First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
On this first Sunday in Lent,
we begin with sin.
And not only do we begin with sin, but we begin with the beginning of sin.
In our first reading, we are introduced to The Fall,
the Biblical account of how sin entered into the world.
To hear the author of Genesis put it,
our first sin was to disobey one of the laws that God gave to man.
Now, in this brand new creation, God had already given several laws,
perhaps not formally formulated or laid down in written code,
but God put man in the garden of Eden
with the expressed responsibility to till the land and to keep it,
a form of law, a command, to care for the earth that God has just made.
And, too, God laid down one prohibition:
Man was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now, we can discuss or speculate or study why the Lord gave this prohibition to man,
and it surely could be interesting and enlightening to discuss,
but that “why” question is not ultimately the point of the story, I believe.
What we have here is a simple law: do not eat the fruit, and yet man eats the fruit anyway.
Humanity’s first violation of the law.
OK, actually, the woman eats the fruit, but I’m going to give her a pass. Why?
First, the command not to eat the fruit was told by God to the man,
and then later, after the command was given,
in the verses from the end of Genesis chapter 2 that are omitted from today’s reading,
woman was created.
Woman never heard the command from God,
because she hadn’t even been created when that law was given.
Anyway, when the serpent tricks the woman and she takes and eats the fruit,
the man is standing right there with her.
Poor Eve gets the bad reputation as the one who ate the forbidden fruit,
but the truth is that Adam was right there too, by her side (see Gen 3:6).
So, don’t let the whole man/woman thing get in the way of seeing this story
as a story of the fall of people,
the failure of humanity to accept the role God intends for it in creation.
And indeed, with the man and the woman,
and their shared disobedience –
not to mention the sneaky serpent who tricked them into eating the fruit
they were commanded not to eat –
it is clear that not just humanity, but creation itself,
is headed on a spiral of corruption, deceit, and brokenness.
And on this First Sunday in Lent, this is what we read. This is what we hear.
We begin with sin. The sin of the first creatures, the first people,
the sin that sets into motion all sin for all time for all places.
Wow. Welcome to Lent!
And of course, we could go on and on about the legacy of sin,
the legacy of the corruption, deceit, and brokenness of the created order.
Sure, I could stand up here and rail against the moral failures of society
and the greed of distant politicians or faceless corporate executives …
but that would be too easy.
I could lament the loss of a supposedly better time,
or rattle off statistics about poverty or domestic violence or hunger or …
But just think in your life, your personal life,
about those times when you’ve felt deep in the marrow of your bones
the power, the sting, the pain of sin that squeezes and maims you
as if you were a lemon or an orange smashed into a juicer,
draining the life out of you, leaving you like a lifeless shell to be discarded …
Think of that kind of sin,
the kind of sin that leaves you disregarded, as if tossed on the side of the road.
Or the kind of sin that leaves you feeling about two inches high,
such as when you are bullied or taunted in the hallway at school,
mocked because of your weight
or suffering unwanted sexual advances from your boss at work.
Or when you’re identified not by who you are but by your accent or immigration status,
the color of your skin or your religion or your gender
or marital status or sexual identity …
Yeah, that kind of sin. The kind of sin that really, really hurts, to the bone.
Personally, viscerally, heart-breakingly, soul-crushingly …
Oh God, that kind of sin just kills.
Yet, on this First Sunday in Lent, we hear some good news to us,
Good News that runs contrary to Lent’s guilt-inflicting reputation,
a well-earned reputation earned in part by our predecessors in the faith
who were perhaps a bit overzealous
in the Lent-as-season-of-self-examination department,
to the point where they turned Lent into a season of navel-gazing self-absorption,
in which Christians worried more about their own actions
to the neglect of our Lord’s solidarity with the suffering and
his redemptive work on the cross …
Oh, how our concern for our own works can become an idol and stumbling block to faith …
Yes, contrary to the guilt-inflicting reputation of Lent,
the church in its wisdom has seen it fit on this First Sunday in Lent
to give us a Second Reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans
that brings to us the sure and certain Good News
that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,
so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification for all.” (Rom 5:18)
What I love about these words is just how complete they are.
One man’s trespass, the sin of our ancestor Adam, led to condemnation for all –
introduced sin into the created world and really screwed things up for all people.
We know about the ways that sin can screw things up.
We just looked at that a moment ago.
We’ve all suffered it, in one way or another.
And yet Paul tells us here, that one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification for all –
Jesus’ efforts on the cross and in the empty grave invalidates the ultimate claim of sin;
his defeat of death by the glorious empty grave on Easter morning
is the first crack in the wall of sin and death,
a wall that we are blessed to see chip from time to time,
a wall that we know will crumbles to pieces
when our Lord returns to reign in love and peace in the Kingdom of God.
So we begin Lent with a harsh and honest look at the beginning of sin,
a tale of creation’s archetypes succumbing to the power of sin,
and passing on, as an inheritance, a legacy of sin to all creation.
Yet we begin, too, with a promise that just as the sin of one affected all,
so too does the righteousness and love and grace of one affect all,
imbue all with a promise, a hope, and a certainty of life eternal with our Lord.
But then we have temptation.
Sin in our first reading, redemption in the second, and then, in the Gospel, temptation.
The movement of our Bible readings today reflects, actually, our faith story, doesn’t it?
Born into a sinful, broken, messed up human nature ,
claimed by Christ in baptism and sealed with promise, grace, and mercy,
and then in the course of life tempted,
tempted to be our own gods or, at the least, to
accept other gods,
or at the least to resist the God
about whom we read in the pages of our holy scriptures,
the God who feeds us at this table,
the God whose voice booms from the heavens at our baptism.
Temptations surround us,
and threaten to tear apart whatever moral fiber we might have …
But, I believe that the biggest temptation we Christians have is not the temptation
to eat chocolate during Lent after we’ve just announced to our friends
that we were giving it up,
or the temptation to neglect our spiritual disciplines of daily prayer or scripture reading,
as real as those temptations are,
or even the much more serious temptations to break a marital vow or
to selfishly inflict harm on a neighbor,
but rather I think the biggest temptation we Christians face
is the temptation not to believe any of this,
the temptation to think that Paul had it all wrong
when he wrote in his letter to the Romans
that life and salvation comes to all through Jesus.
That is, the biggest temptation we Christians face is the temptation to believe the false doctrine
that Adam’s failure to abide by God’s one law about not eating a certain fruit somehow
is somehow greater than God’s love for us,
that the power of Adam’s sin is stronger than the power of God’s love.
That is our temptation,
to not believe any of this,
but to cling more tightly to our doctrines of sin
than to our doctrines of grace and love,
to seek out the speck or even the logs in our neighbor’s eye
rather than proclaim God’s deep and profound and overwhelming love for our neighbor,
a love that will certainly wash away whatever it is that is in her eyes.
Our temptation is to stay curved in to ourselves,
obsessed with discerning or demonstrating
our moral or emotional or theological standing
and thus too often unable to open up and bare it all
– our wounds, our brokenness, our hurt, our sin –
unable to bear it all for the One who died on the cross
to hold our hurt and to heal our wounds and to make us new.
Our temptation, this season, is to deny all that Christ did on the cross,
to deny his presence in the suffering of the world this day,
and to deny all that he promises yet to do for us.
This is our temptation – to trust sin more than we trust God.
Please, continue to keep those Lenten disciplines of abstinence from chocolate,
and those disciplines of prayer and Bible reading,
or whatever else you might be striving to do or not to do this Lent,
for the spiritual and moral strength that these disciplines can build
is necessary for the Christian life.
Yet, let us not allow Lent to simply be a season of self-flagellating navel-gazing,
but instead let it be a time to wash ourselves anew in the love and grace of God,
to cling anew to the promises of the cross and the empty grave,
promises that are made for us and for the whole world.
Let our focus be not on our sin but on God’s love,
not on our death but on the life God promises to us, and to all.
For sin and death, and our preoccupation with both, pale in comparison
to God’s promises of life and love for all.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
the Good News is that we were made in love and we are destined for life.
May this promise of life and love guide our journey and strengthen our disciplines
and fill us with hope and faith during this Lenten season.
Sermon was written after reading Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins (which I was able to purchase at my local bookstore several days before it was formally released). The argument and some of the tone of this sermon was clearly influenced by the book, which I recommend.