(a sermon for February 21, 2021, the 1st Sunday in Lent, based on Genesis 2:15-17, 25-3:15, 22-24 and Matthew 4:1-11)
And so now the journey begins…
As you well know, I have long been fond of referring to the season of Lent as a journey; but the question is, what do I actually mean by that? Well, let me just say it’s a good question, and I can give you a couple of answers to that: first off, since in these next six weeks leading up to the celebration of Easter we in the church spend time recalling the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the season of Lent serves as a reminder of the actual physical journey Jesus made to Jerusalem and to all that awaited him there; from triumphal entry to betrayal and denial, mocking and scourging, and then suffering and death. So this Lenten journey of which we speak is most definitely the journey of our Lord, but it’s also our journey as well: for as I am also fond of saying, you and I cannot truly come to the joy of Easter’s resurrection without having first experienced in some fashion the agony of Good Friday’s crucifixion; taking up our own crosses as we follow Jesus unto the cross of Golgotha. Obviously, for you and me it’s not a physical journey, but it is a journey of the spirit, a pilgrimage of faith and remembrance of how Jesus, our Savior, has already taken that journey for us; an all-important affirmation that he carried all of our sin and our weakness upon his own shoulders even unto death, and did so willingly and in infinite love. In the words of the late orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, ours is a journey of “rediscovery of what we were made through our own death and [our] resurrection in our baptism in Jesus Christ.”
In other words, this is a journey centered on re-identifying and revitalizing our identity with Jesus Christ… one day, one week, one step at a time. Schmemann described it this way: “As we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see – far, far away – the destination. It is the joy of Easter; it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, this foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright, and our efforts [along the way] a ‘spiritual spring.’ The night might be hard, dark and long,” Schmemann concluded, “but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.”
Now, I speak about all this today because it occurs to me that many of the scriptural themes we address along the way of our journey through this “spiritual spring” are, for lack of a better word, kind of “heavy,” and represent a rather sudden shift of emphasis. I mean, up till now in this Christian year, in and through the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany we’ve been building on scriptural themes of light bursting forth into the darkness of this world; divine promises of unending hope and even joy breaking into our lives amidst the very real challenges of these strange, uncertain days in which we dwell. I have to say that for me as a preacher – and I hope for you as a listener – there’s a spiritual vitality about all of this that cannot help but resonate in our hearts. But now, seemingly all of a sudden, the season of Epiphany comes to a close and the season of Lent begins; and what’s the first thing we encounter in our reading of scripture; what’s the inaugural spiritual truth awaiting us along these first few steps of our Lenten journey?
Original Sin! That’s right; the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise… oh, and also, if that weren’t enough, there’s also that little matter of temptation to sin, as described in the story of Jesus’ 40 days spent in the wilderness!
I know… it all sort of ruins the mood, doesn’t it… not exactly the most uplifting of sermon topics, either!
But you see… in those two stories lay an essential truth… the truth that this is who we are. And if we’re going to talk about sin and redemption; if we’re going to make this journey to the cross and even begin to understand the reasons that Jesus went to that cross to die; if we’re truly to burst forth with our alleluias on Easter, then it’s going to need to start with the simple and yet all-too-difficult acknowledgment that we are the sinners for whom Jesus died. Without that very basic confession, all the epiphanies that have been revealed to us in Christmas light are meaningless, and the Easter hymns of victory that we’ll sing six Sundays from today cannot help but ring hollow.
Granted, it’s not easy to hear that familiar story of the “fall” of Adam and Eve and recognize ourselves as the ones who have fallen; much easier and more convenient to hear this story in the context of the Genesis creation story and to think of it merely as the beginning of a longer biblical narrative about the relationship between God and God’s people. But what we have in that text is a very close to home example of people who are given the opportunity and every possible resource to live in faithful covenant with God, and yet turn away from God at the earliest opportunity; and moreover, do so again, and again and again. And if we’re being honest, that happens more often than we are willing to admit to ourselves! Bottom line, we don’t like to picture ourselves as people who try, quite often automatically and unknowingly, to live by our own rule; as if God had no real hold on our lives.
And yet, there we all are.
Likewise, it’s more than a little uncomfortable hearing of Jesus’ strength against the same kinds of temptation that you and I may well suspect, deep down, that if it’d been us, we’d been unable to resist. After all, what were the temptations that the devil set before Jesus? Actually, when you break it down, it comes down to the basic temptations of human life: first, it was sustenance; represented as bread in the face of hunger. Second, it was acceptance: by jumping from the top of the temple and having angels lift him up in the sight of all the people, the result would be that immediately Jesus would be known to all as the true Messiah; and isn’t that what so many of us yearn for, the feeling of being recognized and accepted and loved? And then third, it was power: power personified in the tempter’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Sustenance, acceptance and power: three different ways that the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness; three major temptations of our own lives!
Now, I should point out here that on the face of it, those three things don’t sound all that sinful; after all, sustenance keeps us strong, acceptance brings us love, and power, properly yielded, protects us. But when sustenance becomes avarice, acceptance becomes self-adoration and power breeds corruption; well, then we’re back at the Garden of Eden and the original sin of desiring to be more like God than… God! That’s what the tempter was tempting; but what we read in Matthew’s version of this gospel story is that Jesus – fully God and yet, fully human – chose not to sin.
Oh, that we could say the same… but once again, there we are.
As I said before, this is not an easy truth to confront! I’m reminded here of a seminary classmate who was serving as a student pastor of a small congregation out in the backwoods of Maine. In fact, Neil had only been at this church for a few weeks when Lent began and the scripture readings for that particular Sunday were the same ones we’re looking at today. And I’ll never forget it; a bunch of us were in the cafeteria doing a “post-portem” of sorts on our sermons that Sunday, and Neil confessed that it was one of the most difficult times he’d yet experienced as a preacher. “I just kept looking out into that congregation and all those sweet, elderly ladies who were smiling back at me; all these pillars of the church who were always so very kind to me, who regularly made me casseroles and baked cookies for me… and here I was, standing in the pulpit and preaching this sermon where I was supposed to look squarely in the eyes if all these women and tell them that they’re all nothing but sinners!”
And we all nodded our heads, because we’d all had pretty much the same experience! Hey, I’m having the same experience right now, and I can’t even see you!
But that’s who we are… and, needless to say, that’s who I am as well.
The fact is, beloved, I AM A SINNER. God help me, I am a sinner! And understand me when I say to you that you all are sinners as well. Trust me, I don’t like saying it about you anymore than I want to say it about me; but that’s who we are. It’s simply a truth of our human existence, permeated into our common experience since the time of humanity’s fall from grace. Recognizing this truth in ourselves is akin to walking on a journey of darkness and despair; but here’s the thing: remember what we were saying earlier about this journey being one of “bright sadness?” About looking to the horizon and sensing a “mysterious and radiant dawn?” That’s the other part of this spiritual truth that we encounter on the journey: the effect of limitless grace of divine love on human life: our life, yours and mine. Yes; speaking biblically and theologically we do have an identity with “the fallen Adam” in our bondage to sin, but also have an identity with Christ: Christ, who is the new Adam; Christ, who is the one who overcomes sin and leads us to become a new creation; Christ who brings redemption and sets us forth on a new life in which sin has no power over us, a new life in which God’s mercy, forgiveness and love informs us and guides us along every fresh step of the way.
And the incredibly wonderous thing about all of this is that in Christ, if we stumble as before (and we will stumble, make no mistake: it’s like what I tell our kids during children’s sermons: you’re good sometimes and you’re bad sometimes. And you try real hard to be good, but at the end of the day you’re gonna be… good sometimes and bad sometimes!), and we will stumble, but now, you see, instead of our spiraling endlessly down to hopelessness and death, here’s Jesus to willingly take the burden of that sin off of our shoulders, carrying it as his own! It’s a gift of divine salvation given us upon the cross nearly two millenia ago, and yet it’s still happening even now: it’s given every time we lay the burden of our sin before the Lord. Yes, we are each and all sinners, but by grace we are saved and set forth again on a pilgrimage of life and living.
What does that mean for us as we start out on another Lenten journey, to say nothing of the journey of life? I love what the late Lawrence Hull Stookey wrote in response to this: he spoke of life as “a pilgrimage that we need not fear… You [and I],” he writes, “walk in the land between the river of Eden and the river of the eternal city of God. Once [we] are headed in the right direction, there is no cause for ultimate anxiety. And, if along the way, [we] are caught without an umbrella in a sudden shower, even then… particularly then, [we] remember [our] baptism in Christ, and [are] thankful!”
Friends, in these days of Lent as in all of life, we dwell in this land between those two rivers: our movement of our lives involves moving from the one river (where exists self-centeredness, sin and isolation) to the other (which runs clear and cool with fulfillment, faith and the very embodiment of God’s vision and intention for us. Along the way, we stumble and fall; we quite often take one step back for every two along (if we don’t end up totally losing ground!); and we’ll stall from time to time, or find ourselves obsessively running in circles. It’s a long way to go, and the journey is arduous at best.
But the glory of our faith as Christians, beloved, is that we do not make this journey alone, but ever and always in fellowship with Christ. We just keep walking, with Christ’s help, even amidst the “bright sadness,” and eventually… and certainly… we arrive at the banks of the river of the city of God, experiencing the wonder the wonder and the glory of that promised kingdom.
And so let us begin the journey again, assured that our destination is well worth the effort.
And may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.