1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 4:1-11;
Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Rom. 5:12-19
THE MYSTERY OF HISTORY, PT 1
The readings for today bring together so much that is central to our faith, the mystery of the fall of sin. On the first Sunday in Lent, it’s our duty as Christians to think about these hard things — sin and fall and the fallen condition. These readings are pivotal. The story of the fall. And they include arguably the most important, influential single verse in the New Testament, this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the fifth chapter. And, finally, the story of Jesus’ temptation. In a roundabout way, I’d like to reflect on those for a few minutes.
When my children were young, half a lifetime ago, I decided, in my fatherly impetuosity, to build my children a playhouse. Building these things is not my strong suit, but I got all the materials. My son was four years old. Part of the deal, of course, would be that he would help me. That’s what it was all about. And so I drove more nails than necessary, because I was anxious about how this thing was going to hold up. But I didn’t drive any nails except for the ones he handed me. Or I would have him go get the tape measure for me, or something like that. If he took a popsicle break, the whole thing came to a screeching halt. It was a very inefficient way to build a playhouse. I could have built the playhouse in a fraction of the time had we not been building it under those circumstances.
It seems to me that that’s how God is. When Jesus speaks of God as his Father, it seems to me he’s speaking of something like that. That is to say, that God is trying to bring something out of Creation, and he wants to do it in concert with us. He doesn’t want to do it by himself. He wants to do it with us. And he knows that that’s a terribly inefficient way to do it, given the fact that we take popsicle breaks and all kinds of other breaks, all the time. It will take a lot longer. As a matter of fact, it will take all of time, because the task is not to build a playhouse. But the task is to transform the violence of the Big Bang into the all-encompassing and all-embracing love of God. And it will take a long time, precisely because it will happen in part because of our participation and our contribution. So God has a tremendous patience, to try to do something this way. We have time, we have history, we have the Paraclete. It doesn’t happen in an instant.
The problem is that we humans become impatient with the process ourselves. We would like to have be right now, on our terms. We lose faith. Patience, it seems to me, is the supreme Christian virtue. It’s almost a synonym for faith. And we lose patience. And we decide to grasp at what God is giving us as a gift. But giving it to us as a gift in time, over history, in a long process, in a constant giving and receiving. And we are tempted to grasp after it. All the disasters of the 20th century, and there have been far too many, relate to this impulse of ours, to grasp at what we think should happen, and to try to make it happen more quickly than it would unfold in a loving way.
The Fall is simply our impatience with God’s gift. Adam and Eve grasp at the gift that God is giving them gradually. They want God-likeness right now. They don’t want to receive it over time. They don’t want to grow in faith and love. They want it right now, and so they grasp at it.
Now, the relationship between sin and death is one of the most profound aspects of our biblical faith. And, likewise, the relationship between the Cross and the forgiveness of sin is at the crux of our faith. And the way in which the Cross and Resurrection destroy the power of sin is the mystery at the heart of our faith. These are profound questions. But the question about the relationship between Cross and the forgiveness of sin is a Good Friday question. And the question about how the Resurrection destroys the power of death is an Easter question. This is the First Sunday of Lent. Moreover, the theme, as I’m bringing it to you, is one of patience. So, as much as we’d like to jump forward and think about Good Friday and Easter things, it’s incumbent upon us in the First Sunday in Lent to think about Sin and the Fall and our fallen condition.
The most famous analysis of the Fall is Paul’s analysis in the fifth chapter of Romans, and specifically verse twelve, which began our second reading today: “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” This verse is the source of our notion of original sin. It was when Augustine was in conflict with the Pelagians of his time — the Pelagians insisted that we could, with effort, with education, or a certain kind of administration, work our way out of our sinfulness on our own — he seized upon this verse as the crux of his argument against such an idea. The verse that he had, of course, was the Latin translation of the original Greek. And in the Latin translation an ambiguity in the original Greek had been lost. Because of this, that same ambiguity has been lost on most Western theologians since then. The ambiguity is that the key phrase, “because of this all have sinned,” could refer in Greek to two things. In Latin it only refers to Adam’s sin: because of Adam’s sin, all have sinned. In the original Greek it could also refer to thanatos, death: because of death, all have sinned. As a matter of fact, this is precisely how the Eastern Church has tended to read this passage.
So what does this mean? Because of death, all have sinned. Well, it has enormous implications far beyond what we might think about this morning. But it has something to do with this impatience. Because death makes impatience logically coherent. Sebastian Moore said, “Death as ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make.” In other words, if there is only death, then our impatience and our determination to have it now, and to have as much of it as we can before death takes it all away from us, makes that attitude as logically and morally coherent as it’s possible for it to be. In other words, death as ultimate horizon plays right into the devils hand. The devil is the one who trying to get us to abandon the patience of God and the patience of Christianity in favor of a grasping at something, to try to have it right now.
There’s a title to a country music song which is as superficial as anything I’ve ever heard in my life. But Emerson said that ‘something foolishly spoken can be wisely heard.’ It has a deep message for us. The title of this song is “The Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Do you see what I’m trying to say? Knowing that there’s a deadline, that time is running out, is what makes us lose our God-centeredness, our grounding, our faith, our patience. It’s the source of ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you shall die.’ Which is simply nihilism passing itself off as carefree cheerfulness. And we live in a world which is being suffocated by versions of this. There is the ‘soft-core’ nihilism of the shopping mall and the health spa, and there’s the ‘hardcore’ nihilism of punk music, Gothic, Marilyn Manson. We live in a world that is suffused by these things, where the ultimate horizon is death, and all the consequences that flow from that in terms of our abandonment of patience and faith.
Christians literally have all the time in the world. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the German theologian, said, “God is not in a hurry in Jesus Christ, and the Christian response is not meant to be hurried.” That does not mean, of course, that we should not pour ourselves out to the very last drop. But it means that God is patient, and that we are patient, and that the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is bringing about the transformation of the world gradually, and that we needn’t panic, nor seize upon an immediate manifestation of that.
It seems to me that we have an aspect of this same situation in the Gospel story. Jesus is being tempted. He’s tempted in the wilderness. But the three locales that we have in the temptation story — the wilderness, the Temple, and the mountain — are the key locales of biblical faith. So it is a summation of everything. And these are not petty temptation. Not just temptations to power or appetite, etc. These are Messianic temptations. Jesus is being offered the opportunity, as the devil presents it, to bring about the Parousia (the word for the Second Coming, the full manifestation of Christ) right now, by doing something so dazzling that nobody could miss it. And therefore the recognition of Christ as Christ would happen instantly. In each case, Jesus rejects these temptations. He accepts God’s plan.
There’s a marvelous passage in Milton’s Paradise Regained where Jesus is in the desert and he’s just a mess. He hasn’t had food in forty days, and just looks terrible. The devil shows up and says, ‘You’re a mess, you look terrible. You have tremendous messianic potential. What you need is a little nutrition. And you need to be cleaned up a bit. Let me be your valet, and I’ll spiff you up. And you’ll be ready for the Jerusalem crowds instantly. And you’ll impress them, because I’m here to help with your messianic mission.’ It’s the same thing in this reading. ‘This is how you could do it.’ And Jesus rejects that. He accepts God’s timing.
I heard on the radio a couple weeks ago an interview with these two black women who died within a couple years of each other, the last one just a few weeks ago at the age of 107. Their father was a slave. This was an old interview. And they asked these women, ‘You’ve seen a lot of terrible things in your life. Do you have any observations?’ [Answer:] ‘Well, I don’t hold anything against the Creator, you know. Sometimes I find his plan is inscrutable, but if it please him I’ll make do.’ That’s faith. That’s patience. And that’s what Jesus says in the wilderness to the devil, who says, ‘Look, we could be on CNN by tonight.’ And Jesus says, ‘No, that’s not the way it’s going to happen.’
It’s a rendition of that wonderful hymn we have from Paul in Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Emptied himself. Did not grasp at it. Did not renounce the role of time and history and patience and faith.
The same issue comes up at the end the end of the first century when Christians are running out of patience. They had had a very profound experience: that the Cross and Resurrection had changed everything, and they were waiting for the second shoe to drop. They looked at the world, and it didn’t look like it was changing all that much outside of their own community. And they knew it had changed everything. They’d had that experience. They knew it by faith, and it was solid knowledge. They were right. But they expected that it was going to happen now. When is the second shoe going to drop? That’s what the Second Coming is. And they expected it now. And the apostolic generation was dying, so apocalyptic expectations sprouted up: ‘It’s going to happen tomorrow.’ It’s interesting that when impatient people think about God, the God on whom they are tired of waiting turns out to be a God who’s about to lose his patience. And when they thought about God, that’s what they began to think: ‘God’s running out of patient, and before long, the day after tomorrow, he’s going to come down and straighten out the situation once and for all, right now!’ In other words, missing the mystery of history. And the gradual way in which love has to work, because love is always a voluntary thing. It cannot happen because of fireworks. It can only happen because the heart is open. It’s a gradual process. It takes all of time. It’s a slow thing. So they were running out of patience. And they begin to see God as a God who’s running out of patience.
Do you know the story of the teacher who wants to teach artistic imagination to her children? She’s going to draw pictures on the board and have them free associate. She draws a circle on the board and says, “Johnny, what does that make you think of?” He says, “Sex.” She erases it very quickly and draws a triangle: “Johnny, what’s that?” He says, “Sex.” She draws a square, “Johnny?” “Sex.” She’ really frustrated: “Johnny, you have a one-track mind. All you can think about is sex.” “Me?! You’re the one drawing the pictures.” This is the way the first century Christians began to think about God. They were running out of patience, and lo and behold they discovered that God was about to run out of patience.
It’s at that moment that John of Patmos — who, by the way, is in the same circumstance that Paul was in when he wrote the Philippians letter, that is to say, in prison — wrote the Apocalypse. Most people think that John of Patmos is franchising one of these, what I would call, vulgar apocalyptic texts. Vulgar apocalypse means, ‘God’s about to come day after tomorrow and blast us all away.’ Most people read that as though that’s what that is. Upon closer inspection it turns out, however, that he is subverting from within the popular apocalyptic expectations, in the same way that Jesus subverted from within the popular messianic expectations. That is to say, he’s taking those expectations and reworking them so as to radically re-center humanity’s religious imagination on the cross, on the Lamb slain. And it is that attempt to take those apocalyptic expectations and radically re-center them on the cross that is the masterful beauty of the Book of Revelation — about which we might say a few words next week.
John’s message is not about the end of history in the chronological sense, in the ordinary sense. It’s about the end of history in the sense of the meaning and purpose of history — what history is all about. The Parousia is not the Second Coming in the ordinary sense we think of it. It literally means the “Full Presence.” It means Christ’s final full arrival, when Christ is all in all. And John’s message is, ‘Be patient. The victory has already been accomplished at the Cross. Be patient. Christ is the Lord of History. The Cross is the turning point in history. The full presence of Christ in history is simply a matter of time. Give it time. Take your part in it. Don’t be impatient. Don’t be anxious. God is with us, Immanuel.’ Or as the poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, “It is happening now. And those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. And those who expected signs and archangels trumps do not believe it is happening now.” God bless you.
February 21, 1999