March 1, 2020 First Sunday of Lent Explaining the inexplicable
Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
The story of Adam and Eve. We all know it. We all know about the apple tree even though the story does not mention an apple. Eating the forbidden fruit and the tree of knowledge of good and evil have become idiomatic expressions. They are used in contemporary literature and art. The reference to Adam and Eve’s nakedness has shaped the awkward relationship of the early Puritans with nudity and sexuality.
The Genesis story of the fall and first sin of
Adam and Eve have been blamed for everything that is wrong in our world – from
immorality to death, from famine to floods, from war to gossip and everything
in between. Who has not asked with a sigh: “If
only they did not eat from the forbidden fruit!”
People often view this story as historically true and they take it literally. Interpretations of the fall of humankind are geared towards explaining what happened with the first two humans at the beginning. The hope of course is that if you are able to explain what happened, you can either fix it or prevent it from happening again.
As you know from the story, blame was cast: The man said: “The woman made me do it!” The woman said: “The snake made me do it!” And the snake suffered the consequences.
We all look for a culprit to blame!
To approach this story as a historical event is not helpful! The purpose of the story is not historical. It is theological. The main theological point of this story is this: God created everything and everything God created was very good! But then, it goes on to say that something inexplicably went wrong. And efforts to try to explain the details about the tree, the snake, the guilt of Eva or the arrogance of Adam, we miss the main theological point. The theological point is that sin for some inexplicable reason entered the good creation and turned the beautiful garden into a harsh desert. Sin is a destructive force: it destroys the goodness of creation, it destroys the relationship between people, it destroys our relationship with creation. Sin ultimately destroys our relationship with God
The great theologian Karl Barth wrote about the theological meaning of sin. The interesting thing is that first of all he places his doctrine on sin not at the beginning of his writings. He places his doctrine on sin after the doctrine of Jesus Christ who reconciled God and humanity. Now this may not sound important but it really is. By placing his doctrine on sin after his doctrine of Jesus, Barth makes it clear that human beings cannot solve the sin problem! Only Jesus can!
And second of all, following this structure, Barth has made certain that sin is not defined in a vacuum, but only as it is found in relation to Jesus Christ, the victor over sin. It is therefore only in Christ’s defeat of sin that Barth claims we can know sin at all. “The reality of sin cannot be known or described except in relation to the One who has vanquished it.”
Barth’s great contribution is that he makes it clear that sin is much more than knowing the difference between right or wrong or even doing something wrong.
Every year at confirmation class Kelly and I present the confirmands with two statements. One is correct and the other is false. The two statements are:
1. I sin therefore I am a sinner.
2. I am a sinner therefor I sin.
Every year most confirmands say the first one is correct. I sin, therefore I am a sinner. The implication is that I do something wrong and then I become a sinner! And if I don’t do anything wrong then I am not a sinner! And this is not true!
The correct one is the second statement. I am a sinner and therefor I sin. And God in Christ is the only One who can change my status as sinner. As Barth wrote: “We can only come to form a doctrine of sin in the light of Jesus Christ and particularly in the light of our reconciliation in Him.”
The more we try to fix our broken condition, the deeper we sink into the quicksand of our sinfulness! Our help truly is in the name of Lord who made heaven and earth who sent the Son into the world to reconcile us. We cannot deal with the problem of sin ourselves. God does so and God does so in Jesus.
It is not without reason that the New Testament reading about Jesus’ temptation is seen as the counter-story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden – Jesus now is in the desert. Adam and Eve fail miserably and are disobedient – Jesus is obedient. Sin destroys relationships – Jesus restores relationships. Sin leads to death – Jesus gives life.
The temptation happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. The number 40 plays an important role in the Old Testament: Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai, Elijah spends 40 days in the desert, and the people of Israel travels in the desert for 40 years. Jesus, the Messiah, comes from this Hebrew tradition.
The tempter just like the snake in Genesis, wants to drive a wedge between God and Jesus. After fasting for 40 days and nights the tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread!” In contrast to Adam and Eve, Jesus responds: “You cannot live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God.”
Jesus points out that there is more to this life than bread. The NT commentator Nielsen points out that the purpose of life and the destination of humankind are more than bread or physical needs. The Word that comes out of God’s mouth creates, sustains, and gives life, purpose and direction. What a timely reminder for all of us who live in a culture where material things are important, where the economy and stock market have become all important, where it is all about consuming, about accumulation and hoarding.
We are reminded that things are not able to restore relationships. Stock portfolios and the economy do not have the power to counter our deepest alienation. God’s Word, written down, and God’s Word, who became flesh, restores relationships, it gives full, meaningful and complete life!
The second temptation is more challenging. Up on the temple roof the devil says: “Throw yourself down – the angels will protect you.” The devil again wanted to drive a wedge between Jesus and God. Once again Jesus responds from Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test!”
The third temptation is the climax and most dangerous one. The devil shows Jesus the world and their splendor: “All this I give to you – if you fall down and worship me.” The devil offers Jesus worldly power. The devil pretends that he is the one with power and he can give, as he wants. As one commentator states: “The devil is now presented not as a counter voice but as an alternative god.”
And at the root of this temptation we find the greatest temptation for the church of Christ today: Power.
In 1880 Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher wrote a novel called: The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor argues that, “the church needs power to better do the work of Christ. The goal justifies the means.” Machiavelli said the same in his book, The Prince: “the end justifies the means”.
Power is the temptation. Power is so attractive that many, including the church, would say anything and do everything to get it. Even the Church would rationalize and would justify her efforts to get power – whether it is political, financial or other kinds of power. And in the process she accepts the tempter’s false claim that he is an alternative god. The same author in The Brothers Karamazov gives a stern warning: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love. …”
In Roscoe, William Kennedy’s book on Albany politics in the 40’s Roscoe cynically says: “Power is based in the deep comprehension and perverse love of deception, especially self-deception, and any man who seeks power through truth is either a fool or a loser.”
Jesus rejects this approach to life! In his answer to the devil Jesus cuts through the pretend and gets to the heart of this temptation: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Jesus refuses the devil who offers power, he stays true to his calling as the Messiah, the Son of God, and he remains obedient.
But how easy it is for us to forget these words: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Now, I don’t want to pretend that any person of faith would knowingly and willingly worship anyone or anything else. We would all say that we love the Lord our God and we would serve only him.
But the unsettling mystery is that the devil or evil is very deceptive and presents all kinds of alliances and objects of worship to us in such a way that we are at times not even aware that they have taken the place of God in our lives. The history of humankind is filled with examples of objects of worship replacing the one and only God: Images, money, health, race, nation, ethnicity, fame, lust, ideology, political party are a few but there as of course many more!
During this time of Lent we have to be mindful of the dangers of these temptations.
Let me close with a reminder that Adam and Eve could not resist the temptation and that their disobedience affected all of God’s creation. It changed the good creation, replacing it with struggles, suffering and adversity. Jesus on the other hand was obedient – even to death!
Now, remember that Jesus was tempted after his baptism when the Spirit led him into the desert. We are baptized too. The meaning of our baptism is this: We died in Christ and we were raised with him. With his obedience to death and his resurrection he fixed our fallen human condition. He restored our relationships! His person and work enable us to share in his grace, his love and yes, eternal life. The same Spirit who guided Him now also guides us so that we, out of immense gratitude for Jesus’ obedience, can be strong to resist temptations that may lure us away from “worshipping the Lord our God and serve only him.” Amen.