First Sunday in Lent; March 1, 2020; Lent IA (RCL); Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.
I have been reading N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and I am convinced by his argument (summarized in his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible) that in the background of much of Second Temple Judaism lay the expectation of a completed return from Exile, or even a restoration of the cosmos.
In this passage from Romans, Paul begins his argument that the sin of Adam introduced chaos (death) into the cosmos, and that Israel’s incomplete obedience to the Law could not reverse it. However, God, in Jesus’ obedience, has inaugurated the restoration of the cosmos.
I hear that argument echoed in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Since God created the cosmos ex nihilo, without grace it would return to its natural state — chaos or disintegration. Adam’s sin (and ours, which I think is the force of Paul’s phrase, “as in Adam all sinned”) interrupted the flow of God’s grace that keeps the cosmos ordered. God, being God, however would not have the divine order dissolve, even though God had created the cosmos with freedom, and so took on created nature and entered the cosmos to reestablish the flow of grace.
The human temptation is always that we can keep the cosmos well-ordered by our own efforts. That is the serpent’s temptation to the humans — you will not die. If you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will be like God, knowing good and evil. In other words, you will become the arbiters of what is good order. As soon as the human beings accepted that role, they recognized their nakedness!
When Jesus entered the world to reestablish the flow of grace, and thereby the order of the cosmos, he did it not with a display of power, but by obedience to the order of things, and by accepting into the divine self the very worst of humanity’s mistakes and evil.
The Temptations in the wilderness set out this programme right at the inception of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Food for all, security, and dominion — these are the promises to creation in the Garden. They are also Israel’s temptations in the wilderness. In every temptation, Jesus refers the action back to God; only God can provide the grace to accomplish these promises. Every time we try it, we screw up because we cannot keep the order of the cosmos within the scope of our vision.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? No, just not on a cosmic scale. Isaiah 58, which we heard on Ash Wednesday, suggests that our failure to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, remove the yoke of oppression, keeps us from building a habitable city. To the extent that the city of humanity is meant to reflect the City of God, we should endeavor on the civic scale to do what we can, knowing that only God’s grace can keep the cosmos from dissolving into chaos.