For this first Sunday in Lent, things are a little different in our Eucharist this morning. The penitential section, which concludes with the sign of ash, follows this homily and it is much longer than usual with more time for us to reflect, at the beginning of Lent, on our failures and sins. As a result of that, the homily will be shorter and leads directly into this moment of penitence.
The readings at the Eucharist today first of all direct our attention to the way we are as human beings. The Genesis story, this time written by the Jahvist (J) writer, is a delightfully true account of this in the form of a story, much maligned by the anti-theist Richard Dawkins and his crew who sneer at the talking snake, thinking it seems that we Christians can’t tell a good story from a piece of historical truth! Incidentally, that says rather a lot about people like Dawkins!
However, the story of what later was described as Original Sin is just so true of the way we humans behave. The big temptation comes in the shape of the crafty serpent’s words – ‘Of course 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.’
And there is the heart of the matter – we want power and in particular we humans want to be like God.
We might ask why God prohibited eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? In the story it seems as if this was for the sake of commending pure obedience which is the great virtue of the rational creature living under God and fulfilling God’s calling to care for the created world, the paradise of Eden – in Hebrew the nuha a place to rest, to settle down and to remain. Eden is a place of peace and repose for God and all of God’s creation, a place of harmonious life and communion. And there can be only one God – not a whole heap of them in human shape! That will just lead to a lot of trouble! And in the history of the world we see the results only too clearly.
So humankind was tempted. Tempted to make ourselves the arbiters of good and evil, and so assuming the role of God. We failed in our obedience. And then what? The first thing we see is that we start blaming one another. So Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. And if you still don’t believe the story, all you have to do is look around you in our world today. The response to failure of any kind is to blame someone and make them pay the price for that failure by some form of public humiliation.
- Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century interpreted this story and saw that it was the human will that was the origin of evil in our world. So it is the human will that needs healing. And that healing can only be brought about, he went on, through God’s transformative Love.
In the second reading from S. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, Paul makes a contrast between the disobedience of humanity into which we are born and which is something much greater than ourselves and our immediate environment and the obedience of Christ. This original sin is not what God intends for us, it is dehumanising and opposed to the true life which is God’s will for us, a glimpse of which we catch in the paradisal garden of Eden – a life of peace and communion.
Paul continues to proclaim how God is on our side, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – which is the great climax of this passage which appears in Romans 838-39. The dehumanising and brokenness that disobedience and sin brings to our world is reversed in the New Adam, Jesus the Christ, through whom shines out the healing love of God.
And it is to the obedience of this New Adam that we turn in today’s Gospel reading – the familiar account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. So familiar, perhaps, that we don’t notice a couple of S. Matthew’s particular twists of the material from which he is working for his largely Jewish Christian hearers. So he adds and nights to the forty days of the other Synoptic Gospels. In the Old Testament, 40 is a significant number – 40 days of rain, 40 years in the wilderness, but the person associated with forty days and forty nights is Moses. And for Matthew, Jesus is the New Moses, the true Prophet, Priest and King of Israel, as we see time and again through his Gospel. Here, in the narrative of the Temptation, Jesus answers each of the three temptations with a quote from Deuteronomy, the book of the Law given by Moses.
For years, I puzzled about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and its place in our understanding of the season of Lent. After all, Jesus has just been baptised by John, and a sign has been given of his Sonship of God as God’s anointed Son, the Messiah. Then immediately he is sent – by the Holy Spirit – into the wilderness. Lent for us seems all of this in reverse. We spend Lent preparing for baptism – or for most of us, preparing to renew our baptism vows. And again, I asked myself, how could Jesus’ temptation be of any significance for us. He, after all, is God’s anointed Son, the Word of God made flesh. How could he succumb to temptation and sin? It is unthinkable.
And of course it is, for us, unthinkable. Yet this moment in Jesus’ earthly history is important for us. For here we see the reversal of what happened in the Genesis story. There we saw failure through disobedience and consequent disharmony through blame. Here we see Jesus resisting the temptations of what we might describe as his dark side. The temptation to turn stones to bread, to use, or rather to abuse, material resources for a purpose not intended in their creation, and to convince the hungry through an abuse of power. The temptation to adopt celebrity status by floating down from the pinnacle of the Temple, safe as God’s Son in the power of God the Father. The temptation to wield earthly power – though at the ghastly price of denying God.
So in this story of Jesus’ Temptation in the wilderness we see how it is that faithful obedience reverses the vicious cycle of disobedience and failure that humanity inherits from our ancient ancestors. But this reversal, which transforms the idea of Original Sin into a profoundly hopeful doctrine, does not happen by magic. We shall continue to sin and to fail. That’s not the difference that Jesus makes. The difference that he makes is that failures and sin don’t have the last word. As we learn to repent and turn again and again to Christ, we shall progressively through our lives find healing and restoration, and progressively begin to share in the new risen life that comes through the way of the cross which we trace once again this Lent.
So now we turn again in repentance to the Christ who overcame temptation, that baptised in him and fed by him in the Eucharist, we might live as he does – in filial obedience to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.