Free to Fall – Rev. Henry Brinton
Free to Fall
February 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Why was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head last month?
“Maybe it was fate.” That’s what her husband Mark Kelly said at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. He thinks that the tragedy may have happened for a reason, and he hopes that some good will come out of it.
But exactly what is fate? People talk about it, but are not always very clear about it. If you believe in fate, you believe that supernatural powers determine the events of the world. You accept that you have no real choices to make in life. You live according to your destiny, and then you die.
It’s no surprise that “fate” is the root of the words “fatalism” and “fatality.”
Next month, a movie about fate will be coming out. Called “The Adjustment Bureau,” it raises some fascinating questions about the limits of human freedom. “Life is a series of events,” says the movie trailer. “All happened according to plan …. Their plan.”
Whose plan, you might ask?
The Adjustment Bureau’s.
Matt Damon plays a candidate for the Senate from New York, who has a chance meeting with Emily Blunt, which sparks a romance. This is not what is supposed to happen in his life, however, and suddenly a group of mysterious men from The Adjustment Bureau step in to put him back on track. Damon rejects them, and he and Blunt begin to run for their lives.
“We are the people who make sure things happen according to plan,” says one of the members of The Adjustment Bureau. “We monitor the entire world.” These master manipulators show Damon a book with the plan for his life, and tell him that they are determined to use their considerable power to keep him on track.
“You can’t outrun your fate,” says another one to Damon.
Or can you?
The film raises questions of how much freedom we have, and whether or not there are unseen forces controlling and manipulating our lives.
Similar questions are raised by the second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis, in the story of the garden of Eden. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” says Genesis. “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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 die’” (2:15-17).
One the one hand, God appears to be like a member of The Adjustment Bureau in his placing of the man in the garden. God is a supernatural force, exerting control over the first human being.
But on the other hand, God gives the man considerable freedom, saying that he may “freely eat of every tree of the garden” … except one. The man can make a range of choices about what he will eat within the lush and fruitful abundance of the garden. Only one tree is off limits: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” That tree will lead to death for the man. But even though it is prohibited to him, he is given the power to choose it.
The man is free to fall.
I love the old Bill Cosby comedy routine called “First Parent.” After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. And the first thing the First Parent said to the first children was “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
“Forbidden fruit? Really? Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” said God … wondering why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.
A few minutes later, God saw the kids having an apple break, and God was angry. “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the First Parent asked.
“Uh-huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you do it?”
“I dunno,” Adam answered.
God’s punishment, Cosby concludes, was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own.
There is true freedom in the garden of Eden, and how different this is from the world of The Adjustment Bureau. “If you believe in free will,” says the movie trailer, “if you believe in choice … fight for it.”
Genesis reveals a very different truth. According to the Word of God, you do not have to fight for free will at all. God gives it to you, freely.
What an amazing Creator we have, a God with the confidence to let us make choices. The mysterious men of The Adjustment Bureau come across as grim and anxious, fearful of losing control of the world that they monitor and attempt to control. But God says that humans may freely eat of every tree of the garden except one. We can take advantage of a wide range of wonderful options, within certain boundaries.
Only a truly powerful God is strong enough to give power to others. Instead of controlling and manipulating us, God grants us freedom.
The Lord does this out of love, knowing that truly caring parents give their children the freedom they need to explore, experiment, and discover the best direction for their lives. Anxious parents behave more like the mysterious men of The Adjustment Bureau, controlling and manipulating their children in an attempt to keep them on a particular path. A few years ago, overly-involved moms and dads were called “helicopter parents,” because they constantly hovered over their children. Now the situation is even worse: they are “Velcro parents,” completely attached to their kids.
Our God is not a Velcro God. Instead, God detaches from us and says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” … except one. The Lord is clear about boundaries and freedom, knowing that excessive boundaries prevent growth and discovery, while unlimited freedom leads to death. It certainly wouldn’t be good for a fish to become free of the ocean.
The great movie director Billy Wilder once said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree, and the second act you set the tree on fire, and then in the third you get him down. In the Book of Genesis, the first act occurs when humans are put up in a tree and told to eat anything they want, within certain limits.
The second act is where the tree is set on fire. In this act, the serpent in the garden strikes up a conversation with the woman who has been created to be a partner to the man. The serpent is a crafty creature, and asks the woman a question which tests the limits of the freedom that God has given. “Did God say,” the serpent asks, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (3:1).
No, says the woman, “we may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden” … except for one. She explains that one tree is off limits, and God said that if you eat of its fruit, “you shall die” (vv. 2-3). To her credit, the woman has a very clear understanding of her freedom and her boundaries.
But the serpent strikes a match and sets the tree on fire. “You will not die,” he promises, and in this verse the crafty creature is actually telling the truth. But in predicting that the man and woman will not die, he is sowing seeds of doubt about the truthfulness of what God has told them. “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vv. 4-5).
The man and the woman are up in a tree, and the tree is now burning. They are wondering if God has told them the truth. They are questioning if death is really the punishment for disobedience. They are attracted to the idea that they can become like God. They are wondering what it would feel like to fall out of their close and intimate relationship with God.
We know what these two are feeling, don’t we? We’ve been up in that burning tree. I know I have. The Bible is full of commandments, rules, and regulations, and I debate whether they are all equally true and binding on my life. I know that certain choices are dangerous, but I gamble that they won’t actually kill me. I am attracted to wisdom and knowledge and self-improvement. I want to have a relationship with God, but I don’t want to be a fanatic about it.
So I eat the fruit of the garden, just like the man and the woman, Adam and Eve. I know that most of it is good fruit, but some of it is forbidden. And when I use my free choice to eat the forbidden fruit, I have the same experience as Adam and Eve — I feel ashamed (v. 7). I realize that I have gone too far.
The story of Adam and Eve tells the truth about human choices, unlike the story of The Adjustment Bureau. Adam and Eve reveal what life is really like — not in the sense of humans having conversations with serpents, but in the sense that human choices always have significant and lasting consequences. It is a lie to say that mysterious men from The Adjustment Bureau manipulate the stories of our lives. The truth is that we make free choices every day, choices that draw us closer to God or push us farther away.
We are always free to fall — to fall out of relationship with God.
So how does God get the humans out of the burning tree? That’s the third act, and a story for another day. But suffice it to say that the LORD comes to them in human form, and has a conversation with them. God drives them out of the garden, into a life of pain in childbearing and hard work cultivating the plants of the field (vv. 8-24). In other words, God ushers them into the life that we know today.
Through it all, our Creator continues to want to have a relationship with us. In time, God comes to us in human form again, as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus calls us to follow him, to trust his word, and to walk in his way. Knowing that we are always going to make choices that cause us to fall out of relationship with God, Jesus makes a more lasting and significant choice — he gives his life for us on the cross, to show us just how far God will go to be in a relationship with us.
Yes, our choices matter, and we will continue to make good and bad decisions. But the most important choice in history was the decision of Jesus to give his life for us, to restore our connection with God. This was the ultimate adjustment in the relationship between humans and their Creator.
We are free to fall. And also free to trust in Jesus Christ, who brings us back to God. Amen.
Movie Trailer: “The Adjustment Bureau,” Technorati Videos, May 13, 2010, http://technorati.com/videos/article/movie-trailer-the-adjustment-bureau/.
“Three act structure,” Television Tropes and Idioms Website, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThreeActStructure.