Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday 9 March 2014 Lent 1

Theme(s): Facing temptation / Prayer and Fasting / Confronting sin through Christ / Study God's Word to resist the Devil

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)


Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.


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


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Some controversy attends the story popularly known as 'the Fall' because, in an age of evolutionary understanding of the history of life, it appears incredible that Christians could subscribe to a view which seemingly requires us to believe that no death occurred in nature after Creation until the Fall. Further, the way the story of the Fall is told, it can be read as a story which contributes to the subjection of women to men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12-15). Neither space nor time permit an extensive reflection on such controversies here - probably sermons this Sunday do not permit that either, limited as most preachers are by time! So the following approach to this passage acknowledges such controversies while largely sidestepping them ...

In the big story of the world, told through Scripture in terms of the world's relationship to God the Creator, the story of the Fall marks and acknowledges a very simple fact about human life: we sin, we stuff up, we get things wrong, we fail, we let God, others and ourselves down. From sin flows pain and sorrow. Every day in the news media we are confronted with evidence of this simple fact. In Scripture this simple fact of life closes the door to the first part of the story, the Creator creates the world, and opens the door to the next part, the Creator becomes the Redeemer to redeem the world, to undo the effects of the Fall (forgive sin, heal pain, turn sorrow into joy) and to restore the world to what God intended the created world to be, a place of perfect fellowship between God and humanity and between people.

To retell this part of the story today, the first Sunday in Lent, is to acknowledge that we (once again) journey with Jesus to the cross which is the culminating action of God the Redeemer, and beyond the cross to the resurrection which is the inaugurating action of God the Healer of fallen Creation.

Psalm 32

If we take seriously the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross because of our wrong-doing, then we will take seriously our sinful, fallen nature - our part in, our responsibility for the state of the world. When we acknowledge our sin we cannot be seriously concerned about that if we do nothing. To do something about our sin is to be penitent, active in repentance in which our lives turn from sin to holy living. Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm which captures neatly the stress of continuing in unrepented sin while charting the happy state of those without imputed sin, who live lives attuned to God's ways.

Romans 5:12-19

One way to understand this passage is to understand it as Paul's account of what I have tried to express above in my comments about the Genesis reading for today: the big picture story of the world in relationship to God is creation, fall, redemption. In Paul's account he draws in the symmetry of the fall through 'one man' (12), specifically named as 'Adam' (14), and salvation through 'the one man, Jesus Christ' (15, 17). He also names two parts to the period in which 'death exercised dominion' following the fall (14), the period from Adam to Moses when there was sin without the law (13-14) and the period from Moses to Jesus Christ when sin continued, with the law (given by God to Israel via Moses) intended to constrain sin actually having 'the result that the trespass multiplied' (20).

(Note, as an aside, that Paul writing in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 can focus on the role Eve played in the dynamics between the snake, Adam and Eve, but here subsumes Adam and Eve as a couple into 'one man', presumably to make the symmetry re Jesus Christ: through one man came sin, through one man came salvation.)

In the battle between good and evil, between life and death, between sin and righteousness, Paul here states clearly, carefully (i.e. logically) and conclusively (i.e. no Christian need be in any doubt about the matter) that goodness, life and righteousness are the winners. Sin abounds, but grace abounds more (15, 20). Death exercised dominion but now righteousness and life (17) as well as grace exercise dominion (21).

All this comes about because 'at the right time Christ died for the ungodly' (6). So we journey through Lent with Jesus to the cross, not because we celebrate suffering and sacrifice for its own sake, but because through the cross comes life.

Matthew 4:1-11

Lent as a period of 40 days relates precisely to this period of Jesus' own life (2). But that period itself is a mimicry of Israel's 40 years in the wilderness as it journeyed towards the Promised Land. In both periods, 40 days / 40 years, there were tests and tribulations. In these verses in Matthew we learn of Jesus' own tests and tribulations. First, the general test of fasting and ending up in a famished state (2). Then, secondly, the particular tribulations at the hands of the tempter (who appears to intentionally test or tempt Jesus when he is weak rather than strong, verses 3-10).

Clearly Jesus is tempted on matters concerning his messiahship, here focused in Matthew's telling on his title and status as 'the Son of God' (3, 6). What better way to be acclaimed as Messiah than through a miracle concerning food or a dramatic rescue which fulfilled ancient prophecy (3-7). Jesus is resolute, so the tempter a.k.a the devil (5) or Satan (10) tries a third and final time to tempt Jesus to submit to his rather than to God's authority. In this third temptation Jesus is offered, literally, the world (8-11). Not just Israel would be his domain.

The fact that Jesus rebuts and rejects these temptations shows us that his messiahship will not be expressed in a worldly way (courting popularity, demonstrating powerfulness).

Apart from that lesson, what might Christian disciples learn from the example of their Teacher?

An important observation is that Jesus rejects the voice of the devil with the words of God: 'it is written' (4, 7, 10). Indeed one of the citations is a citation about the words of God, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (4).

The power to live a holy life draws on the power of God's written Word in Scripture. Knowledge of the truth counters the lies and deceptions of the devil. Obedience to God's laws gives life which obedience to the devil's lures would not.

If Lent is a period for fasting, it is also a period for study of God's Word.

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