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February 26, 2023

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 21:15-17, 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,

grace and peace to you from the one

who does what we cannot. Amen

Well, Lent is here.

We began on Wednesday

with either a cross of ashes on our foreheads

or a coating of ice on the sidewalks and streets

reminding us of our mortality and fragility as humans.

As a congregation we have entered into a discipline of self-examination

with the help of the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church[1],

we will gather for worship and prayer

more often than usual,

and on Sundays our readings will explore

the major themes of a life of faith

through the stories of ancestors of the faith.

Throughout this season

we will explore faith and doubt

with Abraham and Nicodemus,

the difficulties of life in community

with Moses and the woman at the well,

dealing with hardships in life

with Samuel and the man born blind,

and hope when all hope seems lost

with Ezekiel, Mary, and Martha.

But before we get to all

that we start off with the biggest theme of all,

the one that undergirds all other discussions of faith,

the theme of sin and temptation

and God’s response in Jesus Christ.

We start with the very first ancestors in faith, Adam and Eve,

upon whose shoulders we have heaped

the blame for all the brokenness in the world.

God creates everything,

calls it good,

creates the first humans

to be partners with one another

and care for the rest of creation,

which is a pretty easy task

because other than naming creatures

it seems like God is going to do all the rest of the work,

providing all the food even for the humans.

But God says, ‘only one rule,

don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’

And the humans accept this

until the crafty serpent comes along

and tempts them, saying ‘you won’t die, you’ll actually be more like God’

so they eat

(over the years Eve has taken a lot of the blame for this, I’d just like to say that at least she thought about it, discussed the merits with the serpent, Adam just shoved the fruit in his mouth) anyway things go pretty much downhill from there,

kicked out of the garden

humans now have to work to produce their own food,

we even blame the pain of childbirth on these two,

and we’ve been living the repercussions of giving in to temptation ever since.

Of course if we think about it

for even a little bit

we will inevitably pause and say

‘hey wait a minute,

if God is all knowing,

which is a generally accepted fact about God,

why did God place the tree in the garden in the first place?

Didn’t God know that this would happen?

So isn’t God really the one to blame for evil in the world?”

going down this rabbit hole is very challenging,

there’s a whole area of study around it called Theodicy

the study of God and evil,

all around the question: “why?”

which leads to endless debate

and no really satisfying answers,

but the one answer that most people land on,

is: free will

Why all this?

Because God gave humans the ability to make choices

as author Madeline L’Engle puts it:

“The problem of pain, of war and the horror of war, of poverty and disease is always confronting us. But a God who allows no pain, no grief, also allows no choice. There is little unfairness in a colony of ants, but there is also little freedom…Jesus, too, had to make choices, and in the eyes of the world some of his choices were not only contrary to acceptable behavior, but were foolish in the extreme. He bucked authority by healing on the Sabbath; when he turned his steps towards Jerusalem he was making a choice which led him to Calvary. It is the ability to choose which makes us human”[2].

It is the ability to choose which makes us human,

and it seems like because we are human

our propensity is to frequently choose

what at the time seems like the best thing for ourselves

but which in turn alienates us from God and neighbor

and no matter how hard we try to resist

the temptation keeps coming back.

Luther put it this way: “The original sin in a man is like his beard, which, though shaved off today so that a man is very smooth around his mouth, yet grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as a man lives, such growth of the hair and the beard does not stop. But when the shovel beats the ground on his grave, it stops. Just so original sin remains in us and bestirs itself as long as we live, but we must resist it and always cut off its hair”[3]

Whether we understand sin

and why it’s in the world or not,

the truth of the matter is that the experience of life

shows sin and temptation relentlessly returning

and we are left resisting.

Of course resisting is easier said than done,

over the years God tried all sorts of ways

to help humans make good choices,

God gifted the chosen people with the law

to help teach them the best way to live with one another,

intending that once they learned

how to live in harmony with God and one another

that they would teach everyone else,

but the people found a way to use the law

to divide one from another,

or they just ignored it,

so God let them experience the consequences of their actions,

even as God still loved them,

God provided leaders, prophets and teachers

and things would go well for a little while

but then the choices would start to go awry again,

sin would reappear.

So finally God sent Jesus,

fully human and fully God,

to do what the rest of humanity could not,

live a life fully oriented toward God and neighbor without sin.

And Jesus starts by facing and resisting temptation.

We hear that immediately after Jesus is baptized

and affirmed at God’s beloved

the spirit leads him out into the wilderness

to be tempted by the devil,

fasting forty days and forty nights

Jesus is in a weakened state when then the devil comes to him.

And the devil tries the three things

that humans wrestle with the most: prosperity, testing God and power.

With the temptation of prosperity, material goods,

the devil is clever

offering something that is necessary, bread, food,

and yet Jesus responds ‘there’s more to life than the material’

then the devil tries to get Jesus to test God

and Jesus refuses.

Finally the devil tries something

that has always been alluring to humans,

power, control over others,

but of course this kind of power comes at the expense of relationship with God.

Jesus refuses and his ordeal is over.

At least for the moment,

he’ll still have to make choices all throughout his life

including the choice to go to Jerusalem and the cross,

which he does

and by doing so

breaks the cycle begun back in the garden.

At the beginning we have Adam,

at the end we have Jesus.

Paul in Romans,

makes the connection and unpacks the contrast and relationship,

and concludes. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

or in other words

if one man, Adam,

can mess everything thing up for everyone else,

then one man Jesus,

can make them right again

and he does

offering justification and life freely,

not because we deserve it

but because God is good,

God does what we are unable to do

It’s good news

And it’s about as difficult to understand

as the mess that made it necessary

but we don’t have to understand how it works,

we simply accept the free gift that is offered to us by trusting God.

And witness the new life that springs from this gift

It’s that simple,

of course we humans make it more complicated,

we have all kinds of questions

and we’ll get into them as we move through Lent

and as we go,

Jesus will go with us,

moving toward the cross and the empty tomb

and the redemption of God. Amen

[1] Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church. B&H Publishing Group, Nashville. 2014 [2] L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking On Water. Northpoint Press, New York. 1980, 25-26. [3] Plass, Ewald M. ed. What Luther Says. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis. 1994, 1302-1303.

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