Living East of Eden

We have just begun a spiritual journey from one end of the Bible to the other in hopes of better understanding the big-picture story of God and us, and, along the way, we aim to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus last Sunday, we began at the beginning with the story of Creation – with God, with Jesus, and with the Spirit gazing out upon a mess, a really, big mess, and together deciding to do something about it.

The Spirit of God in Christ blows across a formless void of chaotic darkness to create goodness and light, the heavens and the earth, and all things bright and beautiful that dwell within.

The kind of paradise that Father, Son, and Spirit create is the kind of place where we’d all like to live, move and have our being. But we cannot. As I suggested to you last Sunday, those first days of Creation are ephemeral, fleeting, transient.

Evening comes, and soon a new day dawns, then another, and then another, and before you know it, a story takes shape, and a history starts forming, with days and nights upon which you eventually look back and spy glimpses of messes never really cleaned, signs and portents of rekindled chaos sneaking back in and up, dimming the light, and re-casting the shadows.

This morning’s Scripture lesson explains why there’s trouble in paradise.

The first humans, represented in Genesis 3 by Adam and Eve, find themselves in hot water with God for breaking one of the rules that the Lord lays down for the Garden of Eden.

A crafty serpent leads Adam and Eve astray, and strange as it may sound, you and I are still paying the price for their rebellion against God, because evil continues its relentless assault on our bodies, souls, and spirits.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, listen for the Word of the Lord, and let these ancient words impart generous measures of grace-filled hope and assurance.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”

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

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:1-24)

The faces may change, but their stories are the same: None of them had a clue;  none of them had any idea.

Randy had no clue that he would ruin his life when he took his first toke from a marijuana pipe.

Jennifer had no idea that her first beer as a teen-ager would begin a lifelong struggle with alcohol.

Erica and Nathan had no clue, no idea, that the abuse they endured growing up as sister and brother would tempt them into abusive relationships with their own children.

And then there’s Steve.

He, too, had no clue, no idea, that giving into one temptation would tear his family apart.

Steve’s relationship with his wife was frustrating and unfulfilling, and so when he met Joan, he thought he’d found someone who understood him in a way his wife didn’t.

Steve didn’t think his relationship with Joan would go any further than a casual friendship, but when the opportunity came for the two of them to become “friends with benefits,” Steve couldn’t resist and gave into temptation, giving absolutely no thought to the carnage his affair would inflict on his wife and children.

Steve surely wasn’t anywhere within earshot when his youngest daughter made her request during Sunday school prayer time: “Please pray for me. Another family stole my daddy.”

Adam and Eve had no clue, either:

No idea that their surrender to temptation – their act of rebellion, eating of a piece of fruit from the tree that God had proclaimed off limits – would forever change the entire course of human history and ignite a sordid pattern for human behavior.

Adam and Eve are given the whole garden except for just that one tree. But like so many people even to this day, Eve first, and then Adam, stomped their feet and declared, “If I can’t have it all, then what I do have means nothing.”

“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” goes an old rhyme.

Which is to declare that, in ways we cannot fathom, each and every one of us who has ever been, each and every one of us who is now, each and every one of us who is still to come, are bound up so tightly with Adam that we were, are and will be ruled guilty of the bad thing he and Eve did when they defied God and soiled God’s good order.

When Adam and Eve set themselves up as being wiser than God, when they refused the place that God had assigned them, all of us were right there with them.

The whole thing sounds ridiculous, right?

But that absurd idea is what the Church has believed and taught since ages past. We call it “original sin,” and “original sin” has two parts: corruption and guilt.

The easier of the two to get your head around is the first part – the idea that corruption, our tendency to rebel by giving into evil’s temptation, is passed on to us across the generations from the first humans.

The tainted nature and miserably poor judgment of Adam and Eve get passed down to you and me like industrial waste poured into a river and flowing downstream. If a company dumps hundreds of gallons of mercury-laden toxic waste into a river, then no matter how far downstream you go, any water you drink or any fish you catch will make you sick or even kill you!

So it is with the pollution of sin poured into humanity through Adam and Eve by the forces of evil in this world.

Yes, we are made to reflect the divine image, and yes, like the rest of Creation, God declares us good. But evil continues its relentless assault on God’s good Creation, and because of evil’s many temptations that all too often seem to get the better of us, the spiritual air we breathe and the divine water we drink are filled with diabolical toxins that are making our hearts and minds deathly ill.

If that image doesn’t work for you, try thinking about it in terms of genetics: Because of evil’s power, Adam and Eve corrupted our physical and spiritual DNA. The elegant double-helix that forms our very nature got kinked and twisted – as messed up and cattywampus as were the sorry state of affairs before Creation.

We know, for example, that children and grandchildren of alcoholics are genetically more likely to become alcoholics themselves than the descendants of people whose DNA has not been so tainted. Thus, sin gets passed down across the generations in the same way that mutated genes get passed on from parent to child.

The inherited bad behavior that isn’t genetic gets passed on from generation to generation by bad example.

Children abused by their parents or other relatives – or children who witness one parent abuse the other – are themselves more likely to continue the cycle of violence as adults by abusing their own spouse and children.

So the idea that we inherit corruption – a tendency toward sin, a weakness for falling prey to evil – makes a certain amount of sense.

But what about that other part of original sin – the guilt?

The Bible claims that it’s not just that we inherit Adam’s tendency to sin, but also that we are guilty of Adam’s sin and thus deserve punishment – even BEFORE we commit any sins of our own.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

If a crack addict gives birth to a premature, drug-addicted baby, you can understand jailing the mother on charges of child endangerment. But who in their right mind would lock up the baby, too?

If Grandpa Ed was an alcoholic who killed a drinking buddy in some drunken bar-room brawl 60 years ago, why would we tell his tee-totaling grandson Ed Jr. that he needs to be punished for what Grandpa Ed did way back in day?

No, it wouldn’t be fair, but as another writes, the bad momentum that evil set into motion through Adam and Eve has been building ever since, sweeping the rest of us away in a floodtide of not just corrupt hearts but of guilty hearts, too.

Just as I believe God lit the match that set off the explosion known to astronomers as the Big Bang to create the cosmos and everything in it, so also do Adam and Eve throw gasoline on the fire of evil that intends to wipe out all the goodness that the Lord God created.

In other words, we are guilty by association, and that’s what rubs us the wrong way and causes us to cry “foul.”

“Don’t punish me for what Adam and Eve did!”

“Don’t tell me I was there with them, because I wasn’t.”

“Don’t bother trying to convince me, pastor, that Adam and Eve are representatives of all humanity, because I never voted to have Adam or Eve represent me.”

Bottom line: none of us likes guilt by association. It offends our sense of fairness and justice. Yet, about six weeks from now, at some point during the upcoming season of Lent, we’ll join together in song and ask, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

And our Christian answer always is yes!

By grace and through some mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, you and I were there, at Calvary, nailed and spiked to the Cross.

You and I were there when they crucified our Lord. Not just there among the blood-thirsty Roman soldiers, not just there among the rubber-necking onlookers, but you and I were crucified on the Cross with Christ.

And so now, by grace, when God looks at you and me, God sees not his rebellious children Adam and Eve but God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into whose image the Spirit transforms us.

What Jesus did on the cross is supremely more powerful than what Adam and Eve did, infinitely more muscular than what Randy, Jennifer, Erica, Nathan, Steve, you, and I did and continue to do!

The sin of Eden’s garden as well as the sin of our days are no match for the cross of Jesus.

“Where sin abounded, grace hyper-abounded,” the apostle Paul will later suggest. It’s no contest, a mismatch of epic proportion. And this floodtide of grace comes to us even though our sin and guilt make us quite the unworthy recipients. As much as we are guilty by association, thanks be to God we are even more saved by association.

It’s all one whopper of a tremendously amazing gift!

If Adam and Eve gave humanity a gift that nobody wanted yet couldn’t refuse, Jesus now gives humanity a gift that everybody should want, because the gift leads not just to life but to eternal life.

The Lord so loves and values you and me; so cherishes and appreciates every blessed one of our family members, friends, and neighbors; so treasures and relishes the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the foreigner, and the immigrant that God accepts all of us – just as we are, warts and all – forever bound to Adam and Eve, caught up in their sin and equally vulnerable to temptation.

And God bestows the life-changing gift of grace simply because the Spirit of Christ associates us with the God who knew us before we were even born and continues know us by name in this moment.

This gift of grace is God’s absolute promise that Jesus has more than compensated for every mess that we’ve made, for every pot that we’ve stirred, and for everything else that ails us: Every dark thought that’s ever plagued our minds, every shortcoming we could ever name, every act of rebellion we’ve ever committed, every temptation that’s ever got the best of us.

Jesus overwhelms us – and our corruption, and our guilt – with a grace that restores the life God always intended us to have when Father, Son and Spirit created us!

Because of the gift given to us by Christ Jesus the Lord, we are in the process of being raised up to the fullness of what God meant us to be.

So maybe try complaining a little less about the “unfairness” of guilt by association and instead try lifting up your songs of praise a little more, because you’ve also been saved by association in this life lived east of Eden.

Living life East of Eden, with all its thorns and thistles, comes with the assurance we declared earlier in worship:

Adam and Eve had to face the consequences of their sin, but our God prepared a way for them still to be connected to the earth and to of God.

So it is with all of us. 

In Christ’s birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, we are made able to carry on – upright and strong – for our sins are forgiven.

For through Jesus – Son of God and Son of Man, God learns firsthand how forcefully evil is ever trying to lead us into temptation and how extremely hard it is to resist the allure of the shiny baubles that evil is always dangling before our eyes, and how absolutely necessary it is for the Lord to be ahead, beside, and behind our walk in this broken and fearful world, the wind of the Spirit filling our sails, and the breath of the Spirit redeeming our hearts and minds.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of God and us:

The breath of God breathing upon us, filling us with life anew, until our hearts are pure and wholly God’s, that we may love what God does love, and do what God would do, willing one will, and glowing with fire divine.

Ancient words, ever true, changing me and changing you.

Amen and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, January 23, 2022. The third sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Terence E. Fretheim and Scott Hoezee.

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