I feel genuinely sorry for people who do not go to a church that follows the old church calendar. Not that it will necessarily make the preaching better or ensure the handing over of the gifts of God, but as an organizing principle the movement of seasons and times throughout the year gives us something powerful, something beautiful, something to help drive our attention and focus. Could you imagine not having the season of Lent? Not having an intentional time where you stop singing “Alleluia” just so your alleluias on Easter morning are that much more potent; a time where one has a heightened sense of their inability to save themselves, where confession and repentance comes a little more to the foreground. The seasons of the church year remind us of the journey of the faith. It is not always the same and it is not always constant. There are peak and valleys, sunshine and storm clouds. The story of your faith is not like a repair manual for your life but much more like a great love story; the kind that haunts your dreams and captivates your soul.
It is a love story with roots in the very foundation of the world. Way back in the garden of Eden, in the days of paradise we see its beginnings, its contours are already laid out. Adam and Eve, the pinnacle of God’s creation take possession of His world, to subdue it and thrive in it. But paradise does not last. “Now the serpent was craftier than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1) Indeed the serpent is crafty. He attacks not the strength or the wisdom of mankind but the reliability of the Word of God. “Did God actually say?” And if he did the reason why he said it ought to be brought into question. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
Well, who doesn’t want to be a god? Who wouldn’t want to know what God knows? And so, she eats. Not only that but her husband eats as well, and joins her in the rebellion, and the love story rolls on. The serpent wasn’t lying, at least so far as their eyes being opened and knowing good and evil. Oh, they knew it, they knew shame and guilt. They saw their own nakedness and when they hear God walking in the garden, they become afraid, they hide from Him. For the first time ever, He calls out to them saying, “Where are you?” Never have they cowered away. Never before have they experienced this emotion: Fear of their creator. But they were joined together, the both of them, in their disregard of the Word of God, and now they are called to face the punishment that is felt every moment of our lives.
The next words of God, the words of the curse, tear at the heart of all we know. The crafty deceiver not only stands in opposition to them but now all the offspring of mankind will find themselves engaged in an endless battle against the offspring of the serpent. Deceivers and accusers will plague humanity with temptations and the twisting of the Word of God. The woman’s greatest gift, the blessing to bring forth children will now be marked by pain. Fear and worry will mark this great privilege of the daughters of Eve. And the ground itself is cursed and man’s relationship to his vocation is one of stress and pain as well. No more days of ease and plenty. No, now it is by the sweat of his face that he provides for himself and his family. And then God speaks the hardest words of all, the words which mark the beginning of Lent, words we repeat every year on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Like all great love stories there is tragedy and disappointment and moments of hopelessness. As paradise slips away husband and wife find their relationship altered. This was the one whom he loved, the one he saw and cried out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Remember, he was given the task to name all the creatures created by God and so gives to her the highest name he has to offer, he gives her his own name. But now there is distrust. Now there is guilt and defiance. At the heart of the curse is the line when God says, “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” No more is it simply a matter of being helpmates, caring and loving each other. Now there is resentment and desire and struggle.
We know the results of these curses all too well. We know the failure of love and the disillusionment of marriage in our day. We know what it is to have a broken heart, to have unsatisfied longing and desire. Broken homes and bitterness are so commonplace in our day that we are more surprised when a marriage has stood the test of time. And the journey of your faith goes through these things; through the blessings and the curses, through the good times and the bad. You don’t come into church on a Sunday morning unscathed by the effects of the fall into sin. No, you bear it in your hearts and minds. You have walked in the valley of the shadow of death. You are well acquainted with grief and darkness. Sometimes you cover it up well, you clean up real nice, but other times it is not so easy to hide away.
So, the great love story can get pretty bleak. But there in the darkness, in the hiding and the shame there is a Word of hope. The old theologians called it the protoevangelium, the first Gospel. In the same breath where God speaks of the curse of enmity, of a battle between Heaven and Hell waged in the lives of men, He speaks a very specific prophecy to the serpent; one to govern this season of Lent. He speaks about the offspring of the woman and says, “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). There will be wounds on both sides, but they will not be identical. One is painful and grief-stricken for a time and the other the blow to the head will prove fatal.
This promise changes everything, it brings hope to a hopeless situation. It breathes love and forgiveness back into the fallen world. With this promise ringing in the ears of Adam he comes again before his wife and this time he gives her a new name, a name greater than his own name, a name that carries this love story forward. He calls her Eve, which is the Hebrew word for “life.” Death and a return to the dust is not the final moment for the creatures of God. There will be something more, there will be an end to the war, an end to the strife, there will be life. Life born of a woman, born in the fulness of time to crush the head of the evil foe.
The great love story is not the story of Adam and Eve, in encompasses them, it holds them, but it is far greater than that. It is the story of God’s relentless love for His creation, His love for His wayward people, and His love for each and every one of you. Out of love He created them in the first place. Out of love He gave them all things. Out of love He calls out to them in the garden when they hide away. And it is out of love that He promises you a Savior. He foreshadows this great love when He covers their nakedness in the skins of animals. Blood had to be spilled, something else had to die to remove their shame.
In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, as Satan begins to move against humanity, he describes a scene in Heaven and the Son’s desire to crush the head of the serpent. He says:
“Regardless of the bliss wherein he sat
Second to thee, offered himself to die
For Man’s offence. Oh unexampled love,
Love no where to be found less than Divine!
Hail, Son of God, Savior of Men!” (3:408-412)
And so, the love story continues. For this day know this: You are forgiven. You are covered in the garments of the Lamb. You are loved.