First Sunday in Lent
March 5 2017
Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Augustine of Hippo opens his Confessions – an autobiography of sorts – with a sentence that has echoed down the centuries: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
He tells us that he had sought rest in all the usual places: power and wealth, sex and status, simple-minded certainties and sophisticated philosophy. Nothing gave him satisfaction until he stumbled onto Christianity. Nothing gave him rest until he found God – or rather, until God found him.
For some of us, this discovery can take a lifetime. We are easily distracted. We are easily led astray. And what is true of us as individuals is true also of our communities and societies and the whole history of humanity.
This is, indeed, how the Christian story tells the history of humanity, if we know how to tell it right.
Our Genesis reading tells the first half of the story of the fall. Our reading from Romans picks up on this story in a way that would have familiar in first-century Judaism: in Adam, all die.
It’s possible to read this story naively. But then the questions multiply. Did sin really enter the world though one man and one woman? Was death really a stranger in the world until Adam and Eve went astray? In what sense did all of us sin when they did?
Better, I think, to read the story as story: to read it as a story of human sin, and to see Adam and Eve as all of us. For all of us go astray: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And our sinning is our own responsibility, but it is not done in splendid isolation. When we sin, we do this in a world full of sin, a world in which we are radically conditioned by the age-old history of sin.
The death of which the Genesis story speaks, the death of which Paul speaks, is, I suggest, not just the natural death inherent in God’s good creation. All men are mortal, said Aristotle; all women too. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, says Paul; to do that, we need to be transformed. Morning and evening, spring and fall, point God’s good creation beyond itself to a future and a fulfilment yet to come: new heavens and a new earth, a new creation.
The death with which these readings are concerned is the wrong kind of death. It is unnatural death. When Paul says “death”, think of Gaza, think of Syria, think of all the pointless wars that spread and multiply and surround us in the Middle East. Those who plunge us into such wars determine how we shall live and how we shall die; all too obviously, people here are not living very well, and they are not dying very well either.
In the passage we read this morning, Paul tells a version of the biblical story from Adam to Christ, in which the whole human race is as enslaved to sin and death as Israel was to Egypt. What Paul is doing here is generalizing. He is not spiritualizing; he is not suggesting that slavery to Pharaoh is one, political, kind of thing, while slavery to sin and death is something else entirely. One modern temptation is to put spirituality and politics over against each other, rather than seeing them as two sides of the same coin. But this is as foreign to Paul as it is to Jesus. Paul this morning is talking about a new exodus, in which the whole human race is being led from slavery to freedom. That happens both in the innermost recesses of our hearts and outwardly in the public life of our societies. If it does not happen in both, it does not happen at all.
Another way of telling the story is in terms of exile and return. In the sixth century before Christ, the Babylonian empire took Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and led the leading families of Judah away into captivity. Cyrus of Persia later gave them permission to return, and some of them did that.
Many Jews at the time of Jesus felt that the exile had not really ended. Israel was not free. The wrong people were running the Temple. The Torah was not being observed as it should be. Gentiles were not coming to Jerusalem to learn wisdom from the true God. In the form of the Roman empire, they were coming here instead to impose their wisdom, their will, their justice, their way of life. Israel was not yet redeemed.
A superficial version of this story painted Israel as the innocent victim and Rome as the guilty aggressor. All that was needed was to kick the Romans out. When the Jews of Palestine tried this, they went down to bloody disaster.
A more profound and more prophetic analysis argued that Israel – called by God as God’s solution to the world’s problem – was itself part of the problem. Israel too was composed of flawed human beings who, despite being given Torah and Temple, were themselves still sinners. This is Paul’s view – Israel too is in Adam; this is why Jews and gentiles alike need a messiah.
Matthew’s story this morning tells us of a messiah who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.
It too is an exodus story. Jesus has come through the waters of baptism, like Israel crossing the Red Sea. He now has to face, for forty days and forty nights, a testing similar to that of Israel in its forty years in the wilderness. He does not fail.
All the quotations in his tête-à-tête with Satan are taken from the story of Israel in the wilderness. This is more than superficial proof-texting. Here is Jesus living out the Bible story. Here, says that very Jewish Christian writer Matthew, is a true Israelite, doing what God always wanted Israel to do, bringing light to the world.
It is possible to read Matthew’s story naively. Better, perhaps, is to read it as a story-like version of the temptations that Jesus faced throughout the course of his life and work – faced, and met, and overcame.
All the way from the wilderness of Judea to the cross on Calvary, Jesus was tempted to turn aside from the way to which his baptism had committed him, the way of the servant that in a sinful world would lead him to suffering and death. Sometimes these temptations came through the well-meaning protests of his followers and friends; sometimes, through the mockery of those who had no cause to like him; sometimes, no doubt, as enticing whispers in his mind’s ear. But Jesus did not sin. He did not turn aside, either to the right or to the left. He embraced the way of the cross.
Our lives are not so simple. But our temptations too are fundamentally to turn aside from the way of the servant to which our baptism commits us. Our best remedy is the remedy pioneered by Jesus: to live lives shaped by the Bible story, and in this way to live our lives to God.
The American Presbyterian order for communion we shall use this morning speaks of us as being freed from slavery in Egypt and led into the promised land. Our organist and pianist Efrat Gehrlich is a messianic Jew. When we first used this order, she protested mildly: “Your people didn’t do that, my people did.” In one sense she is obviously right. This is a Jewish story. But it is a story that becomes the story of those of us who are gentiles when we are incorporated into Christ. In Romans chapters 9 to 11, Paul tries hard to say both of these things together, and we must try to do the same.
When the Oxford historian Diarmuid McCulloch gives his history of Christianity the subtitle, “The First Three Thousand Years”, he makes the same point. The first thousand years – the history of Israel and Judah – is obviously a Jewish history; but in Christ it becomes our history too.
I began with Augustine of Hippo. Let me end with Edwin Muir of the Orkneys. Muir, a prominent Scottish poet of the mid-twentieth century and something of a mystic, picks up Augustine’s point in the form an eight-line question that he calls “The Finder Found”:
Will you, sometime, who have sought so long and seek
Still in the slowly darkening hunting ground,
Catch sight some ordinary month or week
Of that strange quarry you scarcely thought you sought –
Yourself, the gatherer gathered, the finder found,
The buyer, who would buy all, in bounty bought –
And perch in pride in the princely hand, at home,
And there, the long hunt ended, rest and roam?
This is the question we wrestle with throughout our lives and throughout every Lent. Will we find God? Will God find us? And being found, being purchased at a great price, will we now rest and roam and live our lives to God?
Dear Lord and Father of mankind (CH4 485)
You are before me, Lord, you are behind (CH4 96: Psalm 139)
Forty days and forty nights (CH4 337)
Jesus, tempted in the desert (CH4 338)
Thou hidden Love of God (CH4 188)
Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford World Classics, 1998)
Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church USA (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993)
Diarmuid McCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)
C Wright Mills, “A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy” (1958) in The Politics of Truth : Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, Selected and introduced by John H Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Edwin Muir, “The Finder Found”
NT Wright, “Redemption from the New Perspective? Towards a Multi-Layered Pauline Theology of the Cross”, in Stephen T Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins eds, The Redemption (Oxford University Press, 2004)
NT Wright, “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections”, in The Interpreter’s Bible, volume X (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002)