Bread, miracles and empire: a sermon for the First Sunday of Lent 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 March 2014: Year A, First Sunday in Lent

SERMON
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17 and 2.25-3.15
Matthew 4:1-11

Bread, miracles, and empire

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time when it is traditional for the Church to encourage Christians to look inward, to think about how we might live more faithfully as Christians. It is a time which makes us face up to our imperfections, our failings. The theological word we use for this is ‘sin’- a word much misused and misunderstood. We often think about ‘sins’- plural- the things you do that you shouldn’t. We could all of us make a list- if we were being really honest- of those actions we have done which we realise were wrong. In the past the Church spoke of ‘deadly sins’ and the Bible itself suggests sins, for example, in the Ten Commandments- all those ‘shalt nots’. But I want to suggest today that the Bible not so interested in those individual wrong actions- your sins (plural), but, instead, is more interested in sin (singular). Today, at the beginning of Lent, I want to think, not about sins (plural). Instead, I want us to think about sin (singular). It is sin (singular) that today’s readings are about. In Genesis chapter 2 and in Matthew chapter 4, we are not given a list of wrong actions. These are stories not about what we do, but who were are.

If sins are things you do, sin is more like a condition, something which directs you in a certain way. If you suddenly feel ill and get covered and red spots, you know that there is something wrong with you. The spots are the symptoms. But what the doctor will be more interested  in what causes the spots- the illness underlying the symptoms. You don’t want something to cover up the spots- you want a cure for measles.

It’s a bit like that with sin. The things that you do- gluttony, anger, violence- your sins (plural) are the symptoms- like the spots you get when you have measles. They are symptoms of the underlying problem- the sin (singular), or what we might call sinfulness.

We can only understand the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapters two and three is we make that distinction between sins (plural) and sin (singular), or sins and sinfulness. If you don’t do that, you could read the story of the fall and come away thinking that the worst sin is eating fruit you’re not supposed to. The story is much deeper than that.

The story of Adam and Eve is not history in the strict sense. It is not a story which happened on a certain day in history. Instead, it is what happens in every day in history. Adam and Eve is the story of Everyman and Everywoman. It’s a parable, if you like- a tale to teach us about ourselves. We have to read it imaginatively- we are asked to imagine a time when the world had just begun, and all was perfect.

Adam and Eve, under the influence of the snake, wanted to know everything. But only God knows everything- their mistake was to try to become like God. When they eat the forbidden fruit, they  discover the terrible price of that knowledge is shame.

Shame was a very important concept in ancient times. It had much deeper and powerful connotations than it does nowadays. Today, we think of shame as a feeling- how we feel if we have done something we know is wrong. In ancient times, shame was more than just a feeling. It described the state of things when things were not right. In the Garden of Eden there was no shame- represented by the nakedness of Adam and Eve. No-one had thought of disobeying the commands of God- all was right with the world. But after eating the forbidden fruit, things were no longer in sync. Adam and Eve had failed to keep God’s law. Not just Adam and Eve, but the entire universe was in a state of shame. And their awareness of that shame led to them to make clothes, to cover themselves, to cover their shame. Sewing their fig leaves, Adam and Eve are attempting a cover-up. Paradise is lost, and the gates to the garden of Eden will soon close behind Adam and Eve, as humankind will begin its long exile from God.

We are all of us well practised in the art of the cover-up. Just on Friday, the news had stories of cover-ups at the Metropolitan Police over the Steven Lawrence case, and at Network Rail over level crossing accidents. In both cases, families of victims are having their distress compounded by the inability of large organisations to come clean with them and tell them what happened. But it is not just organisations which act like that. We all of us, in our personal lives, have things we are not proud of, things which make us ashamed. Christian Aid are trying to campaign to make sure that multinationals pay tax on the profits they make in various developing countries- taxes which would pay for schooling, healthier and security in these places. The problem is that the profits are syphoned off through offshore companies in places like the Cayman Islands, and its very difficult to trace it all, for the corporations are their best to cover it all up. In each of these cases, I think the cover-ups happen because the organisations involved are ashamed of themselves.

Adam and Eve attempted to cover themselves up before God. This is a symbol of a world in a state of shame, for all is no longer as it should be. But nothing can be covered up from God. St Paul describes the result: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and his sin brought death with it. As a result, death has spread to the whole human race because everyone has sinned’ (Romans 5.12). We live in a world that’s just not right, and which too often tries to cover up its wrongdoing.

To put all this right, to reverse Adam’s mistake- that’s what Christians believe Jesus was all about. Our Gospel reading today tells part of the story. Once again, we are in the realm of parable. The story of Jesus and the devil has always seemed to me to be a story which tells of some inner struggle that Jesus had- fighting his demons, if you like. I don’t know if happened exactly this way on a certain day in history, and frankly, I don’t care. For this tale has significance for every day in history. For once again, this is a tale about us. Like Adam, like Everyman, like you and I, Jesus is tempted to disobey God’s way. But unlike Adam, unlike Everyman, unlike you and I, Jesus defeats his demons.

Those temptations were very special to Jesus, because of who he was. None of us are tempted to turn stones into bread, because we can’t. Yet we are tempted to live on bread alone. We ignore the reality that there is more to life than just the material. We kid ourselves that if had more money, a better car, a bigger house, we’d be happy. But it cannot be done. We know that, but we constantly need to be reminded, as Jesus told the Devil, that we cannot live on bread alone.

When Christ tells the Devil that we need to depend on God, the devil challenges him:  OK, says Satan, let’s see if you really depend on God. I’ll take you up to the highest tower on the Temple. Jump. Surely God will save you? And since Jesus had quoted scripture, when he said that human beings can’t live on bread alone, the Devil quotes scripture to Jesus. (Here’s a we reminder to us that even the Devil can quote scripture). Satan quotes a Psalm, which speaks of how God would send his angels to ‘hold you up with their hands, so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones’. But Jesus refuses to jump. He will not put God to the test, he will not approve of trying to bargain with God.

We cannot bargain with God, yet I think many of us try it, as if we were small children who needed bribed to behave- I’ll do this, father, if you promise me sweets. Living in faith- living in dependence of God is not like that. Sometimes people say that God will provide, as if God will give them whatever they want. But usually in fact, what God has provided them with is the brains and brawn to earn what we need. Rely on God, but don’t expect miracles (although enjoy them if they do come along).

And so, rebuffed a third time, the Devil takes Jesus to another high place- a mountain top, somewhere you can see all the nations and wealth of the world. Surely, this is what Jesus has come to possess- the power and the glory forever! Yes, maybe one day Jesus will be king of all this. But it will be a struggle, and he already senses what sort of struggle it will be. And so the Devil offers a shortcut: ‘You can have all this, if you simply kneel and worship me’.

Here is the temptation to kneel in worship of some other God, to allow something or someone else to take God ought to have in our lives. To which the only reply that there can be is, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’. Later, Jesus will tell his disciples that there is no profit to anyone who gains the whole world at the expense of his soul. (Matthew 16.26). Lose hold of God, and you lose everything.

So these stories from Genesis and Matthew this morning haven’t given us a list of sins. Rather, they have given us clues into the nature of sin- sin singular, a much more radical and dangerous thing altogether. Sin is not what we do, but what makes us do it. And the Bible is clear that even if we are created good, still we live in a world out of sync, a world which is not as it should be.

We are, we humans, a terrible mixture of good and bad. Most people enjoy sport. At it’s best, it can be a way for us to learn teamwork, or to keep fit, or simply to have the innocent enjoyment of watching talented people kicking a ball around in ways none of us could manage to. In 2022 the football World Cup will be held in the Gulf state of Qatar. Already this tiny, oil-rich state has embarked on an enormous programme of building works- stadia, hotels, transport infrastructure- in readiness for the tournament. They are obviously out to attract- and impress- many visitors from around the world. The construction work is being carried out by around a million immigrant labourers from South Asian nations like India and Nepal. However, they are living in terrible conditions, in huge, filthy dormitories. Many are trafficked in, and have to give up their passports to the employers, so that even if they want to, the cannot get home. They are paid a pittance, have no union rights, and work very long hours. Not surprisingly, their workplaces are very, very dangerous, even by the worldwide standards of the construction industry. The BBC reported this week, ‘Last year, 185 Nepalese workers died, many from heart failure, and 450 Indian workers have died since 2012. Figures of deaths from other nationalities have not been published… the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, says it is “an exceptionally high mortality rate”. She says if this trend continues some 4,000 workers will die before the first World Cup football kick-off’. She describes Qatar as ‘a 21st Century slave state’1. Sport should be a source of innocent pleasure, a celebration of physical skill. But it’ll be hard to enjoy the beautiful game knowing that thousands died-avoidably- to make the 2022 World Cup possible.

Human beings are capable incredible compassion and generosity, but also of unspeakable brutality and evil. We have been created good, but something has gone wrong. And all of this know this, because we know ourselves, even as we try to cover it up.

When the Apostle Paul wrestled with the meaning of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, he found himself comparing Jesus to Adam. ‘Adam was a figure of the one who was to come’ he says (Romans 5.14b). Adam represents what happens when we all fail, when we let sin in. Jesus, however, was the one who battled his demons and managed to come through without giving in. And so, says Paul, ‘… as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor.15.22, NRSV). Jesus reverses the fault of Adam.

If Adam is humanity at its worst, Jesus is humanity at its best. All of us have something of Adam with in us- that sense of shame, those things that we try to cover up. Even if you avoid committing sins (plural) you can never escape the fact that sin (singular) is part of who you are. Yet Christian faith means having something of Jesus within you as well. We are capable of goodness, because we have something in common with Jesus as well. For example, we can learn from him- what it means to struggle for what is right and true, what it means to worship only the one true God, how we can manage to stick to the narrow path. Matthew tells us that the Devil eventually left Jesus, ‘and angels came and helped him’. A reminder, perhaps, as we begin Lent, that we are not left alone to struggle with sin. Whether you are struggling to survive, wishing that rocks would turn to bread, or if you are at dizzying heights where you are tempted to worship another God- remember, you have been baptised. For Christ lived and died and rose again. You belong to Christ, not to the other fellow. Persevere, and you’ll find angels will help you.

Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo