A couple of years back I was involved in a Clinical Pastoral Education course where one of the exercises was to create a genogram of your family of origin. Now while a genealogy tracks who begat who, a genogram really tracks the relationships and patterns in a family that are passed on from generation to generation. A genogram reveals a lot about how we have been shaped by our families—by patterns of things like addictions or family secrets, by infidelities or heroic ancestors. We are all the product of a family system, and while that system does not fully determine who we are going to be it does reveal to us a little bit of who we may have become.
In this sermon series, I want to approach the familiar story of Jesus’ birth through a kind of spiritual genogram. My basic working thesis question for the series is “What does the genogram of the earliest generations of Jesus’ ancestral family tell us about his coming and what does it tell us about ourselves as spiritual ancestors of this same family?” To do that, I want to go all the way back to the very beginning—to the book of Genesis (which means “beginnings”) in order to see how these early family relationships relate to the coming of Christ. In fact, I would argue that unless you fully understand the familial and religious background of the Old Testament, you really can’t fully understand why Jesus came in the first place.
At the same time, when we crack open these pages and read about the family of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—their wives, their children, their relationships—we’re really learning more about our own human family. We recognize patterns and pathologies, to be sure…but we also recognize in bold terms why we need a savior named Jesus, who comes to us from this same flawed family but redeems it and its story with real power.
To begin, then, we go all the way back to the beginning—to the creation story in Genesis and, specifically, to the creation of the first humans. Traditionally, theologians have called this the story of the Fall and use it to craft a doctrine of original sin. That’s helpful on one level, but in many ways it doesn’t tell the whole story.
I was reading in my devotions one morning a few weeks back about a second century Christian bishop named Irenaeus who wrote about the story of Adam and Eve in very different terms than I was used to. See, instead of the traditional picture of Adam and Eve as naked adults with strategically placed fig leaves on them as they stood around a tree with a snake between them, Irenaeus looked at these first humans and saw them not as the first adults, but as the first children.
See, Irenaeus believed that Adam was first created as a child—a view that runs counter to the traditional Jewish and Christian views. Now granted, Irenaeus may have been playing fast and loose with the Hebrew text, but there are some important clues here that made me think that perhaps he was on to something. Look at the creation story and you do get a sense of a child’s wide-eyed innocence, at least in the beginning.
Genesis 2 paints a beautiful and whimsical account of creation, which is in contrast to the grand pronouncements and seven-fold movement of God in Genesis 1. The formation of the first human, the adam, was the act of a potter and clay—the man was formed “from the dust of the ground” and breathed upon by God with the animating spirit of personhood (2:7). The purpose of this adam was to “till” and “keep” the Garden that God had planted—to grow along with it. To put it another way, Adam was created for relationship with God and stewardship of God’s creation.
It’s interesting that Adam’s first relational task was to name the animals. Animals play an important part of the whole biblical story and we’ll see this next week especially when we talk about Noah. If Adam was a child, like Irenaeus suggested, then his connection to animals makes sense. Most children learn the names of animals and what they say even before they can utter complete sentences.
A helper, a woman, was given to Adam because God recognized that the man needed one like himself in order to be in relationship. Adam celebrated her creation—“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman for out of Man this one was taken” (2:23).
It’s important to recognize that at this stage of the story the man and the woman were created as equals. Eve was brought forth by the removal of Adam’s rib, which in my view indicates the idea that she was to stand beside him as a partner (not, as Archie Bunker once said, “Because the rib was a cheaper cut”). At creation, male and female were innocent to each other, open to each other without all the sexual politics and games of adulthood.
Back to Irenaeus–Watch preschoolers on a playground and you’ll see how it might have been there in the beginning. Boys and girls play together without any hint of differentiation between them. They see each other as equals…just wanting to play. As an adult I have always marveled at how my children so easily have friends of the opposite gender. But reading the narrative I have come to realize that this was the way it was supposed to be.
But the biggest indicator that Irenaeus may have been on to something is the clue we get in Genesis 2:25: “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Ever watch a two-year old whip off his clothes and run outside with no thought whatsoever about it? I remember the day just a few years ago when I looked out in the front yard and saw both my kids running naked as jaybirds through the sprinklers in front of the whole neighborhood. No shame, no self-consciousness, no hang-ups.
See, it’s not so far-fetched that Adam and Eve were the first children!
But children need boundaries in order to grow up to be healthy and mature. God gave these first children a great deal of freedom, but put in one boundary: don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for if you do you will die.
Why this particular tree? Well, in the view of Irenaeus, the tree represented maturity— having knowledge and wisdom like God has. It wasn’t equality with God as much as it was being of the same mind. In order for Adam to be able to eat of this tree, he had to grow up first, and that takes time.
The snake in this story functions like that obnoxious kid in school who double dog dares you to do something you know is way over your head. There was a kid who lived up the street from me when I was growing up named Brian, and Brian would double dog dare you to do anything. We had an old strip mine near our neighborhood, which had tons of hollowed out holes and loose rock—a great place to play army, he said. My mom decreed that I was not allowed to go there. Brian, however, went on a regular basis and would constantly dare me to join him. “Your mom just doesn’t want you to have any fun,” he would say over and over again while questioning my 9 year-old manhood.
Now, I never went…one, because I feared Mom’s wooden spoon more than Brian’s taunting and, two, because I was pretty much a wuss. Still, to this day, I wonder how much fun I might have missed—but the adult in me then realizes how many more stitches or trips to the emergency room (or worse) it could have caused.
At a certain stage, kids begin to think that adults have set up a conspiracy to keep all kids from ever having fun by withholding the good stuff. The snake presents the case that God, being the cosmic adult, is keeping these humans from recognizing their full potential. They can be grown-ups right now simply by taking a shortcut.
God had prohibited Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree because they weren’t ready for it. But rather than wait, rather than listen to God’s parental counsel, they decided to listen to the snake’s dare and circumvent their maturing relationship with God, opting for instant gratification and misplaced maturity. They seized the fruit before the time was ripe and began a trend in the human family that continues to this day: they didn’t take the time to properly learn how to grow up.
The consequences of their shortcut led to an almost instant end to their childhood. They wanted to be adults, to be like God, to be the “deciders” (to borrow a phrase) about their own lives. So God gives them exactly what they want (that’s usually how God punishes people, by the way…not with bolts of lightning but by simply giving them what they want).
Immediately after they ate what they weren’t supposed to eat, they did indeed gain a measure of instant adulthood. They immediately recognized that they were different from each other and that they were naked—embarrassed, exposed, fearful, worrying about appearances. They began to compare themselves to one another, jockey for power over one another, play out their self-assigned gender roles. What had been a playful partnership was now a struggle. The playground became a battleground, the garden something to be tamed rather than enjoyed. Their eyes were opened, but they were suddenly afraid of what they saw. As Simon Tugwell puts it, The Fall of Adam was “a mishandling of the crisis of puberty.”
The “curse” in Genesis 3 is really a reflection of God giving his children over to their newly acquired adulthood. God created the world and the Garden out of his word and because God could…if Adam wanted to create, it would cost him “the sweat of his brow” (3:19). God created human life out of dust. Eve would now have to bring it forth with pain of childbearing (3:16). Looking at this outcome, C.S. Lewis observed that the effect of the Fall was that instead of humanity being the stewards of nature, they became its victims. All of this comes from trying to grow up too fast.
How much pathology do we see in our own culture that reflects this? We see children every day dealing with very adult problems like drinking, drug abuse, neglect, broken relationships, violence, at an earlier and earlier age. We force schedules on them that occupy every minute of their time and push them academically to the breaking point all in the hope that they’ll get into a better college and be more productive adults. When we do this, my friends and fellow parents, we are simply perpetuating the destructive power of the Fall.
What’s the solution to our human family crisis of immaturity? Well, biblically speaking, it involves a return to childhood—a “painful dismantling of our false grown-upness.” And here’s where the Advent story and the events of Christmas go beyond holiday sentimentality.
Jesus Christ, God’s incarnation, God in the flesh—came as a child, a child that Luke tells us “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Jesus matured, worked, learned, studied, nurtured an intimacy with God throughout his life so when he became thirty years old he was ready to carry out his mission of saving the world. Over and over again people remarked that he had an “authority” in his words and in his healing ministry that they had never seen before. Was that divine power? Sure…but not divine power used like a child would wield it. Jesus had, after all, been tempted to use his power for his own gain but always refused (see the desert temptation narratives). His wisdom came, I believe, not just because he was God but because in his humanness he had taken the time to mature and be ready to take on the full knowledge of good and evil.
In Matthew 18 Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” That’s a very adult question…wanting to know what the power structure would be like—who’s in charge, who gets the gold watch. But Jesus brought over a little child and said to them, “Unless you become like a little child, you’ll never understand the kingdom. Unless you give up your false adulthood, unless you begin to see the world with wonder, unless you are willing to go back to the beginning you’ll never get it.” In a real sense that’s also what he was saying to Nicodemus in John 3: “You want to have real life? You have to be born again—to start over like a child and be open to following God’s parenting and direction.
The apostle Paul observed in Romans 5 that Adam’s failure to grow up properly set his human spiritual descendants up for the dysfunction of sin and death that has passed from generation to generation. Adam had shortcutted his childhood. But, says Paul, when Jesus came (as a child himself) he brought with him a new example and path toward maturity—a maturity of life and faith that brings us closer to the image of God we were created to be in the first place. Jesus, in effect, reversed the curse of Adam’s false adulthood and showed us the way, truth, and life of maturity in relationship with God.
How do we become like children again? Well, it’s not easy to deconstruct our well-established patterns of power and wanting to be in control. If we go back to Genesis, we can see some clues:
- Like children we could once again take on the role of steward of God’s creation, seeing animals and our environment as being gifts to be wondered at and explored rather than exploited and destroyed.
- Like children we could see each other, male and female, as different but equal partners. We could intentionally stop trying to compare ourselves to one another, listen to one another, even play with one another. We could stop seeing things like marriage as a struggle for sexual and emotional capital and see it instead as a deep and playful partnership where life is brought forth and thrives because of self-giving love and celebration.
- Like children we could again enjoy being “naked and unashamed”—not necessarily by throwing off our clothes, but by making ourselves vulnerable and transparent to each other—getting rid of secrets and lies that cause us to cower in shame. We saw last week in Ted Haggard’s story how secrets can destroy careers and reputations. Better that we live our lives naked before God and those we love.
- Like children we can live life without having all the answers—that we can always be inquisitive, seeing the world as something to marvel and wonder at instead of trying to control it. We can embrace mystery, imagination, possibility—not caring that much about what we want to be when we “grow up.”
- Like children, we can rely on God to teach us good and evil rather than trying to learn by trial and error.
- And like children we can seek and find comfort, security, and love in the arms of God, rather than trying to find these things on our own in a world that double dog dares us to be gods ourselves.
The children of Adam and Eve would have to learn how to do this the hard way, as we’ll see. Their story is our story. By the second generation, the pattern of comparison and struggle for power was well-established. Cain kills Abel in a struggle for recognition. The Tower of Babel is built as a monument to human superiority. Since the beginning, humanity has struggled with the sins of self-interest and immaturity in relationship to God.
But Jesus taught us that we can become children again. That we are not so far gone. That we can learn a new way of living.
May we all become children of God again!
For a study guide of daily Bible readings that go with this sermon series, check out the Pastor’s Page at our web site.