Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Jesus Carried up to a Pinnacle of the Temple, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54302 [retrieved February 25, 2023]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Carried_up_to_a_Pinnacle_of_the_Temple_(J%C3%A9sus_port%C3%A9_sur_le_pinacle_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg.

RCL Year A, Lent 1
Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Saint Matthew 4:1-11

No sooner than we have washed the penitential and abstemious ashes from our foreheads, the church gives to us today a feast of rich readings, so full of meaning and so united in their subjects and themes, that they nearly preach themselves. Two verses draw all the readings together in such a way that they could be thematic statements for the three readings.

Have a look in your leaflets at the Epistle. The two thematic statements are the last two verses of the reading. Either one tells our story as Christians and as human beings. Look at the last sentence, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”[1] Either it or the verse preceding it tell our whole story: one disobeyed, and one obeyed; one sinned, and one saved; one condemned, and one justified.

The First Lesson tells the story of how one—whether Adam, or Eve, or both together—disobeyed, sinned, and condemned. The painful truth the story tells is so important to human self-awareness, and we all know its truth: human beings are not perfect. Inherently, we are not able to be perfect; we cannot keep any law or rule without transgressing it; we cannot be obedient creatures unfailingly.

The Lesson makes this point very subtly. Before, before, Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden tree, one of them misrepresents God’s restrictions concerning the tree. Eve says the fruit of the tree may not be eaten, and, then, in almost a throwaway line, she says, “nor shall you touch it.”[2] But the Lord God has not said the tree may not be touched. In a text as old as this and as carefully transcribed and transmitted, every feature has significance. Even before the disaster of the original sin, human beings are erroneous and weak, incapable of one hundred percent correctness. From the very beginning, we need a Savior.

And the Savior begins to be a Savior in the Gospel today, when he encounters the same crafty serpent that enticed Adam and Eve. In this encounter, the Savior obeys, saves, and justifies. He shows himself to be capable completely and fully. He is what human beings are not. He is divine and capable of remaining sinless. His quotations from the Lord God are exact. His divinity is on the line, and he holds the line.

This is so very important to understand. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve’s humanity, and they fall. The serpent tempts Jesus Christ’s divinity, and he stands. He does what we cannot do. In his life and ministry, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We, indeed, “are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”[3] This is the central truth of our lives. I often think all of us learn it early, but many of us forget it.

Part of the Church’s mission is to keep this truth before our eyes, to remind us gently but repeatedly that we need God, and we need God’s remedy for our obvious limitations.

I will turn the whole matter over to your capable hands by altering a bit Alexander Pope’s famous phrase,[4] “to err is human, to be forgiven, blessed.” As we said in the Psalm today: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, * and whose sin is put away!”[5]

[1] Romans 5:19.

[2] Genesis 3:3.

[3] The BCP, pages 45 and 146.

[4] “To err is humane, to forgive, divine,” from Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, II.525.

[5] Psalm 32:1.