Sermon: Sunday, February 10, 2008: First Sunday in Lent

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


In the name of Jesus, who walks with us in the cold and the lonely places of this world, who guides us from death to new life. Amen.

A friend of mine who is also a pastor recently shared with me a story about death. She was visiting with a man who had recently lost his wife, a man lost in overwhelming grief, filled with questions too big for easy answers.

“Why did God take her from me?” he asked my friend. “We have always led good lives. When I was a young man, and my friends were wasting their money on drinking and wild times I always came home to my wife. I stayed away from the dishonest deal. I served my country honorably. We were faithful to our church. We did everything that was expected of us. So why, after all that, did God take her away from me?”

This widower was in his early 90s, and his wife had been only two or three years younger. I don’t say that to disqualify his grief. Losing a partner, a spouse, at any age – after any length of time – is devastating. Questioning the goodness of God during times of deep pain is almost a given. But the story also reveals another facet of human life that is so pervasive, it almost becomes the background to every story in one way or another – and that is our denial of the reality of death.

This man, whose wife lived a very long life by any standard, lived his life believing in a story that goes something like this: we all know what is good, and what is not, and if we make the right decisions about how to live our lives we will be rewarded with more of the good and less of the evil – and death, being the least good thing imaginable, can be avoided in this way as well.

That story is a lie.

Here’s another story about death:

There once was a couple that had stumbled, through no merit of their own, into a really sweet living arrangement. All of their needs were being met without any effort on their part. Their benefactor was God, and God loved this couple very much and was very happy to provide for them – not because they were good people, or because they were productive citizens of the garden they lived in, but because they were God’s creations, and when God looked at them it was through the eyes of love. God was hoping things could stay that way, and so God asked for one thing from the couple. “Try to avoid thinking too much about good and evil. It will only confuse you. You’ll spend all your time trying to be good, worrying that you’re inherently evil. It’ll make you anxious. You’ll take it out on your neighbors. You’ll drive each other crazy. It’ll ruin this great thing we’ve got going where you just accept that I love you, and we leave it at that.”

But, asking the couple to stay away from questions of good and evil was like asking them to keep their hands out of the cookie jar… or, I suppose, like asking them to stay away from sweet, low-hanging fruit. Irresistible – these questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Along came a snake telling the same story my friend’s parishioner had bought into. The snake said, “you shall not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:4b-5)

That story is also a lie.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations of this story from Genesis. I’ve heard it used as a rationale for blaming women for sin, a sort of Judeo-Christian “Pandora’s Box,” since it’s Eve that gives the fruit of knowledge to Adam. I’ve heard it used to support sexual shame, since it ends with an awareness of nakedness. I’ve also heard folks use the story to ask about the wisdom of God, as in “what kind of God tells a couple of human beings not to do something and really expects them to be able to resist?” A sort of “curiosity killed the cat” approach to the story. I’ve even heard the story presented as an explanation about free will. But while the story undeniably involves an element of choice and temptation, ultimately I think it’s a story about death.

The serpent tells the couple a fundamental lie, actually a couple of fundamental lies – that go like this:

  • knowing the difference between good and evil will make you like God
  • and, being like God, you will never die.

Well, history seems to indicate pretty clearly that we have a very loose grip on good and evil. The things we think are good and set out to do with the best of intentions blow up in our face just about as often as they succeed – and worse, history is full of horrors and atrocities done in the name of the greater good. It is as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom 7:19) So, apple or no apple, we’d be hard pressed to prove that we know good from evil, and even harder pressed to demonstrate that knowing good from evil translates into being able to do what is right. We fall prey to the temptations of our human nature and, right or wrong, we seem to be bound to sin and unable to free ourselves. In that way the very story of our lives proves the serpent was lying. We neither know right from wrong, nor are we like God.

But even more backwards was the serpent’s suggestion, and our assumption, that being like God meant avoiding death.

We tend to treat death as the ultimate enemy. Doctors and nurses and parents and partners all make a career out of fighting off death for the ones they serve and the ones they love. Millions of dollars are spent not only looking for cures to the things that kill us, but in creating treatments and creams and procedures to conceal the fact that we are always getting older – from the moment we are born – and that we are, therefore, marching steadily towards our death.

Knowledge of our inevitable death makes us vulnerable. It leaves us feeling naked in the wilderness of a world filled with toxic foods and slippery truths. We try as best we can to cover ourselves up, to shield ourselves, from our mortality – but all our rationalizations and surgeries and stories and denials are about as effective as fig leaves when it comes to staving off death. We are not gods. We are not immortal.

But God, as it turns out, is not so interested in immortality either. In fact God, who loved us in the garden long before we became preoccupied with good and evil, is so madly in love with us that God follows us into the human condition – taking on flesh and blood and temptation in order to be where we are, to feel what we feel and to show us that the fear of death stands in the way of the fullness of life.

In a wilderness scene not too different from the Garden of Eden, Jesus is faced with a series of tempting propositions as well. There’s a lot that could be said, and has been, about the symbolism of the temptations the devil dangles before Jesus’ famished eyes – like Adam and Eve there is an offer of food and a promise of the potential to be like we imagine God to be, to be powerful and invulnerable. But Jesus, as the fullness of God here with us, knows that God’s power is hidden in weakness and vulnerability, and here at the beginning of his ministry – and the beginning of our season of Lent – God in Christ signals that there is more to life than avoiding death.

God in Christ comes to us in the frailty of our lives to show us that death cannot be avoided and will not be the final word. God uses the teaching ministry of Jesus to reveal the world as it is – a place full of temptations and lies, slippery morals and rationalizations. And, in Christ Jesus, God goes further. God shows us something about the power of truth-telling to change the world we live in. God shows us that simple acts of healing and reconciliation ripple outward, changing whole communities. In Christ Jesus, God shows us that the truth will draw people together, like the community of disciples who recognized the power of God’s message of hope, and wholeness, and new life
that lies beyond the cross.

There is a temptation for each of us to avoid the presence of death in our lives. For the most part we have become expert at doing just that until the reality of death is so present, so acute, so immovable and undeniable that we feel we may collapse in front of it. We cry out, like my friend’s parishioner, “why is God doing this to me?” In those moments, and throughout this season of Lent, let’s practice re-imagining that question just a bit. Let’s remember that God is not doing this to us, but that God is doing this with us, and for us. In Christ Jesus, God walks with us – not away from death – but through death to the new life that waits for us on the other side.


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