Adam & Eve
The Revd Louisa Pittman, 17th February 2019
It is a pleasure to be back here at Caius, and I bring you greetings from the Barnham Broom & Upper Yare group of parishes in the heart of the Norfolk countryside…don’t worry, I’m not expecting anyone to know where that is. It’s not the kind of place you stumble across on the way to anywhere else…but that’s a shame, really, because it is a beautiful bit of country, full of interesting and surprising people and places. I had no experience of rural ministry when I first moved to Norfolk, and I’ll admit to having listened to some of the negative voices telling me the many reasons it would be a miserable experience. It came as a serious relief to find out they were completely wrong…well, almost completely wrong. There is one thing that has been a serious struggle…and that is navigation. I’ve never been very good at navigating on land (I say ‘on land’ because, weirdly, I’m a perfectly decent navigator at sea), and serving in a rural benefice requires the navigational prowess of a 16th century New World explorer.
So, picture the scene…it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m shuttling between a carol service at one church and Midnight Mass in another church halfway across the benefice. We have 16 churches, so I’m still at the stage where the Rector will give me helpful directions from one place to another, and I vaguely remember him wittering on about turning by the pig farm with the white gate and going through a place intriguingly named ‘Nordelph Corner,’ but I hadn’t paid much attention because at that point I still had a naïve trust in the power of Satnav to see me right. Try to imagine my dismay and frustration, then, when I found myself sitting at the gate of a large farm in the inky blackness shouting at the cheerful screen, “No, Satnav, in fact I have not reached my destination…unless, of course, there is a Norfolk tradition of which I am unaware that involves driving your combine harvester to Midnight Mass!” It was not my finest moment.
But it is a good illustration of the trouble we can get into when more than one voice is trying to give us directions, and we put our trust in the wrong one. And that brings us to Adam and Eve and the one mistake that lost them Paradise. This is probably one of the most familiar stories in Hebrew Scripture, but also one of the hardest to get to grips with. Like many others, I grew up thinking this was a kind of harsh but pretty straightforward story: God gives human beings a perfect setting with the simplest of rules, human beings still manage to screw things up, God says ‘This is why we can’t have nice things’ and punishes humanity for the rest of eternity to facing the consequences. Throw in a bit of blaming Eve and punishing the children for the sins of the parents, and you get the story of why bad things happen and life will never be perfect as long as humanity is on this earth continuing to screw things up. What you end up with in this case is a common divide in people’s minds between the harsh, judgemental God of the Old Testament who’s not letting anyone off the hook for anything, and the loveable merciful God of the New Testament who is more than ready to forgive us as long as we say we’re sorry. But this gives God a kind of split personality and doesn’t track with a theology that says God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Human beings are changeable, God is not.
So how do we make sense of what happens with Adam and Eve and the origins of sin? Well, one way is to pay attention to the voices. The section of Genesis we heard in our first reading was from the 3rd chapter where we hear one voice, God’s, laying out the consequences for disobedience. But if we go back and include the preceding chapters, there are other voices. First, God speaks creation into existence: “Let there be light” and so forth. For the whole of the first two chapters of Genesis, the only voice heard is God, creating and blessing and ordering every living thing. It isn’t until the very end of Chapter 2 that the man finally speaks up after God forms the woman from a part of the man. It’s interesting to note that up until that point, creation was still a whole…the one voice was dividing things like day and night, and sky and sea, but the divisions were within something that was whole. But in order to create the woman, the man is made incomplete, part of him is removed…and another voice is heard as man starts to create his own order in naming the animals and the woman.
Now, this is all fine so far: God speaks to humanity, humanity can speak to God. At the end of Chapter 2, the man and the woman together make up the whole of humanity, and Verse 25 says “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” This is important, because we have to infer that the absence of shame is because they have not yet been told there is any cause for shame. And then right away in Chapter 3, another voice speaks up…the serpent appears on the scene…and it all starts to go wrong, because the serpent starts to make a very convincing argument against the order God has put in place. God never gave a reason why the fruit of one particular tree was forbidden, only a consequence: ‘If you eat it, you will die.’ So the serpent attributes to God a motive: ‘God only said that to keep you from becoming just like God yourselves’ And the man and woman believe this new voice and do what God has already told them will have a fatal consequence. Humanity chooses to listen to something other than God…in fact, humanity chooses something other than God. And that is what sin is…choosing something other than God.
And look what happens as a consequence: things are no longer complete. When God asks what happened, the man blames the woman, and the woman blames the serpent. The whole becomes divided. And what is even more significant, humanity tries to hide itself from God. This is the part I find really interesting, because I never noticed it before: whereas before, they were naked and not ashamed, now something has made them believe that their nakedness is a cause for shame and they hide because they are afraid when God shows up again. And look at God’s response: in Verse 11 of Chapter 3, God says ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ It doesn’t say How do you know… it says Who told you… In other words, it was not God who said they should be ashamed, so they must have listened to another voice. And from this God knows that they did the one thing they were told would have disastrous consequences.
So, from the two voices, humanity gets very different options. God’s voice leading to order, completeness, life – and the other voice leading to sin, brokenness, death. Because humanity chose to listen to the other voice, God explains the consequences in tonight’s reading…it’s no longer possible to live in the completeness of Eden where the only voice humanity listens to is God. From now on, there will always be another option which humanity can choose instead of God, and brokenness and suffering will exist because of that. We still have a choice…we can still choose God, but we have to know which voice to trust in order to do that. So what should be a pretty straightforward choice - God or not God – becomes much more difficult if we don’t know which voice we are hearing or which voice is trustworthy. What the serpent said to Eve sounded pretty plausible, so even though they knew God had forbidden it, Adam and Eve reasoned that God was really not giving them all of the facts, and they wouldn’t even need to listen to God anymore if they did as the serpent suggested. And so on…
Now, this leaves us at the end of Chapter 3 with a pretty bleak outlook for humanity. An irreversible mistake has been made, Paradise is lost, and we are now doomed to a life of pain and misery as a consequence. But, of course, there would be no point to the Christian faith, in fact no point to any faith, if that divide between humanity and God could not be overcome. And the rest of Scripture is a record of God’s work to heal that brokenness, which is completed in the Incarnation, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s redemptive act involves becoming one of us because we still have a problem with voices. We have to know which voice is God’s in order to choose God…and we cannot know God’s voice unless it’s speaking a language we understand.
Listen to that wonderful little bit from Galatians we heard in our second reading, in Chapter 4, Verse 9 where Paul says ‘Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again…?’ Paul would have been dictating this letter, and you can actually hear him working out the theology of redemption as he’s dictating…we can be saved because we have come to know God, well, actually, it’s really because God has come to know us by becoming one of us, because we can’t really know God without God first revealing himself to us in Jesus…
In Jesus, we can recognise God’s voice. Among all of the others clamouring for our attention and our trust, the only one we know to be reliable is his. So, the work of the Christian is one of discernment. We have to get better and better at recognising God’s voice by getting better and better at following Jesus. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes, we’re going to trust the wrong voice every now and then, but we have the opportunity each time to re-tune, to turn back to the voice we should be listening to. That’s repentance…literally “turning back”…it’s a refocusing, a rededication. Ultimately, we have hope. Christ’s resurrection means that we have been made complete again with God in God’s kingdom. But for now, we still have choices to make and voices to listen to, and it’s up to us to keep listening for the still, small voice that speaks truth. Amen.