would deny genuine relationships.
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Admittedly this last bit is pretty confusing and very contextual---it's firmly rooted in Near Eastern culture and symbolism. But you can get lost in the weeds on this and miss the most important part of this whole text... "The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them."
The ancient rabbis wrote about this passage---"The Torah begins with an act of kindness..."
It's that line--the one where God clothes them... it changes everything. It takes this story that so many people have mislabelled, and redeems it. Because when the facts warrant death, God insists on life.
In virtually every other creation narrative from the other tribes surrounding the Israelites, the gods never act with compassion--only self-interest. They seldom show kindness to human kind. And when they do, they end up getting punished for it by the other gods.
But this God... this God is different. This God doesn't let the creatures he created with an Original Blessing become forever defined by their poor choice. This God redeems it.
I went and saw the movie Wonder Woman recently, and I've discovered that the movie actually helps us understand this passage of Scripture in a very surprising way.
At the beginning of the movie we meet Diana (Wonder Woman), who has led a sheltered life in the bubble of a remote Greek island--an island inhabited by Amazons.
Outside of that bubble World War I is raging, and eventually the war finds the island with disastrous results. Wonder Woman leaves the island with a U.S. serviceman who also happens to be a spy, and essentially enters into the conflict. I know... I know... it all makes sense when you see it.
Here's the thing... Wonder Woman believes that she can make things right in the world by simply finding and killing the god of war---Ares. She believes that human beings are essentially good and are being twisted and misled by Ares lies.
But when she finally confronts Ares she discovers that he has not been at the heart of the wars of the world---only a whisperer, an enabler, someone who urges humankind to choose death instead of life. And they always seem to choose poorly.
I will resist the urge to give away the ending---but I can tell you that it ends well. And it ends with Wonder Woman embracing the brokenness of humanity, defending it, demonstrating that evil can, in the end, be overcome by good.
And this is where Jesus fits into all of this for you and me...
Each and every day we have a choice to make. We can listen to the slithery, whispers of the Enemy that constantly tells us we don't need God, or we can believe that God does have our back, God does have our best interests at heart, God sees us as blessed.
We can choose life or not-life.
And we are not eternally defined by the moments when we choose poorly, when we push away from God and declare our defiant independence.
Because when the facts warrant death, God always insists on life. Jesus shows us this most clearly in the way he took on the worst that the world had to offer, all of the violence, the hatred, the greed, anger and evil... and he gazed out at the humans who made that choice... and he forgave them.
Child of God. You are not defined by some idea of Original cursings... The story that defines you is one of falling to be sure... falling upward. Because the story of God's love begins and ends with a blessing.