Eden was a garden. God made it. It was beautiful. It was perfect. There were trees and bushes, flowers and fruits. Hungry? No problem – there was plenty of good things to graze on. Thirsty? The water in the stream was fresh and clear. Tired? Stop here awhile in this bower and rest your head.
There were none of the negatives: anxiety, pain, danger, death. As I say, it was perfect. There were animals and birds and fish, a whole eco-system. And God made human beings to watch over it all. Wish you were there?
Most people have an Eden in the mind and memory, the place we wish we were instead of here and now, the place where things flourished and thrived, where everyone may have been poor but they were happy, where the churches were full and everyone believed. The reality is, it was never actually quite like that. There never was a Golden Age.
In the story – and it is a story, not history, but the kind of story that helps you to face the truth – in the story, Adam and Eve have got to the adolescent stage. In the garden, they are innocent. They can play and eat and enjoy themselves. But they start to want to push against the boundaries. They have been warned off the dangers: don’t get too close to the lions, don’t touch the poisonous berries, don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but they don’t have the maturity to handle the warnings. And in any case, the only way to get maturity is to try it yourself. And then reflect on what you did just there.
The snake was quite right. They weren’t going to die from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but they weren’t ready for it. I did a funeral once for a 15 year old boy who wanted all his experiences now, so he stole a car and crashed it and died when it went up in flames. That temptation, to think that we know best, is always with us. The snake was quite right, but was he wise?
Trees have to be quite mature to produce fruit, rooted in the ground, well nurtured. Then the sun has to shine and the rain has to fall at the right time, and the birds and the bees have to pollinate the blossoms. And eventually, the fruit mature, the result of a long process. You can’t pick fruit for yourself and imagine that you have found the easy way to understanding.
Except that you have to start somewhere. Growing to maturity involves a willingness to take risks, to step outside the safe box and try something new. Eve didn’t want to be a child forever, she wanted to be an adult, like God. Fair enough. And eating the fruit was her chance!
So Eve bites into the fruit. It tastes good, sweet and luscious. And then she realises that there’s something going on in her mind, and she can see the world in a new way. Is this what it means to be grown up? She doesn’t keep it to herself but shares the fruit with her partner. When they have both eaten the fruit, everything is different, for ever.
And that’s where our Old Testament reading begins, because it’s evening and God is walking in the garden, but Adam and Eve are hiding. Normally, they would be running and playing and full of joy. They would have rushed to meet God. Now they are staying away. They have experienced shame for the first time, and recognise their own nakedness and vulnerability.
God knows straight away what’s happened. “You ate the fruit of the tree, didn’t you? I told you not to!”
Adam says, “it’s her fault!”
And Eve blames the snake.
It’s always someone else’s fault. That’s teenagers for you. And some teenagers never grow up. For some people, they are never to blame, whatever might have happened.
Not taking responsibility for things that go wrong arises out of fear. Blaming others comes from your own vulnerability. That’s no excuse, though, just a sign of immaturity.
People play the blame game all the time, in politics and in their day-to-day lives: the football manager who is blamed for losing the match; the immigrants who are blamed for taking jobs and housing.
God’s response is to move Adam and Eve out of the protective nursery into the big wide world. Things won’t come so easy now. They will have to work to find enough to eat and clothes to wear. And in their struggle with finding food and security, love and affection, they will learn to take on responsibility and find some maturity.
It’s the story of each one of us. We may long for our garden of Eden, our Golden Age, the place where we are safe and happy and have everything we need, but the reality is that we have to struggle in order to find true happiness. It doesn’t come easy.
We find that we are naked and vulnerable inside, and dress ourselves in the lies that say “it’s not our fault” and “we didn’t break it” and “it’s not my responsibility”. We cover ourselves in cloaks that hide our shame.
It is only when we can say: this is who I am, broken and hurt, making mistakes, getting it wrong – that maturity starts to happen.
God made us, God nurtures us, God supports us in that growing. He wants us to grow up and become adult. He never wanted to keep us infants in a golden garden.
But as we grow up, we inevitably get things wrong. We will always get things wrong. And that’s OK. So long as you can say – yeah, I got that wrong. I would do things differently if I started again. Then God forgives us. God will always forgive us. God will always support us in starting again.