Monday, February 28, 2011

First Sunday in Lent Year A

First Sunday in Lent A

Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-12
(Revised Common Lectionary)

One task of religions is to explain human evil. Borrowing stories from neighbors, this writer ("J") describes a time of original innocence between God and humankind, then divine prohibition, temptation, human rebellion and disruption between God and humankind. (Because the biblical story does not end here, the relationship is disrupted and changed forever, but not severed!)

Robert Alter analyzes Psalm 32 as a jumbled collection of phrases, borrowed fragments, confusing allusions and perhaps even scribal errors. (The Book of Psalms, 2007, pp 110-112.) Do the confusion and chaos of the text itself convey a state of anxiety about sin that can only be relieved by assurance of God's forgiveness?

Paul replaces story with theology and poetry with proofs. (And his sympathetic interpreters over the centuries can be even more "Pauline!") The preacher's task is to return even passages such as this one from Romans to story and poetry and, therefore, to actual, not abstract, human experience of God. Out of an awareness of human evil that borders on despair, one seeks an escape from its crushing burden. For Christians, that escape is Christ who insisted in what he said and finally in what he allowed to be done to him that God's love prevails, exceeds even the worst of human evil.

The summary of Matthew's tale is: Jesus resisted any temptation to take short-cuts. He rejected any attempt to make his message overwhelming, easy or obvious. He serves a higher mission as messenger and one who embodies that vital message between God and humankind.

Walter Brueggemann notes that the appearance of Satan in the Hebrew narratives is "marginal," but haunting.  He writes that the appearance of Satan in Genesis 3 (and the Book of Job) reveal "that the issues of human life are both more inscrutable and more ominous than simple moralism... will allow." (The Theology of the Old Testament, p. 490)  Specifically, he reads the choices made by the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, to be a rejection of the partnership God offered-- on God's terms-- with humankind, ( p.650ff).  But, their choice "does not (emphasis added) deny subsequent humanity the character of the image of God." (p.452)  He cites subsequent references in the Genesis narrative (5:1 and 9:16) to the image of God and the promise of covenant with all humankind (9:8-17) to put into play three powerful beliefs in the Genesis narrative: sin is a rebuffing of God's offer of partnership with humankind that is meant to enhance all creation; the human rejection is genuinely frightening for its dire consequences; but, God will not allow this rupture to overwhelm humankind and the rest of creation.

Satan makes an appearance right at the very beginning of Mark's gospel narrative (1:12-13) and just after the baptism of Jesus in Luke (4:1-13) and today's appointed excerpt from Matthew to tempt Jesus to betray his mission on behalf of the Father.  This confrontation concludes only when Jesus quotes the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:16) and makes absolutely clear the purpose of all he will say and do, which is to "worship the Lord God and serve only God." 

Martin Heidegger's relationship with the deep Christian faith of his childhood and youth would become very complicated, (see John Caputo's summary of that relationship in  The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, pp 326-344).  In the Winter Semester of 1920-1921 at the University of Freiburg, Heidegger offered a course which he titled, "Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion."  He described Christianity as a "temporal" religion, by which he meant that its authentic expression is not in the past, but the present.  "Christian factical life is historically determined by its emergence with the proclamation that hits the people in a moment, and then is also alive in the enactment of life."  In the very next section he adds the third crucial element to "proclamation" and "enactment" is "relationship."  He lectured: "Further, this life experience determines, for its part, the relations that are found in it."  The primary relationship, he continues, is "before God."  It is my presence before God that is the "precondition" to any "dogmatic conceptuality," (The Phenomenology of Religious Life, p.83ff)  In another lecture course on St. Augustine, (we only have Heidegger's notes), he returns to the primacy in Christianity of the individual in the presence of God when he takes up the question of "sin."  In his notes he wrote that the essence of sin  for a Christian is when the individual pulls "toward itself,"  "passes onto the side of the will."  In the Christian narrative, sin is not pursuing what is "genuine, although he understood what is right," which Heidegger labels "authentic defiance."  For the Christian, sin is, therefore, always the individual person "before God,"  "the category of sin is the category of individuality," (pp198-199).

The readings and gospel for the First Sunday in Lent this year put the reader/hearer on a collision course with some brute facts: sin is real; its consequences can be deadly; in the biblical narratives, it begins with the individuals decision to break-up the partnership initiated by God for the nurture of all creation and the maintenance of justice for all people.  We admit this before the One who also vowed to never abandon us, no matter what.  And we are moved to make this admission because of the life and death of Jesus, whose mission it was to bring us back to our partnership with our Creator.