Lent 1 –13 February 2005

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In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

If we see today as the start of Lent, and it’s come upon us rather quickly, because Christmas is still there in the background, it’s possible I think to just make some very quick decisions about how to get into Lent. And one of the great things today is that the readings we have at the beginning of Lent, they’re so well picked because they’re readings to get us started. So one very simple thing to do is perhaps to keep the service with you and just commit to read the readings each day. It saves all the trouble of looking up other readings day by day, because you know where they are and it’s possible that if we keep it simple, we might do it. Tuesday night this week we’ve got a Port and Theo logy, shared meal, is about reflections on Lent and an introduction to Bible Study during Lent, which sounds stunningly heavy and very right and Christian. Bible study, in the context of how we share it, is really about what might we find from the readings and how do different people approach them and what do they find. And so again, maybe on Tuesday, maybe we’ll just use the readings we heard today and just see what comes out of it.

It’s the beginning of Lent, the beginning of a journey and the first reading we hear is a reading from Genesis and Genesis is all about beginnings. Much of the orthodox church sees Genesis as a very important story and we’ll actually see it picked up through the readings as we go. For many it’s the story of the fall of humanity. There’s this little incident over the apple which should not have been eaten. And yet, if we stay with that narrative and look at it more closely, what we might see is it’s actually about the becoming of humanity. It’s about realization, making real, becoming real. Genesis therefore doesn’t become a beginning story as in the beginning of time. It becomes a beginning story as in this moment is the beginning of the next moment. It’s the beginning story as the beginning of Lent. At this point I will change my focus, my orientation. It is the beginning of a new school year, it’s the beginning of a new term, the beginning of a new week, it’s the beginning of a new life after a death, it’s the beginning of a new living in another house, it’s a beginning story. If we stay with the simple story then we might well lose something. Question the story, be surprised by the story. One of the wonderful things is, in the story we hear the word of God, then we hear the words of the serpent. The serpent, as in many plays, myths, stories is the one that we’re supposed to “boo” when he comes onto the stage. Yet what we discover in the narrative is the serpent speaks the truth. So it raises a question: where is the power within the story? Is it the power of God or the power of the serpent that’s operative? What we might discover in that question, particularly if we can leave behind the blind teaching that said “but God is all powerful”, “God does everything and everything right” – become real with that because all of us in our lives have experienced the untruth of that. We’ve all hit brick walls and thought, well, where’s the power of God now.

The interesting thing is, if we go back to this very short narrative, I think what we find is, the power is only ever realized in relation to. God’s power is not like a battery that just sits there. Well in fact it is like a battery that just sits there because it’s only when you plug into it that you can draw from it. It’s in relation to – in other words, there is a dependent relationship and it’s our response that then makes real the power of God. It does make sense when the starting point becomes “God is love”. Because if you start looking at love on its own, it doesn’t look very attractive. When you actually see love as a dynamic between people, it becomes very beautiful. It actually does make sense.

So part of discovery and the journey of Lent is, in relation to what am I empowered? In relation to what do I find my empowerment, that which gives me life? Some who spend their lives in the shadow would say, well, there’s not much that gives me life. Fine, stay with that question and try to discern that which draws life then away from you. In the garden what we find is a relationship with God, a relationship with the serpent. One’s not right and one’s not wrong. But something actually is released, made real, energized, in the relation to part of the story.

There’s one commentator, who we don’t need to know who it is, just wrote three lines here explaining something about this narrative. “She finds this irresistible. She eats of its fruit, gives some to the man. Nudity is now embarrassing. For the couple has lost its innocent trusting relationship with God. In verse 8:19 God meets our punishment to disobeying his order.” We can follow that sort of line, step by step, or look, just look a little deeper at it and say, this is a story about something, about a beginning, about creation, not the beginning of time. Creation is an active unfolding in all time and every time.

The next reading we go to is Paul and Paul’s developing some of his theology very much with this reading in mind. “Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man and death came through sin, so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Stunningly simple explanation of why we all die. It’s important to appreciate that Paul was developing his theology in a timescape in which the earth was seen to be flat. Paul didn’t have access to the Internet. Paul had read very little of what we’ve read. He’d had very little opportunity to talk to people from other cultures. The odd camel train that came through, he may have had a word with them. But generally speaking, it was a very small, sheltered world in which Paul lived. And we sometimes experience that, particularly in Fremantle. You hear a lot of people in Fremantle that really don’t want to go to the other suburbs because it’s all here. Then you experience it in Western Australia – there’s the East, well we don’t really want to know about them over there. Well, just imagine if that were shrunk to the point where you didn’t know about that over there. This was the world. When you then discovered the rest, you would discover more about this. So again, when we read Paul, we do need to bring ourselves to it as well.

Sin and death are easily confused, easily confused. Particularly when life is the parallel with creation and all that is good gives life, then death quite rightly can look like the undoing of that. If we go back to the Genesis story, it’s important to realize the symbolism there: the trees, the forbidden trees in the garden, depending on which version we read – the tree of good and evil, actually the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. It’s a symbolic starting point. Surely we can all understand that eternity in the garden, where we have such an innocence, naiveté that we don’t even know that we’re naked, does not seem to me a picture of fullness of life, unless we go to those trees, surely our world is going to be fantastically small and amazingly self-centred, for we never reach out or need to reach out to another. The tree of life is not life here, threescore years and ten, but rather life with the Divine, what later came to be called ‘eternal life’.

And so, we can almost read Genesis as a myth to explain death and that’s where sin comes and that’s where we’ll end up with a theology which I think is just grounded totally in the wrong story. It’s almost like reading the story backwards. I look to the story of Genesis and out of that draw a theology based on death. Or, go back to it and discover the story is about the tree of life, it’s about relationship with the Divine that transcends time.

Paul then goes on and introduces Moses. The reason that Moses appears in Paul’s little theological exposition is that Moses was the bringer of the law. And again, if we read the Bible simply through, Moses came later. Now we’ve got to explain the gap. Well Genesis occurred here but the law only came here. Once the law was here of course, we knew whether we were sinning or not – how do we explain the bit before? And so Paul suggests that law enables us to measure sin. Again, if we look deeper we can see that Paul has a wonderful insight to the truth. He has a wonderful insight into the mystery of God. It’s just that in the outworking, in the trying to make that logical for others, if our starting point is fallen humanity, we really do have to do some clever juggling, if asked to go back to Genesis and see it as story of life. Then we can actually read through Paul and collect the insights without having to go with the logic that he’s using in order to keep the story on track. Paul talks about righteousness leading to justification and justification leading to life. That’s the insight. The explanation of getting to that point, we don’t have to dwell with it. Take the gems and see what do they mean for you.

Quite often the story of Genesis leads us into a world of guilt. Come back to Paul. Righteousness will lead to justification, justification to life. Use Lent to look at your justification. Where am I justified? What are the indicators of my justification? How do I feel before God? Are you right with Jesus? And all that sort of stuff. Simple way to work it out is to ground the questions again. We can all of us I think feel justified when we are in prayer and praise, when we are delighted by that spirit that we find in worship and praise. We can be delighted by worldly things that enable us to feel that all is right.

Contemplate during Lent, the conversation about your justification if you were standing before a mother who’s holding her child in her arms and that child is dying of starvation. Think of the words that you would say to explain my justified state. And something seems to melt away. I don’t quite look as justified as I did last Sunday. So then go back a step and look at righteousness. Where and what do I use to determine my righteousness.

The next story that we’ve got is the Gospel narrative from Matthew, the story of temptation which is often a primary focus for Lent. What is it that tempts me? Just this week question the role of the serpent in Genesis. Was it the serpent that told the truth? There’s a question that comes up for me in the Gospel narrative. And that is, as Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness, he was tempted by the devil and one of the temptations was, he was taken up and showed all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil says to him, all these I will give you. Does it not raise the question, how come the Devil had them to give away? Aren’t all things of God and belong to God? And yet here we have a narrative in the Gospel that suggests, no, they actually belong to the Devil. Or at least he has power over them for he can give them away. Wonder about it! Contemplate it. Consider then the power of God, the power of good, the forces of evil and power of evil, only ever realized in relation to. Maybe they were there for the Devil to give away because that’s where humanity has its relationship and therefore that is where the power, where the force lies.

What would it look like if only and forever our orientation and our relationship was with God the creator, with love? One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Most of us our lucky that we have had our bread and therefore can sit back to listen to any word that comes from the mouth of God. But to hear that word, to begin to hear it, we must first be fed, our basic needs must be met. There’s no way any of us will listen to or for the word of God while we’re running around trying to meet our basic needs. And perhaps the way of the world is that those basic needs have been multiplied such that they are never obtainable and so the word of God becomes harder to hear.

During Lent we’ve got an opportunity to re-evaluate our basic needs. We can actually go into the wilderness for forty days. It can be a game, because at the end of the forty days we know we’re going to come out, we know we we’re going to come out. It makes it safe to go in. We could pretend for forty days that all our basic needs are going to be met. So don’t worry about retirement planning, don’t worry about whether the interest rate’s going up or down – just for forty days, don’t worry about whether I do or not invest in this or buy that or – just say, in the world in which I live, I pretty much got what I want or can do without it until after Easter. And know ourselves as being safe and secure – let’s not worry about nuclear proliferation for forty days, let’s not worry about the invading hoards the come in their boats to take things from us. Let’s not worry about any of that, from a fear point of view, but say we can contemplate higher things and see where that leads us. See where we go. See what the word of God holds for us.

Share the story so far with someone else. Speak to others about your time in Lent. In can be quite daunting, but it can also be made simple. After the service today, just share with someone. Out of the four songs that we sung in our worship today, which one did you like most and why? Which reading stays in your mind when you leave? And wonder! We can’t do that wondering alone, because then I think it just becomes wandering. If we share some of that together then actually we do attend in relationship to the word of God.

There’s a quote here from The Inward Journey by Howard Thurman: “There’s nothing more exhausting for a person than the constant awareness that his life is being lived at cross purposes. At such moments, the individual seems to himself ever to be working against himself. What he longs for is the energy that comes from a concentration of his forces in a single direction, towards a single end.”

Sometimes, it can feel like life is led at cross purposes, especially for us token Christians. Especially when we wonder whether we’ve become the cult of Jesus or just a band of repenting guilt trippers. What is that single direction? What is that single end? To remove the cross purposes, I wonder if the orientation that we seek is a desire for life, is a desire to eat the fruit of that tree, abundant life for all people. For as Eramaus says, “To be fully alive is to glorify God.” I hope that during Lent we do not realize the fullness of life. I hope we can actually stay long enough in the wilderness together such that come Easter when we walk out of that place we might find it.

The Lord be with you.