Love Amid the Mess

In part two of our series, The Big Story, we dug into the tragedy of the Fall.  While creation was originally adorned with not just beauty and splendor, but holiness and righteousness, it didn’t stay that way.  We broke it.  And yet, God refused to let sin have the last word.  Even in the midst of the mess of the Fall there was one thing God kept doing.  Keep reading to find out what this was…

Love Amid the Mess

Have you ever totally blown it?  I’m not talking a little explosion.  I’m talking, you rolled out the big guns, pointed them right at the stockpile of ammunition, and blew the whole fort to pieces.  If you’ve lived very long we’ve all done that at least once.  You may still be trying to recover from it.  Usually explosions that large leave a crater that even when once the ground has recovered from the blast still leaves a mark that everyone can see years later.  Where we came from near Petersburg, VA, there is the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  The highlight of the drive through the Civil War battlefield is known as “the Crater.”  It’s this giant hole in the ground where the attacking Union soldiers exploded a mine up next to the defenses of the Confederates stationed there in order to breech the lines and win the battle.  The hole is still there.  They even named a road after it: Crater Road.

Craters like this in our lives are hard to cover up.  They have implications for future generations.  In revealing Himself and His nature to Moses, God describes Himself like this: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  Now, that’s a pretty remarkable statement of God’s faithfully loving graciousness with us, but some folks get stuck on that last part.  They wrestle with it sounding awfully unfair of God to visit the sins of a father on his children and even his grandchildren.  But I would argue it is actually a mark of God’s grace that He limits the effects of sin to only 3-4 generations.  Parents who struggle with sin very often pass on their sin struggles to their kids and their kids on to their grandkids and so on and so forth as long as the parent is alive.  Usually, once the parent dies, the impact of the sin begins to wane.  Well, how many generations might a single parent see?  Three to four.  What’s more, all parents do this.  If you are a parent, you have some sin struggle that is going to get passed on to your kids.  It will.  You can’t help it.  The sin is out there in your life, your kids see it, and they copy it.  They’ll have their own struggles with sin to be sure, but yours will impact them.  Congratulations, have a great day, and we’ll see you next week!

Seriously, though, what’s the deal with this?  Why do we do this?  Why do we get stuck in patterns like this that do harm both to us and to the people around us?  Why do we blow up perfectly good situations in our lives?  Why is it that our best efforts can’t ever seem to be able to contain it?  It’s almost like we’re broken from the inside out and unless we can get some help the problems just keep perpetuating themselves.  As a matter of fact, that is exactly the case and this morning I’d like to talk with you about why that is.

We are in the second week of our series, The Big Story.  The whole idea of this series is that while we often spend time looking at the details of the Scriptures, we don’t often reflect on what the overarching story is.  In spite of its composition process the various ancient writings collected in what we call the Bible tell a single story when assembled together just like the individual Power Rangers’ vehicles assemble into Megazord or the Lion Force riders combine to create Voltron.  (And, yes, those references were primarily for folks who grew up in the 80s…you’re welcome.)  And, unless we understand this overarching story, we are not going to fully be able to understand the details because where they fit in the story helps determine what they mean.  Thus, in this series we are looking at Scripture from 30,000 feet to make sure we understand the big story in order that we might properly understand the details.

Last week we started this journey where every journey should be started: at the beginning.  We looked at the story of creation found in Genesis 1-2.  We saw how everything began.  Essentially it was a party in the beginning.  Everything was perfect.  Everything was awesome.  God designed an exquisite, creative, orderly, beautiful world for us to enjoy.  Then he put us in charge of it all.  We had the job of deciding what to call everything.  We were the caretakers.  We got to enjoy the unspoiled splendor of God’s garden, savoring the sweetest and most succulent fruits creation had to offer.  You are part of a good story.  But then one day things went…awry…very awry.

This morning we are going to look at the second part of the big story of Scripture: the Fall.  This is the tragic part of the story and it would be nice to skip over it and jump straight to redemption, but we can’t.  We can’t actually understand redemption until we understand the Fall.  We can’t understand the need for redemption until we understand the Fall.  We need to understand how it happened, why it happened, and the results of it happening to the best of our ability with the Scriptures as our guide.

The story here starts in Genesis 3.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and turn there with me.  I’ll start reading at the beginning of the chapter and then we’ll talk about what we’ve seen.  From Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’  And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  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.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.  And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”

And as this giant “Oops,” was settling on the pair, “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”  Gulp!  So they did what seems to us—but which surely hadn’t been for them up to that point—the entirely natural thing: “…and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’  And he said,” Surprise!  You found me!  Good game, God, now it’s your turn to hide.”  Come on, that’s not what it says.  Verse 10: “And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’  [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’”  So with a heavy heart, the man said, “Yes, Lord, I did.  I’m so sorry for not doing what you told me.  Can you please forgive me and let me once again enjoy Your splendid presence?”  Boy that would have been nice, wouldn’t it?  Yet sin had been let loose in the world and it wasn’t about to slow its forward progress for something as petty as an apology.

Instead of apologizing the man jutted out his finger and said in v. 12: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.  Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’  The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”  At this point in the story God takes action.  He hands out explicit curses to the serpent, the woman, and the man.  Nothing has ever been the same since.  They blew up the whole fort and we’re still feeling the effects of the blast.

So what’s going on here?  How are we to understand this second major division of God’s story and what is our part in it?  Let’s take a minute to unpack some of the details and big questions of the story and then we’ll talk about what it means.  Jumping back to the beginning, the story starts with the observation that “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.”  Let’s ask the question everybody asks here: Was there a talking snake in the Garden of Eden?  Are we modern, scientifically-literate members of the 21st century supposed to believe in a talking snake?  It seems like that puts this in the realm of fairytale, not history.  What gives?

A couple of thoughts here: First, talking animals aren’t totally beyond the pale as far as the Scriptures go.  In Numbers, Moses reports that God gave Balaam a message right out of his…donkey.  Furthermore, even modern people know about talking animals.  I saw this parrot once that could sing Jingle Bells.  And there’s this dog on YouTube that can say “I love you.”  Second and more to the point, whether or not there was a literal talking snake does not change the facts of the story.  That being said, beyond what modern science and human experience tell us (neither of which are exhaustive sources of knowledge), we don’t have good reason to doubt it.  It becomes clear as the story progresses that the serpent itself wasn’t the problem, but the evil force—Satan—that was using it.  The question becomes: Does Satan have the power to speak to us using an animal as his medium?  I don’t see why not.  This was a supernatural event and unless you reject all supernatural—which would render you not a Christian since the resurrection was a supernatural event—there’s no real reason not to take the story at face value here.  Third and maybe most importantly, Jesus would have taken this story at face value and if He believed it, I think we’re pretty safe to do so as well.

In any event, if we really want to understand what was going on here, we need to understand the nature of the temptation that was set before Eve.  At a glance it looks like she was simply tempted to eat some fruit from a tree that God had told them (apparently arbitrarily) they couldn’t use for food.  But when we look just a bit closer there’s a whole lot more going on.  From the serpent’s initial question onward it is clearly trying to convince the woman to want what God had told them they could not have.  It begins by deliberately misquoting God.  “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”  The answer of course is no, God didn’t say that.  But out of the gate the serpent paints God as deliberately trying to keep something from the man and woman.  The woman corrects the serpent’s misquotation, but then adds something to it.  No, God said we can eat from any of the trees…except this one…and we’re not even supposed to touch that one or we’ll die.  Well, she was partially right.  They weren’t supposed to eat from that tree, but God didn’t say anything about not touching.  So you see, the woman has already started leaning in the direction of the serpent’s trap.

The next bit of dialogue pushes things even further in this direction.  The woman’s addition to God’s command—don’t even touch it—made it seem she believed that if they got near it they would simply drop dead.  The serpent accurately corrects this false assumption: You will not surely die.  It goes on to make it seem even more like God was keeping something from them.  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”   The blend of truth and deception here is complex.  God did indeed know that if the first couple ate from the tree their eyes would be opened.  It would open their eyes to a fuller view of the world and the options available to them as free people than they were able to handle.  While we can only speculate here, I think we can do so on fairly firm ground.  There are hard truths about how the world works that as adults we need to know, but whose knowledge cannot benefit us until we are mature enough to handle them.  In other words, kids don’t need to know them.  Now, we don’t know how long Adam and Eve had been on the earth at this point in the story, but at least as far as evil was concerned, the couple were as naïve as they could be.  In eating from this tree—not the eating itself, mind you, but the decision to do so—they were going to very quickly come into a whole world of knowledge about the limits of the freedom God intended for them to have and enjoy to the fullest that they weren’t yet prepared to handle.  And, just like a child learning about some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature too soon can do her great harm, this knowledge was going to destroy them.

Contrary to what the serpent said, though, eating would not make them like God in their knowledge.  As a matter of fact, they were already like God.  They were the only creatures in all of creation who were made in His image.  There was no growing more like God without becoming gods themselves.  And, since there is only one God, that’s not an ascension that is logically attainable.  Yes, they would gain a knowledge that God had thus far not shared with them, but as we just said, this was for their own good.  He was not keeping something from them, but rather allowing them to grow naturally into the fullness of their humanity.

This, however, was exactly what the serpent wanted them to think: God was keeping something from them.  And furthermore, it was something good that they should have been granted.  It focused their attention in like a laser on the one thing they had been denied in all of creation.  And isn’t this how sin still gets us?  We fixate on something God has said we can’t have in the way we want to have it until we finally lay our hands on it.  Then we feel smug in our apparent autonomy.  Shame on Him for telling us, “No,” in the first place.  Yet, God was fully within His rights to deny them some part of creation.  He made it.  It belonged to Him.  He had shared liberally, but He was under no obligation to give them anything.  We don’t know why He kept this one thing from them.  We can make guesses, but the fact is that we’re not God and the text doesn’t say.  Our assumption that He couldn’t have had a good reason for this or that He had a bad reason for it are echoes of the very mindset the serpent was actively planting in the minds of the man and the woman.  He was goading them to doubt God’s character, to be skeptical of God’s goodness, to look with cynicism on His wisdom, to receive with ingratitude the gifts of creation on account of the thing they couldn’t have.  And it worked.  When the woman looked at the fruit through this new lens, it all “made sense.”  God had denied them something good and who was He to do that anyway?  She would eat it, then she would be God.

The physical event of this first sin was the eating of a piece of fruit, yes.  But the real sin came before a single bite was taken.  The real sin was in the woman’s—and man’s who was right there with her—decision to step into the place of God, to deny who He was, to refuse the gift of creation as it had been given.  They turned the whole of creation on its head and decided that they would write their own story from that point forward.  They who were made in God’s image and given charge of all of creation—including the beasts of the field—submitted themselves to one of these beasts in an effort to become more like Him who they of all the creatures of the world were already supremely like.  To harken back to the illustration we began with this morning, they blew up the whole fort and every sin that has been committed since is merely an echo of this first one; a reverberation of this initial blast.

And they paid for it.  We have paid for it.  The serpent was cursed to crawl on its belly—a position of submission and humiliation—and ultimately to be crushed by the seed of the woman (that is, Christ).  The woman’s role in fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth would be made many times more painful than it was intended to have been and her relationship to her husband would be broken.  The man in his work was subjected to futility.  Furthermore, all of this has been passed on to us.  Snakes still crawl on their bellies, having children still hurts like crazy—or so I’m told—the relationship between wives and husbands is still broken, and a great deal of our work is rife with futility.  Now, we don’t know exactly how this passing on happens—theologians have and will continue to debate the process—but we know beyond a shadow of doubt that it does because the evidence cannot be missed.  When the man and woman sinned, their nature changed.  Its purity was marred by the evil they had allowed into God’s world and the corruption spread through them until it touched every part inside and out.  In trying to be more like God they enslaved themselves—and all of us—to sin.

Unfortunately, our part in this movement of God’s story is that we all join them in their rebellion.  Every single one of us is both born into sin and accepts the serpent’s temptation of our own volition.  Our part in this story is that we are not only affected by the problem, we contribute to it.  One Fourth of July growing up my dad thought it would be a good idea to set off a bunch of firecrackers in our little charcoal grill.  It was…at first.  They were extra loud in the aluminum drum and the mess was easy to clean up afterwards.  But, they didn’t all blow and when he was grilling a few weeks later he suddenly found the few that were left.  Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, BOOM!  We do the same thing.  We find all the ammunition that didn’t blow and one by one we make sure they don’t get missed.

Now, is all this at least a little depressing?  Yeah, it is.  I knew as I started preparing for this morning a couple of weeks ago that this was going to be more of a downer of a sermon than usual.  When the first man and woman blew it, God threw them out of the Garden.  We lost paradise because they were snookered by a serpent.  But, this was not before God did something important.  In fact, He did two important things.  Let me treat these in reverse order.  First, look at v. 22: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.  Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.”  Perhaps this seems mean of God, but think about it.  Imagine how awful people would be if we lived forever in our current state.  Imagine if someone like Hitler couldn’t have been killed, if Stalin or Mao were still around killing people by the millions.  We’d have destroyed ourselves in no time.  No, by setting limits on the length of our lives God did us a great deed of mercy.  Now, death was not the plan and we are rightly filled with loathing and dread every time we face it, but the good here is that no evil in this life can last forever.  His love for us was still too great to leave us in our sins without recourse.

Now look at v. 21: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”  Remember the end of chapter 2?  They were naked and unashamed.  Not anymore.  God knew what was going on inside of them.  He knew they had learned shame.  He also knew that clothing-making was a pretty new skill set for them since they had been naked up to this point and so before He took away the good they could no longer have He made some clothes for them.  Now, that seems awfully simple, but think about that.  They willfully rebelled against their creator, their father, and He responded by meeting one of their new needs.  This is the teenager who leaves home to get her own apartment because she can’t stand her parents’ stifling rules anymore and her parents’ first act is to buy her a bed so she doesn’t have to sleep on the floor.  What an act of love!  Even in the midst of this incredible mess in which we had broken and corrupted the creation God had over and over again declared to be good He still loved us.  Even in a mess, God loves us.

I don’t care what kind of a mess you have going on in your life right now.  You cannot be totally separated from the love of God.  The apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that in Christ, nothing can separate us from it.  Now, many folks reject it in spite of its availability and eventually the consequences of such a rejection will be hard and fast, but until that time, it matters not the extent of our messes, God loves us.  Even in a mess, God loves us.  Folks, the effects of the Fall were and are awful.  You’ve all seen this firsthand.  You have experienced them in your own life.  You’ve lived far too many days in the midst of a mess; in the midst of a mess of your own making.  And yet, the hope we have from the first mess onward is that even in a mess, God loves us.

God loves us so much that He started working out plans immediately to rescue us from the mess.  Look at v. 15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  In scholarly circles this is called the protoevangelium.  That word means “first good news.”  Not only did God love the man and the woman after they blew up the good thing He had given them by making them clothes, He loved them—and us—by declaring even as the dust was still settling from the blast that He was going to fix this.  He was not going to leave His creation in this broken state.  Now, these plans would take a long time by our standards to come together, but His declaration that the offspring of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent pointed forward toward their fulfillment starting from the moments after the Fall.  Again, the debris from the mess was still settling and God’s first act was to reaffirm His love for us.  Even in a mess, God loves us.  You may be in a mess, but God loves you.  Don’t turn on His love.  You won’t make it without Him.  Receive His love, friends, and come back next week to hear how His plans unfolded in the next part of the story: redemption.

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