The First Sunday in Lent (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
2:15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 NRSV
Since our scripture comes from Genesis this morning, it’s probably appropriate to talk about creation. When God created me, God looked upon the little version of me that would become the five-foot, eleven-inch tall man you see before you and decided to endow me with all the willpower normally invested in a weak-minded church mouse. I realize this most often when I’m trying to work. At school, I have the internet: every procrastinator’s best friend and worst enemy at the same time. At home, the distractions are endless. I frequently clean my desk when I’m supposed to be writing. If I have a lot of writing to do, I might clean the office. Come term-paper time, occasionally I even vacuum, which shows true desperation on my part.
Food is my other problem. Since I’ve been married it’s been a little easier, because I know Heather will see how much I’ve eaten and I’ll get in trouble. On the other hand, though, we’ve had ample stocks of sweet things in our house ever since our big day. We finished the wedding cake in time for Christmas candy. We finished Christmas candy, and you all pounded us, including wonderful Valentine’s candy. Since I got started on it early, we had almost finished Valentine’s candy and then Girl Scout Cookies came in. I ate a whole box of those new All-Abouts while I was procrastinating from writing this very sermon.
It’s Just Fruit
There are a few reasons my willpower doesn’t work very well on issues like procrastination and eating too many sweets. The main one is that those are not exactly commandment-level sins. If I never got anything done, that would be one thing. If I ate so much that it prevented me from serving God, that would be one thing, but hey, we’re just talking about a little self-indulgence.
Adam and Eve would have my problem too. “God put us in this garden here and told us we could eat anything! There was that thing about the tree in the middle, but I’m glad he warned us that we would die if we ate it. I don’t want to die. I haven’t gotten started living good.” And then along comes the serpent, the cleverest of all the creatures. How can we tell the serpent is the cleverest? Because he goes to the woman. Win over the man, and you’ve just got a man. Win over the woman, and you’ll have them both because the man will follow right on along.
Adam and Eve’s whole problem with the fruit is that God said it would kill them, so when the serpent assures them that they won’t die, there’s not much obstacle left in their heads. We’ve known the end of the story for so long that it’s hard to remember that they didn’t know how angry God could get yet. So they figure, hey, we were getting a little bored with all the other types of fruit in the world and, after all, fruit is healthy, right? This stuff shouldn’t be off limits, so we’re going to eat it anyway. Furthermore, the snake says we will be able to tell the difference between good and evil. Who knows what that even means, but it sounds like a good thing to know!
The Ends Justify the Means
We are good at figuring that even if something’s technically wrong, there’s a reason it’s OK to do. Maybe Adam and Eve figured that knowing the difference between good and evil was such a useful and important thing that it was worth breaking the only rule God gave them.
“The ends justify the means” is a frequent argument in our heads. “It’s OK to do something that’s not exactly right on my taxes,” we figure, “because I know how to spend money better than the government does.” Or maybe “it’s not wrong to take supplies from work, because they don’t pay me enough.”
This brings up a whole group of sins: the ones that look like they don’t hurt anybody, or the closely-related Robin Hood sins that look like they only hurt rich and powerful people who could stand to lose a little. Those must be the devil’s favorite ones, because when we manage to justify what we do, we sin twice: we do something wrong, and then we lie to ourselves and to God about whether it was wrong to begin with.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, in which he imagines months worth of correspondence between Screwtape, the undersecretary of a department in hell, to his nephew, Wormwood, who is working to encourage sin and evil in a human. The demon Screwtape writes to his nephew:
One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on [the] subject [of gluttony], so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of excess.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 67
Just a little later in the letter, talking about a gluttonous woman, Screwtape says
If ever [God] introduces into her mind a faint suspicion that she is too interested in food, [the demon assigned to her] counters it by suggesting to her that she doesn’t mind what she eats herself but “does like to have nice things for her boy.”
Lewis, p. 68
A big part of the reason we have church is to keep an eye on each other so that we don’t get caught in the larger sins and that we continue to believe rightly. There are laws most of the big sins, and it’s usually hard to commit them in the open. Screwtape and his minions quit focusing on the big stuff, because we got a little to clever for that. They focus instead on things that don’t seem quite so bad to get their foot in the door of our lives, so that it’s not the big sins that cause us the problem, but the little, even more tempting ones that are so easy to justify.
More than Original Sin
I wonder sometimes why this story of temptation is in the Bible. It seems kind of silly. Obviously it was a rookie mistake by God, putting that one tree in the garden that we weren’t supposed to eat. Theologians talk a lot about original sin, the doctrine that says that because Adam and Eve sinned we all inherit a sinful nature, but I don’t think we need this story to understand that. They would’ve managed to sin pretty soon anyway. I think this story is about the forcefulness of sin, but also about the conniving we can do in our heads, or allow other people to do for us, to justify anything we want to do. In fact, as far as I can tell, just about any time we have to justify something to ourselves, it is sin.
I don’t have a problem with the big, commandment-level sins—the ones that I know are wrong and that anyone else could tell are wrong too. I have a problem with the ones that are much more common, like eating things I’m not supposed to and lying to cover up when I’ve made a mistake.
Sin and penitence are important themes that come up a lot as we begin the season of Lent. This isn’t necessarily supposed to be an entire season of feeling bad about the ways we have sinned, are sinning, and will sin in the future, but rather this is the season when we awaken to our sin. We can’t repent from what we haven’t even admitted to ourselves. There is a useful metaphor for the season in today’s scripture. The reaction to recognizing our sin is the same as it was for Adam and Eve: we will feel naked before God.
Temptation doesn’t stop when we recognize our sin: quickly, we’ll look for ways to cover up—to justify ourselves.
“Away with you, Satan!”
At the climax of our gospel lesson, Jesus faces similar temptation:
…the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of
the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if
you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan!
For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Matthew 4:8-10 NRSV
Lent might be the time we figure out that at our worst, we even worship sin. But it is written, and Jesus tells us to “‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” That is a commandment. So much for all those little sins being insignificant.
May we stand in this season naked before God, recognizing our sin, but also the sacrifice of Christ for us, an undeserving people. May we not try to justify the wrong that we do, lest we sin again, but rather strive to return to God.