Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.

What Child Is This?

John 1:1-14

By now, we’ve heard quite a bit about the birth of baby Jesus, particularly if we’ve managed to attend a Christmas Eve service somewhere. And it is a glorious story, a warm place in Scripture where our souls can bask for awhile.

It also is a meaningless story unless we understand who Jesus is—why his arrival means so much. I do sometimes wonder if Christmas has become so secularized that it’s possible to slip through the season without considering Christ’s eternal nature and impact on the world.

Like the shepherds in Luke’s birth story must have done, we have to ask, why this baby? And then we have to take advantage of something the shepherds did not have, the full story of the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament together.

Hold your Bible in your hand for a minute. Find that slim section known as the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and pinch them between your fingers. These few pages in four different ways tell the story of a man who, in less than 40 years of living, made sense of all that comes in the pages before and all that comes after, all the way up to our present day.

To understand the baby in the manger, we even can go back to the first people in the garden, seeing or perhaps even re-seeing what we might call the fall, the break from God, or the big mistake.

A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those exciting moments where you see something very familiar from Scripture in a new way. Oddly enough, I was watching a cooking segment on an early morning news show.

The guest food expert was showing the proper way to prepare a pomegranate, a popular fruit during the Christmas season. He showed how to slice it down the sides, submerge it in a big bowl of water, and then pull the fruit apart, separating the edible seeds from the skin and pulp.

Forbidden Fruit? (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

This technique, he said, was to avoid the huge mess usually made when opening up a pomegranate. The juice is known for staining both clothing and skin.

What came to mind as I watched this segment is that in Jewish tradition, the forbidden fruit Eve took from the tree and gave to her husband was most likely a pomegranate. (There are some other candidates; a fruit called a “quince” comes up now and then, but the pomegranate appears repeatedly in Jewish religious tradition.) Our notion that she plucked an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a western idea—the fruit is not actually identified in the story.

Imagine for a moment how seeing a pomegranate in the story changes it. Eve had no knife or bowl of water. Rather than delicately nibbling an apple, she would have ripped the pomegranate open with her bare hands to get at the deep red seeds, which are a true delight to the eyes. The purple juice would have sprayed, running down her arms and generally making a mess. Perhaps she and Adam would have even buried their mouths in the segments, staining their faces in the process.

We are reminded of just how beautiful sin initially can seem. But it just gets messier and stickier the deeper we find ourselves in it. The stains left by sin can even seem permanent.

“Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God,” the prophet Jeremiah told the sinful people of Judah.

Enter the Christ child, who was so much more than just a baby. John’s gospel opens by telling us his identity. He is the Word, the essence of God, and the Word “became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Only God in human form could overcome the mess we have made through sinning. Jesus grew into adulthood to teach us how people not stained by sin would love God and one another. He then made it possible for those stains to disappear by going to the cross, allowing humans to make a bloody mess of the flesh God had taken on, suffering to the core of his divine soul in the process.

In Christ’s suffering and death we are mysteriously restored to God. We simply have to believe that what Jesus did was effective. As proof, we trust in the accounts of the resurrection, and our own experiences of the Holy Spirit, God working within us.

If you struggle with believing your particular, horrible stains can disappear, look to Revelation, the final book of the Bible, a vision of creation set right through Christ’s work.

In Revelation 7:13-14, the man having the vision, known as John of Patmos, sees worshipers standing before God in heaven.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

We also have Revelation 22:14 to consider: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” There we are, back at the trees of paradise, this time entitled to the fruit giving eternal life.

That’s why we remember the baby; he carries us into eternity. Merry Christmas, indeed.