Sermon: The First Sunday of Lent (A) – 9th March 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8:30 am

The readings for the first Sunday in Lent take us through the sweep of salvation history: the fall in the garden, the lament over sin in the Psalms, the hope of acceptance through Christ given in Romans, and then straight to the story of the temptation of Jesus, participating in our frailties yet triumphing over them, in Matthew,

Traditionally the Genesis story has been told as a tale of disobedience: God gives a clear command; Eve is tempted by Satan to disobey the command, and gives in.  Christ parallels the story, being tempted by Satan not in a garden, but in a wilderness.  But, unlike Eve, you and me, Jesus resists the temptation and triumphs.

Look closely at Genesis and notice that the temptation is direr than simply disobeying a divine command.  God has created humanity and then made a garden in which the creature could live.  We are given a God’s eye view of the garden: it is pleasing to the sight, good for food, and contains two trees, one of life, and the other of knowledge.  Then God gives a command Adam and Eve: do not eat the tree that gives knowledge.

The serpent accomplishes the temptation indirectly: “Did God say you couldn’t eat any of the fruit in the garden?” and Eve rushes to answer that it’s only one tree that is forbidden.  The serpent refutes the statement that the tree will cause death; instead, he says, this tree will make you like God.  The woman sees that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes and desirable for wisdom.  What she doesn’t know is that she is mirroring God’s own perspective; she is already like God but she does not believe it.  The fall is not simply disobedience, but a failure to own herself as the image of God that she has been created to be.

The significance of this reading is that when Genesis is read only as a tale of disobedience, our interpretation turns disobedience into an pompous pride in a desire to be like God, to storm heaven, as it were.  We fail to live up to what God created us to be.

In Genesis, the temptation is in the midst of a garden; in Matthew, the temptation is in the midst of a wilderness.  Symbolically, we can see the garden represents the richness of living as the image of God: as God wishes.  The wilderness, on the other hand, is the loss of that richness.  For Jesus, the only garden is Gethsemane, not Eden.  His temptation is not lush surroundings, but a desert.

Eve, not knowing who she is, gives in to the temptation to “be like God”.  Yet she is already in God’s image.  Jesus, knowing who he is, is also tempted to “be like God”; doing the miraculous things that only God could do: make stones into bread, demonstrate dramatic rescues, be recognized as the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world!  Be like God!  Jesus, knowing himself, answers each temptation simply with the refuting word of God.

Had Eve repeated the words of God she’d have felt no need to take the fruit.  Jesus, repeating God’s word, defeats the temptation, and goes on to complete redemption’s journey until once again we find ourselves in a garden, where Jesus himself is mistaken by Mary for a gardener: the garden of resurrection.

Genesis and Matthew offer contrasting stories about human responses to “temptation”.  They also offer contrasting stories about the presence and absence of God at times of “temptation”, reminders that we need to reconsider what we think the final double petition in the Lord’s Prayer means: “Save us for the time of trial and deliver us from evil”.

Some traditional unjust theologies appeal to Genesis 3 when they blame “Eve”, and all women thereafter, for spoiling life in the Garden of Eden and for handing sin on to their offspring.  Those misunderstandings limit human judgments about “good and evil” and lead to misreading and abusing scripture.  Some things the Bible says do not pass the test of time like tracing labour pains to the disobedience of the first humans, or the view that husbands are to “rule over” their wives.  The primary theme in the readings is that sin is part of the human condition, and forgiveness and Jesus’ faithfulness is its solution.

Although many have identified the snake with Satan, remember that the snake is one of God’s creatures.  It is a symbol of cleverness or shrewdness.  The woman’s reasons for eating the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” are not in themselves bad; on the contrary, they sound natural and good.  Although the snake tells the woman, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” the woman and her husband do not desire to be “like gods”.  They only wanted to eat good food and become “wise”.  How can we, or God, fault their desire for food and wisdom?  It was not the desire, or the object of their desire, that was wrong: what was wrong was their disobedience to God’s explicit instructions.

We hear lots of clever voices in our world trying to persuade us, usually successfully, to disregard what God would have us do, or not do.  We know that God wants us to care for the earth and for the poor, the sick and the hungry.  Yet we all participate in an economy that is destroying the earth, forcing more people into poverty and expanding the gap between the poor and the rich, keeping the sick in other countries from receiving healthcare, and failing to feed millions of children who die from hunger.  We know that God wants us to “love our enemies”, and not kill them; and yet, our elected politicians wage war on our behalf.

This story is good at naming the problem we face but, apart from reminding us to what God would have us do, or not do, it offers no solution to the problem of our disobedience.

It is noteworthy that the focus of Paul’s retelling of the Genesis 3 story is on the disobedience of “Adam,” and that he doesn’t mention a serpent, Eve, and the tree with the forbidden fruit.  His retelling shows an interest in only one thing: the way one person’s disobedience brought about a change in the world.  From that point on, everyone had to deal with the possibility of disobedience to God as a way of life.  That everyone subsequently participates in that way of life is an indication of its power, attraction, in the face of which our will is too weak to resist.  So, Paul’s customary way of talking about the human condition focused on human “weakness” in the face of the power of “sin” that invaded the world when “Adam” introduced disobedience as possible a way of life.

It’s not just that individuals decide to disobey God as a way of life, but also, and more fundamentally, that “Adam’s” disobedience changed the world, the human condition.  For Paul, “sin” and “death” are powers present in the world from the time of “Adam”.  “Sin” came into the world not as a power from outside the “created order” but because of the first act of human disobedience to God.  “Death”, however, came into the world as the form of God’s punishment for disobedience.  However “the whole creation” was affected, changed, by this chain of events.

Confession is first and foremost about creative transformation.  It is not about drowning in guilt.  As today’s Psalm so eloquently says, it is about opening up with full honesty in the sheltering presence of God’s “steadfast love”; it is about letting God, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, teach and counsel us about the way to new life, in the knowledge that God’s loving “ye is upon us.

In the account of Jesus’ baptism “a voice from heaven” repeated the witness of the story of Jesus’ birth, that Jesus is God’s “beloved Son”, with whom God is “well pleased” and it leads directly to the story about Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness.  In short, today’s Gospel reading is wedged between Jesus’ baptism, and what that says about Jesus’ identity, and the beginning of his public ministry following John’s arrest.

This reading does not say, “so, you, like Jesus, must resist temptation”, no matter how true the latter is.  You and I are not at all like Jesus!  It’s a story about Jesus, and by implication God and the world, and it invites our response to this Jesus, God and world.  It’s a story is about a test of Jesus’ faithfulness, and it is God who puts Jesus to this test.

Matthew now has Jesus demonstrate to God and the public that he is worthy of God’s good judgment.  Three times Jesus’ faithfulness to God stands up to the test.

The world is full of temptations to make idols of food, to live dangerously and test God’s providence and to make an idol of power and wealth.  The point of this story is that Jesus refused to make food, dominion and wealth idols; and he refused to exploit God’s “angels”, God’s “steadfast love”, for his own self-interest.

Confession names these ways, and others, that the world lures us into unfaithful lives.  Confession turns our attention to creative transformation that comes from God’s “steadfast love” for all creation.  Confession reorients our lives to Jesus’ faithfulness as the source of our faithfulness.[1]

 

Sermon: The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany (A) – 2nd March 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom.  Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic divine-human call and response.  As the season of Epiphany portrays, God can choose to be more present in some places than others: for example, the birth of Jesus, the encounters with Jacob and Moses, the call of Mary and Joseph and the dream of the magi.  However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed.  Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point.  Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop.  The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.  During Epiphany, we are given vision to experience God in our individual vocations and gifts and then in all persons and places.  This truly is a transfigured world.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message.  This message focussed on the Commonwealth of God that through his work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being.  We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and also how it transformed it.  We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition.  It was about him that the prophets spoke.  He was God’s King: The descendant of David.  He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity.  It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

Today our attention is called to the person of Jesus and how the true God was revealed through him.

For the second time in Matthew’s account, God breaks in to tell us who Jesus is.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism by John.  If we wish to get to the root of the question of who was Jesus, we should pay attention to God’s recorded statement about him.  In today’s passage, God repeats the words he spoke at the baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  This time God adds: “Listen to him”.

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”.  To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully.  Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased.  God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God.  Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians.  Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being.  Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission.  For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable.  Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, it is Jesus whom God singles out for recognition.  This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God.  Matthew shows that through Jesus God is fulfilling all that the Old Testament prophets spoke about and predicted.  That was sufficient for Matthew.  Listening to Jesus’ words over the years has too often been blocked by mystifying disputes, the Gospels reveal Jesus.  The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

Today is the anniversary of Wesley’s death.  We who sing Wesley’s hymns are fortunate.  We sing two of his hymns this morning.

“Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.”

And,

“Author of faith, eternal Word,
Whose Spirit breathes the active flame;
Faith like its finisher and Lord,
Today as yesterday the same.

To Thee our humble hearts aspire,
And ask the gift unspeakable;
Increase in us the kindled fire,
In us the work of faith fulfil.”

More than the other Reformers he put listening to Jesus ahead of speculations about his nature.  For Wesley listening to Jesus opens us to listen to others as well.

Of course singling Jesus out as the one to be listened to involves beliefs about him.  One must believe that he was peculiarly free from the distortions of race and gender, nationality and culture, social role and economic class that block the understanding of all of us.  We can see that from his dealing with the people of his age; Jews and non-Jews, women and men, adults and children, sinners and saints, that that is so.  We believe that his openness to God attained a truly extraordinary purity.  God is in all of us, but in Jesus, God becomes uniquely visible to us.  We need an exalted view of Jesus just because he was truly and fully human.  Matthew gives us that.

It is interesting, however, that in Matthew’s account Jesus forbids the three disciples who were with him to speak of their experience until after his death.  One may wonder that once again Jesus wanted to avoid using marvels as an argument for supporting him.  He wanted people to respond to the truth of his words on their own merit.

In the passage from 2 Peter we see the alternative approach at work.  After his death, the story of God’s confirmation of Jesus in the transfiguration is used as an argument supporting the teachings of Peter.  The resurrection appearances were more often appealed to in this connection.  None the less, Jesus would have preferred that we believe these stories because we listen to him rather than listen to him because of these marvels.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus invites us to think further about the relation of Jesus to Moses and Jewish tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount we found Jesus both affirming the Mosaic Law and transforming it.

In Exodus God speaks to Moses.  God’s words are as follows: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction”.  God has singled out Moses for an enormously important role.  It is he who is to take God’s written words to the people and demand their obedience.  Much as Jews admire and appreciate Moses, it is the law mediated to them from God by Moses that is the focus of their spirituality.  They have learned over the centuries how to refine, develop and apply this law in ever changing circumstances.  The person of Moses and the law given through Moses are quite distinct, even separable.

It is different with Jesus.  We are to listen to him.  His followers wrote down some of what they remembered.  This enables us to listen.  But our listening is bound up with what we know of his person, his life, his transfiguration, his death and his resurrection; listening to him giving careful attention to what he is reported to have said.  But none of this is separable from his person.  We interpret what we believe he said in light of what he did, just as we interpret what he did in light of what we believe he said.

God’s call to us is to listen to Jesus.  To do so is dangerous.  It is also saving.  It transfigures us.[1]