A Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9, Lent 3

Image credit: godtube.com

I love the Book of Isaiah, it is so rich in communicating God’s chesedlovingkindness—and grace. Those who believe that the Hebrew Bible and the God described in the Hebrew Bible are filled with doom and gloom, judgement and condemnation need to read the Book of Isaiah. Yes, there are oracles of judgement in Isaiah, however it is also bursting at the seams with messages of lovingkindness and grace.

The Book of Isaiah is a complex one, yet, at the same time, it enunciates the beauty of simplicity. Many scholars divide it into three sections and most likely three different periods of history: Chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. They are referred to as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah respectively. Scholars differ concerning their authorship—e.g., some believe the Book of Isaiah may have been compiled by a group of editors/prophets or ‘school of Isaiah’ so-to-speak, while others contend each of the sections were written by three different individuals, as well as other theories. Our pericope likely dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), perhaps near the end of it, as the content of this oracle is one of a hopeful future—indeed, the title of this oracle in my Bible is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.”

The oracle begins with a message of God’s grace. The picture is rather profound in that first of all everyone is given this grace-filled invitation without exception; and second, the economy of God’s grace is the exact reversal of all human economies based on a monetary system. The invitation makes it abundantly clear that God’s grace cannot be bought with money—it is free! Therefore the rich have no advantage over the poor, all are equal in God’s eyes. In God’s economy of grace no money is required—rather, God’s banquet feast of food and drink are free and accessible to everyone. What abundance, what generosity God offers here!

Verses two and three continue with this motif of God’s abundant grace, however there is a clarifying injunction, the exilic citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are commanded to “Listen carefully…,” “Incline your ear…,” “listen, so that you may live.” I believe it was Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening makes all the difference in the world, it is, or at least has the potential of being, a matter of life or death. Those who listen are often more open to the blessings of what life has to offer them through the multidimensional workings of God’s grace. Failure to listen can, and often does lead to sinful thoughts, words and actions that lead to: self-inflicted suffering, alienated and broken relationships with God and other human beings, divisions, the devastation of creation, evil, injustice, war and destruction.

In the case of this pericope, listening while eating and drinking at God’s grace-filled banquet feast is connected with celebrating God’s “everlasting covenant” now expanding from David’s line to include all of God’s chosen people—verses four and five. God’s chosen people graced with an everlasting covenant shall “call nations that [they] you do not know,” and in response to this “call,” these nations “shall run to you.” They shall do this running because of God’s grace and initiative toward his chosen people.

Verses six and seven shift in their emphasis, inviting people, including “the wicked,” to repent of their sinful ways; which involves returning to the Holy One, the One who created and loved them from the beginning. This call to repentance, to return to the LORD has a profound consequence: “he may have mercy on them…,” and “he will abundantly pardon.” Mercy and abundance are the very attributes of God; they are also associated with God’s grace, lovingkindness/chesed, and God’s fidelity to the everlasting covenant.

The closing verses of this pericope are a reminder of God’s sovereignty, God’s transcendence, God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ and in the presence of God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ our humility—reminding us of our finitude and limitations, which are a message of grace too, since they reveal our need of God, our hunger and thirst for God, our constant state of returning to God in order to live the abundant life. We are graced to share God’s abundance even as we live in our various forms of exile.

Advertisements

Sermon Easter Day Yr A

Easter Day Yr A, 23/03/2008

Col 3:1-4

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Raised with Christ”

 

A grouchy husband made it into heaven along with his wife. However he was still rather glum. “What’s wrong now?” the wife asked. “Can’t you see, we’re in heaven? This is beautiful—the music is great, the food is out of this world, the mansion has everything and more we’d ever dreamt of, the golf course is the best we’ve ever seen, there’s no fees, no taxes, our health is fantastic, why aren’t you happy? What’s wrong with you?”

The husband replied, “If we hadn’t eaten that miserable oat bran, we could have been here ten years ago.”

The punch line of this joke compliments the words of our second lesson today. In this passage, the Christians at Colossae, which was a town of Phrygia in Asia Minor, close to Ephesus, were exhorted to focus on heaven. Earlier they had been told that through the entrance rite of Christianity; through the sacrament of Holy Baptism; they had died and risen with Christ. Now, continuing with that line of thought, they are instructed: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In other words, they are to live, to act like Easter people. They are to live and act as resurrection people. This is true, because for the writer of this letter, the resurrection is something that has already been accomplished in the past, the writer reminds them and us: “you have been raised with Christ,” an action, a fact that has already occurred—not “you shall be raised with Christ” in the future. The resurrection is an accomplished action; a victory won; a fact that has now become part of Christian salvation history, says the writer of Colossians with utmost confidence.

Pastor and professor, Donald Deffner tells the following story: An atheist who served as a custodian at a seminary enjoyed baiting the young theologians. He told one who was reading a book about eternal life, “If you ask me, that’s so much hogwash. When you’re dead, you’re dead.” The student replied, “You’re right, George. When you’re dead, you’re dead.” The janitor walked away, wondering what in the world that young man was doing at a seminary. The student’s point was that hope of eternal life comes only after one has faced the reality of eternal death—which the janitor had not.1

Our second lesson reminds us that hope of eternal life comes only after we have faced the reality of eternal death. We have all done that when we were baptised. In baptism we were buried with Christ in his death and in baptism we were raised with Christ to new, resurrection life. Therefore, the writer exhorts the Colossian Christians to focus on this new reality of resurrection. Resurrection, says the writer, is to be the Christian’s entire orientation in life. Resurrection is the key, the guide, the reason for living life now in this world. Resurrection is the Christian’s life focus. What does that mean? Does it mean that we’re so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good? No, not at all! That is to misunderstand the message of our passage. Rather, it is to live life on earth in light of the reality, the accomplished fact that Christ, through his death and resurrection has won the victory for us and for everyone—that is why he is now “seated at the right hand of God.” This picture of Christ being exalted, by sitting at God’s right hand is a Jewish concept of future reward in heaven; it is giving Christ the ultimate honour as the Messiah. It reminds one of a winner, victor after a great battle. Christ is the Victor, Christ is the Winner, and Christ is the Ultimate Conqueror. Hence militant Easter hymns like “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,” and “Thine Is the Glory” are most appropriate as we celebrate the truth of Easter Sunday and the power of the resurrection. Christ has defeated the powers of sin, death and evil. If that is true, says our second lesson, then the way we live as Christians each day points to that reality of the resurrection.

One of our magazines carried a cartoon of a pastor addressing an overflow congregation on Easter Sunday and asking, “Are you not just a little curious as to what goes on here between Easters?” Regardless of the motivation, what does Easter mean to you? Or rather, what does Christ mean to you? Do you reckon him a notable historical personage like Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi? Do you reverence him as the sublimest ethical teacher of all time? Or do you believe that he overcame the sharpness of death, that is to say, he is not only the Jesus of history but the Jesus of experience, alive and at work in the world here and now? If you incline to shy away from that last question, dismissing it perhaps as sheer mysticism, take another look at the facts. Christianity is something more than hero-worship. It is not just the perpetuation of a great memory. It is a relationship to and a fellowship with a Christ who is “alive for evermore.” Everything in Christianity depends on the reality of the resurrection of Christ, on the fact that he rose from the grave, appeared to his disciples, made his presence felt in their lives, and still makes his presence felt, is in our generation as great an actuality as he was to his first followers.

“Shall I tell you,” David Livingstone asked the students of Glasgow University on his return from sixteen years spent in Africa, “what sustained me amidst the toil and hardship, and loneliness of my exiled life? It was the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.’” For multitudes this is life’s most precious conviction. When they speak about Christ, they use not only the past and future tenses but the present tense as well. “Lo, I am with you always.” That is the heartwarming, heart-gladdening fact we celebrate this morning.2

For us Christians, our ultimate security; our eternal home; our most healthy state of being is in heaven with God in Christ. That does not mean we are so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. Rather, that means living in light of the fact of our baptismal inheritance and covenant. That means living in light of the fact that, as our second lesson reminds us we: “have been raised with Christ.” This is an accomplished fact that shapes all of our history, personally and collectively. In light of this fact, our life on earth can bring resurrection where there is death; hope to the hopeless; love to the loveless. In the face of all sufferings and failures—there is healing and ultimate victory thanks to our risen Saviour Jesus Christ. Yes, we “have been raised with Christ!” Alleluia! Amen.

 

1 Donald L. Deffner, Sermons for Church Year Festivals (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), p. 68.

2 Robert J. McCracken, “The Inevitableness of Easter,” in: Paul H. Sherry, Editor, The Riverside Preachers: Fosdick McCracken Campbell Coffin (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1978), pp. 99-100.

 

 

Sermon Palm/Passion Sunday Yr A

Palm/Passion Sunday Yr A, 16/03/2008

Matt 26:36-46

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Gethsemane”

 

It was night. Jesus had just celebrated the Passover and instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had told them one of the twelve would betray him. He also had predicted Peter’s denial. Now they make their way to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. Here Jesus takes along Peter, James and John to keep vigil with him. He had been their source of comfort throughout his public ministry. Now, this night before his death, he seeks their comforting presence.

Matthew tells us at this point Jesus was: “grieved and agitated.” Telling the three inner circle disciples: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” Here we have a picture of Jesus’ humanity; he could be grief-stricken, agitated and full of sorrow. This grief and sorrow is something that Isaiah described centuries earlier, saying: “He was despised and rejected…a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (RSV, Isa 53:3) Composer G.F. Handel, in his Messiah, sets these words from Isaiah to music, which is hauntingly, yet tragically beautiful.

What was the root of Christ’s sorrow, agitation and grief unto death? Most likely it was a combination of many things. He knew that he was about to leave his disciples behind, whom he loved dearly. He knew that after his time of agonizing prayer in Gethsemane that his disciple, Judas Iscariot would soon betray him and Peter would shortly deny him three times before the rooster’s crow. He knew that as the drama of his Passion heightened and he was nailed to the cross his disciples would split the scene and abandon him. He knew that the devil, the powers of evil were at work on this night to try and prevent him from doing what he needed to do. He knew that he would be treated like the lowliest and hated of criminals. He knew that he was about to be tried, sentenced and executed like a criminal on the trumped up charge of insurrection. He knew the crowds would condemn him, slander him, mock him. He knew that some of his own people along with several of their religious leaders would reject him. All of this and more was almost too much to bear. In light of this all now Jesus hopes his three inner circle disciples will stay awake with him for a brief duration of companionship and comfort.

After he tells them to stay awake, he walks a little farther to be alone; to pray to his heavenly Father. Matthew tells us that in his extremely troubled state Jesus: “threw himself on the ground and prayed.” His throwing himself on the ground again suggests Christ’s humanity. He comes to God the Father with humility; this position of prayer epitomises humility; the pain is so great; carrying the sins of the world; he falls down to the ground in prayer.

It was French theologian Jacques Ellul who once said: “Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his (or her) whole life at stake.” Is that not precisely what Jesus did at Gethsemane, put his whole life at stake?

In his humanity, Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?” Here the deep inner anguish; the unbearable agony of having to do what he dreaded and feared most—dying on a cross for the sins of the world is the cup of suffering Jesus in his humanness; in his love of life asks God the Father to be spared of. However, each sin had to be atoned for; every human being, all of humankind from beginning to end had to be forgiven—thus his suffering was beyond our comprehension.

While this incomprehensible battle was raging within Jesus, the three disciples were overcome with stress and so chose to fall asleep and look after their physical need above their spiritual need to stay awake with Christ and suffer with him. Some comfort they were! Yet there is much truth in Jesus alone at prayer, struggling to accept God the Father’s will, not his will. We too face at times our Gethsemane. Sinners that we are, we struggle with doing God’s will rather than our own will—especially if God wills us to face suffering and a cross. We too, like Jesus, may think that we are carrying the world on our shoulders. We too, like Jesus may feel abandoned by our closest friends or family members. However, the example of Jesus is ours to follow—turning to God in prayer and asking him for help to do his will.

After his exhortation to the disciples to stay awake and pray not to fall into the time of trial; Jesus went to pray alone a second time. This time Jesus’ prayer is more resolved to accept his destiny: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it: “My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.”

Once again Jesus went back to Peter, James and John only to find them fast asleep. This time he does not awaken them. Instead, he goes back a third time to pray the same prayer.

Prayer for Jesus at Gethsemane was extremely important. Prayer allowed Jesus to commune with his Abba his Loving Parent, just as a young child trusts her or his parent for everything. Prayer made it possible for Christ to pour out and hand over all of his fears, agony, agitation, sorrow and grief to God the Father. Prayer provided Christ with the single-mindedness of purpose to carry out the Father’s will. Prayer gave him the strength and courage to willingly accept the loneliness and God-forsakenness ahead of him. Prayer helped him face the events of the Passion—to endure and overcome them.

What about us? Do we believe that God is with us and is our only, our highest and best Source of help, comfort, guidance and strength when we face our Gethsemane? If Jesus turned to his heavenly Father three times in prayer in order to help him face his suffering and crucifixion—then how much more we imperfect sinners do we need to turn to God in prayer? This short verse of a an anonymous poem illustrates the point very well: “I got up early one morning and rushed right into the day,/I had so much to accomplish that I didn’t have time to pray./Problems tumbled about me, and heavier became each task./ “Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered, and He answered: “You didn’t ask.”

Gethsemane teaches us that when we feel utterly alone; when we suffer betrayal or denial; when we are falsely or unjustly judged or punished; when we face obstacles and sufferings that seem unbearable; when we face our Gethsemane—then God promises to be with us as we commune with him in prayer; then, when we pray “thy will be done” he will supply the grace and everything we need to face life and accomplish his will. Jesus teaches us that all things are possible through prayer. Our heavenly Father provides everything we need and is always available and waiting for us to ask that his will be done. Amen.

 

Sermon 3 Lent Yr A

3 Lent Yr A, 24/02/2008

Jn 4:5-42

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”

 

PRAYER: O God, the well-spring of life, pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that refreshed by you, we may live this day in steadfast reliance on the strength you give; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.* Wow! What a story in today’s gospel! It is one of the longest conversations with an individual in all of the gospels. It’s a wonderful, surprising, remarkable story because Jesus says and does some exceptional things, which go far above and beyond predictable, Jewish customs, traditions, beliefs and practices. Jesus in this story reveals the uniqueness of his identity as Messiah and Saviour of the world. I invite you to join me now as we take a closer look at some of the rich insights of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

   First of all, John tells us that Jesus, unlike so many devout Jews of his day, did not avoid travelling in Samaria. You see at this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were enemies. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as half-breeds, not purely Jewish. They also looked down on them because the Samaritans only regarded the first five books of the Bible as authoritative scripture and they thought that the true place of worship was on Mount Gerizim, where they once had built a temple, but it had been destroyed in 128 B.C.

   It is noon, burning hot, Jesus, in his humanness, is tired out and thirsty. He stops at Jacob’s well, at the Samaritan city of Sychar—most likely the same place that centuries before was called Shechem, north of Jerusalem, which had been part of the old northern Israelite kingdom. In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman, we don’t even know her name, came to draw water. Jesus, then does something totally out of bounds for any other Jewish leader of his day—he speaks to this woman, this Samaritan woman in a public place, saying: “Give me a drink.” Any male, Jewish, religious leader wanting respect would never speak to a woman, including their wife, let alone a Samaritan woman in a public place. This was a shocking, radical, unexpected thing to do. The Samaritan woman, realizing this, answers Jesus, expressing her surprise: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And John adds for readers unfamiliar with the customs of that day this detail: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

   Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour of the world demonstrates here that he refuses to accept the traditions and customs of the Jews that placed a barrier between Jew and Samaritan and male and female. He came to remove such walls and divisions of the past as the true Messiah and Saviour of the whole world.

   Jesus then continues the conversation, now offering the Samaritan woman “living water,” which, at first, she thinks Jesus is still speaking about the water in Jacob’s well and wonders how he can get the water out of such a deep well without a bucket. Jesus however, speaking on a spiritual level promises that those who drink of the living water will never be thirsty again: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Centuries before, Jeremiah referred to God himself as “the fountain of living water,” (Jer 2:13; 17:13). And in the book of Proverbs 13:14, we learn of this promise: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death.” Water, of course, is also the symbol in this Gospel for the sacrament of baptism. Here, however, according to Professor Walter Brueggemann: It is clear that the gospel narrative has taken the concrete-material reality of water and transposed it into a metaphor. Water is now gospel; water is the good news. Water is sign and symbol that in Jesus we are given a new quality of life, as the text says, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This is extraordinary good news that in the life of this defeated woman, durable quenching is possible. It was outrageous good news that from the hard rock of a failed life durable quenching happens, good news for ancient Israel in the wilderness, good news for the woman thirsting for a better life, good news for us in a culture of paralyzing anxiety.1 Jesus as living water gives us eternal life, abundant life, which starts right now, and flows on without end.

After Jesus offers the Samaritan woman this living water, she asks Jesus for it, and Jesus responds by sending her on the task of fetching her husband and bringing him back. She tells Jesus that she has no husband. He is very pastoral in his next comment to the woman, affirming her for telling him the truth, yet, at the same time, confronting her with the truth of her past marital history and her present status. Notice here that Jesus is not condemning her for having five previous husbands and not being married to the present man she is living with. Rather, he merely states the truth of her past history and present situation. This is very instructive for us too. We should not draw the conclusion based on an argument out of silence that the woman was sexually immoral given her past history. Indeed, as some feminist scholars have observed, we have no detailed information on the sexual history of the woman or her previous husbands, therefore we should not jump to the wrong conclusion that the woman was sexually immoral. Jesus does not make such a comment or judgement, therefore neither should we. Rather, Jesus states the truth in a way that invites the woman to respond.

Notice then that the woman does not walk away because she feels condemned. Nor does she feel that she needs to respond in a defensive way. Rather, she remains in conversation with Jesus, likely surprised at what he had just told her, and realising that this was no ordinary person, admitting that he was a prophet, and then raising a theological issue concerning the appropriate place to worship God—is it Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem? Those in our society or community who feel like outcasts; who feel that they are the subjects of malicious gossip; who are ostracized and condemned by others; these ones need Jesus and his love as much as the rest of us. The way Jesus handles this situation with the Samaritan woman is a perfect example of how we can offer pastoral care to the outcasts of our day. We, like Jesus, can speak the truth without condemning others, and then invite those who hear the truth to respond to it, like the woman of Samaria.

Jesus then takes the Samaritan woman’s statement seriously and explains what true worship really means. I like the way professor and pastor, Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Believe me woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.”

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

In other words: Cities, states/provinces, nations, and denominations are not holy. God is holy. God’s people are holy. No more artificial divisions—Jews/Samaritans, Protestant/Catholic, Presbyterian/Lutheran—no more divisions to separate human beings one from another—good news—gospel.2

In response, to Jesus’ truth concerning true worship, and the truth of his own being, the woman now continues the conversation by saying the whole truth shall be proclaimed when the Messiah comes. Jesus then gives her the greatest surprise of her life: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

The woman, there and then is never the same again. Joyfully surprised and shocked at this revelation from a conversation about the truth to meeting The Truth Himself; she leaves her water jar behind—perhaps a symbol of her old way of life before meeting up with Jesus, and goes back to the city and preaches the Good News. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” That truth-telling, which came from Jesus The Truth; that Gospel preaching went right into the hearts, minds and lives of many Samaritans who heard the woman preacher. God’s Spirit was at work in their spirits to draw them into a living encounter with Jesus The Truth. They too, with that Samaritan woman came to “know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

To this day, that nameless Samaritan woman, the first unexpected evangelist, is revered in many cultures. In southern Mexico, La Samaritana is remembered on the fourth Friday in Lent, when specially flavoured water is given to commemorate her gift of water to Jesus. The Orthodox know her as Saint Photini, or Svetlana in Russian. Her name means “equal to the apostles,” and she is honoured as apostle and martyr on the Feast of the Samaritan Woman.3

You never know how Jesus will surprise and reveal his truth to you. In the Lenten wilderness of temptations aplenty and countless sins, which nailed Jesus to the cross; there is good news; life transforming news. Jesus the living water; Jesus The Way, The Truth, and The Life, comes to us through word, water, bread and wine to satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst; to give us free, abundant life, full of Spirit. We, like that Samaritan woman are never the same again as we worship and serve God in spirit and in truth. Like her, we are invited to respond by spreading the Good News of Jesus to everyone. Amen.

* Prayer cited from: A New Zealand Prayer Book (Hastings, New Zealand: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. & HarperSan Fransisco, 1989 & 1997), p. 92.

1 Walter Brueggemann & Anna Carter Florence, Editor, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 141.

2 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 64.

3 David E. Leininger, ibid, p. 64.

 

Sermon 1 Lent Yr A

1 Lent Yr A, 10/02/2008

Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7 & Rom 5:12-19

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Sin and Death, Christ and New Life”

 

Today one of the taboo words is sin, and along with it, death. We live far too much of our lives in denial of both sin and death. In fact, many bow down and worship at the altar of sin. As for death, we like to sanitize it by employing phrases such as “passed away,” and we attempt to confine and control death by the use of science and technology—going to all kinds of heroic measures, which are nothing more than out and out denial of and rebellion against death, attempting to be gods and goddesses in our True God’s place.

   The story is told of a fence between Heaven and Hell, which was falling apart. It was badly in need of repair. Saint Peter consulted his records and saw that by the terms of an ancient agreement, it was Satan’s turn to fix the fence. So he gritted his teeth and sought an audience with the Prince of Darkness.

   He found him in the nether regions, cleaning his pitchfork. Peter did not sit down. The smell of brimstone was heavy in the hot air. “You need to fix the fence,” he said.

   The devil twitched his red tail. He scratched behind a horn. “Now Pete,” he said, “you could be a little more friendly, after all these years.”

   “I don’t want to be here at all,” Peter said. “I just came to tell you the fence needs fixing.”

   “My people are too busy to spend time on your lousy fence. Fix it yourself.”

   “See here, you devil; it’s your turn to fix the fence. It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t fix the fence, I’ll sue.”

   The devil laughed his wickedest laugh. “Go ahead and sue! Where are you going to find a lawyer?”1

   This joke is rather negative towards lawyers, with its demonizing them. However, theologically I think the joke complements both our first lesson from Genesis and second lesson from Romans today. Both of these passages underscore that there is a power existing in the world that is resisting God and God’s will. A power in rebellion against God.

   In the Genesis passage, the power is described as the serpent. In the text, the serpent is not however called Satan or the devil, even though the serpent’s behaviour, by questioning God’s words to the woman and by telling the woman an out and out lie implies that it is a power resisting God and God’s will, and in rebellion against God.

   Something that is difficult for us in the story of the Fall is that God actually must have created the serpent in the first place, since he created all creatures. Why would God create such a serpent, which is described in 3:1 as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God made”? A second troublesome question is: Why would God wish to create the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil? According to one Jewish tradition, creation was flawed from the beginning and God, by creating the serpent and the forbidden tree, deliberately set up or framed the original human beings so that they would be tempted and choose to eat of the forbidden fruit. However, for Jews, the man and woman eating of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is interpreted not necessarily as the Fall or the wrong choice. Rather, it is viewed as a necessary choice for human beings in order for them to become full, mature, adult human beings who exercise their independence and therefore must learn to properly accept and be responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

   Christians, on the other hand, have interpreted this story of the Fall differently. We have viewed the choice to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a wrong choice, a choice that was made in rebellion against God and God’s will. According to one biblical scholar, Elizabeth Achtemeier: “knowledge” in Hebrew includes also the ability to do. And the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” is, therefore, a symbol of omniscience and omnipotence, of the ability to do and know everything, including right and wrong. In short, the tree symbolizes the ability to be gods. But we are not gods, of course. Human beings are creatures who are totally dependent on our Creator for all good gifts and for life itself.2 Therefore, the restriction placed on the original man and woman in the Garden of Eden not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; served at least two purposes. First of all, it was God’s way of reminding the first man and woman of their limitations. Human beings are God’s creatures, therefore finite, and having to live within certain limitations. This limitation here was to protect humans from sin and death. Second, by giving the first man and woman the responsibility and the freedom to choose not to eat of the forbidden tree; God was actually treating them with respect as mature, adult human beings and giving them the opportunity to face the consequences of their choice. God was holding them responsible for their choice and their freedom to choose. That is not at all a negative thing; it is the reality of life in this world as mature, adult human beings.

However, the first man and woman, by choosing to give in to the temptation of the serpent and believe the serpent’s lie; by eating the forbidden fruit; sin entered into the world and with it, the consequence, death. Ever since that choice, every human being has inherited sin and its consequence, death. Paul, in our second lesson, makes that quite clear. He pictures sin and death like a contagious disease, which spreads to everyone by virtue of being born a human being. Sin and death are what we have inherited from the first man and woman. That means we all too often abuse our freedom and responsibility and make the wrong kind of choices—choices that result in sin and death.

Here’s one example. In Japan there is a type of blowfish that is a great delicacy. However, there is a problem—it is poisonous. It is understood to be such a delicacy that people are willing to pay a high price per pound for the fish. Chefs preparing it are required to study something like two years before being allowed to serve it to customers.

Those who eat it feel a tingling in their tongue, toes and fingers. However if eaten in small quantities it is not fatal. Nevertheless, about sixteen people a year die from eating the fish since there is no known antidote for the poison, which is permeated throughout the meat.

Ever since the Fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, human beings can no longer choose not to sin and not to die. That freedom and privilege has been lost. That is why we need a Saviour. If sin and death are like a contagious disease that spreads to us all; then God in the Person of Jesus is like the Remedy to heal us from the disease. In the ancient Church, by receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, Christians were receiving what they referred to as the Medicine of Immortality. Sin and death do not have the last word.

This becomes quite clear in Paul’s very tightly reasoned presentation of the situation. Thinking of and referring to the story of the Fall in Genesis, Paul tells us we’re all sinners through our first parents. He tells us we all suffer the consequence of that sin, which is death. However, Paul writes with great certainty and confidence regarding our new state of being as baptized Christians, telling us that in Christ we are given a wonderful inheritance—”the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ.” A phrase that stands out in this passage is the superlative “much more surely,” and the word “abundance.” In other words, Paul is saying that sin and death are powerful, but they cannot equal God’s power in Christ; they cannot defeat or overcome Christ and his life-giving power. Christ is a superpower, so great and mighty that he and his power far exceed the powers of sin and death.

A man had felt himself to be badly wronged. It was not true, but he refused to look at facts and stubbornly held to a spirit of gross malice. The longer he held the grudge the more it festered, poisoning his thinking. At last he decided to get even. He concocted a plan to bomb the place of business where his imagined adversary worked. It was a large manufacturing plant, rising six stories and covering an entire city block. Eight hundred employees spent each weekday at work in this building. The fact that 800 people could possibly be destroyed by his bomb did not affect the man with the grievance. As long as his “offender” was killed he did not care how many others were killed or maimed. So 800 people were killed or maimed in a horrible explosion.

Or were they? A police officer somehow learned that the man was making a large bomb. So he carefully planned a search of the man’s premises, found the bomb, and turned it over to a demolition squad. Many could have perished through one man’s sinfulness. But all were saved by another man’s efforts to prevent the mass tragedy.3

Christ, says Paul, not only saves us from sin and death he gives us life, superabundant life, which flows from the present, right now into the future, eternally. This Lenten season, may we be ever mindful and appreciative of the Costly Grace we are freely given thanks to the saving work of Jesus on the cross, which has overcome sin and death—reversing the Fall by making us the new creation in Christ. Amen.

 

1 Bill Mosley, “Family Tree,” Sermons on the First Readings: Series I, Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2004), p. 125.

2 Elizabeth Achtemeier, “The Story of Us All: A Christian Exposition of Genesis 3,” in Fredrick C. Holmgren and Herman E. Schaalman, Editors, Preaching Biblical Texts: Expositions by Jewish and Christian Scholars (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 2.

3 Emphasis, Vol. 25, No. 5, January-February 1996 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 57.