Pain, Punishment, and Promise

Scriptures: Genesis 3:8-21; Romans 5:12-19

Before we explore the text today, from Genesis, I want to mention a sort of doctrinal thing that deals with our understanding of the Scriptures. Presbyterians believe that the same God is shown in the Old Testament as in the New Testament, and that God’s grace and mercy is consistent throughout all of Scripture and is shown as well.

Many of you who have been raised Presbyterian, or have been Presbyterian for fifty years or more, might be going, “Well, duh!” But there has been a great struggle in the Church as a whole, through the centuries, and there are churches even today that have a tendency to throw out the Old Testament. They call themselves New Testament churches.

They find it too hard to reconcile the bloodshed and the wrath and the other things that they see in the Old Testament with the God that they see with Jesus in the New Testament. Part of our belief as Presbyterians is that they are one and the same, and if we just look at it through the right eyes, we will see God’s grace being offered in every situation.

Here is Genesis 3, the setting is that sin is just committed. Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God calls, and gives them a chance to own up. They don’t.

He then points out their nakedness and knowledge, and makes plain their need to confess – which they finally each do, but they try to escape responsibility for, by blaming something else.

I know this is a very serious story, but most of the time when it is read, I have to smile, because I just have this picture of four-year-olds being talked to by their parents. I’ve often said that anyone who doesn’t believe in original sin has never had children, where the first words they learn are “mine,” “no,” and “uh-oh,” usually followed shortly by “not me.”

God makes clear that each person is responsible for their own sin, and then proceeds to make a series of declarations of consequences, fulfilling His initial conditions with them when He placed them in charge of the garden. In the course of this, He makes a promise that someday things would be made right, and reconciliation would occur.

Let’s look at the details, and hopefully gain some understanding of God in this event, and the grace that He shows even from the beginning.

First of all, in this story there is pain: Contrary to what some people might believe, the pain is God’s pain, not Adam and Eve’s. Even though He knew it was going to happen (for He is omniscient), it still had to hurt, this sin. He is the one who was wronged.

To have the one who was made in their own image, who was declared to be the chief steward and caretaker of God’s creation, given dominion, and given only one negative command, to have them fail in carrying out that command had to hurt.

We have almost all experienced the disappointment and pain of children willfully, knowingly, doing that which they have expressly been told not to do. Usually they are younger, and need to understand the reality of boundaries. Sometimes they are teens, and are trying to express themselves and gain their own identity in ways that are ultimately going to be harmful – which is why you tried to direct them against it in the first place.

Sometimes, they may be adult children, making decisions about relationships, certain habits, and other life choices we know (and usually they know in their hearts) are self-destructive. In each case – even with the adult children – there is a pain even as we either administer the known consequences for the action, or allow such to occur, so that the children will hopefully learn and grow from the experience.

It’s one of those things where you have the cliché, “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” and no child believes it until they become a parent.

God’s love and grace is so evident in both the gentle yet firm way He approaches and handles Adam and Eve immediately after the sin, and in how administers His consequences. Some people may have problems seeing that. Well, let’s see if we can’t shed a little light on things.

First of all, in my sermon title “Pain, Punishment, and Promise,” I really shouldn’t be calling it punishment – not for Adam and Eve. It is the administration of previously stated consequences and in the process of meting out these consequences, God still shows grace to His children.

I have noted in the past, there is a difference between discipline and punishment, and consequences as well. Consequences are those things that were pre-stated and they occur because you did this, and this is what’s going to happen. You break the law, and they catch you, and this is what’s going to happen.

Discipline is that which is administered by a parent or authority in the hope of moving them the person in a particular direction and in helping them grow and in helping shape them. Punishment is meant to hurt. That’s really all it’s concerned with. Sometimes, being human, we just want to hurt people, because it hurts. So punishment is a reality.

But not in this case. Let’s take a close look at the verses 14-19. Both of Adam and Eve have played the blame game, each one trying to lay off responsibility on someone/ something else. What we see here is remarkable. Because even at this point, with them having sinned, having lied, and then having tried to blame somebody else, God shows grace to Adam and Eve.

God curses the serpent, not Eve. God curses the serpent for his part in playing the tempter, and for messing with His greatest creation. It will travel through the dust on its belly; lose its beauty and wiliness; and eternally be at odds with God’s children.

Whether you consider this literal, or a metaphor for Satan, it is clear that God has declared war on the serpent, while still showing it the mercy by not outright destroying it. And He makes a promise (which we’ll get into later) that someday there will come a child – a descendant – who will crush the serpent, even if at great cost (which is referred to by the bruising His heel).

Then God turns to the woman, and does not say “Cursed are you.” Instead, He lays out some straightforward penalties as consequences for what she did in listening to the serpent. Now, I am not a woman, and maybe some of you think this was a curse; but I don’t believe it was intended as such.

I also admit that while in many ways, I have wondered what it would be like to be a woman and experience things, one thing I have never wanted to experience is childbirth. Matthew Henry says in his commentary: “Two things she is condemned to: a state of sorrow, and a state of subjection, proper punishments of a sin in which she had gratified her pleasure and her pride”

As an aside here, I have always wondered about God’s telling Eve she would have her pain in childbirth multiplied. I understand the placement of man over her, and her desire being for him; Adam and Eve were co-equal partners prior to this. She was named his “helpmate,” and there is a complementarity and equality implied in the language up to then.

But because she failed in her task, the relationship would now be unequal in this fallen world. It is one of the things that Christ fixed through our salvation, and that we stress in Christian marriage – co-equal partners, with each submitting to one another and placing the other before them.

But the childbirth… how did Eve even know what childbirth was? In chapter 2, God told them to be fruitful and multiply. Does that mean they had had children (I suppose the population in chapter 4 had to come from somewhere) that she had without pain, and that those “kids” weren’t in the garden, and that they didn’t receive the same measure of grace that Adam and Eve had?

Or as many scholars think, did Adam and Eve, being immortal, not have any children yet, so that Cain was the actual first, rather than the first outside the garden? I don’t have any answers that satisfy me, and that would satisfy you. But I sometimes wonder if Eve really understood what God was giving as a consequence. Just as a side track.

Now, let’s look at Adam. Once again, we see that God does not curse the human; instead He curses the ground itself – the same dust and clay he molded Adam from. And remember what his name means! The name Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah, which is neuter, and it means literally dirt or earth. I always like to joke that God made man out of dirt, or dust, and then called him Dirt-bag.

No longer will the ground flourish and Adam merely have to tend the garden. No longer will it be a pleasure and joy to him. Instead, he will have to work the ground, and it will resist him. He will have to toil, and sweat, and get grimy and dirty as he pulls from the thistles and the thorns the food that he needs to survive.

When I see this reading here, I can’t help but picture those “organic” crops, with the beans and all the lamb’s wool and other weeds sprouting up among them, or remember the detasseling of corn I used to do as a teenager, which often included weeding as we walked the rows.

It was hot, sweaty, often painful work. Those corn leaves could cut you good, especially in the early morning before everything dried out, and the sun could burn you in a trice. I always like to joke that a Nebraska tan is when you burn seven layers deep and then the first layer is peeled.

In the end, the promised death comes. Spiritual death had already occurred, with separation from God and each other as they were ashamed and covered themselves; and now mortality as well. From dust he came, to dust he would return. It seems pretty bleak. But there is hope, because there is a promise there.

There are two elements to the promise God makes here, even as He takes the necessary step of driving the man and woman out of Eden so they could no longer eat of the Tree of life, and regain their immortality by theft. Let’s work backwards, in the Scripture verses.

God promises His continued presence with His children. Of course, we can see God’s continued presence in the life of Adam as we read further in Genesis; but God promises His continued presence and provision even as He makes clothes for them of animal skins.

Some would say that this very act shows how creation fell with Adam, and animals for the first time experienced death as well as man who had to kill to survive. I am not sure I would go so far as to assume vegetarian diets and no death.

I mean what about seasons, and trees? There is so much beauty in them. I don’t think God would have left that out. I’m pretty sure the world experienced a life cycle, prior to this. But it is indicative, I believe, of man’s need to struggle and fight now for life and comfort. And God promises to provide by His very actions.

Secondly, God promises an eventual victory over that which separated us in the first place, in His speech to the serpent. And that victory will come through the seed of Adam (the descendant of Adam and Eve). That verse, as the liturgist noted, the Protoevangelion, clearly presages the coming of Christ.

In order for us to be redeemed, it needed to be someone who was fully human, for it was mankind which got itself into this mess, and it was mankind that was going to have to pay the price until someone could succeed in perfectly following God’s will, as required in the Garden.

The problem with it needing to be someone fully human is – as noted in the Romans passage – that we were enemies of God. Doing God’s will was the farthest thing from our minds and hearts; and even if we wanted to do God’s will, we could not follow it perfectly. Each time we missed the mark, we put ourselves farther from God. What we needed was a miracle.

Christ the Son came down from heaven to accomplish that miracle. Enfleshed as we are, he was nevertheless able to perfectly keep God’s law and follow the Father’s will because he was also still fully God. As it says in Hebrews 4:

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Gayle Erwin, in his book The Jesus Style, says the following about the mystery of the incarnation and the impact on us as believers of Jesus being fully human, and fully God:

This frees me to be humble, to my own humanity, to not try to hide in the presence of friends, not try to put on a mask of spirituality if reality is not there, to learn to be honest about myself, to be free to be forgiven, and to forgive.

Thus did God fulfill his promise to Eve in Gen 3, where the tempter was crushed, and reconciliation with God made possible. He took the pain and the punishment on Himself, and then gave us victory over death and sin through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Through His love and by His grace we are saved; and there can be no greater gift, and no greater example of what it means to love, and that’s why it’s told from the beginning of the Bible narrative.

So what do we do with this story? Do we blow off the story as a myth, scientifically unprovable? Do we look at the God’s discipline as too harsh – I mean, death just for one little thing – and either walk away, or at least throw out the Old Testament as speaking of a different God who doesn’t love like Jesus loved?

Or do we try to begin to understand both the enormity of what we did in trying to be god ourselves, and the gracious gift of His love to us despite His pain at our waywardness?

The second thing we need to grapple with is the miracle of new life in Christ. That is, that we are new creatures, given new lives, and new natures. That with the help of the Holy Spirit we can live lives that follow God’s will, and overcome sin.

Will we be perfect? Not in this life. Until, as Paul says, the corruptible puts on the incorruptible, and we are changed in the twinkling of an eye, we will always make mistakes. But because of our new nature, when the Father looks at us, He sees Christ’s righteousness!

Not only that, but as it says again in Hebrews chapter 11 of the earliest leaders of the people of God, our faith is accounted to us as righteousness, through God’s gracious love and the power of the Holy Spirit. As long as we keep trying, praying with repentant hearts for both forgiveness and strength, and working at our relationship with God, we will succeed in being faithful to our promise to God.

I encourage you today: see and know and accept God’s gracious gift of life in Jesus Christ. Accept His sacrifice for your sins, His gracious love for you, and the claim that puts on your life. Grab hold of the victory over death itself, and live new lives dedicated to Him. Determine to know God better, and serve Him faithfully with all that you are and have, that you might fulfill the promise that God has placed… in you.

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

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