Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent with all of its lectionary readings on original sin and Satan. You will have to trust me that it gets a lot better next week, when we read about God’s blessings, His promises and His salvation, ending with John 3:16. But our entrance into Lent today is not a gentle one. It’s a portrait of where we stand as sinners, why we’re in need of a Savior and, to our great good fortune, what God Himself has done about it. God took the initiative to do something completely amazing.
Our reading in Genesis recounts what we call “the fall of man,” and when we use that phrase, we’re not talking about one man named Adam or about one woman named Eve, but about all of humankind who fell right along with them. And when our human nature leaps to the fore to say, “This cannot possibly be fair,” we’re being phenomenally presumptuous. We’re saying that given identical circumstances we would not have done exactly the same thing.
When we get to the Gospel, we encounter Someone who experienced the temptation of Satan on an even heightened level and managed to withstand it completely. Now our gratitude surges to the fore and we would love to say about Jesus, “That’s exactly what I would have done given identical circumstances.” And once again we’re being phenomenally presumptuous. In both the circumstances of Adam and of Jesus we would like to think we would have done the right thing. And perhaps it’s possible that we would have done a good job once or twice. But in the end, we would have found ourselves siding with Adam while only wishing that we had the spiritual fortitude of Jesus, the Son of God.
Sermons on sin have become somewhat of a rarity in our day. They never were particularly welcome. One always thinks of the great American colonial preacher, Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” has become a classic of American literature. It contains these famous statements: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.”
I hadn’t read this sermon since college, so I brought it up on my computer because I wanted to see how it went on from there. I was anticipating something wonderful about the saving grace of Jesus Christ that rescues us through the propitiation of God’s wrath. Alas, Edwards was not into saying the line we love to say, that “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Here’s how he continued: “And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons that now sit here in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, and quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning!”
No one could preach this way today and have anyone come back the next Sunday!
But that’s not the end of Edwards’ sermon. After several more paragraphs castigating unbelievers and threatening them with the certainty of Hell-fire, he says this: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to Him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south. Many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to Him Who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in His own blood, and they are rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God.”
As with so many things spoken in public discourse, it’s all about context. Edwards was preaching to unbelievers, persons who already had rejected the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus, and whose eternal souls were imperiled. His intention was not to scare his hearers to death, but to scare them to life. His preaching contributed to what we know as “The Great Awakening,” a time of revival in the American colonies that was meant to counterbalance “The Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment, also known as “The Age of Reason,” attempted to substitute a scientific and humanistic world view for a religious one. It was a movement of liberal philosophy that had many people turning away from God altogether.
Does this sound strikingly familiar in our day? One of Edwards’ contemporaries was the Anglican preacher, George Whitefield, whose energetic preaching attracted huge crowds with his call to repentance. He invited his hearers to attend to the message of the revivalists, appealing to them with words such as these: 'Come to hear them, not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves. Oh, that persons instead would turn their thoughts inwardly, and say, 'Lord, is it I?' How far more beneficial should we find discourses to be than now they generally are!”
Does this also sound strikingly familiar? We often feel that ours is the worst of all times and that our society is going to hell in a hand-basket. But so was the colonial society in 18th century America, so was European society in the run-up to World War II, so was Roman society in the time of the preaching of Peter and Paul and the other apostles and evangelists, and so was Jewish society in the run-up to the captivity. No wonder David began Psalm 32 with these words, which were his own personal testimony and ours: “How blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” He adds these beautiful and comforting words: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance” (vss. 5-7).
Yes, it all started with Adam and Eve when Satan the tempter came to them with enticing words about becoming like God, something to which humankind has proved susceptible in every generation. Any number of Adams or Eves would have made the same choice, including ourselves. But that’s precisely why the devisers of the RCL have juxtaposed the account of the fall with the account of the Temptations of Jesus. Satan told Eve that she could be like God, and Eve saw this as good and desirable. Then, a long time later, Satan told Jesus that “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” could be His if He would worship Satan. Eve said “yes” to Satan, but Jesus said “no.” Jesus said, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” Adam fell prey to temptation, Jesus brushed it aside.
Paul puts the two persons and their stories and the consequences of their actions together in Romans 5. And it’s all good news. In fact, it’s great news. Paul writes:
“But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:15-17).
I think Paul’s meaning here is clear, though the parallelism he is uses gives rise to some possible confusion. Staying with what is absolutely clear, Paul is saying that the consequence of Adam’s sin is death. As Paul will write at the end of Romans 6, “The wages of sin is death” (verse 23). We may be tempted at times to quarrel with God over why certain things have to be the way that they are, but God made it absolutely clear to Adam and Eve in advance that on the day they disobeyed Him by eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, they would surely die. And whether we call this “Original Sin” or, by a twist of semantics among our Orthodox friends, “Ancestral Sin,” the result is precisely the same: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as we said on Ash Wednesday. “The wages of sin is death.”
But Paul says more. In the following verses of Romans 5, he writes, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18, 19; cf. I Cor. 15:21, 22).
Later on he wrote to Timothy the “Comfortable Words” that follow our prayer of Confession: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). When we follow Paul’s exhortation and fully accept God’s offer of salvation in Christ Jesus, then we’re removed far away from the fiery condemnation of Jonathan Edwards’ preaching and drawn into God’s merciful arms of love.
There we discover what the penitent King David meant when he wrote, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise” (Psalm 51:12-15).
Thomas Cranmer, one of the founding fathers of Anglicanism wrote this beautiful collect that brings David’s confession forward to the 16th century. Perhaps his words are the perfect conclusion to our thoughts this morning:
Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing that You have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen