Ashes to ashes - Genesis 3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 12th October 2008.

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Let me put it to you that the beliefs we hold have consequences for good or evil. For example, in 19th century England, the Earl of Shaftesbury believed that men and women were made in God’s image and therefore were infinitely precious regardless of their social status. The result were the factory acts and the like which radically improved working conditions. In the 20th century there was someone who had a different set of beliefs about children only to write these words, ‘I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality…We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence-imperious, relentless and cruel.’ That man was Adolf Hitler. His beliefs certainly had consequences didn’t they?

Well, this morning I want us to consider the cosmic consequences of the very first attempt to act as if God were not God, but humans were gods; the time when in the Royal Park called Eden, the desire to want to become like God became simply overwhelming and the attempted royal coup was made and the forbidden fruit was tasted. I freely admit that it does not make for very pleasant reading. In fact it is quite depressing. And it would remain that way if it were not for God. For we see how intertwined with the story of Adam and Eve is the story of God’s overwhelming grace which is the only basis for true hope. And what was so for Adam and Eve is also the case for us. So let’s take a look at this deeply disturbing episode under two headings- the mess of mankind and the mercy of the Maker.

First, the mess of mankind. Now I guess that one of the big questions Genesis 3 seeks to answer is, ‘What is death?’ You may remember that back in chapter 2 God had said that any fruit in the garden could be eaten, bar one- the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day that the fruit was eaten the couple would die. The serpent questioned that word of judgement-3 v4 ‘You will not surely die’, he said. And on the face of it, it seems that the serpent was right for the man and the women are still breathing, walking and talking- a thunderbolt didn’t suddenly appear out of the sky and strike them dead. So maybe the death that came in the wake of the disobedience is something other than physical death, although it is certainly included, v 19, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.’ In fact what steadily unfolds is the gruesome nature of the inner death of which our physical demise is but the outer sacrament and seal. For what we see is the death of peace- a disintegration of wholeness- 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. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’

In the first case, then, there is the death of peace with God- what we can call loss of communal peace. The picture you have in chapter 2 is of a free and open relationship between the Maker and his creature. There is this wonderful familiarity between them, a sweet communion for which we were originally made- to know God and enjoy him for ever. But that is not what we see now. There is shame-the husband and wife become aware of their nakedness and hastily sew fig leaves together to cover their embarrassment. Awareness of sin has introduced into their world something that was not there before, self-consciousness, embarrassment; they can no longer be open with one another or God. They suddenly discover they need ‘privacy.’ And this is but a short step to fear ,v‘8Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" 10He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid." This is not a hiding just because of humiliation; this is an attempt to escape because of fear. Fear of what? Well, fear of God. Note that God had not changed- he is till the LORD God- the caring covenant God, but the relationship had changed. The One who from the very beginning presents himself as friend is now treated as a foe, hence the fear. And so they hid, like naughty children tucked away in the broom closet on hearing the news that father has come home and they will have to give an account for what they have done- introducing destruction into God’s good world. And we have been hiding ever since haven’t we? Of course we are so clever that we can dress up our attempt to escape from God as an actual seeking after him, so that one of the most sophisticated fig leaves we can sew for ourselves and bushes we grow to hide behind is religion itself. We devise the standards and rituals whereby we domesticate God, keeping him at safe distance, so he doesn’t intrude too closely into our lives- maybe having a ‘Sunday only’ God. Or we even concoct a picture of God where judgement is denied- so everyone will to get to heaven in the end won’t they? Well, no, for there is death. Or maybe we just busy ourselves and don’t allow ourselves to think too much about God at all, immersing ourselves in our work, telly, and our relationships. Any bush will do. But whatever our attempts to keep God at arms length to avoid his searching gaze they are as futile and as pathetic as these fig leaves covering the couples private parts- one gust of wind- and they are gone and we are left exposed, ashamed and frightened. The result is that to our minds, God becomes the dark god, the distant god, the fearful God.

And so we move from shame, through fear to our excuses, v11, ‘And (the Lord God) said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" 12The man said, "The woman you put here with me--she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Here we have another indication that the relationship with God had been broken, Adam is accusing God- ‘the woman you put here, she gave me the fruit.’ ‘It’s all your fault God. I was doing very nicely until you decided I needed a helper and what a fine helper she turned out to be!’ All the time conveniently forgetting that it was the husband’s duty to protect his wife and speak out which he simply did not do. Have you ever noticed how many people can go for years without giving God a second thought and then when some tragedy strikes, suddenly he is there, but as an object of blame, a convenient whipping boy? One wonders why, by the same token that God is not thought of for the blessings we receive daily-where did these come from?

But not only is there an accusation going on, but victimization, the woman says, v13 "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." She sees herself as a hapless victim. You know the saying, ‘God blamed Adam, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and the serpent hadn’t a leg to stand on.’ But this is what we do; we desperately try to find all sorts of ways of shifting the responsibility. It’s God’s fault, it’s the devil’s fault, it’s my upbringing, my genes, my church- everyone’s fault -but my own.

You know people have wrestled for centuries concerning the origin of evil. ‘Where did it come from?’ they say. Some religions in effect say it comes from within God himself, that goodness and evil are just two sides of the divine being playing themselves out- this is called monism- Hinduism would be an example of that. Some say, no, there is a dark side to reality, it’s all the devils’ fault and the devil is then elevated in practice to a second god- that is called dualism. But we are told here that the serpent is just a creature created by God and was originally good. In fact the Bible doesn’t even attempt to answer the question. It affirms that God is pure and no evil can originate from him and yet it also affirms he is sovereign over everything and nothing happens outside his control and good purpose. And perhaps it is for our benefit that we don’t know the answer to the origin of evil, because if we did, then like Adam and Eve we would simply use it as an excuse. Why did the man disobey? Why did the woman decide to go her own way? The simple and irreducible answer is that they chose to. There may be all sorts of mitigating circumstances and influences upon us when we are faced with temptation, but at the end of the day we have to say we choose to sin, no one forces us to. The only valid response we are to have for our misdoings is not to look around for someone to blame, but to own up- confess that we are the guilty ones.

And so God gives his judgement- and we see how death in its various forms are God’s judicial pronouncements- the sentencing for sin.

We then have the death of peace between the man and the woman- the loss of relational peace. Look at verse 16, ‘To the woman (the Lord God) said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." Now this is a difficult verse to understand. It could be understood in two ways. The literal translation is, ‘To the husband your desire, and he will rule over you- or -he must rule over you.’ One view is that the term ‘desire’ is a good and proper one. It is a word used only three times in the OT, another is in the Song of Solomon 7:10, where the woman is speaking, ‘I am my beloved and his desire is for me.’ So it could be a proper desire for love and affection and the security it provides. But the rule over the woman is then understood as a hard response, the man is severe in not giving what she wants. And we sadly see this taking place in some relationships where the man is quite frankly abusive and you wonder why the woman manages to stay in that kind of relationship? Or as sometimes happens a woman moves from one abusive relationship to another- her desire remains. That is how some take this. But there is another possibility. If you cast your eye over to chapter 4 and the story of Cain and Abel, we read in verse 7, ‘But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, it desires to have you, but you must master it.’ The same two words as in chapter 3: 16- ‘desire’ and ‘rule.’ Here in chapter 4 sin wants to dominate and has to be resisted. So if applied to chapter 3 the idea would be that the woman will be inclined to usurp the man’s authority, to ‘rule the roost’ as it were, doing what Eve did and Adam allowed her to do, namely, for her to decide to go it alone and call the shots. And in turn the man, lovingly and gently should seek to correct this, exercising loving headship within the family. That would fit with what Paul teaches elsewhere, in 1Timothy 2 for instance. But whichever interpretation you opt for the overall impression is that friction will exist between men and women in general and husband and wife in particular, there is a power struggle going on- a battle of the sexes- and somehow that peace needs to be restored.

Then there is the death of peace with creation- the loss of the creational relationship- v 17, To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Work as we saw in chapters 1 and 2 is good, a means of reflecting something of our god-like image. But that has been given a new twist, it will now be burdensome. There is the element of drudgery and toil introduced and which of us does not find this to be so, no matter how much we enjoy our work. There is that sense of frustration- whether it is the washing machine breaking down again or the assignment which is not up to scratch.

And finally we read of death- death, ‘dust you are and to dust you shall return.’ Death the great leveller, that which mocks all our achievements and seems to render them ultimately meaningless. As you grow older you wonder where have all the years gone and what have I really achieved that will actually last? Hence the mid-life crisis. This has been the focus of many of the major playwrights and thinkers of the 20th century- people like Becket and Sartre. So we have Samuel Becket’s play, ‘Breath’. It only lasts one minutes and 20 seconds. The stage curtain goes up and all is dark, the light slowly comes on to reveal a pile of junk and you hear a human breath which finally expires in death and the lights black out. That is all life amounts to for modern man- a pile of rubbish- here today and gone tomorrow. It is so tragic. And so we are cast out of the garden v 24, left to wonder aimlessly, ever East of Eden, alienated, unsettled- looking for peace but never finding it. I told you Genesis 3 was depressing didn’t I? And it is meant to be.

And left to ourselves that is all we would be left with. But thankfully we are not left to ourselves. This God whom the serpent portrays as so mean and petty shows himself to be anything but. It is because God is so merciful and so full of pity that there is hope- hence the mercy of the Maker.

Notice how God is a seeking God- v 9. ‘The LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" – not because he didn’t know, but because he wants to treat humans with dignity, as being accountable to him for our actions-we are not a pile of rubbish. He seeks out his wayward creatures to find them. If there is ever a long search going on in the Bible it is not man trying to find God, but God seeking out man. The initiative always lies with God- for that is the kind of God he is who will not abandon us to stew in our own juice, he will come and search us out at whatever the cost.

Which leads to the next feature-God is the saving God- v15. Speaking to the serpent who is directly cursed, we read, ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring (seed|) and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."’ God is not going to allow Satan simply to have his own way, as it were, without a fight. Satan is not going to have it easy- there will always be human beings who will oppose evil, having a holy hostility to all that is dark and demeaning in the world. And many of them will not be Christians but will still be committed to fighting evil- rescuing people from drugs and trafficking, catching criminals, exposing cheats-of course, that is part of God’s common grace, so we do not have hell on earth and we should thank God for that. But there is also an element of irony in the way God is going to go about bringing down Satan and rescuing people. Look again very carefully at v15, ‘He (that is the seed of the woman) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." Now isn’t that an ironic twist? The very instrument that Satan used to bring ruin to humankind, the woman is going to be the very means he uses to bring ruin to the serpent. Don’t you find it interesting that given the importance the Jewish religion places upon circumcision as a sign of God’s promise, that when it comes to the crucial moment in history when God acts decisively to save us- man- as man- is bypassed- Joseph has no role to play in bringing the Saviour into the world- it is Mary. That, I think is what this verse is predicting. As the apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 4:4 ,’ But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons.’ There was to be a descendent of Adam and Eve who would bring about Satan’s destruction and reversal of all that we see here. The miracle being that this descendent would be God himself- the Son. And the decisive battle was to take place on another ‘tree’ – Calvary. There Satan thought that he had finally triumphed, getting the children of Adam to rebel against their Maker yet again, but this time to murder him. Now what will God do to his precious creatures? No second chance this time. But God was doing something hidden from Satan. Satan may have hurt the ‘heel’ of God’s Son, he bled, he died, but it was not final because of the resurrection. What God was doing was delivering the final death blow to Satan, for on the cross, the sins of Adam and Eve, you sins and mine, were being dealt with as placed upon Jesus, he paid the penalty, he took the punishment, so that Satan’s ace is torn up. He can no longer drag those who trust in Jesus down to hell with him, because they are forgiven, their sins have been dealt with so there is nothing to accuse them of. And just as God provides garments of animal skins to cover the man and the women in verse 21, he provides garments of Christ’s righteousness so that we can stand in God’s presence without shame or fear. God the foe becomes God the friend as we are restored to him. Male- female relationships become sanctified by the Holy Spirit enabling men and women to experience the kind of serving love working together that God originally intended. Even work is transformed so that whatever we do- we can do it as an act of worship. That is the divine genius we have going on here. Isn’t it amazing and we are only in Genesis 3!

If you are here this morning and are not yet a Christian, the despair of Genesis 3 is your despair and it cannot be altered. You may try to alleviate it from time to time, but you cannot escape it. This is life East of Eden and we know it and it hurts. But, it need not remain like that, not if you give up on your resistance to God’s overtures of love and come to this offspring of the woman-the Lord Jesus Christ. He won’t trick you and he certainly won’t reject you. He is inviting you now to accept him. And if you are a Christian aren’t you so grateful to see what he has saved you from and at what a price? The outrageous grace of Genesis 1-3 is still to be had today.

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