Trust – March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Can we trust God? It seems like an important question today, on this first Sunday of Lent, when we hear of Jesus being led into the wilderness to face temptation. Can God be trusted to bring Jesus through the experience, as unscathed as possible? Can we trust God in our journey, just begun, through our Lenten wilderness, whatever it may bring?
If we believe Jesus’ story as the one we too follow, then our journey is one more working out of a cosmic battle between good and evil. Jesus was tested, in the most difficult of circumstances, as were so many others of our ancestors in faith. We get to read about many of them through Lenten Madness. Today we also hear of a much earlier version of the cosmic struggle between good and evil played out not in the wilderness, but in a garden. It is a story of our beginnings, the beginnings of humanity, way back in Genesis, that troubles any easy or glib answer to the question: Can we trust God?
The Lord God whom we believe to be faithful and true, in whose word we trust, told the first man: “You may freely eat 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.” It is a simple and straight forward command with clear, if extreme, consequences for not following it. If you eat the fruit of the designated tree, you will die that very day. The man must have remembered the rule, for how long we don’t know, and told it to the partner God made for him. We can assume so because the first woman repeats God’s command, with a bit of an expansion, when questioned by a serpent.
At this point, we can just go ahead and admit that this is not a literal, or historical, event. It is a sacred story, a theological narrative, that as a community, we have decided to hold as true and authoritative. This is so even though we know that serpents only have conversations with humans in the ancient world of the bible and in Harry Potter’s magical world. In the history of interpretation, the serpent has been understood as a stand-in for evil… evil personified, the devil. Like the story of Jesus’ temptation today, this story implies that it is about a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Many of the best stories are. It is worth noting that there is no mention of a devil, so maybe the serpent is just a serpent. A talking serpent, admittedly, but unless we’re going to go down the road of wondering if the first people were, in fact parseltongues, like Harry Potter, we just need to accept it for the story that it is. No scientific or intellectual gymnastics required.
So… The crafty serpent contradicts God, implying that God is insecure in the divine identity: “You will not die;” the serpent says, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” What a temptation! To be like God. It is maybe *the* temptation, for which many have reached and had a taste. We can hardly condemn the woman in our story without honestly reflecting on ourselves. The woman sees the desirability of the forbidden fruit… its goodness as food; its delight to the eye; its promise of wisdom… and she eats. Her partner, though silent, also eats. The stated consequence of death be damned. The desire to be like God is more powerful even than the prospect of death. And so the couple eat.
And their eyes are opened to their nakedness. Woman and man immediately see their world differently and take action in response by making themselves loincloths to wear. But they don’t die. It turns out that the serpent told the truth, in terms of the concrete reality. We can’t know about God’s motivations. But it does turn out that God lied. Now, the choice of the first people to disobey God’s command has consequences. Each one involved in the incident – the man, the woman and the serpent – must live with a consequence. But that consequence isn’t immediate death. God lied about what the consequence of eating the fruit of that particular tree would be. It sorta complicates what we believe about God – Who we believe God to be. Can God really be trusted?
This might be the first time in the biblical story that the consequences God states for disobedience or bad behaviour don’t quite match up with what actually happens. But it is not the only time. The prophet Jonah doesn’t go as far as to call God a liar, but Jonah does get pretty mad when God doesn’t follow through on properly punishing the people of Nineveh for their wickedness. God told Jonah to go preach to the wicked Ninevites, which Jonah does only after a little convincing on God’s part. When the Ninevites finally hear Jonah’s preaching of the word of God; they believe and repent, and “God changed his mind about the calamity at he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10) Jonah then calls God out on this sudden and unexpected reversal: “That is why I fled [at first]” Jonah protests, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2) How dare you!
This list of God’s qualities is a standard one. It is the basic creed of the Hebrew people – their basic beliefs about God – with the one small addition at the end: “God relents from punishing…” The verb translated as ‘relents’ can also be translated as ‘repent’. And so Jonah says that one of God core qualities is repentance. God turns from anger, and from vengeance, as part of God’s most basic and most central characteristics. It is a list, a creed, a promise… also found in the prophet Joel and often read on Ash Wednesday. It serves to tell us, or remind us, that when God is being God, God repents of meting out disastrous punishment, even when it is most richly deserved. And so it seems that the truth is, God can’t be trusted… to act with vengeance, or wholesale destruction or death. Even when God is most angry with the people God loves… death and destruction are off the table as expressions of that anger, or God ceases to be God. For God is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love.
God’s commitment to repentance, even for God’s own self… God’s commitment to grace… has annoyed more than a few people over the years. Jonah took God to task for it, angry that God didn’t follow through on the threat of destruction for the Ninevites. When the people make and worship a golden calf in the desert, because they think Moses has taken too long up on Mount Sinai, Moses talks God down from acting with violence towards the people God loves. We hear it again in the parable of the Loving Father who loves his younger, prodigal, son so much, he welcomes him home with a big party, much to the dismay of the older, ever faithful, son. It is we who think punishment is the way to go. It is we who choose violence. And we project our desire for vengeance onto God. And then we’re annoyed, even furious, when God doesn’t live up to our expectations… not only towards those we see as enemies, but even towards our own selves. But God is not beholden to us and our beliefs about God. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing.
The good news today is that God cannot be trusted to follow through on threats of destruction, punishment and death. When the first people disobeyed God’s instructions, not doing as God commanded, they had to live with the consequences. Their lives got harder as they were expelled from the garden and had to work harder for all they had been given in the first place. But they didn’t die on the day of their disobedience. God lied about that. Because from the beginning, God has been a God of life. With God, grace abounds. That is what we can trust.