We inherit from the Hebrew Bible two traditions of creation stories. The first is found in Genesis chapter 1 through chapter 2, verse 4. The second story is found in Genesis chapter 2, verse 5 through the third chapter. In both stories the theme of chaos figures prominently. In the first story (P), Genesis 1:1-2:4, a radical chaos is the reality from which God beautifully creates the heavens and earth and then God calls it, “Good!”
Chaos: the absence of comprehendible order, a state of unimaginable disarray. This is what the Jewish poets tried to dramatize when they wrote: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1, 2 NRSV). Perhaps one of the most memorable modern depictions of the chaos in the creation story is that of the African American poet James Weldon Johnson in his poem “Creation.” Johnson wrote:
“And God stepped out on space
And he looked around . . .
As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.”
Both Weldon and the original Hebrew writers of Genesis 1 were trying creatively and poetically to portray an awesome sense of being enveloped in a dense dark cosmic reality, from which God brings beauty and order.
In the second tradition (Gen. 2:4-3) the theme of chaos is also present. But it is portrayed not in the heavens and earth, rather, in the internal universe of the human soul. The chaos is the conflict of temptation, the clashing struggles of freewill with obedience to God. The story of the temptation in the Garden of Eden—to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—is about many things. But mainly it is a primitive and, I believe, divinely inspired effort to explain our human desire to become independent godlike creatures; to find a place of faithfulness between being self-determining creatures and creatures obedient to God’s determination.
Our primal exploration into such intimate contradictions is an experience of chaos. It is about our inner drive not just to know as God knows, but to know what God knows: i.e., everything! For to know good and evil is to be omniscient. When we say, “I know the good and the bad of it,” we are saying we know everything there is about an issue. In our culture, especially in Washington, not to be “in the know” is not a good thing. We watch the news all day (a day without CNN is like a day without sun light), we read two or three papers daily, including financial journals, as though by knowing we can effectively react if not control our social, political and financial realities. Many people actually believe this! To eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to create an insatiable appetite to know everything, to believe reality can be reduced to finite reasoning and thus to be the equal of God, if not the replacement.
Of course there are also the sexual interpretations of this story. You all know enough sordid stories and jokes about Adam and Eve in the garden that I need not explain the popular notions that have dominated this understanding of the story. However, the more basic effort of the Hebrew writers was to show a kind of primordial pubescence; a point in the evolution of humanity when procreation is no longer considered a divine gift but as the deliberate control of human stewardship.
The story seeks poetically to show how our desire to be the master of our destiny, even our progeny, came to be; including the pain and peril of child birth and the tragedy of evil in human families (Cain and Abel). It is about the spiritual and the social chaos and ultimately the futility of trying to direct our reproductive destiny as humans in a secular enterprise rather than as a people of faith with a spiritual trust. Some would say this particular chaos and its consequence is evident today in such daunting human crisis and issues as population explosion, abortion, an unsustainable ecology.
But whatever the interpretations, what is common and consistent for people of faith in any age, even until today, is temptation! Temptation is our awaking to the chaos within, where lies doubts and fears, sin and rebellion against God’s authority in our lives. It is important to remember that the writers of Genesis present Adam and Eve not just as some everyday primitive humans, but people with a relationship with God, that is, people of faith. The struggle to grow, to become more responsible, to discover more fully our humanity and yet be faithful to God is chaos within, for the person of faith.
This story and the season of Lent remind us that no matter how sophisticated our defenses or our reasoning, we are still vulnerable to temptations that draw us away from God’s will for us. Regardless of how strong our egos might be or how religious our piety or even our personal experience with God, because of the sin within, we are vulnerable to the shrewd and crafty temptations of the evil one. Scholar Terrence Frethiem says, the term “naked” in the Hebrew (“’erum-mim”) implies to be vulnerable to the “cunning one” (“’arum”). The Hebrew terms represent a homonym-like play on words connecting cunning with vulnerable. For to know we are “naked” is to know we are vulnerable to the seduction of disobedience by the craft of the “cunning one.” Thus the difference between Adam and Eve’s state of innocence in verse 2:25 and their state of knowledge in verse 3:7 (also 3:9-11) is not their vulnerability but their awareness that they were vulnerable. This is a subtle but critical distinction to remember.
Remember how we laughed so hysterically when the late comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it!” It was a nervous laughter, because we know how easily the contradictions to God’s will can be violated in our thoughts and actions. The spiritual and moral struggles and the chaos those struggles can create is very real in our daily lives. Just think of how many times we have hurt those we love or jeopardized relationships we deeply value by foolish but intentional choices. Just think of how reluctant we are to express or live our faith for fear of appearing intellectually naive. Just think of how easily we betray God by our need to fit into certain social or professional circles, our internal agendas always make us vulnerable.
St. James (1:14) taught that, “. . . one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by that [desire]. When this desire is given life, it becomes sin, and sin when it matures brings [spiritual] death.” Our desires make us vulnerable, no matter how sophisticated our reasoning.
Just think of how easily we compromise our religious integrity to gain power and influence, or to protect our ambitions. In the 1988 primary Presidential Election—when everybody was born-again and quoting Scripture—one candidate was challenged by a reporter as to how he could possibly change his view on such an important moral issue (as a Southern Baptist, he had extolled a particular position until the polls had suggested it was not popular). In exasperation he replied to the reporter, “I’m running for president not preacher.” For him it was political power. What is it for you? What is it for me?
Like Eve and Adam we often resent God’s rule in our lives. Remember Eve’s words to the cunning serpent (who was playing ignorant of God’s command and feigning a desire for clarity): “Did God actually say not to eat of any tree in the garden? Come now, Eve, do you really believe you will die?” Eve’s reply reveals the chaos within: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” Of course, God did not say “You should not touch the tree.”
In the telling of this primitive story Eve’s response to the serpent often makes me think of a pre-adolescent girl being taunted by her “devilish” brother to cross a forbidden street with him. The taunter says, “Did mom really say we couldn’t cross a street?” The sister responds to her taunter, “Mom said we can cross the streets around our neighborhood but she said we can’t cross the boulevard. In fact we can’t even go to that boulevard corner or we’re going to get it!” Now, Mom didn’t say “don’t go to the corner” but like her brother, she is so desirous to explore what’s across the street that she adds a prohibition. It is as though to put an extra legal defense between herself and her mounting desire, her burning curiosity. Then again, sometimes self-imposed prohibitions can also be an expression of our resentment of parental authority in our lives: “Not only can’t we cross the boulevard, but we can’t even go to the corner.” The chaos lives within, even in the stages of pre-adolescent innocence, and we are vulnerable, naked to the cunning of the taunter or the tempters.
Like most tempters the brother does not stop here with questioning the prohibition but goes on with testing his sister’s belief in the consequences. He asks, “So what does it really mean, ‘you’re going to get it’? You know Mom’s not really going to “get us” for just going across this street. Besides, if we can manage to cross this big four-lane street we’ll be able to go anywhere she can go. We’ll be just like an adult!” Does this sound familiar to us? Like the serpent, her taunter is correct, “getting it” could mean anything from punishment to a warning, to an unintended consequence such as being hit by a car. But when standing frozen on a median strip in the middle of the boulevard with traffic roaring by on both sides; or standing on the far side of the boulevard, after a perilous crossing, looking back at the home side too terrified and too exasperated to cross back, the feeling of innocence is forever lost. They then realize not only how foolish they were but now also have the self-knowledge that they are forever vulnerable to foolish choices. St. Paul wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [It is] the sin that dwells within me. . . . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19, 22, 23).
It is the war, the chaos of sin within that constantly conflicts with our faith, with our love for God. For to stand naked, even with the flimsy covers of social etiquette, self-righteousness, legalism and piety is to know the truth, that we are vulnerable, easy prey to the lure and temptations without and the struggles within.
St. Paul does not end with this expression of distress. Rather, he goes on to proclaim the good news, saying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24, 25).
Not only is Jesus our Savior, but he knows the experience of temptation and, like us, he could not be tempted by that which was not apart of his own chaos within. Remember the tempter conditions each temptation to Jesus with, “If you are the Son of God.” Jesus’ sense of being God’s chosen one, the “only one begotten” for this unique vocation of Messiah, was a great struggle for Jesus—a chaos within. One can then understand that the temptation to make bread of stones represents Jesus’ ongoing temptation to prove his messiahship by miracles and not the cross. This was a temptation echoed many times in his ministry by crowds, opponents and other tempters who were demanding to see a sign, some magic, as proof of his messiahship.
Then there was Jesus’ fear of death, “cast your self down from the pinnacle.” The tempter is asking, Can you really trust God to save you from death? Would God really allow you to suffer the cross? Test it now, throw yourself down! And finally, there is the temptation to yield to the frustration of believing in and proclaiming to an incredulous audience the “kingdom of God.” Even more should Jesus be faithful to his unfolding destiny, including his passion and suffering; could he entrust the gospel to his frail disciples? Or what might even shake his confidence more is to know that if the gospel survived the first century disciples, could such a hard earned faith be trusted at the end of the twentieth century to the likes of you and me? When one thinks in these terms, “earthly kingdoms and their splendor” could be a tempting consideration. Being an earthly king, an historic saint or wise man—a Confucius, a Buddha or a Mohammed was certainly a more sure option and one less demanding of his doubt and faith in God for this peculiar vocation of the Messiah.
And so when you are tempted, remember Jesus knows. The writer of Hebrews wrote: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb. 4:15, 16). As St. Paul said, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Jesus chose the way of God he opened for us the way to salvation, that we might be saved from the assaults of the devil, the power of sin and the chaos within.
It is by the health of our faith, the character of our spiritual life, by our relationship with God—a relationship revealed in Jesus Christ—that we overcome the chaos within. It is to know God as “Abba,” Daddy, the loving trustworthy Father to whom in the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray. In Jesus we see the God who is not our taskmaster, nor our oppressor, but our friend! This is the good news in Jesus Christ!
And there is even more Good News. It is that God is our friend not only in this life but beyond the dread of death, for surely we will die. But by faith and faithfulness do we not want these great words to be spoken as true at our requiem?
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 491)
I invite you this lent to recommit your self to Christ. You can have a depth of faith that can transcend the chaos of fear, doubt and sin. We can have a depth of faith that can help us cope with the drivenness from within that causes us to do the very thing we hate. Your re-commitment to God can begin this Lent if you choose it to be a season of spiritual growth and discovery. Is this a year to find a Bible study group or a prayer group? Is this the year to find a spiritual director or go on a spiritual retreat? Is this the year to learn to share your faith with others struggling with spiritual chaos in their lives; or to find a way to share the love of God through sharing your time and resources with those in special need? Let this be your Lent to remember, let God give peace to the chaos and make something spiritually beautiful of your life.
In years to come the Lent of 1999 can be a mile stone, a touch stone in your pilgrimage, if you chose it to be. And it can begin today; this morning; right now. Let us pray: “Come, loving God, be present in us and renew us this Lent. Make peace and order of the chaos within; strength us in our temptation, increase our faith and use us t