Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
It was at this same time of the year, in the church of two thousand years ago, that people had to decide if they wanted to be baptized into the community of Jesus. It was no small decision. Taking a cue from the gospel story today, when Jesus was led into the wilderness just after his identity reveal as God’s Beloved Son, the earliest process of joining the church involved forty pretty intense days. What we now call Lent.
The Bible stories we’ll be reading for the next five Sundays are thought to have been the core of the Church’s original teaching sequence. Each set of lessons presented a spiritual question and opportunity for prayer and discernment on the way to baptism at the Easter Vigil service.
It was not assumed that every aspiring follower of Jesus would be baptized and join the church. Everyone understood that being a Christian would demand of them great commitment to the Way of Jesus. In the classic Greco-Roman world this decision for baptism could come at the expense of their reputation, their livelihood, and even their children’s future advancement.
But that’s not all. Perhaps the first and greatest challenge was to be told, you are dead. This is where you begin your forty day period of study and prayer. With the understanding that the life you have been leading is not the life God desires you to have. To see what God has in store for you means letting go of what you once were. So this is where we also begin today.
So how and where did life begin to yield to death? The creation story of Genesis gives us the picture. Enter Adam and the Woman.
He is called Adam from the start. The Woman is not properly named until after the exit from the Garden. But have you ever noticed that it’s the woman who takes the lead in this story? Once the serpent shows up of course. And ever after the woman and the serpent have shared equal billing as troublemakers.
A small but interesting detail in this story is that it actually seems to have considered the eternal question: which came first in creation, the chicken or the egg? In Genesis 2, Adam was the first human that God made. Everyone knows that. It has been cited for millennia as the reason why men have natural authority over women.
Except. Except that this story also tells us that Adam was formed from the earth. Which is Adamah. A feminine noun. From the fertile living earth came the man. So which came first? The chicken! And when the woman is later named, she is called Eve, from a Hebrew root that means both to live, and to give life.
This story grappled with profound spiritual and material problems. Why, if God so greatly loves us, do we not still dwell with God in Eden’s Garden of Grace? Why is life so painful or hard at times? What did we do to deserve death? The answer Genesis gives is, we sinned. As Paul said in Romans 5:12, “…sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin….”
What is this sin that ends in banishment from God’s Garden? Unfettered Sexuality? No. It is disobedience. Now, it would be one thing if the poor creatures didn’t know what they’d done. But no, the woman thoughtand reasonedher way into eating the prohibited fruit. “So 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 desired to make one wise, shoe too of its fruit and ate; she also gave some to her husband, was with her, and he ate.” The serpent personifies the awakening of reason.
Soooo, the man was there all along, but only the woman talked to the serpent? The woman made the decision to eat? The man never said a word? And he just ate what the woman offered him? (This has come to make more sense to me as a married woman, but still…) Somehow this story isn’t quite the way most people have always pictured it.
It’s probably safe to say that the inhabitants of the Garden never expected that their desire for the best fruit from the best tree would lead to expulsion from God’s Garden, and their mortality. No, it only makes sense when we understand sin as problem of disobedience. We humans are free to exercise our will. But do we pause to consider what God desires for us before we choose?
The Greek word for sin (hamartia) means missing the mark. God calls us to a certain kind of life, points us in a certain direction, but our aim is pretty terrible. Romans 3 says, “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”Paul says our efforts never even come close to the target. They fall short.
It was at this point that those early baptismal seekers were presented with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. God’s Spirit brings him there. In place of the serpent is the Tempter, also called the devil and Satan, who are literally the Preventer and the Adversary.
All the trials involve Jesus’s evolving identity as God’s messiah. He must choose between the power that the tempter offers, and trusting in God. In this story Jesus is still very human. He has fasted and is hungry (daily fasting was part of the forty days of preparation for baptism). So Jesus understands our struggle.
Every decision Jesus makes is against his own interest, in favor of what God has chosen for him. He chooses obedience to God three times. In the desert Jesus shows us the way back into God’s Garden. The baptismal candidates were challenged to think hard about it. Consider carefully. Which way will you follow? The way of God or the ways that oppose God?
Lent begins in death. Cast out of the Garden and feeling very vulnerable, the woman and man begin a long journey. It’s not that they willdie, but that theyhavedied. Now they must begin to live. One day and one decision at a time. This question is before each of us too. Which way will you follow? This daily question requires great vigilance; to choose our own way, for our own best interests will always seem entirely reasonable and defensible.
But we have help. You know the classic dream where you show up at some event or activity and you have no clothing on? It’s deep in our psyche - that fear of being vulnerable. But the good news is that God’s grace and love will cover us as we go.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.