The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
February 26, 2023
The Garden and the Wilderness. Paradise and Exile. Two stories of temptation.
Welcome to the first full week in Lent. We walked into this season last week on Ash Wednesday, remembering our mortality and our need to return to God. Today we sit with Biblical stories that make us uncomfortable – not because of what they say so much as how they tell it.
We moderns tend to fixate on the “truth” of stories. “Oh, a story with a talking snake?” and with a snort we roll our eyes, happy that we’re not one of those fundamentalists who need it to be literal.
We tend to forget that we tell stories to make meaning, we tell stories to understand the world and our experiences. We’re a storytelling species that has forgotten how to hear stories. We modern thinkers split the world between fiction and nonfiction. If it’s fiction, it’s just a story, just a myth, just a fable. But if they were just stories, just myths, just fables, then why would some people be so intent on banning certain fiction books from libraries?
Because stories can speak to the meaning of life in a way that go deeper. I’ll never be that character in that story, but their complicated life makes me feel seen, understood. Their world holds up a mirror to mine. And the Biblical stories hold up a mirror that’s polished by the Holy Spirit to show me truth more clearly the more I look into the mirror and see the world around me.
If you ask me if I believe in the story of Adam and Eve, I’d say yes. If you ask me if I believe that at a specific point in history there was a literal human couple that got exiled from a garden because they ate from a tree because a talking snake told them to, I’d say no. But I still believe in the story of Adam and Eve. It’s a story that tells in just a handful of verses a great number of truths.
Let’s re-tell the story a little bit.
In the Garden of Eden the snake tempts Adam and Eve to do the simplest thing they were told not to do: don’t eat the fruit from this particular tree. God had told them they could eat from any other tree, but just not this one. When surrounded by all these other options, you’d think it would be harder to be tempted to do the one thing they were told not to… but, alas, that crafty snake says just the right words to get Adam and Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. They succumb to temptation, and thus everything falls apart. After both of them have eaten of the fruit, then suddenly their eyes are open and they see that they are naked. No longer will they be able to remain in Paradise, walking in the cool of the evening with God.
Western Christianity has taken this story to mean this: that we were made for closeness with God and one another, but something has gone wrong. We gave into a temptation and disobeyed God, and this has made it hard for us to follow God in everything else. Hence, that’s why the world is so messed up. We’ve made choices that pull us away from God, and it affects not just us, but everything. It’s messed up things so bad that the next generation doesn’t get to start over; they inherit the consequences of those choices, too. That’s how messed up the world is. The eating of the forbidden fruit is the origin of separation from God, the origin of sin, the original sin.
We see the truth of that all around us. We see how the problems of one generation flow into the next generation and the one after that. People suffer from situations they didn’t ask to be born into. We see this even in biology; scientific research now points to the role of epigenetics on how trauma is passed down generation to generation.[i] We’re made from the stuff that came before us.
So the story of Adam and Eve is telling us that this messed-up-ness in the world had a beginning. This messed-up-ness isn’t the original plan, wasn’t the original design. Paul’s letter to the Romans even asserts that even death wasn’t the original plan. What was the original plan? Closeness with God and one another. That was the original plan, until Adam and Eve ate the one single fruit they weren’t supposed to.
Look at how many words that I had to use to unpack what the story meant!
What of the Gospel reading for today? We often fixate on this devil figure. We don’t want to seem like those kind of Christians who see demons hiding in every corner or who are superstitious. We’re Christians that gladly celebrate Halloween because it’s fun, there’s candy and costumes, and we’re not afraid of such things.
But what does this story tell us about evil, temptation, and sin?
This story tells us temptation, and sin, and evil aren’t supernatural set pieces from a scary movie; they are very close to us. The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus with magical powers. The devil says, “make this rock into bread – you’re hungry.” The devil whisks Jesus away to the Temple and uses a piece of Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus: “throw yourself off the Temple! The angels will carry you and save you, and everyone will be in awe of you.” The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers him untold power.
The devil tempts Jesus with possessions, with fame, with wealth, with power. Those are temptations you and I face, too. Jesus goes into the wilderness and lays bare what we experience, that evil is everyday, boring, banal.[ii] And yet it is precisely in our everyday lives that we are called to the little acts of goodness, the little acts of following and loving God, the little acts of communion that push back against the messed-up-ness of the world, that call us back to what we were originally made for. We are not often called to heroic acts, but we are called to everyday acts.Look at the stories! If we were in a paradise like the Garden of Eden, we’d still face temptation. If we were in the desert wilderness, we’d still face temptation.
Temptation is hard. In our everyday lives we face times of trial where we give up without even knowing that we had a choice. In our everyday lives we face times of trial where the choice seems so simple and yet we’re inclined to do what we know deep down isn’t good for us.
All of life comes with the possibility of being a time of trial for us. Each time we do what is good, no matter how little it is, that is a huge victory.
If, after hearing all this, you’re feeling overwhelmed, I want you to remember that temptation and sin are not the rest of the story.
Do you know what happens in the story after Adam and Eve ate from the tree? They hide out of shame for being naked, and God confronts them and says they can no longer stay in the garden … and then God makes them better clothes.[iii] It seems like a throwaway line. God makes them clothes! Is that the image of an angry, vengeful God? Or the image of a tender God? Even as Adam and Eve are pushed out of the garden, they will still wear clothes made for them by the hands of God. What might seem like a throwaway line in a story makes a powerful statement of God’s abiding love for creation.
And do you know what happens after the Temptation in the Wilderness? Long down the road, it isn’t Jesus that gives into temptation, but Jesus’s friends. One friend will give into temptation to betray Jesus, other friends will give into the temptation to save themselves by abandoning Jesus … and what does Jesus do? Jesus still loves them.
God makes clothes for Adam and Eve. Jesus loves his disciples even after they fail him. Because God’s response to our failures in temptation is not condemnation but tenderness and love. That’s the message of Lent. We will struggle with temptation and challenges. We’ll struggle with sin. But God’s response, no matter what, is tenderness and love. Even if you got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, God will still make you clothes, so that every day you can put on that garment and remember who it is that made it for you. Look upon yourselves – for God has made you. You are made, the beloved of God. You are made for closeness, and connection, and communion with God and one another. That’s our story. Our story is communion with God and one another in the joy of all creation.
What better story can we write? Amen.
[i] Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle
[ii] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
[iii] Genesis 3:21