Chatting with the Serpents
Eric Hollas, OSB
Sermon delivered on the First Sunday of Lent
9 March 2014
Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville MN
Perhaps some of you may recall the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is sliding down a rope into an Egyptian tomb that’s been sealed in inky darkness for millennia. He can see nothing, and he has no idea of what he’s getting into as his foot feels gingerly for the ground. And then he shines a light onto the floor, and he recoils in horror from what he sees. There, writhing across the floor are hundreds and hundreds of snakes. Terrified, he steps into the boiling mass, and all he can think to say is “Snakes. I hate snakes.”
Most of us share this primordial fear of snakes. That fear lurks deep within our psychological recesses, and there’s lots of good and bad reasons why we grow up with such an aversion. Snakes are the stuff of nightmares, and the mere thought of a snake is enough to make some people freeze in panic. And while many of us spend a lifetime trying to deal with our fear of heights and other such phobias, the fear of snakes is one fear we seem more than content to live with.
Small wonder that we associate snakes with evil, and popular notions derived from the Bible reinforce the link. As punishment for leading Adam and Eve into temptation, God condemns the serpent to crawl on the ground. He is the lowest of the low, and he earns the aversion of everyone because the serpent is the embodiment of evil.
Given all that, it’s curious that Genesis doesn’t even hint that Eve entertained the least fear of serpents; and I presume that Adam shared her open-mindedness. Genesis in fact leaves the impression that Eve’s chats with the serpent were the most normal thing in the world. There’s no trace of fear in her, no hesitation, no second thoughts. No, it’s as if Eve is visiting over the backyard fence with one of the neighbors.
That perspective, I think, may help us to appreciate chapters two and three of the Book of Genesis. As much as some might stress that the most important feature of this conversation between a woman and a snake is that it is literally true, it’s the symbolic meaning that really counts in Genesis. That is what allows this passage to speak deeply to you and to me.
It’s often said that if evil were intrinsically ugly then nobody would ever do it. But in fact there is always something wonderfully attractive about evil, and it’s why we speak of the “glamor of evil” in our baptismal promises. Evil always seems like such a good idea at the time, so why shouldn’t we go ahead and do it? Only in its aftermath do we realize that it was not the unmitigated good we had thought. Only then do we realize the enormous mistake we’ve made.
Consider for a moment what Eve is poised to decide. It’s not that the serpent tempts her to kill someone or steal something. No, this is what appears to be a victimless crime. The serpent promises enlightenment and unlimited knowledge. Eve will acquire the knowledge of good and evil, and she will become like God.
In and of themselves these aren’t bad things. Boundless knowledge ought to be a great blessing. Becoming a god has always been a human aspiration; and striving for wisdom has to be among the noblest of quests.
But to achieve all this there is a risk, and perhaps even a price to pay; and Eve seems willing to take that gamble. If she reaches for the metaphorical apple, she admits that God has been lying to her and to Adam all along. If she grabs for the forbidden fruit she has to accept that God is jealous of them and harbors the same human emotions that we all share. And finally, if she falls for the ruse and takes the bite, she feeds on the self-delusion that she and Adam will be like God. Like God they too will have no equal in their own little universe, and they will need no one else.
Seen in this light, the veil is lifted from our eyes. This is not a conversation between a woman and a snake, because this is a conversation that takes place in Eve’s own mind. What Eve realizes, certainly for the very first time, is that God has given her the freedom to decide between good and evil. God has given to her and Adam the power to weigh the situation and the free will to choose between the right course of action and the wrong. And this is a conversation that will continue on through the rest of their lives.
So what are the takeaways from Genesis as we begin our Lenten journey? Well, first of all we have to own up to the reality that the mental debate over good and evil is something we share with Adam and Eve. It’s at the core of our humanity, and each and every day you and I have to consider options that can be critically important or ridiculously inconsequential. In the larger scheme of things, like Adam and Eve we have the free will to decide things, and our decisions matter. Our decisions — even the little ones — impact the lives of the people around us. Through decisions great and small we carve out a path for ourselves. Some paths lead to decency and good character and love of God and neighbor; while others tear off in fruitless directions. But they are our decisions to make, and make them we must.
Second, decision-making is not always easy. Some decisions we anguish over for days and weeks and even years. What sometimes makes it so tough to decide is that once in a while we are choosing between something good and something that is ever so slightly better. When we have that luxury it’s wonderful and yet painful at the same time. But the good we choose to do will shape the rest of our lives, so we should choose wisely. But we also make poor choices, and like Adam and Eve we have to live with the consequences. We only have ourselves to blame.
Of course we, like Adam and Eve, like to blame other people for our poor decisions. That’s the third point we can take from Genesis. With the knowledge of good and evil comes responsibility for our decision-making. We can no more blame others for our poor choices than we would want to give them credit for the good we do. No, God places this responsibility squarely on us and on no other.
There were many consequences of their sin that Adam and Eve never anticipated, and one of them was the loss of daily communion with God. Each day they had walked with God, but on the day they doubted God’s love for them they turned their backs on God and were forced from the garden. Ever since then, people have sought to regain the intimacy with God that Adam and Eve so foolishly squandered.
But with Jesus Christ we are blessed to have regained what was lost. Today, once more, we share that intimacy as we hear God’s word and feed on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And with that comes one more difference. On the day that they left the garden, Adam and Eve ceased to have their daily walk with God. But today Christ walks with us, even when we leave this church.
Lent is our reminder that the choices we face never get easier. There will always be days when we step into the proverbial snake pit. There will be days when we agonize over the direction of our lives. And there will be days when even the little decisions will come back to haunt us or surprise us.
There will also be days when we meet evil face to face, and it’s important to remember that evil will not look like the monster on the cover of our worship booklet this morning. Evil will look suave and sound sophisticated and will pander to our most reasonable and worst inclinations. And that is when we must be at our wisest. That is when we must choose carefully.
The good news is that God has given us the freedom to choose well or poorly. But the better news is that God does walk with us as we make those decisions. This Lent, as we continue on our journey through life, let us make sure to walk along the paths that lead to God, because we can rest assured that God will walk alongside us.