Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ~ Lent I, 2014
Back a few decades ago, a black comedian by the name of Flip Wilson made popular the phrase, “The devil made me do it,” in a comedy routine of his. The phrase became a modern catch-phrase, for light-hearted denial of responsibility for any wrongdoing. Wilson performed routines in which he built a story around this phrase on his own variety show, on the Ed Sullivan show, and in several other venues. “The devil made me do it” as an iconic phrase really caught on.
Over the past few decades, several songs have been recorded and released, given this same title, “The Devil Made Me Do It”, in every genre of music from gangsta rap to rock to country-western, addressing situations from criminal liability to substance abuse to behavioral and relational indiscretions.
In 2009 it was widely reported when a 62-year old Washington state woman who was arrested and charged for stealing $73,000 from her church treasury told the detectives who questioned her, “Satan had a big part in the theft.”
And earlier this year the Huffington Post published a tongue-in-cheek analysis in the form of a fictional dialogue between the Devil and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. This followed a New York magazine interview, in which Justice Scalia reportedly revealed that not only did he believe in the devil, but he thought most Americans did, too. The Huff Post piece reflected on some of the legal decisions Scalia wrote on last year, supposedly from the viewpoint of this belief.
A cursory glance at our scriptural texts today might also lead us to believe that all temptation and misdeeds indeed come from the devil. Through the centuries this kind of belief has led to interpretations and teachings that every evil is inspired and enacted by the devil and agents of the devil, which has led in turn to some historic atrocities, like the witchcraft trials and the Spanish Inquisition.
Today we’ll consider our Genesis text in particular, in light of some misconceptions that muddy our understanding of our relationship with God, evil and sin.
Our reading this morning starts toward the end of the creation story. God has been busy, taking the chaos, that formless void, and separating out waters and creating dry land, establishing boundaries between them. Nowhere does the text say that what God created was a perfect paradise, as we often think of the Garden of Eden. But God did create and establish a vast assortment of elements, creatures and things; God made sun and moon, stars and planets, and set them all in their courses. And what God created was good, it was very good, and God was pleased by it. It was balanced. It was blessed by God. But it was still lacking something, and so finally, God created man and woman.
God set them in the garden, this wonderful, diverse and rich creation, and gave them work to do. They were to till the ground and keep it. In return God would freely provide for them out of it. God, who is full of grace and love, would fill all their needs. And at the end of chapter 2 (verse 25), just before the second part of our text picks up today, we are told, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
If we fast forward to the verses just after our assigned reading ends, right after the couple’s eyes “were opened”, the next words we read are, “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.” (Chapter 3, vs. 8 & 9)
What in the world happened between “and they were not ashamed” and “I was afraid,…..and I hid myself”?
Enter the wily serpent. Although we often think of this snake as an evil satanic figure, the text simply refers to the figure as “serpent.” In the Ancient Near East, the serpent was seen as a symbol of wisdom, though Genesis 3: renders the serpent as “crafty”. This cunning creature brings alienation between humans, and between humans and their god by bringing on doubt, fear, and distrust. The serpent instills in the man and woman a loss of focus and identity.
In the garden, the serpent encourages them to doubt; to count on their own “wisdom” rather than on God and God’s wisdom. The scene unfolded something like this:
When Eve told the serpent how God had said they could eat from any tree but one, the serpent scoffed. “Surely you don’t believe that, do you? I mean, really! You think that if you eat that fruit you’re going to die? Come on now. You’re too smart to believe that, and speaking of smarts – if you do eat this fruit, you will gain all the knowledge needed to succeed in life. Then you’ll be rich beyond measure. Surely you are too smart to believe God meant that literally!”
How easily Satan shifts our thinking to believe that our human wisdom surpasses God’s word and promise.
Pondering the serpent’s words, the woman and man forget who they are and whose they are. I say they, because although tradition has it that Eve was convinced by the serpent and then brought temptation to Adam, this text makes it clear that the man was present all along. Eve took the fruit and ate and then offered it to her husband who also decided to eat. There is no claiming “The devil made me do it!” They each ate of their own accord.
And so, they each succumb to the serpent’s taunts. They each forget or disbelieve or distrust God’s promise that God would see to their needs. The moment that they ate of the fruit they became aware of their vulnerability – of their nakedness. They understood their profound failure to trust in God and depend on God, the only thing God ever really demanded from them. The consequences are immediate. In a moment of time they go from freedom to frailty, from confident, trusting dependence on God, to stumbling and falling into an abyss of shame and doubt and failure. The result is that they are compelled to hide from God. And we have been hiding ever since.
For, isn’t that still our story? Temptation so often comes at the point of identity, where we fail to claim our full potential as human beings and as children of God. We forget that we are God’s children, made in God’s own image, and that God desires our attention, our dependence and our full devotion. We fill our days with busyness, and fail to till the soil of God’s creation; we fail to till the soil of compassion, almsgiving, embracing at risk children, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, embracing those who may challenge us or be different from us. Instead, we cling to sin, a powerful force that arises from God’s good creation. And we discover that knowing good from evil doesn’t mean we will always choose the good, and resist temptation to do evil.
Our creaturely vulnerability and brokenness have distorted God’s generosity and beneficence. “The devil made me do it” may be our cry, but the reality is that it is truly through our willful rejection of dependence on God, that we have repeatedly created corrupt and inadequate systems of power and dominance.
We have forever transformed the creation and garden of God’s delight into a broken and struggling planet, where earth, sea and skies suffer from the abuses we have heaped on them. Even the church is not immune from seeking power over sacred relationship with the divine. Our human vulnerability leads us to live in fear of failure, of intimacy, of relinquishing perceived power, of offering one another forgiveness.
And yet, even after the fall, in the creation story we see glimpses of God’s grace enfolding God’s creation. God continues to create “good” – not perfect, but life-sustaining good. In verse 21 of Genesis 3 we are told that “… the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” Seeing their vulnerability and their shame, God’s grace is made evident in God’s continuing acts of creativity and renewal.
Since the time of creation and the fall, God has continued to pursue the hearts of God’s people. God has sent prophets and judges, has continued to provide for God’s people, even giving manna in the desert, water from a rock, and finally, the messiah, born of a human mother in a human birth, who lived and died so that the powers of evil and death would be forever vanquished. May it be so.
In Jesus, God has the last word. In the cross of Christ, God destroys death forever. There is no greater power. Our fear, our identity crises, our vulnerability, our failures, and our struggle with dependence all cause us to experience pain, disappointment and despair in life, but ultimately leads us back to Jesus, through whom God grants us new life and frees us to begin anew.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, who saves us from our fear and failure, be with us this Lent as we explore more deeply your incomparable love that is poured out on the cross for us. Embrace us as we struggle with sin and guilt, and lead us to a broader understanding of your continuing creative and saving work. Grant that we may know and do your will despite the distractions and temptations in the world, and bring us at last to the peace and light.