The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
By a quirk of fate my birthday always coincides with the beginning of Lent. For that reason, I’ve never really taken to celebrating birthdays in my adult life. After a full day on Ash Wednesday of telling people that they’re going to die, I don’t feel up for presents and parties. Because it’s a reminder every year that I’m getting one year closer to the end. So my birthday, Lent, Ash Wednesday, all coming together put me in a reflective mood. I think back to my childhood, when birthday parties meant cake. And now, I have Type I Diabetes, and I can’t have cake anymore. I remember when all my friends would come over for my birthday and without a worry in the world, we’d play in our big backyard. Except, we moved away from there and I can’t hardly remember their names, much less their faces. I think about how when you’re a kid all you want is the independence of a grown up. And then when you’re grown up, all you want is the innocence of a child. As I complete another lap around the sun, I think about all the friendships that have come and gone; relationships started and ended; I think about all the bridges in my life that have been burned.
It’s in that frame of mind that we ought to read this ancient tale of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the Lord God. For me, this passage is not so much a story about what happened long ago. For me, this passage is about our lives. We come into the world in a kind of innocence, completely trusting those around us, completely dependent upon those around us. Then over time, for this reason or that, we listen to another voice. We do something that hurts a relationship; we do something that hurts us; we listen to the voice of temptation; we turn away from the better angels of our nature. Realizing what we have done, our eyes are opened; we see the pain that we have caused. This awakening causes us to be ashamed. Carrying this burden of guilt is too much for us, so we blame someone, anyone, else. Once we point that finger, we have crossed the Rubicon from innocence to shame, from young at heart to old and worn down. The bridge has been burned.
That, in short, is the story of the Garden of Eden. The man and the woman are content in the garden. They are not ashamed of who they are or of what they are. They live with God in complete innocence, walking and talking with God in complete nearness and union. Until they listen to another voice, that crafty voice of the serpent. The man and the woman eat the fruit of the tree that God told them not to eat. Their eyes are opened, they see themselves for what they are. They are ashamed. Wanting to justify themselves, wanting an excuse, desperately trying to go back to the way it was, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. But in truth, there is no going back.
This story is not so much about the Fall of Humanity as it is about the fall of every human being. Nakedness is a sign of innocence. The fig leaves are signs of the sinful burdens we carry. And as much as we might wish, as much as we might confess or blame or rationalize, there is no going back. What has been done has been done.
This story from Genesis is our story. The bridges have been burned. The shame is too great. You have pointed the finger. Deflected the blame. There have been lies, half-truths, too much anger, too much sorrow. In reality, the fig leaves of the would haves, could haves, and should haves of life. And now, now you sit there with a pit in your stomach, a hole in your heart, because your whole life seems to have gone wrong. You wish you could just go back. Go back to that simpler time. When you could walk in the garden with God and with each other and not have a care in the world. But for whatever terrible reason, that bridge has been burned.
So I stand here this morning to tell you one awful truth – there is no going back. There just isn’t. The bridge has been burned. In Genesis, God sets an angel with a flaming sword to block the entrance to Eden, a sign that the man and the woman have been expelled, never to return that way again. In the same way, you have grown up – you have seen too much, done too much, hurt too much. You can never go back to the way it was. Don’t try to recreate the past, don’t try to recapture your innocence, because it will only frustrate you. Leading you deeper into a cycle of sin, despair, and disillusionment.
With that awful truth, comes one glorious truth. The Christian faith has never been about reclaiming the past. Following Jesus has never been about trying to get back into the garden.
The good news of the gospel is not that God will rebuild the bridge, but that God will find another way around the river. Our Christian hope is not that God lets us back into the Garden of Eden. Our hope is it that a gracious God raises us from the dead and gives us new life in the heavenly city. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, that bridge was burned, scorched beyond repair. But that didn’t stop God from finding another way around the river. Because there was an empty tomb just three days later.
Lent is a stark reminder that we have grown up. We are no longer innocent. We have failed to live up to the ways of Jesus. And yet, somehow, some way, God is gracious enough to find another way around the bridges you have burned. Don’t expect your life to be the way it used to be. Trust that God will create a new life for you on the other side of the river. The season of Lent ends not at the cross, but at the empty tomb.
And I know what you’re probably thinking. “Gosh, Jimmy’s birthday has put him in a bad mood.”
In reality, I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be happier because I know that the Lord God knows exactly how many laps I’ve made around the sun and yet still loves me. The Lord God knows exactly who I am and what I have done and where I’ve been and yet still dwells within me. God knows all the bridges I’ve burned and where I kept the matches, but is not willing that I should be stuck on the far side of the river. And even when I have listened to those other voices, even when I have tried to hide in shame, even when it seemed that all was lost, Jesus Christ called me, saw me, and found me. I don’t need a birthday present, because the love God has been poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit. And that is the greatest gift I could ever receive.