Where the devil did he come from? - Genesis 3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 28th September 2008.

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The world has never been short of its optimists and its pessimists. There have been those like the atheist science fiction writer H.G. Wells for instance, who genuinely believed that with the tools of science in one hand and a blind belief in the goodness of man in the other, it was only a matter of time before the world became a paradise. And so in 1937 he wrote: ‘Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realise our boldest imaginations; that it will achieve unity and peace; that it will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know; going on from strength to strength in ever widening circles of adventure and achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state, form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do.’ But of course reality has a terrible knack of checking such dewy eyed optimism doesn’t it? And so two years later, on the outbreak of World War 2, Wells was singing quite a different tune: ‘In spite of all my dispositions to a brave-looking optimism, I perceive that the universe is now bored with man and is turning a hard face to him. I see him being carried less and less intelligently and more and more rapidly along the stream of fate to degradation, suffering and death. The spectacle of evil in this world has come near to breaking my spirit altogether. Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.’

As you look around the world today who do you identify with most- pre- 1939 Wells or post- 1939 Wells? I would suspect Wells the pessimist. However, optimism about human beings isn’t entirely misplaced you know. On all sorts of levels the most amazing advances have taken place. Nonetheless, there does seem to be this inbuilt self- destructiveness to our species which we simply can’t shake off. It seems that every time we try to attain god-like status- reaching forward to bring the future into our hands, we fall and start to wonder if we are any better, if not worse, than wild animals. And so the list grows- Auschwitz, Cambodia, Uganda, 9/11, Zimbabwe. So where did it all begin to go wrong? Well, in a Royal Park of all places with the fine sounding name of -Eden. And we read all about it in Genesis chapter 3.

What we are going to do this morning is to trace out the anatomy of temptation- how the tempter, God’s adversary, the devil- deceived our first parents and how he continues to do so with us.

The first and most effective step is to create discontentment with God: v1 ‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, `You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" You know, it is quite unusual in Hebrew narrative for the character of an actor in the story to be described- he or she just appears and you determine what they are like by the way they behave; but not here. We are told that the serpent is ‘crafty, or as we might say, ‘sharp’. Its like the title applied to the later President Richard Nixon’- ‘Tricky Dicky’. That is, you don’t take what this creature says at face value. He is going to be very, very clever with words, so you have to watch what he says very carefully and treat him with the greatest suspicion.

And notice what the topic is which he chooses to talk about. It isn’t the weather, how dry it is and if only we had better living conditions. He doesn’t draw attention to the lack of the woman’s wardrobe and how God must be mean letting her wonder around naked all day. No, he begins with talking about God. The devil is incredibly pious. He is the one who just loves talking about ‘the Lord’, getting us to bury our noses in our Bibles even; ‘Let’s look at the passage, what did God really say?’ In fact he seems to be the model seeker after truth, ‘Did God really say?’ he asks with a note of surprise in his voice. Are you sure this is the sort of thing God would say? There is no outright denial, but an apparent concern to get the message right. You don’t want to end up misunderstanding God or misrepresenting him. So the subject he brings up in the first instance is not the goodness of God, but the accuracy of the Word of God. Satan does not show up as a power crazed monster, stomping around the garden creating mischief and mayhem, but as a serious student of theology no less. The devil loves biblical discussions; he is never far away from the home group or the pulpit - he can talk for ages about religion. The German writer Dietrich Bonheoffer said that this conversation in the garden is talk about God and not talk to God. And that is always dangerous. Don’t fall for it when someone shows an interest in the Bible and spends hours discussing it- that is not necessarily a sign that they are interested in God, they might be interested in correcting God. So let us be careful that we don’t spend our time in talking about God without at the same time talking to God.

Now can you see the subtlety of this approach? The serpent is not questioning whether God issued the command, but he is getting the woman to question what appears to be the restrictiveness of the command, "Did God really say, `You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The first two chapters of Genesis lay out the overwhelming generosity of God; that there is no way on earth that the charge of ‘meanness’ could be laid at his door. The evidence lies entirely in the opposite direction. But the serpent thinks, and with some justification, that if he can just plant a seed of doubt about the goodness of God, then this will spring up into discontentment with God and that paves the way for disobedience to God. Now do you see why it is so important to count your blessings? The blessings we receive from God are in their millions, each day- honestly. But one set back comes at us and what happens? You know what happens; God becomes the object of our gripe. At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul pinpoints this as being the root cause of all the sin in the world, ‘Knowing God’ he says, ‘they refused to honour him as God or to render him thanks.’ That’s the problem. Have you ever noticed how over and over again, the Lord Jesus is just brimming over with thanks to his heavenly Father? How when he received the five loaves and two fish his first reaction was to look up to heaven and ‘give thanks’. Thankfulness should be one of the chief hallmarks of a Christian. It is certainly one of the best antidotes to temptation which begins with not trusting God. Thanks is fuel for trust. Starve the fuel of thanks and the flame of trust will soon be extinguished. You show me a thankless Christian I will show you a vulnerable Christian- one step away from falling.

But take a look at how the deceit progresses. The woman seems to start off so well, doesn’t she? She begins in verse 2 correcting the serpent by affirming God’s gracious provision- ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden’- so far so good. ‘But God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' The question is this: is the woman already showing signs of weakening? After all God didn’t say, ‘You must not touch the tree.’ So some think that she is beginning to entertain the thought that God may be over-restrictive, after all what is wrong in touching a tree? It is like the petulant teenager who complains, ‘You never let me go out with my friends’, when in fact all you have said is ‘Make sure that you are back by 11 O’ clock.’ Others, however, think that the woman is simply playing safe, better not to even go near the tree if it is that dangerous. If you are walking near a cliff and there is a sign four feet away from the edge which warns, ‘Dangerous cliff keep clear’, it might be prudent to ensure that you are 6 feet away, why risk a fall? So the woman may simply have elaborated God’s command to make doubly sure she keeps it.

But then the tempter speaks- verse 4: "You will not surely die." You have to admit that verse 4 does appear to be crude and anything but subtle. It seems to be a direct contradiction. But then he softens it in verse 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." Do you see how impressive this snake appears to be? He is claiming to know what God is really like, what is going on in God’s mind, ‘God knows that if you eat you will be like him.’ He is giving the impression that he has some special insight into the psychology of God which the woman doesn’t possess. That is the guise in which Satan comes to us- as someone who knows far more about God than we do, who has some ‘special inside track’ which we lesser mortals only armed with a Bible lack. So God ‘tells’ these specially ministers that God wants us to be rich and powerful; that God wants us to hand over our money to them; that God doesn’t want us to be sick-ever; and that rules of sexual behaviour don’t apply to them- and so we have scandal in the church.

But there may also be another route the devil could be taking here with the woman. It’s as if he is saying, ‘Oh my dear lady, I now see what you have been doing, you have been taking God literally. Understanding God’s Word requires a little more sophistication you know, otherwise you are going to end up the most pitiful of creatures’, labelled with the dreaded ‘F’ word- ‘ you are in danger of becoming a Fundamentalist.’ You don’t really believe in a literal devil do you? You don’t honestly think that when Jesus says, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ that he is going to be so mean minded as to turn away all those sincere folk from other religions?’ ‘You can’t possibly believe in this day and age that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ ‘That God actually means what he says about judgement?’ ‘No, you need to re-interpret the Bible for modern times, you need to ‘demythologise it’- bring it up to date.’ Have you heard that before?

So it is here. ‘Yes, God might have said that, but you have to understand the reason why God said it. It is because God is rather insecure. He knows you will become like him and poor fellow that he is, crippled with a low self- esteem, he just can’t cope with any competition. What you need to do is revise you picture of God.’ He is explaining the commandment away, giving a rational explanation. By the way, did you notice that both the serpent and the women simply use the term ‘God’, not ‘Lord- God’? This emphasised God’s distance, that he is somehow remote, whereas in chapter 2 it is the kind, loving covenant God-‘ Yahweh- Elohim’ Lord-God’ who is in the garden caring tenderly for man and woman.

Now just in case you think I’m overstating things- this is exactly the sort of argument being used within church circles today to banish ideas such as the sanctity of marriage, the prohibition against gay sex, belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and so on. One of the leading lights in the United States Episcopal Church which is causing so many traumas in the world wide Anglican scene is Bishop Shelby Spong. This is what he writes in favour of a more ‘theological reading’ of the Bible: ‘A literalised myth is a doomed myth. Its truth cannot be rescued. Literalism is not even a benign alternative for contemporary Christians. It is, in the modern world, nothing less than an enemy to faith in Jesus Christ…Literalism is a claim that God’s eternal truth has been, or can be, captured in the time-limited concepts of history…The day has passed for me when, in the name of tolerance to the religious insecurities of others, I will allow my Christ to be defined inside a killing literalism…The time has come for the church to surrender its neurotic pattern of trafficking in one feeble religious insecurity system after another and to allow its people to face the bracing wind of insecurity, so that Christians might understand what it means to walk by faith,’ He is writing in the context of the Virgin Birth which he denies and instead opts for the belief, which he thinks is far more reasonable, that Mary was raped and Jesus’ birth was the result. You know, the serpent would go along with that. Notice how Spong talks about him not wanting his Christ being defined inside a ‘killing literalism’ – it sounds so oppressive. Who wouldn’t want to be liberated from a, ‘neurotic, feeble religious insecurity system’? And that is the way the temptation to turn aside from God’s Word will always come. A more accommodating interpretation will be taken, one which promises liberation and tolerance- a freer form of Christianity- one which is more ‘up to date’, throwing off the shackles of miracles and morality. And if you resist this you will be labelled a ‘traditionalist’- which has the stench of death about it.

And then comes the big promised prize- do it and, ‘You will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ And so we come to the next step in the temptation, appealing to our delusions of grandeur. Not content with being made in the image of God, the woman wants to be like God. But in what way? God is spirit, so she can’t be like him in that respect, she has a body, locked in space and time. It all has something to do with this ‘knowing good and evil.’ Now in one sense the man and the women did know good and evil in that they knew to obey God was good and to disobey was evil. But there is another sense in which ‘knowing good and evil’ rightly belongs to God alone, in that God defines what is right and what is wrong, which is what is in accordance with his will and conforms to his character. And so only God can be said to ‘know’ good and evil – that is, define them. Elsewhere in the Bible, this word ‘know’ is used to describe choosing, ‘Of all the nations on the earth you only have I known O Israel’- that is chosen. But here we see human beings wanting that privilege for themselves. The woman is drawn to the idea that it she and not God can decide what is good and bad, right and wrong without having to make any reference to what God thinks. And so we are given a profound insight into the perverse nature of sin. We are sinners not because we are fundamentally lawbreakers; we are sinners in that we in our pride take to ourselves the decision to become lawmakers independent of God. We want to call the shots- not leave it to God. We want to devise our own religions- not God. We want to decide who is acceptable and who isn’t-not God. We want to decide who is a human being worthy of our protection and who isn’t-not God. We decide how this world should be run- not God. That is we want to have the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ This is the first instance we have of being ‘pro-choice’. This is the first example of ‘re-interpreting God’s Word- choosing what to believe and what to discard. And always the appeal will be made to our ego. It will be a matter of ‘growing up’ and stopping behaving like little children running to God when we want to know what we should or shouldn’t do. Or it will be referred as ‘Moving on.’ I have sometimes been spoken to in patronising tones by other clergy, ‘Oh, yes, I used to believe what you do, but now I see there is so much more to Christianity, so many different ways to interpret the Bible- I have moved on’- implying I am spiritually retarded.

And so we come to the final stage in the great deceit- appeal to desire and greed-v6 ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.’ All of these things the woman contemplates are quite true. It is practical- the fruit was good for food. It was beautiful- pleasing to the eye. It was also powerful- capable of producing wisdom. All true- but all totally irrelevant because God had said ‘No’! So if you imagine God is not all that good and that what he says is not all that serious then of course you will decide to go it alone- what’s to stop you? Fear of ingratitude? Well, you have already decided God has been holding out on you. Fear of punishment? You have already decided it is all bluff. So if you want it- just reach out and take it. But if you know that God is the fount of all goodness; if you know he is deadly serious in what he says, then might that not cause you to think twice before you think about cheating on him?

Now let me ask: where was Adam when this conversation was going on and what was he doing? The answer: he was standing right next to Eve and he doing absolutely nothing- that was his Fall. God had given Adam the command-not Eve. His duty was to protect his wife, not abandon her. And men are we not so good at imitating Adam at this point. The point of his greatest failure? Instead of leading, he is led. Passivity, when it comes to the things of God, is one of our greatest besetting sins and we so need as men to exercise, caring and godly leadership in the home and protect our families from anything that will lead them astray from God’s way. Could I ask whether you are doing that? Are you getting help to enable you to do that- going to Time Out, reading your Bibles, reading Christian books, listening to tapes, encouraging one another as men? We should you know.

And so here is the human tragedy, which is your tragedy and mine- they took and ate and –died. How is that to be reversed? Well, by One who on the night of his own betrayal- as Adam and Eve were betrayed- took bread and having broken it gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my body given for you’. That is the one taking and eating we must do- have faith in Jesus, the Last Adam.

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