Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. – Rom 5:12 +INPFSS+
In this season of Lent, which we began on Ash Wednesday, we devote a special attention to our sins. Not because we need to grovel in order to win God's favor. We have already been granted his favor for free – in Jesus Christ. We focus on our sins in Lent because, if we're honest, for the rest of the year outside of Lent, we take them altogether too lightly. We think of them as petty offenses. We forget that they fly in the face of almighty God, and sicken our own souls as it were, with a plague.
For as well as being a legal offense, Sin is also a disease. It hurts us. It weakens and cripples us.
Doctors practicing medicine study and treat all kinds of bodily diseases that would end in bodily death, but these are just intermediary things. What launched all disease and death into the world originally, was Sin.
And beyond bodily death, there is the death of the soul – which is to be cast away from God in the next life, into eternal misery. We pay so much attention in our world to treating the bodily diseases that affect some, but we pay so little attention to the worst disease of all, which affects every one of us: Sin. And this is why we keep Lent. To stop and attend to our malady.
When it comes to sin, we all can immediately recognize that we have a complaint; that we have symptoms: We see selfish wrong-doing of every kind in our own lives on a fairly regular basis. If this were a bodily thing, we would want to find out what has caused it, and what the remedies are –
and so that's the approach I wish to take together this morning: The methodical approach of a physician, examining the causes of our problem, so that we can attack them head on with the appropriate remedies.
I. Origin of Sin
So, the first thing that our Scripture lessons this morning teach us about our sin-disease is that we were born with it. We were born into it. It's an inherited problem. Our great-great-great-great-great Grandparents contracted it long ago in Eden, when they disobeyed God for the first time, and it has been passed down through every generation since then to ourselves. There is not a human on earth who doesn't have it. That is to say, we are all born with a proclivity to sin, and from our early years, we all do, in fact, find ourselves sinning. You won't find a parent on earth today who would say their Child has never done the wrong thing. There's something broken within us from the get-go. Or as David put it in our Psalm this morning, verse 6: Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.
But just because we inherited this problem from our ancestors, doesn't mean that we are somehow not responsible for it ourselves also. It's not your fault for inheriting a disease, but when we do things to make the sickness worse, we have become part of the problem. And as we can see, we have each done more than our fair share of adding to the sins of Adam.
2. Temptation, Sin, and Eve
But how does this come about? Why is it that we collude with our disease to make ourselves sicker? Why do we keep on sinning? What's going on? Well, let's break it down:
All sins begin with temptation. We see this put forward in archetype fashion in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are strolling about enjoying perfect happiness and bliss and the goodness of God. And the serpent appears to them and he tempts them.
They succumb to the temptation, and they follow Satan instead of God, and that's when they Sin.
It's important to make a distinction between temptation and Sin. They are not the same. Temptation is the suggestion of Sin, but not sin itself. Our Lord was tempted in the wilderness but did not sin. Sin is when the suggestion is followed. When the fruit is actually eaten, and God is disobeyed
But in this story of the Garden of Eden, we also see a middle element between the two. Between temptation and the succumbing, namely: Eve.
Eve, as Genesis tells us, thought the tempting fruit looked good. She was intrigued by the temptation. She was pondering it, and considering its merits. She was lingering over it, and it started to feel kinda good. And with hindsight we see now that it was already by this point all over. Sin may not actually exist until we have gone ahead and said 'yes' to the temptation, but the door is opened the moment we stop and linger over it.
And here we see our first remedy for avoiding sin: Not lingering over temptation. If we want to avoid making our disease worse, we need to run in the other direction when tempted. Sometimes this means literally leaving the room, or the situation you are in,
or for inward temptations, averting your eyes, or fleeing in your mind to Christ on the Cross. But whatever form is needed, the solution is essentially the same: Run!
3. Resisting Temptation: Adam and the Second Adam.
Now, sometimes, for whatever reason, we're not able to run, or even running, we may still be assaulted by temptation. In which case, the way to avoid Sin is to make the tempter run. As St. James tells us, “Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.” This is what we see in the encounter our Lord has in the wilderness, in his preparation for his ministry on earth: The three years of teaching and healing that would culminate in his being crucified for the sins of the whole world.
Satan has come to Jesus and tempts him by appealing to his body, mind and will – goading him on to demonstrate and prove his power, and also to side-step the Father's plan for his life of kingship, in favor of a quick-deal with the devil himself.
Do you see the parallel between this event and the Garden of Eden? Satan offering something good under false-pretenses? Under ungodly, forbidden terms?
In Eden, the temptation was knowledge. In itself, not a bad thing. But the Devil enticed Adam and Eve to get it in ways God had not ordained. To get the wrong kind of knowledge, in the wrong way.
And In the Judean wilderness, The Devil enticed our Lord to demonstrate power and receive authority – things which the Father was going to give to him, as we see from his later life. But the devil was offering a crooked version, in a crooked way, by worshiping a created being, rather than the Father from whom all things come.
And by making the parallel, do you see the contrast? Adam failed the test. Christ passed it! Adam brought sin and death into the world. Christ conquered it! Adam crippled human nature. Christ restores it! This is the contrast Paul is tracing in our Romans 5 reading this morning: Christ as the second Adam. The successful Adam. And it is Christ whom we are seeking to follow as Christians. Not Adam. So let's look at how he succeeded where Adam failed, so that we too can succeed, and not fail.
4. The Strategy: Knowing and Believing God's word
Each time that our Lord is tempted, the first thing he does is bring up the Scripture, the Holy Word of God. Quoting the Bible word for word, “as it is written...”... “as it is written”.... “as it is written”...
Even the eternal Son of God himself, the only perfect being, who's heart and will were not warped and bent on Sin the way ours are. Of all people, the one who might have most relied on his own muscle to defeat the devil, he doesn't do that. The Word of God incarnate trusts in the Word of God written, the words that he himself had spoken through the prophets centuries beforehand. The eternal words of God.
That JESUS would rely on the Bible should increase our sense of the weight and power of Scripture, no?
And it should also challenge us to know God's word more.
If we don't know God's word, how can we know what is true? How can we resist temptation and the one who tempts us? Only if we know God's word – his commandments, and instructions, and teachings, and promises, can we stay on the right course, and not fall headlong into sins left and right, making our disease even more intractable.
Part of why we so often sin is because we don't even know what is and isn't Sin, because we aren't regularly listening to the words of the Bible.
But there's a danger further still. Our spiritual illness is no surface infection, it's a system-wide sepsis. It penetrates into our very heart:
See, we can actually know God's word – which is in itself an essential step – but we can fail to really believe it. And this un-belief can take many forms:
We can fail to believe that it's actually true; that it's actually pointing us in the right direction toward health. We can presumptuously think that we know better about what's right and wrong and what's good for our souls.
Like the millions of patients who spend 5 minutes on WebMD and think they know more than their doctor – something I admit to being guilty of on occasion – we are prone to thinking this way with regard to our souls. As if our few years of life experience could give us more wisdom than the eternal God who made all things and who knows all things.
Moreover, we can fail to believe the plain meaning of the words. This is the trap Adam and Eve fell into right? The Serpent says, “Did God actually say 'you shall not eat of any tree'?”
Warping the truth doubly. On the one hand, he is misquoting God, who did not prohibit eating from any tree, but just from one tree in particular. But also in planting doubt as to what had been said at all: “Did God actually say...” Anytime you hear this in your own thoughts, recognize who the speaker is. If you start thinking, “Yes, but does God really mean for me to....” I'll let you fill in the blank. Recognize the voice of the tempter, and rebuke Him.
Disbelieving the plain sense is one way we can undermine even a hard earned knowledge of the Scriptures.
And underneath all this disbelief, is not just a distrust of the letter of the law, but a distrust of him who gave it. A distrust in the person of God.
If you really trust someone, in a relationship, then you will hang on to their words in a time of difficulty. Just so with God, if we really believe that he is real, and that he is Good, and that he DOES mean us well, and wants to save us. Well then, when we encounter a Scripture that the Devil doesn't want us to obey, we will cling to HIM and in so doing cling to the Truth. Only in the context of a real relationship with God does knowing and believing his WORD make sense.
And this brings us to the thought I shall close on: Ultimately, even if we know and believe all the words of the Bible. Even if we resolve never to linger over temptation, we will still not be able to avoid Sin. In the end, only Christ himself can avoid Sin. He is the only perfect one. These tools I have been speaking of for resisting temptation: Fleeing, and Knowing and Believing God's word, these are means of laying hold of God's power, of laying ahold of Christ Jesus as Savior, but it is still HIM who has to conquer sin and evil. WE cannot do it on our own.
Just as we trust God for true guidance from his word beforehand; in the heat of the moment of temptation – we need to look to God and trust him to rescue us in the midst of it.
Practically, this means for me, the moment I become aware of being tempted, I make the sign of the cross and cry out internally, “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me!”
And he does. He throws water on the fire of temptation, creating a window in which the Holy Spirit can remind me of the Scripture that speaks about the thing I am tempted by, and remembering God's word, He then equips me to resolutely walk away, and so avoid Sin.
Not that I always do this. I wish I did. But until our dying breath this will be for each of us a struggle with losses from time to time. But with God's help, the victory can become ours more and more, and we can come more and more to imitate the second Adam, and not the first Adam.
To become healthy, and not more sick.
To be saved, and not to die.
Thanks be to our merciful God. Amen.