We're in our second to last Sunday of a Lenten series on Biblical understandings of sin, how that knowledge can help you better resist temptation and endure the onslaughts of evil, and why these scripture insights into the darker human nature give us all the more reason to celebrate Easter waiting for us at the end of Lent. Today's scripture is perhaps what people most think of when they think about sin: The Fall of Humanity. Before we dive into what I see this text teaching us about sin and salvation, I want to clarify one thing we will not be talking about today. We are not going to explore the debate within Christianity on whether the first 11 chapters of Genesis are true in a literal historical sense or more allegorical in their truth. That is more suited to a class or cafe conversation than a sermon, in my mind, and if you want that chat, you know how to reach me. Suffice to say Christians of unquestionable piety have differed on that matter for centuries, even back to the earliest days of the Church... and whichever view you take on that matter won't affect what we'll be learning today. Your ideas about history don't change the reality of sin. And if nothing else, the story of The Fall is a story of each one of us, in every personal fall we stumble into over and over again.
I got myself into trouble with my oldest sister over Christmas. At the time, I was really into this YouTube channel where this fellow builds ant farms. When I say ant farms, you're picturing those little plastic sheets with sand, right? Well this guy doesn't do that. He gives his ants a more realistic ecosystem. To house a colony of tropical fire ants, for instance, he took a giant terrarium; layered dirts from gravely foundation to nutrient-rich topsoil; introduced a crew of bugs like earthworms and pill bugs to turn recycle that dirt; planted a swath of logs, mosses, and ferns to strengthen the mini-ecosystem; custom-built a fast river current in the front of the terrarium to simulate the Amazon River and give his bugs water; introduced fish, shrimp, and aquatic plants to keep his terrarium's river healthy and eat any stray bugs; and set pipes on a timer over the entire thing simulate tropical rains. All this work recreating a jungle... to house a massive colony of ravenous fire ants. What makes the show so fun is how much the guy cares about his bugs: when the river malfunctioned and flooded the ant nest, for the first time in my life I actually cheered for fire ants... to not die. And his mixed knowledge of nature and hardware was cool to watch, as each step is a little puzzle that fits into the wider puzzle of the habitat as a whole. That Christmas, my nieces loved the show and started asking me all these nature questions. It was only when I saw their excited faces watching the channel that I realized... my sister probably wouldn't appreciate her girls wanting fire ant pets in their home. Oops.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, the Lord operates like my ants YouTuber but on a cosmic scale. Stars are born, planets swirled into being, and plants and animals given life, and at each stage of creation, God calls his handiwork “good.” In Genesis 2 we're told the Lord creates a man to “work and preserve” the garden paradise God has made. Seeing the man was alone, the Lord then creates the woman as a “helper,” a word which in English implies apprenticeship but in the original Hebrew more broadly applies to anyone who gives aid, including God himself at times. So the man and woman in this story are crated in God's image and meant to cooperate as stewards of creation, nurturing and protecting it. But my favorite part is in Genesis 1, where at each stage of creation, God calls what he made “good”... but only at the end when the entire thing operates together as a perfectly-balanced ecosystem does the Lord call it “very good.” It's a joy of not only creating something beautiful—whether a star, a garden, or even fire ants—but of creating something beautiful and complex, where all the parts complement each other and operate in perfect harmony. I partly keep tuning back into that ant show because, while ant farms are okay... miniaturized ant jungles are fascinatingly complex. In Genesis 1 and 2, a creation is made where God loves and rules over us. And we humans show love and serve God by caring for and ruling over the creation he made, which cooperates with us in turn. And we humans reflect heaven's love in our treatment of each other. It's a harmonious ecosystem.
Usually when we think of the consequences of The Fall of Humanity... we think of the punishments doled out right after our main scripture today, when the people are exiled from Eden and whatnot. But you can see the effects of sin creeping in right at the start, before any decree is uttered. Humanity was made to tend to and rule over creation, but instead the serpent plies them with bad advice. We were meant to be in relation with God, but the dubious questions lobbed at the woman twist God's word and mislead, making her unsure if God really meant what the man told her God said. So before a single fruit is tasted here, that vertical relationship of God—us—creation has gone wrong, as well as our horizontal relationships with each other. After eating the fruit, the woman and man realize they are naked, which causes shame, highlighting the growing rift between the woman and man. Hearing God approach, they grow afraid and hide from the Lord, further widening the rift between humanity and its God. When God asks what the problem is, the man rats out the woman by pointing the blame at her, deepening the divides between these first humans who were built to love each other. The woman in turn blames the serpent for the whole fiasco, which again reveals how even before God has uttered a single word of punishment, already we have made ourselves foes of and aliens to the creation we were meant to care for and rule. And all this because the humans disobeyed God in hopes of gaining divine, full knowledge of good and evil in and of itself... but instead gained only imperfect, experiential knowledge of good and evil that did not make them wise but only foolish, fearful, and ashamed. And this poisoned our relationship with our very selves. In one act, every harmonious relationship within creation is shattered. And well before we were cast out of Eden for this sin, its consequential punishments were already at play in these divides within creation.
Genesis' Fall story is at play in all our souls, every day of our lives, and I'm not talking about fruit. Sin corrupts every last thing it touches. One disobedient act—the humans eat fruit they have been told to leave alone—unravels every relationship they were created to have: with God, with nature, with each other, with their own selves. And all that happens before God says a word about punishment. The sin itself is poison enough, and the penalties God doles out after are in many ways a description of what these broken and severed relationships will now look like, with man and woman and nature at each other's throats and death itself at their doorsteps. Even when it goes unpunished in our lives today, sin corrupts what was once a beautiful creation in a rippling wave. Or to borrow a metaphor from John Calvin, our human natures were created as a fine wine, but sin is a few drops of cyanide in the mix. Most of it remains wonderfully good, but the poison has still corrupted the entire thing and all it touches, even before a single sip is tasted.
If you've heard Carrie or I talk about Charlie, you'll know we're dog people. I think dogs are perhaps the best things humans ever created, given their love and devotion to us. Yet that same devotion can—if abused—easily turn a dog vicious, whether neglect drives the creature mad or abuse teaches it that the only way to get its master's love is to fight and kill. The sweetest animals can, in the wrong hands, become terrifying, partly because they love so much. Though we rarely speak of it, my family suspects my great-grandfather was an abusive drunk. And I suspect his abuse is what caused my grandmother to be so fearfully controlling when raising my mother, which in turn led to me being... whatever I am. Families are a beautiful gift from God that support us at our weakest... when they work properly. When those intimate relationships are corrupted, however, the sins of one individual can ripple across many generations. And the man who robs me today may do so only because he can't make rent, which was raised because his landlord couldn't afford her child's hospital bills, which were caused by a driver asleep at the wheel from working overtime. This is the nature of sin: it extends its tendrils far beyond what we can see, using naturally good things as vectors for its disease. God created the world as a series of interconnected beautiful things, each of whose beauty was enhanced by finding harmony with the rest, like a grand orchestra of joy. Sin—in the Biblical Fall and in our lives—is a sour note spoiling the tune, distorting all around it. Unfortunately, because we were designed to be interconnected, when sin spoils one link in creation's chain, the corruption can affect everything.
But sin is not the final note in today's story. We find three sources of endurance, hope, and strength in today's text as well. Genesis 3 reveals that sin is a corruption, a breaking of God's orderly plan for the cosmos. But that also tells us that goodness always endures. Because evil in this Genesis story is a parasite, something that thrives—not because it too can create—but by preying upon what God has already created. And everything God created was declared good at the start. Thus we can rejoice that even the worst among us still have that primordial goodness in them, that we all—even before turning back to God in repentance—have this seed of love planted in our hearts by the fact of being created by the One who is love itself. Second, we're better equipped to endure evil because we know from this story that so often it's not that we deserve what befalls us but rather that sins far away can ripple outwards until we too are rocked by them, just as all creation tore itself apart in this story. And we can better resist temptation knowing that, just as evil may ricochet in ways we cannot predict, so too can webs of good reinforce our faith and hope, giving us the hopeful strength we desperately need whether it comes from the kind words of a friend or the joyful beams of a new sunrise. And most of all... we can better celebrate Easter, seeing it as not just an event that affects our individual souls... but a transformation of all creation, as the divisions formed in this one tragic event are at last healed and everything is restored to the perfect, loving harmony God intended this reality to be.
The Fall of Humanity is not a happy story but rather a sad one of harmony unraveling. But Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don't it always seem to go / that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.” And so this story gives us a better appreciation for what was lost—perfect harmony within, with God, with creation, with each other—and what will one day be restored. And we see the penalties of sin—the exile from Eden and enmity between us and creation—are less cruel punishments of God... and more the natural consequences of sin, the obvious results of the thing God warned us to avoid. And even here in The Fall of Humanity do we see the hope of redemption. The man and woman hide from God in their shame. And God's first response isn't anger but sorrow over his wounded children. “Who told you that you were naked?” In the same way, God looks at each of us in our sin and suffering and asks: “Who told you you were useless? Who told you you were too old? Too young? Too foolish? Too weak? Who told you it was okay to hurt another? Who told you you were beyond my mercy?” The man and woman learn indeed from the fruit of the tree... but they learn shame, learn to hide themselves from God, learn fear and foolishness. And this lesson carries the price of discord between humanity and everything else in the cosmos for now. But only for now. Because the God whose first reaction was compassion for his wounded children, though he cannot yet spare them the results of their misdeeds, slowly across the eons begins rebuilding the harmony of that perfect Eden. And so our hope—and our calling—is to share in that work... until at last all unity is one day restored through Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace who redeems and restores all creation.