My junior year of college I spent a semester abroad in the Soviet Union (that was a country about where Russia is now—ask your parents about it). The Soviet Union was a communist country and had certain deficiencies in their economic system. One the one hand, everyone had a job and there was virtually no unemployment. On the other hand, there was often nothing to buy in the stores and even simple grocery shopping could become an arduous ordeal involving standing on long lines at a number of different stores. After it all you might come home with a brick of cheese, some potatoes, a loaf of bread, a tin of sardines. You basically bought whatever you could find.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
February 13, 2005
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
One of the most overwhelming experiences I had was upon my return to the United States. I went to the supermarket to pick up a couple of things. I was overwhelmed by the variety in the produce aisle. And I stood there paralyzed in the cereal aisle, unable to choose. It was too much. I couldn’t decide. There were too many options, too many kinds of cereal—an almost infinite array. The choice was overwhelming.
Sometimes, choices can be like that. Choices can be frightening and intimidating. Life can feel that way. It would be a lot easier if all the choices were made for us. Particularly since we haven’t always been very good about making those choices.
II. THE TEXT
A. Adam and Eve
That’s certainly the case in the lesson we heard from Genesis tonight. This is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, the Garden of Eden, the Forbidden Fruit, the Fall, and Original Sin.
Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden and told not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, on pain of death. They may eat freely of any other tree in the garden. The serpent—whom we are told is the craftiest of all the creatures in the garden—and who apparently had either legs or wings at this point, tempts Eve with questions about whether or not they will really die if they eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree. The serpent suggests rather that they will be like God, knowing good and evil. Eve sees that the food appealing and since it will make you wise, she eats, and gives some to her husband—who, the text points out, is standing right next to her when all this happens. Immediately, their eyes are opened and they realize that they are naked and sew fig leaves together to cover themselves.
God happens upon the scene and looks for them. Adam finally answers and says that he hid because he was naked and afraid. God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree I commanded you not to eat?” Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the snake. God punishes all of them. Adam is to toil the earth with hard labor in order for it to yield food. Eve will suffer pains in childbirth. And the snake shall be the enemy of women and shall now go on its belly eating dust.
From this story we have developed the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall from Grace. That is, we were once in a state of grace and bliss in the garden, and because of Adam’s disobedience, we have all fallen into a state of Sin.
St. Augustine believed that this sin was passed down through sex—like a genetic trait—and thus began the whole Christian hang-up about sex. But that’s another sermon. It is believed in some parts of our Christian family that we are therefore born guilty, which necessitates things like baptisms for infant children, lest they die unpardoned of sins that they inherited, but did not themselves commit.
In the Wesleyan traditions, we believe that while we inherit our sinful nature, we do not inherit guilt—each person’s guilt is their own. What we are born with is Adam’s propensity to make the wrong choice.
B. Jesus in the Wilderness
Many have seen in the temptation stories of Jesus the exact opposite of the Garden of Eden. Jesus is not in a Garden, but in a wilderness, a desert. He has nothing and is tempted with everything and in all cases resists temptation and makes the right choice. Primarily through his faith and reliance on the scriptures. But many have seen in Jesus the True Adam, if not the first, then the Ultimate human being, who reverses the consequences of Adam’s choices by making the right choices, and by his obedience to God’s will. As Paul writes:
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Most of us are not like Jesus, or anywhere close. We don’t believe we’re capable of making the right choices all the time, and personally, we’d rather be left out of the whole thing. Making choices is scary. It’s much easier if everything is taken care of. There are a lot of things about Freewill that are intimidating.
The first thing is that freewill carries with it a sense of unpredictability. If we are free to choose, the results are unknown until people make choices. The universe already feels random enough without introducing all these variables into it. I often think that an election must be the most intimidating thing for a political candidate. All those months of carefully crafting messages, trying to keep the lid on scandals or gaffes, working the polls, targeting constituencies. And then suddenly—it’s all out of your hands and you are subject to other people deciding on their own. How scary that must be. Being subject to other people’s choice. I wonder how many candidates wonder about the virtues of democracy as opposed to dictatorship at times like that. How many are frustrated by being subject to the choices of others. It’s a very insecure feeling, to be sure.
It’s no less secure to be the one making the choices. There’s often no going back, and some choices are like breaking a piece of pottery, what was done can never be undone—at least not perfectly. There are not a lot of do-overs in life. Not a lot of opportunities to restart and go back. Would that there were. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were “undo” buttons we could carry around with us, pressing “Command-Z” or “Control-Z” every time we made a mistake. Undo! Whew. Okay, let’s try that again. Boy, that would come in handy, wouldn’t it? If you invent one of those, you could make a fortune.
Which is another thing that’s intimidating about freewill: the responsibility for the choices and the consequences of those choices. Adam and Eve were not willing to take responsibility. Adam, in one breath deflects responsibility in two directions: “The womanwhom you gave to be with me.” Nice one, Adam. Way to make the family proud. And then Eve blames the snake. In reality, they bothchose to partake of the fruit. It was not forced on them. The serpent had no power to make them take the fruit.
I think perhaps it is this element of freewill that makes other beliefs so appealing. Predestination takes any responsibility for our fates out of our hands. There’s no responsibility at all. This was decided before I was born and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Rather than accept freewill, people will usually look for someone else to blame. Satan usually takes the rap for our bad choices. “The devil made me do it” or some variation on that. Or the equally avoidant: it was God’s will. If something happens “it was meant to be”—if it doesn’t “it wasn’t meant to be.”
I don’t know how many of you have had occasion to see the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene in that film where the British officer T.E. Lawrence is leading the Arab army in a surprise attack against the Turkish guns at Aqaba. In order to do this, they must cross a dangerous and deadly desert and must cross the most dangerous section of it—the Anvil—at night, because it is deadly during the day. As they emerge, they discover that one man has been left behind—fallen off his camel somewhere back on the Anvil. Lawrence turns his mount around and heads back out to find him before the sun kills him. His Arab allies shout to him that there is no point—no one can survive the Anvil. It is written. Sometime later, Lawrence emerges from the desert in the middle of the day carrying the ailing form of the missing man. As the man is lowered down and given water, Lawrence says to his men “Nothing is written.”
Some time later they encounter another tribe whom they enlist to help them with the attack against Aqaba. Suddenly, there is a disturbance. One of Lawrence’s group has murdered a man from the new group. The fragile alliance is about to fall apart, since the new group will be enraged if the man is not brought to justice, and the original group will be infuriated if the other tribe brings one of their own to justice. Lawrence declares that he will carry out the sentence—as he is a member of neither tribe. When they bring forward the guilty party—it is the man who he had rescued from death in the desert. Pained and devastated, Lawrence executes the man. When the leader of the new tribe asks why Lawrence was so upset, he is told “The man he killed is that same man that he saved from the Anvil.” “Ah,” responds the first man. “It was written.”
There is a tendency in our lives to want to ascribe tragedies like this to a pre-ordained plan. We are not comfortable admitting that consequences can flow from chance or nature. Nor are we comfortable with the idea that consequences flow from our choices. The man in Lawrence of Arabia did not come to his end because it was written, rather it was on account of his choices—his murdering of another human being.
Very many of the tragedies we endure in our lives are not part of some divine or demonic plan. They are the consequences of choices that we have made. And consequences can flow from choices made with good intent as well as bad. I grant you, in some way it would be more comforting to know that everything was part of a pre-ordained plan. But I don’t know if our picture of God would be any clearer—in fact, I think it would be a good deal diminished.
The most important thing we do in life is make choices. Sometimes I think that the value of our choosing depends less on the result of our choosing, but in the manner of our choosing. We encounter God not in getting the answers right, but in entering into the process—in embracing our freewill. Only in embracing our freedom to choose do we truly understand who God is.
IV. FREEWILL AS GRACE AND LOVE
That can be scary. If the world is both the result of random nature and our own choices—where is God in any of this? Has God abandoned us to randomness and our own devices?
A. Adam and Eve—A story of Liberation
God has not abandoned us—God has instead blessed us. It occurs to me that perhaps we’ve been looking at the story of Adam and Eve all wrong. We’ve been looking at it as a story of sin and the consequences of sin. Perhaps it’s more a story of liberation. We were in a beauteous garden—but could we really appreciate the garden? We didn’t even know right from wrong—could we truly understand beauty and ugliness? Could we truly have understood faith and doubt without having our eyes opened? I sometimes wonder whether we weren’t all just set up. God made us in God’s image—how could the knowledge of right and wrong not be a part of that? There is a consequence to that knowledge, as we discovered: a loss of innocence, an assumption of responsibility—but also the opportunity to be free. We couldn’t truly be free—or to be good— without the opportunity to choose for ourselves.
B. True Love
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Among all the things wrong with a corporate sponsored holiday designed to push greeting card, chocolate, and diamond sales, the biggest problem is with the notion of love that is promoted. The love that is often promoted is a love of sappy romanticism and of commitment as measured in commodities and precious stones. Love is about so much more than that.
Love is about letting go.
Love is about accepting the other as they are: and that may mean ‘as a person who does not love you.’ Love is not about trying to get someone to love you. Love is not about trying to get someone to do what you want them to. As Paul says, love “does not insist on its own way.” Rather, love is about letting go and being willing to suffer the pain of having let go. You cannot truly love someone unless you are willing to grant them the freedom to hurt you. To love someone is to allow that person the freedom to love you or reject you. Until you are willing to risk heartbreak, you are not really willing to love.
God loves us. How do we know this? Because God has given us the freewill whereby we might choose to reject God. God is in relationship with a people whom he has freed to decide for themselves whether they want to be in that relationship.
I cannot fathom this kind of love. For the infinite and almighty God to give me the power to say no to God is something too marvelous to conceive.
That is the power and message of the Cross. On the Cross hangs the Son of God, reconciling the world to God even as that world rejects him. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And yet, we see a greater love: laying down one’s life for those whom you have freed to accept or reject you.
Given that: how can we not use this gift, given to us freely and out of love? How can we not seek to make hard choices, weighing the consequences, and accept responsibility for our choices? How can we not view the world as the consequence of our choice and embrace the power we have to choose?
We are made like God: free and choosing. Made in the image of God by virtue of our being able to choose, by being free. When we exercise our freewill and make choices—hard choices—we reflect the image of our Creator who first chose us. In the choosing, too, we encounter God—in the process, in the discernment, and in the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences.
We are called, too, to pass the freedom along. If we believe in a God who is free and who has given us this gift, we pass along that freedom to others. We stand on the side of human liberty—on the side of self-determination, human rights, on liberation from tyranny, oppression, and injustice. We seek to reflect the reality of God not only in ourselves but in the world we shape through our choices.
Our lives are like standing in that well stocked aisle at the market. A rich and varied array of options stands before us, stocked by a loving and generous God who seeks only our freedom and desires only our love, for God and for one another. And who desires that love to be genuine—so much so that God is willing to let us choose.
That is the God we encounter this Lent—a Lent that starts with the choices of the Garden of Eden and the Wilderness beyond the Jordan and brings us to the love of the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
Genesis 2 15 ¶ The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3 1 ¶ 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’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 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.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 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. 7 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.
8 ¶ 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. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 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.” 14 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. 15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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;
Matthew 4 1 ¶ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 ¶ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 ¶ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.