1st Sunday of Lent (A) – February 26, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Remember Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing
We said for these weeks of “Rerouting…” that we were going to tell The Story—the gospel. And as I mentioned last week, the story in its most basic form can be summarized as: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. But I think it’s better to tell this story as a response to three questions: 1) Why is there something rather than nothing? 2) Why is everything so obviously messed up? And 3) what, if anything, has God done about it?
And so last week we answered that first question: Why is there something rather than nothing? And the answer? Well, the answer revealed to us in Scripture, the claim made by Genesis, is that the reason why all of this exists, why you and I exist—it’s because the one God, in His love, breathed everything into being. In other words, we’re not some cosmic accident, or the by-product of capricious and lustful and greedy gods who decided to use us as their slaves. And so we don’t live in a world with no meaning where the only point of life is to maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and enjoy life for as long as we can, no. Everything has meaning. Your life has meaning. You matter! Because the highlight of everything God created? Is you, the human person—male and female! We’re not made to be slaves; we’re made for friendship, relationship, communion—made to share in this one God’s own life! We are made in His own image and likeness! Our destiny is to be “divinized”!
So far? This all sounds great. So…what happened? Clearly something went wrong. Obviously! And so today we get into the second question: Why is everything so obviously messed up?
If this one God, who is really good, and made all that is out of love; if everything He makes is described as “good”—why is there evil, suffering, death? Why did that happen to you? Why were you abused? Why did your parents get divorced? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why did my child die? Why is everything in my life out of control? Why, why, WHY?
Today we need to talk about the bad news. And nowhere is this found more explicitly than in Genesis 3—which, un-coincidentally in our journey through “Rerouting…”, is the first reading we have today. Genesis 3 is often referred to as “the Fall.” But it’s not so much a Fall as it is a rebellion, a rejection. And as a result of this rebellion, an enslavement.
And so our goals today are simple. First, to expose the identity and maliciousness of the Enemy (who isn’t just the Enemy of human race, but YOUR Enemy, and MY enemy). To expose him. Why? Well, because he likes to work in shadows, make us think he doesn’t exist. So we want to expose him. Second, we want to discover what happened in the beginning, what brought this mess about. And third, we want to recognize that this continues to happen in your life and in mine, even now.
So exposing the identity and maliciousness of the Enemy. And perhaps this is oversimplifying the point, but the first thing we need to say is that the Enemy is the enemy. This is massively important right now! The Enemy is the enemy. Not another political party, or race, or gender, or economic system. No human being is the enemy. They might be being deceived by the Enemy, or knowingly or unknowingly in cahoots with his plans—like each one of us is or has been. But they are not the Enemy. “Why is everything so messed up?”—we can easily answer that with all of these other people and parties and issues and groups. But no. Through the Biblical lens, through the lens of the gospel, the Enemy, the Devil, the Satan is the enemy of the human race.
When you read through Genesis 3 as we did in our first reading, really the first question you should be asking is, “Wait, where did this serpent thing come from and who is it?” It’s like the villain in a movie that you don’t really know anything about until later—like Darth Vader. He just shows up in black and kills someone. He’s the bad guy. But you don’t know why he’s bad, where he came from, or even how bad he really is until later. Same here.
So who is this serpent? Well, the very first thing we’re told about him is this: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made.” Pay attention there: God made him, he’s a creature. He’s not a rival god, like some Marvel movie. It’s not like he’s the “bad god” fighting the “good god,” no. There’s only one God, and this thing ain’t him—he’s a creature. But as the Scriptures will later piece together for us, this creature was once an angel, a good angel made by God. And tradition and Scripture ascribe to this angel the place which was closest to God’s throne. In other words, this is an amazingly mighty creature! Insanely powerful! Majestic and glorious beyond belief!
So what happened? Seems like he had it made. Well, later on in Scripture, we discover he rebelled. “Rebelled? Why? Sounds like he was number two in all of creation.” So, classically, the Devil’s sin is pride, but his motive isn’t pride. No, his motive is envy. We read in the book of Wisdom, “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world” (Wisdom 2:24). His motive isn’t pride, but envy. And what’s envy? (This is what changed everything for me.) Envy is a sadness at the good fortune of another; a desire that they would be deprived of something. So who or what is he envious of? Not God, he’s not dumb, he knows he can’t touch God. He’s envious of you, of me. Why? Why would the most majestic creature who is in heaven, seated next to God—what is he envious of? There is something about the destiny for which we were made that he finds abhorrent. He discovered that he would in some sense have to serve us, you and me—because we are made, destined to share in God’s life itself. And so he rebels. And as we hear in Revelation 12, that’s when “war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:7-9).
And thrown down from heaven, this serpent (so serpent is a poetic image for this majestic creature)—this serpent, the deceiver of the whole world—he goes to work. And he goes to work not against God, but against the creature God loves the most. And as Revelation pointed out, his game? Deception. And his goal for your life, for my life—his goal is to enslave and degrade us, to destroy us. Jesus says in John 10, “The thief comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy.” Destruction is the goal. And he will do this by sowing the seed of deception. And this is where we see the story in Genesis 3, which we heard in our first reading today, pick up. Are we tracking? This is everything going on when we just hear about “the serpent” showing up: this is The Enemy of the human race, just a creature but an amazingly mighty creature, majestic beyond belief—and motivated by envy and hatred and ager, is (literally) hell-bent on our destruction and enslavement. This is not someone you mess with!
And so here in Genesis 3, we see the serpent go to work. This is what happened. The first thing you should notice—notice, because the Enemy has one root strategy (to deceive you) and he doesn’t make up a new one for each person, no he’s very unoriginal, just very good at what he does—the first thing you should notice is how this all begins: “The serpent asked the woman, ‘Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’” Notice how harmlessly this all starts. It starts with a question. And not even necessarily a question. It could be translated like this: “So, God said you couldn’t eat of any of the trees of the garden.” It’s like he’s just passing by, talking to himself, seeing if she’ll bite; and she bites—pun intended. Here in the very beginning, what is being revealed to us is: don’t get in a dialogue with the Enemy; you’ll lose.
And once he gets a bite, he immediately goes to work. Immediately, he places God, the good Father, who has done nothing but bestow everything upon this couple—he places God, the good Father in suspicion. He begins to accuse God, to cast Him and His motives in suspicion. It’s like he’s saying, “If God really loved you…he would let you have that, right?” Immediately, God is cast in suspicion! He is trying to get us to see God in a very particular way: God is not good. It’s like he’s saying, “If he loved you, he would let you eat of that tree, but he won’t. You know why? Because God is not a father, at least not a good father. He doesn’t really love you. You can’t trust him. He’s holding out on you. He’s restraining your freedom! If you just had that you would be happy, like God himself; and he won’t let you have that. Just rebel.” And the rest (as they say) is history—and not just history, but our story, the story of every human person.
Do you see this at work in your own life?
As our second reading from St. Paul to the Romans summed up well: “Through one man Sin entered the world, and through Sin, Death, and thus death spread to all… Death reigned” (Romans 5:12, 14). And this is the key for us (and we’ll talk about this more next week). The key is that Adam and Eve didn’t just eat an apple. When Adam and Eve sinned, when humanity rebelled—what the rest of Scripture and St. Paul in particular point out—when humanity rebelled they sold themselves into slavery to powers against which we cannot compete. And so this is the third point: this continues to play out today, in your life and in mine.
The Church sums this up by saying that “as a result of our first parents’ sin, the [Enemy] has acquired a certain domination over humanity” (Catechism 407). What did St. Paul say? “Death reigned”—it lords, rules, governs, has dominion, power, control. We are captives. Captives to what? Sin and Death.
The very idea of this—as Americans we laugh at it! Sounds like fairy tale stuff! A nice movie, but nothing I need to worry about. But it is no fairy tale, and you very much need to worry about it. And I’ll prove it. “Have you ever buried someone you love? If you haven’t, you will. And you will know the sting of Death upfront and personal” (Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death). I’ve lost count of the number of people I have buried. In my first year as a priest I buried my own grandmother and my nephew. Death isn’t a cold hard fact of life: it’s a power that exerts dominion over us. And we can do nothing to stop it.
Or think of this: Has anyone in here ever done something you know you shouldn’t do, that you didn’t want to do, that maybe you even hated doing—and you did it anyway? Why? Because Sin is a power, and we are captive to it. Sins are not just bad things I do (they are, sure)—but more so, Sin is a power which is constantly trying to exert control over me, and with which I often connive. And even if you think you are free of guilt, I’m sure there are people you know, people that you are very close to, maybe that you’re even married to—and you have seen this at work in their life. Marital infidelity: the person you have professed to love most in this world becomes the very person you hurt most in this world. Why? Because Sin is a power.
Jesus tells an enigmatic parable in the Gospels. He starts it off by saying, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe…” (Luke 11:21) The strong man is the Enemy, the Devil. The house is this world. His possessions…are all of us. The image that comes to mind for me is human trafficking. There are more slaves in the world now than there have been in the history of the world: both economic and sexual. Imagine what it would be like to be captured, abducted, and enslaved. No one knows where you are. No one is coming for you. You’re living in the hands of an evil man, who loves to use you—and there’s no way out. This is us. We are captive to an Enemy who loves to use us. We’re captive to Sin and Death.
What do we do?
I cannot adequately describe the bad news. I can only encourage you to engage it more seriously. God has revealed all of these things to us. He isn’t leaving us in the dark. We don’t need to wonder why everything is so messed up, why it continues to be so messed up! “Through the envy of the Devil…” The Enemy has been at work for thousands of years. He knows exactly what makes you tick. He knows exactly what your downfall is. And you can be sure of this: he will go after you with everything he’s got. And his goal isn’t to make to feel guilty for being impatient with your kids, or for saying some bad words, no. Don’t be ridiculous. His goal is to deceive you into open rebellion against God—and by that, to contribute to the suffering of the whole world.“Obedience to God, obedience to the Church, Mass on Sundays, following the Church’s teaching on x, y, or z? Don’t be ridiculous! Those aren’t going to lead you to happiness. They’re holding you down. They’re outdated. They’re don’t know you and your life. You have important things to do. Just rebel.” And while this deception can lead to a lot of material comfort in life—very nice lives, the Enemy is laughing. Laughing at us when we fall for this. Because he knows that this path leads to destruction. A life apart from God. It leads nowhere good, really fast.
But on that cheery note, I want to close with one simple encouragement for us. I want you to go back sometime today and read and pray with the Gospel today. And maybe even get a Bible and really look at what is happening; pay attention to the footnotes. In the Gospel, Jesus is confronted by the Devil with the same deception faced by Adam and Eve, the same deception faced by each one of us: that he would be so much happier if he just did his own thing. But pay attention to what Jesus does: he doesn’t get into a dialogue with the Enemy (remember, don’t do that!). Jesus simply responds—to each temptation, Jesus responds by quoting Scripture. To the deception of the Devil, the response is reliance on the Truth revealed to us by God. And while knowing Scripture and literally being able to quote it is great, the Truth is Christ himself. As we’ll see in a few weeks, firm adherence to Christ and to his body, to his Eucharistic Body and to his body the Church—this is the path laid out for us. It is Christ and His Church that can deliver us from this captivity—the Word made flesh, who gives us his very flesh to eat.