Think about this: what were the first words God spoke to human beings in today’s episode of the great drama of our holy scriptures? What were those first words? Do you remember?
“Where are you?” God asks. “Where are you?”
These weren’t the first words God spoke to the human in the story. Maybe, while God was fashioning the earthling out of the clay of the ground, maybe then God hummed to himself, or even talked to himself, commenting to nobody in particular on the shape he was devising. “No, that limb is too short. Yes, let’s add some hair over there. And ears…yes. And maybe a tongue so the earthling can speak. Hmmm, yes, that’s good.” And maybe the human heard him.
And then the writer of Genesis tells us that God commanded the man not to eat that one fruit, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil—that is, the knowledge of everything. That’s the first direct speech reported in the Bible, between God and the human being.
And later, as God brought the animals, one by one, to the man—don’t you suppose there was some conversation there? “How about this one?” God might have said. “This animal is strong, and can carry you on its back. This animal is lively, and can give you joy. This animal has a beautiful song that can warm your heart and even warn you of danger. How about it?” And the man kept saying, “No, that’s not it…no, that’s not it…” Until God puts him to sleep and fashions his partner, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. All of these things might have been said, but they’re not in the story. And in our scriptural text, the man sings a song in praise of his partner, the woman, but God says nothing.
Of course, between the creation of the woman and God’s great question to the two of them we just heard—between those moments comes the great scene between the woman and the man and the talking snake. And what does the snake do? It insinuates itself into the relationship between God and God’s human creatures, breaking the trust between them. “What God told you isn’t true,” says the snake. “You won’t die, and you’ll know everything.” All of a sudden, the human beings aren’t just in relationship with God. They’re thinking about God, distancing themselves from their creator. They take the fruit and eat it. Their eyes are opened, they know they are naked, and they sew together fig leaves to cover their nakedness.
The steps away from full trust in God have been taken, for good or for ill. Some have taken this moment to be the Fall, the moment when death came into the world, when evil got a hold of humanity, when sin became part of the fabric of human life, to be passed down generation to generation. That understanding is over a thousand years old, but it is not necessarily a particularly helpful understanding.
Others see this moment as humanity’s turn toward self-reliance, creativity, pursuit of truth. Free will can lead to adventure, self-discovery, and all kinds of industry. That’s not all bad, or all good, either.
But if we just stick to the drama of the actual story, now we have God taking a walk in the garden in the cool of the evening, and the man and the woman, clad in their fig-leaf aprons, hide themselves among the bushes and the trees, away from God’s presence. The God who fashioned the man from clay and breathed God’s own breath into the man’s nostrils—that God is taking a stroll in the evening, in the man’s very front yard, and the man hides from God. The God who fashioned the woman from the man’s own body and brought her to the man—that God is taking a walk in the cool of the evening, and the woman hides from God. What had been an intimate relationship between the Creator and the Creator’s creatures—that relationship has now been compromised, and the man and the woman hide from God.
And the Lord God calls out, “Where are you? Where are you?” As if God doesn’t know! “Where are you?” The man says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And God understands right away that the man’s nakedness is not the real issue. “Did you eat from that tree I told you not to eat from?” And then comes the deliciously familiar blame game: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then God turns to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And she says, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” And the reading we heard today concludes with a sort of incantation God sings over the serpent, which continues, in the next verses, working its way back up the chain of blame, from snake to woman to man.
Can you hear the humor in all this? If this story were turned into a TV sitcom, wouldn’t there be sounds coming from the laugh track? Snickers, at least? And what is it we laugh at? Isn’t it the familiarity of the situation? “I was afraid, because I was naked.” “I was afraid, because I was human.” “I was afraid, because I crossed the line, I was fallible, I was ashamed.”
We know how this story goes. We know that snake. We know how we get tempted to be presumptuous, to claim more than our allotted amount of importance, to pretend we know more than our Creator. And we know how we try to shift the blame onto somebody lower on the food chain when we are perfectly aware that it was we who crossed the line. We do it all the time.
We know how this story goes, because we live it. And so this story invites us to enter it, to recognize it as our story, our human story, and see if we can use the story to help us make sense of our own lives, our own stories, as we live them. That’s how classic stories work.
So let’s listen for the sound of God walking in the garden. Because that’s where we are in the story now. God is walking in the garden, and God calls out to us, “Where are you?”
Our garden may be bigger or more complicated today. There are lots of people in it, not just the two of us. But that is where God walks in the cool of the evening, and that is the place from which God calls out to us.
And what does God’s voice sound like? Could it be that sound of a child crying? Could it be the song of a whale or the thunder of the waves? Could it be the plea of a man begging for food, or the whispers of a woman seeking a safe place to sleep? Could it be coming from the dark places in our prison system, or the cold places on our streets? Could it be the chorus of voices from nations on the other side of the world? Can you pick it out? “Where are you? Where are you?”
The man and the woman in the story have hidden themselves through shame about what they have done. It’s a natural human response. It’s even natural to try to blame that snake.
But we have been given another option here. The great story of our faith goes on from the garden to tell, over and over, of God’s faithfulness to the people God has created. God watches over and nourishes God’s people like a vineyard, the story says. And in the great story of our faith, God even dies for us.
We re-tell that part of the story whenever we gather as we are doing right now. We are gathered in the knowledge that we keep messing up, and we keep blaming somebody else, and we’re ashamed, and we feel naked before the truth of it all. But we come together in the knowledge, too, that we are forgiven, that we are loved with a love beyond our understanding.
Right now, right here, God is calling to us, “Where are you?” God challenges us to come out from behind the shrubbery, and walk boldly to God’s table. Those steps forward are our answer. “We hear your voice. We hear it in its many languages and whispers and cries. And we’re here. We’re here.”