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Readings: 1st Sunday of Lent

28 February 2014


Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

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 history.

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 intentions.

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 14.17).

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 blood
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.


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