Sermon: Chocolate, Milton, and Lent Event

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
First Sunday of Lent, 26th of February, 2023

Genesis 2:15-17 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

I have given up chocolate for Lent. I do this at least every few years and I always feel a little ridiculous about it. Jesus is walking towards his death, the most humiliating, painful and lonely death the Roman Empire could impose, and to show my solidarity with his journey I am giving up a completely voluntary sweet treat. Shrove Tuesday is ‘pancake day’ because medieval Christians had to use up the milk, eggs, and fat that they could not eat during Lent before Ash Wednesday, and fasting from such staples can be respected. Giving up chocolate? Not so much. At the end of this Reflection I will explain why I am doing so, anyway.

Lent starts in dust and ashes. On Ash Wednesday, or for us today, Christians have crosses marked in ash on our foreheads, with the words: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. This is not primarily about reminding us that we are all, every day of our lives, travelling towards our death, although in our death-denying culture we might need that reminder. What the imposition of ashes reminds us is that we are human; we are not God. The blessing said over the ashes begins: ‘Blessed are you, God of all creation. You are eternal; we are mortal, formed from the dust of the earth.’ Lent, the journey that we make in repentance towards Easter, begins with the reminder of our mortality and our humanity.

Being human, not being God, is also what both of today’s readings are about. Every year the gospel reading on the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ testing in the desert. In the year of Matthew, that reading is accompanied by the story from Genesis that we might think of as ‘the Fall’. On a day on which we are so strongly reminded that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness, we might think this is a story about something called Original Sin, about why it is that humans find it so difficult to live as God intends. But the word ‘sin’ is not mentioned anywhere in this story. Nor is this story explaining the existence of evil in creation. The Hebrew Scriptures do not offer any explanation for the existence of evil; remember the Book of Job in which Job cries out for God to explain why bad things are happening to him? In that Book, when God does finally engage with Job face-to-face, the Lord’s response is simply to describe the mysteries of creation through a series of rhetorical questions. The Hebrew Scriptures simply take it for granted that evil exists, but that God is stronger. Further, this story is not about the origin of death. There is no suggestion that humans were immortal before this story, and no one dies in it. Finally, there is no suggestion that the snake is anything other than a snake. In the gospel reading we are explicitly told that Jesus is confronted by the devil, but the tempter does not seem to have appeared as a snake, and we cannot read back from Jesus’ testing and assume that the snake tempting the woman and the man was also the devil.

I dipped in and out of John Milton’s Paradise Lost on my recent leave, and so I find it hard not to imagine the snake as:

Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God
Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. – Book One, lines 34-44.

With the greatest respect to Milton and a truly fabulous poem, that is not who the Genesis serpent is. It is just a snake.

If this story is not about the beginnings of sin or evil or death, then what is it about? It is about the relationship between humanity and God. It is about our vocation as part of God’s creation, and it is about trust and obedience. When God places the man in the garden, God gives him a job to do: to till it and keep it. Humanity’s vocation is to care for God’s creation. God not only gave the man life, he gave the man’s life meaning. The man is to be steward of God’s world, a world that the man didn’t create himself, that he received as a gift, and that he held in trust for the generations to follow him. These same things are true of us.

God also gave the man an astonishing amount of freedom: ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden’. God has created the man with a vocation, but the man is not a slave. But from the very beginning there are limits to this freedom. There is one prohibition: ‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ God gives the man freedom, but that freedom is not absolute. God is still God, the man is still human, and so the man cannot take for himself God’s role. He cannot make himself the arbiter of good and evil.

Yet that is what the man and the woman do, fooled by the serpent’s craftiness. First, the serpent misrepresents God: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ No, God did not. God gave humans much more permission than he gave prohibitions, but the serpent makes it seem that God is a prohibitive God. And it then convinces the woman that what God has told her is untrue, and she takes the fruit and eats and gives some to the man and he eats too. God laid only one prohibition on them, placed only one limit on their freedom, and they disobey. Astonishingly, as we discover when we read on, they do not die. God does not punish them to the full extent that God warned. They are exiled from the garden, and their joyous vocation of tilling and keeping it becomes a much harder job of toiling to bring food from the ground.

This is not a story about original sin or the fall. This is a story that tells us that human freedom is not absolute, that there are some boundaries that we must honour, one of which is that we are not to treat God’s creation as though we had created it. We are to respect it, and care for it, not destroy it. It is a story that simply tells us, if we need reminding, that we are not God.

In the gospel reading Jesus, himself the Son of God, is also tempted to act like God, to decide for himself what is good and what is evil. As I have said before on this first Sunday of Lent, the temptations he is offered do not involve anything obviously evil, and later in his ministry Jesus will miraculously feed thousands, do miracles, and ultimately be given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’. Every point the devil makes is true; Jesus is the Son of God, and he can do all this. So why does he not do it now?

As we remember each year on this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus does not do that now because that would not be God’s way of salvation. Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry, on a journey that will lead him to the cross. The journey on which God sends his Beloved Son is one of humility and weakness. It leads to the scandal of the Messiah being executed like a common criminal. Jesus, although he is, as the devil keeps reminding him, the Son of God, does not seek equality with God. As Christians we believe that Jesus was both truly human and truly God, and here we see the human Jesus, in his humility and obedience, trusting in God. The devil invites Jesus to stretch forward his hand to seize power, rather than do the will of God by being a servant. Jesus succeeds, where the man and the woman failed. The man was put in the garden to tend it, and yet the man and the woman disobeyed God and turned from their vocation. In contrast, the human Jesus acts as a model for us. Ultimately, to live fully human lives, to live as the people that God created us to be, we are to do the will of God, to trust in God. God is God, and we are not.

The reminder that we need to trust in God alone is one reason that my giving up chocolate during Lent is not completely ridiculous. I am a comfort eater. When things are hard, I find that chocolate can help. This is the cause of a continual argument between me and my GP. I point out that as someone who lives with depression, there are much worse substances with which I could self-medicate. Surely he must agree that self-medicating with chocolate is better than self-medicating with alcohol or illegal drugs. His response is that every six months he gets permission from the government to prescribe me very strong anti-depressants, so I have no need to self-medicate at all. I am fully medicated. He and I have been having that debate for several decades now.

Because chocolate is something on which I rely, to the frustration of my GP, giving it up for Lent will be for me a constant reminder that ‘one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’. If you, unlike me, are not a comfort eater, then giving up some food may not have the same effect. I know people who during Lent have given up swearing, or criticising others or themselves, or who have taken up a discipline like daily Bible reading. The point of whatever Lenten practice it is we choose, if we do wish to do something differently during Lent, is that we challenge ourselves. Our Lenten practices are to remind us every time we think of them or do them that in these forty days we are accompanying Jesus on his challenging, obedient, loving, and faithful journey to his death, as he puts his trust in God alone.

The other, more immediately practical, outcome of me giving up chocolate for forty days is that at the end of them I will have saved some money to give to UnitingWorld for the PNG Fresh Water Appeal. UnitingWorld’s Lent Event enables Uniting Church members to stand in solidarity with those in the world who experience poverty and oppression. By giving something up, and using the money saved to support projects of our partner churches, we celebrate the relationships we have with Christians around the world. This congregation has been supporting the PNG Fresh Water project for years, and this year we will be collecting money for it over the Easter season. If you do give up something for Lent, and incidentally save money by doing so, I invite and encourage you to donate your savings at Easter.

The cover of a prayer book from UnitingWorld Lent Eventtitled "Pray with our partners: A Lent Event Guide" with the smiling faces of nine primarily Pacific Islander people.

However you choose to spend these coming forty days, I encourage you to spend them in solidarity with other Christians around the world. UnitingWorld has prepared prayer books for us, with prayers for every day of Lent written by members of our partner churches, so that we can journey through Lent with them. Just as in Jesus God became human in solidarity with us, was tested like us, and ultimately will die like us, so we are encouraged to live in solidarity with other Christians, all of us seeking to faithfully live as God intends: loved, forgiven, and abundantly. Amen.

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