September 4, 2005

Transformed into Christ’s Likeness: Death
Genesis 3:1-24

We have a game at home called “Tumbling Tower” that we enjoy playing from time to time. You’ve perhaps played it as well. You begin by stacking the 48 pieces of wood, each resembling a 4” railroad tie, to form a multi-layered tower—three ties per layer. Then, each player in turn removes one of the ties, trying carefully not to cause the entire tower to collapse. As the game progresses and more ties are removed, the tower increasingly totters. You don’t want to sneeze at this point, particularly if it is your turn to play! Eventually, one of the players miscalculates and attempts to remove a tie upon which the tower itself rests, and with that tie removed, all of the others come crashing down.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, God had meticulously arranged the tower of creation. Each tie was perfectly put in place, and creation was, by God’s own admission, “very good.” Then, a few of the players—the ones created in the image of God, nonetheless!—grabbed for the single tie that God had specifically told them to leave alone. “Touch any of the other ties,” he had said. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” “Don’t pull out that tie!” And yet, that is precisely what they did. And the result? The tower of creation came tumbling down.

What, as we begin to consider the story, was so special about this tie—the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” Why was it a support beam, so to speak, for the rest of God’s tower? “What is wrong with eating a piece of fruit?” you might ask. Actually, it is far more involved than that.

In Hebrew thought, everything is either good or evil. There is no middle ground, no “grey area” like we so often think. In this sense, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents or symbolizes the knowledge of everything. To reach for the fruit of this tree, then, involves far more than reaching for a pear or an apple. God, after all, is not trite. To reach for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to reach for independence. To reach for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to reach for self-sufficiency. To reach for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to believe that we human beings can fend for ourselves. We can solve all of our various problems. We can accomplish whatever we put our minds to doing. We, in and of ourselves, can take over for God and run the world just fine without him. To reach for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to embrace the potential involved in being created in the image of God while at the same time ignoring the limitations of being fashioned out of dust. To reach for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to clench our fists in God’s face and declare, “We can live our lives without you.” That, after all, is the fundamental temptation facing every person in every culture in every period of time, including every one of us here this morning. Do we need God or not? Will we trust our lives into his care, or will we rely on our own abilities and knowledge, insisting on being independent and self-sufficient?

If we can begin to grasp the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that it symbolizes, then we can begin as well to understand why the tower falls when we reach for it. Two trees in the garden are specifically referred to by name: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. The tree of life stands in the middle of the garden, and it is there for all to eat. As long as people eat from the tree of life, they will live. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is off limits, however. God, after all, never intended for us to be independent and self-sufficient. He wants to care for us, provide for us, and direct our lives. Once we choose to go our own separate ways and reach for the tree of the knowledge and good and evil, we at the same time abandon the tree of life. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t eat from both trees. Did you notice God’s concluding statement here in Genesis 3 as he prepares to drive Adam and Eve out of the garden? “Now that these human creations have reached for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” he suggests, “they will also try to reach for the tree of life (3:22).” That, he announces, simply cannot happen. We can’t be independent from God and truly live at the same time. We cannot, in Jesus’ words, serve two masters. “If you want to live,” he announced on another occasion, “you must first die to yourself.”

In Genesis 3, the man and the woman have a choice to make. It is, by the way, the same choice that each and every one of us face. Will we follow God and trust our lives into his care, eating the nourishing fruit from the tree of life? Or will we abandon God, fend for ourselves, and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The man and the woman choose the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—they pull out the single railroad tie that they were specifically told to ignore—and the tower of God’s creation falls to the ground.

Look, for just a moment or two, at the rubble. The tower that God created in Genesis 1-2 was beautifully arranged. Even a casual glance at it reveals harmonious relationships between human beings and God, human beings and the rest of creation, and human beings and themselves. The scene is utopic! God and people are in intimate fellowship. Man and woman are working side-by-side, and the various animals of the world walk up to them to receive their names. But in Genesis 3, the entire landscape has changed. It is as though the curtain in the theatre fell and the stage crew, rather than simply changing the backdrop, destroyed the existing props and left them lie in ruin for the following scene.

Notice how the relationship between God and human beings has changed. Where earlier we found intimacy and trust, now we discover an entirely new range of emotions and tendencies. The man and woman heard God in the garden, the writer informs us, and they hid themselves among the trees (v. 8). “Where are you?” God asks with what I at least imagine to be concern rather than anger. “We heard you, and we were afraid,” they respond. “We knew we were naked, and we feared what you might do if you saw us this way.” What a terrible thing—hiding from the one who loves you the most. That overwhelming sense of distance that exists when you know that you have betrayed someone dear to you. The need to conceal your thoughts and behaviors—to scheme, and lie, and cover up what you have done—to hide. We’ve probably all done it at one time or another with our parents, friends, and our spouses.

I well remember bringing home progress reports on a regular basis when I was in high school. These were not the type of reports that notified parents of outstanding academic achievement, but rather warned them that their son or daughter would be out on the street in a hurry if improvement was not shown! I’d place the report on the kitchen table late at night when I was certain that mom and particularly dad were in bed. I knew that dad left for work in the morning well before I got up, and I hoped not to be present when he saw yet another such report. All day I’d wonder if he had seen it or not, and I naturally grew nervous as to what type of reaction awaited me back at home. It was a terrible feeling—my dad loved me, yet I was afraid. I was hiding.

Worse than hiding from a parent, friend or spouse, we encounter here in Genesis 3 the horrible truth that disobedience results in a distressing tendency to hide even from God. God, whom Charles Wesley so beautifully describes as “the Lover of my soul,” has instead become, through our disobedience, the frightening “outsider.”

Look as well at the relationship between people and the rest of creation. The animals no longer seek our company, nor does the ground gladly bring forth food. Tension appears between animals and humans, and the earth itself rebels. Thorns and thistles crowd out healthy vegetation, and the man must work against various obstacles simply to grow food for survival. With image after image, the writer informs us that humanity and the rest of creation are no longer working together cooperatively. Gone are the almost fairy-tale like scenes of Genesis 2.

And finally, consider the relationship between people and other people. Whereas teamwork and solidarity characterized human relationships in Genesis 2, now we find people interacting with each other in entirely new ways. For the first time, passing the blame appears. In one broad stroke, the man blames both the woman and God for his behavior. “The woman whom you gave to be with me”—she led me to do this. And the woman fairs no better. “The serpent tricked me,” she announces. The man blamed God and the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, and the serpent had no leg to stand on!

In addition, we discover the emergence of unhealthy competition and the desire to control and manipulate one another. The woman seeks to consume the man—which is what the phrase in v. 16 directed to the woman actually means—and the man becomes a control freak. Gone are mutual respect, trust, cooperation, and healthy self-confidence. In are despair, skepticism, and self-centeredness.

“Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God had instructed his human creation. These people whom he wonderfully created in his own image to reflect his glory and majesty throughout the world. “You can have everything, but leave that tree alone. Don’t depend on yourselves. Don’t give in to the innate desire to be independent and self-sufficient. Don’t choose personal success and advancement and abandon the tree of life in the process. Leave that one railroad tie alone!” But that is precisely the one that they then choose to remove. And when they do—when they “sin”, to use Paul’s word from Romans 5—the entire tower tumbles to the ground. Relationships are destroyed at all levels—between people and God, between people and creation, and between people and other people.

The effects of sin, the Bible assures us, continue to plague the human race down through the centuries, down even to this very day. People still choose self-reliance over life. People still run and hide from God, the one who loves them the most. People and creation are still often at odds with each other—just witness the natural disaster in the Gulf this week alone. And people still seek to rule and reign over each other. The tower of creation, constructed so beautifully, lies yet in ruins, waiting desperately for someone to rebuild it. Who will do it? Who can do it? In the game “Tumbling Tower,” that task is left for all of the players to complete between rounds. They grab the 48 pieces of wood—the small railroad ties—and put them all back in place again. But life is not that way. We can’t rebuild the tower of creation on our own, nor do we possess the ability to transform the multitude of broken relationships that sin has produced. Only God can do that, and thankfully, he is! “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17)!”