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Sermon: Serpents, Sin & Salvation

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on March 9, 2014.
Lent I, Year A (RCL): Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a friend who often says, “If you’re going to sin, SIN BOLDLY!” The idea being that there is no little lie and there are no tiny sins. Lies are lies and sins are sins. But before we go too far, I feel compelled to begin with a question: Who initiated sin?

Let’s quickly recap today’s readings: In Genesis, human beings were formed with great care, to be in relationship with the Creator, creation, and one another. The serpent’s promise to the first couple that their eyes would be opened led, ironically, to the discovery only that they were naked.

In Romans, through Adam’s disobedience, humanity came under bondage to sin and death, from which we cannot free ourselves. In Christ’s obedient death, Paul states that God graciously showers on us the free gift of liberation and life.

And in Matthew, Jesus experiences anew the temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness. As the Son of God, he endures the testing of the Evil One.

So, again I ask you: Who initiated sin?

Well, in Genesis, it is the serpent who tempts the woman; and with Paul, it is Adam – in both of these human characters, we essentially recognize ourselves.

In the Garden account, it has been suggested this is not a fall from grace as much as it is rebellion against God. The desire for the tree of knowledge of good and evil is more about the human desire to be ‘like God.’ Our vulnerability as delicate human beings actually triggered the hubris, or our excessive pride or self-confidence, to push God aside, the Creator God, who is the very source of all life. This tree in the center of Eden is a fascinating symbol signifying the human tendency to replace God’s way with our own way, or to supplant God’s word with human knowledge. It is a mysterious tree that according to this Genesis story represents all that is wrong in humanity.

On the concept of sin in his book Christian Theology: An Introduction, Alister E. McGrath wrote that “Cyril of Jerusalem emphasized that there was no need for Adam or Eve to fall from this state of grace. It took place as a result of their decision to turn away from God to the material world. As a result, the image of God in human nature has been defaced and disfigured.”

Today’s gospel from Matthew tells us of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Matthew describes the devil as the tempter, the power that seeks to lure us away from God. In fact, it is the devil that much of Christian tradition has used to explain that talking serpent in Genesis 3. Artistic traditions have given us depictions of this primordial evil, mostly as a creature that is part human and part monster. If we look close enough, we may just see our very selves, not only in the humans in the story, but also in that creature.

The gospel reminds us also that Jesus, too, faced temptation. He was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine. Jesus knows of that which we face, day by day, sometimes hour by hour.

The three temptations are interesting in and of themselves. What’s so wrong with Jesus turning a few stones into bread? Where’s the sin in that, especially with so many who go hungry in this world?! What is Matthew really trying to tell us?

Perhaps it’s that we might be tempted to want to manipulate the world to our liking. That desire could grow into the serious sin of not caring about where our food comes from, or failing to be good stewards of the environment from which it grew. Do we care enough about those who farm our land and tend our animals to cultivate our sustenance that we begin making deliberate choices about which stores we shop to buy our provisions?

Jesus’ second temptation might cause us to consider our thinking about what we must have. Ownership does have its privileges. What in our manner of living comes before our consideration of God? If we’re honest, there are a great many things that can draw our eyes away from God – things that, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad, but things, such as ash that fell into our eyes, onto our faces or covered our clothing Wednesday. There are many small things we can allow to fester until we see little else.

Jesus’ forty-day fast becomes the basis of our Lenten pilgrimage. In the early church, Lent was a time of intense preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. This catechetical focus on the meaning of faith is at the heart of our Lenten journey toward the baptismal waters of Easter. Hungry for God’s mercy, we receive the bread of life to nourish us for the days ahead.

Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. In the Bible, forty is always “the time between,” the necessary span before the gracious conclusion. It is forty days or years that numbers the rain of Noah’s flood; Moses up on Mount Sinai; Israel wandering in the wilderness; the spies scouting out Canaan; Israel in the hands for the Philistines; the taunting of Goliath; the reign of Saul, David, and Solomon; Ezekiel lying on his right side; and Nineveh’s repentance, just to name a few.

In our baptismal liturgy, we join with the “no” of Jesus in the renunciations. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” When we declare our profession of faith, we join the “yes” of Jesus and his singular commitment to the kingdom of God. It’s as if all Satan’s “If you are the Son of God” statements in Matthew are shouted down by the great “I AM” statements in the Gospel according to John.

Those preparing for baptism at Easter and those already baptized would do well to reflect on these renunciations in the light of today’s gospel reading. Where do we recognize the powerful lure of evil, not only in personal choices but in systems and in “principalities and powers?” What might a Lenten discipline look like that includes turning from those things that defy and rebel against God and draw us away from God? What does turning back to God’s loving embrace look like?

Taking stock in the concept of ‘Praying shapes Believing,’ let’s consider what we do in our Liturgy: As followers of Jesus Christ, we respond to evil with the power of God’s Word. Each Sunday we acknowledge the lectionary readings as “the Word of the Lord.” For the gospel, we stand to offer “Glory” to Christ, whom we laud as the Word. In each baptism, we recall this Sunday’s gospel, joining the candidates for baptism to renounce the devil, all the forces that defy God, and all worldly powers that rebel against God. As God’s Spirit enters and fills us, we reject the spirit of evil that is both within and outside ourselves.

Christ knows the powers that try to divert our hearts, minds, bodies and souls away from God. The ashes of this past Wednesday reminded us of the same thing, but today we hear about God’s great love and steadfast presence; today we hear about the wonderful abundant provision of God. We are reminded even more that we abide safe and secure under the shadow of the Almighty. We, too, have been promised a land flowing with milk and honey.

There is much to be joyful for, even during this penitential season of Lent. Even bold Sin doesn’t have the last word. After all, St. Paul tells us, “Much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”