An old Chinese saying that is probably familiar to you goes like this:
“A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” – at least that is the way we say it in English these days because I am sure that the ancient Chinese did not measure journeys in miles.
Here we are at the beginning of our Lenten journey and the Lectionary of Readings has given us some texts that take us right back to the beginning, too.
Our Old Testament text reminds us of that story we call “The Fall” – the best way we can understand how it is that it is so true that we, all of us, are less than what we know God created us to be.
Our Psalm is a wonderful song reminding us of God’s grace and forgiveness.
And our Epistle reading has Paul making that lovely parallelism between Adam and Christ – sin came into human experience through the act of one man, and grace and salvation was also brought into our experience through another man – Jesus Christ our Lord.
And of course, our Gospel reading tells that wonderful story of Jesus encounter with “the tempter” or the devil or Satan, as Jesus finally calls him.
So we are reminded right from the outset about Sin, the temptation to Sin and the Grace of God who calls us to be confident of his forgiveness.
I think it is fair to say that the story we have in Genesis 3 is one over which there has been a great deal of controversy over the centuries, not least about the way it has been used to justify the abuse of women by men. So here is a reasonable question for us all to consider: “What can we learn from this story that might help us toward keeping a holy Lent?”
Phyllis Trible, reflecting on this story, says “A happy ending to the story is impossible; only the aftermath of disaster remains.” And this creates a challenge for all preachers: “How do we preach Good News from a text that is fundamentally about human disobedience and sin?”
Well, I’m going to have a go for you.
The punishments meted out to the serpent, the woman and the man are pretty dramatic and the result is that through human disobedience all of God’s good creation suffers corruption. It is no longer what it was intended to be. In fact the main truth in this story is that everything that’s wrong with us came as a consequence of sin rather than divine intervention.
So, how did we get into this mess? We are each made in the beautiful image of God; and in the very beginning God looked at us, smiled and said: “Yes, this is good. This is very good.” But all we have to do is look around us to see that things aren’t so good, and we are not so very good. What happened to all that blessed goodness?
The Bible answers this question with a story. God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man and the woman he had made. God said very plainly: “You may eat freely of every tree of the garden, 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.”
The serpent, the tempter, latches onto these words: You will not die!” he says, and this is how it begins. What was once a given – trust in God’s goodness – is now treated as naïveté.
So what happened when they reached out, took that fruit and ate? At that precise moment, they reached beyond the boundary set by God. They decided that there was something better than living within the limits set by God, something better than trusting and enjoying the goodness of God – so they reached out for knowledge and power over the mysteries that once were only known by God.
This is how the Fall happens – this is how we keep on falling. Not in the decision to disobey. Not in the decision to do evil. Rather, in the mistrust of God’s goodness, in reaching beyond God’s limits to conquer mystery, and in the determination to take our lives into our own hands.
The snake was right about what would happen once the man and the woman took what did not belong to them. Their eyes were opened. What they saw was their own nakedness and shame. And we, like them, have seen our shame. We are all “fallen,” which is to say we aren’t nearly what we are meant to be and we know it.
The snake was right about another thing, too – they didn’t die. They lived on long past their mistake. Long enough to regret it. Long enough to blame each other for their problems. Long enough to know there are many kinds of dying.
This is where we start our Lenten Journey – east of Paradise. No way back. The only way is forward – towards the cross. The thing to do with our open eyes at this point is to look hard, to see who we are and how we’ve fallen short. Denial about our condition has never made it better. Once we’ve really seen what’s in our hearts, we can see how clearly we need the One who came to save us.
In the beginning there was a tree. On that tree there was a tempter. What he offered was knowledge. He said: “Take it. Eat it.”
A long time passed. There was another tree. On that tree hung one who was tempted but did not sin. What he offered was life. He said “This is my body, given for you. Take. Eat.”
And through his self-sacrificing love, he gave us the one thing we could not take for ourselves.
Not what we grasped for,
but what we needed most of all.