Friday, March 07, 2014

March 9, Lent 1: Knowing Better, # 4 in a Series on Sin

 Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-78, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

In this sermon series I am asking every set of lessons to tell us something about sin. Right off these lessons tell us is that sin is as simple as thinking you know better. You are given the instructions and directions, but you do it your own way because you know better. Or, you hear your friends talking and you interrupt and give them the real skinny because you know better.

Eve and Adam were suddenly not content with the knowledge they had. They wanted to know as God does, that is, knowing things independently, knowing things for themselves, apart from any one else’s instructions. That unconditioned knowledge was too much for them, for now they knew too much and yet still not enough. Their knowledge was accurate, and incomplete, and wrong.

In the case of the temptation of the Lord Jesus, you could say that the devil knew too much, yet not enough. I think the devil really believed what he was saying. Don’t think of the devil as some hideous, malicious Ringwraith or Lord Voldemort. He’s more like Saruman (in the book, not the movie) or Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. He knows an awful lot, more than anybody else, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he knows better than Jesus does, that pious fool. He’s negotiating with Jesus from what he knows about the world, from lots of experience, the sad truth about the world, and the only realistic way to make any difference for any attainable good.

The story of Our Lord’s temptation is rich and endlessly paradigmatic and I could preach a dozen sermons on it and not repeat myself. Please come back three years from now, when I hope to preach on it from the pulpit in the sanctuary. Three years after that, God willing, and I’ll be sixty-six and I’ll preach on it again. Three years after that you’re going to have to help me up to the pulpit. It’s because this story is so rich that I like people to help me hear it. So we read this story the other night at one of our small groups, and then I asked them to reflect on this: "What question would you ask of this story?" One of you said, "Why did Satan want to tempt him?" I didn’t try to answer.

At home I posed the question to Melody. "Why did Satan want to tempt him? What was his motivation?" Melody said, "Putin." You know, Vladimir Putin. She said, "It’s about power." Who’s got the power, and who in power is threatened by power, and uses power to defend his power?

The power to turn stones to bread. That is, the power to make good at no cost. That power would really help the bankrupt government of Ukraine right now, if it could convert its debits into credits, or print some money and then make it valuable, or convert its fertile soil into natural gas.

The second temptation is the power to call on God to rescue us. "He will command his angels concerning you." The power to get God to intervene. That God considers you important enough to break the rules of nature just to keep you safe. How important do we consider Ukraine? Enough to intervene? "We will command our soldiers concerning you." Even at great cost? How important to us was Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968? Would you enlist? Would you risk your life? How much power do you have in your life to call on others to help you when you need it?

Melody said that the third temptation is about territory. Right. Having power means having some territory to control. So when Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, that’s like if Putin is telling the Ukrainians they belong to him, they don’t belong to the West. "Let’s just see if they come through and rescue you. They’re all talk. Obama is a pious fool. Face the facts. Just submit to me as the boss and then we can work this out and everything will be fine."

Well, you do need to have some territory. You need a place to call your own, but more you need to have some space within the world that’s under your control so you can exercise your initiative and your creativity and your freedom, or your life is no better than a tiger’s in the zoo. You notice how much I speak of freedom in my sermons. To exercise your freedom you need some power.
Power, might, macht, puissance, force, energy, voltage, wattage, horsepower, GDP, force of arms, strength, çë in Hebrew, äõíáìéò in Greek. Power has positive meanings in the Bible. And in terms of psychology and sociology, your empowerment is critical to your health and happiness, both personally and collectively. And yet you know the cliché that power corrupts.

Money is power. We’d like to fix our sanctuary ceiling, but we don’t have the power to do it because we don’t have the money to do it. The other night at that same small group, I asked one of the members to suggest what we might pray about. She suggested that we pray for the people we see around us every day who do not have we have. On the sidewalks, on the subways. We did. What they don’t have is the power to get for themselves what most of us take for granted. They don’t have the money, or the access or the means, or the emotional reserves, or even the know-how.

Knowledge is power. Is that what was really behind the sin of Eve and Adam? That’s how C. S. Lewis interprets it in his novel Perelandra, that to know as God knows would make you so much more powerful. Knowledge is good, you need to increase your knowledge. But your knowledge has its limits. You have to reach the point when you admit that you can’t know better than God does.

Sin has power. Your sin sets off a chain reaction and it gains a power of its own. You cause it but you can’t control it. Sin spreads, and you can’t pull it back. It’s a contagion, it’s a pollution, it gains a momentum and it overpowers us. That’s the teaching of St. Paul in our epistle. The whole human race is infected. No one starts out clean. We call this the doctrine of "original sin." Some churches teach it as if it’s in our DNA. Not the Reformed church. Our metaphor would be that you’re born clean, but the maternity ward is contaminated and the birthing clinic is not sterile, and every single one of us is compromised at the start.

But the Lord Jesus Christ has even greater power, and his power has its own force and momentum outside of us and our control. St. Paul sets these two against each other, the humanity of Adam and the humanity of Christ. Under Adam, sin has the power, and under Christ, righteousness has the power. Under Adam, even though we live, our lives are under the shadow of death. Under Christ, even though we die, our deaths are under the light of life. Under Adam, even the good you do is corrupted. Under Christ, even the sin you do is reconciled. This scheme has two benefits for you.

The first benefit is knowledge. When you’re within sin, you think you know sin. When you’re under death, you think you know death. And you think you know the reality of life, as the serpent thought and as Satan thought, but you don’t. It’s only when you’re under life that you really know what death is. And it’s only when you’re within the humanity of righteousness and reconciliation that you truly know what sin is. Part of the problem of sin is that sinners are confused about sin.

I see this all the time with people. Sin confuses people about their sin. Take the case of Putin. I don’t know about his personality, but I imagine that everything he’s doing makes real sense to him. It all fits with how he sees the world and what he thinks he has to do. Everything that Satan says to Jesus is true on its own, but it all falls short of the glory of God. Not one thing the serpent said to Eve was untrue, but it wasn’t the whole truth. But the truth of your sin you can know correctly from the other side, from the perspective of God’s grace, from the vista of God’s redeeming love. You can know it as God knows it. How humble you deserve to be. And in Christ how righteous you are.

The second benefit is power. The power of righteousness within this new humanity has even more power than sin. It is not an objective power, or a mindless persistent power like pollution or infection, a power blind and dumb and stupid, for all of its momentum. No, it is a personal power, the personal power of the Lord Jesus who is risen from the dead, it is the power of his resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. He keeps pumping this power into his humanity.

So your choice is no longer between sin and not to sin, it’s your choice between sin and the Lord Jesus. You rest in him, and in his power, and in his love. You don’t have to know better. What you have to know is him, and you can recognize him as the channel of God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.