God in Search of Man
Sermon #235 St. James the Less #142 6/6/21
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Sergei Bulgakov was a Russian writer at the turn of the 20th century, and he has quite an interesting story. He grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church, but he lost his faith while in seminary. The beauty and wonder of his childhood faith were lost when he was forced to read the dull textbooks assigned to him. He said his faith was “squeezed out of him.”
But even so, he was surprised just how easy it was for him to walk away from the church. It had meant so much to him, and yet when the time came, he walked away from it all quite happily.
As a man of his time in Russia, he adopted the Marxist revolution, and became a respected voice on political economics. During this season of spiritual wandering he put his whole faith in human progress. He was confident that if humanity was governed by science and reason then nothing could stop us.
Years passed, his academic work was stimulating, but something was missing. At around age 30 he began to feel a longing he hadn’t experienced since his childhood.
It was actually a few profound encounters that began to warm his soul. The first happened in nature. On a road trip through the southern Russian steppes, a beautiful highland, he got out of the car to behold the sea of wildflowers before him and the snowcapped mountain range in the distance.
Like so many of us have done, Bulgakov looked out at the vast wilderness and was humbled. He asked himself how could all of this be meaningless? There just may be a God. But he wasn’t fully convinced. Instead, he put that memory in the back of his mind and kept going about his life.
Some time passed and he visited an art museum in Germany. While there he stumbled upon Raphael’s famous painting entitled “The Sistine Madonna.” Looking at this piece portraying the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child he was awestruck in the same way that he was while driving across the Russian steppes.
He began to feel the ice in his soul melting. He was so overwhelmed by this sudden emotion that he cried right then and there in the museum, and he began to pray for the first time in years.
But even with these two spiritual encounters, he kept living his life, though he was now more aware that something else was going on—it was as if something was pursuing him, chasing after him, and he was the one being hunted.
Another year went by and then he decided to spend a long weekend at a monastery to see if anything would happen in his heart. He was slowly inching his way back to the church. During the evening prayers with the monks, he felt nothing, and wanted to just walk out.
After the service he was confused and in a fog, something didn’t feel right, and while trying to go back to his room he unconsciously walked straight to the senior monk’s room. The old man happily opened the door and listened to him as he told him his story, including the holy moments he had recently experienced.
After listening for a time, the elder monk told him how all human sin (including his) was like a drop of water in comparison with the ocean of divine love. Bulgakov left him, and he said he felt “pardoned and reconciled, trembling and in tears.”
After years of wandering, he knew he was finally back home. Whatever, or whoever, had been after him all these years finally got him: hook, line, and sinker.
But we must now move from a Russian story to an ancient Hebrew story. This morning we hear the familiar story from Genesis about Adam and Eve in the Garden. Now, we need to make clear that this is not a scientific explanation of our origin but a poem, a story. But just because it isn’t a factual event doesn’t mean that it’s not true. In fact, it is more real in some ways than the factual story I just told you.
The depth of this Genesis story has not been fully plumbed, its wisdom has inspired our Christian and Jewish ancestors in every generation. And it does so because we can see ourselves so clearly in Adam and Eve.
After hearing how Adam so quickly blamed Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit, every wife has said to herself, “That sounds just like my husband.” And they’re not wrong. “Whoever Adam and Eve were, they are—us” (Rutledge 43).
Adam and Eve are the “primal representatives of humanity,” and we clearly haven’t changed much. If put in the same situation, you and I would have done exactly the same thing and taken a big ole bite out of the forbidden fruit. As humans we just can’t help ourselves.
This story conveys the root of all our problems, and how the created order became disordered. Because we wanted to be like God we now toil in our work, there is pain in childbirth, there are tensions in our relationships, and ultimately we have forsaken the opportunity to walk the in the Garden with God because of our rebellion.
Our reading this morning picks up after they have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. With this bite their eyes are opened in a new way, and they have been sold a lie. They will not become like God as the serpent said. Instead, they now know not only good but also evil. In the Hebrew the verb “to know” also means “experience.” Humanity was not created to experience evil.
And so with this new found knowledge they are critically aware of themselves and run to hide in the bushes when they hear God walking in the Garden. They do this because they experience two new emotions, emotions that they had never felt before. They were: fear and shame.
It was never God’s intention for humanity to experience evil, and neither was it his choice that we live in fear and shame. These emotions were foreign to Paradise, and in a twisted irony they feel fear and shame in the presence of God—the very One who created them.
But then we hear the voice of God—a direct quote actually—he says, “Where are you?”
God in Search of Man
It is this question “Where are you?” that the Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel said is the key to understanding everything God does in the Bible and in our lives today. He said that all history in the Bible is summed up in the phrase “God in search of man.”
We put such an emphasis on looking for God—we say that if you pray more or read your Bible more you’ll find God—as if we are detectives trying to find his fingerprints in our life. But in fact, God is searching for us. Ever since Eden, he’s been calling out to his beloved creation, “Where are you? Why are you hiding from me?”
Job had it right when he said, “You [God] hunt me like a lion” (10:16).
He pursues us, and he won’t let us go—even in our disobedient state. Heschel said, “It is as if God were unwilling to be alone.”
Our quest for God is actually a return to God—a return to the Garden where we were with God and nothing obstructed our relationship. The word for repentance in the Old Testament means “to return” but it also can be translated “to answer.” By returning to God, we are answering his question (141).
His call to us goes out again and again, though quietly and most of the time it’s quite subtle. But all of faith is wrapped us in God’s original question “Where are you?” and our answer to that question.
Where are You?
And so, I’m going to ask you: where are you? It’s been a disorienting time in all of our lives. Many people I talk to are in a bit of a fog, they’re tired, and frustrated. You could even say that some of us are wandering aimlessly, much like Sergei Bulgakov. Occasionally we have an extraordinary spiritual moment but we don’t know how to process it, or worse, we’re completely blind to those moments.
The Biblical answer to this feeling is simple—we are lost, hiding in the bushes.
Though much of our attention in the Genesis story is focused on Adam and Eve’s fall, God’s grace and care is shown even as they are being banished from Paradise. Rather than kicking them out immediately, he gives them a gift by clothing them before sending them out. That should tell us something about our Creator.
Even in our wandering God is quietly pursuing us. If you feel empty and lost the road back home may have some subtle signposts along the way, like it did for Sergei Bulgakov. It may come through nature, art, at church, or somewhere else, BUT it will always come from God.
Though we are broken, he is perfect. Though we are fearful and ashamed, he clothes us with his grace. And though we are hiding from him in the bushes, we continues to search for us.
Adam. Eve. Where are you?
2nd Sunday after Pentecost. Year B. Gen 3:8-15. And God Spoke to Abraham F. Rutledge. God in Search of Man AJ Heschel. Pilgrim Souls.