Sunday, March 9, 2014

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

And the tempter came and said unto him…

I read a lot of books from the historical period in England between the 5th and 15th centuries. I am fascinated by the intrigue, the lives of the kings and their courts, and the way they lived. I don’t think I would have wanted to live in that time or in that culture. The books I generally read are fiction, so many of the thoughts and actions of the characters are made up by the writer. However, most historical fiction writers are good about doing their research. There might be people who did not exist, but the ones who did are generally written based on facts as we know them.

We live in such a wide-open and huge world today. I will send this email out and it will instantly reach people on the other side of the world, on other continents, in totally different circumstances, with completely different world views. We can have a conversation with one another via email, or even on the telephone. We can fly around the world in a matter of hours, go pretty much wherever we like, see an incredibly diverse world from deserts to rain forests to the ocean floor with a little bit of planning. We can drive to the next city, shop at multiple grocery stores or buy food at restaurants representing every nationality, choose from dozens of movies at multiple movie theaters within a short drive. In other words, most of my readers have the freedom to experience life as they wish it to be, do the things they want to do, eat whatever they want to eat and be entertained in many different ways.

It wasn’t so easy to do so in the Middle Ages. Most people lived under the shadow of a fortress of some sort, because if war came, they were protected in the walls of their lord’s castle. The townspeople abandoned their homes and went to sleep on the floor of the keep, which was an impenetrable stone box. These were rarely defeated by strength; it took a siege to defeat those hidden inside. Unfortunately, this meant that the people had to survive on whatever was stored inside the walls. They had to have enough water and food to feed everyone for however long the enemy waited outside. They had no freedom. They had nowhere to go. They could not run to the Seven/Eleven for a Slurpee when they had a craving for one. They ate whatever was rationed. In the beginning there may have been some fruit or vegetables and some meat. By the end of a siege, they were usually down to cakes made of grain.

Even when there wasn’t an enemy on their doorstep, the people rarely went anywhere by a few feet from their own houses. They worked the fields, perhaps had a pint at the local pub, bartered with their neighbors for everything they needed. They didn’t go to the city for entertainment because it was simply too far. They stayed close to home.

In the country, not only in England, but also here in America and probably in many other countries around the world, you’ll find that the towns or villages are about the same distance from one another. That distance is probably based on the time it took for a man to get somewhere in a day. In England, there are towns every few miles, probably a day’s walk. In Texas, especially the Hill Country and the West, the towns are approximately thirty miles apart. There is nothing but ranch land in between. Thirty miles was probably the limit for most travelers with horses and carts. It didn’t matter to most people, they never left their towns. But the towns were established to provide the brave ones a place to rest and resupply along their way.

The people stayed home. They lived with whatever was available to them in that place. They relied on the brave ones to bring the things to their town that they could not produce on their own. They were free to go anywhere, but why leave the comfort and security of your village? This was probably true in the days of Jesus, too. While most Jews managed to take the pilgrimage to Jerusalem at some time, some all the time, most people did not get away from their hometowns very often. They stayed in the comfort and security of home. It was dangerous out there in the world, but it was safe surrounded by neighbors and everyone could survive with everyone’s helps.

God established this type of community from the very beginning of His people Israel. Even when they wandered in the Exodus wilderness, they were organized in small ‘towns,’ people from the same tribe who stayed together. At night they built their tents in groups. The groups surrounded the Tent of Meeting, the place where God dwelled among His people. You were safe if you were in the camp near God.

Sometimes, however, it was necessary to put people outside the camp, or then eventually the village. They were sent away for the safety of others. The lepers, for example, were sent away because they were afraid the disease would spread to others. If they were healed, then they were cleansed by the priest and allowed back into the camp or village. Sadly, many did not return. It was dangerous outside the camp or village. They had no food to eat and often no source of water. They had no shelter or help to protect them from the wild animals. While the disease might have been curable, they died before they could recover.

The person who was outside the camp was in the realm of death. This was especially true for the people who believed that God dwelled in their midst. Outside the camp was also apart from their God.

That’s what happened to Adam and Eve. In the Old Testament passage from Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of the Tree in the center of the Garden, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. It is like saying that Adam and Eve would be like God, knowing everything from A to Z, from good to evil and everything in between. There are times when we have to choose the better 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.

Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world purposefully sinning against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if we have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good” as He did for all of His creation. They lived in harmony with God and with the rest of creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than ‘good’ in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that being like God would make them better, to give them insight into more ‘good’, but the reality is that only God is good. Everything that isn’t God is less than good.

We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him, but we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. The sin in the Garden of Eden was eating the apple fruit that God told them not to eat, and yet the sin goes even deeper.

The serpent found the woman and said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Here the serpent twists God’s word to put doubt in the minds and hearts of God’s people. They were allowed to eat of any tree but one. Even proclaims God’s word to the serpent, with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” She added the part about touching the fruit.

How could this be a bad thing? After all, if the fruit of the tree was not to eat, then it would be best if she did allow herself to be tempted by touching it. Even already knew that the fruit looked good, she saw it with her own eyes. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist God’s word. So he went a little deeper. “Ye shall not surely die.” 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.

They did die, though. They were sent outside the camp, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship. They were sent into the realm of death so that they would not have to live forever in fear of their Father and Creator.

We join Adam in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. 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 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.

Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to God’s good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but we have been made in the image of God and we can make the conscious decision to follow God and be like Him even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction.

There was a tremendous accident on one of the major roadways in our city today. Though the accident happened very early in the morning, the road had to be closed and was still blocked during rush hour. The eye in the sky helicopter of our local morning news station showed a long line of red lights five cars across that went for miles. All those people were stuck on the highway, unable to move more than an inch or so as the authorities diverted the traffic. I’m sure that the roads surrounding that highway were full of frustrated commuters who were trying to find a new route to work. One crashed truck affected the lives of thousands. Even a minor accident can lead to trouble for the victims, bystanders and service people dealing with the clean up. One thing always leads to another.

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 sins that affect no one but the person committing it, but all sin affects all people. We live in community and we live in a fallen world, so everything we do will affect others.

We do a lot of things wrong. We sin against man and nature daily with our use and abuse of God’s created world. While it is good to check ourselves and discover the things that we do wrong daily, it is not those individual sins that are the focus of our Lenten journey. 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 sin that we can’t overcome with fasting or discipline, repentance or prayer is our own desire to be something we are not. The greatest sin, the original sin, is our desire to be god.

This is not to say that we should not be like God. After all, He created us to be like Him. Jesus tells us to be God-like. Just a few weeks ago we heard that we should be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. The trouble is that we take it a step too far. Instead of living the life we have been created to live, we follow after the twisted words of the tempter and follow our own path. In doing so, we set ourselves outside the fellowship of our Father and Creator, thus putting ourselves into the realm of death.

In the beginning, God created us good and gave us the freedom to do His Work as one with Him in the garden. When Adam was disobedient to the Word of God, we were removed from the Garden and every human since has been born into a sinful existence. We try to be like God, choosing our own way of doing things rather than His way. Salvation comes from only One: Jesus Christ.

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. This is like what we did on Memorial Day. He took all the crud, scrubbed us down and filled us with fresh clean water. 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.

For now, we live remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior. And we live knowing that our Savior has come and He is Jesus Christ. We are saints and sinners, going through this life experiencing the free gift of grace and the frailty of our human condition. Joy and pain, blessedness and suffering: that’s what it means to be a Christian in the world today.

In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who fell to the words of the tempter and faced death 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 Word. 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 the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many 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. Last week we were given the command to listen to Jesus, the week before He called us to follow. By His grace we can live free from the burden of sin and walk according to His Word. Grace overcomes and grace transforms, making us to be the people He created us to be.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” There are three steps to forgiveness in this passage. This first stage is perhaps the easiest part of forgiveness, saying “I forgive you.” But forgiveness requires much more. The second stage of forgiveness is “whose sin is covered.” This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest. This is the part when we forget the sin. The psalmist says, “Jehovah imputeth not iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets.

Those who live according to their own ways will suffer the consequences of their self-centeredness. Those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. It is like walking out of the camp and away from God’s fellowship by our own will. In the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we are reminded that Satan does not only tempts us with the things that are obviously wrong, but he tempts us with things that seem good. It isn’t bad to eat or to call on God for help or even be a leader of people. But Jesus knew that His purpose and refused to be set on the wrong path. That’s why we join Him during our Lent journey. We can watch as He walks on God’s path and learn how to chase the tempter away, so that we can live according to God’s good and perfect purpose in our lives.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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