Toorak Uniting Church

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Serpents, snakes and other slithery things

Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9.00am, 13 February, 2005

A couple of weeks ago there was some commotion in our street. A couple of doors down there was a snake sleeping on top of a pole under the roof of somebody’s veranda. Anxious neighbours had kept an eye on it all afternoon until the people who live in the house returned from work, gradually attracting more and more people to the front garden to peer at the snake, wondering what type of snake it was and what should be done. After some phone calls back and forth it appeared that snake busters would be our best bet who said, when contacted, to wait, not take our eyes of the snake, and they’d be there in an hour.

The owner of the veranda looked quite pale when she got that message with more and more people stopping in her front garden and offering guesses as to what type of snake it could be.

After four a number of children joined the throng and added to the excitement. Arend found some pictures of snakes on the internet, printed them out and we all tried to compare them with what was sitting on the pole. It could be a black diamond python, not dangerous. It could be a tiger snake, very dangerous. People started to turn up with camera’s and made pictures, making some of us wonder if snakes wake up from flash photography? Would the vibrations of feet coming too close get the animal to move perhaps? We were all a bit giggly, and most of us made sure there was a good distance between us and the snake. But curiosity was strong as well and when others ventured closer and closer, most of us did so too.

On the other side of the street lives a family with 3 kids. They are heavy into pets. Apparently they do not only have a cat and a dog and a budgie but they also have more exotic pets like scorpions and….. snakes!
When the youngest of that family, a girl, about 2 feet high and probably no older than 7 came to investigate what all the fuss was about she wandered fearless and without any inhibition up to just beneath the snake. You can imagine everybody holding their breath as she did so.

Suddenly the little girl pointed and called out: "Mum, it’s Slimmy! Look, he’s got the same funny stripes!"

"No darling", said mum, "that is quite impossible, Slimmy disappeared two years ago, he’ll be long dead says your dad."

Can you imagine the gasp that went through the gathered community in the front garden?

After some more to-ing and fro-ing the snake man appeared. He was fantastic! Broad shoulders, broad accent, tattoo on one arm, big boots and no fear. He just walked up to the snake took it in his hands, peeled it gently off the pole and said with a satisfied smile: "What a beauty, 6 feet at least and nothing wrong with her…."

All of us standing around him breathlessly waiting for the verdict: venomous or not?

"It’s a Darwinian Carpet Snake", he said, "Can bite, but wouldn’t kill you. Doesn’t live in these parts, must be an escaped pet snake….."

I’ll spare you further details, but in the end the little girl and her mum went off with what appeared to be Slimmy but much fatter and about a foot longer than they remembered him in a pillow case with a rope tied around the top.
After 2 years in our gardens and sheds, Slimmy has returned home and I don’t have to tell you we all sincerely hope he will stay there.

Now why am I telling you this story this morning when we read from Genesis 2 and 3, apart from the fact that a snake plays a major role in both the stories?

Well you see, what occurred to me reading Genesis 2 with the harmless Darwinian carpet snake still vividly in my mind, and the story of the rainbow serpent after a visit to an aboriginal centre in the holidays also still quite fresh in my memory banks, is that it is quite hard to tell if a snake is harmless or not. And that the best policy is to stay away from it unless you’re absolutely sure of what you’re doing.
It also occurred to me that is exactly what goes wrong in the story of the "fall". Eve gets too close and makes the wrong decision. The snake she talks to presents itself as harmless and Eve ignores God’s instructions to the contrary and gets up to close to it. Her curiosity gets the better of her, she gets hurt because of her desire to find out for herself instead of respecting the boundaries God has set, and Adam becomes part of it because he can’t say no either.

Looking at it from that perspective the story in Genesis two and 3 is not so much about the origin of sin or the whiles of a woman and the weakness of a man but about growing up. About making a serious mistake and being confronted with the consequences.

About the difficulty of discernment for us, humans: to know the difference between what is right and what is wrong, what is still ok and what will hurt us and others when we do it.

Genesis says that God has given boundaries, gives direction, but that people, humans, like to investigate, stretch the boundaries, find out for themselves. They get to close, cross the boundaries and because of that they find themselves outside the garden God has put them in, find themselves in the world outside where mistakes are made and damage is done by wrong choices and reckless risk taking.

And we would all, I suspect, know of examples of that happening in our own lives: Examples of where we’ve made the wrong choices, where we thought we were wiser than God and the boundaries that have been set by Him. Such is the stuff we are made off, independent, adventurous and sometimes just a little bit too arrogant in our actions.
Arrogance that can turn the world into a mess.

Jesus Christ came into that mess to show us what a life of obedience to the Father, what a life that is lived within the boundaries God has given to us looks like. How we can discern between the venomous and the harmless, the pet and the real life out there wild thing. He has also shown us that even when we make wrong choices and find ourselves out there in the world, naked and vulnerable, God still loves us and covers our failure with clothes made of grace and mercy.

God does not take away the consequences of the wrong choices Eve and Adam make. There is no going back to the garden of innocence once they’ve made those choices. But there is a way forward. Even death can’t put a stop to that.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005


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