September 8, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016. First in our fall series, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”
Texts are Genesis 2.4b-7, 15-17; 3.1-8.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would like to listen.
I AM here with you
In Genesis 1, God is called elohim—the generic, Ancient Near Eastern name for divinity. But Genesis 2 calls God by a different name, and it’s the name that Israel would learn to call him: Yahweh. Our Bibles tend to follow Jewish tradition and render Yahweh as Lord. But Yahweh is taken from the verb meaning to be. So God’s name means something like, I am with you. I am here for you. I have always been here for you. And I will always be here for you. God’s name means that we can always trust him, because he is ever faithful. That’s why the saints in the Hebrew scriptures could say things like:
Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3.22-23)
God’s love and compassion and faithfulness go as far as God goes. And God has always been here for us; is here for us now; and will always be here for us. That’s probably the deepest, most profound, most essential truth the scriptures want us to learn. God’s faithfulness to humanity and to all creation is written into his name.
In Genesis 1, God is transcendent. Above the fray. Wholly other. Speaking everything into existence. His very Word creating things which were not. But in Genesis 2, we meet Yahweh God, who is right here, in our world. Planting a garden. God is whimsical, forming both humans and animals from the earth, like a child playing with modeling clay. In Genesis 2, God is as present with us as our breath, because it says that God brought the first human to life by breathing his own breath into him. In Genesis 2, we learn to know God as Yahweh. The one who says: I am here with you.
Growing up, you probably learned to call the first human, Adam. Thing is, that didn’t become his proper name—his personal name—until later. Throughout Genesis 2, he is simply called the human. It’s the same word in Hebrew—adam. Adam is related to the word for the soil of the earth—adamah. There’s a play on words in Gen. 2.7: the Lord God formed the human—adam—from the topsoil—adamah—of the fertile land. Adam means creature of the earth. Earthling. And that name says something fundamental about who God made humans to be, and what God made humans to do. Adam means that humans are made to be in close relationship to the earth. We moderns arrogantly believe that humans own the land. According to Genesis 2, this is not the case. But it’s also not the case that the land owns us. God has ordered creation to be interconnected, so that humans depend on the earth, and the earth depends on us. The earth cannot reach its full potential without human care. And at the same time, human and animal life cannot survive without the food the earth brings forth. We all need each other, and we all depend on the God who is here for us.
God placed the human in the garden to farm it and to take care of it. On the surface, it sounds like he put humans on the earth to farm and garden. To till the soil, to prune, to dig irrigation ditches and the like. This is true. But the truth runs far deeper. The root meaning of those two verbs is to serve and to protect; or to serve and to preserve. Back in Gen. 1.26, 28, God said: Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge; and he instructed humanity to: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Our relationship to the earth and the other creatures is a major part of what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness. God created humans to master the earth and take charge of the other creatures. But Gen. 2.15 reveals a more essential aspect to God’s image in us: we’re only faithfully mastering and taking charge when we are serving and protecting the rest of creation. God’s sovereign rule is also about serving and protecting, serving and preserving. That’s why Jesus—who is the image of God for us—said that he didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people (Mark 10.45). God is the master, and God is in charge. But in Jesus’ life and death, we learn that God uses his sovereign freedom to serve us and protect us; to serve us and provide for us; to serve us and set us free. This is what God had in mind for humans when he formed us from the earth. God wanted us to be here for the rest of creation, as he is here with us and for us.
But God placing the human in the garden to serve it and to protect it goes even deeper than that. There’s only two other reasons throughout scripture that we see those words joined together. One is the Israelites—God’s priestly nation—serving God and observing his instructions. The other is priests serving in God’s temple and observing God’s instructions for their work.
God made the human to be his priest; serving and protecting his temple—the earth; more specifically, the garden—and observing God’s instruction.
God gave the Human-Later-Called-Adam one instruction when he settled him in the garden: Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!
The instruction was two-fold. First, God told the human to eat from all of the garden’s trees. This was a command, but it was primarily a permission. Have you ever been sitting at a dinner table, and the host says: Eat! Eat!? That’s basically what God told Adam. I imagine it being very much like the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where the kids come to the garden that grows candy. They all wait until Willy Wonka bows and points his cane toward the garden, giving them permission to taste its many delights. God’s command to eat from any of the trees is much like Willie Wonka’s bow. And I’m sure that what grew on the trees of Eden was sweeter than anything in Willy Wonka’s candy garden.
The second part of the command was a prohibition: but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So the instruction was essentially: You can eat from any tree you like, except that one. The human would have known which tree God meant. It was conspicuous at the center of the garden, along with another tree—the tree of life.
There was nothing wrong with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because everything God created, he called good. And he didn’t just put the tree there to tempt the human. James 1.13 says that God doesn’t tempt anyone. The only conclusion that we can draw is that God meant the tree for future use. The tree of knowing good and evil is a bit like sex. Sex is one of God’s most useful, thrilling, and even glorious creations. But there are very good reasons we don’t want children doing it.
Attached to the instruction is a consequence: on the day you eat from it, you will die! Now, we know the first humans ate from this tree. But we also know they didn’t die that day. Well, the Hebrew phrase on the day doesn’t mean within the next 24 hours. It’s a way of saying, whenever. God warned the human that when he ate from that tree, he would be doom himself to die. Also the phrase, you will die does not mean immediate death. The same words are used in Jer. 26.8. The people wanted to put the prophet to death. So they laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (RSV) In other words, they’re saying, You just signed your death warrant!
God carried out the death sentence by driving the humans from the garden so they wouldn’t take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever (Gen. 3.22). Did you notice that if the humans had been allowed to stay in the garden and eat from the tree of life, they would have lived forever? This means that God did not create us immortal. Even if we did not sin, humans would have to eat from the tree of life to live forever.
The two trees in the center of the garden represent the choices we all must make, and do make. Later on, in Deut. 30.19-20, Moses lays this choice before the Israelites: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. Both life and death were options in the garden, too. That’s what the two trees represent: that choice. And we make those same choices ourselves in our lives. Every day we make choices that lead us toward God and blessing and life; or sin and curses and death. God doesn’t decide for any of us, any more than he did the first humans.
God formed an equal peer, a companion, a wife, for the man, from a chunk of his own body. We are also told that, The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed (Gen. 2.25). They had nothing yet to hide, and no one to hide from. Until the snake slithered into the garden. The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”
The line about them being naked is immediately followed by a description of the snake as intelligent. In Hebrew, the words for naked and intelligent sound very similar. It’s a play on words. The man and his wife were nude, and the serpent was shrewd. By connecting the two ideas together like that, our storyteller is emphasizing their vulnerability to the snake’s attack. The old phrase naked as a jaybird goes back to a time when uneducated folks from the countryside were called jays by sophisticated city-dwellers. Naked as a jaybird meant that they were vulnerable to conmen and attacks by criminals. The humans were naked as a jaybird before the crafty snake.
The snake wanted the woman to suspect that God was holding out on them. The woman told the snake: “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’” The woman didn’t know the command well enough to keep it. God had never said anything about not touching the fruit. The woman also didn’t understand the consequence. The word she used for die shows that she thought you would die immediately from eating it or touching it—like it was poison and would kill you. But we already saw that what God had said is, you will be doomed to death. Death was a penalty for eating the fruit—not a natural consequence.
The snake said: “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it. Because God’s instruction had not been worked out and preserved, it was easy for the snake to drive a wedge of doubt between the woman and God. To suspect that God was holding them back from living to their full potential. The snake twisted God’s word; but somehow between the man and the woman the word had already gotten twisted. Let that be a warning to us. We’re more prone to turn our backs on God when someone has put bad ideas of who God is and what God wants into our heads.
The snake was successful at tempting the woman because he got her to believe that God is not Yahweh. He made her believe that God is not the God who is here for us; has always been here for us; and will always be here for us.
And in case you’re wondering where the man was during all this, we are told that the woman also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. He was with her the entire time. He didn’t argue with the snake. He didn’t try to stop his wife. He stood silently, and then ate, too.
The humans were supposed to work in God’s garden and protect it; to serve God and observe his instructions. They had failed at all of it. They served themselves. They didn’t protect the garden from the snake. They didn’t keep God’s instructions.
And we now refer to this sin and its ongoing consequences under the omnibus label of The Fall. Because the fallout from it is immense, and shrouds all of us in its shadow.
Here’s the thing about the story of the first humans, and their fall into sin. It’s not just something that happened a long, long time ago. It happens to all of us at some point. Their story is our story. At some point we all lose our innocence, and we come to know good and evil personally. We make choices that lead us toward death.
When the snake nudged them to eat the fruit, he told them: you will be like God, knowing good and evil. The snake didn’t lie. After they ate the fruit, God said: The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3.22).
The snake didn’t lie. He told them: on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly. And the storyteller confirms it: Then they both saw clearly.
But they couldn’t handle what they saw. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. The saw their guilt. They saw their shame. They saw how vulnerable they were. They felt danger. For the first time, they were afraid. They went into damage control mode. We’ve heard the story—how they hurriedly thatched together the world’s most irritating loin cloths out fig leaves. How they tried to hide from God in the thicket.
We haven’t just heard the story. We’ve lived it out ourselves. We all feel exposed. We hide the truth from ourselves, from each other. We wear flimsy disguises of self-assurance, self-righteousness, self-justification. We hide in the thickets of our reputation or our work or our addictions. Or even our religion itself. We hide from the truth. We hide, trembling, from the God who is the source of our lives.
We’re all living in the fallout from the fall. Gagging on the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
But God is faithful, and didn’t just fire humanity. We are still called to serve and protect God’s good creation. We are still blessed to be fruitful and multiply. But now we are estranged from the earth God formed us from. The earth will not willingly yield her fruit, and vexes us with thorns and thistles. The work is no longer all joy—it is laced with pain. So is being fruitful and multiplying. Making, birthing, and raising children is now an excruciating experience, full of anxiety.
Yet—even as the first humans must live in the fallout of that day; and even as we continue to live in its shadow—God remains Yahweh. The one who is always here for us. Just like he did for our first parents, God cries out to us: Where are you? (Gen. 3.9) He knows exactly where we are, what we have done, and what has happened to us. Will we learn the lesson from our first parents, and simply be truthful with him? This is what he wants.
Even as God had to expel the first humans from the garden—these faithless children who had broken his creation and broken his heart—the storyteller says: The Lord God made the man and his wife leather clothes and dressed them (Gen. 3.21). God remains Yahweh. The faithful one who is here for us. He would not send them out into the wilderness completely vulnerable.
Even now our faithful God has woven a garment to cover us from the flesh and blood of his own crucified Son. A garment we put on when we are covered in baptism. This is why, in Gal. 3.27, Paul can say: All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. And elsewhere, in Rom. 13.14, Paul can tell us to dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the covering God has given us in the wilderness, until we dwell with God forever in the new heavens and new earth. Jesus is the faithfulness of Yahweh God. The God who is always with us. Who is, has always been, and will always be here for us.