Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Every detail has a purpose when it comes to reading scripture. One might well wonder what the purpose of the serpent is here. There has been lots of ink spilt over this passage, but for today, I’m going to go with the idea that somebody had to introduce temptation — choice between what’s right and wrong — into the idyllic scene in Eden. If you never know that you have a choice, it’s hard to say that you have free will.
And so, the serpent — in this account, a creature of God like everything else in the garden — is given the task of inserting the skillful question, “Did God really say…?” Over the years, interpreters have placed the image of Satan and the devil on this moment in Bible history, and it certainly relates to the gospel passage for today in which Jesus must face his own temptations. But try for a moment to let the story be what it is — a simple story about what it’s like to face a choice between something that looks good, seems delightful, appears to be desirable (not to mention something that will make you more desirable!) — and what you’ve always been told is a sure path to pain, suffering, heartache, and the death of openness, honesty, and trust.
Which of us really thinks that we might have avoided the first taste of the fruit? (The text doesn’t say that it was an apple, though that is most likely what’s in your mind.) As creatures of free will, the power to choose is ours; but, the cost for such power and freedom is the “right” to live with the consequences of our choices. In the moment that we choose, we often discover that we are naked (not that there was ever anything wrong with that!)
Why do you think the first response of the man and the woman was shame? Why did they feel the need to cover themselves?
The psalm opens with a happy discussion about regaining the clarity of spirit, soul, and mind that comes with the acknowledgment and forgiveness of sin. Whew, it feels good when you know you’ve been caught — or after a time of carrying the heavy weight of secret sin — to get it all out in the open and have it dealt with, doesn’t it? Even if it costs you and there’s restitution to be made, it’s all worth it just to feel “right” again.
Notice in vv.2-4 that the body is very much affected by what happens in the mind and the spirit. Have you ever experienced this? Why would the body “waste” and our spirits “groan” as long as we have a problem with sin in our lives?
Notice also the remedy for such malady, given in vv. 5-7; what does the text say is the key to gaining relief from the pain and suffering of hiding our wrongdoing?
The Apostle Paul, writer of the book of Romans, loved to go on and on when he was captivated by a theological idea. This series of verses is a great example of a kind of theological run-on sentence — which most of us were taught to avoid when we learned our grammar and composition! But, it is a sublime statement if you boil it down to its most basic thought.
Begin reading in v. 12, then skip over all the other stuff (good stuff, but not necessary on first reading in order to get at what Paul wants to say) and go to the last phrase of v. 19. Doing so shows you the original sentence Paul had in mind before he was struck with his biblical flight of fancy:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned– so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Now, with that idea firmly fixed in your mind, go back and read all the in-between stuff that Paul wrote. It’s a fabulous passage and wonderful statement of how, though we all are prone to follow the way of our ancient ancestor, Adam, who chose the way of disobedience to God, we are now able to choose the way of forgiveness, peace, and life through the obedience of Jesus Christ.
Ooh, I almost felt like taking off on a little flight of fancy myself!
This passage serves as the scriptural basis for our practice and observance of Lent for the next 40 days (Sundays excluded.) Jesus spent this intense time in the wilderness facing questions about his identity as the Son of God. The temptation — or “testing,” as the word may be translated — was to demonstrate just how strong was his resolve to choose, time and again, to follow the will of God.
We might say that Jesus spent these 6 weeks seeking to understand just exactly who he was and what God wanted him to do. That is our purpose in Lent, as well; we seek to take the extra time to focus internally on our spiritual state, and externally on the will of God as revealed to us in scripture (notice that Jesus repeatedly used the resource of scripture in his encounter with the devil) and in the life of our Savior.
An excellent Lenten discipline, as you study scripture with others for the next 6 weeks, would be to keep a notebook (or laptop) with your thoughts and answers to these same two questions: what do I understand about who God wants me to be? What am I learning about what God wants me to do?
If you undertake this effort, you may be very powerfully surprised at what you will learn when you flip back to read your notes some time after Easter.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I was with a group of clergy the other day and heard about an acolyte who caught her hair on fire during communion. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it had to do with a relatively small chancel, lots of candles including torches in floor-stands, and longish hair. At some point she got too close to a candle and her hair caught on fire. At first people just smelled it, then she turned to one side and the choir saw it, then the assisting minister saw it and started beating it out with his hands while family members got up from their pews and headed for the front. After it was all over, someone commented to her about how calm she had been and she drew herself up and said, “I AM an acolyte and acolytes DO NOT panic!”
It is good to know who you are and how it is you are expected to behave. Our Gospel Reading from Matthew turns on those very questions of identity. While Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting and praying, he wrestled with bedeviling questions of identity; of what it meant to be “the beloved Son of God.”
In last the verse of Matthew, chapter 3 – following Jesus’ baptism, we hear God’s voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then today’s reading starts, with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where the devil begins to work on him. The devil does not question whether or not Jesus is the Son of God – that’s not what “if you are the Son of God” means in this text. It’s more like, “If you are the Son of God, (and I know that you are).” Perhaps something like “since you are the Son of God,” gets at the meaning better. The devil is attempting to lead Jesus away from the true path into an almost true path.
First, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his powers to satisfy his own needs. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t turn these stones into loaves of bread. Jesus was fasting, so it is reasonable to assume that he was hungry.
Then, the devil tried to get him take an easy way to calling attention for his message. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t you throw yourself off the temple? God won’t let you die and people will know who you are and listen to you.
Finally, the evil one put aside all pretense and said it plainly, “Worship me, and I will let you rule the world.”
All of these temptations have an almost rightness about them. Stones into loaves; feed a hungry world. When you throw yourself off the temple and the angels catch you, everybody will know you are the Son of God; they will really listen to and obey you. Rule the world; wow, you can legislate morality, create peace with justice, usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But, but. These temptations also have an air of desperation about them. “Okay, I’m the Son of God. What do I do now? My father expects a lot from me, and I’m not totally sure about what it is I’m supposed to do.”
While Jesus is fasting and praying and thinking these things, the devil comes and offers his “suggestions.” And Jesus responds, “I am the Son of God, and the Son of God does not panic.”
The Son of God trusts the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit to lead him to a clear awareness of who he is and what it is he is called to do.
Lent is a time for us to fast and pray and think about questions of identity and mission; of who we are and what it is we are to do. And like the acolyte with her hair on fire, we must not panic.
We must firmly say “I am a beloved child of God, and children of God do not panic!”
Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit also came upon us. Just as the voice from heaven claimed Jesus as God’s beloved Son; at our baptism words were spoken that made it clear that we too are claimed and loved by God. And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, we too have been led into a time of prayer and fasting.
Both as individuals and in our congregation, it is important for us to take this time to look at our lives, to reflect on the gifts God has given us, the abilities God has blessed us with, the opportunities and relationships God has laid before us, and ask ourselves, “Am I, are we, using these things for ourselves only, or are we using these gifts to reach out to and serve the world in God’s name and with God’s love?”
As a congregation, are we anxious about our future, anxious enough to attempt desperate measures to make the world notice us again? As a Christian people in an increasingly secular nation and world, are we so concerned about pushing our agenda that we will engage in political strong-arming to get our way in the public square?
Or, are we sufficiently confident in our identity as children of God, trusting enough in God’s love and guidance; to step out into God’s future full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever mission and ministry God has in store for us.
I close with a prayer that is found in the service for Evening Prayer in both the Lutheran Book of Worship (p. 153) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (p.317)
“O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Amen and amen.