Lent 1a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGWe come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the church year in which we are called to examine our lives, to take stock of where we stand with God, to repent of wrongs done in the past and move forward with resolve into the future.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.+
Speaking of wrongs done in the past, our Old Testament reading this morning takes us back to the most distant past, to the story of the first wrong done, the first violation of what at the time was the only “thou shalt not”: “God commanded the man..., ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’” You may notice this morning’s excerpt from Genesis skips right to the woman, and her conversation with the serpent — the most disastrous conversation in human history. The folks who designed our Scripture readings — no doubt because they wanted to focus
on the question of temptation to go along with the Gospel for the day — have skipped over the part of the story about how the woman came to be there in the first place. However, because I would rather focus more on the responses to temptation than the temptation itself, I want to note what is missing from our reading. But first want to emphasize what is there. Notice that the “thou shalt not” commandment is given to the man alone — Eve has not yet made her appearance from Adam’s side. We can assume that Adam told Eve about the tree and about not eating from it, for she tells the serpent about it — she can’t plead ignorance of the law. But notice that she adds something that was not in the version that God gave to Adam; she adds “nor shall you touch it” to “you shall not eat” Now, we don’t know if this was her idea, or if Adam added this himself when he told her about this tree. You can just imagine that he did, though. Can’t you just hear him, women of Saint James? Can you hear a man’s voice in this? “Eve, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of that tree; so don’t even touch it or we will die!”
In any case, both Eve and Adam ignore the commandment, and not only touch (about which God said nothing) but they also eat(about which God was perfectly clear, to Adam at least!) And their eyes are opened to their own naked shame — having come to the knowledge of good and evil they realize they have done evil, and they cower in their shame.
The next part of the story is also left out of our reading, but I’d like to remind you of it. I’m sure you all know the story — where it goes from there. When God charges Adam with having done what he ought not to have done, what does Adam say? “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” When God turns to the woman, what does she say? “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The serpent itself cannot find his forked tongue and is speechless at last! He has no one to blame.
Both Adam and Eve imply, “It’s not my fault!” What might the serpent have said? “The Devil made me do it”? Later traditions hold that the serpent is the devil, in physical form. He is the tempter, the root of the problem, the thing that leads people astray, even to his own hurt — as hurt he is by the end of the tale.
There is another old tale, by the way, so old that no one quite knows who first told it. There are versions from ancient Greece, from West Africa, from Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes the characters are a scorpion and a frog, but since were talking about serpents I’ll tell you the one about the fox and the snake.
Once upon a time — that’s how all good stories start, right — a fox came upon a snake sunning himself by the side of the river. Fox wisely kept his distance and inquired politely, “What are you up to Mister Snake?” Snake looked at Fox with his cold eye and said, “I would like to crosssss thissss river but I can’t ssssswim. Would you mind at all giving me a ride over?” Fox raised his eyebrows and said, “Well I would but I’m afraid you might bite me and then we would both drown.” Snake then said, “Sssut, sssut!” — Snakes are not very good at saying, ‘Tut, tut’— “now why would I do that? Please jussst give me a lift and I promisssse I won’t bite you. I’d crossss my heart if I could!” So Fox approached Snake and allowed him to slither up onto his back, and then stepped into the river and began to swim. Sure enough, about halfway across, in the deepest part of the river, Snake bit Fox right in the back of the neck. And as they were sinking beneath the waters, Fox looked back over his shoulder, gave Snake a plaintive look and said, “Why?” Snake shrugged — at least as well as a snake can shrug without any shoulders — and sighed, as both of them perished, “It’sssss my nature!”
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Well, we could say the same thing, couldn’t we. In addition to shifting the blame for our sin to someone else, sometimes we are willing to take the blame ourselves but simultaneously try to excuse ourselves by saying, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.” There is truth in that, which this story — not the one about the fox and the snake but the one from Genesis — is designed to tell us.
Human beings do have a tendency to sin — the theologians call it “original sin” meaning it is there from the beginning. It is a part of us, deep down, this desire to choose selfishly and out of self-preservation or pride or envy, rather than choosing the path of self-giving goodness and generosity. The story in Genesis, after all, isn’t really about snakes and fruit trees, but about human beings. Snakes don’t really talk, and in this tale from Genesis the serpent is a parable for human craving, for own desire to choose for ourselves at the expense of others and in defiance of God. It is our nature. Once one has the capacity to choose, one can choose wrongly. The point of the story is that Adam and Eve choose wrongly while they are in Paradise, just as the devil himself chose wrongly and turned away from God while he was an angel in heaven. Sin — or the possibility of — is there from the beginning. It is original.
Now, that doesn’t mean, ‘Oh well then. let’s just forget about it and get on with your life and sin as much as you like; after all, if it’s your nature then you can’t help it and it’s not really your fault.’ Nor is it enough to make the kind of response I spoke of a few weeks ago; the response that Joshua ben Sira gave his advice about: just always be good; choose the good — as I noted, that doesn’t work. We are not capable in ourselves to save ourselves. It is in our nature to run off the road. We need help. Sin, it seems, is inescapable; as St Paul wrote to the Romans, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so that death spread to all because all have sinned.”
And that would be the end of the story were it not for the hope that is held out to us in Christ Jesus. That hope is not about finding some way never to commit a sin, but to address the root reality that, like it or not, it is our nature to sin. However much we might try to shift the blame, in the end it is our fault. The Snake of original sin lies coiled in our minds and in our hearts, and he will, from time to time, bite us on the neck — or the heel. It simply doesn’t work to adopt the stoic attitude of “Just say no” when in truth we are — all of us — addicted to sin, and the only truly effective answer to it is an appeal to a higher power to rescue us from our own fallibility and inability to save ourselves. Sin, as Paul told the Romans, has been there from the beginning; but it was not reckoned as sin until the law was given: that first law, “Do not eat of that tree.” And then, because the law had been given, the warning made, when the sin crept out, it was reckoned as sin. But since Christ has come, the law itself is dead. This is what St Paul is getting at in his Letter to the Romans: sin is still there, but the law is dead, and so sin is no longer reckoned.
We as Christians believe that a higher power has come to us in the person of Christ. Through him come the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, purchased by means of his own obedience and righteousness, through which the law itself was put to death, nailed to the cross with him. We are not and we cannot be righteous on our own — but the reckoning of sin can be washed away, and we can be deemed as if we were righteous by and through the one who is righteousness himself, the obedient Son of God, who faced down the devil in the wilderness, who gave himself for our sake, on our account, and by his death stripped away the shroud of death that had covered all nations, to clothe us in the glory of his righteousness: clothed with Christ, we are covered by him. And so God looks upon us and loves us, when we do right. But when we do wrong he forgives us, all on account of the love he has for his Son, our Lord and savior, in whom we are all clothed from above.
Just as the Avenging Angel passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, houses whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the Paschal lamb, so too when God looks at us, washed as we are in the blood of the Lamb, and clothed with the royal robe of his righteousness rather than in our own patched together fig-leaf efforts at righteousness, to conceal our sin, when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sin. He sees his own beloved Son. In this is life, the life of the Son of God, in which we share, because we have been clothed with him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for ever more.