First in Advent (3/5): “Unplug for the Free Gift”

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ; Romans 5:12-19

We had a good crowd on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent–literally! And thanks to our children for marking the bulletins with ashes from our Ash Wednesday service. In that service, everyone present received a dried palm leaf from last year’s Palm Sunday. We all meditated on that palm leaf, and mentally inscribed something we want to lay down during Lent—whether it is a practice or habit or wound that we want to be healed. We collected the leaves, burned them, and crushed them together. So we are all sharing in each other’s repentance. That last part—the sharing of all our repentance in one mass of ashes—was for me crucial to the whole thing.

Lent involves a turning inward, as I said last week. From Christmas to Easter, our attention is focused on the story of Jesus and how his story defines our story. But halfway between Christmas and Easter, we turn inward to examine ourselves. That is critical: at some point, we need to deal with our own concrete story and reality and seek to draw closer to God. But how do we do this? Do we just start talking about ourselves? That won’t necessarily prompt us to repent. We might think that our story is not all so bad, that we’ve done some good things and maybe some not so good, but all in all we don’t have much to repent for. Without the richness of the biblical stories, without all those stories about human beings trying to obey the infinitely righteous God, I’d probably think that I’m a mostly decent guy. I’m not a criminal. I’m not sponging off anybody.

And that’s fair enough. Evangelical Christians sometimes talk as if everyone who is not a born again Christian must be really sinful, even if that murky, sinful self is well concealed in one’s secret heart. That, however, is not my experience of myself, nor of my friends who live very good lives without religious faith, thank you very much.

Something else is going on in the biblical story, that I fear our evangelical cousins don’t get. I don’t think the Bible is actually teaching that all non-believers are vile sinners. Notice a sentence from the Romans reading. Paul first says, “Death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned, [sin doesn’t count], where there is no Law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.”

Now, there is a lot going on in this passage—so much that I would love to try to explain, and some things I’m not sure I would want to agree with. But briefly, when Paul says that “sin is not reckoned where there is no Law,” I think he means this: people generally do a mix of good and bad things. But God through Moses presented the Law to the people of Israel, and the Law means that now we measure ourselves against a standard of absolute purity and perfection, namely, God, which before we never had to worry about. If you and I were to compare our actions, we’d probably look roughly equal (except when we see the speck in our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own). But seen next to God’s holy and all-seeing perfection, before whom every shadow of our secret intentions and every deed left undone become apparent, our goodness seems to melt away. Indeed, we might seem to really deserve death, which is what I think Paul means. That’s often the reaction of Old Testament figures who came face to face with God, like Isaiah or Jacob—they wanted to die.

So, one lesson to draw from all this is that people who do not believe in God don’t have to worry about measuring themselves against this absolute standard of God’s righteous purity. I don’t blame them for seeing themselves as a mix of good and bad, but certainly not sinners. Because, as Paul says, “Sin is not reckoned [present tense, so still today] when there is no law.” Those who do not measure themselves against God’s holiness should not properly be counted sinners.

Yet if anyone were to compare himself to God’s holy standard, that person would see himself or herself as a sinner. So “all have sinned,” as Paul says, but only those who know God’s law would recognize it as sin. Paul says that sin and death exercised dominion over all, “even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” Meaning, not everyone deliberately disobeys God as Adam supposedly did. Yet all are sinners. When you compare even sins that aren’t deliberate against God’s absolute standard of perfection, they measure up as sin nonetheless. Take any amount and compare it to infinity, and all those amounts will look equally far infinity. So, as long as we imagine God as the Law Giver who demands absolute perfection, we see ourselves as deserving death—or at least, deserving no reward and nothing of lasting and eternal worth. And Paul thinks that the Law takes us only this far—to a God demanding perfection. Now, I don’t think Paul means that everyone in the Old Testament cowered before God’s righteous perfection. Obviously, Abraham did not. So I think he’s talking about a way that any believer of God can misinterpret the Law to demand perfect fulfillment. And even more confusingly, Paul doesn’t mean that this misinterpretation of the Law is completely wrong. God is perfect and holy, and we cannot simply ignore this fact.

But Paul adds, “Adam…is a type of the one who was to come.” Adam—the word means “a human being” in Hebrew—is for Paul a symbol of all humanity found wanting when measured by God’s perfection. That symbol of Adam is a type of Jesus Christ. That is, Adam, or fallen humanity, only makes sense as the anti-type, the opposite of Christ, who represents for Paul the “free gift” of God’s grace. And the symbolic Adam and Christ are not balanced and equal: Christ outweighs Adam, overwhelms Adam, so that God’s righteous judgment can only be seen as secondary and inferior to God’s grace. So while Adam symbolizes all humanity judged and found sinners, Jesus Christ (whatever he was historically) symbolizes all humanity embraced by God with love and accepted as righteous and just. Jesus Christ was faithful and obedient even to death on behalf of us all; thus it is that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” This in essence is what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus God embraces all humanity, even the whole cosmos, in love. Christ overwhelms Adam, supersedes Adam: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

So, let’s sum up thus far. We who believe in God through Jesus Christ understand ourselves primarily as members of the whole humanity which has been received as just and loveable to God by virtue of the graced life of Jesus Christ. But it is still true, even if not as true, that if we consider our own life and goodness, we are also members of the humanity of Adam, the humanity that in every way and universally lives and dies in imperfection or sin, which sometimes looks very mild, and sometimes looks Satanic in its degree of evil. But considered as a type of Christ, considered as the opposite of Jesus, we are all in the same boat of fallen humanity. Now we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to see themselves or us in terms of this graced but fallen humanity. And we may not always have to see ourselves and others that way; a courtroom judge, while sitting on the bench, has little choice but to find some guilty and some innocent. But the story of Jesus and Adam is the primary story of our humanity.

It is this story that enables us to love ourselves and one another, and even or especially our enemy—to live fundamentally directed by love, even while we take very seriously how all humanity is in solidarity in falling short of God’s perfection. We and the world are seriously screwed up. Some just go along, others deliberately and knowingly reject the good out of a grandiose desire to be God, as Paul says, “like the transgression of Adam.” Wherever we are on this spectrum, this is our humanity. We are all Adam, something you and I accept because we are all, even more truly, Jesus Christ.

But that is not the story that we hear every day. Every day we are bombarded with a whole bunch of non-Christian or anti-Christian stories. They never come out and say: “The following program will present you with an anti-Christian story. Christians may want to consider reading the Bible instead.” And these stories aren’t all bad. Some non-Christian stories are incredibly illuminating, fun, and true. Life is so rich; let’s not expect the Gospel story to exhaust the richness of human experience. And we shouldn’t blame non-Christians for sharing with us their sometimes wonderful and sometimes pathetically empty stories. We and not they have been called to make this gospel story into not our only source of truth, but the very heart of what is true for us.

But all these other stories do get in the way of our gospel story. Most of them do not try to supplant the gospel. But they in effect crowd out the gospel story, especially because they come with the backing of very powerful institutions: our whole capitalist free market, our whole media apparatus, and our whole institution of government—and more besides. There is much diversity and nuance among the stories of these and other institutions, but I think we can posit a common factor among them all: they all tell us that we are free, we are in charge; and all the stuff being offered to us by the salespeople, the talking heads, and our governing representatives is just here for us to use for our benefit. They like to assure us: “It’s all about you.” / You’ll never hear me say from this pulpit, “It’s all about you.” Never: “I’m just here to give you want you want.” Never: “I’m just doing what the people want me to do.” Only in this church will you hear: “It’s all about God.” And because God has embraced humanity in Jesus Christ, it’s all about you too, but it’s also about everyone else—all of us in a solidarity of grace amid sin: “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

And anything, however innocently, that crowds out this story for us is diabolical. It is the Tempter. And their stories amount to a lie, whatever their truth is. We are not free as they assure us that we are. We are not really in charge. Isn’t that what the serpent said to Eve? He asks her, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” He empowers Eve to think of herself as in charge, as free. So she starts speaking for God, and you’ll notice that she changes what God said a bit. Soon the serpent has the human beings (that’s us) really taking charge, willfully making themselves judges of the good and evil of all things. And that’s how we get the whole matter of the Law that we talked about above: we take upon ourselves to see things as absolutely good or evil, something only God can do, something God has always only been able to do by the union of grace and justice in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten from the bosom of God.

The serpent is a dealer. He makes us a deal we cannot resist. If you’ll just take charge enough to do something that will really put you in charge, you will be like a little god. And then the world will revolve around you. The free market serpent tells us, You can shop until you drop, searching for ultimate fulfillment in that elusive perfect purchase. The media serpent tells us, You can choose whatever you want to be true, and we’ll bend and accommodate what is true to suit your fancy. And the government serpent says, Don’t worry about what is good for all, or good for the least of these; you just tell us what is good for you and we’ll make it happen. These systems do some good; they work up to a point. They will never bring us the Kingdom of God. More likely, when you make a deal with the devil, and maybe “if you fall down and worship” Satan, you will be promised “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” but in the end you, a little god at the center of the world, will die in your sins.   This is not real freedom. Indeed, the story of temptation—Adam’s or ours or Jesus’—is not about how we are going to use our freedom. It is all based on a false image of what freedom is—me being in charge in God’s place, which is exactly what Jesus refuses in Satan’s temptations.

Take a look at the card in your bulletin entitled, “Lenten Disciplines: Unplug for the Free Gift.” Please put it in your purse or pocket to take it home. I won’t know who throws theirs in the recycling bin on the way out the door, but I’ll be a little annoyed when I find a bunch of them in their. These cards, one each week, are for you to take on some disciplines or practices of repentance for Lent. This first one has the broadest scope of all: I want you to experience unplugging from your dependency—your so-called freedom—in relation to the whole conglomerate of consumerism, media, and government—which after all, have gradually come to resemble each other more and more. We are never going to be free from this dependency; we can go off-grid, but that’s probably a luxury for the few. But we can take half an hour, or maybe a 10 minutes a day, temporarily finding a space free from the commercial-media-government conglomerate. And not just to claim our own personal off-grid freedom, which is not the freedom of the gospel anyway, a freedom denying our solidarity with Adam and Christ. But to take measure of how dependent we are, how mired in the serpent’s deals.

I first suggest ways to break away from our bound condition, so you can get some perspective on how bound we are over the course of a typical day. Then I invite you to contemplate nature, which gives without making a deal with us to put us at the center of the universe.

Before our unfortunate trespass into taking upon ourselves the judgment of all things according to good and evil—which, despite some of its dreadful effects, is what makes us human, makes us Adam—God put us in the garden to “till and keep it.” God didn’t even ask us, to begin with, to worship him. It’s a humble but beautiful vocation, as anyone who has ever tended a garden or taken care of animals can attest. And so, finally, I ask you on the card to think of three ways you can till and keep the world around you. Think about and plan to do those things during these 40 days, and beyond. Pray for God’s help in this. God alone, illuminating you by the gospel story, will make you no empty promises of god-like freedom, but will lead you into the way of life of the free gift, the only gift great enough for the whole human race to share in.

 

 

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