Lent 1, (Year A), March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m going to blow your mind. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The tree that Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating? It was probably not an apple tree. No matter what you learned in Sunday School, the Bible itself does not say what kind of fruit the tree bore. You can go ahead and check, but nowhere in the Bible does it say what kind of tree it was or what kind of fruit it had. The earliest people we know of who speculated on what kind of a tree it was thought it might be a fig tree. Others speculated that it was a grapevine or a citron tree, or possibly even a pomegranate. Calling it an apple tree came much, much later.
And that’s not the only thing we think we know about this story that’s wrong. Sexual sins have always been very high on the list of sins good Christians tend to be horrified by, so generations of people have read this story and gotten fixated on the innuendo: the first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the fruit was to notice they were naked and make clothes. So sex must have been the first sin! There’s a whole line of thought in some branches of Christianity that sex is inherently sinful and that’s how sin is passed from one generation to the next: because we are created through sex, which is sinful, therefore we are sinful.
But that’s not actually what the first sin was. Back up a bit: the serpent said “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.” And what’s Eve’s thought process? The fruit looks good, and it makes people wise! She wants to know good and evil. She doesn’t want to depend on God, she doesn’t want to be sheltered and protected, she thinks that once she knows the difference between good and evil she’ll be like God and be able to do what she wants. We don’t know what Adam was thinking—this is one of the few places in the Bible where we get the woman’s perspective and not the man’s—but he was right there next to her the whole time she was talking with the serpent and deciding to eat the fruit. And he never said anything, never argued or questioned anything, so we can assume he was thinking pretty much the same thing.
Of course, the problem that Adam and Eve didn’t realize is that knowing the difference between good and evil doesn’t mean you’ll do good and turn away from evil. There are a lot of people who know that bullying is wrong, but they do it anyway. There are a lot of people who know that stealing is wrong, but they do it anyway. There are a lot of people who know that adultery or murder or rape or lying are wrong, and do it anyway. In fact, everybody does things that they know are wrong. Even “good” people do things that we know are wrong. And good people are better than anybody else at justifying themselves and coming up with some excuse why what they’ve done isn’t really wrong at all. “I deserved it,” or “it doesn’t really hurt anybody,” or “it was their own fault, really.” Just like Adam and Eve thought “I’ll be wiser, and God won’t be too mad.”
The first sin happened before they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first sin happened when Adam and Eve decided that their own judgment was better than God’s judgment. They listened to the serpent instead of to God. They took power for themselves that wasn’t meant for them, power they couldn’t handle. And human beings have been doing it ever since. We trust our own judgment instead of God’s. We put God to the test. We ignore God in favor of our own desires and our own ideas of what things should be like … and then we wonder why the world is so screwed up. We face temptation every day, and sometimes we give in and sometimes we don’t, but we miss the bigger picture. We say, “God is my copilot!” as if that’s a good thing. “Oh, some turbulence ahead, better turn things over to Jesus. And then, when the turbulence is over, I’ll take the wheel again, Jesus, you can just sit back and relax. I know what I’m doing and where I’m going.” What we should be saying is “God is my pilot.” We human beings keep trying to steer our own course. We keep thinking that if we’re just smart enough, good enough, we can make ourselves and our world perfect. We can fix it. All we want God for, is backup.
In the millennia since Adam and Eve first ate the apple we’ve had countless proofs that we’re wrong. We fall short every day. Even when we genuinely do our best, we fail to see the consequences of our actions. And all too often, we don’t do our best. We let our pride, our selfishness, our laziness, our fear, our hate, our jealousy, and our prejudices get in the way of doing the right thing. Yet still we keep trying. We keep trying to do it all our way, on our own, digging ourselves ever deeper into the hole that Adam and Eve started. And the consequences of that first sin keep spiraling ever outward, not just in human beings but throughout the whole world.
God would be well within his rights to look at us and turn away. To say, “you’ve made your bed, now you must lie in it.” But he didn’t. He didn’t turn away from the world after it was broken by human sinfulness. Instead, he came up with a way for the world to be reconciled to God. A way for the deep wounds caused by our sins to be healed. And that way comes through Jesus Christ, God in human form, truly God and truly human. Just as Adam and Eve’s actions created a breach that caused all of humanity to be separated from God, Jesus Christ came to heal the breach so that all of humanity could be reconciled to God.
You can imagine that the devil wasn’t pleased by this turn of events. It’s no wonder that he came to tempt Jesus, to try and turn him away from his path. And that’s the story we hear in our Gospel today. It’s important to remember that the temptations we face are not like the temptations Jesus faced in today’s Gospel lesson. Sure, we’re sometimes tempted to do bad things for food or power, but they’re not exactly on the same scale as the temptations Jesus faced. Jesus is truly human and truly God at the same time. It’s not about the fact that he’s hungry. It’s not about the fact that he’s been living rough for forty days. It’s about power and authority, who has it and who’s going to have it.
Listen to the similarity of the tempter’s words to the serpent’s words in Genesis. “Did God say that? Really? Why would God say that? Let’s test it and see. You know that nothing that bad would happen. You can do it!” In both cases, the tempter calls God into question. “God won’t kill you for eating the forbidden fruit—he’s just trying to scare you because he wants to keep you ignorant and dependent on him.” “You don’t need to go through this whole messy ‘human life’ thing, Jesus, going hungry and everything, and you certainly don’t need to do anything as unpleasant as dying. Why bother? Between your power and mine, we can whip the whole world into shape. Just say the word, and I’ll lay the world at your feet. You can do anything you want with it, as long as you look to me and not to God. Surely that would be an easier way to save the world than this whole crucifixion thing.”
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know what they were doing, but even so, they thought they knew better than their Creator. They didn’t understand what the consequences would be. Even we don’t fully understand what the consequences were; there is so much about the brokenness of the world—so much of our own sinfulness—that we take for granted and count as normal. Jesus knew better; Jesus knew that the tempter’s words may sound sweet, but that the price would be too high. Jesus knew that a quick and easy ‘fix’ would not solve the world’s problems. Jesus knew that the fate of the world was at stake, and that only through rebuilding our relationship with God—the relationship destroyed by our insistence that we know better than God does—would heal the world’s brokenness. So he said “no” to the tempter. With the fate of the world at stake, Jesus turned away from temptation and towards God’s redeeming love.
We are children of Adam and Eve. We fall short of God’s goodness and love; we listen to the tempter instead of God. We take quick and easy paths; we think that we can handle things on our own. But God loves us anyway. God loves us even though we turn away from him. God loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake, to save us from ourselves. And it is through that love, through Jesus’ faithfulness even to death, that our sins our forgiven and we are made whole. Jesus stands firm and ever-faithful, even when we stray. Thanks be to God.