February 24, 2020
The Lent 1A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 4:1-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 32 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 5:12-19 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 9 (Lord’s Day 4)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Many of us have seen the bumper sticker, “Lead Me Not into Temptation: I Can Find It By Myself.” Cheeky humor aside, we know that God never actively leads us to sin and probably does not actively lead us to temptation (though this need not rule out God’s ability to test our faith). God is not the author of sin and is, therefore, not eager to trip us up where sin is concerned.
Our compassionate God is not typically tossing us into a locked closet with the devil and then waiting to see how we fare. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” we do so knowing up front that God is in the business of delivering us from evil and so is not luring us to sin.
Well and good. Except then you get to Matthew 4:1 where we read that no less than the very Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus was led into temptation. By the Spirit.
This is properly striking. But this contains hope for us, too. No, God does not lead us into temptation. Instead he delivers us from evil. But one of the main reasons we can be sure of this is precisely because on our behalf Jesus was led into temptation so as to ensure that we would never face just this ourselves.
Matthew’s gospel, particularly in these early chapters, is fairly drenched in Old Testament quotations. Almost everything is said to be the fulfillment of one prophecy or another. Writing for a Jewish reading audience, Matthew knew that those with eyes to see and ears to hear would discern that in this man Jesus, the history of Israel was being recapitulated. Having been called out of Egypt once upon a time (Matthew 2:15), Jesus is now enduring a wilderness period of trial and temptation.
But in every instance, where Israel failed, Jesus succeeds. He is the New Israel (and it would have escaped no one’s notice that each time Jesus parries one of the devil’s blows with a Scripture quotation, the verses that get quoted come from Deuteronomy, which was the charter for Israel’s saved life in the Promised Land). If “Deuteronomy” is, literally deuteros nomos, or “the law a second time,” then Jesus in the wilderness is Israel in the wilderness a second time, but this time Jesus succeeds where Israel blew it.
But even though God may not lead us to temptation in quite the same way that Jesus was placed in a perilous position, curiously enough the struggles Jesus endured remain common to us all. We’re still tempted by the quick fix, by the kind of instant gratification that will do an end-run on our need to trust God’s Word over the long haul. Indeed, isn’t there a best-selling book titled Your Best Life Now written by a pastor, no less? You have the feeling that the book wouldn’t sell nearly as well if its title were along the lines of Your Hard Life Now: Feasting on God’s Word in the Deserts of Life.
Similarly, we’re tempted to do silly things by which to test to see if God’s Word is true. We may not be tempted to throw ourselves off high buildings necessarily but we have been known to pray things like, “O God, if you love me and desire what’s best for me, give me this new job I want . . . help me get enough money to buy that cool car . . .” Trust in God’s Word is one thing, but once in a while we’d like to SEE God in action in ways that benefit us in some tangible way.
And in myriad ways we’re tempted to make the kingdoms of this world our own domains by taking shortcuts, engaging in cut-throat tactics, telling little lies (or big lies), working ourselves half to death, and so in all these ways essentially bowing the knee to the false gods of money, success, power, and prestige. If God won’t put us on the top of the heap, then we’ll get there on our own and through whatever is necessary to feather our own nest.
The Temptations of Jesus present a microcosm of what we all face. They also suggest how we can remain faithful to our God. And as preachers let’s never forget to preach grace right alongside of preaching the bad news of our sin and our proneness to temptation. For believers, grace always has the last word (especially in Lent!).
True, true, true. BUT . . . let’s also not forget that sometimes living lives of grace means living lives of suffering and self-denial.
Jesus was right to feast on God’s Word instead of the quick and easy words by which he could have turned stones into bread. But at the end of Temptation #1, he was still powerfully hungry.
Jesus was right to not put God to the test and just trust that God’s care for him was every bit as powerful as he claimed it to be. But at the end of Temptation #2, his faith remained vulnerable to doubt—God had not put in an appearance.
Jesus was right to refuse grabbing for the kingdoms of this world by worshiping that which must not be worshiped. But at the end of Temptation #3, Jesus remained on a path that would indeed lead him to become the Lord of this world’s kingdoms but that path led straight to a place called Golgotha.
It is precisely the fact that faithfulness can lead to suffering and deprivation that makes the devil’s temptations so powerfully alluring in the first place. It’s a perfectly vicious cycle. Our hope in Lent and at all times is to stick close to the Savior who has already promised in grace to stick close to us, even when we’re hungry, uncertain, and walking a desert path that leads to a cross.
One final note: The Synoptic Gospels all begin with Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness. This is how the ministry had to start: Jesus had to go to the desert, to the wilderness, to that biblical encapsulation of the chaos of evil that throughout the whole Bible just is the desert wastes. Jesus had to enter the place of death to begin making all things alive and new again. In the wilderness God built his highway to salvation because where else BUT the wilderness did that road to life need to begin?
But front-loading the Gospels with this full-court-press of temptations can lead many of us to conclude that when it came to being tempted by the devil, this was it for Jesus such that the devil never bothered him again. It’s a mistake to think that (and Luke at least told us as much when he includes the line that “the devil left him until a more opportune time.” Truth is, this was only the beginning of Jesus’ temptations, of Jesus’ being battered by Satan. In Lent we are right to follow Jesus to the cross and take sorrowful note of all his sufferings for us but let’s never forget that a big piece of those sufferings continued on a daily basis as the devil aimed all his evil artillery right at Jesus’ heart 24/7.
Of all the countless things we are right to thank Jesus for doing on our behalf, his enduring that barrage of demonic attacks and temptations should come in pretty high on the list of things for which we are grateful.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
As Frederick Dale Bruner notes in his Matthew commentary, this is really the first story about Jesus that we get in this gospel and it reveals that Jesus is deeply a man of Scripture. Again and again in the original Greek Jesus’ answer to the devil begins with but one word: GEGRAPTAI, “It is written.” To capture the punch in English perhaps we could picture Jesus shouting out again and again as his defeater of the devil, “Written!” Even when the devil quotes his own set of biblical verses, Jesus does not engage in hermeneutics or in some effort to reveal the bad exegesis of the devil in applying that passage in a certain way. Even there he lets Scripture interpret Scripture in a simple and straightforward way. It might be naïve to say that the answer to every temptation we could ever face would be the recitation of a well-chosen biblical text. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the answer to every temptation we could ever face is the recitation of texts that we also already INCARNATE in the ordinary run of our lives; texts that are as second nature to us as they so clearly were to Jesus.
Also, remember that the original Hebrew title for Deuteronomy (from which all of Jesus’ quotes to the devil come) was “These Are the Words . . .” Yes, these are the words that spell life. “Written!”
Well said, Jesus, well said!
The great German pastor, preacher, and theologian Helmut Thielicke once told a story in his book “How the World Began” that illustrates something about the devil’s tactics in temptation.
“The people never know the devil’s there, even though he has them by the throat,” says Mephistopheles in “Faust.” Recently I made an interesting experiment in this respect. My students performed volunteer services for several weeks in a camp for refugees and almost every day they put on a Punch-and-Judy show for the children. It was my job to play the devil. I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: You never need to wash your feet at night; you can stick your tongue out at anybody you want to; and be sure to drop banana peels on the street so people will slip on them. The pedagogical effects which I achieved in this role of the devil were enormous and generally recognized in the camp. The children suddenly stopped sticking out their tongues and they also washed their feet at night. They would have absolutely no truck with the devil. If they had had anything to say about it, the Fall would never have happened. But then, too, the serpent in paradise could not have been the kind of devil that I was. For then he would have had to play the game openly.”
But Thielicke goes on to point out that the real devil is for this very reason never so obvious as his fiery red, sulphur-voiced devil. The real devil always hides behind a clever mask and it is just then, without our even knowing what is happening as often as not, that he does his best work. (Quoted from Helmut Thielicke, “How the World Began,” Fortress Press 1961, p. 125).
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Author: Stan Mast
And so our Lenten journey begins. The text chosen by the RCL for this First Sunday of Lent remind us that the journey to salvation began at a tree where salvation became necessary and ended at a tree where salvation was accomplished. Genesis 3 shows us the disastrous human choice that brought death in all its forms into the world. Mark 4 shows us Jesus reversing the choice of the first humans so that death could be defeated. Romans 5:12-19 reveals the double helix interconnection of Adam’s sin and Christ’s salvation, while Psalm 32 picks up the theme of covering sin that is so prominent in both the Adam story and in the Christian gospel. What we have on this First Sunday of Lent is so rich that one hardly knows where to begin.
The natural choice for most preachers today will be the story of Christ’s temptation because it is the first step on the Via Dolorosa that will take him to the cross. But I encourage you to go back farther, back to the beginning of the Dolorosa (the sorrows), when a single act of disobedience shattered the Shalom of Eden.
Critics of this story (and of God) wonder why in the world God would place a choice so momentous before Adam and Eve. We aren’t told the answer in the story, so theologians have labored long and hard to imagine one. The answer that makes most sense to me is that, without a choice, there could be no genuine obedience, no real love, no meaningful trust. If you can’t chose, you are a robot, a computer, a machine programmed to obey, love, trust. God didn’t want that. God wanted a creature in his own image capable of a real relationship. That required a mind and a will, and a command that could be obeyed or disobeyed.
The verses from Genesis 2 show how egregiously God stacked the deck, how he tilted things so that Adam and Eve would make the right choice. They were given nearly universal permission to eat of every tree in the garden. Even the tree of life was not placed out of bounds, until sin broke Shalom and they were exiled from the garden so they wouldn’t eat of that tree (Genesis 3:22-23). Everything was permitted, except one thing—that tree, the one in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In a world full of generous permission, there was one simple prohibition. God even told them the dire consequences of violating that prohibition. How hard could it be to obey?
Very hard! Or to put it in the reverse, disobedience was very easy. All it took was a couple of clever lies and a no brainer decision. At least that’s how it looks from a distance. And maybe that’s the point—to show people living at a distance from this disaster how their world could have become such a disaster. Whether Genesis was written for Israel about to enter the Promised Land (and being urged to be obedient to God, or else) or for Israel in Exile (and wondering how such a horror could have happened), the point is that sin is always cleverly disguised and it is always a foolish and deadly choice.
The issue at the heart of the brief conversation between the serpent and Eve is, whose word are you going to believe—the word of a wild creature or the word of the Creator of heaven and earth? When you put it that way, it’s a no brainer. But of course that is not how the serpent put it. He/it very subtly challenged the word of the Creator. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” God has said the exact opposite, of course, but to ask the question was to sow the seed of doubt.
And to tempt Eve to defend God, to move from a place of simple obedience under God to a place of advocacy alongside God, thus assuming a different posture toward God. As the venerable Old Testament scholar Gerhard Van Rad put it, Adam and Eve stepped outside “the circle of obedience and judged God and his command from a neutral position. And man’s ancient folly is in thinking he can understand God better from his freely assumed standpoint and from his notion of God than he can if he would subject himself to [God’s] word.”
Of course, Eve isn’t thinking of anything like that. She is simply answering a leading question about God’s word. Eve answers, “God did say, ‘You must not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.” Note how Eve’s altered stance toward God has changed how she hears God; she is adding to God’s command. God never said anything about touching that tree.
The serpent recognizes her vulnerability, so he contradicts God’s word directly. “You will not surely die….” God is lying to you. His word is not true, so you don’t need to obey it or fear the consequences. Then the serpent attacks God himself, God’s character, God’s trustworthiness by challenging God’s motive in giving the one prohibition in Eve’s life. “For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
There you have it—the heart of the rebellion, the root of sin, the reason Adam and Eve and all of us chose to disobey. It all goes back to the diabolical attack on God’s motive. God doesn’t want us to flourish, God wants to hold us down, God doesn’t want to share all his blessing with us. God is selfish, a spoil sport, a denier of human happiness. God’s commands are all about restricting our potential.
This story reveals the choice at the heart of human life. Will you believe the word of the serpent or the word of God? Whom will you trust? Whom will you obey? The choice to believe the serpent’s word was easy, because the fruit on that tree “was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom….” So “she took some and she ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate it.”
Sin is attractive and obedience is hard. That’s the gospel truth in this text. But obedience is the key to life, while sin is the first step to death. That’s the gospel, too. Oh, it looks as though the serpent was telling the truth, because Adam and Eve did not fall dead when they took that first bite of sin. “You will not surely die… but you will become like God….”
But they did die– to themselves, to each other, to God, and to their environment. Before sin they were not self-conscious. They were naked and they didn’t know it. They were not embarrassed about their God given identity. But sin killed that innocent sense of self. So began the great cover up that makes us mysteries to ourselves.
And they covered up in the presence of each other. That soon resulted in accusations and blame. The one flesh-ness God intended for them was shattered by sin, and human community began to die. Indeed, physical death will shatter the family before too long because of competition and jealousy.
And they covered up in the presence of God. God still walked in their world, but they hid because they were now afraid. Unbroken, unmediated communion with God was dead, though God would give his life to restore it one day.
And humanity’s peaceful relationship with the beauty of creation died that day, as pain and toil, thorns and thistles entered human experience. At the end of this sad chapter, they were excluded from a perfect world in which they were destined to live forever. As the chapter ends, they are dead people walking away from their home and into a grave new world. “You will surely die.” And they surely did. When sin entered the world, so did death in all its forms. (Romans 5)
And they did not become like God. They were already like God because God created them in his image. But they couldn’t accept the limits of being mere image bearers. They wanted to know everything, as God did. But that wasn’t possible. Oh, they already knew good, because they knew God, but they didn’t know evil. And then, they did know. Oh, how they knew—not just intellectually, but experientially, intimately; indeed, the word “know” in the serpent’s speech is the word often used to describe sexual intimacy. They were now one flesh with evil.
Now they knew good and evil, but not as God does—from above, from outside, with complete purity. And they didn’t know everything God knew; how could they, being finite? What the serpent offered them was impossible, a fool’s errand. Rather than expanding their life, it killed them in all ways. Ever since, humans apart from the grace of God have been the living dead, “dead in sin” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2, walking with stumbling shambling gait like zombies in the movies.
So, why would anyone want to preach on this text? Where is the Good News here? Well, you could preach it simply to warn people about the deceitfulness and danger of sin, to help them understand how the world got to be such a mess, to call them to trust and obey God even when God’s word is being challenged everywhere. Those aren’t exactly Gospel themes, but they are very important things to know.
Where is the hope in this text? Because the RCL cuts off the reading at verse 7, we don’t get to see God in redemptive action, beginning with the plaintive question, “where are you?” The only way to preach Gospel from our brief reading is to connect it with Jesus’ temptation in Matthew, where we see Jesus undo what Adam and Eve did. Confronted with not one, but three temptations, Jesus resists and obeys because he trusts the Word of God, rather than the crafty words of the Tempter. The temptation of Jesus summarizes all that sin offers to the world—the cravings of the flesh, the lust of his eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:16). Jesus responds to each with the Word of the Lord and stays in the circle of obedience, centered on God. By so doing, he saves us from the sin of Adam and Eve which we continue to commit. (Romans 5:12-19)
Among all the trenchant things Bonhoeffer ever said, here’s one of the best. Commenting on Eve’s attempted defense of and then rejection of the word of God, he said, “Whenever man attacks the Word of God with the weapon of a principle or an idea of God, there he has become the lord of God.” And taking the position of being “the lord of God” is not tenable, not sustainable, not life producing. Death must result.
As I meditated on this familiar story, I recalled a scene from Homer’s famous work, The Odyssey, which recounts the mythical voyage of Odysseus and his men. It was a voyage filled with bizarre dangers, like a giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead. But perhaps the greatest danger came from the Sirens. The Sirens were irresistible women who got the attention of unwary sailors with their incredibly beautiful songs. By mesmerizing sailors with their song, the Sirens lured countless ships onto the reefs surrounding their island, where ships were wrecked and sailors killed by the wild surf and jagged rocks.
Odysseus knew about the Sirens, so as his ship approached their island, he plugged the ears of his crew with wax to keep them from hearing their deadly music. He, however, wanted to hear the Sirens’ songs, so he had himself lashed to the mast of his ship. When he heard the songs, he struggled with all his might to get free, even though he knew it meant certain death. But the ropes held and the wax worked, so he and his men escaped unharmed.
Adam and Eve were neither lashed to a mast, nor were there ears plugged with wax. So when the serpent sang his sweet soft song of freedom and fulfillment, they were lured to their death, and ours. Mesmerized by this sly and lovely song, they forgot the Word of God and sinned for the first time and promptly died the worst of all deaths.
As I mused on these words, an old Roberta Flack song popped into my mind, the one entitled, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
It was only a few short months ago that the Year C Lectionary assigned most of Psalm 32 as the Psalm Lection. Now here it is again assigned in its entirety for the First Sunday in Lent in the Year A Lectionary. Since I don’t have any new thoughts on this psalm since last Fall—and since maybe in Lent pastors will be more inclined to go with this penitential psalm than they were in November—I am simply re-posting my previous sermon starter:
Most of his friends had been hanged. But despite his central role in helping to construct Adolf Hitler’s Nazi nightmare, Albert Speer somehow managed to receive from the Nuremberg trials only a 20-year sentence at the Spandau Prison in Berlin. Not long after arriving in Spandau, Speer met with the prison chaplain. To the chaplain’s shock, Speer said, “I want to use my time in prison well. So what I want to ask you is: Would you help me become a different man?”
The chaplain was savvy enough to know that for Speer to have even a chance of becoming different, he would have to provide full disclosure of his past evils. Whether or not Speer succeeded in doing that is a matter of considerable debate among those who have studied Speer’s writings. Speer’s memoir Inside the Third Reich was praised for its candor when it was first published. But over time people began to see that in actuality Speer may have held back, failing to confess the full scope of his Nazi activities. In fact, Speer probably made use of that age-old trick whereby you acknowledge some truths as a way to distract people from noticing other things you’d rather not talk about.
He talked to avoid speaking.
He laid just enough on the table to keep people from noticing what he was hiding under the table. Alas, it is possible Speer himself was not aware he was doing this. At very least, however, Speer and his spiritual counselors knew that the key ingredient in becoming a different person is forthright confession. Psalm 32 agrees.
Psalm 32 is a powerful poem for three voices as it teaches that the path to beatitude is confession. In a scarred world of sin, we are as often the perpetrators of wrong as we are victims of it. Fight though we may to combat sin, the unhappy fact is that whether you are nine-years-old or ninety, confessing sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough–in fact, you need to keep up with the task daily so the house doesn’t start to stink!
True, some days we may have only the spiritual equivalent of a crumpled cereal box and a banana peel to carry out. But there are also those days when the trash has to go out because a chicken carcass and some bacon grease are deliquescing at the bottom of the kitchen trash can. But whether it’s some small lapse or a stunning misdeed, the truly honest among us admit that the core truth of Psalm 32 touches us every day.
Again, the very structure of the psalm makes this clear. Psalm 32 appears to have been written for use in worship. The opening and closing pairs of verses (the second set of which is technically not included in this Lectionary selection) are the “lines” spoken by the priest. The priest begins by claiming that the path to beatitude, the way to be really blessed in life, is to be a person who knows he or she is forgiven by God. Following verse 2 you can almost hear the priest say, “For instance . . .” and then he would point to the person who speaks verses 3-7. This second voice in the psalm then becomes like a living example to substantiate the claim of the opening beatitude. The priest claims in verse 1, “Blessed is the one who knows her sins are forgiven.”
Then just such a person chimes in and says in verse 3, “That’s true! Look at me! When I kept quiet about what I had done, I was miserable. Day and night I was tormented by the thought that there was something out of alignment between the Master of the universe and me. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and so I spilled the beans. And, Voila!, God took away my guilt by forgiving me in something quicker than the blink of an eye!”
Following these wonderful words, the voice of God then bursts onto the scene in verses 8 and 9 (again, just after the RCL would have us quit, so maybe we should preach on the whole psalm), confirming what the penitent person had just said. Things are so correct now between this sinner and God that God can speak tenderly and directly. God is not aloof, sitting off in a corner with his arms crossed over his chest and a stern look in his eye. No, God is tenderly, personally present, offering further instruction so that from here on out maybe life will go a bit better for this person.
Finally, in the last two verses the voice of the priest returns. With a smile on his face, he proclaims that his opening beatitude has now been proven. “Yahweh’s unfailing love, his chesed, his grace, surrounds us. We’re hemmed in by God’s good heart. God’s got us surrounded! There’s no escaping his mercy! And so rejoice! Sing! Be glad! We’ve got a God who makes forgiving us the #1 item on his list of things to do every day.”
Psalm 32 reveals a biblical irony: as grim, dark, and awful as sin is, dealing with this same sin leads to joy! Sin may be the “bad news” of life, it may be every bit the “downer” and “guilt-inducer” that all those trendy preachers who avoid ever talking about sin claim it is. But Psalm 32 is one of a legion of biblical texts which reminds us that the path to lilting joy leads right through sin. Indeed, some of the most effusive passages in the Bible are the ones that talk the most about sin. Because when you’ve got a God who drips with grace like our God does, the bottom line is never just about sin but about how swiftly God forgives sin!
Probably not a few of us could tell a similar story from our own experience. But it is equally probable that many of us could tell an opposite story, either about ourselves or about someone else. If Psalm 32 were a description of how things always go, our world and our lives in it could be significantly better. If it were true that every time we sinned we not only knew it but were plagued by it until we came clean and confessed it, if that’s how things always were, then we might very well find ourselves leading happier lives.
If everyone always confessed their sins to God and to each other, then we maybe would be done with bearing grudges. We would maybe be done with seeing people “get away” with something. It always drives us a little crazy to watch someone hurt another person only to trot away without even the slightest twinge of regret. But if Psalm 32’s description were always accurate, that wouldn’t happen. The person who hurt you would admit it and ask you to forgive him. Also, when it is you who did the wounding, you also would be led to beg for forgiveness. As a result, our mutual life together might go along much better.
Alas, however, Psalm 32 is not a description of how things always go. All of us routinely commit sins that as a matter of fact do not burn our innards like hot wax, that do not cause us to toss and turn on our beds all night long, that do not sap our strength. No, instead we often go on with our lives just fine. Sometimes we even flourish.
And if that’s true even within the community of the church, we know full well that it happens with abandon in the wider world. Lots of people have whole aircraft carrier’s worth of sins which they never acknowledge to God or anyone else. But far from being weighed down, these folks proceed forward in life with a spring in their step, smiling all the way to the bank as shady business deals pay off, tax evasions succeed, extramarital affairs go undiscovered. They not only fail to confess their sins, they fail even to notice them!
Again, that’s not just the case with mafia dons, corrupt corporate CEOs, or playboys. Something similar can happen even to us. More days than not our confessions of sin get no more specific than the generic, “Forgive me for all my many sins, Amen.” Granted, saying even that is better than never confessing at all, but how probing or finally helpful is such anonymous acknowledgment of sin? Do such generic confessions help us feel and so celebrate the wonder of grace? Do empty confessions help us clean up those parts of our acts that are less-than-lovely many days?
We can’t change the past, we often say. That’s a painful truth. How much don’t at least some of us yearn that we could go back and turn left instead of right. We can’t. If, as science fiction movies like to show, if we could travel through time, I suspect the world would end. If time travel were possible, I suspect that most every person in the world would take advantage of it by zipping back to one past moment after the next to change something, to prevent something, to make something better. Eventually there would be so many changes going on in the past that there would be no stable present moment in which to live.
No, we can’t change the past. But God can. Through the alchemy of grace God can take what hurts us and make it better, take what weighs us down and blow it away like a feather. And when God does that–and when does God not?!–the present moment is transformed. Our happiness increases, our love for God mounts higher, our wonder at God’s grace brings an irrepressible smile, and the future looks effervescent with joy.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Psychologists tell us that there is such a thing as “doubling.” On a grand scale this is sometimes accomplished by those who have committed truly heinous crimes. Some of the soldiers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam thirty years ago viciously put bullets through the brains of women and children and bayoneted suckling infants. How could they live with themselves following such horrors? Well, they doubled themselves. “It wasn’t I who did that but someone else, some nameless “other” person inside my skin. That didn’t come from the core of who I am–it couldn’t have!” Ask some of those soldiers who pulled all those triggers, and they will reply, “I don’t know.”
That is a dramatic example of something we all do to one degree or another. We keep trying to daylight between ourselves and ourselves. In some of the Godfather movies mobsters who had assassinated one another’s sons nevertheless find it possible to be in the same room together, backhanding away those other events as being “just business.” “Sure I had your son killed, but it was just business, right?”
Sometimes we put a similar move on ourselves. Decisions we make at the office on Thursday don’t follow us into the sanctuary come Sunday morning. Or, we manage to slip out of the noose of our own actions by claiming afterwards, “I was misunderstood. My intentions were good! I’m not really an angry person, I just lose my temper sometimes . . . a lot of times . . . OK every day, but I don’t have an anger problem! I love people!”
The Psalm 32 path to beatitude does not go down these roads of denial.
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s always humbling for my wife and me to have a problem with our computer or cell phones. After all, we, on whom our sons depended for so many years, must now largely depend on them to help us. I’ll never be as technologically savvy as our thirty-something sons.
Fleming Rutledge, who lent me some ideas for this Starter, refers to a lecture that Margaret Meade gave in the 1960’s about technologically savvy children. She spoke of “prefigurative” and “postfigurative” cultures. She referred to a postfigurative culture as one in which children learn from their elders. A prefigurative culture is one in which elders learn from their children.
In her book, Culture and Commitment, Meade wrote, “I believe a new culture is forming … The elders used to be able to say to the young, ‘I know, because I used to be young [like you]. But now the young can say, ‘Yes, but you were never young in the world I’m young in, and you never will be.” If elders just accept that, Meade argued, children will be “free to grow, straight and tall, into a future that must be left open and free.”
Today Margaret Meade’s views seem both naïve and arrogant. Of course, the various generation gaps about which she wrote still exist. Yet Meade assumed that adults would have nothing to teach the young about what they should do. She thought all we elders could do was open dialogue with young people who would then “lead the elders in the direction of the unknown.”
While they may not know Margaret Meade’s name, a generation of parents now seems to have little confidence that they have anything to teach their children. So it’s tempting for us to simply turn our teenagers loose. It’s easy for some parents to say, “We trust our children,” forgetting that children not only need, but also often crave loving, wise guidance.
If you doubt that, walk through any place in which young adults hang out. Listen to them talk about things that might make their parents cringe. Yet, Rutledge suggests, if you were to ask their parents about it, at least some of them would answer, “What are you going to do?”
Margaret Meade wrote about a future full of possibilities into which our savvy young people would lead naïve old folks. Even near the end of the 20th century, some people still talked about such a wide-open future. Things like terrorism, climate change and income inequality seldom shadowed our conversations.
Yet we’re learning that dark shadow refuses to simply disappear. The dark clouds that hung over the twentieth century’s Holocaust still loom over 21st century genocide. The undisciplined investing that led to a depression last century still hovers over economic struggles that grow, in part, out of undisciplined energy consumption.
In the 60’s my friends and I played Hide-and-Seek, football, basketball and baseball from almost dawn to dark — if school didn’t get in our way. No one called us on our cell phones to discuss what we were doing. Our parents didn’t arrange play dates for us.
Of course, things like child abuse, racial tensions and the Cold War haunted our generation. Yet any claim that the 21st century’s “wide open future” turned out to be any better than that seems misleading, at best.
And what sort of “free and wide-open” future is our current generation creating? God has blessed churches with absolutely remarkable young adults who will soon make wonderful leaders. Yet who knows if their contemporaries will lead us into a future of global meltdown, dirty bombs, pandemics and more genocide?
Those who proclaim Romans 5 don’t gather for worship to celebrate an open future that’s full of all sorts of wonderful possibilities. God’s adopted sons and daughter instead gather to remember an ancient story that keeps repeating itself. Christians remember the cycle of foolishness, cruelty, destruction, disease and death.
We remember how “sin,” as Paul grieves, “entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (12). God’s dearly loved people remember how one man’s sin scarred all of creation, including each of us.
Of course, as Rutledge notes, when Paul talks about “sin” in today’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, he isn’t talking about the sex our young adults have outside of the context of marriage or the income we’ll fail to report this year. When the apostle talks about “sin” in our text, he’s talking about a kind of evil power.
When God created our first parents, God created them in God’s image. God also pronounced everything God had made as very good. Evil had no real home in our world. Yet in partnership with its wicked cousin “death,” evil is now spreading through our world like a rampaging virus.
So when Jesus was born, a mighty force immediately challenged and threatened him. That, says Rutledge, is one reason it was so important for him to cast out demons. By doing so Jesus was, after all, driving them out of the territory that Satan, sin and death had claimed. A hungry Jesus even went head-to-head with Satan in the wilderness. That showed us that God has a very real enemy who’s committed to our complete destruction.
It all goes back, mourns Paul, to when God put Adam into the Garden with a choice whether to live in harmony with God’s good creation and creatures, or live in alienation from them. Adam could choose to live free from sin, or enslaved to sin.
Adam and Eve, of course, chose to disobey God, wedging the door open for evil to enter our world. Yet by doing so, they somehow condemned their descendants to no moral choice. While people may choose which car to buy or cereal to eat, we naturally can’t choose whether to step outside of sin and death.
All of Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters are now somehow born into rebellion and death. Since sin and death have us, by nature, trapped in their iron grip, we don’t have the power to create a wide-open future. By nature, Paul suggests, our future naturally looks a lot like our past.
Yet that’s not the end of Paul’s message. Thankfully, he announces a future that God has opened for God’s dearly beloved people. While Adam’s disobedience has brought misery, Christ’s obedience has brought salvation. While Adam’s voluntary disobedience brought death to us who willingly disobey, Christ’s voluntary obedience brings us life. While judgment followed human disobedience, God’s acceptance of us followed Christ’s obedience.
Quite simply, Adam’s death meant the spiritual and physical death of all people, including both those who proclaim Romans 5 and those who hear us. However, Christ’s death means eternal life for all those to whom God chooses to graciously give it.
After all, Christ successfully met all the power of sin, Satan and death head-on. He alone stood up to their relentless assaults throughout his life, but especially on the cross. Jesus victoriously emerged from that titanic battle.
So, as Rutledge notes, there is no new son of Adam or daughter of Eve who can lead their elders into the future. Our young people are also, after all, naturally the children of the same old disobedient Adam and Eve. There is only One who can lead us into God’s future. That is Jesus the Christ. He alone can create a new humanity out of Adam and Eve’s children. Jesus Christ alone can lead God’s chosen people into a hopeful future.
Yet God’s people are not naïve. Those who try to participate in Christ’s victory our way fall back under the power of evil. God’s beloved sons and daughters can only participate in Christ’s victory over sin, Satan and death God’s way.
That’s the way of confessing that we’ve willingly surrendered to slavery to sin and death. God’s way is that of humbly receiving God’s grace with our faith. It’s the way of service to God, God’s creatures and God’s creation.
God’s way is the way of the One who prayed from the cross for those who were torturing him to death. God’s way is the way of the Jesus who begged God to forgive those who were persecuting him to death.
The man who hacked to death Hutu Iphigenia’s husband and five of her children was a Tutu named Jean-Bosco. Today, however, Iphigenia works together with Jean-Bosco’s wife Epiphania to make beautiful baskets. She also shares her family meals with the killer she knew and his wife.
Jean-Bosco spent seven years in jail for his part in Iphigenia’s family’s massacre. However, while on trial he confessed to the slaughter and asked Iphigenia and others to forgive him.
Iphigenia admits that it wasn’t easy to forgive her family’s murderer. In fact, she didn’t speak to Jean-Bosco and his wife for four years. So how did she manage to finally forgive them? Iphigenia told CNN.com, “I am a Christian, and I pray a lot.”
You don’t have to hear her amazing story to know that sin, Satan and death are still extremely powerful. But Iphigenia’s story helps reminds us that Jesus Christ is even more powerful. God’s people see the forces of evil wreak untold havoc almost everywhere around us. Yet the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ brings immeasurable blessing through Christ’s saving life, death and resurrection.