Sermon notes 03-01-20 Reversing the Fall

Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (ESV)

Matt. 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and
“‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

These two passages of Scripture, one from very near the beginning of the Old Testament and one from very near the beginning of the New Testament, may seem at first not to have much in common. They might even seem to be opposite of each other. We have Adam and Eve giving into temptation in the Garden of Eden, and we have Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness. I want to suggest that these two stories are actually the reverse of one another. They tell two sides of the story of our human condition. The first tells how we became lost, and the second tells how we began to be saved.

I’ll come back to that point, but first I want to take a moment to speak on the subject of Lent. You may have noticed this morning that the colors of the paraments here in the church have been changed to purple, indicating that we have entered a new season of the church year. Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, that period of 40 weekdays, Monday through Saturday, which takes us from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Lent is the season of preparation for celebrating Easter.

So why is it called Lent? Isn’t that something we clean out of the dryer screen? Well, you’ve probably noticed lately that it is getting light earlier and earlier in the morning and staying light later and later in the evening. In other words the days are lengthening. The word for Lent comes from an Old English word lencten, which means spring, the time of year when the days lengthen. Lent is always in the spring when the days lengthen.
You may have heard the story about a young boy and girl who were walking and talking together, and they began discussing the meaning of the season of Lent. The boy was trying to explain to the girl what Lent was all about, and he said to her, “In our church we don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent.” The girl asked him, “Why not?” And the boy said, “Because we believe in the separation of church and steak.”

Lent is of course more than just separating the church from steak. Lent is the season in the church year culminating in Holy Week, when we commemorate our Lord’s passion and resurrection. The early Christians observed Lent with great devotion, and it became the custom of the church that before the Easter celebration there would be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. Lent is intended to be a holy season, a time for self-examination and repentance, a time for prayer, fasting and self-denial, a time for more intensive reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is the primary basis for the season of Lent. The account of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for forty days, and his subsequent temptation by the devil, is one of the texts the church always reads together on the first Sunday in Lent. This story makes use of a “40-day tradition” we find over and over in the Bible. For example:

• In the story of the flood it rained for forty days and forty nights upon Noah’s ark.
• Moses fasted for forty days while on the mountain with God.
• The prophet Elijah went without eating for forty days.

This forty-day tradition in the Bible led the church to think of 40 days as a time of testing, so they chose a 40-day period of penitence for the season of Lent.

You may wonder, as I have in the past, about the reality of a 40-day fast. Is it even possible for Jesus to have fasted forty days? Surely the Scriptures must be exaggerating. I have always found it humorous the way this story is told with such understatement. It says, And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. I don’t know about you but I can be hungry after fasting for forty minutes. As a former wrestler who was very undisciplined about maintaining my weight, I have had to fast for forty hours before… and I thought I was gonna die! But 40 days? And Jesus was merely hungry?

Well, we should not let the understatement of the Bible cause us to make the mistake of assuming that Jesus was not truly suffering, or that the temptations he faced were not real. I think it is easy for us to look at this story and think, “Well, Jesus being tempted isn’t the same as me being tempted. Of course Jesus could resist the devil; he was God’s Son.” And yes, it’s true, Jesus was God’s Son, but we know he was also fully human. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” When Jesus fasted for forty days, he truly suffered, and the temptations he faced were indeed real.

As for the understatement of the story, we should remember that the source of this story had to be Jesus himself, right? No other human being was with Jesus when he was facing the temptations of the devil in the wilderness. We know about this story only because Jesus must have told it to at least one other person, which resulted in the story being recorded in the Scriptures. And if we imagine Jesus telling the story to others, it is unlikely to me that Jesus would have said, “I fasted for forty days, and I thought I was gonna die!” Jesus would probably have said something much more understated, such as, “I fasted for forty days and I was hungry.”

But why was it necessary for Jesus to do that? What did it accomplish? How did Jesus end up out there alone in the wilderness with the devil anyway? I want to spend the rest of my time addressing those questions.

I’ll lump the first two together. Why was it necessary for Jesus to be tempted by the devil in this way, and what did it accomplish? The answer gets back to what I said at the very beginning of my message, when I referred to the story of Jesus’ temptation as a reversal of the story of “The Fall” in Genesis. We all know that story very well. We call it “The Fall” because we humans fell out of favor with God due to the disobedience of the first human. God gave Adam permission to eat from all the trees in the garden, except one. God told him not to eat the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that was in the middle of the garden. But the serpent tempted the woman until she ate from it, and the man followed suit. And we might say all hell broke loose.

The result of the Fall was that every human inherited Adam’s sinful nature and we were all condemned to die for our sins. The Fall story from Genesis tells how we became lost, but the story from Matthew’s Gospel tells how we began to be saved. The second story is a reversal of the first. Adam gave in to temptation. Jesus did not. Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil by standing on God’s word, and he did so as a man, as a human, representing all humans who believe in him.

The Bible teaches that while the one man’s sins—that is, Adam’s sins—infected us all by his disobedience, so the one man’s righteousness—that is, Jesus’ righteousness—infected us by his obedience. His obedience makes us righteous in the sight of God.

We know of course that Jesus’ obedience did not end there in the wilderness. Notice I said earlier that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness tells the story of how we began to be saved. In order to finish the job of saving us, Jesus had to remain obedient and sinless all the way to the cross. That was God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. The temptations were the devil’s attempts to undermine God’s plan for redeeming humanity by causing Jesus to fall into sin and thereby disqualify him as the sinless Savior. With the bread, the devil tried to tempt Jesus to use his divine powers selfishly, for his own use, in order to make the trial easier for himself rather than relying on the Father to provide for him in his time of trial. From the pinnacle of the temple the devil tried to manipulate Jesus into performing a spectacular display that would have surely gained Jesus many followers, but it would not have been in keeping with the Father’s plan of redemption through suffering. And finally the devil tried to get Jesus to take a shortcut to his future reign over God’s kingdom by offering to give him the kingdoms of the world immediately, without the redemptive suffering of the cross.

Another way to categorize these temptations would be the desire of the body, the desire for glory and the desire for power. These are not temptations that only Jesus faced; we all have those same types of desires and temptations. So how do we face them? This brings us back to the last question I wanted to address, “How did Jesus end up out there alone in the wilderness with the devil anyway?” The fact is, Jesus was not alone in the wilderness with the devil. Verse 1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Spirit is responsible for Jesus being there in the first place.

And notice it does not say, the Spirit led him there, and then left him there. We can be sure that the Spirit stayed with him there and empowered him to endure and to resist the temptations of the devil. Even the Scripture that Jesus quoted to the devil is Scripture that was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is essential to this story, to all of Jesus’ life and ministry, … and, dear friends, to all of us in our efforts to be followers of Jesus Christ.

In fact if we leave the Holy Spirit out of our efforts to be disciples of Jesus, if we try to be obedient and resist temptation and become more Christ-like by our own strength and abilities, our situation is hopeless. And that is the main point I want to leave you with today. If we were on our own, it would be impossible for us to become like Christ. But the good news is, we are not on our own; we are not alone. We have the same One helping us who accompanied Jesus into the wilderness. We have the same One inspiring us who inspired the writers of Scripture. We have the same Spirit in us who was with David when he slew Goliath and with Elijah when he raised the widow’s son from the dead and with the apostles who performed miracles and spread the Gospel to the known world. That same Holy Spirit first called us into a relationship with the Lord and is still with us to enable us to grow more and more into the image of Christ.

Friends, as we journey through Lent and along our Christian journeys together, we need never think that we are operating under our own strength. We have the Spirit of Christ living in us. The Spirit helps us be obedient to his voice, to resist those temptations that come our way, and to live the lives he wants us to live for him… and that same Spirit will lead us on to eternal glory. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: O God our deliverer, you led the people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. Your Spirit led our Lord Jesus into the wilderness and empowered him to endure and to resist the temptations of the devil. By that same Spirit, lead, guide and keep the people of your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

Some content for this sermon was derived from Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.  44-49.