Sunday, 18 February 2018

On the Tree of Knowledge

This sermon was preached at our Evensong service on the first Sunday of Lent 2018 (Sunday 18th February). The Old Testament reading was taken from the book of Genesis, chapters 2:15-17 and 3:1-7.



Today is the first Sunday in Lent; the start of our solemn journey with Christ towards his cross. During these forty days, we might choose to fast, or devote more time to prayer and Bible study. Perhaps you might have started a book of Lenten devotions? We probably should also be using this period of time to look at our lives, calling to mind the exhortation of Wednesday just gone – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ.


It’s appropriate, then, that, as we contemplate our failings, and turn away from sin, we at this point turn the pages of our Bible to contemplate the first sin.

It’s appropriate that here, at the start of Lent, we have heard a story from the start of time

It’s appropriate that, as we make our way towards a garden, on a hill, and a wooden cross to lay down our lives in obedience and be irrevocably changed, we call to mind another garden, and a wooden tree, where all lives were sacrificed in disobedience, and the whole world was changed for the first time.

We’ve heard the story set in this first garden many, many times before. But what is it about? What is it trying to tell us? And how can it aid us in our Lenten journey?


Whenever I hear this story of the disobedience of the first people, I’m always left with questions. Maybe you’re the same? Maybe we have the same questions? I have too many to go into in one sermon, so, for tonight, I’ll just concentrate on one:

God tells humankind not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why? Isn’t knowing what’s good and what’s bad a good thing in and of itself? How can it be wrong to understand the difference? Surely the sin is in the doing, not the knowing?


A quick google when researching this sermon showed me I was not alone in any of my questions. They have been asked, and attempted to be answered, for thousands of years. Some of those answers that come forward are glib and trite. Some answers just lead to more and more questions. And some answers just feel wrong, and do not fit with the God we know and worship. But this question – about the tree and its effect on humanity seemed to be an especially common one. In my research, I found an interesting Jewish perspective on our story that offers one answer here.


There’s a Jewish tradition that hints that maybe we in the Western world have got this tree wrong; that it’s not the tree of the knowledge of good, and the knowledge of evil, but that it’s the knowledge of good-and-evil – combined. The Jewish word for ‘Knowledge’ here is the same one used later in the book when Adam and Eve consummate their relationship and Cain is born. We’ve brought the same idea into our English Bibles. Adam knew Eve, and she conceived. This word for knowledge, then, implies a union, a meeting or a merging.

What does that mean for our tree? No longer, then, is it a tree that helps us know what is good, and know what is bad, but, instead, it is a tree that gives humanity the understanding of mixing the good and bad together; of facing a moral decision, and coming up with a murky compromise.

And isn’t that the very essence of the human condition as we know it? If you think about it, is that not one of the defining characteristics of humanity? Needing to make a moral decision and realising that things no longer have the black-and-white clarity of our childhood, but that the hues and tones of ethics are swirled together, causing us to see only shades of grey, some lighter, some darker, but all tainted with both good and bad potentiality.

This tree gave us knowledge after all. The serpent was right; it did make us like gods. It gave humankind the ability, and the responsibility of moral judgements. And it ensured that in doing so, our own motives were mixed – for to get a good result, with good and evil combined, we now must contemplate doing wrong to get there. We all now fall into the pit where we must ask ourselves whether a good end goal justifies the murky means by which we arrive. And, we now know, in our hearts, that even our good deeds are done with at least half an eye on our own well-being; whether that be so that others think better of us, so that our lives go more smoothly, or with a flicker of our mind toward our own salvation. Even now, as I approach my forties, with all my religious background and training, I feel unable to make these decisions with any great sense of confidence. In eating of that tree, before eating our fill of the other tree in the garden – the tree of life – humanity grew up too fast. We weren’t ready. We’re still not.

Things now for us will always be mixed. The good comes with the bad. The rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Even the consequence of eating of that tree of the knowledge of good and evil combined brings compromise into the world – the man must till the land, where weeds now grown alongside the wheat, and in bringing forth life and bringing up her children, the woman now faces the compromise of pain alongside the pleasure this brings. The world now is tainted; not wholly good, and not wholly bad, but a ball of swirled plasticene, a mixed morality of colours. It is a world where we must make moral decisions we feel wholly unprepared to make; where we have inherited godly power of judgement, without the godly wisdom that comes with immortality. It is a world where we consistently compromise our faith and our base desires; our good and our bad.

 
'A ball of plasticene', by Chris Barnes - image taken from Aspiration Factory



But, this is Lent. And on the journey to the cross, Christ shows us we are capable of reaching higher; of calling back to a time before that decision in the garden was made. His exile in the desert, echoing the exile from Eden shows that we can over-reach the mixed morality of the tree, that we can reject sin, the world and the temptations of the devil. Have you ever wondered what good Christ could have done had he bowed down to worship the devil, and been given dominion over the world? What the world would have been like with Christ as its physical emperor? But Christ rejected that, knowing that compromising good and evil was the way out of Eden, not the way back in. The way back in was much harder – doing good always is.

We may compromise, but Christ did not. He showed us that completely selfless acts exist, and we are on a journey with him now to his ultimate act of altruism. From the tree to the cross.

And so, as we travel with him over the next forty days, may we turn away from sin; from a compromised sense of morality where the ends justify the means and where we continue to do good but with an eye on our own welfare, and follow – and try­­ to be faithful to Christ. 

The colours of our world may be blurred, but by focussing on Christ, we will see more clearly.

Amen
 

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