A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 February 2022 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Reading for address: Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15-end

I recall a night when I was 19. I was living in a community of maybe 25 people, and, after supper, one of the household got out a guitar and sang some folk songs. The one I remember was ‘Both Sides Now.’ Joni Mitchell wrote the song in 1967 as her first marriage was disintegrating. She was sitting on a plane, contemplating what clouds look like from the ground compared to from above. Once she’d seen clouds as castles in the air; but now they only block the sun. Once she’d seen love as how you feel when every fairy tale comes real; but now it’s love’s illusions she recalls. The song epitomised my mixed emotions at the time. The community was a beautiful experience of companionship, coming right after I’d lost my mother to a long and cruel illness. Yet despite the prayer and gentleness of that community, something was wrong. Years later, the founder would end up in prison for what had happened there. Both sides now. The intensity of the contrast was so strong that I bolted out before the end of the song. I couldn’t deal with the strength of diverging emotions.

The story told in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 could be called Both Sides Now. It’s a story of how everything was created in wonder and joy, and how yet now exists in tension and conflict. I want to reflect on the story with you this morning to explore what it’s really saying. Because I believe what it’s saying goes to the heart of each of our lives, and the heart of what it means to be a Christian. But first, I want briefly to note what it’s not saying.

One commentator calls this the best-known and most-misunderstood story in the Bible. Let me quickly mention a few things the story’s not saying. It’s not a scientific account of how the world began; instead, it’s a parable. It’s not an overarching story that casts its shadow over the whole Bible; in fact, only a handful of passages in the rest of the Bible refer to it. It’s not an account of historical event known as the Fall, or the origin of evil. The Old Testament doesn’t deal with theoretical issues like evil, sin or death: it’s more interested in practical responses. It’s not about any hierarchical relationship between man and woman. The creation of Adam refers to the beginning of human life; the creation of Eve is the moment man and woman become different and complementary. There’s no hint here of one being superior to the other. And it’s not about sex. You can get all Freudian about the serpent if you like, but there’s nothing in this story to connect sex with sin. Those are all misreadings of the story. So what would a true reading of the story say?

Let’s go back to Joni Mitchell. Let’s look at life, for a moment, from both sides now. On one side we have wonder and joy. We have myriad stars and galaxies in the universe. We have the minuscule miracle of microbes and minute organisms. We have expansive adventure, glorious beauty, spectacular vistas, fascinating details. On top of that we have human invention – technology, transport, music, art, sport, society. It never ends. On the other side we have three challenges. Challenge one is human fragility: resources run out, our bodies are limited, good things don’t endure. Challenge two is evil: people sometimes genuinely mean each other harm, destroy rather than cultivate, pervert rather than enjoy. Challenge three is death: our lives end. It’s baffling that there can be all this action, adventure, aliveness and animation, and it suddenly comes to a stop; but it does. The story of Genesis 2 and 3 is about what we do in the face of these three challenges. Forget the antiquated language and the misguided associations of this story. This story is even more relevant today than when it was written. Let’s see how.

I want to look with you at the established strategies for dealing with the challenges of limitation, evil and death. I reckon there are three. They’re all touched on in this story, and they’re all very much alive today. I want to explore each of them with you. The first is knowledge. You may know the story of the person who fell off the cliff. Halfway down she clung on to a branch. While hanging between heaven and earth, she contemplated some kind of a rescue. Looking up to the top of the cliff face, she shouted, ‘Is there anybody up there?’ A voice came from the clouds, ‘My child, let go of the branch, I will catch you in my everlasting arms.’ She paused to think, and then shouted a second time, ‘Is there anybody else up there?’ The whole quest for human knowledge is this kind of seeking a second opinion. We dwell in a mysterious and wondrous world: we want to find out for ourselves what makes it tick. Like investigative journalists, we’re suspicious of conventional answers and stride around with long raincoats jamming our foot in the door and scrutinising company accounts to discover secrets not yet disclosed. Last summer I read a remarkable book about astrophysics that was full of claims about what physics has taught us about the origin, nature and destiny of the universe. But all I could think of was how little we still know about the things we most care about. The serpent tempts the woman and the man to eat of the tree of knowledge. They do eat. They do gain knowledge. But on the things that matter most, they’re still in the dark.

Here’s the second strategy: mastery. We use the expression ‘control freak’ to describe a person whose efforts to have everything in life under their command prove counterproductive: seeking to control antagonises others, takes away the joy of surprise, and ultimately proves futile, because important things, like fragility, evil, and death, can’t finally be controlled, and other things, like love and laughter, are ruined by control. Consider the management-speak term ‘futureproof.’ Of course you should design projects so they don’t become obsolete in a few years’ time: but futureproofing promises more than that – it suggests control over the future, the removal of risk, surprise, accident, even luck. Everyone from a two-year-old child to a 69-year-old Russian president is liable to throw a tantrum when they discover there are things they can’t control. But the key to life doesn’t lie in amassing more and more control: it lies in working out how to live when things aren’t in your control. In this story God gives humanity the animals to be helpers and companions – but there’s no mention of mastery over them or the earth. The attempt to dominate destroys not just nature but humanity: perhaps it’s only in the age of the climate emergency we’re finally realising that.

And here’s the third strategy: escape. The story’s about the false idea that humanity’s freedom lies in escaping from God, and ends with Adam and Eve departing the garden for a harsher, sadder life elsewhere. Norah Jones sang the words, ‘Come away with me in the night.’ She spoke of walking together on a cloudy day, through fields ‘where the yellow grass grows knee-high.’ It’s a dream a lot of people had during the pandemic – to escape to a place where there was no sickness, no isolation, no fear; just for a few days, a day even. Our lives become ever more ones of escape – through an Xbox of perpetual gaming, through the fantasy our phone will bring excitement and diversion, through altering our consciousness, through movies or celebrity melodramas. But eventually we must return to the unfinished business we were trying to escape from; it doesn’t go away, however far or fast we run.

At this point we need to acknowledge a sober truth. Christianity’s often been used as a totalising form of knowledge. It’s frequently been employed as a form of mastery and control. It’s repeatedly been treated as a method of escape. But this story doesn’t commend any of these understandings of Christianity.

This story goes to the very heart of what faith is all about: and that is, trust. There’s something more enduring than knowledge, more profound than control, more honest than escape: and that’s trust. As this story shows, trust is the most challenging thing in the universe to establish, and the easiest and quickest to destroy. But it’s the most powerful thing in all creation. Have you ever seen high-flying acrobats in the circus? Letting go of their trapeze, 150 feet in the air, sometimes without a net, and gripping each other’s wrists just when you thought they were bound to fall? Imagine the trust that takes. But trust makes other astonishing thigs possible. It’s incredible that a 747 jet gets off the ground; but what’s really extraordinary is that 500 people entrust their lives to the pilot. It’s remarkable that a surgeon can correct a problem in the heart or the brain; but it couldn’t happen if the patient didn’t say ‘I trust you to hold my life in your hands.’

In this story God gives humanity purpose, permission, and prohibition. The purpose is this: care for the garden. The permission is this: you can do whatever you like. The prohibition is this: there’s one tree you can’t eat from. The story’s a tragedy because, in the face of indescribable abundance, humanity focuses on scarcity. Granted the dazzling plenitude of the whole garden, humanity fixates on the one thing it can’t have. It then, through its obsession with knowledge, mastery and escape, tries to make sufficiency out of that one tree.

But here’s the good news. God takes that other precious tree, the tree of life. And God comes into the garden in Jesus. And Jesus climbs the tree of life, and from himself on that tree gives us abundant food, his body and blood, that feeds us abundantly for evermore. And when we gather at Christ’s table, we enact our trust that God’s abundance transforms our scarcity, that we will one day inhabit the garden of abundance with God forever.

In the meantime, our purpose is to live God’s abundance and not shrink into our own scarcity. Every occasion we realise our quest for knowledge is a displacement of our need for relationship, every time we admit our impulse to control is a poor substitute for trust, every moment we accept our tendency to seek escape is a diversion from our true walk of faith, we revisit this story and rediscover what it’s really about. Fragility, evil and death are real, and circumscribe our lives. But because of this story, we never let their threat of scarcity obscure God’s overwhelming abundance. We realise the only way to live is not through knowledge, mastery or escape – the strategies of scarcity – but through trust in God’s abundance.

We’ve looked at life from both sides now. It’s scarcity’s illusions we recall. We trust instead in the everlasting abundance of God.