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Of Eden and Advent

 

Luke 1:46-55
Genesis 3

I: Why is there unrelenting tension between men and women? Women feel set upon by men, victimized, violated even. In the wake of the feminist protest men feel misunderstood, maligned, even conspired against.

Why is the struggle for survival just that, a struggle? We wouldn’t mind working hard if we knew that fruitfulness followed our work as surely as night follows day. But whether we are farmers or physicians, office-workers or educators, something is always going wrong; we are never clear of frustration; we are forever having to scramble and scrabble.

Why is it that mere difference between groups of people becomes the occasion of lethal hostility? As slight a difference as the difference between brown skin and white skin and black skin shouldn’t precipitate mayhem and murder. But it does!

Why are we profoundly discontented ourselves? We thought that the new house would make us happy — and it did, for three weeks or so. The new car lifted our spirits — until our neighbour drove up with a costlier car.

Why is it that humankind never advances? To be sure, we make progress in the realm of science; that is, we progress insofar as we harness nature. But humankind itself makes no progress at all. Our foreparents sinned and suffered and slew; we sin and suffer and slay. History, we have learned, is the history of warfare. Having learned this, however, we still are powerless to do anything about it.

Why is it that everyone blames everyone else for what’s wrong? The socialist blames the stony-hearted capitalist with his exploitative greed. The capitalist blames the masses with their pleasure-loving shortsightedness and their irresponsible undependability. Everyone points the finger and says, “It’s your fault!”

Our foreparents contended with bubonic plague; then with smallpox; then with tuberculosis. Now we contend with aids and its social aftermath. Is humankind on a treadmill?

Here is my last question, a different question. Why is the gospel “good news”? Wherein is it good news? If it’s genuinely good, it has to be more than news, because the last thing we need is more words. If it is genuinely good, then it has to be a new reality.

II: — Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Today we begin looking ahead to the birth of him whom St.John describes as “the remedy for the defilement of our sins.” In order to understand our defilement — its nature, its scope, its inescapability — we must go back to the old, old story of the Fall.

Adam and Eve — “humankind” and “mother of the living” is what their names mean respectively. This story is a parable of every man and every woman.

In this profound saga God has placed Adam and Eve in a garden; Eden, it is called, the Hebrew word for “delight”. Life is blessed here. Everything they need to nourish themselves is ready-to-hand. God’s provision attests his goodness, kindness, helpfulness. There is one thing, however, which they are to avoid. They must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now “good and evil” is a Hebrew expression meaning, “everything you can think of; the sum total of human possibilities.” Imagine yourself doing anything at all; I mean anything. The sum total of these “anythings at all” is what the Hebrew mind means by “good and evil”.n Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for one reason: God loves them, God blesses them, God protects them. Among these “anythings at all” which we imagine ourselves doing; among these are a great many which do not bless: they curse us. Among these are many which do not enrich us; they impoverish us. Many do not protect us; they expose us to influences and powers which are ultimately fatal.

A physician-friend of mine dropped over to see me one evening. He asked me if I knew what the single largest threat to public health was in the world today. I didn’t. He told me: promiscuity. Then we talked about “crack”. The first wave of crack-babies has entered school. Already it is incontrovertible that these children have attention spans so short that they are not going to learn anything; they bristle with the ugliest hostility, and they are unable to form any conscience at all. Does anyone still doubt that there are some “anythings at all” which really are ruinous? The two I have mentioned are dramatic and glaring. There are other “anythings at all” which are far more subtle; discernment is needed to recognize them. Yet discern we should, since in eden, Eden, God wants only to protect us and bless us.

In our ancient story (as relevant, of course as today’s newspaper which confirms it one hundred times over) temptation is personified by a talking snake. (Don’t laugh; even fairy tales are always profound.) Temptation personified says softly, “Now about this tree whose fruit you are not to eat; did God really say you were not to eat it? Did he really say that?” In other words, temptation casts doubt on the command of God. And since God loves us, to cast doubt on the command of God is to cast aspersion on the love of God and the goodness of God. At this point all of us are whispering to ourselves, “God didn’t say it; or if he did, he had no business saying it; he must be a spoilsport; he is certainly arbitrary.” First we doubt the goodness of God’s command; then we deny that violating it will turn blessing into curse.

In our old story the woman replies to the serpent, “God says that we aren’t to eat of this tree; furthermore, he said we aren’t even to touch it.” She is lying! She exaggerates. As soon as she exaggerates she lies! God never said they weren’t to touch it. She is making this up herself. First, doubt of the goodness of the command of God; second, denial that violating it (violating God himself) turns blessing into curse; third, inventing a law of life for ourselves. We make ourselves lawgivers; we decide by what code we should live. The living voice of the living God isn’t heard at all now, because we are telling ourselves what we think renders life blessed.

The serpent has all of us on the slippery slopes now. The serpent says, “I’m aware that God said you would die; that is, be estranged from God himself, with horrible consequences — I’m aware that God said you would die if you extended your lives into those “anythings at all” which he says are ruinous. But what does he know? You won’t die! Just the opposite! You will be exalted. Your consciousness will be altered. Your mood will be elevated. Life will be beautiful. You will be freed up as never before. Your self-awareness will be expanded until you feel you are the centre of the universe. Your self-confidence will be inflated until you feel there is nothing you can’t succeed at. You will have a perspective on life that you have never had before — the same perspective as that of God himself.”

Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Yada”, the Hebrew verb to know, doesn’t have the force of “to acquire information”. We modern folk assume that to know something is to have information about that thing. To know automobiles is to have information about horsepower and wheel bases. But for our Hebrew foreparents to know always has the force of personal acquaintance with a reality. To know sorrow is to be personally acquainted with grief. To know pain is to be in pain. To know God is to be personally acquainted with God himself. Not to know God is to thrust off God himself; to repudiate him and spurn his goodness and his protection and his blessing. Not to know God, therefore, is to know ‘good and evil’. It is to have personal acquaintance, intimate acquaintance with that reality which impoverishes life, curses it, and ultimately destroys it.

AND THIS IS WHERE WE ALL LIVE! We are — every one of us — profoundly alienated from God, hauntingly alienated, fatally alienated.

III: — And then the question which God puts to Adam, to everyone: “Where are you?” Well, where are you? Where am I? Speaking for all of us Adam says to God, “I’m hiding from you.” How silly! As if anyone could hide from God! Adam is now as ridiculous as the four year old playing hide ‘n’ seek who thinks that because she regards herself hidden away no one else can see her or find her.

To be a fallen human being (which all of us are) is to flee God, flee into hiding, ridiculously thinking that we can hide from God. Our situation fails to be humorous simply because it is tragic. After all, life is not a game. We have said to God, “We don’t want you.” And God has said to us, “You don’t have to have me. But then neither do you have to have my goodness, my protection, my blessing. To do without me — your preference! — is to be stuck with the consequences of doing without me.”

There is something we must understand clearly. To thrust away the only righteous ruler of the earth is to be stuck with manifold unrighteousness and its spinoffs. To cast aspersion on the goodness of God is to wade around in wickedness. To disdain God’s protection is to be defenceless against exploitative evil. To assume that God’s wisdom can be improved upon is to be poisoned with the unwisdom of folly. In a word, to forfeit blessing is to be stuck with curse. AND THIS IS WHERE WE ALL LIVE!

“But can’t we go back to Eden?”, someone asks with more than a hint of desperation. Many attempts are made. All utopias are an attempt at recovering Eden. All such attempts are going to fail. Marxism was such an attempt. Its failure is writ large. Every pronouncement that men and women are only the product of their environment reflects another attempt. Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” — that primitive peoples were somehow intrinsically virtuous and were corrupted only by civilization — another attempt. Anyone who disagrees with Jeremiah — “The heart of many is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt” — anyone who thinks that Jeremiah exaggerates assumes that Eden can be recovered. In our ancient story an angel with a flaming sword bars the way to the tree of life in the garden. We can’t go back and seize the tree of life ourselves and undo the deadly curse we have brought down on ourselves. We cannot resurrect ourselves. We cannot restore ourselves. The flaming sword which turns every which way in the hand of the angel fends off any and all who are so naive and foolish as to think that they or their scheme can undo the Fall and its consequences. Eden cannot be recovered. Looking back is pointless just because going back is impossible.

IV: — Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season of longing, of waiting, of expectancy. What are we longing for? We long for Eden. Not everyone uses this vocabulary. Most people long for they know not what. In truth, nonetheless, they long for Eden. What are they waiting for? They are waiting for someone who can undo Eden’s curse. Why the expectancy? Because deep down they want to be delivered from the dis-ease which keeps gnawing at them. They are mature enough to realize that the grab-bag of grown-up trinkets and toys does nothing to the halt the dis-ease which haunts them. But since there is no return to Eden the entire world must be doomed to unending frustration.

Not so! Advent reminds us that we are not to look back, but ahead. In Advent we stand on tiptoe anticipating the very blessing which we cannot give ourselves. In Advent we await Christmas as eagerly as the youngster awaits opening the first gift. THE gift of Christmas for us all, of course, is that new addition to the human family which is more than an addition; the gift is he himself who is both humanity renewed and lord of the renewed humanity.

Advent recalls another woman speaking. Not Eve rationalizing her capitulation to temptation; this time it’s Mary exulting in her service to the world. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour… henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” Generations to come will call her blessed, for in her child what we have lost and cannot recover ourselves God has given us just because in his mercy he will suffer anything himself to save us from our self-inflicted misery.

Adam and Eve succumbed to the blandishments of the tempter. But the Christmas child, grown up, will resist the tempter in the wilderness, resist throughout his ministry, resist again in another garden (Gethsemane, this time), resist finally on the cross when mockers tell him he might as well unhook himself since he is not doing any good in any case.

In the garden of Eden we were barred from storming the tree of life in an effort to save ourselves. We are not allowed to arrogate to ourselves what rightly belongs to God alone. Yet by God’s mercy there is another tree. Concerning this tree no angel with flaming sword bars us access. Instead access is guaranteed us and the invitation is sounded continuously: “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” What hangs from this tree we are urged to taste and so to see for ourselves that God is good indeed.

The apostles discerned that in Jesus Christ we were given not only that saviour whom we need individually. With him we are introduced to a new world. In other words, our Lord brings a renewed creation with him. All who cling to him in faith find their renewed life unfolding in a new world, a new environment.

For this reason Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female. He doesn’t mean that gender-distinction is eliminated in a unisex muddle. He means that gender-distinction is preserved and enriched just because gender-hostility is overcome. In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile. He doesn’t mean that the distinction is eliminated. (Paul was always aware that the gentile world never lets Jews forget that they are Jews; he was also aware that God requires Jews not to forget that they are Jews. He insists that in Christ (and in Christ alone is what he means) the deepest-grained hostility anywhere in the world — the hostility between Jew and non-Jew — is overcome. And if this hostility is overcome in Christ, any hostility is as well. What other instances of renewed life in a renewed world can you share with the rest of us?

A few minutes ago we saw that to do without God, to want to do without God, is to do without God’s blessing and therefore live under curse. But in the One who is God incarnate there is blessing only. How could there be anything else? And therefore in his company that disease which can neither be named nor denied is eclipsed by gratitude for him whose name we now know, whose name, Yehoshuah, means “God saves”, and whom we have no wish to deny.

In Christ our dust-to dust exile is overarched by the promise of resurrection: our destiny is not death, decomposition of body and dissolution of personhood. Our destiny is eternal life at God’s own hand.

The last question I left with you in introduction of the sermon was, “Why is the gospel good news?” It’s good news not in the sense that it is up-to-the-minute information (like Barbara Frum’s broadcast.) It is good news just because it announces a new reality so winsome as to breathe its own invitation.

In Advent we don’t look back in nostalgia and regret; we look ahead in eagerness and confidence. For there is given to us the one whom all humankind craves, whom Christians know to be Jesus the Christ, and who caused Mary’s heart to sing, even as he will make our hearts sing for ever and ever.

F I N I S

Victor Shepherd