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1st Sunday of Lent

02 March 2017

Genesis 2.15-17; Psalm 32; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

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Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Psalm 32; 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.

 

THE relationship that Paul sets up between Adam and Jesus Christ in explaining to the Roman Christians how it was that the death of one could have brought salvation and life to many is so intricately worked out that it requires several readings (Romans 5.12-19).

At its heart is the simpler narrative of the Fall (Genesis 3.1-14) which has its preview in Genesis 2.15-17. These three verses make it emphatically clear that the relation­ship of human beings to God is constituted in obedience.

The responsibility for the garden of Eden stands for a wholly good order, established in trust. Its dis­tortion into arduous labour as a re­­sult of disobedience is a picture of how the perfect order went wrong (Genesis 3.16-19). It takes a new order, and a new and perfectly obedient being, to set that right.

And yet this is not quite a straightforward matter of reversal in which Christ’s death is set against Adam’s sin, and the many to whom Adam’s sin spread, with its deathly effects, become righteous.

Paul has been discussing faith, using the example of Abraham. Here was someone who, against all logic, believed that at an advanced age he would become the father of many nations, because God had made him that promise. Abraham’s faith in that promise “was reckoned to him as righteousness”. Paul as­­sures his audience that they, as believers in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, will likewise have this faith reckoned to them (Romans 4.16-25).

Adam’s heirs had no choice about the effects of sin and death. Christ’s death is a “free gift” (Romans 5.15-17), but gifts can be refused. Those who accept the gift of righteousness in Christ, which comes through faith, are making a choice for grace and life (Romans 5.17-18). The gift is there for all.

A different paradigm appears in Matthew’s account of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. This time, it is Moses, leading the people of Israel to the promised land through the wilderness over a period of 40 years, who becomes the pattern for Jesus’s dealings with the Devil in the course of 40 days.

Moses prepares the people to inhabit the land that they are to be given by teaching them God’s com­mandments and setting out the consequences of disobedience (see especially Deuteronomy 6-8). That teaching provides a touchstone for Jesus, as he responds to the Devil’s challenges.

From Deuteronomy 8.3 he takes his answer to self-sufficiency: God’s word is the primary source of life, and God will provide whatever else is needed (Matthew 4.4). He turns to Deuteronomy 6.16 to remind the Devil not to test the Lord’s pro­tection and provision (Matthew 4.7). Finally, he rejects the Devil’s invitation to idolatry by pointing to Deuteronomy 6.13, with its instruc­tion that worship belongs exclus­ively to God (Matthew 4.10).

Dale Allison draws attention to the “spatial progression” in these trials, from ground level in the desert to the pinnacle of the Temple, and then to a high mountain. This is the moment of greatest dramatic tension, and also a link to the last mountain in this Gospel (Matthew 28.16-20).

On the first mountain, the Devil strives to make Jesus accept his authority. On the last, Jesus “is wor­shipped by others”, and “declares that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth” (The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, OUP, 2001).

We might wonder why the powerful and majestic figure in this final scene ever needed to quote words ascribed to Moses. Matthew’s point throughout his narrative is that Jesus is fulfilling the law, not rejecting it (Matthew 5.17). The Son of God willingly obeys the Father, from the wilderness to Gethsemane, where he accepts the cross (Matthew 26.42).

In obeying the Father, Jesus is also demonstrating perfect trust and dependence. This is the model that the collect encourages us to emulate. It derives partly from the collect composed for the First Sunday in Lent in the Prayer Book of 1549, which took a stand against the Sarum Missal’s offering for that day:

 

O God, who cleanse your Church by the yearly forty-day observance: grant to your servants that what they strive to obtain from you by fasting, they may continue to pursue through good works.

 

The new collect rejected any idea that human action could secure God’s fav-our. But the God who knows our weakness meets it not in condemnation, but holding out “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5.17).

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