January 8, 2012 Evil is a Four-Letter Word Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17
As I alluded to a few weeks ago in one of my advent sermons, for quite some time I’ve been wanting to preach a series of sermons on what I call the ‘dark side’ of life.
And when I talk about the Dark Side, I’m not talking about Star Wars. 🙂
I’m talking about a number of questions I have concerning the fallen nature of our surroundings. How do we understand “Evil” in the Christian Faith?
What’s a helpful definition of “Sin”?
Who exactly is in charge of this broken world, where a young Amish girl can be randomly, fatally wounded in the head from an admittedly careless discharge of a hunting weapon?
What do we make of earthquakes and hurricanes and wildfires that can destroy whole cities, ravage the land and displace so many people?
How do we reconcile belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God with a world in which so many self-inflicted and living hells are perpetuated day after day after day?
Addiction. Terror. Cancer. Poverty.
How do we talk about evil in a way that doesn’t belittle the reality, and at the same time maintain our faith in God?
Certainly we can do better than the meaningless, though well-intentioned statement “It’s all part of God’s Plan.”
As if that’s supposed to comfort the mother who just lost her child, or the twenty year old who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or the single parent who just lost their job.
What is Evil? How do we respond when confronted with Evil? What can God do about Evil, and why does He allow it?
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with these questions.
Most of us have struggled to find answers on our own…but we haven’t really engaged the reality of evil among our church friends.
In other words, we treat Evil like it’s a four-letter word.
What I mean is, we keep it hidden. It’s not a word we use much, especially when we’re in polite and civilized company.
Well, I’d like to take a few Sundays to unpack, and even hopefully wreck some of our misconceptions about God, about Evil, and about the role we play in the unfolding drama that is creation.
I’d like to replace them with what I hope are more helpful ways of engaging the reality that the world is a broken place, we are broken people, and yet we do maintain the image of God, and we do continue to have infinite worth in God’s eyes, even though creation has been broken, seemingly beyond repair.
So…one question that I’m interested in addressing this morning is “what exactly is Evil?”
The verses I chose from Genesis kind of set the stage for the question.
There is a garden, full of vegetation that is pleasing to the eye and good to eat.
Everyone who knows the story knows that this garden is a little slice of paradise. It’s the garden of Eden; the garden we would all return to if only we could.
There’s a stream that flows from the ground that waters the face of the earth, and if we’re to believe centuries of preaching, there are no weeds, no blight, and no evil.
It’s the perfect place, in our mind’s eye.
Creation as God intended it to be. Perfect.
But, as you maybe have heard me say before, God never said “it is perfect”.
He looked upon all he made and he said “it is good”.
God puts Adam there to enjoy this garden with all it’s vegetation. He’s there to tend it. To cultivate it.
There are trees there, and I’m guessing plenty of flowers, bushes, and wildlife.
And in the middle of this garden,
that is…at the center of the good life as God intended it…
that is…the place around which all else revolves in the garden of life…
There stand two very particular trees.
One is the tree of life.
The other is the infamous tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It was the tree of judgment.
The tree of god-like wisdom.
And they were told not to eat from this tree, because death would surely come from eating of its fruit.
Now, you know the story…there was also a serpent in this garden, and it was crafty.
The serpent tempted Eve to eat from this tree; and she did. She then offered the fruit to Adam, who was apparently standing right there with her, and he ate it too.
It’s the story of the Fall.
If you’re like me, you’re used to hearing this story of the fall interpreted as the introduction of evil into the world.
And you’re also used to hearing the story told as if there was no evil before Adam and Eve chose to rebel against something called “God’s Plan”.
The thinking goes that God had a singular, particular plan for His creation, but for some reason He never considered that Adam and Eve might choose to exercise the free will He had given them and rebel against that plan.
Hence Evil was sort of injected into this perfect creation through the actions of a rebellious humanity, and we’ve been caught up in this cosmic battle between good and evil ever since.
Well, if we pay close enough attention when we read the story, we learn that the trees were in the garden before Adam.
God plants the two trees in the garden before Adam, Eve, or the Serpent ever see them.
It’s interesting because that tells me that both good and evil are realities that are independent of human action or human will.
In other words, there couldn’t have been a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, unless there were good and evil things to be known…before the serpent even planted the question in Eve’s head.
Maybe that’s not a real important observation, except that it helps us distinguish between the reality of evil, and the reality of sin.
They’re two different things.
They have a lot to do with each other, but they’re not one and the same thing.
On the surface, this teaching may not seem like much.
On the other hand, it prevents us from needing to directly link evil in the world to human sin.
For example, it prevents us from declaring God’s judgment upon Haiti when they suffer an earthquake, or New Orleans when a hurricane strikes, or the family of any tragic accident victim…because we know that the world is a broken place; full of good and also full of evil.
And evil is a different thing than sin.
Which brings me to my second point for the morning, which has to do with the temptation that Adam and Eve gave in to.
It’s the first Sin.
We read about it in Genesis 3 verse 5, where the serpent tells Eve, “God knows that when you eat of this tree, (that is, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This is the first sin. People call it the ‘original sin’.
I’d like to suggest this morning that it’s the sin that’s at the root of all other sin.
It’s our choice to center our lives on judgment; specifically judging what is good and what is evil.
Let me just say, the kind of judgment I’m talking about isn’t the judging we do every day concerning what’s a good use of our talents and time and money; the word I would use for that kind of thing is discernment.
The kind of judgment I’m talking about puts us in the seat that only God should be in; judging good and evil as if we were God.
We all embrace different idols, and thus we embrace different versions of the original tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.
And our world is so broken, that it’s hard to even remember that eating from that tree is still forbidden, and it doesn’t matter what version is at the center of your life!
For example, maybe your source of Life is wrapped up in something like patriotism. You just KNOW that you were born on the side of good, and your enemy happened to be born on the side of evil.
Those are judgments; using the ill-gotten (and might I say sinful) knowledge of good and evil to justify something like warfare or bigotry.
Do not eat of this tree; or you will surely die.
The same thing happens with religion for religious people, race for racists, political parties for the politically inclined, and even sports teams for the sports enthusiasts.
It’s an easy frame of mind to fall into without even knowing it. Whatever advances and protects our idolatrous source of life is “good’ while whatever hinders or threatens our idolatrous source of life is ‘evil’.
And it doesn’t matter what you put in the place of the idol.
If it’s sex…whatever affirms, advances, and protects your sexual vibrancy is good. Whatever hinders, negates, or threatens it is evil.
Money; whatever advances or protects your money and possessions is good, whatever hinders or threatens those things is evil. Power, fame, intelligence, respect, achievements, family, or any other idol that you can imagine; it’s the same story.
These are all simply variations on the theme that we find in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, where Eve and Adam make the choice to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In so doing, they become like God, and the result can only be death.
It’s not that Eve ate the apple and suddenly evil was in the world.
It’s that Eve ate the apple, and suddenly we thought we were gods; pronouncing things as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as it suited us!
Not even Jesus was interested in being thought of as good.
We are not good. But please hear this; Neither are we evil.
We are simply not the judge.
Rather, good and evil are realities we can sometimes choose.
Other times they are realities that happen to us.
Navigating the path of discipleship involves discernment; but not judgment.
It involves naming things, and tending the garden…but not forcing the world into rigid categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as if we were gods.
These are heavy topics, so let me end on a more positive note.
I am convinced, like I said a few Sundays ago, that every person on earth has infinite worth in the eyes of God.
I am also convinced that it is our most basic job as Christian people, to agree with God that every person on earth has infinite worth; regardless of the activities they have chosen to participate in; regardless of the sinful nature of their lives or the evils we perceive them to be complicit with in the world.
We are here to communicate the value God puts on creation. That doesn’t mean we don’t discern things. We can name sin, we can cultivate faith, we can work at bearing the fruit of the spirit and helping others to do the same.
But may we not forget that we are not the judge.