Restoring creation to its true purpose

Lent 1 – 2014
Matthew 4:1-11
Marian Free

In the name of God who alone is good and holy and true. Amen.

What does one say to a father whose daughter has been brutally raped and left to die, or to a wife whose husband has been killed in a mindless attack, to a child who experiences the deprivation of a refugee camp or who witnesses the violence of war. How does one defend the notion of a God who is love in a world that is filled with hate? How can one claim that God is good, when the world that God created is anything but good? These are questions that can trouble even people of faith and which can be used as ammunition by those who want to discredit Christianity. “Why, if God is good, do such terrible things happen?” “Why, if God is all powerful, does God not step in and stop all the madness?”

These are questions that are generations old, as the Book of Genesis can attest. It is easy in a scientific age to dismiss Genesis as pure myth. For those of us who have grown up cognizant of the theory of evolution, the creation stories are just that – stories. It is difficult to defend the notion that all humanity is descendant from incestuous couplings between the off-spring of just two people. If Adam and Eve were really alone in the world, how did Cain and Seth find wives and the remaining sons and daughters find spouses?

We don’t need to puzzle over these conundrums if we accept that the account of Adam and Eve, and of their encounter with the serpent is not to tell us about the birth of humankind, but to answer the vexed question of the presence of evil in the world. The second chapter of Genesis describes an ideal world in which humanity has a perfect relationship with God. Adam and Eve, representatives of humanity have all that they need and are content until they discover that there is one thing in their world that is forbidden them. Instead of trusting that God has their well-being at heart, they form (or are led to form) the idea that God is with holding something that would empower or enrich them. Like teenagers, who think that their parents are obstructive, simply conservative or over-protective, Adam and Eve want to find out for themselves what will happen if they eat the fruit. Becoming like God is, after all a very seductive possibility – who could resist? And so do they do the one thing that they have been asked not to do. They eat the fruit and their eyes are opened. They can never regain their innocence, never again return to simple pleasures, never again be satisfied with what they have. Their lives have been blighted – thinking that they knew better than God they have put themselves into competition with God.

For the author of this story, the source of evil in the world results from humanity’s failure to trust God; their failure to accept that “obedience” to God is not intended to be burdensome or limiting, but easy to bear and liberating and their inability to comprehend that “submission” to God is not stultifying but the one thing that is required to enable us to reach our full potential as children formed in the image of God.

In the first century of our era, a similar story is played out in the desert. This time with a very different ending. In the desert, at a time when he is most vulnerable, Jesus is faced with a number of choices. He could alleviate his hunger by changing stones into bread (not too much of a stretch for someone who would shortly feed five thousand hungry people). If he jumped off the pinnacle of the temple (and was saved from harm by angels) he would draw the attention of hundreds (maybe thousands) of people – much easier than performing miracles for relatively few. Then again, why not simply take over the world – after all Jesus is the Son of God!

Surprisingly, Jesus rejects all these possibilities. Unlike his fictional forebears, Jesus understands both that “God really does know best” and that the best possible outcome will be achieved, not by taking short-cuts, but by doing things God’s way. Jesus demonstrates that a good world is a world in which God is given control. A world that is good is one that is achieved by self-denial, self-effacement and humility, not by greed or by grasping for power or desiring recognition. For the world to be the way that God intended, the world has to recognise that only God can ensure that goodness triumphs over evil, that peace reigns in place of war and that love, joy and happiness squeeze out hatred, sorrow and disquiet. If we truly want a world without despair, hardship, violence and oppression, then we must accept that only a good God can create such a world and we must allow God a free hand to rule such a world.

The account of Adam and Eve tells us that evil entered the world because humanity set itself up in opposition to God. Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness remind us that the way to heal the world is to restore it to its original condition – that of humanity in perfect harmony with its creator. Jesus demonstrates that it can be done, that our relationship with God can be restored, that it is possible to go along with rather than compete with God. It remains for us to take up the challenge and to follow his example.

Temptation has nothing to do with chocolate cake, and everything to do with setting ourselves against God. This Lent, let us examine our lives and endeavour to rid them of all that separates us from God and prevents us from restoring creation to its true purpose.

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