Preacher Revd David Gardiner
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be forever pleasing in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.
We have begun Lent this week, the season of self-examination, penitence, study and preparation for Easter. And our readings begin our season by getting us to reflect on sin, and salvation, and what we do with them.
We start by hearing the account in Genesis of how sin changes our relationship to God, working to tempt us with false logic and unreasonable reason to do something that we often know will hurt us.
Having reflected on sin and its arrival in our lives, we then move on to reflect, with St Paul, on God’s solution to our sin, and its arrival through Jesus Christ. And here Paul makes an important point for understanding sin and salvation.
It’s so easy to think of them as opposing forces, and by doing so, to apply Newtonian Physics. “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.” Good and evil, sin and salvation, yin and yang – equal and opposite forces acting upon a body.
So Paul talks about sin coming into the world through a man (Adam in Hebrew) and salvation coming through another man, Jesus Christ.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? One man brings the first force, and another brings the second force that balances it.
However, there’s a problem with that thinking.
Jesus is not Adam’s equal. He is not just a man. He’s also the second person of the Trinity, the Divine Word, the force we saw a couple of weeks ago in the opening of Genesis when God speaks and the world comes into being.
And Jesus is not Adam’s opposite. God is revealed in Christ not to be some kind of distant divine ‘other.’ Jesus is God, and Genesis reveals God as the creative force that drives the universe, but Genesis also tells us that God made humanity in his image.
Jesus is man, but not our equal. He is divine, but not our opposite. He’s not bound by Newtonian physics. This isn’t physics. (He created physics!) Jesus isn’t bound by physics, and so it would be a mistake for us to think that the salvation he brings is bound by those same laws.
Salvation isn’t the opposite of sin, like it’s some kind of flip-side of the same coin. Salvation is God’s solution to sin, the method by which sin is cured, removed, wiped clean.
Salvation also isn’t the equal of sin. Don’t get me wrong: sin is powerful, and deadly. We know from what we see in the world that destruction and pain are appallingly powerful – they influence the lives of everyone. But remember the voice I mentioned before? The voice of God that called the world into being? That’s the power behind salvation.
As much as sin seems more inescapable and powerful than we are, that is how much more powerful and inescapable salvation is. Sin cannot beat salvation. Without salvation, sin is powerful, but as soon as you put salvation into the mix, sin becomes powerless.
When Jesus is faced with temptation in the gospel, they’re exactly the kinds of temptations we face.
He faces a temptation of material possessions, something that’s at its most potent when they really are needs, or seem to be, but the temptation to take a wrong path to get what we need in whatever way we can: that the ends justify the means.
He faces the temptation to test the boundaries, which could be about wanting to feel safe, to want to know that God is there, that we are not alone, but being tempted to test that not by asking but by doing something destructive and selfish.
He faces the temptation to find comfort and approval in the opinions of others, which again looks like a good thing – we all need love and care and friendship – but done wrong, fake, forced, bought affection.
We are shown Jesus facing all these temptations – temptations we are faced with. And though we are not generally faced with the temptation to create bread from stones, to be caught by angels, or to rule the world, we are faced by temptations that are as powerful to us as those were to Jesus.
And he didn’t fall. He didn’t succumb. He triumphed. The collect says that “he was tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This strength of self, this power of Christ is what we are shown to show that sin is not equal to the power of salvation in Christ.
But what are we suppose to do with that information? We might find ourselves saying to ourselves:
“Lent is a time of self-examination and discipline, but how can I live up to that example of Christ? How can I be as disciplined as he is so that I can enter that salvation that he shows?
“I try and I fail, I try and I fail, I try and I make new resolutions and I try again, and I fail again, and I get more and more dispirited and less and less eager to try every time I fail because I just seem to get farther and farther away from God – why can’t I get this right, surely I should be able to give my everything and manage to live up to the image in my of how Christ did it because that is how I’m meant to do it, because God wants me to be strong and successful and I have to manage to do this.”
But I can’t.
And that’s okay.
In fact, that’s the point. The self-examination is about coming to a mature understanding that we can’t be that strong and perfect. We’re not able, in our own strength, to match Jesus’ feat of overcoming sin. If we try to do it like that, then we’re putting ourselves at the centre, and pushing God away until we’re ready for him, and that’s the same old trap of temptation.
Because he didn’t come to show us how it’s done. He came to give us salvation, as Paul puts it, as a free gift.
What we have to do is overcome own reluctance to recognise our need for help, our reluctance to say sorry, our reluctance to put his words before ours, our reluctance to really put effort into finding out what he wants for us, and our reluctance to treat this season, not as a time to struggle to be perfect Christians ready to greet God at Easter, but to open ourselves up to let him in, so that we can live our lives as Easter people.