Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in
the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us
grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as
you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THERE are master storytellers at work in Genesis, along with a
brilliant editor, who do theology through story, presenting
universal truths using the story of one particular man. In Hebrew,
"Adam", "human", stands for humanity in general.
In this version of the creation story, dating from the tenth
century BC, God had done the backbreaking work of clearing stones
to plant a garden, and had provided irrigation (Genesis 2.5-10).
These were dream conditions for the farmers then cultivating the
stony hills around Jerusalem. The clear message of the story, told
in this way, was "God is good."
The man and woman's responsibility was to sustain and nurture
the life that God had carefully created, and eat absolutely
anything except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and
evil. Theologically, this story tells us that to be human is to
have freedom with responsibility. It is to be contingent: created
for goodness, for enjoyment, for relationship, for creative and
caring work; and to have permission to act in God's world, and to
be subject to restriction.
Then what happened? We hear a story of sly half-truths. Like
people ever since, the serpent, a crafty manipulator, used words to
devastating effect. Without lying directly, he distorted what God
had said, and cast doubts on God's trustworthiness. The rest is
Theologically, to be human is to have a basic innocence that
makes us vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation; to want what
is forbidden, to want pleasure, to rebel, to overstep boundaries
that are part of God's design for creation, to doubt God's good
Adam and Eve wanted wisdom, but got knowledge. Their actions
brought shame, devastating their relationships. While they did not
drop dead, they lost eternal life (Genesis 2.22-24).
This telling of primeval events becomes even more interesting
when we realise that the same themes were around in national life
at the time it was written down. The people had wanted a king.
Saul's hopeful beginning, sadly, proved transient, and David was
anointed. David, too, was a flawed character, but his heart was set
on God, who called him a man after God's heart. Pertinently, a wise
woman described him as able to discern good and evil (2 Samuel
Solomon succeeded David, and, offered any gift he wanted by God,
requested an understanding mind and the ability to discern between
good and evil, so that he could govern wisely (1 Kings 3.9). God's
response was the gift of very great wisdom, discernment, and
breadth of understanding.
This contemporary history, with kings' knowing (or not) good and
evil, is exactly what the Genesis story is about theologically.
Then humans did not ask God, but grabbed what they thought would
give them wisdom. Telling stories like this, which would ring bells
with people's experience, is a powerful way to do theology.
We find Paul in the middle of a complex argument, working with
the Genesis theme. Death is the end result of sin, the consequence
of human disobedience. It was cause and effect rather than crime
and punishment. Only after Moses could sin be breaking the law,
because there was no law to break until then.
Since Adam's disobedience, however, death affects everyone. Paul
expresses theologically what Genesis tells in story, and he goes on
to marvel that God's grace has acted through the second Adam,
Christ, the perfect man.
In the Gospel, Jesus, with all the human attributes identified
in the Genesis story barring sin, also faced temptation.
Significantly, he was led by the Spirit into this temptation, as,
in his humanity, God undid the human mess. Twice he was tempted to
presume on his divinity, and once to surrender it.
Cardinal Newman's hymn expresses this brilliantly:
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against their foe,
Should strive, and should prevail.
How did Jesus resist temptation? Where is the hope for us as we
follow him? Archbishop Michael Ramsey quoted the thought-provoking
observation by the Congregationalist theologian P. T. Forsyth that
Christ could be tempted because he loved; he could not sin because
he loved so deeply.
As we begin Lent, perhaps the question is not what we give up,
but how we can be open to learning to love more deeply.