The First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2023

December 15, 2022 | by Bruce Epperly

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Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

Today’s scriptures join temptation and grace.  We encounter Jesus on retreat in the wilderness, the temptations of Adam and Eve, and then hear of Christ’s overcoming the consequences of Adam’s misuse of freedom.  The impact of sin, however we understand it, is devastating on our personal, relational, and planetary lives.  The impact of grace, embodied in the moral and spiritual arcs of history, and God’s persistent presence in every moment of experience overcomes the power of sin, and its impact, to control our lives.  Life is tragic, and it is also encompassed by divine beauty.

The Genesis passage presents the curious dialogue involving Eve and a talking snake.  The wily snake assures Eve that her decision will have no consequences.  She and Adam can disobey God’s edict, and nothing will change. Alas, the scriptures assert that the consequences of the primordial couple’s decision brings ambivalence and shame, not to mention unpleasant labor, painful childbirth, and death into the world.  

Now, we do not need to worry about taking this passage literally.  It is a story, a narrative, describing among other things the origin of suffering, death, and alienation. It is a myth which is not factual, but reveals a deep reality about the nature of human existence. It reflects the universal experience of “growing up,” and the complexity that emerges when we must decide what sort of people we will become.  Once “naked and unashamed,” now we notice our “nakedness,” and want to hide our true selves in their complexity from ourselves and those around us.  From “dreaming innocence,” as Tillich says, we find ourselves in a world of complexity and conflict.  The complexity can be frightening and painful; it also invites us to creativity and the formation of culture and civilization.  Is this a “fall from perfection” or a “fall upward” toward maturity?  

There is no need to blame Adam and Eve, and most especially Eve, as the source of humanity’s ills. This is a story of evolution, of complexity, and not of evil.  However, it is true that with complexity comes the possibility of ambivalence, disingenuousness, and destructive decision-making. This is our world, and the result of our choices – autocratic political leaders, political prevaricators, nuclear threat, climate denial, science denial, and other intentional “falls from grace.” Still, God persists luring us from self-interest to world loyalty and apathetic innocence to conscious affirmation of the moral arc of history.

The Gospel reading describes Jesus’ own encounter with the complexities of human existence. After the mystical experience attending his Jordan baptism, Jesus goes on a forty-day retreat.  Driven or inspired by the Spirit, he goes into the wilderness, the place beyond civilization, where the wild things are, to test his spiritual mettle.  He has great power – the power of the Spirit – but with power comes danger and responsibility.  Jesus wants to use his power for the good of the planet, and for our good, and faces tests to use power in ways that serve his self and not the world.  

Jesus is tempted by good things.  Indeed, few of us are tempted by bad things, things that will clearly harm us.  Power, security, and appetite are, in the abstract, good things.  But, apart from attentiveness to God’s vision, they can become ends in themselves, distancing and alienating us from our kin and God.  We want to do good in the political realm, but we end up succumbing to the lust for political power.  We want security and so we build walls to keep out strangers and label immigrants as enemies. We enjoy good and abundant food but fail to consider the hungry and homeless.

Jesus weighs his temptations in terms of God’s vision and chooses in ways that edify his calling as God’s Beloved Child.  He models our own response to temptation: look beyond yourself, listen to the voice of God, and choose what is most life-supporting and compassionate.  Self-awareness, as the Psalm proclaims, is the greatest protection against succumbing to temptation.  Know your limitations, confess your sins, and open to God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is always with us in terms of possibility, inspiration, and guidance.  

While we may not accept Paul’s reflections on the global impact or transmission of Adam’s sin, we can affirm that grace is stronger than sin.  God will respond to the struggles we face and will not abandon us in our imperfection.  God is persistent, sending rays of light to guide our path, showing us how to erase the bonds of the past, and ways to change course in our lives.  With God as our companion, there is always hope for creative transformation.

Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including The Elephant Is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious PluralismProphetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision Of Contemplative Activism; Mystic’s In ActionTwelve Saints For Today; Walking With Saint Francis: From Privilege To Activism; Messy Incarnation: Meditations On Process Christology, and From Cosmos To Cradle: Meditations On The Incarnation. His latest book is The Prophetic Amos Speaks To America. He can be reached for seminars and talks at