The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. It is also the source of many jokes, many of them NSFW – not suitable for work, and certainly not suitable for the pulpit! But there are a few I can share with you...the really corny ones. When was the longest day in the Bible? The day Adam was created because there was no Eve. Where is the first mention of insurance in the Bible? When Adam and Eve needed more coverage. Where is the first math problem mentioned in the Bible? When God told Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply. Did Eve never have a date with Adam? No, it was an apple. What excuse did Adam give to his children as to why he no longer lived in Eden? Your mother ate us out of house and home. The reading of this text is sure to conjure up many images and long-held interpretations of the text. We see it as pivotal, as one of the founding stories of our faith. Yet, if we are honest, it’s a story that baffles us and sort of stands alone, without any real connection to the other familiar stories in the Old Testament. We’ve been told it is a text that explains how evil came into the world, yet the story doesn’t actually explain evil or sin. The story isn’t interested in the abstract; it’s interested in relationships. We’ve been told it is an account of how death came into the world, yet no one actually dies in this text. We’ve been told it is about sexuality, and yet it deals more with dynamics of power, control, and autonomy. We’ve named the story of Adam and Eve “The Fall” as if there was one time that humanity messed up and ruined it for the rest of us. Yet the entire Bible is story after story of God calling people to be in relationship with God and those people rebelling against God’s ways. Perhaps, this story of Adam and Eve could more accurately be called “The First Rebellion.” It is indeed the first summons to be God’s creatures and to live in God’s world on God’s terms. It is the archetypal story of how humans choose to disobey, to step outside their limits, and to not trust their Creator.[i]
When God placed the man in the garden of Eden, God established humanity’s purpose. Humans were to till and keep the garden; they were to be servants who preserved and protected God’s creation. They were to do God’s work in the world. There was a lot of freedom. God told the man that he could eat of every tree in the garden! The garden was wide open to them, but there was also a boundary, a prohibition, a condition. In our life with God, there is both freedom and constraint. To be a creature is to have limits. God gave them one rule; God told them there is one tree from which they could not eat – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The garden was a place of goodness, and if humans ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would experience not only good but also evil. Up until that point, humans would have only experienced good. If they choose to make decisions for themselves instead of living under God’s conditions, they would inevitably choose ways that will lead to evil. God told the man that if they eat of this tree, it would bring death upon them because it would alienate them from God and one another and creation. It would destroy Eden; it would destroy the abundance and goodness that exists in the garden.
Theologian Lisa Sharon Harper imagines God’s pleading with Adam, the first man, to sound like this: “Don’t do it! I want you to live life to the full. I want you and your children and your children’s children to know [peace]. I want you to know a lush and lavish world, a world where all relationships are interconnected and work for the good of all, a world without human exploitation and slavery, without droughts, without broken families, without domestic violence, without eating disorders, without rape, without war, without glass ceilings, ethnic enmity, and structural racism, nationalism, and other-ism. I want you to live in a world where your ability to exercise agency to serve and protect the rest of creation, to exercise dominion, is unhampered by poverty or oppression. I want you to know [peace].”[ii] God wants humans to trust the boundaries that God has given. God wants the humans to focus on their call to do God’s work, to serve and protect the garden, and to live and love freely, but to also respect their limits. Their flourishing is dependent upon their obedience.
Right after God gave Adam his purpose in life, God created a companion for him to share his life with, Eve. The serpent then entered the scene, and the first theological debate occurred between Eve and a snake! The word for serpent in the Hebrew here is simply the word for “snake.” The serpent was crafty but not the evil devil figure we’ve made him out to be. He was a wise and cunning character, and he certainly made a good point! He asked Eve a misleading question, as if he was looking for clarification. Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” Eve, who did not hear God’s initial command to Adam, answered the serpent’s question with a bit of an exaggeration, adding that not only may they not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, but neither shall they touch it. The serpent, playing the contrarian, countered back, “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.” The serpent did have a point. Eating of the tree would not cause physical death, and maybe the possibility of broken relationships and disordered creation was worth having one’s eyes opened, worth fully knowing both good and evil, worth being able to make one’s own decisions about what’s best.
Eve’s decision to eat of the forbidden tree is three-fold. The tree was good for food; it was a delight to the eyes; and it would make her wise. For sustenance, for delight, for wisdom, she would disobey God’s rules. It seemed reasonable; these are all appealing things. Adam, the silent, complicit partner said nothing but just ate the fruit that Eve placed in his hand. After they ate of the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened. Now, they know the capacity for both good and evil; they take decision-making power into their own hands; and at once, it alienated them from one another. They felt the need to cover themselves with fig leaves, making themselves less vulnerable. They were now capable of good and harm, and it separated them from each other and from God. When God realized that they have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God realized that they could also now eat from the tree of life and live forever, as immortal human beings who would forever have the capacity to decide if they want to live God’s mission or their own mission in the world. So, God sent them away from the garden. They crossed boundaries; they alienated; and their actions had consequences. It will be thousands of years before their people will ever again enter into a promised land.
When we think about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, we often think of it as an egregious act. We think of how horribly wrong they were, how obvious it should have been for them to just keep their mouths off that fruit. And yet, when you think about it, it’s not. Sin is subtle. The serpent is like a well-intentioned friend encouraging Eve to be reasonable, to make wise decisions for herself and her family, to provide for them well. The sin of the first humans is not as simple as doing the wrong thing. The sin of the first humans is choosing not to trust God’s order of things. Their sin is thinking that they know best. Their sin is making themselves arbitrators over good and evil. It’s choosing their own self-interests over God’s mission. It’s getting distracted from their purpose to do God’s work in the world.
We know how easy it is to get distracted. Our lives are filled with endless to-do lists and demands on our time from every angle. On this first Sunday in Lent, we are reminded that Lent is an invitation for us to recognize the ways we’ve gotten distracted from our mission to do God’s work in the world. Sin is subtle, and it takes intentionality to reveal the way our lives show our lack of trust in God. Like Adam and Eve, we’ve chosen securities that are not God. We’ve chosen our own definitions of well-being for ourselves and our families over God’s purposes and mission for the whole world. We have good reasons. We have made choices to provide ourselves with sustenance, delight, and wisdom. But as the story of Adam and Eve reminds us, not all things that give sustenance are faithful all the time; not all things that delight are faithful in every situation; not all things that provide wisdom are faithful in every circumstance. Sometimes good things don’t help us to stay focused on God’s purposes. Sometimes good things don’t help us to carry out God’s mission in the world. Sometimes good things don’t lead to human flourishing.
Because we’ve taken a big bite out of that fruit, we often think we are so wise that we don’t need to do something as silly and impractical as denying ourselves things that are good for ourselves and our bodies. We don’t need to fast or abstain from anything for the forty days of Lent because we’ve already got it all figured out. We know what God would want us to do; we will just make up our minds and do it. We won’t fast; we will actually help the poor during Lent by sheer mental willpower, even if we don’t know the poor or have any clue what they might want or need. The question is if we’ve already got it all figured out, then why aren’t we doing it? Because sin is subtle. Because sin more frequently happens through distraction and not egregious acts. When we received those ashes on our foreheads this past Wednesday maybe we heard and understood that we are mortal human beings whose lives will come to an end, but perhaps what we needed to hear more loudly is that we aren’t in control, that we don’t have it all figured out and don’t have to have it all figured out because we aren’t God. How do you plan to practice Lent? If you haven’t decided, now is the time because we are already four days in! If sin is subtle, then we have to pay careful attention to spiritual disciplines that will reorient us away from our selfish desires and back towards God’s purposes. Maybe you want to fast from lunch one day a week and spend the time in prayer? Maybe you want to take on the discipline of reading a devotional or spending time in prayer with a trusted friend? Maybe you want to abstain from something you love – meat, chocolate, wine, eating out – to remind yourself that not all good things are always faithful and that sometimes we need to deny self in order to focus on others.
Our obedience to God might look unwise and foolish to the world or even to our well-intentioned friends. But let’s practice Lent this year; let’s take it seriously because we are in need of a reminder of how to live in God’s world, on God’s terms. When Jesus entered into the wilderness before his ministry to pray and fast for forty days, Satan tried to entice him to rebel against God and forget his purpose in the world, too. But Jesus did not get distracted, and he refused to test God. He knew one does not live by bread alone but only by the word of God. He showed us how to worship and serve God alone. As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, we are reminded that God has created us and called us to live in God’s world, and that we have great freedom. But as Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” As we come to the table this morning, we are reminded of the way, through love, Jesus our Lord became a servant to us, modeling for us how to chose God’s mission over our own well-being, our own security. We are invited to stop feeding ourselves, to stop only looking out for our own best interests, and to let God feed us. As we come to the table this morning, we have another opportunity to trust God with our lives instead of ourselves, so that all of God’s creation may not only live, but flourish.