What is the most pressing problem facing humanity today?
Is it the warming of the planet and climate change which scientists indicate will have disastrous consequences for us all? A catastrophe they say which can only be averted by international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Is it the globalisation of trade and movement of peoples which appears to make some rich while leaving others left behind or is it the push back against globalisation which many have seen in the ‘Brexit’ vote and the election of president Trump in the United States? Or is it the terrorism of ‘ISIL’ …so called Islamic State and other radical religious groups around the world? Or the possibility of nuclear war ignited by rogue states such as North Korea?
All of these things and many others pose a threat to life as we know it. They frighten and destabilise the lives of many people and cause untold havoc in our world. But are they biggest problems we face? Is there anything underlying human life which is a greater threat to our well being and survival?
The bible and the Christian story suggest that there is. The book of Genesis opens with an account of the creation of the world in six days which was read in church a couple of weeks ago. While this might not satisfy many of us as a scientific account; it invites us with the eye of faith to believe that God created a beautiful and perfect world without suffering which was very good. At the centre of this creation is placed human life, made in God’s image. The word picture is painted of Eden, a garden for mankind to tend and look after. The only proscription is ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. The fruit of this tree was not allowed. A boundary was set, a line not to be crossed. Humanity was not to share the same status as God knowing both good and evil but rather live in a trusting obedient loving parent child relationship with God.
Genesis then tells another story which forms the Old Testament reading for this morning. (Genesis 3.1-7) The serpent, part of the wondrous fabric of the garden, becomes a tempter suggesting to humanity that it would be a good thing to partake of the forbidden fruit. We know from our own experience and especially the experience of being a parent that human beings do not find it easy to live within boundaries. The serpent of peer pressure…going along with the crowd is always whispering in our ear suggesting how much happier we will be if we reject the guide lines of life and live freely like everyone else supposedly does: that we consider only our own needs and pleasure without taking account of others or our creator. As we follow through in our bibles, we find that this attitude and behaviour pattern is called sin. Like the little word itself, it is to put ‘I’ in the middle or as Rick puts it in the film Casablanca: ‘I’m the only cause I’m interested in.’ Sin when understood from a biblical perspective, is not simply to behave in a way that is unacceptable to society. It is a whole attitude of mind which cannot accept the framework and boundaries of life on earth which God as a loving father has set.
As Genesis chapter 3 unfolds, the woman and the man are forced to leave the garden and accept the consequences of their actions. No longer are they in the ‘delightful’ world of Eden but in the world we live in where food production is challenged by weeds and pests, child bearing is painful and serpents crawl on their bellies.
Sin is clearly identified in the bible as the chief problem of human kind. It causes enmity between each of us (verse 15) and puts a distance between ourselves and God. (verse 9)
How can sin be dealt with? Does it need a summit of world leaders or legislation from the United Nations? Certainly, law is part of the solution. God makes clear when he calls his people out of Egyptian slavery to a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’…a kind of Eden sequel, that there is a condition: that they obey all the commandments he gives, most notably the Ten Commandments. (Deuteronomy 11.8-9) In other words, boundaries are restored. The best games are always played by the rules and that must be true for the game of life too.
Yet, law falls short of being the whole solution. As Paul makes clear in the New Testament reading: (Romans 5.12-19) ‘…sin is not reckoned when there is no law.’ (verse 13) The law is a way of measuring or ‘reckoning’ sin. It can help us to understand when we doing it and if we are successful in keeping the law, our sin is reduced. To that end, the law is good and useful whether it is civil, criminal or God’s law. But it cannot legislate against every sin. This was highlighted for me last week when Chief Constable Simon Bailey of the National Police Chief’s Council came out to say that the police service cannot cope with the huge rise in reports of sexual crime especially people looking at child abuse images on line. He suggested only those who posed a real threat should be jailed. Statistics seem to point to 1 in 35 of all males indulging in this sin online according to the National Crime Agency in 2015. I find it interesting that the internet prises open the door on secret sin which might otherwise be only known to God and the sinner concerned. As the chief constable noted, it is hard if not impossible to control and eradicate this sin by means of the law alone.
It is this line of thought which drives the argument set out by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. The law, even God’s law, while being good and useful in itself cannot ultimately deal with sin and its pernicious consequences for our world. So Paul writes: ‘But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.’ (Romans 3.21-22) Thus, according to the bible and our Christian Faith, the amazing solution to the curse of sin in the world is not more legislation but a person, Jesus Christ. It is in and through him and him alone that a way is offered out of the dark paths of sin. In the final verse of today’s New Testament reading it is neatly summed up: ‘For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience, many will be made righteous.’(Romans 5.19) Thus Paul helps to explain what is happening in the Gospel reading today (Matthew 4.1-11) where Jesus resists the devil and stays faithful to God. It explains Jesus’ obedience to his father in the Garden of Gethsemane reversing the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Sin is recognised as the big issue for the world in major religions. The answer offered is following rules or observance of ritual. Distinctly, Christianity offers the way of faith in relationship with Jesus. This is the heart of the good news of the gospel. Jesus has done the hard work. In him we find forgiveness and wholeness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. As we bear the fruit of the Spirit, so we fulfil all law.
As we begin Lent, let us recover and cherish what it means for Christ to be the ‘second Adam’. May that give us renewed impetus to share this great truth with others.
Lent 1 05.03.2017