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Sunday 1 March 2020: Lent 1

Turn away from Sin

Genesis 2:7-15, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

By David Winterburn

Vicar of St James’s, Hampton Hill

Context: Anglican Holy Communion celebrated in a suburban parish

Aim: to teach that we enter lent as ‘more than conquerors’

We like to think we are ‘Masters of the Universe’, but on a good day most of us struggle to do the right thing. Behavioural Economics repeatedly shows that we make decisions without knowing. For example: simply changing the order in which drinks are listed on the menu at McDonald’s influences what people order. By moving Coke Zero to the top of the list, and and regular Coke to the bottom, the sales of Coke Zero increased by about a third. Most of us recognise that it is harder to resist chocolates or biscuits if they are out in view, rather than in the cupboard. These trivial examples are just an illustration of how our environment contains all sorts of nudges and cues that conspire with part of our human nature to lead us away from being the rational self-controlled being we would want to be.

Our readings in different ways deepen this psychological truth. The story of the serpent, Eve and Adam is a masterly telling of how men and women are tempted from the best, God’s way. Although God’s instruction to the man was crystal clear ‘Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, the serpent sows doubt into the woman’s mind ‘Did God really say … ?’ She is attracted to the beauty of the fruit, and what it seems to promise (wisdom) and takes it, bites it and passes it onto the man.

Although some people like to read this as a ‘fall upward’ - so the couple ‘grow up’, knowing good and evil, there is no doubt that the storyteller saw it otherwise. Adam and Eve in shame hide from God, who pronounces a curse on them, and they are driven from the garden. More than a children’s story, Genesis 3 teaches that life in God’s world is orientated around faith and fellowship with Him. Breaking away to do our own thing is not a personal peccadillo, but a rupture at the heart of our own world. God’s path through life may not always be obvious, but to turn aside is to wander into a moral maze.

Paul takes up the story of Adam. Instead of presenting Adam’s choice as between two ways (good and evil) Paul describes two kingdoms, two lordships. Adam opened the door to Sin and Death - then they came in and reigned over everyone. On the other hand, Jesus inaugurates a kingdom of grace, gift and justification. (NB Rom 5:21).

Some of the ways that Original Sin has been taught are not Biblical, or don’t stand up in the modern age. But Paul’s key insight stands true today - none of us has the power to manage ourselves by ourselves, that even if we set out to be kind, loving people we simply don’t always pull it off -we struggle even with chocolate! We are moulded by our nature and our nurture, our history and our culture. And while we like to believe in the moral progress of humanity the horrors of modern history, and now the climate crisis gives us reason to be less confident. As Paul writes in Romans 7: ‘I do the very thing I hate.’

Paul is sketching out the dark side, only to highlight the dramatic difference Jesus makes by his life, death, resurrection and the gift of his Spirit. Christ is vastly greater than Adam. ‘How much more’ is the key phrase in Romans 5. Jesus trumps the old enemies every time.

What Jesus does is invade the world under the dominion of Sin and Death and establish a bridgehead in the enemy’s heartland, a new Kingdom. That’s the truth of our Gospel reading. Three times Jesus is tested by Satan. They are challenges peculiar to him: ‘If you are the Son of God … .’ But because they match his situation, we can be confident that these were real temptations (would we be impressed if Jesus didn’t swear or gossip?). But they also match the failings of the Israelites in the wilderness - who worried about bread, put God to the test and worshipped idols rather than God alone.

So Matthew traces how Jesus undoes the mistakes of Israel; while Paul sees him reversing the failures of Adam. Adam wilfully retreated from God’s certain word; Jesus obediently rests on God’s word. In saying ‘no’ to Satan, Jesus creates a new space, reoccupied ground. Saying ‘yes’ to the Lordship of Jesus, being baptised into Christ, receiving the Spirit, means we are incorporated into his victory over Sin and Death. We are now different people - with a new identity: ‘in Christ’. Sure, Lent is a season of fasting, prayer and discipline - effort; we do need to learn new ways. But we strive knowing that already we share in Christ’s victory by grace -- not even by giving up chocolate!

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