Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11Psalm 32
Really today’s readings leave us very little leeway – they almost force us to talk about temptation and sin, don’t they? From the serpent in the lush garden of Eden to the devil in the wilderness we cover the whole range of scenery and temptation.
Sin, temptation, evil and devil are not words we often use. Some would say that by choosing not to use them we are robbing ourselves of the true effects of the gospel, and that by failing to preach with that language I am depriving you of an adequate understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. Personally I find them to be words of limited usefulness because they have so often been used as bludgeons that many of us turn away from their intended meanings.
As we spend Lent preparing to renew our baptismal vows again during the Easter Vigil, we need to be aware that those vows include some of these uncomfortable terms. We will be asked “Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?” and “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
So this morning I’m going to take a closer look at these three readings and how they can help us understand sin and evil. The first reading is taken from the second Creation story. Here the man and woman are working in the garden but have been forbidden to eat the fruit of one tree. Once the snake had put the idea into her head, the woman saw ‘that tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’, so ‘she took of its fruit and ate.’ The result was not that she died but that she realized she was naked. Eating the fruit resulted in a loss of innocence, a loss of naïveté, and a development of consciousness. Prior to eating the fruit, the two humans had been living in total harmony with creation – they had little awareness of themselves apart from the garden and the other animals. Eating the fruit, which was an act of independence, led to self-awareness and separation from the rest of creation, symbolized in the subsequent expulsion from the garden.
And thus began the long journey which is at the heart of what it means to be human; the journey from separation to oneness; the journey from the undifferentiated oneness of the womb through separation back to relationship, interdependence and a new relationship with the divine. As T.S. Eliot put it so well in the Four Quartets,
We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.
Obviously this Garden of Eden story was told by the ancients to explain the situation in which they found themselves. That of separation from God and needing to find their way back. Sin is what separates from God and also what takes us from a state of unconscious oneness and puts us on the journey to conscious union.
The fact that it was a snake or serpent that is imagined to have tempted Eve and that it was she, not Adam, who first desired the fruit and eat some has been used as a way to suggest that women are more sinful than men. I’m not going to spend time on that this morning except to note that if we consider eating the fruit to be an important step in human evolution – that of becoming self- conscious – it may give us an idea that using our more feminine left brain can lead us forward in unexpected ways.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is often considered to be his most mature theological statement and in some ways his most complete. Sin, he says, referring back to the Garden of Eden story, came into the world through one man - Adam (he doesn’t mention Eve). In the same way the solution also came through one man – Jesus Christ. The law showed up sin by providing a standard against which sin could be seen but it was there before the law. The result of Adam’s sin was that all humans sin, and the result of Jesus’ life death and resurrection is that grace and life abound for all.
Sin here has become objectified. It has become something that exists in and of itself. Perhaps we can define sin as being that which has the propensity to separate us and keep us separated from God. Rules of behavior help us to identify sin but are ultimately unable to deal with the problem because we continue to sin. In fact the law helps to make us more self-conscious. It increases the action of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We cannot go back to primordial bliss of oneness with God and all creation. We are separate and left to ourselves we become more and more separate. That is true for us as a people and also for us as individuals. As we age we can open more and more to the experience of life with all its pain and all its joy or we can close down, becoming more shuttered and more separate. Only the life-giving grace of God helps us to become less and less separate, aware of our deep interconnection with each other, with the planet and with God.
Sin becomes trespass – crossing the boundary – because of the law. A fundamental aspect of Paul’s understanding of the gospel is that we are freed from the law and its results. The result of the law is more awareness of separation, when we are set free by Christ we are no longer bound to become more and more separated.
After Jesus was baptized he went into the desert or the wilderness for forty days. This is a reminder of the people of Israel wandering (and wondering) in the desert for forty years. While there he was tempted by the devil which brings to mind Adam and Eve being tempted in the original garden. Very different scenery, but the same issue!
Was the devil of this story an outer manifestation of evil or an inner voice? We don’t know, but it starts just as the serpent but sowing doubt. "Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" says the serpent. “If you are the Son of God…” says the devil. Doubt and desire. Fruit and bread. The very basics of human existence. It is good for us to desire food because without it we die, but as any overeater will attest that desire can quickly become a temptation.
Jesus was tempted because he was human. It is a universal human experience. There is within us the constant pull to “put No 1 first”, to live with only our own interests at heart, to indulge every desire and whim. Most of us as we mature find that tendency tempered by other human activity. It’s difficult to live in a committed relationship, it’s impossible to be a good parent without taming our own desires. The desire for close human interaction, the desire for civilization, the desire for a loved one’s well-being becomes greater than the desire to have what we want when we want it.
It is easy to imagine that being civilized is the same as being holy. I met an old friend in Trader Joe’s – obviously a little uncomfortable with my stiff collar, he said, ‘I don’t really need church, after all I lead a good life.’ That is perhaps the greatest temptation for us, to imagine that living a good life is enough and to forget our baptism.
In our baptism we were lifted out of this world and placed in the kingdom of God. This is not something we did or even that our parents did, but something that God did. We were placed firmly on the path to oneness with God. The grace of God entered our lives in a new way, but we still have free will. Just as Jesus could have turned the stones into bread so we can still put our own desires first.
The trick is knowing whether what we want is what God wants too. To assume that because I have desire it must be wrong is as foolish as to assume that everything I want must be what God wants. It is sin which clouds our judgment. As we consciously walk our spiritual path so the Holy Spirit works with us to fine tune our consciences so that we learn what draw us into oneness and what takes us away. As we confess our sin so we renew the miracle of our baptism again and again. We get a new start and we continue the journey towards wholeness.
It is within this context that we will be able to renew our Baptismal vows, saying with confidence “Yes, I reaffirm my renunciation of evil and renew my commitment to Jesus Christ?” and “I will persevere in resisting evil and whenever I fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”