February 26, 2023

The First Sunday in Lent

February 26, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

     From Psalm 32,  “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    Every once in a while someone asks, “What’s today’s sermon about?” And my typical response is, “It’s about sin and just you know, I’m “agin” it! Of course, this is usually said in jest and yet today, our scriptures lessons are about sin and so is the sermon. Such is a timely reminder that Lent is the traditional season of inward examination of our hearts and minds, our motives and values, so that we might repent of our wrongs, be reconciled to those whom we have hurt, and renew our commitment to follow Christ. So it is appropriate that on this First Sunday in Lent, our lessons waste no time in reminding us that while we might think highly of ourselves, all of us are sinners in need of God’s gracious forgiveness.

     Our reading from Genesis describes two kinds or types of sins: Sins of commission; those things we choose to do, as well as sins of omission; where we choose to say nothing or take no action. There is no room for excuses in the story of Adam and Eve: It’s clear we are accountable for disobedience and poor choices. Oh, we might try to blame someone else, but it’s no use: we are all guilty. Our Gospel lesson confronts us with the reality that sin can be subtle and often plays on our sense of confidence in our own abilities in an effort to lure us away from God. And in the midst of these texts, St. Paul offers hope - the gift of redemption - made possible through Jesus Christ, and the Psalmist affirms the inner peace and joy we experience when God says to us, “You - are - forgiven.”

    The Genesis story of the fall of humankind is one of my favorite Bible stories because it says so much about human nature. A serpent says that eating of the “Tree of Infinite Knowledge” (as it is literally called in Hebrew), will not cause Eve or Adam to die, but rather, open their eyes and they will become like God. So often, temptation plays upon that human desire to be more than we really are, or think ourselves more important and valued than others. Now, Eve takes the fruit and eats it. Her choice is a sin of commission – a conscious choosing on her part to disobey God. But Adam just stands there and says nothing. His decision to remain silent and not speak up is the greater sin – the sin of omission. He failed to act when he should have acted.

But there’s more to this story and, unfortunately, most of it was left out of our Lectionary Reading. So, let me fill in the gaps here because it is so telling about temptation and human nature. Genesis tells us that God visited the garden that evening, but Adam and Eve were nowhere to be found. That prompted God to call out, “Where are you?” And friends, that is the eternal question asked over and again throughout the Bible – God’s call “Where are you?” and God’s urging us to “come home.” Well, realizing they have been caught with their proverbial “hands in the cookie jar,” Adam and Eve try to deflect God’s attention away from their personal responsibility for their disobedience, their sin. When God asks, “Have you eaten from” that forbidden Tree, Eve says “the Serpent tricked me into eating.” “See God, it is not my fault!” Adam’s response is even more deflective. First he blames Eve and then he blames God. He says, “the woman that you (God) made for me, she gave me the fruit … and I ate it.” You know, ever since those days in Eden, human beings have tried to blame someone or something for their poor choices – or their failure to act. “I know I should have stood up and said something, but I didn’t want to offend anyone, I didn’t want to get involved.” And here is the most fascinating part of this story: Having been told that in eating the fruit they would become like God, by eating it they – and all humankind - became not like God but like the Serpent: shrewd and crafty, and often seeking ways to claim, “It’s not my fault.”

     In our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, temptation is revealed to be just as shrewd and crafty as the serpent, often feeding on our sense of identity, our relationships, and personal pride. Temptation suggests all sorts of reasons for taking the easier road, for giving in, for seeking our own happiness over the needs of others, or thinking ourselves more powerful than we really are.

The story of the temptation of Christ immediately follows Jesus’ baptism. And that timing is important because these stories are intrinsically tied to each other. Jesus’ baptism – just like our own baptism - identifies who he will be and what kind of ministry he will have. In baptism, Jesus chose to align himself with all humanity in our state of sin and alienation from God and each other. Jesus didn’t stand aloof as the Christ, but rather, he chose to identify with sinners – an identity he will maintain throughout his entire ministry. And remember, God responded to Jesus’ decision Jesus’ choice saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Matthew says that immediately following his baptism, this defining moment in Jesus’ life, he is tempted by the Devil. And oh what a revealing assortment of temptations now unfold.

The Devil immediately questions Jesus’ real identity. He taunts and dares him saying, “If you really are the Son of God, then do this.” Not only does he question Jesus’ identity, but twists it to tempt Jesus to use his relationship with God to take care of his own needs. “Come on, Jesus, it’s been forty days, you’re hungry. Turn these stones into bread.” Now, what’s wrong with turning stones into bread especially in a hungry world? If Jesus really is God, then why doesn’t he resolve world hunger? Many today wonder, “If God really is God, why doesn’t God do something about it?” The problem with turning stones into bread is that it misuses Jesus’ authority; it will make him a celebrity, a hero. It would be taking the easy way out because feeding the hungry is more than providing food for the moment. It is working to change the system so that all are fed each and every day. Well, Jesus didn’t fall for that one, so the Devil says, “Come on, throw yourself down.” This is a temptation to reckless presumption. Jesus allied himself with humanity in his baptism, but the Devil is saying, “Forget your baptism. You’re above human limitations.” How often we forget that we are limited in our abilities? We pride ourselves into thinking we can do everything and in the process risk burning ourselves out.

The Devil continues, “I’ll give you all these kingdoms.” Now, I think Jesus would be the best King ever, so why not give in? Because to do so would be a misuse of Jesus’ power. God’s way is not about authoritarian rule. It is about hearts and minds freely offered to God: it is about freely choosing God’s ways. It is about choosing to make a difference in how we relate to God and in every relationship.

     I find the Devil’s words echo the words of many in the Church today. Many seemingly good religious – and I’ll add – well-meaning religious people tend to twist scripture in their disagreements, or taunt and dare each other, or puff up themselves at the expense of others.. I grew up in a tradition where the Bible was a weapon: a means to threaten, exclude, and punish others. I know some of you experienced the same. Many are quick to say, “The Bible says this” when condemning something we might do and yet, slow to apply other portions of scripture that address their choices and lifestyles. Like the Devil and the serpent, we, too, can be shrewd and crafty and, in the process, distort God’s words of redemption and wholeness so that what should be words of life become hopeless messages of failure and death. That is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always a welcoming invitation to resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption; an invitation to a new way of life.

     Throughout his letter to the Church at Rome, St. Paul has been speaking about this new life made possible through Jesus Christ. Now, in this 5th chapter, he reminds us that just as our fall from grace came through the disobedience of one man: Adam, so, also, through the obedience of a different man, Jesus of Nazareth, God has said “Yes.” “YES!” to our redemption. We - and the whole world - can be at peace with God because of the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ who removes our transgressions, our sins, from us. We may be tempted to turn stones into bread; to try and do the impossible; to become kings of our own worlds and manipulate others, and sometimes we even yield to temptation. And yet, (thanks be to God) Paul says even then, we can always be restored to wholeness with God through the redemptive life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ if we will acknowledge our sins, repent of them, and recommit ourselves to walk in the ways of God and uphold the values of God.

     Our lessons on this First Sunday in Lent affirm that God is forever calling to the entire human race, “Where are you?” and assuring the penitent, “You are forgiven. That you are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son.” And yet, that grace-filled forgiveness will make no difference in how we think and live unless we choose to acknowledge, “I have sinned through my own fault,” repent, and recognize that it is through the obedience of Jesus Christ that we are forgiven and made righteous in the sight of God who promises, who chooses, to remember our sins no more! No wonder the Psalmist says, “Happy – HAPPY are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”

     Wonderful and encouraging words on this First Sunday in Lent! Now, may God teach us, and help us, to embrace them, ingest them, and more importantly, live them. Amen.