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Sin and Temptation
Our first lesson today was the classic story of how people began to sin. The original human couple lived in a blissful garden, where there were many fruits to eat and there was hardly any work to do. The only real rule said that they should not eat the fruit from one specific tree. Of course, we all know that the surest way to get someone’s interest in an activity is to forbid them from doing it; that may explain, at least in part, why most mornings I find a group of teenagers smoking beside my house. The poor serpent gets the rap for persuading the woman to taste the fruit, but we know that the real tempter was Satan, who used the serpent to develop the idea that the woman need not obey God. She could see that the fruit was good, so she ate one,
and she shared her new pleasure with the man. Her example was enough for him, and she did not need any fair words or special charms to get him to taste the fruit in his turn. He later tried to pin the blame on her, but he had freely joined her in the picnic and he was fully responsible for his own actions.
Perhaps the first result of their disobedience was relief, with the impression that they got away with something. They had not died on the spot, but they had begun the slow process of dying, and they had shown themselves and God, and anyone else who was watching, that they were not to be trusted. As well, they had died spiritually, because they had lost their innocence defying God’s command and separating themselves from their initial serenity. This defiance is still with us their progeny, as we, like Adam and Eve, are weak and at a permanent risk of succumbing to any sort of temptation, and we often feel like acting as though God could not really know what we are doing or, even if he knows, he cannot do anything about it. We still think that we
can get away with something.
Another consequence of this adventure in error is the acquisition of the knowledge of right and wrong. Before they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve were unaware of wrong. They did nothing wrong and they did not even consider doing anything wrong. They simply enjoyed their life of leisure and accepted the limits which God had given them. After seeing that the forbidden fruit was ‘good’ (what an ironic description!), they ate it and liked it.
Then they realized that they were naked and they sought to cover their bodies, but their real nakedness lay in their exposure to the possibility of sin, of doing what was wrong according to God. People have been abusing this knowledge of right and wrong ever since, and it is only to be expected that they try to hide their actions and their shame. Still today, people show that they are true children of Adam and Eve by making lame excuses for themselves, or blaming someone else for their misdeeds. They may succeed, at least for a while, but they carry their shame with their guilt, and there is only one genuine cure. What is it?
The psalmist knows the answer: sincere confession of our sin to God leads to forgiveness, first by helping us to accept our own responsibility and, more profoundly, by reconnecting us with God through a renewed determination to put ourselves and our actions in harmony with creation. God is not the cartoon character who makes rules just for the fun of fixing limits; God’s laws are actually signposts telling us how to set our lives in the right direction so that we may enjoy the full benefit of living the way we were made to be. If we choose otherwise,
we are punishing ourselves.
All of us will fall short from time to time, but some will make themselves miserable by trying to fool themselves and pretending that they have done no wrong, while others will lose hope by assuming that their sin is so bad that they have no chance of pardon. Both these attitudes are seriously mistaken. God will forgive those who are truly penitent, really sorry for any wrong that they have done which they confess to him. ‘If we say we have no sin, we are fooling ourselves,’ but God will forgive us the sins for which we earnestly repent. No matter how terrible our fault, God will ‘cover’ it, and reach out to us as we try to set a new course in life.
Our reading from Romans obviously concerns the important contrast between Adam and Jesus. There are many, complex interpretations of this passage, with Luther supporting one group of Church fathers and Calvin another. All seem to agree that Paul sees Adam not only as the representative for all people, but even more as a personage who somehow includes all humanity. Through Adam’s sin, every human being is condemned because everybody inherits his sinful nature. Only the man Jesus, who is at the same time the eternal and sinless Son of God, can overcome this bondage to sin and set us all free.
Since Adam’s tragic mistake, human beings have been the prisoners of death and sin, but those who accept the message of Jesus, and put themselves on his way of penitence and love, receive new life that will endure beyond this earthly life into eternity and which, already here and now, can make them new creatures in the love of God; in fact, we can become God’s sons and daughters through our faith in Jesus and our love for God and our neighbours. As Adam’s physical heirs, we remain the prisoners of sin and death, but as reborn heirs of the kingdom, we are the beneficiaries of a new life in Christ.
From today’s gospel reading we learn that Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, the same time of preparation that Moses and Elijah had taken before him. Then Jesus was tested by Satan in three ways, and he spurned Satan’s offers with appropriate verses from Deuteronomy. Like us, Jesus was tempted, but he succeeded in resisting every opportunity to stray from God’s path, even though he was hungry and even though political power and social influence could have made his earthly task much easier.
We meet the same sorts of temptations as Jesus when we try to live a Christian life. We are often most vulnerable when we think we are doing well, as we may become overconfident and lose our focus on God by thinking that we can manage by ourselves. We may want to take unnecessary risks to demonstrate our virtue or to show that God will step in and save us from any stupid plan we may devise. We should have faith that God will provide for our needs, but not our foolishness. And we should be on constant guard against any idea of bargaining with Satan to satisfy our immediate desires.
Most of the world today is in Satan’s power, and the power that Jesus exercises is very different. On the other hand, we cannot bribe God. Nor can we fool God, because he knows us better than we know ourselves. We cannot even give God sincere allegiance that does not match God’s will; in another scene, Peter would try to persuade Jesus to find an easier way to deal with salvation and avoid the cruel death on a cross, and Jesus would repudiate this idea because he, at least, understood the importance of following through with the Father’s plan for salvation. We owe God complete