First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent

Even though our current prayer book has been approved for use in the Episcopal Church for more than 40 years, it’s still surprising to me how many people are not aware that in it are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer.  If you’re not familiar with them, you can look in your prayer books on page 364 at the top, where you’ll see there is the traditional version on the left and the contemporary version on the right. 

There are subtle differences between these two versions of the Lord’s prayer, but one difference is rather striking.  In the traditional version (the one we usually use) we say, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” While the contemporary version says, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.”  Both versions try to say the same thing, but I actually think they say something quite different. 

Being delivered from the time of trial means wanting to be spared the time in our future or the future of humanity when we will all be judged by God.  While “lead us not into temptation” to me is asking for God’s help in avoiding temptation in this life.  And personally, I don’t want to be saved from the time of trial.  I maybe want to be supported and helped during the time of trial.  But I don’t want to be left out from it.  While avoiding temptation in this life is, on the other hand, something I would very much like for God to help me with.

Temptation is something we all face and something we all could use some help with. 

In our Collect for today, we prayed: “Almighty God, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”  The common human reality that this collect addresses is the fact that we’re all familiar with the realities of temptation and sin.  We always have been — which is evidenced by our readings for today.

In Genesis we have one of the most well-known, often quoted, and unfortunately misunderstood Old Testament stories. We’ve heard this story since our Sunday school days. A serpent tricks Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then, to add insult to injury, Eve gets Adam to take a bite. And, oh my gosh, the result is that instead of dying, as God proclaimed would happen, all that happens is that Adam and Eve realize they are naked. As a result, God kicks them out of Paradise. If only they had obeyed God, we would all still be living a perfect life without disease or heartache, or loss, or pain of any kind. And we think to ourselves, wouldn’t that be wonderful! And then we wonder, why should we have to suffer because of the foolish decisions of someone else?  We think, how completely unfair that we should have to suffer for what Adam and Eve did?  Or, let’s be honest, Eve started it, so at least us guys can feel a little less guilty.  Right? 

Well, of course not. Because Adam and Eve aren’t really two historical figures who destroyed our chance to live in Paradise. The reality that we often overlook is that Adam and Eve are us – all of us!

This story of Adam and Eve teaches us that temptation and sinfulness are part of human nature. They’re part of our nature because we’ve been given the gift of free will. And with that gift comes the responsibility of choice. We can choose to do good or evil, and even if Adam and Eve were historical figures, human nature being what it is, at some point, they would probably have chosen to do wrong at some point anyway.

And, ya know, there’s an interesting aspect to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Notice that it says “good and evil”. It doesn’t say “good or evil.” Some biblical scholars have suggested that the knowledge referred to in this story is not just moral knowledge; but rather, it is infinite knowledge, the knowledge of all that it is possible to know. From this perspective, the point is not that trying to discern between good and evil is somehow wrong or at least prohibited.  Rather, it is that trying to have all knowledge (knowledge of all that is good and all that is evil) is a grasping to be God, to be without limit. Words that come to mind for me in this context are things like pride, arrogance, and radical self-sufficiency. When we think we know so much that we don’t need others – or worse, that we don’t even need God – then “knowledge,” which is a good thing, becomes something that separates us from others and separates us from God.

So, where does this leave us this morning? Where’s the good news?  Well, the good news is, of course, where it always is – in the Incarnation of God. Because in Jesus we find a model, a guide in how to resist temptation and, even more importantly, to know that when we do fall short of God’s hopes for us we are always given the chance to turn things around.  

The gospel passage today is another of those really well-known and often told stories about Jesus. It’s a great story to tell children because it provides encouragement to have the will power to do what we know is right.  Through all of the temptations – food to satisfy his hunger, safety to keep him from being harmed, power and authority to make everything in the world the way it “should” be, Jesus doesn’t give in. What Jesus does is remind the tempter that God is the authority, that God has the true power. Only God is worthy of humankind’s worship.

There are many things both of these passages can teach us, but most importantly, I have always thought that what we need to hear from these stories is the importance of “faithfulness.”  It’s not just about “doing the right thing.” It’s about being faithful to God and “doing what we know in our hearts God wants us to do.”  If Adam and Eve had been faithful to what God asked of them, like Jesus, they would have been able to resist the temptation that was presented to them.  The consequence of Adam and Eve’s unfaithfulness was that they saw clearly the fullness of their humanity.  And if we’re honest about it, when we give in to temptation, doesn’t the same thing happen to us?  Don’t we, in those moments, come to know deep down and quite clearly the fullness of our weakness – our frail humanity? BUT, and here’s the good news again, Jesus says that is specifically when we must not lose hope.

Yes, the consequence of Adam and Eve’s unfaithfulness was to lose the garden. And our unfaithfulness causes us to lose balance in our life.  But Jesus came to show us how to live in the midst of, or perhaps in response to, our human failings.

Jesus’ whole ministry was to call us back to faithfulness – to show us how much God loves us and that God loves us enough to become like us, to die for us, and to rise to bring us back into a loving relationship with our Creator. We see in Jesus a comrade, a model, someone who knew in a human way what our struggles are.

Lent is a wonderful time to re-read these Scripture stories, to remember what we’ve learned and what they still teach us. Lent is a time to pray for metanoia, the Greek word for a change of heart and life, a renewal of faith. For “Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”