First Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
I On the way to Easter
We are on our way to Easter. On Easter morning we will say that ‘Christ is risen’. Easter is the moment when the undying and indestructible life that God makes itself apparent. God has set out to bring us into relationship first with himself and then with all other human beings – he will raise us. When we say ‘Christ is risen’ we are pointing to the coming resurrection of all creation in him and so we are pointing to our own resurrection, which is the resurrection that is of real interest to us.
The resurrection is what the Church has to tell the world about. We can prepare for this resurrection, by learning something about Easter, and Lent is this preparation and learning. But Lent is not for everyone. It is not for those who are not Christians, nor even for those who are young Christians. Lent is not for you until you have been through a few years of Christian discipleship. The fasting and privations of Lent are for the Church only, and even then only for the experienced. The discipline of Lent cross is the means and the inner working of the resurrection. But the cross is the advanced class, for the Church only. Easter is not about suffering and death and so we are to become ever more doleful as Easter approaches, for the passion and suffering of the Lord is not the message to the world, the resurrection. The passion is how Christ’s resurrection makes itself known to us, for now.
If talked about Easter only in terms of the passion and the cross it would be as though, having invited you as honoured guests into the household, we took you straight down into basement to show you the kitchen and boiler room, as you though were some ancillary staff or service personnel. We are the service personnel here – you are the honoured guests.
The resurrection is mediated to you through the old servants like me, who have acquired a few scars and bruises. The gospel we pass on to you is of the absolute faithfulness of God to us. God is interested in us: his concern for us is unfeigned, and his stake in us is real. He has decided to risk his own reputation on us and so to live or die as we live or die. He has decided to entirely to share our fortunes and not to let us go under. The unbroken and undying life which the Father and Son have together is the life for us. Theirs is the their life is open to us, so their life can be our life.
In these talks I am going to set out what we mean by saying ‘Christ is risen’. But having said that Lent is not for the public, but for the Church, I have to say that this really is Lent for me. Among the many things going on at Easter, I have to give an account of the Church to God. So for me, Lent is a preparation and a time to give things up.
I am going to say what the Church says. I cannot say less than this because only what the Church says, all of it, the whole package, is ultimately good and ultimately interesting. Instead My job is just to point out what the whole Christian community says, publicly, in its every act of worship, every Sunday, all year round. After all there is nothing more public and nothing more political than the act of Christian worship in we say ‘Christ is risen’.
When we say that ‘Christ has risen’, we mean that one of us has finally discovered what it is to be a human being. One of us has grown up and decided that all human beings are wonderful and commit himself to them, all of them, without limit. One of us has learned to love. In doing so he has upped the definition of humankind so to be human now means not just to be a member of this species, but to be in a free relationship of love with every member of it – it is others that complete our status as humans. Jesus Christ underwent the apprenticeship of all mankind and he treated it all as the apprenticeship of God. He was tested by us and he graduated from our rough and dismissive and despairing testing of him. He came through the process and so it turned out that there is one of us who holds all of us to be good, and he holds firm in this. We can continue to test him and we will see that he continues to hold good. He knows who we are, and is neither appalled, nor afraid, nor disengaged, but rather he is ready. He knows us and he regards us with faith and hope and love.
Our Lord has become the human who is entirely for all other humans. He does not care to live for this or that particular group of humankind, but with each of us and with all humankind without limit. He has learned to love, and he can and does love us. He is ready for us.
Now what all this means is spelled out to us slowly through the Christian year. Every time the Church meets it hears a set of readings. These lessons set out the entire apprenticeship in love that has been established and completed in Christ. And it is not just that something is a lesson in love. Would you like to learn to love, and so to become human and to learn just what a human may be?
Through the weeks of Lent, The readings become more pressing as they sum up all the generations of this apprenticeship undergone by the whole people of God, and they become still more urgent through Holy Week up to Easter morning. They spell out that resurrection means that we will be raised, through God, to one another, and that this process has already started.
In these Lent talks I want to show you that these passages that take us through Genesis and Exodus to Matthew and John.
II Creation for life with God
The reading for the first week of Lent comes from Genesis, chapters 2 and 3.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 1And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden’.
The first thing we are told is that man is made free. Freedom makes man the image of God, the counterpart of God. The way into this freedom is set out. God’s command to man is Be Free! Enjoy my freedom with me! The Lord invites us to have freedom together with him. Freedom is not freedom from something or other, because what we are freedom from is always given to us or imposed to us. If it were, every new circumstance would put us on the back foot, so we are always backing off and afraid of what is coming next and fear makes us unfree. Freedom for is real freedom. Freedom is accompanied by love.
Man is set in a place and given a set of responsibilities. Around him for his approval God has summoned a creation of light and dark and difference, spectacular, astounding, to be wondered at. Adam is told that he, Adam, is the chief wonder in this world and all other creatures are going to look to him and take their lead from him.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden????’ you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
The creature who can speak back, the free conversational creature – that is who we are to be. We are made the creature who hears one another, without limit.
Adam might well wonder – am I really called? Does God really mean me? All creation squirms there in an agony of anticipation. What will it become? What is called to? Can God, this voice, really turn creation in a partner in God’s work, who is able to speak back? The creature is unfree and God is free and freedom is the form of divinity, but God can enable the creature to become free.
Man is made for the society of God, that is, to be as free for God has God is free for him. The freedom given to man is the most basic good. It is non-negotiable. All attempts to negotiate himself a smaller freedom prove to be unsuccessful. To say the same thing again – man is made for life with God, and with all the other creatures of God, and freedom is an aspect of life with God. Man may wish for something less, but there is nothing less for him to have.
The Law given at the moment of man’s creation in the garden of Eden, in the image of the tree, was the means by which man could exercise his freedom. God did not provide the Law in order to take freedom away from man, but precisely in order to give him this freedom. Freedom is the law – that is the invitation and command – that God gives man
III Alternatives and questions
In the garden of Eden Adam sees two ways open to him, which are pictured as two trees. A tree is path together with consequences of following it – it is in fact a decision tree. They set out two directions and their possible outcomes. These two trees represent two ways open for us, and they represent two forms of human being that grow out of them. One is when God sets out a place for us, that he for him and us together – the place we call creation. But one of these trees is real and lasting, while the other is not. God judges what good is. Over the long term we can judge whether he is right.
If we take one tree, and man grows up into freedom and responsibility. If we opt for the other, man has to decide for himself what creation is for, and then we decide what good and bad are. We have to decide everything, and that means that we have already decided that there is no to decide whether we are right.
But the truth is that God makes creation for us, and so decides what is good. When God decides what good is, and we take it gladly, a world of responsibility opens up for us. When we take all creation we become responsible beings. When we are unwilling, creation will be left in the hands of us who have no idea how to handle it and it will therefore slowly begin to unravel. Then we have only what is good for me. Could it be perhaps that other people, on their own terms, are good for us, are the gift of the God for us? Could it be that they also have the freedom to judge us and that their judgment may also make us free?
Genesis tells us that there is a world that is good, and that what is good is bigger than we are, bigger than our imagination. It precedes us so we have to find out what it is and so to explore and investigate and marvel and make decisions that we may be obliged to correct. What we have to find out what it is good to do and how we may fit in with one another. Nothing is foreordained here: this simply means that we are not a pointless being. We don’t have to live only out of the resources we find inside our own heads. We may become out-turned beings, who find good all around us and who may be made glad by what they find are able to give thanks for it.
The Serpent and the question
We test God. Why not? We test everything, checking to see that it will do what we hope, We would try out anything we are not sure of, we test every relationship, and we check up even on friends. The serpent is all creation testing man to see whether he is up to the task he has been given to leading us all. The serpent is all creation in ecstasy of doubt and self-doubt, all creation in a dither in a paralysis. Can we do it? Can God do it? Can we let God do it?
Can God really deliver? This is the question that creation and man has about God. When we see him again, will he be the same? Will he be the same even when we are not, when we want to back out and revert to some much modest plan? If we go quiet, will he come after us? Who knows whether all our hesitancy and reluctance isn’t just a test to see whether God really loves us, enough to continue to call and even to come after us?
The snake vocalizes man’s question. He is the tester who puts the charge that this relationship is too ambitious, that it cannot work, that man will never become what God hopes for him. Satan puts the prosecution case: he represents the voice – of the auditor who says that this project is too risky, that is cannot be costed, that it has never been done before.
The serpent is just the power of this question or this doubt – can what God promises happen, can we really become the people who can look him in the eye and speak back and delight him. We doubt receive – that though he can undoubtedly do we will always somehow blow it). This question and doubt is here personified as the serpent. This is the question put by all creation – can this really happen? Can we speak back to God? And can we speak back one another, all of us to all others? Can we expect others to hear us and are we responsible to one another? Can we be free for all others – for freedom is a form of divinity.
The expectation is that there we will not be any mishaps or sin but that our sin will send us straight back to God for repair and release. Our psalm, psalm 32, tells us that we can pray and ask to be released from the consequences of this mishaps and to be given a new start – and so it will be. The only sin is delaying and hanging on to our sin until it becomes old, cold and hard, and everybody, particular we ourselves begin to believe that it is part of us and become outraged should anybody – like the Church – suggest that it is not part of us and that we should get rid of it. What is the truthfully unforgivable sin is coming between people AND God and so preventing their prayers and taking away their hope
Happy the one whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is covered. I acknowledged my sin to you and my iniquity I did not hide. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all the faithful make their prayers to you in time of trouble. Psalm 32
These two truths about man are sketched out for us by the apostle in terms of two men. Which of these two will turn out to be the ultimate truth of man? That though man will have crises of confidence, and fear that he will ultimately flunk it, it will turn out that he will really turn out to be ready for life with God, and life with God will really turn out to be worth having. It is as though every rehearsal is a disaster and the dress rehearsal goes worst of all, but when the moment comes – and man is face to face with God man goes through without a hitch. He does not forget any of those given to him. It is as though he has simply forgotten how to do things badly.
The project is vast the payoff is huge and the risks are correspondingly are great. One man – Adam – makes one little mistake and never gets around to asking for forgiveness and a new start, and creation starts to roll backwards, unraveling as it goes, thereby making everything more difficult. His act has turned into a little habit that becomes the source of forces that seem bigger than he himself.
Then along comes another man who in the right place at the right moment – it is all about timing – does the right thing. Just one thing, that halts the reverse and sends creation back the other way, gathering up all those dropped threads and knitting them together again.
Christ does the right thing. The temptation is Christ and Adam, like Jacob and the angel of the Lord, wrestling about what to do. Adam tries his strength against Christ and tries to get him to opt for something less. This is a schematic way of setting out the logic of this project of humankind. Will the project succeed or will it unravel? Will it do a Christ or an Adam? Will man flunk it? Or will man learn to love creation. Will the flunker or the lover turn out to be the truth?
Our next reading is from Matthew.
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.???’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you???, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.???’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.???’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.???’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4.1-11
There is a trial of strength, between the lover and the flunker, between the free man and the man who is afraid. All the questions and all the agonies of being human are balled up and allowed to speak and to make the accusation. They want to say that there must be an easier way to be human than this. They ask for an easier gospel? All the questions and temptations are summed up by these three options – the materialistic option, the option to throw yourself down and so quit, or the option of making yourself master of others. All of these are to give up on the vast ambition of God that we can share his life.
What does the apostle Paul make of this?
Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. Romans 5.12-19
This is the apostle Paul’s version of these stories. The first man does not, but the second man does, turn out of the be what God is looking for – the partner who can freely be with God and creation.
Freedom and communion
Man is ‘together’ in two senses. He is truly human when he together with God, and he is human man together with everything else that is not God, and so with all the other creatures, which means with the whole system of eco-systems of which creation is made up, but even more with all other human creatures, all the other creatures with freedom, this high-risk gift.
Man who decides that he want to be alone and therefore not with but without others, and so blinds out all other persons and their demands on him, exhausts and impoverishes himself.
The butterfly effect mean that we do not know whether our small acts will start a disintegration with which bring a collapse of nerve, or whether it will cause a cascade of new resolution and confidence. Our acts are not too small. What can one person do? That person can do what is right. The consequence may be out of all proportion – and that individual may never know.
Man is in relationship with God. God is there to pick up and finish whatever we cannot finish for ourselves. He forgives us. Man is a beginner, guileless and naïve. Happy the one whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is covered. Happy the one to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile (Psalm 32). Of course he may refuse this forgiveness and new relationship. He may turn out to be self-justifying, full of resentment and occasionally even vicious. Man should never be so convinced of his viciousness or his sin that he should think that he is anything but a beginner. Our sin is covered, so however crass our cock-ups, God is more powerful and can release us from them.
‘For just as by the one person’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5.19).
IV High view of man
What we have here in this is the most sophisticated account of man. In this very high view, man is the being who takes responsibility for other men and also for creation as whole. Together, the garden and temptation are summaries and trailers for all that is to follow in Lent and Easter. All subsequent Scripture readings will spell out aspects of this account, and aspects of the question of man that they set before us. In other words this is not a story about how it once was, but about how it may yet be. It is a flash-forward to what may or may not follow.
We are not free to be in this creation without God. We cannot finally be rid of him and get on with unraveling creation. God is the backstop, for he will in the last resort protect creation from us. There is good and because of it there is possibility of mankind. Without good there would be nothing good for man and thus there would be no mankind at all. Not only is there no creation without man but there is no man without creation. We are creatures of God and so are good. This truth is the foundation of everything and it cannot be subverted by your conviction that we are anything else but good. All your sin is just misplacing what is good: however vicious and convoluted it becomes, it is simply good put to the wrong purpose. Evil is good things put to the wrong purpose.
We do not become more ourselves by forging everything from scratch. This would turn ourselves a tyrant and a god, which is to make ourselves a threat to all other creatures. This is the option set out in the cosmologies of all other nations, like Babylon and Greece, to which Israel is responding with this Genesis account. And it is the account which we now dignify with the name postmodern. He is just man in a panic, in a huff and in a rage, hurling whatever he can find at anything he can see. We do not make our own good. We can turn the good to the bad to some degree, but all our bad does not make us more interesting, for what is bad is also just banal and boring.
When the bible says that they are naked it means that they are exposed and vulnerable. Indeed we are vulnerable to one another and so we ought to be, and all our efforts to reduce our vulnerability have the effect of making things worse rather than better. Every human and every encounter is a risk, that might go this way or might go that. So the last word on creation, and the chief creature, man, is that it is good (‘and God saw that it was good’), and even very good. We have the promise of God on this.
I said that beginning that I am just pointing out what the whole Christian Church says. It is the Christians who offer this very high view of man and we do so publicly every time we meet. We do not just say these things, but we sing them. In the course of our worship they tell that we do not have to construct ourselves, and so do not have to be little gods, and this is a huge relief. We are able to wonder at man and keep the question of our future open. As long as our society is peppered with Christians, it has people to point out that we do not have to construct ourselves. Instead we may receive one another from God and thank him for the identity we receive through Christ, and which is demonstrated in the Church. Love is what communion is. We have received the love of God, so we can afford to love one another. We do not need to be a society of retribution, for life is not a zero-sum game, for there is forgiveness and release and new starts.
I have told you that man is created for life with God. Love and freedom are more fundamental than man and precede him. But the whole world is given to man, and . This sets out the higher possible view of man as the creature who can freely answer back and can do so on behalf on all creation. So the Christian life is also a training or an apprenticeship. It is apprenticeship in being him, which is to say love. It is not clear at the outset. I understand that you may not see what there is to be – and to be suspicious about this being trite. Nonetheless every eucharist is a little Lent and Easter. Some of these Lent passages and all of these themes are reiterated with increasing intensity on Palm Sunday, through Holy Week and even more through the Easter vigil until all light and truth and resurrection and reality breaks in to make Easter morning, our Pascha. These lessons makes clear what is hidden as this wine and this bread, for what we are served in the eucharist is pure resurrection, pure life.
What is it we repent of in Lent? We repent of being an untaught Church, that substitutes activism for worship, and that assumes that it is more inclusive – and thus more righteous –than those who came before us. This cup we drink sometimes is bitter, because there is confession, repentance, even penance in the mix. We must dump at the altar our belief that we know better than the historic Church. Then in Lent we turn down the volume on the world, and in particular on its media, and for these few weeks opt out of the secular liturgy so we can prepare for our own. Then at Easter, we can be together in good array, in this place, stopping the traffic with our Palm Sunday songs – so our society can see a holy people and be glad.
The Church is made holy. It is made distinct from the world and in this dark way, it is a promise of the resurrection indeed, it is the sign that the resurrection is underway.