The First Question
The first question asked in Scripture is not about God and it is not one of the customary list of common human questions:
Does God exist?
If God is good, why is there evil in the world?
Does prayer make a difference to God?
The first question asked in Scripture asks none of these very human questions. The first question is not asked by the first man or the first woman, not by Cain or Abel, not by Noah, not by Abraham or Sarah. The first question asked in Scripture is asked by God. For ages now, theologians have wrestled with the enigma, if God is all-knowing, then why does God need to ask a question to begin with? Genesis has no interest in positing an answer to that fascinating theological question. It asks us, instead, to consider God’s question, not ours.
James Weldon Johnson sets the stage for God’s question in his evocative poem, The Creation. Johnson opens his poem this way: “And God stepped out on space, And he looked around and said: I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world.” In the poem and in the creation stories in Genesis, God gets busy and sets the stars in motion, spins the sun and polishes the moon, stomps out valleys, carves out mountains, and sends waters flowing in every direction. Next, God sends fish swimming and fills the air with birds, sends giraffes leaping and squirrels climbing.
Somehow, though, creation is still missing something, something essential. So, Johnson writes: “And God looked at his sun And he looked at his moon, And he looked at his little stars; God looked on his world With all its living things, And God said: I’m lonely still.
“Then God sat down on the side of a hill where he could think; By a deep, wide river he sat down; With his head in his hands, God thought and thought, Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
“Up from the bed of the river God scooped the clay; And by the bank of the river God kneeled down; And there the great God Almighty Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand; This great God, Like a mammy bending over her baby, Kneeled down in the dust Toiling over a lump of clay Till he shaped it in his own image; Then into it he blew the breath of life, And man became a living soul. Amen. Amen.”
That is how Johnson’ poem ends, but the creation family story in Genesis continues. This same garden-strolling God decides to create a woman and the first family is formed. God provides them with an idyllic home in which to live, a lush garden where they are allowed to enjoy anything in the garden, with one exception. Well, you and I know what happens when humans are told that they can have everything except one thing. They have got to have it. Otherwise, they feel like they are being gipped. No matter they have access to 99.9% of the property. They must have access to all of it!
As the story unfolds, the first question in Scripture is posed by a slip-sliding-serpent to the first woman. The serpent sows doubt about what God really meant to say about eating from the forbidden tree. So, knowing better, the woman and the man listen to the serpent and eat from the only tree off limits in the entire garden. As soon as they do, for the first time in their lives, they note they are naked and they make clothes and put them on. They engage in the first known cover-up, literally.
The story continues with God feeling a bit unsettled, feeling that something is askew in the garden. So, God goes strolling through the garden looking for the first family and not finding them. God uses her great outdoor voice and shouts out the real first question in Scripture, not the duplicitous, really not a question question asked by the serpent. God calls out and asks, “Where are you?”
In its simplest form, it is a geography question. In the vast expanse of the garden, God asks, “Where are you?” “Where can I find you?” The first man, though, does not hear it as a geography question. He does not respond, “Over here God, sitting with my feet swinging in the poplar tree.” The first man hears it as an existential question and so responds, “I heard you coming, was afraid, and I hid.”
This story does not end in Genesis. It continues throughout the Old Testament and to the last verses of Revelation. It continues throughout the centuries until today. God is still asking, “Where are you?” And all too often, we are still giving the first answer, “We are afraid and so we are hiding.” Some of us are hiding behind a title: “Reverend,” “Teacher,” “Nurse,” “Editor,” “Doctor,” “Senator,” “Judge,” “Student.” We hide behind our fears by covering ourselves up with our titles, our vocations. We hide from really doing what God expects of us by staying busy doing stuff. God asks, “Where are you?” and we respond, “we are busy.”
Some of us are hiding behind so-called realism, refusing to let God see how afraid we are to live boldly, truthfully, justly in God’s good garden, Planet Earth. God asks, “Where are you?” and we respond, “we are doing all that can realistically be done, God, given how hard the world is today.”
The late preacher and Yale University professor, William Sloane Coffin loved to tell the story of an old campaigner friend of his, someone who was always at every public protest – the type of person who would be leading the charge against the Dominion pipeline and against any more Alt Right rallies in Charlottesville.
In the 1980’s, when President Reagan was pushing for major budget cuts for social projects, and, very high on the list was eliminating funding for homeless shelters, this man began a hunger strike in protest. He did not eat anything for one day, two days, one week, two weeks and as his hunger strike was stretching into its third week, Coffin and several of this man’s friends approached him, asking him to eat, to stop his hunger strike.
“You’re not a young man anymore,” they told him. “This could kill you.”
“Besides,” Coffin told him, “your hunger strike is really not making any difference.”
The old man seized a teachable moment, turned to Coffin and said in response, “Sometimes you change the world and sometimes you just make sure the world doesn’t change you.”
What if the first woman and first man had refused the seductive logic of the serpent? What if, after they had eaten the forbidden fruit, they had owned up to their disobedience and called out to God, “Hey God, we’ve got to talk”? What if you and I were to stop listening to so many voices telling us who we are and what we can and cannot do, what is realistic and what is simply not possible, and we were to remember that we are children of God, offspring of the first family, and God still needs us, expects us, empowers us to tend the garden, expects us to live boldly, truthfully, justly?
Were God to come strolling into Cove today and ask, “Where are you, Gary?” I do not know what I would say. I hope I might say something like, “I am right here, God, and I am grateful to live in your bountiful garden and I intend to be a wise and courageous keeper of the garden.” At the same time, no doubt I would need to say, “Like the first man and first woman, I too am afraid, God, and so I have been hiding behind a whole string of excuses of why I cannot live boldly, truthfully, justly in your garden: ‘I’m too old, too tired, too cynical, too suspect, too overwhelmed. I’ve got my reputation to worry about, God, my pension to guard, my family name to protect. I would like to do so much more, but surely you understand, God.’”
“Where are you?” I suspect God does not tire in asking that question, not simply to the first man and first women, but to you and to me. I also suspect that any answer will involve some confession from us for not doing all God intends for us to do, for not standing with all those whom God expects for us to stand.
The story, though, does not end with the first man and the first woman in confession or even when they are escorted out of the garden. The story ends as it begins with God, God searching us out, finding us, looking us in the eye, and asking, “Where are you?” Where are you, Fran? Where are you, Danny? Where are you, Renee? Where are you, Bic? Where are you, Marissa? Where are you?
By the grace of God and by the love of Jesus and by the life-stirring presence of the Holy Spirit, may today be the day when you and I come out from our hiding and answer God, without hesitation, with the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
Where are you?
It is the first question in Scripture and God has not stopped asking it and never will.