(A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11)
Life is a gift. That’s what we need to get hold of—it’s all a gift. Our role is to accept the gift and to celebrate the gift and to live the gift. That’s all.
Hear now a joke:
An old Native chief sat in his hut on the reservation, smoking a ceremonial pipe and eyeing two U.S. government officials sent to interview him. "Chief Two Eagles," asked one official, "you have observed the white man for 90 years. You've seen his wars and his technological advances. You've seen his progress, and the damage he has done." The chief nodded in agreement. The official continued, "Considering all these events that you have witnessed, where did the white man go wrong?"
The chief stared at the officials for over a minute and then calmly replied: "When the white man came to this land, Indians were running it. No taxes! No debt! Plenty of buffalo. Plenty of beaver. Women did all the work. Medicine Man was free. Native men spent all day hunting and fishing."
Then the chief leaned back and smiled..... "Only the white man is dumb enough to think he could improve a system like that."
The land of the Native Americans was not the Garden of Eden. But our universal representatives Adam and Eve surely lived in peace. See them now at home in the Garden. They have work to do but it is good and productive and uncomplicated work. They have each other in every significant sense; they belong together and they are drawn together and they share together, all unencumbered by anxiety and fear and shame. They live, we can safely say, in the love and grace of God and so they live in the love and grace of each other. They even have the guidance of God’s Word to protect them from harm and shame. God said, “You can eat of all the trees in the Garden except this one,” which they should have heard with celebration, as in “What a marvelous and gracious God we have who lets us eat of every tree but one because he wants us to be safe!” but which they instead of course heard with resentment, as in “What a stingy and limiting God we have who won’t let us eat of that tree because he doesn’t want us to be wise!”
At least that’s what they started thinking as soon as the serpent put the idea into their heads. When tempted, they ate. Oh, Eve put up a little bit of a tussle while Adam put up no resistance at all, but they ate and seem to have eaten pretty quickly. What was the temptation? “When you eat, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” I don’t know exactly what it means to have your eyes opened and be like God. I do know that when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they realized that they were naked and they tried to cover themselves up. I believe that what that was all about was their realization of the other possibilities—the possibility that there could be guilt instead of grace, of conflict instead of peace, of brokenness instead of wholeness. And I believe that they knew that once they had crossed that Rubicon there was no going back. I believe that they knew that, henceforth and forevermore, they and all those who came after them, when left to their own devices and their own choice would choose as they had.
God already knew of that possibility. They didn’t have to know but they chose to know.
All of humanity has fallen prey to that temptation. We were prone to do so because we are human and because that’s what humans do. But we also chose to do so when we got the opportunity; most of us chose to do so the first opportunity we got.
How differently Jesus acted in the face of temptation. Think of the contrasts.
Adam and Eve approached their temptation well-fed; they were fat and happy. Yet, when confronted with the fruit, which they did not need, they ate. Jesus approached his temptation famished after a forty-day fast. Yet, when confronted with the temptation to turn the stones into bread that he did need, which he could have done, he refused.
Adam and Eve participated with the serpent in questioning the Word of God. The serpent asked, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” Eve entered into dialogue with the serpent about that and thereby entered into questioning God’s motivation behind his injunction. God’s injunction was born out of love but Eve let the serpent turn it into an unjust stricture. So they questioned God’s Word. Jesus, on the other hand, when confronted with temptation, relied on and took refuge in the Word of God. He trusted in that Word and quoted it at the devil as a part of his strategy of resistance.
Because he resisted and stayed true to who he was under God until his obedience finally landed him on the cross, we can be saved. And because of Jesus, things can be different for us.
Consider, then, another contrast.
Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden out of the grace and love of God. They were God’s children and they had his care and protection. When confronted by the serpent, they chose to believe that there was something better for them than being the beloved children of God. Maybe they got some of what they wanted, but along with it they found shame and anxiety and despair.
Jesus, on the other hand, had just heard the voice of God at his baptism affirm, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately came the tempter who said, “If you are the Son of God…” [I was led to this connection by Anna Florence Carter in Lectionary Homiletics (February/March 2008), p. 19]. The devil tried to raise doubts in Jesus’ mind as to whether or not he was really the Son of God. Maybe, the devil wanted Jesus to consider, he needed something more than being the beloved Son of God if he was going to make it in this old world. The road ahead for him, the one required of him by his Father, would be a hard one, and maybe he needed to choose a way other than the Father’s way. But Jesus would have none of it. He chose rather to rest in the fact that he was God’s beloved Son. He needed nothing more than that. He would try to seize no more than that. He would live in that.
We have a choice as to how we will live. We have all made Adam and Eve’s choice. We have all tried to make our own way and to be our own god. We have all known the shame and guilt that come from sin. We have all chosen to believe that we are less than God’s beloved children and that we thus need to seize something more for ourselves. Even we Christians can choose to keep living as the children of Adam and Eve rather than as the beloved children of God. We can choose to live in guilt and shame and despair. But we don’t have to do so.
Understand this: in Jesus Christ we have been set free. He has made new life and real life and abundant life and eternal life a reality for us. We really can live in that life. Why would we not choose…
… grace over guilt?
…assurance over doubt?
…life over death?
…joy over fear?
…belonging over longing?
…peace over anxiety?
Why would we not choose those ways? But we all too often do not.
Understand this, too: the serpent and Adam and Eve were wrong. Life is not expanded by going a way other than God’s way. Life is limited and truncated and drained by going a way other than God’s way.
We can make a very good case for saying that the testing that comes to us is a part of God’s plan. The forbidden tree and the serpent were both put in the Garden by God; they did not come from outside God’s creation. It was the Holy Spirit that compelled Jesus to go out into the wilderness where he was confronted by Satan. Perhaps Jesus had learned from experience, and hard experience at that, that we need to pray “lead us not into temptation.”
It may that we can’t grow up, that we can’t mature, that we can’t become fully what we are supposed to be, without such testing. What I want to guard us against, though, is the notion that somehow we need to make our own way apart from God if we are going to be who we are supposed to be. And there’s a lot of that kind of thinking out there.
Some of you will have heard of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first book in the series, The Golden Compass, was recently made into a movie. Some Christians have been alarmed by the books, which are aimed at adolescents, and by the movie because Pullman is an atheist who is an advocate for his position. Indeed, in the series, a “God” whom you would not recognize as the God we worship is killed and his “Church” is an institution that the heroes want to destroy. The reason that the destruction of the Church is the goal is that the Church stands in the way of real advance, of real inquiry, of real curiosity, and of real life. In ways that are way too complicated to get into here, Pullman’s “Church” keeps people from having the life they are meant to have. Real life, it seems, can only be found by going your own way and living this life for all it is worth through study and kindness and love.
Sometimes the Church—the real Church in our real world, now—does stand in the way. Sometimes we inappropriately try to limit inquiry and to inhibit science and—and this is much worse—the Church sometimes stands in the way of people reaching their full potential. How? By fostering the very things that Adam and Eve chose and that God does not want us to be encumbered by: guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety. Sometimes the Church causes us to grab hold of such things and look to them for life.
Such should not be. The witness of the Bible is that God wants us to have life and have it more abundantly. The witness of the Spirit is that God does not want our lives to be ruled by guilt; he wants them to be ruled by grace. God does not want our lives to be ruled by the limits of our own wisdom; he wants them to be ruled by his Word that is given for his glory and for our good.
Real life is not found when we live in fear and guilt and anxiety, which are the ways of death. Real life is found when we rest in God’s grace, when we rest in the fact that we are his beloved children. Real life is not found when we try to be our own god and try to go our own way apart from God. Real life is found when we rest in God’s Word, when we rest in the fact that he is always there for us, showing us the way.
What’s ruling your life? Is it death or is it life?