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]