Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
James V. Stockton
I read a story about a parish priest and her congregation. Preaching a sermon one Sunday, the priest makes the observation that there is a total of 789 possible ways for a person to sin. By the end of that week, she receives over ninety requests for a copy of the list. Please know that I have never seen this list. So, I won’t be able to provide anyone with a copy of it.True or not, the story does illustrate the curious fact that people can be far more intrigued by sin than by its opposite. Many of those things to which sin refers are forbidden topics, things not spoken of in polite company. At the same time, sin includes behaviors, thoughts, and feelings with which people are very familiar. Stealing, lying, cheating, these are common examples of wrong-behavior. Along with more extreme and heinous crimes, these are recognizable to virtually everyone as sin, even to people who don’t typically use the phrase. The question then arises, though, doesn’t it, that if the vast majority of people agree that these behaviors are plainly wrong, why is there a need to create laws that forbid them?
In theology, there are two basic views of humanity. One is called a ‘low anthropology.’ It emphasizes what people often refer to as ‘the fall.’ We hear about it in this morning’s reading from the Old Testament. A low anthropology holds that humanity is essentially corrupt and that God’s task is to punish and correct this innate sinfulness of humankind. The alternative view is called a ‘high anthropology.’ This view emphasizes the original sanctity of humanity as reflected in the creation story that precede the fall, where God creates humankind and sees that it was very good. A high anthropology holds that humankind is essentially a reflection or image of God, and that its union with God is humanity’s very nature.
Think now about your own theological anthropology. Our view of humanity affects how we hear the story of the garden and how we understand Jesus’ encounter with the world and with the sin that he finds in it. Any of who have children and all of us who once were children know full well how to raise a child’s interest in anything: simply tell him, tell her, to leave it alone. Is it fair for God to put temptation itself smack dab in the middle of paradise? If you and I can child-proof our homes, can God not human-proof the garden? For the ancient Israelites, it is the serpent, who persuades Adam and Eve to do what God has instructed them not to do. In the view of the ancients, it is not the innate sinfulness of humankind, but evil itself that initiates sin into the world.
The temptation to be like God, probably does strike a cord somewhere within humankind collectively and often individually. It’s the temptation to believe that that humanity can outgrow its irrational fears of an angry punitive god or its concerns about pleasing a deity for the sake of reaping some wonderful reward. The irony of course, is that the Church, certainly the Episcopal Church, agrees that humanity can indeed outgrow these things; but it can do so only as God guides humanity to deeper and richer relationship with God.
They ate, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, they knew that they were naked….” The instant that they say ‘No’ to God, they become self-conscious and uncomfortable. Apart from themselves as never before, apart form one another, they are instantly also apart from God. Division among peoples, division of the person from himself, from herself, and division from union with God: this is the success that evil seeks. This is the success that evil seeks then with Jesus, too. It’s the temptation that Jesus must face in order to be fully human while also fully divine.
‘Take care of your self,’ the devil says. ‘Eat something. Turn some of the stones into bread.’ There is something very human about the drive to set aside everything else and everyone else in order to achieve a sense that one’s survival is secure. For Jesus, though, to live is to do more than to survive, and in the provision of God there is life indeed. Jesus will not set aside his trust in God’s faithfulness. So the devil has a proposition. ‘If God is so dependable, why not prove it for all to see? Toss yourself from the Temple roof, and let God send the angels of heaven to save your life, as scripture promises God will do.’ Jesus, though, does not take the gift of life so lightly. To risk it pointlessly is not an act of faith, but a demonstration of utter disregard for the gift and for the giver. He understands that the opposite of faith in God is just such apathy; apathy toward the existence of God, toward the sovereignty of God, toward the goodness of God. Jesus rejects the plan.
‘You really are a superior man,’ the devil then seems to say. I can see that you deserve all that God intends to give you. So, I’m going to make it even easier. Just drop down on your knees and praise me a little bit. Then I’ll give to you all the kingdoms around the world.’ The devil has tempted Jesus to compromise his relationship with God in himself, in heaven, and now, in the world around him. ‘Only God is God,’ says Jesus. ‘As for you, go away.’ The temptation all along is to usurp God, with self-justified means to accomplish holy ends. And Jesus does not succumb.
You and I may find analogies here to the temptations that we face in our lives. If so, that’s a good thing, and God, I think, intends it. With nothing but his humanity, Jesus provides us an example that we may try to emulate. But, again, is it fair? Is it fair to place a forbidden tree with forbidden fruit in the middle of perfection and paradise? Is it fair to drive Jesus into a hostile environment and solitude to face the devil in person? And finally, is it fair to give us the example of Jesus, fully human, yes, but also fully God, by which to measure ourselves? And the answer is: if God expects you and me never ever to sin again, then, no, it isn’t fair at all. And so it comes to: What is our theological view of humankind? And what is our human view of God?
If humanity is by nature a base, cold, cruel, and selfish creature, then it is unkind and unfair of God to ask us to be more. The temptation to do as we are told not to do is one to which we are going to succumb sooner or later, and surely God knows this. So, where is there justice in creating an attractive but forbidden tree? But if humanity is by nature a spiritual creature, originally and essentially in unique relationship with God and even somehow part of God in the world today, then the tree is necessary, and so also our vulnerability to its temptation. More than fair, the presence of the tree is grace.
God does not take us prisoner. Instead God gives us freedom, with an invitation to choose God, as God has chosen us. The ability to say ‘yes’ to temptation and, thus, ‘no’ to God, is the same freedom to say ‘no’ to temptation and say ‘yes’ to God.
And because, unlike Jesus, you and I are not without sin, this freedom is a gift that survives. Every day we compromise our faithfulness to God, and dishonor God’s faith in us, and it survives. We make mistakes, even when we try our best, and it survives. We tell little lies that mean nothing, that lead to big lies that challenge everything that God is trying to help us to become, but it survives. And we err even when we’re not aware of it. Ye, the freedom to choose God is a gift that survives our sins, because God still sees in us in the image of God, and so God still sees that we are very good.
If you find yourself wondering today, or tomorrow, just what are those 789 ways that a person might sin, choose to wonder also how it is that we turn back to God, from a fascination with the mystery of sin, from familiarity with it, from well-meaning error, from too-high or too-low a regard for the humanity of self. Choose to wonder how it is that when we turn to God, upwardly, inwardly, and even outwardly to those around us, we discover God’s forgiveness there, God’s Love given to us in ways too many for us to count.
So may God, by whom the humble are guided, grant that as we put away the old ways of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our lives, and dwell in righteousness and true holiness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.
© 2008 James V. Stockton