Sunday, March 5, 2017

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 3:1-21
Psalm 32:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.

“The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write. A child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight. A beautiful sight.” This song was made popular in 1972 by the group Three Dog Night and was a statement about the Brown vs. Education decision of the United States Supreme court which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Sammy Davis, Jr. made the original version of this folk song using a verse that was not used in later versions. “Their robes were black, their heads were white, the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight, nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.” The issue of segregation demands that people be seen as opposites, just like the colors black and white. However, we can’t separate people so easily. Though skin color makes us different, there are too many things that we share to think people can be separated by just one trait.

It is so much easier to look at the world as dualistic. White verses black, tall or short, fat or thin. These are ways we can define people and things, but are there really only two choices? Go to a paint store and ask for white paint thinking they guy will just hand you a can of paint. There are numerous types of white. Can we really tell the difference between then? Yes. Try comparing ecru to ivory and you’ll see a difference. Most people would not know if you’ve painted ecru or ivory on your wall, but if you put them side by side you can see the difference. Are there really just black and white people? The world is filled with many skin tones some of which can be confused with another race. How do we discern one from another?

When we consider good and evil, we think again in dualistic terms. There is good and there is evil and neither the twain shall meet, right? The reality is that we live in a world where it is difficult to separate good and evil. In some places, theft is considered evil. In other places, theft that serves a virtuous purpose is good. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do only good, all too often the things we do turn out to be less than good. If it is less than good, is it still good or is it evil? Where do we draw the line? Sadly, there are times when we have to choose the best of two evils. Which is better: to shoot a dying horse or allow him to die naturally? Both options are evil, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.

It all began in the Garden of Eden. God created Adam and Eve called them “good.” They lived in harmony with God and with the rest of creation. The only command He gave them was, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” The serpent found the woman and asked, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” The serpent twisted God’s word to create doubt in Adam and Eve; they were allowed to eat of any tree but one.

Eve proclaimed God’s word to the serpent, but she did so with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.’” She repeated God’s word but added her own twist. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist God’s word. So he went a little deeper. “You won’t surely die,” he said. He was right, in a sense. Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically when they ate the fruit. But it was only a half truth. He convinced them to believe his word about God’s by giving them the final reason to eat: they would become like God.

“You can be like God.” There are two lies in this statement. The first lie is, of course, that we can be like God. We aren’t omnipotent, omnipresent, divine. We aren’t eternal, the beginning and the end, all powerful. We aren’t God. But, the second lie makes us think there is something to attain. We don’t have to attain to be like God because we were created in His image. In trying to attain god-like status, we turn our focus on ourselves instead of keeping our eyes on the One from whom all good things come.

Adam and Eve tried to attain something that they already had, but they still wanted more. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? But that’s what temptation is all about. The devil twists our circumstances, and the words, to make it seem like there is something good beyond what is already good. In the Garden, the serpent made Eve feel deprived of something, even though it was something she did not need. She reasoned that the fruit on the tree looked good and therefore must be good, so why should God keep it away? They had plenty of fruit to eat, and I’m sure the fruit on all the other trees must have been good, too. But temptation, the serpent, made her want the one thing she couldn’t have, and since she had the will and ability to do so, she picked the fruit.

Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they died. Their bodies didn’t die immediately but they were separated from their life with God. They were sent outside the Garden, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship.

This may have seemed cruel; how could a loving God do such a thing to those He created? The reason is that the knowledge of good and evil made them afraid. They feared God, experienced shame and hid from Him. They could not live forever in fear of their Father and Creator, so they were sent into the world of death.

We join Adam in the reality of our failure. We continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. It is hard to be human. We have to make decisions every day because we are faced with a world that is not black and white. We have to choose between the gray. We may not face a decision about whether or not to shoot a horse or let it suffer until it dies, but we have to decide often between the better of two evils. Unfortunately, sometimes Satan still twists God’s word enough to make us think that we are choosing good over evil.

Isn’t it interesting that the temptations Jesus faced were not about those things we normally consider sinful? Jesus wasn’t tempted by the things of the flesh like a beautiful woman or a gluttonous feast, He was tempted by the things He would face during His ministry.

Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. Bread is good to eat and Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days. But the devil was offering something even greater than a loaf of bread. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” The temptation demands putting the needs of the flesh first. Jesus was in the desert to prepare for His ministry. It was an act of obedience to the will of God, to strengthen Him against the things He would face in the days to come. The temptation was not only to feed His own hunger, Satan said, “Command these stones.” Jesus would not have needed more than a loaf, but with many loaves of bread He could have fed all the hungry in Jerusalem. Jesus did not come to open a food bank. Jesus responded, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

The second temptation was about fame. Imagine what an impact Jesus would have had on His world if He had actually gone to the top of the temple to take a flying leap? The appearance of angels and the miraculous landing would have made Him the talk of the town. People would have come flocking to hear Him speak, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Him doing something else amazing. How many ministries focus on the impact they have in their cities and neighborhoods without caring about the message they are giving to the people? Jesus responded, “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.’”

Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. If only Jesus would bow down to Satan, He could rule over all the nations of the world. Of course, this is a promise Satan can’t keep, even if Jesus would worship him. Jesus’ purpose was not control or power. It was not to be a worldly king. His purpose was to reveal the Kingdom of God in word and deed and then face the cross for our sake.

Jesus would eventually face all those temptations in His years of ministry. The people would demand to be fed, would seek Him for the miracles He could do and demand that He fight for the crown of Israel. He would refuse each time, keeping the focus of His ministry on what matters: God.

Jesus faced those same temptations when He was sent into the wilderness after His baptism, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He answered the temptations with God’s Word. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the camp and in the fellowship of our Father and Creator.

Someone once said, “The difference between Christianity and every other faith in the world is that all other religions are about man trying to reach up to God. Christianity is about God reaching down to man.” God came in the form of Jesus Christ to overcome sin and death so that we can be reconciled with God. Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to God’s good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction we can keep our eyes on the Creator who made us in His image. He has made it possible again to live as we were created to live.

Ever since that day in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word for that of the serpent and their own desires, we have suffered from the consequences of sin. We see it in our everyday lives. A small lie leads to bigger ones, bad habits lead to health problems, anger leads to violence, greed leads to thievery and lust leads to improper conduct. Some would like to believe that there are victimless sins, but all sin affects all people. We live in community in a fallen world. Everything we do will affect others.

Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to sin. The freedom we have to reason and make decisions also gives us the freedom to reject God and go our own way. In doing so, we find ourselves outside the camp, away from His fellowship. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.

Jesus Christ is that Savior. At the cross, He started a new process of mercy and forgiveness for those who believe. Unfortunately, the old process still exists in our flesh - we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes. Then, in that wonderful day, we will begin again and the things that make us imperfect will be gone forever.

In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who died because fell to the words of the tempter and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in today’s epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.”

God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and then finally through Jesus. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by proclaiming God’s Word. We can do the same.

We do a lot of things wrong. We sin against man and nature daily with our use and abuse of God’s creation. As we begin this Lenten season, many people are making choices about things they want to give up as a spiritual discipline. This is good; many people have discovered through Lenten fasting that the did not need those things that constantly tempted them in the past. Fasting can be a good and powerful discipline during Lent, but it is useless unless we also discover the real sin in our lives. The greatest sin, the original sin, is our desire to be god. We can’t overcome that sin with fasting or spiritual disciplines. Unless we face the truth that we are just like Adam and Eve, we’ll continue to trust the twisted words of the devil over the Word of our God.

In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to make His ministry and purpose on earth about doing good things for people, meeting their physical needs. He offered Jesus the chance to establish a powerful ministry to feed the hungry, draw people to Himself and rule over all the nations. To do so, however, Jesus had to ignore God’s Word, test God and turn from His true purpose. To achieve this great ministry, Jesus had to accept Satan’s word above God’s and turn from God to go His own way. This Jesus would not do. He answered the words of Satan with God’s Word. He got His strength from the scriptures.

Did God really say there is such a thing as sin? Sure, God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin; Jesus ensured forgiveness by His willingness to climb upon the cross and die. He reconciled us to our Father and God. Now, He calls us to repentance, encourages us to live holy lives of faith. There are things in this world that still tempt us. We are sinners, even while we are saints. We are men and women just like Adam and Eve who have heard God’s Word and twisted it to make it sound good to our ears.

Do not strive to control the material, spiritual or civil realms in your life, but trust in God to control them. He will give you the strength and courage and His Word to help you send the tempter away. Pursue a fast if that is what you are led to do, but consider the attitude with which you approach it. Are you sacrificing something to be more perfect, or are you becoming more like God created you to be? Those who live according to their own ways will see the consequences of self-centeredness; those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This passage shows us the process of forgiveness. This first stage is perhaps the easiest; we say the words “I forgive you” often. But forgiveness requires much more. The psalmist says, “...whose sin is covered,” This is the second stage. This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest: we forget the sin.

The psalmist says, “Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it against those who have sinned against us. When we get into a battle with someone, we bring up those old sins and remind our “enemy” of the things that they have done to hurt us in the past. God does not do that. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets. It is by God’s grace that we are set free from the burdens of our sin and in this we rejoice.

As we begin our Lenten journey toward the cross with Jesus Christ, let’s remember the outcome of His journey. His death and ultimately His resurrection gave us forgiveness and eternal life. We are tempted constantly by the things of this world that want us to turn away from our God, and thankfully our God does not hold on to those sins. Now that we have been reconciled to Him, saved from sin and death, we are called to be like Him. The fasts and spiritual disciplines will be a great way to draw nearer to God. Spend time in the scriptures, writing God’s Word on your heart so that you can chase away the devil when he comes to tempt you.

We may be just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, making all the wrong choices, but thanks to Jesus Christ we are welcomed back into the presence of our Father. We no longer need to be afraid because He has given us everything we need to dwell with Him forever. In faith we can approach the throne of grace to worship Him, knowing that we don’t have to attain that which we have been given. God created us and He called us “good.” We may not be perfect, but remember that the journey we are on with our Lord Jesus Christ leads to forgiveness.

Unfortunately, our busy lives often make it impossible for us to perfectly keep the fasting and disciplines we choose, but do not let that discourage you. Whatever you decide to do throughout this season of Lent, remember that God’s grace is greater than our failure. If you break your fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to stop trying. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the whole point of Lent, to realize that we need Jesus and His cross to be in relationship with our God. Begin each day as if it is a new day. Try and try again. Training is a process of growing. Let the discipline develop over the next few weeks so that it will continue long after Easter Sunday.

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