Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 26 February 2023.
• First Reading: Genesis 2: 15–17; 3: 1–7 (Man put in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it)
• Epistle: Romans 5: 12–17 (Just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous)
• Gospel: Matthew 4: 1–11 (Jesus tempted in the wilderness)
The charge against the church, among other things, is that it is keen on condemning people and has too gloomy a view of human nature. Of course people will also complain about the church in other ways but this complaint is a semi-permanent feature.
Yet to look at the progress of human society, the scorecard of crime, war and oppression, not to mention pride, greed and lust does rather bear out the more discordant of the church’s observations on human society.
For some, it is the structures of society that are at fault, so change society – from the top down and starting with the organs of government and the means of compelling obedience to its demands – and all will be well.
For others, progress is to be found in science and technology. Just give the scientists and engineers a free hand and all will be well. Not too many questions on just how these are to be given their moral compass, but perhaps this is also a technical issue that will resolve itself.
The traditions of Judaism and of Christianity find that the faults of society and of the world in general are to be found in the depths of the human heart and will. Without some kind of community direction, these will turn inward for their moral compass and then they will turn outward as they exercise it.
The strongest will prevail and the weakest will comply or succumb.
But the bible also gives us a further account of human self-will. The first people were innocent in all respects but turned against the God who had created them in pursuit of that self-will. It was a will determined to seek its own ends, but independent of the will of God.
Yet Genesis makes the whole enterprise deeply personal. God personally put Adam and Eve in charge of the Garden of Eden, and gave them a free hand subject to only one limitation. Avoid that tree in the middle of the garden. There are plenty of other trees to use – just don’t eat the fruit of this one.
But then the temptation was also deeply personal. The serpent was crafty – speaking to Eve when she was alone and twisting and contradicting what God had said. Eventually, she succumbed but we do not know how long the evil assault on her lasted. We only know that she passed some of the fruit to Adam, who had not been so tried, and he fell into it straight away.
But it is interesting that writing to the church in Rome, St Paul does not refer to the sin of Eve. It is all about the sin of Adam.
And his point is that what the first Adam had lost in his state of innocence, but from his deliberate rebellion, the second Adam – Jesus Christ – restored, having assumed human life and flesh and having faced down the assaults of the same evil one who had brought down Adam and Eve.
The One who was born into a very human society with every kind of evil and temptation on hand, and with a life of being tempted to secure God’s plan of salvation in His own way but not in God’s way, went in total obedience to God to the cross and after that was wholly vindicated in the resurrection.
What Adam had freely forfeited, Jesus freely restored by going to the cross. What had fallen into weakness was raised in unbelievable power.
What had fallen apart in the name of self-fulfilment and self-realization was restored to glory by a single act of total self-giving and self-abasement.
Nobody seeking advancement is going to go to the cross. That is not how things work – but this was precisely what Jesus did, in complete obedience to God, His Father.
But this sense of avoiding the cross was the very focus of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness above the Jordan Valley.
Satan had three particular approaches, but they all started with trying to get Jesus to doubt Himself: IF YOU are the Son of God – then prove it.
Next, he sought to undermine Jesus’ confidence in the scriptures and this Jesus also resisted, by using scripture correctly and not doubting its authority.
Next, even if this trial did not bear fruit, there would be other opportunities. Even when these failed, other people – including those closest to Him – could be used instead.
As to the temptations themselves, all were about seeking salvation without embracing the cross. Feed the masses, take political power, or just entertain them.
All these temptations are present in Christian experience today. Doubt your own salvation and/or doubt the scriptures.
Otherwise there are the attractions of political power, generating public acclaim through good deeds or just by entertaining and distracting the masses.
In other words, do anything you like so long as you avoid the cross – and certainly do not speak about it. It is so unfashionable, so out of date, and it makes you look silly.
The fact that it makes people feel uncomfortable is quite beside the point.