The First Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2017

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Saint Matthew 4:1-11

Background: The Lenten Program
The readings during the Sundays in Lent seem to anticipate the whole cycle, including the events or more importantly the significance of those events as a whole. In much the same way, the journey of Lent begins with the Great Litany, which anticipates all of our needs, shortcomings, and hopes. In summary, these Sundays (in Lent but not of Lent) celebrate and focus on 1) our condition, 2) our call, 3) our thirst, 4) our sight, and finally 5) our resurrection. Having a sense of expectation when encountering these readings will help the Christian (whether preacher, lay person, deacon, or observer) to see the direction of things, and the development of the Spirit during this holy season.

The First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the 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, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

What does it mean to be in this world? It is a question that has been asked from time immemorial, and the musings of our philosophers and prophets give us cause for meditation and pondering on it once again. Adam and Eve become points of reflection for knowing our world, our place in it, and our destiny. Adam, put in the garden to “till it and keep it,” seems consigned to that fate, regardless. Eve is a seeker as well, wanting to both see and know the world around her. Are these bad things, or are they just the sum of what we already are. It is this basis upon which the whole of salvation history is built, and it touches on what we do this day, as we continue to know and see ourselves again. They story reveals to us the human proclivity to remove ourselves from the considerations of evil in the world – and yet we are there, in the heart of it. She gave it to me, you gave her to me, the serpent gave it to me.” Does seeing and knowing this circumstance makes us better for it, or does it, can it, move us closer to knowing our need for God? Grist for our Lenten mill.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          How do Adam and Eve avoid the consequences of their act?
2.          What is it that Eve and Adam desired of Knowledge?
3.         How is seeing knowing? How is it not?

Psalm 32 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2      Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3      While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4      For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5      Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6      I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7      Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8      You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9      "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
10    Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you."
11    Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

In this psalm we meditate on what it means to confess, and then wonder at the wisdom that such a confession gives to us. Understanding our sin, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you”, gives us opportunity to know God, and God’s intents for us better. The first eight verses are a meditation on sin and forgiveness, and some relief is reached in verse 5 where confession happens, and forgiveness is given. In verse 9 a totally different direction is taken, and we are clued in by this phrase: “I will instruct you and teach you.” Subsequent verses speak of understanding and trust that comes with the knowledge of God that forgiveness inspires.

Breaking open the Psalm 32:
1.         In what ways have you been forgiven?
2.         Whom have you forgiven?
3.        What was the benefit?

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

A brief note: For those interested in a refreshing translation of Romans, let alone a challenging commentary on the letter, may I recommend the following. Robert Jewett’s commentary on Romans is a part of the Hermeneia series published by Fortress Press. It is rather dense, some 1140 pages, and it is demanding, but it will stimulate your thinking about what Paul has to say.

Paul sets up an interesting contrast in this pericope from Romans. In it he sets up to parallel situations, the sin of Adam and its consequences, and the gift of grace that the life of Jesus Christ obtains for us. The final verse of the pericope summarizes the argument, “For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The central role of the Law, even when it is not known among people, is pointed out by Paul as the agency of either death (a result of the disobedience of the one) or life (a result of the obedience of the One.) Jewett describes Paul’s purpose. “I conclude that the main theme is how Christ’s life (v. 10) defines the future destiny of believers just as Adam’s life defined the future of his descendants. The primary goal of the passage is not to set forth a doctrine of Adam’s sin but to demonstrate the scope of the over-flowing dominion of grace (vv.15-17, 20-21) in the ‘life’ of all believers (vv. 17-19, 21).”[1] The Lenten penitent may try to avoid or deny the sin evident in life because he or she doesn’t know what to do with it. Seeing Paul’s argument and process finds a place for us in our being graced by God’s gift. The trick is to learn acceptance.

Breaking open Romans
  1. In what ways are you like Eve or Adam?
  2. In what ways does the life of Jesus appear in your life?
  3. Does this knowledge change anything for you?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

“He felt completely enveloped in God’s breath. It blew over him, sometimes warm and benevolent, sometimes savage, merciless. Lizard, butterflies, ants, Curse— all were God.”[2]

In his book, The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis has Jesus pursued by a spirit, a mission, and entity that is called “the Curse.” We get something of the same feeling in the opening lines of Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In Mark the verb is different, Jesus is “driven by the Spirit”. There are other mysteries to be opened here. This is not just a random selection of scene, characters, and events. Matthew wants us to see Jesus in relationship with God, not initially in the relationship of father and son, but as the chosen son of Israel. So the wilderness isn’t just any wilderness, but rather the same wilderness that Israel traverses in order to reach the land of promise. Thus as Israel was tempted by circumstance and wandering, so is Jesus – so complete is his identification.

Those wishing to study this text in depth might want to refer to W. F. Albright’s commentary on Matthew[3] with its interesting discussion of the devil, and the development of Satan in Jewish thought. Like Kazantzakis, Matthew wrestles with Jesus’ call and mission. Each of the temptations recalls Israel’s call and Jesus’ participation in that call and history. The first temptation recalls the constant clamoring for food or water by the wandering people, and the second temptation wonders if Jesus is both unique and special in his relationship with God. God is the One who gives the land – no other. It was not earned by Israel, nor was it a reward for exemplary behavior. It was just given. That theme and notion will inform the message that Jesus will announce as The Kingdom of God.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What acts of goodness do you do?
2.     In what ways do you keep them private?
3.    Why do you keep them private?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Jewett, R. (2007), Romans, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, page 370.
[2]Kazantzakis, N. (2012) The Last Temptation of Christ Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, page 127.
[3]Albright, W. (1971) The Anchor Bible: Matthew, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday & Company, New York, page 36.


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