Preached at Shepley Methodist Church
9th March 2014: 1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:15-3:21; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent literally means ‘springtime’. It comes from the old Germanic word Lenz, which means ‘long’ and refers to the visible lengthening of the hours of daylight that happens during the spring months. It is a time of preparation, as it is in the garden; a time of clearing things away, ready for seeing new life and growth emerge from the cold, dark and barren months of winter. It’s true that Lent is a season of self-denial, soul-searching and spiritual preparation; but the reason for this paring-back of ourselves is so that we might focus on our heart’s innermost longing for God. We strip away the things that don’t really matter in order for us to take hold of that which does—the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price.
Lent is a season of repentance, but a season of repentance unto life. What we’re talking about is a godly grief which makes us turn and run into the arms of a loving, forgiving and generous God—a God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, in his life and ministry, in his suffering and death, in his resurrection and triumph. The joy of Lent is in our becoming one with the crucified Christ. But to do that, we must first confront the reality of our sin; for it is our sin which crucified him. Richard John Neuhaus once said, “Send not to know by whom the nails were driven; they were driven by you, by me.”
It’s a common criticism of Christians that we’re always banging on about sin. Mark Twain went to church once; he didn’t go to church very often, so naturally people were very keen to find out what he made of it. “What did you think?” they asked. “What did the preacher talk about?” “Sin,” he answered. “What did he say about it?” “He was against it,” Twain replied. Isn’t that just the way with Christians—always judging, always criticising, always looking down their noses at people just out to have a good time? Why is it that we in the Church are so hung up about sin? Why are we so obsessed with it? Why do we have a whole season from now up until Easter dedicated to uncovering it in ourselves and repenting of it? Why indeed.
At the beginning of January there was a story in the news about the Church of England trialling a controversial new wording for christening services. It was controversial because it took out any mention of the word ‘sin’ from the promises and instead asked the parents and godparents, “Do you reject evil? And all its many forms?” For some, it represented a ‘dumbing down’ of what baptism is about; for others, it was just a way of making the language more accessible so that those making the promises understand what it is they are promising. One supporter of the new wording and a member of the group that came up with the proposal said that there questions about how the word ‘sin’ is received. Sin is churchy word; it’s not one that we use much in everyday conversation. For many people, he said, sin is all about sex. If an unmarried couple are living together and sleeping together, you sometimes hear it said that they’re living in sin. The other way, he said, of understanding sin is that it’s all about cream cakes and eating too much. Either way, it doesn’t really get across what Christians mean when they talk about sin.
So what do we mean when we talk about sin? Perhaps, in order to find out why we’re always talking about sin, we need to go back and revisit what it is we in the Church actually mean when we say the word ‘sin’.
If sin isn’t sex and it isn’t cream cakes, then what is it? “Well,” you might say, “Sin is the biggies”: genocide, terrorism, murder, rape, child abuse, drug dealing, gun-running, human trafficking and racism. That’s sin. And, of course, these are dreadful and disturbing examples of it; but if that’s sin, then most of us have nothing to worry about, surely? Most of us, I’m guessing, haven’t done anything like that. On the whole I think we consider ourselves to be pretty good people. Okay, we might have a few off moments, a few off days here and there, but generally speaking we are pretty decent folk. So the question then is: why do Christians talk about sin as if it’s something that affects everyone, something universal? Let’s go back and see what the Bible has to say about it…
The reading we heard from Genesis is the story of The Fall, the story of sin entering God’s perfect world. John Milton wrote about it in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, speaking “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of EDEN…” If we want to find out what sin is, this is the place to look.
The story is of God making humans, making Adam and Eve, and setting them in the Garden of Eden (which means delight) to work and keep it. Having created this lush paradise in the East, God took some clay, some dust from the ground, and made someone to enjoy it with him and look after it for him. God gave Adam the freedom of Eden, not just allowing him to eat of the fruit the garden produced but positively commanding him to. The Hebrew here is emphatic; it’s an instruction, not a recommendation: “Eat freely from any and all of the trees in the garden, except, except for the one tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The blessings are many, the stipulations are few. “Work the land and a million of the finest trees will be at your disposal; all but one, in fact.” Needless to say, they wanted that one too. You know the story. You know what happened next.
Why did God put the tree there in the first place? You’ve heard it. It’s the kind of philosophical question that’s often gets asked of this story. Why did God plant a tree in the middle of the garden if he didn’t want anyone eating of it? Old Testament scholar, Sandra Richter, sums it up perfectly: “In reality,” she says, “this one edict encompasses the singular law of Eden—God is God and we are not. If humanity would simply acknowledge the innate authority of the Creator, would recognize that they were tenants and stewards in God’s garden, they would live in paradise forever. But if they had to have access to every part of the garden, if they had to ‘be free’ to choose their own rules and decide for themselves what was ‘good and evil,’ if they had to be autonomous of the authority of the great King, then they would die.” (Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament)
Adam and Eve are given complete freedom to do whatever they like, with only one condition: they aren’t God. As Creator it is God’s place, God’s alone, to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what isn’t. It’s not unreasonable, is it? If you make something, it’s up to you what it’s for, how it works, and what you do with it. There’s nothing unfair in that. Adam and Eve are granted the joys of Eden with just one proviso: let God be God. Which incidentally, you may recall, is also the first of the Ten Commandments God gave to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai: “I am the LORD your God … you shall have no other gods before me.” Here we see the very essence of Sin: the will that is set against God, rejecting his right to rule and attempting to set ourselves up as gods in control of our own lives without a thought for God or anyone else for that matter. Sin has at its heart that deceptive whisper, which first enticed Eve: “You can be like God.”
Sin, therefore, is about more than doing bad things we shouldn’t do; it’s also about the good things we fail to do. Sin is to be out of tune, out of step, out of sync, with the God who made us and gives us life. All of which may go quite some way to explaining why Christians talk about it so much. It means that aside from sins like genocide and torture, you also have sins like petty jealousy, power games, silently passing by someone in need of assistance, or even praying selfishly, arrogantly or unthinkingly. The fact is that sin can infect our best moments as well as our worst. Behind all our sins, there is Sin (with a capital S), which can be summed up as anything less than what God made us for.
Sin is like a blemish. Before they ate the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve were naked but they were not ashamed. The effect of their disobedience and rebellion is that their eyes are opened and they realise they’re naked; and realising they’re naked their first instinct is to cover up and hide. It’s not that before they were clothed and now they’re not; it’s that now they know they don’t any clothes and it bothers them. That’s because to be naked is to be known. To be naked is to be seen for who we are; it is to be open, uncovered and vulnerable. Imagine the wedding night when husband and wife see the other’s naked body for the first time; it’s to make ourselves fully known to that person. In fact, in the Hebrew language, the way you talk about people sleeping together is that they know one another: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”
To be naked is to be known. Generally speaking, we don’t like being known because deep-down we believe that is someone really knew us they wouldn’t want to love us. “If only they knew,” we might say, “they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.” Nakedness is vulnerability. Sometimes we can open up to somebody, tell them something, show them some weakness in us and they will turn around and say they think even more of you for having done that. If you’ve had that happen to you, you’ll know how special it is; you’ll know it’s a gift, it’s something to die for. We long to be known and loved, but so often we feel as if it’s only one or the other: we can be known or we can be loved, but not both. Sin brings the barriers up, not just between us and God, but between us and one another. We were made to be known, we were made for relationship; but now we’re afraid of it.
John Milton (who I mentioned earlier) wrote a sequel to Paradise Lost. In it, he focusses on the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, describing: “Recover’d Paradise to all mankind, / By one man’s firm obedience fully tri’d / Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d.” For Milton, the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness was the story of Paradise Regained. It portrays a new Adam, a human just like us, who shows us what it truly means to be human, who gives himself over completely to the will of God. We were made for more and Jesus shows us what that ‘more’ is. Humans can live in tune with God but it means taking Christ and not Adam as the model for our humanity; it means having our lives so tied up and joined with that of Christ that he lives in us and us in him. By God’s grace, we can live better lives than we are living now.
Most amazing of all, Jesus shows us that we can be both known and loved. God sees us just as we are and doesn’t love us any less. In fact, he sent his Son Jesus to come looking for us and in a breath-taking display of love he died naked and exposed on the cross, allowing us to see and know God exactly as he is. At the cross God meets our nakedness with that of his own. He strips down and bares all for the joy of being known to us again. This is our God.
Both the choice and the challenge of Lent is allowing ourselves to be known to God (and to ourselves), warts and all, confident that nothing God sees will dim his affection for us in the slightest. Only when we have the courage to do this will we admit our need for healing and find it in the crucified Christ of Good Friday. We are stripped back in order to be known by God who has given everything to make himself known to us. We are invited to rediscover our identity as God’s children and to regain the Eden of God’s presence through a life lived with Christ. In Christ, we are once more able to be naked and unashamed before God, unafraid of being ourselves, and free to be everything God made us to be.
The message of Lent is simple: you were made for more. The question is: are you prepared to be stripped back in order to see that there’s more to be had?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
* With thanks to David Day and Tim Keller, whose sermons have shaped and informed my own thoughts on this topic.