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Sermons

Setting Things Right

March 13, 2011, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
First Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Genesis 2:15-17, 25, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11;

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Did the serpent lie to them or not? Certainly Adam and Eve did not immediately drop dead. Yet, because of their actions, death did appear on the scene and began its work in life. And yes, they were warned; God had been clear! But the serpent raised a new and intriguing idea. He promised that eating the forbidden fruit–note that nowhere is it ever called an apple!–would mean they would become like God: they would know good and evil. At that level, the serpent did not lie; they did know good and evil. But, it was a half-truth, which for the serpent’s purposes, was even better than a lie. He told them they would know good and evil, not that they would know good from evil. He failed to tell them they would frequently be unable to distinguish one from the other in order to make the right choices in life.

The serpent, by the way, offers up an interesting definition of God: the One who not only knows good from evil, but also can manage it in ways that are not destructive but life-giving. But let me not get ahead of myself. Until that fateful moment, God had managed good and evil, and life was a tranquil garden–to the Middle Eastern tribal people for which this was written, a paradise. The fruit seemed to them good for food, but eating it unleashed evil. It is why God said to leave it alone. But abhorring any limits to their desires, they ate, and suddenly their eyes were opened–they knew good and evil. And just as instantly, shame enters the story with its companion, guilt, as the two dive into the bushes looking for fig leaves. Paradise is lost, and the man and woman go from the bliss of naked innocence we see in young children, to the agony of naked shame we each dream about at one time or another.

But this story is about more than Adam and Eve; it is about us. Moments of disobedience unleash a cascade that has left the good world marred and out of sync ever after–paradise lost for all of us. Alas, the consequences of our own disobedience are rarely confined to ourselves alone.1 The world still reels under the effect of the fall. It is why what often seems a good thing–as the fruit appeared good for food and a delight to the eye–turns out to be disastrous, why good intentions so regularly go wrong. It is why desire so often leads into destructive, if not deadly behavior. That insider tip on a trade, that half-truth told to promote one’s self, the exaggeration on a curriculum vita, that quotation not footnoted to make others think it is your own, the invasion of a country to remove a dictator and establish a government like our own, while its people descend into the chaos of ancient tribal rivalry–all of that is explained by this first lesson.

And now a word of disclosure: it is a story, a fable. It is not the narration of an historical event at the beginning of time. These first eleven chapters of Genesis are what biblical scholars call “pre-history.”2 They are stories told to reach back to a time before historical consciousness, in order to answer universal questions about life: why should something as good as birth be so dangerous to woman? Why, given that potential for death, would she ever again put herself in that situation again?3 Why is it that a brother should rise up against a brother in hate so great that he would take his brother’s life?4 Why is domestic violence so extreme? Why do the necessities for life require such toil?5 Why should something as natural as nakedness cause us shame? This story, like the others in these first eleven chapters of Genesis, was not intended to be read as a literal account of historical events. It is too true to be read literally. It describes truths not only evident then, but now, dynamics that were a part of life when the story was first crafted, and dynamics that regularly display themselves in your life and mine today.

When Christian theologians talk about today’s lesson, we use symbolic language in much the same way the authors of those first eleven chapters of Genesis used it. Story, image and metaphor are employed to describe a reality too true to be reduced to literalisms. We speak of the fall,6 not simply Adam and Eve’s, but of all humanity falling out or away from the intimate fellowship with God for which we have been created. But we fell not simply from God, thereby distancing ourselves from the source of life, we fell into something–sin. Sin is bigger than actions. It is a condition, a world distanced from God that inevitably leads to death. This death is twofold. The first kind of death is that which comes at the end of this life. Separated from the source of life, life wears out beyond renewal. The second is more insidious and temporal–it gets up and walks around with us day-in and day-out. It includes the death of dreams, relationships, futures, hopes, and most of all, our spirits. The discipline of psychology calls it depression.

Another truth out of this story has to do with what happened to the image of God in which you and I were created. One dimension to the concept of being created in God’s image is our capacity for intimate life with God.7 In doubting God’s word, disbelieving God’s intentions, and striving to be Lord of our own lives, we have lost the capacity for constant contact with God. If you think I exaggerate, try thinking of nothing but God for just one minute, and see just how many seconds it takes for your mind to wander away. In our fall we have damaged and marred God’s image within us beyond our own repair.

The story is filled with these kinds of truth. It explains why obedience is so hard for us and why we rebel at the notion of an authority in our lives. It explains that foundational urge that drives us to attempt to be God’s equal and Lord over our own lives. It tells us how something as good as human life got so out of sync, and why you and I can resist everything but temptation. It explains why self-interest always tames idealism, why a country proud of its commitments to human rights descends into torture to ensure its security, and how a liberal President or a conservative Supreme Court Justice become pragmatic and move to the center. The list goes on.8 This fall is universal, so woven into the fabric of the cosmos that we speak of even creation as fallen. This story is acted out again and again, day-in and day-out, in the life of every man, woman or child that has ever inhabited this earth–save one! Sent to set things right, there is one who, under such temptation, did not fall into sin.

Sent from the heart of God to reveal God’s heart, Jesus came to close the distance between God and humanity and reclaim human hearts. Equal with God in all regards, Jesus did not strive to hold onto that likeness.9 He became one of us, human in all regards, in order to bridge the distance between the divine and the human, cover it, and neutralize sin’s power to ultimately destroy life. Becoming one of us, Jesus reveals what it means to be created in God’s image, and what true humanity looks like when lived in constant contact with and total orientation toward God and God’s service.

Jesus was not sheltered from hunger, immune from danger, or devoid of a desire for a life of meaning, purpose and accomplishment such as that you and I pursue on a daily basis. He was, after all, as the church confesses, like us in all things except sin.10 The temptation narrative today illustrates that. But in his hunger, when temptation would have set him on a path to use divine power for his own benefit, he resisted in order that he might become the bread of life. And when urged to prove his identity by demonstrating a divine connection that none other has, he revealed what is unique to a human life that trusts God in all things. And when offered all of the glory and power the kingdoms of this world have to give, he revealed the power and glory that comes from living into the only reign in life worthy of that name–God’s reign. Doing so, Jesus’ life became not only redemptive, but life-giving as well.11

Then, with a word, Jesus did something he was not asked to do. “Begone, Satan!” and he was. Jesus revealed his sovereignty over the powers of temptation, evil and death that have sought from the beginning to wrest human life from God in order to serve its own purposes. He spoke the word that, declared in his name, vests us with that same power in temptation. The next time you are caught in temptation’s grip, try it: “In Jesus’ name, Satan, begone!” See what happens.

Paul calls Jesus the New Adam. Where the first Adam failed, Jesus remained faithful. Where the first Adam’s failure released a fall that has taken hold of every life, Jesus’ faithfulness brought forth power for life in the midst of death and life that transcends the power of death. As in Adam’s disobedience, all were made sinners, so in Jesus’ obedience, righteousness has come forth to envelope all humanity and give new life. Jesus not only knew good from evil, he managed evil in a way that even its worst became redemptive and life-giving. He is the New Adam, father of a new humanity, the firstborn of God’s new creation.

As we enter into this season of Lent, let us remember that he not only came to set things right, but has done so. He calls us to become one with him, not only at this table, but in all of life, so that we may know his power for new life, and live as God’s new creation as we follow Jesus on God’s road to life.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!

 

  1. Ask the family of an alcoholic or drug addict; ask the relatives of those killed in a random act of violence; ask the children of parents who thought their divorce was only about the two of them.
  2. The word genesis means beginnings. Genesis is “The Book of Beginnings,” Israel’s recollection of the people at its beginnings, and filled with stories that will help them understand themselves and the world around them in light of the God who has called them into covenant.
  3. Genesis 3:16
  4. Genesis 4:1-8
  5. Genesis 3:17
  6. Judaism does not understand the story to have cosmic effects, and therefore does not have a theological concept of a “fall” or of a “fallen” creation. Therefore, much emphasis is placed in Judaism on Jews’ vocation to improve and perfect the world. It lies behind the vocational commitments of so many to the arts, sciences, medicine, law, and social service.
  7. Theologically, being created in the image of God (Imago Dei), has to do with God-given capacities unique to humankind: the capacity to give love as well as receive it–especially sacrificial love, to create, to act on behalf of, and be in an intimate, nurturing and life-meaning relationship with the One who made us. It has nothing to do with “looking like God.” As more than one theological wag has noted, “God created humankind in God’s image, and we very quickly returned the compliment!”
  8. It tells us why yesterday’s liberators become tomorrow’s dictators. It is why all Americans can agree that deficit budgets must end, but cannot agree on where the cuts need to be made. It is why sharing never comes easily or naturally, and few of us are willing to take second place. It starts manifesting itself at about the age of two, when we begin to utter the word “No!” So complete and universal is it among humanity that St. Augustine thought sin was transmitted sexually. It is not, though it does seem imbedded in our DNA.
  9. Philippians 2:5-8
  10. Hebrews 2:17; 4:15; as to “like us” in humanity, the confessional heritage begins in the Nicene 1.2 and Apostle’s Creed 2.2, and continues in the Scott’s Confession 3.06 3.08, the Second Helvetic Confession 5.078, the Westminster 6.159, and the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 10.2. As to Jesus being without sin, see Westminster 6.044, 6.045, 7.022, 7.147, 7.154. The numeric references indicate the sections of the creeds as they may be found in The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002).
  11. Reformed theology insists that the healings and other “miraculous” things Jesus did in his life and ministry came not from his divine nature and power, which he divested at his incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8), but from his true humanity living in perfect relationship with his Father.

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