A Fine Mess

How does the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden relate to the temptation of Jesus in the desert? And what does this have to do with Laurel and Hardy?

SJF • Lent 1a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

And so we come to the first Sunday in Lent, and over the next six weeks we will journey with Jesus from his temptations to his sacrifice upon the cross — and then on to Easter. It is a journey that encapsulates the faith; faith in the crucial — and I use that word very intentionally because it is based on the Latin word for cross, the very crux of the matter — in the crucial decisions and actions of Jesus for our sake and for our salvation. Saint Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury some nine hundred years ago, wrote a book about it called, Why Did God Become Human? The five word summary: “To save us — that’s why!” And over the course of Lent we will be filling out the background and the implications of that simple fact, the fact of salvation. And as is so often the case with such explorations, we had best start at the beginning — and so we turn to Genesis.

But before turning to Genesis, let me ask a question. Do any of you remember Laurel and Hardy? Some of the younger folks here may not know them — although I will say it was Oliver Hardy who invented the word “D’oh” long before there was a Homer Simpson — but I’m sure most of the adults here remember the portly and fussy Oliver and his skinny, mousy sidekick Stan. As you may recall they were invariably getting into scrapes of one sort or another, and whether it was his fault or not, Stan usually got the blame, as Ollie would put his hands on his hips and complain, “Well that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Turning to our reading from Genesis, we can see the “fine mess” that Adam and Eve have gotten us into. Of course, they didn’t need Ollie to tell them that. As soon as the deed was done, while the taste of the fruit of knowledge was still on their lips, the light bulb went on. Well, not a light bulb, since those hadn’t been invented yet — but their eyes were opened, and they saw for the first time that they were naked, and a pair of human beings felt shame for the first time ever. It must have felt like a sleepwalker feels when awakening out on the street in his pyjamas — frightened, bewildered, and embarrassed — wondering, “How did I get out here?”

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Genesis tells us — all of us children of Adam and Eve — how we got out here. It tells us that God made us in the image and after the likeness of God — which the catechism in our Prayer Book explains to mean, in part, that we are reasonable creatures, we are capable of making choices. And Genesis tells us that God laid choices before us: Adam the gardener was given specific instructions about tending the garden and keeping it; and, as a laborer is worthy of his hire, and you are not to muzzle the threshing ox, God allowed his gardener to eat of the fruit of the garden — except for that one particular tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So Adam had his instructions and he also had the power to choose — to obey the instructions or not. Well, we heard the rest of the story: how the serpent crept in with his deceptions, and how Eve chose and Adam chose to allow their delight and desire to overcome their obedience. They did not fall by accident — but by choice. This was no comic slip on a banana peel, but a deliberate decision to take and eat of a very different fruit. They chose to believe the serpent’s lie rather than God’s promise that if they ate of the fruit they would die. As Saint Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” And we would be justified in saying, along with Oliver Hardy, “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

This is how it all began. Our ancient ancestors got us into this fine mess because they misused the very thing that made them like God, in a misguided effort to become like God. They used the power to choose — a divine power resident in human beings, a reflection of the divine image in humanity: for human beings are not mere animals driven solely by instinct and need. What does the Psalms say, “Do not be like horse or mule that have no understanding, who if you do not tie them down will not stay near you.” Human beings shouldn’t need to be tied down. They have the gift to reason and the choice to obey or not. Adam and Eve used that very power to choose, to choose wrongly and to fall into disobedience by means of the very thing they sought — their likeness to God.

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I mentioned Laurel and Hardy earlier; you may have seen their most famous short film, for which they won the Academy award in 1936, “The Music Box.” It’s the one where they are supposed to deliver an upright piano up an unbelievably long flight of many stairs. Time and again they get it halfway up or almost to the top only to lose their grip on it and have it role clanking and clamoring down the many steps. Finally, just as they’ve managed to get it to the top of the stairs the postman arrives at the house and tells them they could have taken the road up around the other side of the house and avoided the stairs altogether. And what do they do? Even though they are at their destination, even though they are ready to bring the piano into the house, what do they do? They bring the cursed piano all the way back down the stairs to put it on their horse cart to bring it up to the very same place they had it, by the road they could have used in the first place!

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Adam and Eve could have remained in Paradise; they were where they wanted to be, they were wear God wanted them to be, and they could have stayed had they chosen to listen to God in the first place. They were already like God and didn’t need the fruit of any tree to become like God. Instead, they listened to the serpent who told them that if they disobeyed God they could get to the place they wanted to be — even though they were already there! They lost what they had by trying to get what they had.

Fortunately for us there was a way out of this paradoxical dilemma. But we could not do it by ourselves. By making the wrong choice at the very beginning, humanity got so far off course that it could never find its way home again on its own. We tried and tried to get that piano of sin up the steps of the Law, but it always came sliding down again. We got it back on our cart, but then we couldn’t remember where the road was to get us where we needed to be.

Humanity had become so lost that it needed to be rescued — to be saved. And because humanity itself had become so weakened by this time, so debilitated, by that initial failure to choose rightly, that salvation had to be in the form of one who was himself fully human — so that in human flesh that perfect obedience could be undertaken by one who in himself summed up all of humanity. Just as Adam had been the beginning of all humanity, this one man had to be the culmination of humanity. But it was also needful that he be a human being who was in perfect unity and full communion with God — able to present the untarnished and perfect image of God that all other human beings through the fall of Adam and Eve had distorted and tarnished and worn out. And so the Word which was God became human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Why? To save us — that’s why.

And he accomplished this by doing the very thing our ancestors had failed to do. As Paul said, “just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” And the course of that obedience is set in the very first action of Christ’s ministry, immediately following his baptism. He goes right into the wilderness, and there confronts the very one whose tantalizing misdirections first got Adam and Eve off course and into that fine mess. Jesus confronts the devil, and faces each of his tantalizing temptations with obedience. He chooses obedience at each point. When the devil offers fast food, Jesus proclaims the primacy of Scripture. When the devil offers safety through disaster, Jesus proclaims that God is not to be so tested. And when the devil offers power, Jesus proclaims his dedication and submission to God and God alone. All of these temptations, as at the first, are, if you not carefully, are temptations for Jesus to grasp at things he already has. (The devil really can’t come up with anything new!) And it is through his obedience in spite of the temptations to take what is already his by right — to seize it rather than simply to be in it — it is through this obedience, demonstrated here against the spirit of rebellion who first tempted humanity to choose wrongly, that Jesus sets his feet firmly on the path that will lead to Calvary.

That is why God became human — to save us. We will be with him on this journey, this Lenten journey, seeing that process unfold once again. And so, sisters and brothers, let us journey with him, the one who shows us the way to God, who is himself the Way, Son of God and Son of Man, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+