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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/13/2011

The acknowledgement and confession of sin are always central to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but on this first Sunday in Lent sin, or more specifically the temptation to sin, is still very much on the agenda. We've got Adam and Eve in the garden giving in to the temptation of the serpent; we've got Jesus in the wilderness resisting the temptation of the devil. It's kind of a negative example and a positive example but we do need to be careful about reducing this to just being a pep talk to encourage us to be more like Jesus and less like Adam and Eve. Paired as they are, these lessons don't set us up for a pep talk. They have more to do with the nature or the condition of sin which is an overarching Lenten theme; but even more than that, these lessons have to do with the nature of temptation.

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve. It's the story of the "fall," the fall from the goodness of God's creation, a fall caused by the temptation of the serpent or snake and the ensuing act of disobedience by the man and the woman in the garden as they eat fruit from the one tree God said they should stay away from. Traditionally it's understood as the story that explains how sin came into the world as the devil, in the form of the snake tempts the first humans.

For most of us that's our nutshell understanding of this story, but the text itself introduces a few wrinkles that we might want to pay attention to as we think about this. One of the most significant wrinkles concerns the serpent; it is convenient to make him the devil, because that gives us a good vs. evil story, the good God vs. the evil snake. But according to the text, the serpent is not the devil.

The serpent is one of God's creatures, just one who happens to be more crafty than any other of God's creatures. The Hebrew word used here does mean crafty or shrewd, but in some places in the Old Testament it's also translated as sensible which could put a different slant on how we think about this story and on how we think about the nature of this temptation. In any case, one could say, based on the text, that the serpent is not inherently evil but is just a creature who has been given a specific gift or talent.

Playing with this a little more you could say the serpent is the first theologian as he uses his "gift" to raise theological questions; he poses questions about God and that's what theologians do. He is crafty though, as he takes what was a given and makes it an option. The prohibition to eat from the tree at first is just accepted by the man and the woman as a given

part of the order of God's good creation; there is no apparent desire on their part to push back on this prohibition; it's just a fact of their world. But the serpent raises the possibility of making it an option, a barrier to get around, and if they can get around it, the serpent says, they will be like God.

Tradition has always understood the first sin to be the eating of the forbidden fruit, disobedience in other words. With that comes the assumption that sin is defined as doing bad things, disobeying. But the real perversion isn't so much doing the bad thing, it has to do with what doing bad things does to the one who does them.

The sin for Adam and Eve was betraying the identity they'd been given. God had made them his creatures; he had given them gifts; the gift of life, the gift of the boundaries of a safe garden to live in and he'd given them the gift of something to do, to till and keep the garden. Their disobedience was a violation of the gifts and identity they'd been given as God's creatures, but I might suggest that theirs is not the first sin but the second. The first one to betray his gifts was the serpent, who used what he had been given not for good, but to tempt others to be who they weren't supposed to be. With that, he was the first one to betray his identity. Sin in this case though is less about a specific bad action, more about not being who or what you were created to be.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness follows on this. Each of the devil's temptations is about the identity of Jesus. The devil knows who Jesus is; he knows that he's the Son of God. But similar to the technique used by the serpent, the devil wants to take the given ness of Jesus identity and make it contingent on sensible proof. So…if you are the Son of God turn these stones into loaves of bread. If you are the Son of God, dive off this building and let God's angels catch you. Do something spectacular! Give us some proof.

The devil knows that if he can get Jesus to play this game Jesus will betray his identity. Jesus is not the Son of God because he can do amazing things. His identity is a given and it will not be confirmed in amazing displays of power, but quite the opposite. His identity will be confirmed in weakness, on the cross, in his obedience to God's will, in obedience to being who he was called to be. He succeeds at the very point at which Adam and Eve failed.

In recent years remembrance of baptism has become a larger focus during Lent and that too has to do with identity. It is in baptism that we find our identity as children of God and Lent is a time to think about what that means and how to best live out our baptismal identity. Many of you had a cross of ashes traced on your forehead last Wednesday, a reminder of sin and mortality and the ways that we betray our identity. Dipping your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and tracing a cross of water on your forehead as you enter church or leave church or come up for communion on these Sundays in Lent is a good way to remember and consider and renew your identity as a child of God, also providing a sense of cleansing where that cross of ashes was.

Even with that remembrance and renewal though, there will still be times each of us betrays our baptismal identity. The best pep talk imaginable about trying to be more like Jesus and less like Adam and Eve isn't going to change that, the nature of temptation being what it is. In both of the stories we consider today we get examples of how subtle and how sensible temptation can be. It's helpful to be aware of that, but being aware isn't enough; we know that.

All of which makes Psalm 32 an excellent complement to these lessons. It too is about sin and the psalmist knows the reality of sin, the cost of sin, the torment of sin; "My bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer." Not necessarily the language we would use to express the power we know sin has over us and how it feels to be out of sync with God, but still we know what the psalmist is talking about.

The reality of being trapped in sin is expressed, but the reality of forgiveness is also expressed and in fact is the central claim of this psalm. "Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!" It brings to mind Psalm 1 which also begins "Happy are they…" but in Psalm 1 it's those who avoid sin who are called happy. In Psalm 32 however, sin seems to be assumed; it just is; but happiness isn't about avoiding sin, it's about being forgiven.

The path to that forgiveness is honesty, another of the core themes of Lent. The torment experienced by the psalmist happens "While I held my

tongue," which we could say is while I was hiding, while I was wearing a mask, while I was pretending. But…"Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.' Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin."

When we confess our sins we might think we're doing it for God but it's probably more for us. Forgiveness may be possible without confession (it's one of those theological questions you can go round and round on) but, whether or not forgiveness is possible without confession, as was the case for the psalmist, forgiveness can't be experienced until, "I acknowledged my sin to you and did not conceal my guilt." With that experience of forgiveness, we are then free to get on with living. We're free to get on with living, knowing about the subtle and sensible sources of temptation that are out there, but also knowing who we are as baptized children of God.

We know the forgiveness and the identity of baptism; it's forgiveness and an identity that can't be taken away.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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