1st Sunday in Lent

February 13, 2005
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 32
Reading 3: 
Romans 5:12-19
Reading 4: 
Matthew 4:1-11
By Rick Marshall

Who am I going to trust?
On this first Sunday in Lent, some of the basic terms and metaphors of the season of Lent are set out in the selected scriptures. Each one of them deals with the theme of boundaries and the temptation to break the boundaries and what the dire results have been in human existence. Of course, the Good News is that there is another way, provided by God, embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to live in the world that leads to life and not death. But first, the bad news.

The Genesis text sets forth the basic command: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” (2:17) A great deal of theological speculation has gone into this primary boundary. The story is often used to discuss the nature of sin and the root of death. What we can say about the command is that there is no reason for it given in the text. It is just given. The command is given in a larger context of blessing. The Creator creates out of goodness and a desire for balance and well being. The divine intention toward creation is to bless. Matthew Fox calls it “Original Blessing.” The issue is not about the content of the boundary, but the simple fact that there are boundaries of human existence set by the Creator, boundaries that are meant to be respected. The text maintains a clear relationship between Creator and creation. All things come from the Creator. The rest of the Genesis text goes on to describe, in narrative form, the act of breaking this primal boundary and the consequences of this primary act of breaching the divine command and usurping the right relationship between the Creator and the creatures. The story points to a dynamic relationship between Creator and creation.  It implies a relational world that is now broken because the foundational relationship between Creator and creation has been violated. Trust has been broken.

The problem now is how to get back to a healthy relationship and restore well being and balance for creation.

The Romans text uses the story from Genesis and casts it in terms of temptation/violation (Adam) verses temptation/obedience (Jesus). Paul sees Adam as a type and, by implication, he sees Jesus as a type. The two narrative characters are expressions of two forms of human existence, or two ways of living in the world. One way of human existence is defined by idolatry and leads to death. The other way of human existence is defined by obedience and leads to life. Earlier in Romans (1:18ff) Paul describes what he believes to be the basic problem with the world. It is idolatry and, more specifically, self idolatry. That is, the root of sin is the way human beings set themselves up as lord and master of their own lives, ignoring and thereby disregarding the Creator. They choose to trust themselves and not the Creator. It is a nullification of the trustworthiness of God. God’s anger over this breach is expressed as God simply letting human beings run with their self idolatry, suffering the consequences. The world as it is, violence and death, is a result of human self idolatry. The general state of lack of well being in creation is not what God intends. The divine solution is offered in Jesus Christ as a model of an alternative way of living in the world, another choice for human existence. The operative word for this way of life is faith or trust and is reflected in the Matthew text and throughout the Christian scriptures. Moreover, the resurrection is an affirmation and demonstration of God’s transforming power, a power that defines God’s nature, a power that can be trusted.  

The Matthew text is a narrative that displays a primary act of obedience to the Creator. In the face of temptation Jesus obeys in a mirror reflection of Adam’s act of disobedience in the face of similar temptation. Three opportunities to breach the boundaries between Creator and creation are offered to Jesus. In each case, giving in to temptation would have been an act of self idolatry. Yet, in each case Jesus chooses the proper relationship between Creator and creation, thereby opting for trust and well being and life.

The number “40” is the symbol of temptation in the Bible and implies the fundamental choice of orientation toward self worship or Creator worship. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for 40 days reminds the reader of other stories of temptation using the number 40. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights in the Noah story. Moses was on the sacred mountain meeting with God for 40 days. The people of Israel were in the desert for 40 years. In each case, those involved in the story were faced with a choice: within the context of anxiety and fear of the future will we opt for trusting ourselves or trusting the Creator? The question then becomes, will we choose to manage our own lives out of fear, or will we entrust our lives into God’s hands? Who will we trust: ourselves or God?

Preaching the text:
From a process theology perspective, in a relational world, respect of boundaries is crucial in maintaining a world of well being. If I were preaching on this set of texts, I would talk about boundaries in a relational world. Using common forms of relationships, I would talk about health, well being, balance and respect of others. Marriage could be used as an example of implied boundaries and how respect of healthy boundaries contributes to the health of the relationship. Parent/child relationships could be used as another example of maintaining healthy boundaries in promoting well being. Relationships in a worshipping community is another example of the dynamic between the individual and community and the requirement of respect of boundaries. The Bible uses relationship as the primary category in understanding the maintenance of the well being of creation. A healthy relationship between Creator and creation is crucial to the well being of all. The Bible often uses relational language in describing the Divine love. God is often seen as loving Parent. Or Jesus is seen as the bridegroom and the church the bride.

On this first Sunday in Lent, it would be helpful to set the tone for the rest of the season of Lent. The themes of temptation, self idolatry, boundaries and trust could be woven throughout the forty-day season. The question underlying the season is: Who am I going to trust for my well being, myself or the Creator?

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.