A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on 26th February 2023
As we gather here this evening for the First Sunday of Lent, I’d like to reflect on some of the basic themes of Lent before looking at our first reading.
There are some who see Lent as a time of bad news before the good news of Easter, but this is not so. Lent is a time of grace when God’s people come to reflect again on their own mortality and wrongdoing, as well as on the creative and restorative power of God by which we are saved.
Important events connected with God’s saving activity are brought to mind and rehearsed in today’s readings. The story in Genesis describes how the original parents of the human race are unable to resist the seductions of a serpent. This tragic tale is placed alongside Jesus’ lonely and painful resistance to the power of Satan in the second reading. The old Adams’ failure is redeemed by the new Adams’ grace, as tonight’s psalmist celebrates joy over sin forgiven.
So, we are called in Lent to a time of introspection and confession. But this is done with faith that those matters over which we grieve, and may even be enslaved by, are to be overcome by the love and power of Christ. It is that quality of Christ that we believe will endure for us. Meanwhile, there is a gap, a tension, an emptiness, between our present state and the time when the righteousness we seek will come about. But this gap is not so large that it cannot be bridged by the assurance of God’s love, as tonight’s psalm reminds us.
In other words, our engagement with God in Lent is to allow us to become vulnerable to the reality of who we are as human beings. It is a season when we are called to open ourselves to the reality of God as the one who will hold us for ever in love as we cross the abyss that our wrongdoing has created.
Our passage from Genesis leads us back to basics. It articulates, with some cunning and understatement, the incongruity between the life God intends us to follow, and the way of life we actually choose and follow. It is a tale that deserves to receive fresh attention each time we hear or read it.
The story connects the first human beings with the first garden. We hear that God created humans to care for the garden which God created for our sustainment. This relationship is ordered by God in quite a precise way. Firstly, human beings are given a task of work, to care for the garden, with gentleness and attention. The gardeners may even have to give their life for the sake of the garden. Secondly the human beings are given a permit in the garden. All the trees are available for pleasure, for joy, for nourishment and for our wellbeing. Freedom is key here: “freely eat”. But thirdly, the tone darkens with a prohibition, focussed on a particular tree, which offers knowledge of good and evil. We are not told why the humans are not to eat of this tree. Perhaps this is because we are separated from God by failing to know, or to accept, the difference between good and evil. This tree can seduce humans out of their proper way in the garden and can energise them in wrong ways. The relationship between creator and created can become skewed.
Then the serpent enters the story. The verbs to describe God’s actions are strong: God formed, breathed, planted, and so on. By contrast the serpent has no strong verbs, no hint of transformation. It just talks. God is not described as a character as such, but the serpent is described as a crafty character. It is cunning, manipulative and calculated. Firstly, it questions what God said and then contradicts what God said. The serpent takes humankind out of God’s faithful way. Options are put which take humans outside what God has authorised. The woman and the man accept the option offered by the serpent, thus violating God’s intention for them. Their innocence goes, and they become fearful. Fear enters the garden and the human enterprise. Thus God’s intended relationship of innocence is challenged and tension arises.
We might reflect here upon the gift of innocence and the power of fear in our own lives. We are constantly faced with contradictions that resist God’s good intentions for us and distort the innocence we were given. The serpent’s damage is done by way of its voice, and then nothing more is heard of it. Nevertheless, although it has no authority behind its words its’ way is still believed in and followed by gullible and mistrusting humankind. The narrative leaves us with the competing and conflicting voices which continue to define human behaviour and the wrongs of the world. G K Chesterton was once asked to contribute an easy to a journal with the title “What is Wrong with the World?” His essay was just two words long. I am.
Lent is a time when we are called to evaluate the voices in our lives: the voice of life from God, and the countervoice of temptation, or of rebellion, which leads to our downfall. The serpent causes the woman and the man to misperceive their relationship to God, and therefore to their place in the garden of creation. Now the voice of God which drew creation out of nothing, is calling us, people God has created, back to the intimacy we have lost. May we have the grace to listen to the voice that speaks the truth about our future, and about the world in which we live. Amen.