1st Sunday in Lent

February 10, 2008
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

If there is a season for creative transformation, it is Lent-Easter. What other season expresses so well the theme of death being transformed into new life in unexpected ways? Many biblical stories describe God creating a way out of no way, or creating a future where there is only despair. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate paradigm of how the transforming power of God works. Preaching during Lent-Easter will be variations on this theme.

Discussing the Text
All the texts point to the problem of sin in human life and the goal of having a clear, clean relationship with God. Psalm 32 focuses on the need for confession and forgiveness in order to be restored to life. As the psalmist says in verse 5, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord; then you did forgive the guilt of my sin.” There follows an admonishment to call upon God and to come clean.

The Genesis text is the classic story of the Garden and how sin entered into human life. This seems to be the way the Romans text interprets the Genesis text. But, more importantly, the Genesis text is about boundaries. Notice in verses 15-17, the boundaries are set. We don’t know what the boundaries are. They are not set by us; they are simply in place. Such is life. There are natural boundaries between creatures and Creator, life and death. The instruction to the dirt-man is to respect the boundaries. If the boundaries are respected, life will be full; when the boundaries are breached, life falls apart. Look at the beginning of chapter 3: it is a descriptive narrative of how boundaries are breached and what the consequences look like.

The ultimate consequences are described in the Romans text: Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin. If sin is the breaching of boundaries, the continuation of sin is the continuation of the breaching of natural boundaries. Earlier in Romans, Paul analyzes the nature of sin. It has to do with idolatry, which is, for him, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. When humans trust their own management of life, we are doomed. The only one worthy of trust is the Creator. Once that priority is acknowledged and brought to the center of life, then fullness of life is possible. Morality is not the central problem, but the consequence of the focus of trust.

The Matthew text is a story of boundaries and what it looks like if someone (Jesus) respected the boundaries. If the story of Adam and Even in the garden is a cautionary tale, then the story of the temptation of Jesus is a positive view of how to respect the boundaries. Three scenarios are laid out, all having to do with boundaries and the temptation to breach them. In each case, Jesus demurs, falling back on trust in God. As Adam and Eve represent choosing the wrong path, which leads ultimately to death, Jesus represents choosing the right path, which leads ultimately to life.

One of the images of the Psalm stands out: don’t be a like an ass or a horse that needs to be lead around by a bit and bridle so that it won’t wander off. Trusting God, listening to “counsel” about how to respect the boundaries of life, will lead us on the path of life.

Process Theology and the Text
Broadly, all the assigned texts point to the ultimate theme of Lent leading to Easter: Reconciling what we are in ourselves with what we can be in God. This is an extension of the Lenten-Easter theme of death being transformed into new life. The question for the preacher is to approach these abstract themes with concrete connections to the way we live our lives. If creative transformation is the nature of the power of God, then Lenten-Easter stories provide the bone, blood and flesh of the consequences of embracing either coercive power or persuasive power as divine. The very embodiment of creative transformation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core narrative of God’s power working in life.

Preaching the Text
Thinking about preaching on these texts, I find myself drawn to the image of the ass. It is an image of stubbornness. There is a dull stupidity in mindlessly following our own path, “wandering away.” There is nothing necessarily evil or vicious about such an act. It is only dull and stupid; essentially, mindless, without direction. The preacher can “ride” this image all the way to aimlessness, which is the point of the image. How many ways can aimless human activity be described? Where to even start: the economy, wars, politics, religion, the use of technology, relationships, the environment, ad nauseum. Read today’s newspaper for a litany of aimlessness. Human society isn’t necessarily evil, but it is astoundingly stupid in its mindless loop of self-management. Sin truly is a life of aimlessness, missing the mark, perhaps not even aiming at it. Sin is not even knowing what the divine goal of life is. If there is no goal, how can we even aim our lives?

The contrasting narratives of Adam and Eve and Jesus can be the backbone of the sermon. They present a simple life choice: trusting our life, love and future to ourselves, or to the Creator. The choice implies two very different ways of living in the world. The way of idolatry is clear; we live with those consequences daily. What is not as clear is what life would look like if lived according to the Jesus narrative. Making choices that are centered on trust in the Creator implies a whole new world. Aside from the usual abstract descriptions of it like peace and joy and life, what would a real world look like that respected the boundaries of life?

Even if we concede the truth of the statement that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, it still begs the question What is sin? The problem is that sin has been most often defined in moral terms and reduced to a list of infractions against God and neighbor, when in fact; it has more to do with the problem of breaching boundaries. It is first a theological problem and then an ethical problem.

Human society needs intervention, otherwise it will destroy itself. The first rule of intervention is the need to admit you have a problem. Hence, confession of sin is the first step on the path to restoration and to life. Understanding the nature of the problem is key. In our case, sin is idolatry, that is, by our own efforts and goals, to manage our own future on our own terms. This path leads to oppression, violence and death.

Lent can be seen as a time of assessing where we are and where we need to go. Coming to terms with the consequences of the mess of managing our own lives, and how to move toward trusting our lives into the Creator’s hands. A death needs to occur, death of self as the ultimate authority of life and reorientation toward the Creator as the center of life. The theme of forty days, a time of testing, temptation, trial, mediation, can be focused first on the consequences of our own self-(mis)-management and how that must die. Where will new life come from if we relinquish such self-management? That is the problem of trust. Trusting someone other than ourselves can evoke fear, anxiety, dread. But a death must occur if there is to be new life.

Or a preacher could use the Children and the Text section below and play with the ideas of aimlessness, defining goals and what it means to aim and “hit” the target. Ask the question: What is God’s goal for us?

Children and the Text
The obvious meaning of sin is to miss the mark. The preacher could have fun with the children by bringing a bull’s eye target and a small suction pistol, or a simple sling shot and talk about aiming and hitting the mark. Discuss what the “mark” in life is, which is to live our lives on target. A bull’s eye might be simply becoming the person we are capable of becoming, given our talents, resources, family etc.

Or the preacher could bring a basketball or football or some other symbol of a game. Ask the questions, for example, of basketball. What’s the goal of the game? To make baskets. What if there was no hoop? Where would we throw the ball? Extrapolate from this to make the same point about sin as missing the mark.

The point of all of this is to encourage the children to know what to aim for in their lives. Being in right relationship with God helps us to aim. Of course the mark is going to be different for each person. But, to begin with, being in right relationship with God means to treat ourselves with respect, to treat others with respect and to treat God with respect and to live our lives well. That would be hitting the mark.

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.