Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
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Grace is Greater

Matthew 4:1-11 and Romans 5:12-19

One of the purposes of Matthew’s Gospel is to show us how Jesus represents a “New Israel,” or an ideal son of Israel. And so Matthew is sure to tell us how Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and being tested, to remind us of how Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness and Moses spent 40 days fasting on Mt. Sinai.

In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan. That might not seem controversial to me, but there are a good number of even Christian thinkers out there today who doubt the existence of Satan. They doubt that there is a personal force of evil and temptation in the world.

I think Scripture makes it pretty clear that there is a Satan, a fallen angel who is bent on turning others away from God. I think maybe the doubt comes from a misunderstanding of who Satan is. Satan is not cosmic opposite of God. Some religious systems teach cosmic dualism, a belief that there are two equal and opposite forces in the universe called good and evil. But that’s not biblical. The Bible teaches that there is no equal and opposite force to God. Instead, Satan is one who has turned away from God, just as we can turn away from God. Evil is not so much a real thing as it is turning away from the reality that is God. To put it in other terms, there’s no such thing as darkness, darkness is simply the absence of something real called light.

In the wilderness, Satan tempts Jesus. And we can learn some things about temptation from Jesus’ wilderness experience. First, Satan will often wait until we are weak or vulnerable before he launches his attack. Jesus is alone and hungry and tired and thirsty in the wilderness. He is vulnerable.

Second, Satan will make sin look good to us. If sin looked bad, we probably wouldn’t do it very often! Satan even justifies sin by using Scripture. He makes something bad look good. And we experience the same things in our lives. We don’t sin because it looks bad or seems evil, but because we can rationalize it as something good.

There are three specific temptations that Satan offers. The first is turning stones into bread, then testing God by leaping off the Temple heights, and finally, Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him.

I read something interesting about these temptations. Somebody pointed out that the temptations mirror something from psychology called Abraham Maslow’s

Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow observed that we have certain needs, some are more basic than others, and we can only move up to the next level of needs if the ones below it are met. The most basic needs are physical: Food, water, air, warmth. As in, turning stones into bread. The next level of needs are emotional and security oriented, feeling loved and accepted. Does God really love you? If he does, he’d better prove it by rescuing you when you jump off the temple. The third level of needs are more psychological in nature: Confidence, achievement, pride. “If it’s your job to rule the earth, just worship me, and I’ll give you what you deserve.”

But of course, all of Satan’s temptations have catches. It’s not wrong to satisfy the needs of the body, as long as it is done in the proper context. We have to eat, but we shouldn’t be gluttons. It’s okay to drink alcohol, but we shouldn’t be drunks. Even satisfying our sexual urges is good and natural, as long as it happens within the covenant of marriage that God intended for sexual intimacy. As for Jesus, he was sent into the wilderness to pray and fast, not to eat, so it’s not the right time to turn stones to bread.

God did love and accept Jesus. But we should trust in God’s love and acceptance; not put him to the test on it. Testing God is more about our doubts than God’s love.

And Jesus will inherit all the kingdoms of the earth, but in God’s plan, not Satan’s. Satan was offering Jesus a “shortcut” an easy way around the cross. But we shouldn’t take shortcuts around God’s plans. Besides, if the cost of this bargain was worshipping Satan, it sure wasn’t a bargain.

So Jesus fends off each of Satan’s assaults, being obedient where others fail.

But I think the easy questions to answer this morning are: What is temptation? What kinds of sin are there? The much more difficult questions are: What is the nature of sin? How does sin affect us? And think about our text from Romans, just what is the relationship of Adam’s sin to our sins?

Paul makes it clear: Sin entered the world through Adam. Now you might think, “What about Eve?” Yes, but Eve did as well. But Paul is focused on Adam because he is drawing a parallel between Adam and Christ.

Adam sinned. Sin brought death. And everyone from the day of Adam on down to today has died because all have sinned. But how? How does Adam’s sin affect us?

One of the oldest answers to that question goes back to the great theologian of the 5th century, Augustine. Augustine championed the idea of original sin, that we inherit a tendency to do evil. And there’s certainly support for that in Scripture. In Psalm 51 David confesses: I was born a sinner, from the moment my mother conceived me.

I think the problem with Augustine’s theology is that he thought that original sin was transmitted through the sexual act, effectively making sin a sexually transmitted disease. Augustine had some “issues” with sexuality, and I think his ideas have contributed to the church struggling to have a healthy understanding of it ever since.

Others have said there is no such thing as original sin. Instead, we all sin because we all follow bad examples. Sin permeates our world. And I’m not just talking about personal morality, but also about all the forms of systemic evil in our world. Sin is woven into the fabric of society, and we see it in things like injustice, racism, sexism, slavery, and all the other ways in which human beings are demeaned and made to be less than wonderfully created in the image of God. And to one degree or another we all participate in the sinful patterns of this world and very seldom challenge them.

We certainly do learn from bad examples. But there seems to more than just a bad example to sin. There seems to be something inside of us that compels us to be self-centered. Paul points out that from the time of Adam to the giving of the Law, death reigned. Sin was still at work. It’s more than just a matter of ignorance, of not knowing right from wrong. We all have some knowledge of right and wrong, and yet we sometimes choose to do the wrong.

I can’t give a definitive answer on the nature of sin, except to say this: Whatever the nature of sin is, we all do it. Somehow or another, we all become our own Adam, rebelling against God. We follow his example. We participate in his sin.

We tend to think of sin as a highly individual thing, a personal choice. But sin does have a corporate aspect, a societal aspect. That might be odd to us in our highly individualistic culture, but it wouldn’t be odd to Paul. Paul, like all Hebrews, believed in solidarity, corporate identity. Hebrews described themselves as “children of Abraham,” a corporate identity. And of course, we are all children of Adam. Adam sinned. And we sin, just like our father.

Adam is called a symbol or representation or figure of Christ. What that means is that they have something very significant in common. They are both “sons of God.” They are the only two men who have ever walked this earth, of whom we could say, God alone was their father. So they have something in common.

But they have something more important as a contrast between them. Adam grasped for equality with God. But Christ, who was God, willingly laid aside the full measure of his divinity. Adam’s one sin led to death for all who followed him. But Christ’s one act of obedience in dying on the cross for the sins of the world, led to life for many.

The wages of sin are death. Wages are something we earn, what we deserve. But the free gift of God is life through Christ. It is not earned. It is given by grace.

The difference is that we have no choice but to be identified with Adam. We can’t help it. We’re all born sons and daughters of Adam. But we do have a choice to be identified with Christ. We have to choose to identify ourselves with him and with his one act of obedience on the cross, by which he makes many righteous through his death on their behalf.

The whole passage can be summarized by saying that it is a glorification of the great abundance of God’s grace, and the triumph of grace over sin and death. Grace is greater. All of humanity’s sins were laid on Jesus on the cross. He freely endured them. And he was victorious over them. God’s grace is greater than sin.

The question is, “Do we accept the gift God holds out before us, or do we cling to our wages?” It’s not that easy to answer. In our pride, we think we can come to God on our own terms. We must surrender our pride to accept God’s gift. Our pride must be broken for us to be made whole by the grace of God.

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