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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Guest Preacher Mike Fargo

Copyright © 2014 by Mike Fargo

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19
“The Heart of the Problem”
March 9, 2014

            Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a season of forty days that prepares us for the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, which is the highpoint of the church’s year.  All over the world Christians are using these forty days as a time for self-examination and repentance.  You may have attended an Ash Wednesday service last week where ashes were smeared on your forehead as reminder that we all live under the sentence of death.  We came from the dust and to the dust we will all one day return.  But that’s not the worst part; death is more than just physical.  We experience a “living death” whenever we try to live our lives apart from God.           

Lent also reminds us that this death is the direct result of our own tragic choice—a fatal choice, a choice that continuously haunts us.  We can see it within our own lives, and we see it every day in humanity as a whole.  Read a newspaper or turn on your television set and the same story is repeated over and over.  We are a flawed, broken, and sinful people who have taken a wrong turn.  The sheer volume of human suffering and sin forces to ask, Where did we go wrong?  Why are we like this?  What is at the root of it all?

            To help us answer these questions, the Common Lectionary that is shared by Christians around the world offers us a series of scripture readings for the first Sunday in Lent that remind us of how this happened.  And not surprisingly, the explanation begins at the beginning—in those opening chapters of Genesis.  It has always saddened me to hear people ask all the wrong questions about this text.  They bring a narrow, skeptical, 21st century, scientific set of questions to a text that is older than history and science itself.  This story of our creation and fall is meant to tell us the truth about who we are and how we all screwed up.  But it’s not meant to tell us whether snakes could literally walk or talk, or whether there was a magical quality in certain fruit.  This text in Genesis, which both Jesus and the apostles quote from, contains some of the most important and foundational theology in the whole bible, but we will miss it if we approach this text with the wrong questions. 

            The key is to hear this story as both my story, as well as the story of our common beginning.  This is Paul’s whole point in our reading today from Romans 5 when he writes:

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—“

Now that last phrase, “because all sinned,” is ambiguous.  In fact, I think it sounded ambiguous to Paul himself when he first stated it, for immediately he stops mid-sentence and tries to clarify his meaning in the next few verses when he says:

“—for before the law was given, sin was in the world.  But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.  Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command…”

In other words, Adam got into trouble by breaking a specific command of God and as a result he experienced death.  Yet people continued to die for thousands of years even before God gave the law to Moses.  Why is this so, Paul asks?  Going back to that ambiguous phrase, it is “because all sinned [in or with Adam].”  Adam is the archetype or representative of us all.  Indeed, the Hebrew word (adάm) is used over 500 times in the Old Testament to simply mean “mankind” or “humanity.”  In a very real sense, we were there in and with Adam.  His story is our story.    He did what each of us would have done and indeed what we do every day.

But if this is our story too,  some people complain that Adam’s sin seems to trivial.  So what if he disregarded the command about not eating some fruit?  Big deal.  Is God so petty that he can’t take a little independence by one of his creatures?  Is he so into control that he can’t tolerate dissent or initiative?  All of a sudden, to some people, Adam becomes a kind of symbolic hero—a Promethean figure who defies the gods in the name of freedom and dignity.

Such questions come from people who have either never read the Genesis story for themselves, or who read it without much reflection—especially self-reflection.  So let’s take a moment and listen to it again.  The first part of our reading focuses on God’s provision for Adam, beginning with Genesis 2:15:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

            Notice first God’s wonderful provision for Adam.   All that he needed is here in this garden—not merely food but also meaningful work.  But there is more: notice how God also establishes boundaries for him.  Although we humans like to think otherwise, we are not infinitely wise or powerful.  We are amazing creatures, but finite nonetheless.  There are limits to what we can handle.  Just as a loving parent will set boundaries for a child, God does the same for Adam.  He warns Adam that the “knowledge of good and evil” is certain death.

It’s important at this point to remember something about the Hebraic idiom “to know.”  To know something meant to have a deep, intimate participation in it.  For example, it’s a phrase that was employed to describe sexual relations.  Consequently this command of God’s isn’t referring to a knowledge of good and evil that is distant, abstract, or theoretical.  God was warning Adam about a lived knowledge of evil—an actual participation in it that always results in death. 

Now some philosophers have suggested that you can’t know good without also knowing evil, and that this story of Adam is all about our “coming of age” into the moral creatures that we now are.  But such a view is refuted by the very life of Jesus himself.  Never was there such a person so devoid of evil and yet so good at the same time.  Goodness is not a reality that depends on evil for its existence; rather, evil is a distortion and perversion of the good that lies within God himself.

So the goodness of God was something available to Adam apart from evil, but it was something that had to be laid hold of and pursued for its own sake.  And so God creates an opportunity for this very thing to happen, as we read next in opening verses of Genesis 3:

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’?”  The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 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.’”

            God allows the entrance of temptation into the garden.  The snake is very subtle at first, as is all temptation.  He seems to inquire innocently enough, although he seems to exaggerate the limitations that God has placed on Eve by asking if all the trees are forbidden.  The woman corrects him by focusing on the bounty that God has given them, while also acknowledging the boundary God has proscribed and even the penalty of death that goes with it. 

So far, so good, but suddenly the snake takes the offensive and confronts the woman with something that had likely never entered her conscious thought before.  The snake boldly suggests that God is simply not telling her the truth.  I’m reading from verse 4:

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

And thus is born the Great Lie.  The main point of Satan’s attack is not, “Do you want to be wise?” or, “Boy, that fruit sure looks good,” but, “Can you really trust God?  What is he really up to in depriving you of this knowledge?  Aren’t his motives actually evil?”  All our other manifestations of sin spring from this single root of unbelief.  In the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote that at the core of Adam’s sin was pride—our own sense of self-importance and wanting to be like God.  John Wesley, in the 18th century said that Adam’s sin was caused by selfishness, self-absorption and self-interest.  All of this is undoubtedly true at some level, but Luther in the 16th century, who understood today’s text better than most, really hit it on the head when he said that at the core of all sin is really unbelief—a deep and desperate unwillingness to trust God.

I remember as a young Christian in my twenties a wise man telling me that every time we sin, we are actually denying something about God.  We are either denying his justice, his power, his good intentions, his wisdom, or some other dimension of his reality.  In short, we are saying, “I don’t trust you, God, and so I will have things my way.”  And when we cross this line, suddenly our capacity to look at reality with clear-headed judgment disappears, as happened with Eve, as we read next in verse 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. 

The attraction of the fruit and the desire for wisdom were not in themselves the primary causes of humanity’s fall from grace.  They were the enticements that made not trusting God all the easier.  The fruit did look good, and the desire for wisdom did seem god-like.  And if God’s motives were indeed evil, then Adam and Eve must have reasoned that they had better become like God as quickly as possible if they were going to reject him and go their own way.  But like every lie, reality sets in quickly, and it is bitter indeed, as we read in verse 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.

They thought they would become like God and instead they became less than what they were before, less than what God had originally meant them to be.  They saw one another now in a new light—for the frail, broken creatures they actually had become.  Because they would not trust God, they could no longer trust each other, and so became ashamed of their own nakedness.  And when God eventually appears in the garden, they even begin blaming each other, another indication of how quickly they had lost their grip on reality.  The ensuing chapters of Genesis go on to capture all the envy, murder, lust, hatred, greed, ignorance, and folly that has become the common lot of us all.

This is why we spend forty days in Lent.  We cannot fully appreciate what God has achieved in the death and resurrection of Jesus without a deep and clear-headed understanding of our own condition, and in particular, our own deep-seated lack of trust in God.  And in the end, isn’t this our only way back to God?  We can never atone or make up for all the sin and hurt we’ve contributed to in this world.  We can never put the genie of sin and death back into the bottle.  We come to God with empty hands.  We can do no more than throw ourselves upon his mercy.  But all of this requires that we turn from our unbelief and learn to trust him all over again—a trust that is willing to say, “Dear God, I have made a mess of things, and there is nowhere else to turn.  I put myself into your hands with what little faith I have.  Rescue me from my own unbelief.”

I mentioned earlier that during Ash Wednesday, when the ashes are smeared on our foreheads, we are reminded of our mortality and sinfulness.  But at the same time I hope those of you who participated in Ash Wednesday noticed that the ashes were made in the sign of a cross.  Those who turn from their distrust of God, who instead lean into him for mercy and grace, discover something wonderful about him.  They receive the sign of the cross, the guarantee of forgiveness and reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Christ.  God offers us another chance to enter his blessed garden where we can walk with God in the cool of the day, to know him and the deep life he offers.   In the end we discover what the knowledge of goodness is all about, but wholly free from the knowledge of evil.

May this be your experience.  God have mercy on us all today.  Amen

Last updated March 16, 2014