First Sunday in Lent

In the name of the Father, and the Son + , and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let’s begin this morning with a question: what is death? In the year and a half that I’ve been here, we’ve done 10 funerals, and that’s just the ones that we’ve had here at our church. There have been a significant number of other sad announcements we’ve had over the same time frame, announcing the death of friends or family members who were not celebrated here in our church. So it would seem that most of us in this church family have been touched by death and loss at some point in the last two years.

Losing a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child… is so incredibly difficult. It’s one of the most stressful things you can experience in your entire lifetime. It’s something you just can’t possibly ever be prepared for. One of my favorite seminary professors described the time when you grieve the death of someone you love as “being in the wilderness” – yes, he was linking it to Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And for good reason: there are feelings of being lost, of not knowing how you’re going to get through the day, of not knowing where you’re going or how you’re going to get there…lots of similarities to Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And yes, there are temptations. Temptations to isolate yourself. Temptations to do things you wouldn’t normally have done before this started. And definitely there are temptations to turn away from God. Exactly as Jesus faced. But hold that thought for a minute.

In our first lesson this morning, God tells the man and the woman that they only have one rule: don’t eat the fruit of that one tree. It’s a pretty simple rule, really. I enjoyed how Pastor Hefner described this in our Bible study in the fall: You can eat fruit from any other tree. You can play in this tree. You cut the branches off of this tree. You can do anything else in this garden. You just cannot EAT THIS FRUIT FROM THIS ONE TREE. That was their only rule. And what would happen if they broke this rule? God says “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” Or at least, that’s what the woman told the snake that God said. If you look at chapter 2, here’s what God told the man: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 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 surely die.” So actually, they *could* touch the fruit, they just couldn’t eat it. Somewhere in there between when God gave man and woman their one rule and when woman repeated it to the serpent, the rule got more strict.

But man and woman at the forbidden fruit, and they did not drop dead. Certainly God didn’t lie to them, did He? Of course not. God does not lie. God CANNOT lie – it would go against His own nature, and God never does that. So no, God did not lie to them.

Did the serpent lie to the woman? What did he say to her? “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Ok, so this “forbidden fruit” comes from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, right? So before the man and the woman ate this fruit, they did not know Good from Evil. They were innocent and naïve. So before this, how did they tell Good from Evil? Simple: they didn’t. They were completely dependent upon God Himself to tell them what is good and what is evil. They didn’t have to think about it. They didn’t have to deliberate or play “what if” or look for exceptions. They simply relied on God to tell them. And if it was good, they embraced it. If it was bad, they avoided it. Whatever “it” was – food, activities, speech, behavior… God guided them and they listened to Him. I have a really hard time wrapping my head around that. Can you imagine what that must’ve been like?

Please don’t misunderstand: they weren’t robots just following orders. God didn’t make us to be robots or automatons who just do whatever we’re programmed to do. God gave us the free will to choose…which is exactly what happens in Genesis 3. But before the serpent, life with God was innocent and unblemished. It was sinless. The relationship between man and woman and God was open and completely trusting and filled with divine love. It was exactly how God had created it to be.

But the serpent came in and twisted everything. God was not there to tell woman that what the serpent was telling her was evil. She didn’t know any better. The serpent made this forbidden fruit sound good. At this point, woman had not heard a lie before. God does not lie, and man didn’t know how. This was her first experience with dishonesty. Is it any wonder she fell for it? Can you remember the first time you were lied to? I can. My so-called friend Bobby got me to close my eyes so he could put a worm in my mouth. I was only about 4. But I remember it well. I was so trusting and naïve. Much like those first two humans were when the snake tricked the woman.

Man, on the other hand, wasn’t tricked. Woman didn’t lie to him. She just offered it to him and he ate the fruit. So women: don’t let anyone say that it was woman’s fault we got kicked out of Eden. Woman was deceived by the Prince of Lies. Man just did what his wife told him to without questioning it. He bears the responsibility here. He could have told her “no”. Oh sure, he might have had to sleep on the couch for a few nights…

But they didn’t “die” in the day they ate the fruit. They were still breathing and walking around. They were able to go and sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. Sure doesn’t seem like death to me. At least not the way we think of it.

There was one other tree in the garden that had a specific name. This tree that we’ve been focusing on is called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The other tree is called the Tree of Life. Man and woman were completely free to eat that fruit. Tradition tells us that the Tree of Life keeps you alive forever so long as you continue to eat its fruit. So, what happens when you lose access to this fruit? You begin to die…

Is that what God means? Well, I think it’s part of it. But that’s not all of it. “Death” in this sense is really separation from God. That’s worse than the lungs not breathing, the heart not beating, and the brain not thinking. That’s just the body shutting down. “Death” in the Biblical sense is being separated from God. And *this* is what God was warning His children about. Clearly they didn’t understand death when the serpent questioned the woman about it. Up to this point in the story, nothing had died. They had no experience with death, so they didn’t really know what the serpent was talking about. And it certainly appears that they really didn’t know what God meant when He threatened them with it. Man and woman were incredibly innocent and naïve.

Did Jesus die? Or maybe I should say it this way: did Jesus experience death? The short answer to that question is: “yes”. What do we say in the Creed? “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Yes, we believe Jesus died. Do you remember what did he say before he died? Psalm 22, right? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here’s the next verse after that: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Sounds like someone who’s separated from God, doesn’t it? It should; because that’s exactly what Jesus was about to face. He was going to “descend into hell” and be separated from the Heavenly Father. He was facing DEATH in the truest sense of the word. He was going somewhere that the Father wouldn’t be with him. The Father had “forsaken” Jesus and let him be separated from his Father. Jesus would experience that separation specifically so that he could defeat the powers of sin, the devil, and the grave.

One man, by misusing a tree, doomed humanity to thousands of years of separation from God; eviction from paradise and perfect relationship with the Heavenly Father. Another man, by dying on a tree, redeemed humanity and saved us all, bringing us back into relationship with the Heavenly Father. That is what Christ did for us on his tree…undoing the faithlessness and selfishness of Adam and putting aside all that gets in the way of our walk with God.

What is death? Death is separation from God. But since Jesus faced that himself, no one who believes in him has anything to worry about. We will not be separated from God, not even by death. A bit farther into Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells them “38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Of all the powerful forces Paul mentions, death is the very first on the list. But as ominous and powerful as it and all those other forces are, none of them can ever separate us from God’s love. And that, brothers and sisters, is good news indeed.

Would you pray with me: May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Pastor Todd Cook