A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent
Grace to you and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who walks with us through the temptations of this world that we may overcome this world with him. Amen.
“It was very good.”
That’s how Genesis 1 summarizes life in the first days of Creation.
And Genesis 2 paints us this picture (as translated by Robert Alter):
The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…and He placed there the human he had fashioned. And the Lord God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food, and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge…. Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden…. And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.’ And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it…but for the human no sustainer beside him was found.
The human is put to sleep for a quick operation in which the Lord takes out one of his ribs and uses it to fashion a woman, a fellow human to be the sustainer beside him. Life in this very good garden had only one rule: Eat from any tree except the three of knowledge of good and evil; if you eat that tree, you will be doomed to die.
It should have been so simple.
Along comes a serpent to tempt these two humans, telling them to eat the forbidden fruit, saying (again, from Robert Alter’s translation):
‘You shall not be domed to die. For God knows that on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods…’ And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at….
Sadly, we know all too well the story after that: the woman eats first, and then the man. They hide from God, trade accusations against each other, are cast out of Eden, and they are indeed doomed to die. In this first defiant act – how small it seems in hindsight – sin and death enter the world, separating us from God, from our neighbors, from the rest of creation.
And with that, we were enslaved to sin. In this first sin, our First Parents doomed us all to death. As Saint Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” We’re trapped now in a cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats ad mortem.
For after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, surely humans continued their rebellion until the Lord sent a flood of primordial waters to unmake Creation, electing to deliver only Noah and his family. But upon leaving the ark, these few survivors continued to sin and they too returned to the soil from which we were formed.
The Lord called to Abram and Sarai, promising to bless the world through them and their heirs, but numerous were their sins: their distrust of God, their abuse of Hagar and Ishmael. And despite the covenant with the Lord, they rebelled and met our common fate.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, betrayed his twin brother Esau, stealing his birthright and fleeing into the wilderness. His heirs were no better, falling to infighting and betrayal. They sold their brother into slavery, and eventually their descendants were enslaved in Egypt. To deliver these Chosen People, the Lord called Moses – a murderer – and while the Almighty and Moses met on Mount Sinai, the liberated Hebrews fell into idol worship. And generation after generation was taken by the twin diseases of sin and death.
When the people finally entered the Land of Promise, they demanded a king to rule over them, and the Lord blessed Saul, and then David, and both these men gave in to tyranny and abused their people, as did all who took the thrones in Jerusalem and Samaria. And they went to meet their ancestors, returning unto dust and ash.
Countless generations later, we still fall to temptation and death. We are beset on all sides by demonic powers tempting us to put our trust in false idols or make ourselves like gods.
“Money is power. Cling to it. It will keep you safe.”
“You are only worth what you produce. Work work work, at the cost of everything else. Your career is your identity. You are your job, and there is no meaning outside of it.”
“Good fences make good neighbors. You have to keep those other people out; they’re not like you, not deserving of safety.”
“Take this gun. It’s the only thing that will keep you safe. Ignore the bloodshed that it produces.”
“Go ahead and stare down her shirt; she’s inviting you too. She’s asking for it! It’s her fault for putting it all out there.”
We give in to these temptations, allowing death to reign over us, to divide us from God and neighbor, to spread its destruction across the world.
But just as sin and death entered the world through our First Parents, so too has new life entered the world through Christ. Jesus of Nazareth is the new Adam who breaks the cycle of sin and death.
He has certainly faced the same temptations as all of us: entering the wilderness for forty days, where Satan came to him offering bread, security, and all the kingdoms of the earth:
If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread…. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from this pinnacle]; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels…so that you will not dash your foot against the stone….’ All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will just fall down and worship me.
Almost as if to say,
You know what’s coming. You know the agony you’ll endure. Feel that pain in your stomach? Imagine how much worse the cross will be. And how could you possibly suffer the cross if angels are supposed to protect you from a stubbed toe? Does your Father in Heaven truly love you if you have to endure such anguish for these miserable little specks of dirt? Come on, just bend the knee. You can reign without the suffering. My way is a hell of a lot easier.
But unlike every other human to come before, Jesus overcame the temptations and remained obedient: even to the point of dying on a cross. And though he died like one us, he did what no mere human could: he has also conquered the grave. The curses of Sin and Death fall before Christ our Lord.
Christ’s victory was not just for himself. No, God the Son did not take on human flesh just to set an example of obedient living. There’s so much more to the Incarnation than that; sharing in our nature, even suffering the wage of our sin, he died and rose again that we might share in his divinity! As Paul writes, “If, because of one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercised dominion in life through one man, Jesus Christ.”
In Christ, our sins are forgiven, and by the grace of our Lord, we have the freedom to reject sin. We are surely not free from temptation; the powers of this age will still whisper in our ears. But because we are in Christ, we know that we are free to overcome, to choose this day what is good rather than what is sinful.
Instead of dying in sin, we die daily to sin in these waters and join Christ in new and everlasting life.
So come! During this Lenten fast, let us turn toward the Lord. If you haven’t been baptized, come talk to me – Easter is coming, and on that most glorious feast, we will celebrate with you as you are united into Christ’s Resurrection. Join us in these waters, and become the person God created you to be. If you were baptized and have since wandered away, come talk to me and at Easter, renew your baptismal promises. Be welcomed deeper into the communion of saints and strengthened by your participation in the Body of Christ! Come, all! For in seven weeks, we will raise up our voices in praise and thanksgiving for the one who has brought new life to all of us who were dead in sin.
The image of the temptation is taken from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.