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WHAT ABOUT GOD?

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0609.B.GodsNature

[Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35]


Periodically, I draw your attention to a sign that hangs on the wall in our parish hall.  As you enter the main doors and turn to your right, you will see an unadorned print with four questions.  These questions are meant to act as four, orienting points on our faith compasses.  Reflecting on these questions is a challenge for all of us, largely because they force us to make our responses in concrete personal terms.  They dare us to move beyond the generic level and begin to formulate a theological understanding of what our lives are like with God at the center.


For quick reference, let me remind you of those four compass-points: 


1) What is the nature of your “god”?  

2) What is the content of your faith? 

3) What is the purpose of your prayer?  

4). What is the function of your church?


So, what do you think?  What do you say?  Moreover, where could a person go to begin to mine some helpful answers to these probing questions?


Well, I’m glad you asked!  Not surprisingly, scripture is one resource to mine for insight into what these questions raise; but this scriptural mining is not always as simple or easy as it may seem – or as easy as some folks say it is.  Take, for instance, our first reading for the day.  The very familiar story from the early part of Genesis about Adam and Eve and the moment of their awakening.  


Conveniently, this episode is commonly referred to as the story of the “Fall”.  While I suspect that all of us here are familiar with this story, I am less certain that we know what it means and how this Sunday School story is meant to speak to us about God’s nature – and that first faith-compass question.  And this is the point of my sermon: No matter what this story about Adam and Eve’s “disobedience” says about being human (and it says a great deal), the key to unlocking this familiar, biblical anecdote is to keep in mind that this story (and all its related stories) is about God.  Specifically, this story (and all the others in Genesis) illustrate what it takes for God to deal with human beings who are both the glory of the Holy One’s creation and its central problem.1  This story and all the rest of the stories reveal God’s nature, which is a steadfast and loving faith that causes God to suffer willingly over humanity’s inability or humanity’s unwillingness to live in the world, with God, on God’s terms.2


So many other focuses and interpretations of this Genesis story have emerged that amidst all the traffic it is easy to miss this point.  So it is that I turn to my Old Testament, “go-to” guy, Walter Brueggemann, who helpfully identifies five misunderstandings of the story we call the “Fall”.  In order to appreciate the issue of “what about God?”, here is a quick listing of the “misunderstandings” as Brueggemann sees them.


The first misunderstanding points out that rather than being a central story in Genesis, the “Fall” story (as it has come to be known) is in fact a marginal biblical text.  Its role in the biblical witness is quite limited, to the extent that there is no other reference to it in the entire Old Testament.  


The second misunderstanding is that, in general, the Old Testament’s theology (that is, its understanding of God and life with God) does not assume a “Fall” but rather that humanity can obey the purposes of God.  This is evidenced by the passage from Deuteronomy: “But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”3


Third, and again contrary to common belief, this Genesis story is not an explanation of how evil came into the world.  The Old Testament is not interested in such abstract reflection.  In its entirety, no explanation is ever given for evil’s presence.  Rather, the Hebrew text is more interested in the faithful response to evil’s challenge and how humanity might effectively cope with it.  In the Old Testament, the perplexing philosophical issue of the reality of God and the presence of evil (something called “theodicy”) is primarily handled pastorally, not theoretically.  Read the radically charged story of Job.


The fourth misunderstanding of the “Fall” story has been commonly viewed as a story of death’s origin.  But in the context of its own integrity, today’s first lesson focuses on a troubled, anxiety-ridden life, which is clearly the bitter fruit of being separated from God and living alienation from the Source of life.


The last misunderstanding of this Genesis 3 story clarifies the cultural manipulation – even now -- from the text’s intent.  This is to say that while the ordinary images of this story often center on “apples, snakes, and sex”, its piercing interest lies in the portrayal of relationships of power, control, and autonomy when they are severed from the Source of life.


The point I want to convey is that the story and all the attending branches of it are about God!  


In a nutshell, this review is what the so-called “Fall” story is not about.  Rather, Genesis 3 is a cagily constructed story that consciously moves through a developing plotline, through a haunting suspense, and finally to a resolution.4  That resolution (and here’s the point again) rests in the hands of God.  The story’s many layered themes and tones touch many dimensions that, when we attempt to squeeze the narrative too far toward a single meaning or intent, we risk destroying the story itself or more likely using the story for our own agenda.  


A most pressing and current example of the squeezing of the story lies in the place and role of women.  Contrary to long-standing, male-oriented cultural norms that Eve and her descendants were secondary to Adam and his lineage, the Genesis story’s actual point in the creation of the woman stunningly stands as a sign that in her emergence creation itself is seen as completed, fulfilled.  Humanity (male and female) are the glory of creation and its highpoint.  With this creational fulfillment, there is mutuality and partnership between “Adam” and “Eve”, a reflection of what is given by God to be between the Creator and his people.  That this state of mutuality and partnership is sullied by mistrust, shortcutting, and brokenness between the human beings and between the human beings and God is a sign of profound distortion – a distortion (it turns out) only God can help with.


So – again, what does all this say about the nature of God?  What can we say about what God is like and what life on God’s terms is about?  What does this misunderstood story in Genesis tell us about God and our life with God?  I believe that these questions (focusing as they do on God) take precedence over all other questions and that they lie at the very heart and purpose of this Genesis story.  


What is at the heart of the Genesis story, especially the one we have read today, is that because humanity is the highpoint of God’s creation, God has given human beings three defining features: a vocation; permission; and prohibition.  And these three gifts not only speak to what our life with God and with one another is meant to be; these three defining gifts also indicate what God is like.


Quite simply, humanity’s vocation is to care for creation, to tend the “garden” as the Holy One’s faithful stewards and involved caretakers.  From this vocation, this calling, this purposeful job, humanity is given permission to operate in the “garden”.  Everything is permitted because creation’s design provides for all that is needed for life.  The permission to eat of the garden, to have food for their continual sustenance, speaks of God’s caring providence for his garden partners. It is as if God has said, “This is your garden, too!” 


Yet, to this sense of vocation and the permission to live fully in the garden, there also comes prohibition.  More than conveying the truth that not everything promotes life, God’s prohibition speaks directly and clearly to the Creator’s expectation of obedience.5  While human beings may balk at such a limitation, who better than the Source of all life to denote what does not bring life?  As my deceased father-in-law was wont to say, “When in doubt, read the instructions!”  


The issue here is that God intends there to be a balance between and among the vocation, the permission, and the prohibition; and “balance” is the key here.  The primary human task is to find a way to hold the three elements of divine purpose together.  Any two of them without the third is to pervert life and create destruction.6  It is as simple as that.  This aspect of the story establishes the schematic for being God’s people and for having the life we need.


What about God?  


Later in Genesis, we see that God’s creation has gone awry.  Humanity has forgotten or ignored outrightly what its vocational purpose is.  Humanity has also forgotten or found as too inconvenient the need to live with gratitude for the use of the “garden”.  In our arrogant pretense, we have, therefore, eschewed any need to pay attention to the Creator’s prohibition, much less to see this injunction as a gift that guards life.  


And yet, the story’s point is to show God’s nature, that God’s love and faithful commitment to his creation produces God’s suffering over his creation partners.  Stunningly, God is vulnerable to those whom he has made.  But, of course, that is what love entails.  God struggles to respond to the reality and fact of human life.  That too is what love does.  And all we Christians need to do to know God is to think of Jesus as God’s ultimate answer to the Creator’s painful struggle with his wayward creation.  And if it costs the Creator of heaven and earth this much, then what can we say or do but be struck by the faithfulness and the mercy of the Source of all life.  Perhaps then we will reconsider our God-given vocation, the permission to tend and use the garden, and even to see the prohibition as a saving gift.  


What about God?  Amen.

 

1.  Walter Brueggemann. Genesis, p. 40. I will be using this text as the basis of my understanding of the Genesis text

2.  Walter Brueggemann. Genesis, p.40

3.  Deuteronomy 30:14

4.  Brueggemann p. 44

5.  Brueggemann p. 46

6.  Brueggemann p. 46

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