I wonder what questions you would like to ask God. Some of us keep a list of questions we say we will want to ask him once we’ve secured our entrance through the grand and pearly gates, should God allow. They are questions we say we’ll need answered before we can enjoy the party and/or find peace. Our lists start off easy: we’d like explanations for dinosaurs, creation, and Justin Bieber (at the early service: “what really happened to Elvis”). But our lists quickly become more complicated, less abstract, more heartfelt. On this part of our lists are questions about suffering and why it happens; questions about aging, death, and people we love; questions about injustice and why some people will live and die and never see the opportunities I daily take for granted; questions about seasons of spiritual longing in life when God seems distant or distracted or not there at all. Some of these questions on our lists, like dinosaurs and Justin Bieber (or Elvis), we might be willing to forget in the presence of eternal glory, but the others are questions we cannot imagine letting go of quite as easily. They are questions love, doubt, and pain have written on our hearts. I wonder what questions you would like to ask God.
Of course, we recognize that the answers God might give us in response to the questions on our lists might feel incomplete. For example, when we ask God why God allowed a particular suffering, say, among families or warring nations, we realize that God’s allowing it is at best a passive explanation for the actions that took place in the very bloody hands of people just like us. We may rightly wonder why God did not stop the violence, but few people would contend that God caused the violence. Indeed, we cannot go so far as to say that God wanted the violence without first reckoning with the vast biblical witness in which God’s heart breaks with tears at the rebellion of his people. So by our accusations against God we find ourselves in a roundabout way asking God to save us from ourselves.
Our opening prayer this morning names this plight, as it asks God to help us with both thinking the right thing and doing the right thing. Graciously naming that these two things are not always the same thing, the prayer recognizes our internal conflict: we want to be saved but we do not always see our part in the plight from which we need saving. We think one way and act another. We let go and hold on at the very same time. And we hide this conflict from ourselves.
Well. Not always. We don’t always hide this conflict from ourselves. Early on in his relationship with God, St Augustine famously prayed, “Lord, make me chaste, but Lord, not yet.” Occasionally we are blessed with the insight that the conflict is within us. But other times self-deception and rationalization keep us from seeing our part in the plight from which we need saving. We loathe ourselves blindly.
So Lesslie Newbigin writes that “Before we continue with our questions, we have to answer a question put to us from the heart of the mystery. We have to answer that anguished question, ‘Adam, where are you?’ We have to learn that we are lost and that we have to be rescued. We have to answer the call of the one who has come to rescue us and learn that it is only in him and through him that we shall be led into the truth in its fullness. There is still mystery, but it is not the mystery of an empty infinity of space and time. It is the mystery of the incarnation and the cross, of the holiness that can embrace the sinner, of a Lord who is servant, and of the deathless one who can die. There is still the vast ocean of what we do not know and do not understanding. But we know the way and the way is Jesus...To look for certainty elsewhere is to head for the wasteland.”
“Adam, where are you?” is the question at the center of the story we hear today in the book of Genesis. It is the question that names that whatever other questions Adam had, he had fundamentally missed the boat by the decision to seek his answers about God apart from God. He could eat of the tree and not need God at all, by his thinking. Certainty without salvation, and Adam was headed for the wasteland, naked and afraid. So he and Eve take cover among the trees of the garden. The psalmist’s question is also Adam’s question: Lord, where can I go to flee from Your presence? Only he doesn’t say it; he just starts running.
“They heard the sound of the Lord,” and made for the trees.
I wonder, if I was Adam, what trees - what things - would I run for? Which trees - what things - do I imagine as capable of hiding me from God? If, as Scripture tells me, I am Adam, I wonder what trees - what things - I still believe can conceal me from the Creator of my soul.
I wonder if it is possible for me to love the shade of these trees, or if I secretly hate them, knowing that they shield me from the One who alone is my strength and my shield.
In any case, it is into this miserable mess of fear and shame and not wanting to be seen, that God speaks the question from the heart of the mystery, the question that shatters the others: “Adam, where are you?”
Wesley describes God’s asking this question as an unexpected grace, a gracious gift. Gracious because, had God not asked it, Adam might have kept running forever. Gracious because the question at the same time honors and transcends all the others Adam - and we - might have and indicates God’s desire to bring us with him back to the heart of things. There will be consequences for Adam and Eve, to be sure, but the mercy just now is in the movement of God back toward his creation.
“Adam, where are you?” God asked.
“Where are you?” because God is not out to get Adam, like Adam thinks God is, out of anger, but God is still out to get Adam; God will do whatever it takes to find Adam.
I wonder if you know somebody just now whose soul could stand to hear these words from God, who could stand to hear the gracious Good News that the question on God’s lips to Adam is not hardened, but gracious, that even as he asks it, the Lord of all things is preparing the rescue of his beloved jewel of creation, packing his bags for the mission, resolved to go to hell and back and die himself if that’s what it will take.
I wonder if your heart breaks for the loved one you imagine as desperate for thees words. Does your heart break like God’s heart broke for Adam: “Where are you?”
I wonder if it strengthens you, too, to be reminded that God will not have you lost as easily as feelings of your being lost can find you in lonely hours.
In three words, God expresses his refusal to give up on Adam; his desire to remain connected when Adam has indicated the very opposite desire. “Where are you?” is more than a question born of curiosity; it is the announcement of hope: that this moment begins the plan of redemption - the movement on God’s part necessary to restore God’s People to himself.
It’s hard to imagine a life that at some point or another wouldn’t put on its list of questions for God the question: “Where were you?” or Where are you?” This morning’s reading from Genesis reminds us that this question is not original or unique to us. Long before we thought to ask it, “Where are you?” is God’s question for Adam and God’s question for each of us. And the question exposes the truth about humanity - that we’ve run off from God. At the very same time this question expresses God’s firm resolve that our disconnect with our Creator will not be the last word for God’s plan and the creation that just a few chapters back he called “very good”. As it turns out, he still means it - the work of his hands - all of it - very good.
“Where are you, Adam?” because God is not out to get us, like we think, but he is out to get us, in Christ Jesus his Son bringing us and all creation back home, that we may find life of the abundant, best kind, in him.
Let us pray.
“Come, Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you.” (1)
(1) A prayer from Augustine's Confessions, you know, to make up for the less-flattering prayer of his earlier.
Sermon preached June 10, 2012, St C's by-the-Sea