Lent 1A

March 03, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 4:1-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 32

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 5:12-19

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    In 1859, Charles Darwin published his monumental book, The Origin of Species. It was a world shaking book, because it gave a different account, an entirely natural explanation, of the origin of life’s diverse forms on this planet. People cared deeply about it, and still do, because we human beings want to know where we came from, how things got to be this way. Origins matter to us. That’s why scientists dig in old rocks for fossils, adopted children dig into court records to find their biological families, the grown children of immigrants make trips back to the old country to see where their great grandparents lived, and little children love to hear stories about how they were born.

    We care deeply about our origins because we cannot thrive as human beings if we’re cut off from our roots. That’s why this complicated portion of Scripture is such a treasure; it explains not the origin of species, but the origin of sin, that ugly deadly flaw in human nature that has ruined everything. Here Paul links the bad old story of Adam with the good new story of Jesus, interweaving the two in a way that resembles the double helix if a human DNA molecule.

    The story of the human race, says Paul, is the story of descent or, more accurately, of a great fall that changed everything. It began with humanity, represented by Adam and the unmentioned Eve, sitting on the throne of this world. Created in God’s own image, the human race was given the responsibility of having dominion over this planet, of caring for it as God cared for them. That’s what human beings are, royal beings destined to rule in God’s place. That’s the origin of this species.

    Instead, they decided to push God out of his place and take his throne. And that, says Paul, was the origin of all that is wrong with this world. “Sin entered the world through one man,” says Paul, “and death through sin.” When he stepped off his own throne and reached for God’s, that one act of disobedience resulted in a fall that brought death into the world. By stepping over the boundary that separated God from man, Adam fell into the abyss of the death God had warned him about. “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” And he did. “Through one man sin came into the world, and death through sin….”

    The savvy preacher will recognize that this teaching is out of touch with modern North American life. The idea that something done by total strangers eons ago could directly affect us today seems unfair. Indeed, it seems contrary to the American spirit of democracy which says we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each generation (and every individual) can create its own life. Many Americans hold to some version of what Thomas Jefferson called “generational sovereignty,” the belief that each new generation should be able to start over from scratch liberated from the accumulated debts, laws, and obligations of the past generations. We all start with a clean slate. In such a climate, the story of original sin is not very popular.
    So this idea of Adam’s sin leading to our death will take some explaining. We might begin by pointing out that generational sovereignty simply isn’t true. The fact of the matter is that each generation is connected to the previous one; we all carry over all kinds of debts and problems from the previous generation. Indeed, what one of us does always affects others, because there is a corporate solidarity within the human race. John Donne expressed that idea in his classic words: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” In that sense, we are all in Adam.

    But Paul means more than that. He means that Adam was our representative, in the same way as Christ was. There’s an idea that every American and Canadian ought to grasp immediately. We live in a form of representative government, in which we are governed by others whom we have elected. My Michigan Senators Levin and Stabenow, for example, represent us Michiganders in Washington. What they do, they do on our behalf, and it will impact our lives.

    In a similar way, Adam represented us in Eden, as Christ represented us on Calvary. Of course, the biggest difference between my Senators and Adam is that I didn’t elect Adam; he was appointed our representative by God. And his action on our behalf affected more than the state of the nation and my own personal life. It affected all of humanity in every dimension of life. It ushered into human existence all the things that have ruined life for us.

    Here’s how Paul put it. “Sin entered the world through one man….” And “death [entered the world] through sin….” “In this way death came to all men, because all sinned….” And so from his time on, “death reigned….” Further, “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men.” There’s an unbroken chain of cause and effect in the story of original sin, a direct connection between Adam’s sin and our sin and our death and our condemnation.

    What does Paul mean by “death” here? The fact is that Adam did not die physically the moment he sinned, even though God seemed to say he would. And scientists, including many Christian scientists, say that physical death has always been part of human existence. It is simply built into our DNA. Well, quite apart the possibility that sin has dramatically changed our DNA, we can answer this question about death quite easily if we think of death as separation.

    Adam’s sin resulted in eternal death, the separation of humanity from God. This is the condemnation of which Paul speaks. Humanity’s relationship with God, once intimate, is now filled with fear and guilt, and we hide from the true God. Further, Adam’s sin resulted in the death of human love, the separation of Adam and Eve. Our relationship with the opposite sex, once intimate, is now filled with shame and accusation and mistrust. Adams’s sin also resulted in the death of harmony with nature. Our relationship with nature, once joyful and pleasant, is now characterized by pain and toil and abuse. Finally sin resulted in the death of internal unity. The inner life of humanity, once peaceful and integrated, is now full of guilt and fear and doubt. Becoming integrated, becoming our real selves is the painful task of every human being. Sin brought death in many ways.

    Of course, that is not the story of origins that most people believe today. In its place a new story of origins has arisen, that story told in The Origin of Species. If you think the Bible’s story of the origin of sin is a downer, recall the details on this one. This story begins not with a great God speaking the world into existence, but with a Big Bang that somehow resulted in a cosmic soup teeming with the basic ingredients of life. Over the course of billions of years, by purely natural causes life gradually evolved in an entirely random manner. This story says that things are the way they are not because human beings fell from their throne in a sinful reach to be God, but because human beings are gradually climbing out of the swamp and the jungle.

    From simple to complex, from inanimate to animate, from the sea to the land, from crawling to walking, from knuckle dragging unself-conscious brute to culture creating self aware brain, our species is on the rise to a more perfect species we cannot envision today, or perhaps to extinction. The reason for the fatal flaw that leads human beings to hate God and each other is simply that we haven’t evolved far enough yet. We still act like the animals we are, competing for survival in the jungle that is the world of nature. As to God, well, he is the invention of the human imagination, the product of the purely natural chemical and electrical processes that we are.

    If that story of origins is true, then life and death mean nothing. We came from an unexplained Bang, from mindless soup, from random selection, from purely natural processes. We have risen from nothingness and are evolving to nothingness and in between life is nothing but a combination of chemical and electrical reactions. We are caught in a cause and effect world in which we have no freedom, no dignity, no destiny except extinction. It’s no wonder the world is full of hopelessness and meaninglessness. According to this story, there is no hope, no meaning, no God. You can create your own hope, your own meaning, your own God, but ultimately all we are is dust in the cosmic wind that blows from nowhere to nowhere.

    Thank God for the story of Adam’s original sin, because, although it is gloomy, it reveals that life and death mean something. And thank God even more that the story of original sin is not the end of the story. Our double helix text explains that Adam’s story is the introduction to the greater story of Jesus. The Bible is full of examples of God appointing a new person to take up where the other left off—Joshua replaced Moses, David took Saul’s place, Elisha donned Elijah’s cloak. Who could be the new representative for the human race, the originator of a second humanity who would give us a second chance at life? In his love and grace, God appointed Jesus Christ to be the second Adam.

    Verse 18 is the summary verse. “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” There in brief form is the double helix of sin and grace. One man’s act of sin was replaced by one man’s act of righteousness. One man’s disobedience was undone by one man’s act of obedience. By one man’s sin many were made sinners. By one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Through one man’s sin death came into the world. Through one man’s obedience life has come back into the world.

    That’s all very complicated, but the simple words of verse 15 provide the key that unlocks this double helix. “But the gift is not like the trespass.” Jesus didn’t just undo all that Adam did; he didn’t merely reverse the fall; he doesn’t only give new life to all who will believe. He did more, so much more that Paul cannot say enough about it. He uses phrases like “how much more,” and “overflow” and “abundant provision.” At the end of this double helix, he signals the superiority of grace with that classic one word summary of grace, but. “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

    John Calvin has often been called a gloomy theologian, a sin theologian, because of his alleged emphasis on total depravity. But listen to his commentary on this passage. “Grace came to the help of mankind after sin had overwhelmed them and held them in its power. Paul teaches us that… grace… is poured out in so copious a flood…, as not only to overcome the flood of sin, but even to swallow it up.” Indeed, he said, God’s grace has abounded for the many so richly that the number of the saved is far larger than the number of the lost. “The grace procured by Christ belongs to a greater number than the condemnation contracted by the first man. If Adam’s fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefitting the many, since… Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.”

    That’s the Gospel in a nutshell—God’s grace is greater than all our sin. God will save his world, fill his house, and finally defeat the great enemy called death. So, although this double helix of sin and grace is hard to map and explain, we should take the time to do it. Knowing where we came from and where we’re going makes all the difference for the present moment.

    Illustration Idea

    In the movie “As Good As It Gets,” Jack Nicholson plays a desperately unhappy man whose obsessive-compulsive behavior and surly personality alienate him from everyone in his life. He won’t step on cracks, insists on the same table in the same restaurant with the same waitress, insults fellow diners, and generally belittles everyone in his apartment building. In one scene, he emerges from his psychiatrist’s office and glares at the people waiting for their appointments, people who are doing their best to make some progress with their assorted ills. He snarls, “What if this is as good as it gets? What if, no matter how hard you try, this is as good as your life will ever get?”

    He meant to hurt them, but it’s a good question. What if the best you can ever hope for is some slight improvement in your life? What if people are so locked into their life situation by their genes or their upbringing or their economic status or their racial origin that no amount of psychiatric help or educational advancement or governmental programs or individual gumption can ever significantly change their lives for the better? What if a life of sin and suffering and death is the ultimate and inevitable lot of every human being? What if this is as good as it gets?

    Well, says Paul, it’s not, because of what God’s grace has done in Jesus Christ.

    Paul’s insistence that sin and death came into the world through a man is a hard sell these days. The story of Orual in C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces may help as we preach this complicated and controversial text. Orual is the queen of the land of Glome, and she has a complaint against the gods. The gods have not only made Orual incredibly ugly, but also have taken away the only spot of beauty and love in her ugly, joyless life. They rob Orual of her beautiful sister, Psyche.

    The worst thing is that they take Psyche away in such a mysterious way that Orual is left wondering what really happened. She doesn’t know who is responsible for Psyche’s disappearance—the gods, a man, a beast, and if it was the gods, which god, and what he or she or it is like. That is her complaint against the gods: not only do they make her life miserable, but they won’t explain why, and they won‘t make themselves known to her.

    But after spending her whole life complaining against the gods, Orual discovers that the problem is herself. She is so self-centered that she couldn’t possibly understand the way of God with her. The misery of her life is caused not by the cruelty and carelessness of God, but by her own incredible selfishness. She couldn’t hear the answer of God or see God clearly until she died to herself. The key line in the book says, “How can God meet us face to face ‘til we have faces?”

    In that fantasy, Lewis is saying the same thing God says to the complaints of the human race throughout the Bible. Yes, the world is full of misery. Human life is a sad and mysterious thing. But that misery and sadness came into the world, not from God, but through a man.