Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sermon on Genesis 3 - Adam and Eve


Genesis 3: 1 – 13

Back in January a friend and I started a Bible study with a new group of International students. This time there are 3 from Mainland China and one from Brazil. They all teach in Universities in their home countries and are here at Lancaster Uni to do some further study.

Yet again this year none of the Chinese folk had ever opened a Bible before our meeting together. Because of that we always start with a little bit about the beginning of the Bible, otherwise, as Mike was saying last week, the gospels don’t make any sense. And we always have the same experience. I ask ‘do you know any stories or ideas from the Bible?’ and one of their answers is always: Adam and Eve and ‘original sin’!

I usually explain that it was Augustine who first coined the phrase original sin – a brilliant but very troubled bloke who lived around 400 AD. His idea was that because of Adam and Eve’s first act of sin, sinfulness has been passed down, transmitted to every individual in every generation since.

That’s not how everyone sees this story today, but it does acknowledge that we all seem to have this feeling that something has gone wrong. It seems to be embedded in the consciousness of every human being. And, coming back to my Chinese friends, it shows that when people know little else about the Bible except Adam and Eve, the garden and the snake, it’s a story that fascinates us.

I know that many of you were very encouraging to Mike when he spoke about creation a couple of weeks ago (if you weren’t here, it’s on his blog and well worth reading).
I am going to follow that train of thought and say that, just as with the account of creation, we do not have to take the story of Adam and Eve literally to feel its power. It operates at the level which – to use a dangerous word - is properly called ‘myth’.

I say it is dangerous to use that word, because the way people use the word myth today has reduced it to no more than a fairy story, and certainly not to be taken seriously. Please don’t mis-hear me. I am not saying the account here is a fairy story. It’s much deeper than that. We think of myths as not true, but this story is very true. In fact in Genesis 3 we meet with truth in so deep and powerful a form that it can only be conveyed through a story. And that is the true meaning and purpose of myth.

So don’t be afraid when people say “oh all that nonsense about Adam and Eve; it’s just a myth. The cradle of humanity is Africa not some unknown place called Eden and some imaginary people called Adam and Eve”. You could pull the rug from under their feet by saying, “I agree; it is myth – if you mean by that, that this story is my story, your story. It describes every human beings’ experience since the beginning of time – and that’s the point. It describes the root of the human predicament amazingly accurately. It answers those questions of how did we got into this mess with a story that has the ring of truth.

So what did go wrong?
Well there’s something here about disobedience. That’s where the serpent starts: v 1 “did God say you shall not eat of the tree?"  Yes, he did! God gave a command and Adam and Eve disobeyed. So sin equals disobeying the law of God. But there is more to it than that.

V 4 – 5 “The serpent said to the woman, ‘you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.” Adam and Eve seemed to know that they were made to be like God but they had a sneaky feeling that there was more to it than God was letting on to them. Surely just living in harmony with creation and taking care of all that God had made couldn’t be what it was really like to be God? They were hoodwinked into believing that eating the forbidden fruit would do the trick and give them what they wanted – a short cut to making them like God. They are persuaded to despise what they already have and to go it alone. They decide they can do without God.

Their response is the opposite of Jesus’ response to the temptations in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus with the same subtleness, twisting scripture, offering a way of living without God. But he gets short shrift from Jesus who knows his Hebrew Bible and will not live independently of God his Father.

It’s the beginning of Lent. Somehow instead of thinking about that bigger picture, we become absorbed with what little sin we can give up. Sue was telling me that a rather difficult girl at school said to her last week: “I think I’m going to give up choc for Lent?” To which Sue replied, “why don’t you do something more productive?” “Like what?” she asked “Why don’t you give up sulking instead?” “Oh, that’s an idea. Pause. How long’s Lent?” She came back a few days later and said “I tried it and I feel so much better!”

The sin of attitude is a far more important sin to address in Lent than chocolate! The way we talk about or talk to each other is mentioned or alluded to in Jesus’ teaching a lot, far more than some other sins that people outside the church think the church is obsessed with!.
Let’s take something that probably all of us have been guilty of at some point: criticism, talking about someone negatively behind their back, gossip. Even if I have a feeling it’s not right, a little voice inside says: it’s not all that bad, is it? So similar to the serpent’s question in v 1: “Did God say?”

Eve saw that the tree was good and a delight to the eyes, (v 6) and it was to be desired to make one wise, so she took – stole it, and she ate – took it inside her. That’s how sin works. It’s a very familiar pattern.

If someone told me the truth, that gossip and talking negatively about another is stealing their reputation and murdering their good name, I would defend myself; it’s not all that serious, surely? And I certainly would find it hard to believe that something in me will die as a result. We hear the serpent’s voice: “You will not surely die?” (v 3)

And just as we do with criticism, Eve didn’t keep it to herself; (v 6) she gave some to her husband. We drag others in with us. But then we fear we are going to get found out! And so we hide from the truth - Adam and Eve hid from the presence of the Lord God (v 8) and we try to cover it up and then we blame the other person. It’s exactly what happens in this story – Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent (v 12)!

Now tell me, is this true of your experience? This story is my story – at the deepest level of my being, I know it to be true. And I also know that if we are walking with God, if we are in the habit of being open with God in prayer, we’ll feel ashamed of ourselves and we will want to put it right with God and the other person we hooked in.

We also know that the God who created us in love wants that relationship healed and restored and forgiven – and that is the story of the rest of the Bible.                         

- Sue Kiernan

Sermon on Genesis 1 - The Creation

Sermon for February 23, 2014 on Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

On December 24 1968, Apollo 8 came round the moon and for the first time, human beings saw the earth rise over a horizon. On that mission they read over the radio from orbit above the moon Genesis chapter 1. We’ve just heard that story of Creation from Genesis Chapter 1. What did you think when your heard it? Was it as you picture how it must have happened, or is it so far removed from what you understand that it’s completely irrelevant?

Science tells us that the universe is about 13.2 thousand million years old, and the earth is about 4.5 thousand million years old. This is based on many different scientific observations and calculations, and on the assumption that the scientific processes that enable our complex world to function are consistent. The same scientific laws that mean the lights come on, and I weigh 11 stone 6 have applied and worked throughout the life of the universe and give us that evidence.

On the other hand, if we go with the Bible’s timescale, it’s all much more recent than that. Bishop Ussher of Armagh once calculated from the Bible that the world began in 4004 BC. Some have calculated it as a bit further back than that, but the point remains that a literal reading of the Bible means the world could only be a few thousand years old at most.

How widely is the Bible’s timescale believed? In 2012 a Gallup poll recorded that 46% of Americans believed that God created humans in their present form sometime in the last 10,000 years. Many also believe the earth to be only a few thousand years old. There are now schools in the UK, where creationism, as it is known, is taught on the curriculum alongside scientific analysis as an equal theory. You can even go to a zoo and animal park in Somerset called Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, which is run by people who believe that the earth is recently created. It gets 130,000 visitors a year.

Meanwhile, there is an increasingly vocal humanist and atheist voice in the media who not only accept the scientific data, but see the discoveries and insights of science as final proof that religion is nonsense. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion won’t even bother debating with people who take Genesis literally.
"Just as I wouldn't expect a gynaecologist to have a debate with somebody who believes in the Stork-theory of reproduction, I won't do debates with Young Earth creationists," he said.
So where does that leave us? Does thinking about these things worry or disturb us? Perhaps we would prefer not to think about it, in case it unsettles the faith we have. The problem is that both extremes – the atheists and the creationists end up arguing with each other as if their views are the only two you can hold. And we end up squeezed between people who are downright hostile to our faith, and people whose beliefs defy all the scientific evidence, but say we should believe them to be proper Christians.

None of this is new, of course. Once scientists started making discoveries that challenged the Bible’s account of things the debate started, and we see it most sharply with Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, or evolution as we usually refer to it. As Christians, we know that without the Bible, our faith makes no sense. It gives us the big story that helps us understand why we are here. Are the only choices to discard the Bible because of science or to discard science by putting blind faith in the Bible? Do you have to be an atheist to be a good scientist?

Speaking as someone with a degree in chemistry, I want to say an emphatic 'no'! Many eminent scientists in a range of expertise have a deeply held Christian faith. The two don't have to be seen as contradicting each other.

So here’s 3 starting points to answer the atheists on one side and the fundamentalists on the other about Genesis 1.

1. Genesis 1 wasn’t written as a scientific text book.

Scientific thinking and method as we know it didn’t exist until fairly recently. At the time Genesis was written, possibly up to 3000 years ago, people understood the world very differently. The world was in a dome, with water above that sometime came through as rain, or rose as floods. So Genesis wasn’t written to answer modern science’s questions. That means that if we go to the Bible looking for things it never set out to tell us, we get funny answers.

Genesis 1 addresses questions about God and about the world, and about human beings and their place within it. It isn’t about the modern disciplines of physics, chemistry or astronomy - it never intended to be. People who know about these things say it’s written in the form of a poem. It’s painting a picture, not recording a documentary.

The Great War - World War 1 - is in the news a lot at the moment. If you want history, you read history books about the war (and some are busy re-writing those at the moment). But if you want to know what it felt like, or the how it impacted the big questions of belief or faith, you need to read Wilfred Owen or the other war poets. Don't read poetry for science, or science for poetry.

2. Genesis 1 is about God.

Other cultures at the time had stories that look like Genesis. There are other creation and flood stories - one was in the news recently, describing the ark like a huge coracle. But the other cultures had gods who got in a mess, who didn’t always have control. Some of them essentially lived inside creation, and struggled within it. But Genesis 1 speaks of a God who is involved in the universe but beyond it. Look at the text: "In the beginning, God… God said…, God said..., God made... etc.

The God described here isn’t tangled up and held captive by the chaos, He turns it into created order. This is about one God, a supreme God, and a creative God who shares his creativity with creatures he can have a relationship with. This is new stuff in the ancient world, but the author of Genesis tells about the God of Israel in a form familiar to the people of his day.

3. Genesis 1 is about us.

This passage contains one of the most dangerous ideas for the Western world. It could bring down capitalism, and revolutionise the way the world works. Know what it is? It is that we are stewards, not owners. God is generous here – he gives food, skills and abilities, the beauty of the earth and its wonder, the amazing possibilities of being human. But when he places human beings in dominion over creation it’s not “here’s the keys, do what you like”. This earth is somebody else’s property, and the people are accountable.

Our world works on a different basis. Economies are based on people earning, buying, owning and consuming. It relies on people acting as if the only criterion is whether they can afford it, or at least can they find the money from somewhere. But stewardship asks different questions. How would I explain my decisions to spend? Would I share? Do I understand the earth’s resources as on trust? Do I see myself as accountable to God? That’s called stewardship. Ironically the Greek word for stewardship is 'oikonomia' – the word we get economics from.

If we get obsessed with proving things literally in Genesis that defy science and logic, it’s a dead end. Worse, if we get bogged down in that, we forget what it is really trying to say to us.

In Genesis 1 the writer is saying that we need to understand our God, our place in the world, in the order of things, and the wonderful privilege and responsibilities of living within that world. If we could only appreciate that more, perhaps the world would be a safer, more just and more equal place for all to enjoy.

- Mike Peatman