Sermon: 1st Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2017, St Aidan’s

 St.Alban’s Epping and St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th March 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

“DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE”

(Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 4:1-11)

“No man is an island.” Those famous words of John Donne emphasize a profound truth. None of us is a totally independent person. As human beings we are inevitably connected to others. We need others. And our actions affect others. In debates about freedom of speech or Americans’ right to bear arms, people seem to forget that the freedoms I claim might have an impact on others, who have their own rights. Freedom in this world can never be absolute freedom. A truly human life connects us to other people.

But there is another way in which we are not independent. We are never independent of God our Creator. We cannot live a fully human life living as if God were not there, living as if God had no relevance to us, as if God’s ways and God’s purposes had nothing to do with us. Of course, plenty of people try to do that, but we just have to look at the state of the world to see the results.

We were made by God. We are ultimately dependent on God, and we are ultimately answerable to God. Why haven’t things worked out in practice?

Genesis 3 takes us to a fork in the road of human history. In the first two chapters we read of a perfect world where every human need is provided, and where humans are in close fellowship with God. Eden is unspoiled. There is beauty. There is activity, good things to do. There is relationship and love. Life is good. All is well.

Adam and Eve have great freedom, but that freedom is not absolute. They have one small restriction. The fruit of any tree in the garden is available for them, except for one tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to them. In fact, if they eat its fruit, they will die.

Why is this? We don’t know the full answer to this question. But one part is clear. This restriction gives Adam and Eve a choice. They can choose whether or not to trust and obey God.

They have the freedom to make decisions for themselves about whether or not they will live in obedience to God. It is an awesome privilege, a wonderful blessing. Nevertheless this power to choose has risks attached: for freedom to choose includes the freedom to choose wrongly, and there is the possibility of going down the path of sin, to in a sense declare independence from God.

Of course, the opportunity to rebel against God also provides the opportunity to choose to obey him, to live with him in loyalty and trust and love. Humans have moral and spiritual responsibility. But how will they use it?

Into this picture comes the serpent. Later in the Bible, the serpent will be identified with Satan, the devil. But right now, he is a simply the creature who will bring things to a head. He takes Eve step by step down the path, and in due course Adam will join in. He gets them to question God’s concern for their well-being, and then denies God’s warning. “You won’t die. God wants to keep you in the dark. You know some things, but there is a whole world God is keeping from you. You know a little bit of what is good, but this fruit will bring the knowledge of good and evil, you will really know everything, you will be able to decide for yourselves what is right and what is wrong – like God! Don’t let God tell you what you can do. Put him in his place. Who is God to think he can boss you around?”

It was persuasive because Adam and Eve were distracted from all they knew about God, who had made them and provided generously for them in every way. The serpent exaggerated God’s rules to make him seem unreasonable. He denied God’s warnings to make him seem untrustworthy. He questioned God’s motives to make him seem unloving. The fruit looked attractive and delicious. And it was going to open their eyes to new things. Why not have some? And so Eve and then Adam ate the fruit.

Of course the story of Adam and Eve isn’t just the story of two people thousands of years ago, whether you take it literally or pictorially. It is also our story. For like Adam and Eve, we too have the choice to obey or disobey God, the choice of being loyal or disloyal to him. Like them, temptation is a reality in our lives.

As humans we not only choose at times to disobey God: we use very similar arguments to those of the serpent to justify our disobedience. God’s laws, we say, are unreasonable or out-of-date or irrelevant. Or they don’t apply in my case, or they’re too narrow, or no one else worries about them, or they’re too hard in our days, or this one’s not all that important, or I’m only going to do this once, or it’s not as bad as what other people do! There are so many excuses we can use for our disobedience to God, but really they are just variations on what the serpent said to Eve.

Our disobedience is a failure of loyalty to the one to whom we owe our very being. Our disobedience is a failure of faith in the one who truly knows what is in our best interests. Our disobedience is an act of defiance in which we tell God: “You are not in charge. I’m in charge of my own life.” Our disobedience is a declaration of independence in which we cut ourselves off from the one on whom we ultimately depend for life and purpose and everything.

What happened when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Well, they did discover new things. They knew good and evil in a new way. But was the knowledge worth having? It’s good to know that fire burns, but you don’t need to need to stick your arm in the flames to find out what it is really like. It’s good to know that driving when drunk is dangerous, but you don’t need to do it yourself to understand that reality. There are some things you understand best by doing them. Other things you need to know in your mind, and save yourself having to learn from experience. The knowledge that Adam and Eve gained was actually of no real value to them at all. In fact, it put up barriers. Now they wanted to hide from God, and even from each other. They experienced the reality of shame, and the sense of guilt.

God is God. Rejecting his ways and his call cuts us off from him, and from what are really the best things in life. But it doesn’t stop him loving us. He continues to call us to trust him, and to live in obedience to him.

And in Jesus Christ, he deals with our guilt. Jesus, as we are reminded in our Gospel reading, knows the reality of temptation, and understands our spiritual struggles. And on the cross, he identified with us in our sin and failure, and brought to us the assurance of forgiveness and reconciliation, reconnection with God.

Perhaps the temptations many of us face are less obvious than they might have been in other stages of our lives. The easy way, the comfortable way, not being willing to do something helpful we could do, the little compromise, the unkind thought we hold on to, or the unkind words we might say.

Whatever it might be, Lent calls us once again to take seriously Christ’s call to repentance, God’s call to obedience. But it assures us that when we fall short, when we again put up the barriers, God still loves us, he still understands us, he is patient and forgiving. May we as individual Christians, and as a church facing a new future, seek to walk with faith and devotion and a willingness to obey God’s call, following Jesus, who shows us all the best way to live. Amen.

Paul Weaver