Lent I (A)
March 13, 2011
Rev. Robert E. Hensley
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Let us pray. “O God, who knit us together in our mother’s wombs: Create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us, that we may embrace the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Women’s Uncommon Prayers, Based on Psalm 139:12, Psalm 51:11).
Bill Cosby has a comedic monologue that some of you may have heard before called “First Parent.” After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. And the first thing the First Parent said to the first children was “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
“Forbidden fruit? Really? Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” said God, wondering why he hadn’t [just] stopped after making the elephants.
A few minutes later, God saw the kids having an apple break, and God was angry. “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the First Parent asked.
“Uh-huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you do it?”
“I dunno,” Adam answered.
God’s punishment, Cosby concludes, was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own.
The new Matt Damon movie raises a theological concern that’s worth discussing with the church, and that is, “Are human beings free?” If not, where do we find any sense of human responsibility and accountability? If so, isn’t that freedom to choose mitigated in part by factors that may be unique to each one of us?
In classical mythology, you will recall that the Fates are three goddesses who determine world events by spinning supernatural threads that determine our individual destinies. If you believe in fate, you accept that you have no real choices to make in a life that will end in death. It should come as no surprise that fate is the root of the words fatalism and fatality.
Those who are modern followers of the Fates will want to check out the new movie called The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It raises some fascinating questions about the limits of human freedom.
The movie trailer states that: “Life is a series of events. This man. This glance. These moments. All happened according to plan. … Their plan.”
The Adjustment Bureau’s, that’s whose plan.
In the movie, Damon plays a Senate candidate from New York who has a chance meeting with Blunt, sparking a romance. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen in his life, however, and suddenly a group of mysterious men from the Adjustment Bureau step in to put him back on his proper track. Damon rejects them, and he and Blunt begin to run for their lives, under and through the streets of New York City.
“We are the people who make sure things happen according to plan,” says one of the members of the Adjustment Bureau. “We monitor the entire world.” These master manipulators show Damon a book with the plan for his life and tell him they’re determined to use their considerable power to keep him on track.
“You can’t outrun your fate,” another one tells Damon.
Or can you?
The film raises questions of how much freedom we actually have – and whether unseen forces control and manipulate our lives.
The second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis, with the story of the Garden of Eden, raise similar questions. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” says Genesis. “And the Lord God commanded the 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’” (2:15-17).
On one hand, God appears to be like a member of the Adjustment Bureau, placing man in the garden. God is a supernatural force, exerting control over the first human being.
But on the other hand, God gives the man considerable freedom, saying he may “…freely eat of every tree of the garden” …except one. The man can make a range of choices about what he will eat within the lush and fruitful abundance of the garden. Only one tree is off limits: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” That tree will lead to death for the man. But even though it is prohibited to him, he is given the power to choose it.
The man is free to fall.
This is very different from the world of The Adjustment Bureau. “If you believe in free will,” says the movie trailer, “if you believe in chance, if you believe in choice…fight for it.”
Genesis reveals a very different truth. According to the Bible, you don’t have to fight for free will at all, because it is already given to you by God, freely.
What an amazing Creator we have, a God with the confidence to let us make choices! The mysterious men of the Adjustment Bureau come across as grim and anxious, fearful of losing control of the world they monitor and attempt to control. But God says humans may freely eat of every tree of the garden except one. It’s important to note that in laying down that prohibition, God gives the gift of free choice itself. Only after God has explained the options to us can we take advantage of them; only then can we choose to live within certain boundaries.
Only a truly powerful God is strong enough to give power to others. Instead of controlling and manipulating us, God grants us freedom.
God does this out of love, knowing that truly caring parents give their children the freedom they need to explore, experiment and discover the best direction for their lives. Anxious parents behave more like the mysterious men of the Adjustment Bureau, controlling and manipulating their children in an attempt to keep them on a particular path. Not long ago, overly involved moms and dads were called “helicopter parents” because they constantly hovered over their children. Now the situation is even worse: They’re “Velcro parents,” completely attached to their kids.
We need to know that our God is not a Velcro God. Instead, God detaches from us and says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” …except one. The Lord is clear about boundaries and freedom, knowing that excessive boundaries prevent growth and discovery, while unlimited freedom leads to death.
But, we humans do not always make the best choices.
The great movie director Billy Wilder once said that in the first act of a story, you put your character up in a tree. In the second act, you set the tree on fire. Then in the third act, you get him down. In Genesis, the first act occurs when humans are put in a tree – or at least among trees – and told to eat anything they want, within certain limits.
The second act is when the tree is set on fire. In this act, the serpent in the garden strikes up a conversation with the woman, who’s been created to be a partner to the man. The serpent, a crafty creature, asks the woman a question that tests the limits of the freedom God has given. “Did God say,” The serpent asks, “‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’?” (3:1).
No, says the woman. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden” …except for one. She explains that one tree is off limits, and God said that if you eat of its fruit, “you shall die” (vv. 2-3). The woman has a very clear understanding of her freedom and her boundaries.
But then the serpent strikes a match and sets the tree on fire. “You will not die,” he promises, and in this verse, the crafty creature is actually telling the truth. But in predicting that the man and woman won’t die, he is sowing seeds of doubt about the truthfulness of what God has told them.
The man and the woman are up in a tree, and the tree is now burning.
• They’re wondering if God has told them the truth.
• They’re questioning if death is really the punishment for disobedience.
• They’re very attracted to the idea that they can become like God.
• They’re wondering what it would feel like to fall out of their close, intimate relationship with God.
We all know what these two are feeling, don’t we? We have all been up in that burning tree at one time or another. The Bible is full of commandments, rules and regulations, but we wonder if all of them are equally true and binding on our lives today. We know that certain choices are dangerous for us, but we don’t think they’ll actually kill us. Self-improvement seminars are offered all the time, and everyone wants to be wiser and more self-confident. And how about a relationship with God? Wonderful, of course, but we don’t want to be a fanatic about it.
So we eat the fruit, just like Adam and Eve, did. The two of them make a completely free choice, and the result is that their eyes are opened and they discover they’re naked. Feeling ashamed of their nakedness, they sew fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves (v. 7).
The story of Adam and Eve tells the truth about human choices, unlike the story of The Adjustment Bureau. Adam and Eve reveal what life is really like – not in the sense of humans having conversations with serpents, but in the sense that human choices always have significant and lasting consequences. It’s a lie to say that mysterious men from the Adjustment Bureau manipulate the stories of our lives. The truth is that we make free choices every day, choices that draw us closer to God or push us farther away.
We are always free to fall – to fall out of relationship with God.
So how does God get Adam and Eve out of the burning tree? That’s the third act and a story for another day. Let’s just say that the Lord comes to them in human form and has a conversation with them. God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden, into a life of pain in childbearing and hard work cultivating the plants of the field (vv. 8-24). In other words, God ushers them out of the Garden and into the life that we know today.
Through it all, our Creator continues to want to have a relationship with us. In time, God comes to us in human form again, as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus calls us to follow him, to trust his Word and to walk in his way. Knowing that we’re always going to make choices that cause us to fall out of relationship with him, God makes a more lasting and significant choice: He gives his life for us on the cross, showing us how far he’ll go to be in a relationship with us.
Our choices matter and we’ll continue to make good and bad decisions. But the most important choice in history was Jesus’ decision to give his life for us, to restore our connection with God. This was the ultimate adjustment in the relationship between humans and their Creator.
We are free to fall. We’re also free to trust in Jesus Christ, who has, continues to and will always bring us back to God. Amen
Movie trailer: “The Adjustment Bureau”, Technorati Videos. technorati.com/videos/article/movie-trailer-the-adjustment-bureau/. May 13, 2010.
“Three-act structure.” Television Tropes and Idioms Web site.