March 5, 2017 – The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
On this first Sunday of Lent the themes of our scripture readings from Genesis and from the Gospel of Matthew are temptation and obedience. All of our lessons contrast the disobedience of Adam with the obedience of Jesus – the “second Adam,” as our opening hymn (“Praise to the holiest”) refers to him. In St. Paul’s view sin and death came into the world through Adam’s disobedience and through the righteousness (or obedience) of Jesus came justification and life for all.
The Bible is a long and complex collection of writings composed over approximately 1,200 to 1,400 years. Many kinds of writing are included – songs, poetry, history, myths, fables, parables, letters, sermons, theology, laws, narratives of witnessed events, and more. As we know, some Christians believe that everything in the Bible must be accepted as literally true. In our Anglican/Episcopal tradition, we do not take this view. In Bible study last month we discussed the idea, for instance, that we don’t have to believe the “fact” given in Genesis 5:27 that Methuselah, a descendent of Adam, lived 969 years!
Now let’s turn to the story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. In current Anglican theology and biblical interpretation this story of creation and fall is generally understood to be a myth and not literal truth. In other portions of the Bible – such as the writings of St. Paul – and in the theological writings of many Christian thinkers through the centuries, the literal truth of this portion of scripture is accepted, and this can be confusing. You may or may not believe in the literal truth of the story of the creation and fall, and I don’t want to tell you what you should think. But I do want to explain the position of our denomination – and, incidentally, my own position – that these are myths which convey truth without being literally true.
So what truth do we find in the Genesis account of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden? I think the myth conveys the truth that something is very wrong in the world – in the relationship between God and human beings, in the relationships among human beings, and in the suffering, pain, and death that human beings experience in life. Something is not as God intended. If we believe that God is all good and that God loves the world and the creatures God created, what went wrong? This is an ancient question and a modern one. The biblical stories attempt to answer this question.
In the portion of Genesis we heard this morning, God placed the first humans in the Garden of Eden with freedom to eat of every tree but one. God said, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” But the serpent tempted the woman by contradicting God: “You will not die.” The serpent went further by saying that her disobedience would, in fact, be rewarded: “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” The woman had a choice to make – to believe and trust the word of God or not. She chose to trust the serpent rather than God, so she ate and gave the fruit to her husband to eat also. The result for Adam and Eve was expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hard labor in farming, pain in childbirth, and death – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” said the Lord (Genesis 3:19).
Now we turn to Jesus and his temptation. Jesus was in the wilderness alone and famished with hunger after forty days of fasting. Then the tempter came to do his work. Jesus withstood temptation by trusting the teaching of God found in scripture. He answered each temptation with references to the Hebrew Bible. As he said when tempted to turn stones into bread, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus refused to disobey God’s teaching, and finally “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
Do we need to believe in the literal truth of the temptation story as it is recorded by Matthew? Not necessarily. Perhaps it wasn’t the devil orchestrating this scene in the wilderness. Perhaps what Matthew is describing is an inner battle. Being human, Jesus experienced the challenge of having God-given free will. Would he choose to obey his own needs and desires or would he obey God?
The truth conveyed in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is that Jesus rejected the temptation to use the power available to him in a manner contrary to the will of God – not to satisfy his physical hunger or to prove that he was special or to lord it over the people and powers of this world. We have further evidence of this truth in Jesus’ life. He used the power given to him by God for others – to heal, to feed the hungry, to rescue people in trouble. Once he was convinced that God’s will for him was the cross, Jesus would not use the power available to him even to save himself from death. As he said to his disciples when he was arrested, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54). From the beginning of his ministry until he died, Jesus trusted God’s word and God’s will. That was his choice.
In this morning’s reading in Genesis the woman was tempted by the serpent’s suggestion that if she ate the forbidden fruit, she would “be like God.” Here we see the temptation of the sin of pride. We often use the term “pride” in a positive way when we speak of being proud of ourselves or another person or a group of people for praise-worthy accomplishments. This type of pride can be paired with humility. For example, you may be proud of your success in school and at the same time be thankful for the gift of intelligence God gave you and your educational opportunities, not available to everyone in the world. Pride and humility together in a realistic view of life. This is not sin.
When we speak of the sin of pride, pride is the opposite of humility. We mean something like the ancient Greek idea of hubris: arrogance and self-importance that defies the gods and leads to nemesis, ruin and destruction. This kind of pride refers to a foolishly and irrationally corrupt sense of one’s personal value, status or accomplishments. St. Augustine described pride as “the love of one’s excellence.” The sin of pride is self-idolatry in the place of love for God. It results in contempt of others, in devaluing others in comparison to oneself, and often to self-righteousness.
The antidote to the sin of pride is humility. Let me read you a quotation from a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that you will find in your Lenten quotations for reflection: “It is important to point out that humility is not pretending you don’t have gifts. Sometimes we confuse humility with a false modesty that gives little glory to the One who has given us the gifts. Humility is the recognition that who you are is a gift from God and so helps you to sit reasonably loosely to this gift. This lessens the likelihood of arrogance. … If we truly exulted in our gifts, we would also celebrate the gifts of other people and the diversity of talents that God has given all of us.” (From “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time”).
During the weeks of Lent may we examine ourselves and our lives honestly in the light of God’s teaching and make choices to obey God rather than our “tempters,” whoever and whatever they may be, for the love of God and God’s good world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.