This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Gospel in Genesis". See series.
When I was a kid growing up in Minnesota, my family had a summer tradition. Every Sunday night, all seven kids and my parents would cram into a huge Ford station wagon, and we'd head off to Dairy Queen where I would always order an extra-large, soft-serve, vanilla-crunch cone. But one Sunday evening, the entire family piled into the station wagon and accidentally left me at home. I'm no t sure how they forgot me because I was always loud, annoying, in trouble, and breaking something. For some reason, my analytical, scientifically-trained dad didn't do a head count that Sunday, so they left me behind.
Do you know what it's like to be lost, left out, and alienated? It hurts. I sat on the steps and cried. Of course, this story has a happy ending. When they arrived at the Dairy Queen, my mom noticed I wasn't there (my older brother also noticed, but he "forgot" to tell anyone). They turned that huge Ford station wagon around and sped back to find me.
Has someone ever searched for you and then found you? How does that feel? It feels wonderful! You're home! You feel loved because someone cared enough to go after you and find you.
God asks a very simple question.
The Bible is basically the story about how we got lost, and God came to find us. Of course, in the Bible, God didn't mess up and forget to do a headcount; we just walked away from God. We hid from God. We ditched God.
God's search for us begins with a very simple question: "Where are you?" In Hebrew, the original language the Bible was written in, this question is only one word—ayeka. "Where are you?"
Did you ever notice that some of the best answers to life's problems are actually questions? That's why Jesus loved asking questions. If you have 30 minutes, sit down and read through the entire Gospel of Mark, circling every question Jesus asked. You'll discover Jesus not only taught by giving answers to life, but he also taught by asking the great questions of life.
"Where are you?" It is perhaps the most important question you will ever face. It's also the shortest, most devastating, and most hopeful question anyone will ever ask you. This little question captures the complete story of how we got lost and how we can be found. Most importantly, this question can bring us into the presence of the most important person in the universe—God, the one who asks this question of you and me.
Let's put this in perspective. In the first two chapters of Genesis, we find a story of beauty, glory, and perfection. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth … and it was very good" (1:1 and 31). We were made to bear the image of God's own glory and dignity. We were made to rule and reign with God (1:26-27 and 2:15). We were meant to live as bold, creative artists in an exciting relationship with God, other human beings, and all of creation. It's a high and holy calling.
Then, in Genesis 3, we heard the story we sometimes call the Fall. It's all about how we got lost. This story is historical and mythical in the sense it is our story, too. It's a story of mistrust and rebellion against the good heart of God. Our first parents said: We can decide what is good and evil, right and wrong. We're smart enough; we know what's best.
So they did: they rebelled and walked away from God. From then on, the story of all of humanity becomes a story of great rebellion and fleeing from God. In Genesis 2:25, we first find this amazing picture of bliss: "The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." They didn't have any walls or major issues in life. But after sin enters the world, after we walk away from God, something else enters the picture: shame. Shame is that sense of unease at the heart of our being. It's the sense that something is not right inside us. Some people call it alienation or brokenness. In verse 7, we see what happens to people who live as fugitives from God: "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves."
I was explaining this reality to a friend this week, and she said, "Oh, you just mean we're not perfect."
"Actually," I replied, "it's much worse than that. It means the brokenness in the cosmos isn't just out there, but it's inside us. It's inside me. Not only do I live in a broken universe, in a broken planet, and in a broken country—I am broken. I'm not just a passive victim of brokenness; I am a perpetrator of brokenness."
This truth leads to shame—the healthy, normal, God-given sense of unease over all not being well with me.
Consequences of the Fall
For a brilliant depiction of the Fall, read the novel by Albert Camus with the same name—The Fall. Camus' story centers on a successful lawyer named Clamence, a respected, arrogant man. Clamence views himself as a moral, decent human being. He never accepts bribes. He tries to be generous to everyone. There isn't a problem he cannot solve. He sleeps with many different women, but he never hurts anyone. He is secure in his self-esteem. All of this changes when a young woman attempts suicide by plunging into the river, and Clamence does nothing to rescue her.
At that moment, he sees who he really is, and it isn't pleasant. His indifference during the crisis becomes what he calls the bitter waters of his baptism. He notices his selfishness, his irritation when someone interrupts one of his stories, his anger when someone dares to disagree with him, and his inability to love and remain faithful to one woman. Finally, he confesses, "I was not simple, for modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress." He is a coward and a hypocrite. He comes to the painful realization that he's no better than anyone else—he is a fallen, flawed, broken human being.
Our sense of fallenness brings a deep sense of shame. And notice what shame does in this Genesis story: it separates us from others. It builds walls of fear and hostility. It drives us toward fixing what is wrong—to heal the disease and cover what has been exposed. John Powell wrote a powerful book called Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? In it, he writes about how we are afraid to tell people who we are because if they saw "the real me," it might not be good enough. We would be exposed as defective, broken, dirty, disgusting, or inadequate. So it's better and safer to put on fig leaves and hide.
Notice the attempt by Adam and Eve in verse 7—"they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." The fig trees in the Middle East produce some of the largest leaves in that area. Fig leaves represent anything we do to cover our nakedness and shame. I have fig leaves. You have fig leaves. We have fig leaves called status, awards, degrees, intellectualism, clothing, style, and morality. Blaming others is a huge fig leaf. If you can blame your spouse, your church, or your political leaders for all your problems, you don't have to own your own nakedness. That's exactly what Adam and Eve did in this passage: they passed the buck. Even religion can become nothing more than a big fig leaf. Fig leaves are anything we use to hide behind to prove we're not defective, broken, or sinful. They come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have this one thing in common: they're a self-made, self-covering project to cover our shame and nakedness.
But notice Genesis 3:8: "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day." The words "sound of the LORD" and "walking" are often used symbolically to refer to a simple idea: God is present. God comes looking for the lost man and the lost woman. And what do they do? They keep running. "They hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden."
Once again, the Bible says we're not lost because God forgot to do a headcount; we're lost because we ran away and hid. If it was up to us to seek and find God, we'd all be hopelessly and eternally lost. The Bible even puts it this way: "There is no one righteous, not even one … no one who seeks God. All have turned away" (Romans 3:10-12). The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, "You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you." Our relationship with God is the same way: God catches us.
Let me tell you a little slice of my own story about how God caught me. Some people assume that because I'm a pastor, I must have always loved God and wanted to serve him. Actually, when I was a teenager, I just wanted God to go away. I treated Jesus like a black bear or a cougar—I believed in him, but I wanted him to keep his distance. When I was 15 years old, Jesus was the last person in the world I wanted to accept. So I spent a good year actively running from Jesus.
But the hunt was on.
God chases fugitives. That's what we see in Genesis, and that's what we see when Jesus pursues a crooked runt named Zaccheus.
The end of the hunt came for me on a Friday evening, right after my 16th birthday. We were hanging out, playing pool, when I engaged in a fistfight with my friend George. I don't remember the issue, but I'll never forget the rage I felt. I wanted to kill George. That night, I looked into the abyss of my brokenness, and I knew I could keep running from God, covering my shame with a collection of fig leaves, or I could stop running and surrender to Christ. So I gave up and said, "Okay, Jesus, you've been hounding me for over a year now. You can come into my life." I didn't catch him—he caught me.
God pursues the fugitives.
So here's the amazing twist to this hide-and-seek story: God calls out to a lost humanity. He pursues the fugitives. On the one hand, the fact that God calls out to these lost fugitives is like a summons. After all, God will call all of us to account for our lives. There is judgment in the question: "You've lived 16, 26, 46, or 66 years of your life—and where are you? What have you done with your life? Is it time for a wake-up call? Are you ready to meet God face to face?"
This question exposes our hiding, our running, and our fig leaves. God didn't ask the question for his benefit. He already knew exactly where Adam was. Adam needed the question to wake him up, to take him by the collar and shake him. Perhaps God is asking the question because you need a wake-up call.
This simple question is also the question of someone who loves us. A husband hides behind his newspaper, lost in world events, his job, fear of failure, and his pursuit of more success. His wife asks him to put down the paper, looking him in the eye, asking, "Where are you? Where did you go? Why are you hiding? I miss you."
Think of a 17-year-old girl who finally comes home at 3 in the morning, reeking with alcohol and cigarettes. Her broken-hearted, bleary-eyed father meets her at the door. The next day, he sits by her bed and asks, "Where are you? Where did you go? Where is that little girl that was so full of life and joy and love?"
Have you every though God misses you? Did you ever think beyond the idea of being "in trouble" with God to realize the God of the universe notices your absence, your waywardness, your flight from him—and he wants you back?
That's exactly what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a story of lost and found. God is the seeker and we are the lost fugitives. Throughout the Old Testament, God keeps saying to his people: Return to me. Come back to me. What happened to the intimacy we once had? You moved away.
All throughout the Old Testament, God was providing a way for us to come back, to cover our nakedness and shame, to lure us out of hiding. As you read through the Old Testament, you see how serious our sin is. It isn't just, "Oops! My bad!" It's deadly to our relationship with God. It creates a debt that we could never pay.
All throughout the Bible, God is giving us clues, mapping out a path for us to return to him. God keeps saying: A new day is coming. There is a new way for you to come to me, a new way to heal your brokenness, a new way to cover your shame, a new way to live, a new way to love others, a new way for the entire earth.
Then Jesus comes and he says: That new day has come. I am the new way that was promised.
When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the debt for our waywardness and built a bridge to people who were lost. At the cross, he covered our shame. That's why Jesus kept saying, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28-30). Just come, Jesus said. Quit hiding.
Where are you? What are your fig leaves? What or who do you need to prove that you're adequate? The righteousness of Christ is available to you. That means when you place your faith in Jesus, when you trust him with your whole heart, he covers your shame. You don't have to wear fig leaves anymore. You don't have to hide anymore. So come home.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.