A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 26th February 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
Spring has sprung! In the manse garden there are clumps of white snow drops. Crocuses are a riot of yellow and purple. Daffodils are coming into flower. The leaves and stems of tulips are well above ground. Just by our front gate, giving advance notice of summer, foxglove leaves are visible. Soon, they too will be reaching for the sky.
All looks beautiful, but potentially, it’s a scene of deadly danger. Your heart might leap at the prospect of foxgloves, but if you eat some, your heart will literally be racing. In both folk medicine and conventional medicine, foxgloves have been used as a heart stimulant. Ingesting any part of the foxglove, especially its leaves, can lead to severe poisoning.
And don’t try nibbling any crocus, daffodil or tulip, if you know what’s good for you. All of them, at least in part, are poisonous. They could make you quite ill. Our gardens are the location for many poisonous plants. It’s sobering to think that such places of beauty can also be places of danger. You can see why someone who lived thousands of years ago, who wanted to give us insight into our existential human reality whereby we are our own worst enemies; whereby we are a danger to ourselves; whereby we are out of tune with the wishes and will of our maker; expressed this in story form, which featured danger lurking amidst the beauty of a garden.
‘And the LORD commanded the man [the human being], “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”.’ (2:16, 17) Well, you can’t say you weren’t warned!
This commandment sets the scene for the encounter between the ‘crafty’ (3:1) serpent and the woman and man. God has put humankind into a garden – Eden – ‘to till it and keep it.’ (2:15) According to the unnamed author of Genesis, we are gardeners, given the job of getting our hands dirty in looking after the world, helping it to bloom and flourish. We are not empowered to do just anything we want with or to the world around us.
Here, in the biblical Genesis story, that limitation on our authority on earth is portrayed in terms of humankind being expressly forbidden from eating from just one tree: ‘from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ (2:17) Only God has the authority to go everywhere and do anything in the garden of life. If we insist on trespassing into territory reserved for God there will be consequences, and these will be deadly.
You don’t need me to tell you about our tendency we do things that we should not do, because, like me, all of you do things that you know you should not do. It’s an escapable part of our human condition. On a rational level it makes no sense to do something that damages ourselves, or might even kill us, but that does not stop us doing so. Why is that? What can be done about that? Is there any hope that we can be healed of this self-destructive streak that runs throughout the human race? These questions are addressed here in Genesis.
In these verses, our inability to be the people we should be is connected with our tendency to ignore God, and our attempts to be God. Not surprisingly this gets humankind into a mess. We trash the planet we live upon. We fight wars across its land. We let people go hungry and starve because we won’t share its harvest. Also, when we ignore God and/or try to behave as though we are God, our personal and communal relationships – with family, friends and neighbours – suffer. And, of course, when they (being human) are as bad as us in this regard, we all suffer the more.
Adam and Even – humankind – ignore God, choosing to listen to other voices; in this case, the voice of a crafty serpent. God tells humankind one vital thing, but the serpent claims that God’s warning is “fake news”. Instead, ‘you will not die … you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (3:4, 5)
One of the greatest challenges facing us in this country today is the absence of God in human consciousness. In a previous era, the existence of God would have been taken for granted, even if that did not lead everyone to live a good life, based upon love of God and others. Now though, in every decade, successive national censuses tell us that the percentage of those identifying with any religious belief decreases. Last time around, the 2021 national census reported more people in England describing themselves as non-religious than those who ticked the ‘Christian’ box. We are increasingly reliant on Muslims to keep alive “the rumour of the existence of God”.
On one level that’s no surprise. Many people who previously self-identified as Christian were already notably absent from the life of the church. Now their words are more consistent with their actions. But we don’t make life-decisions in a moral vacuum. We listen to the voices of others. From childhood onwards, these voices influence our moral choices. If you don’t seek to listen out for God’s voice in deciding the course of our lives, to what voices are we paying attention? Might these include the voice of a crafty serpent?
Removing God from our collective consciousness leaves a vacuum, and human nature abhors such a vacuum. In Genesis, when humankind removes God our creator from the story, we seek to replace God with ourselves. The crafty serpent tells us to ignore God so, ‘your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.’ (3:5) The suggestion is that dispensing with God is part of growing up, of becoming adult. The problem with that suggestion is that it’s a lie.
In the Genesis story, once the man and the woman decide to eat the forbidden fruit they become aware of their human limitations and frailties – ‘their eyes were opened.’ Exclusion from Eden and from God follows on immediately. By the next chapter in the story, one human being has murdered another. In the chapters that follow widespread human wickedness brings further catastrophe.
The serpent’s promise is that by dispensing with God we will become like God, and replace God, but the outcome is that we become less than human. We experience that awful reality through our personal failings, and in what we see, hear and read in the news every day of the week. This Genesis story confronts us with the reality of a sinful orientation, and its unfortunate outcomes, but what can be done about it? For an answer to that question we need to look to the Gospel.
Here, in Matthew’s Gospel, once again someone is being subjected to temptations by a crafty one: make bread from stones and gain the support of the people; throw yourself from the temple and force God to dance to your tune; rule the nations of the world, as long as it is as the devil’s deputy. Once again the temptation is to ignore God, or to seize authority that is equal to or greater than God’s. The difference, however, is that the one tempted this time – Jesus – is more than equal to the struggle.
Should I supply people with food, as though politics and economics is all that matters in life? No! Human beings are also spiritual creatures, dependent upon God’s word. Should I bargain with God, or attempt to bend God to my will? Don’t be such a fool as to put the Lord your God to the test. Shall I seize power, at whatever level, but by wrong means? No! God is the one demands my allegiance.
And we’re told that at this second meeting, this second person, this second representative human being, this second ‘Adam’, overcomes the tempter: ‘then the devil left him, and … angels came and waited on him.’ (4:11)
And that gives us hope. It’s not hope based upon just doing what Jesus did, though, as much as possible, that’s what we should do; that’s the sort of careful listening to God and serving of God that we should attempt. We know, however, that we are still not cured of what ails us in terms of falling short and failing to do right. Ultimately, then, our hope lies in Jesus being more than a good, even exemplary, human being. Our hope depends on Jesus being from God, on Jesus being God here on earth. Our hope resides in that God, in Jesus, is doing what we cannot do, so that we can be saved from ourselves.
As the hymn writer, John Henry Newman put it: ‘O wisest love that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.’ This season of Lent, in today’s Genesis story we are confronted with our human failings and our human plight. But that’s not the whole story, for in Jesus we find God at work to put everything right. So thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ rescues us, saving us from ourselves. Amen.