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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon


13th February 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Lent I

'Temptation square', 'Serpent Ally' and 'the reputed tree of knowledge from the garden of Eden'; so are labelled three post cards that I have in my possession from Qurnah in Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq. My grandfather brought them back from there after the First World War. They show a typical Eastern scene with a dusty square and a narrow alley and a few shifty looking Arabs. The tree of knowledge looks old, virtually dead and has a length of narrow gauge railway track in front of it. As the troops noted at the time, Mesopotamia bore little resemblance to the paradise that was Eden.

The scenes in the post cards look more akin to the scene of that other great biblical temptation, that of Jesus in the wilderness. Both stories are given to us today, with St. Paul's explanation of the link between the two, type and anti-type.

So what happened to paradise, why did end up as a forgotten dusty corner of the Ottoman Empire or part of the cursed modern land of Iraq? Fall and curse is the answer, as no doubt the Moslem post card sellers would also have told you if you cared to ask. Once Adam and Eve gave way to the serpent's temptation they fell from grace and were expelled from paradise. They were subject to a curse and Eden was no more, only a distant memory.
One of the earliest paintings to convey human emotion captures the look of utter horror on Adam and Eves' faces. I'm thinking of Giotto's fresco of the Expulsion.

We now know that the story of Adam & Eve is an ancient myth coming from the cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia. We also know and believe that is contains profound and God inspired truth about the reality of human existence. Even in the midst of paradise humanity is not satisfied. We want to know all that there is to know, to be like God. Such knowledge is destructive because we choose evil rather than good. We then become aware and subject to shame, hiding from God and from one another.

We could rehearse all the old arguments about freewill and God's will if we had time. For now it will suffice to note that at some stage in the evolutionary process human beings developed consciences marking us out from the rest of the animal kingdom. Somehow this is linked to the existence of evil in the world. The story of the fall cannot satisfy our desire for an explanation but it captures the reality of human existence brilliantly. In choosing evil rather than good we find that paradise becomes a lonely dusty square, a desert place.

This brings us to the Temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the story we always read at the beginning of Lent. As St Paul told the Romans, in successfully resisting the devil's temptation Jesus the new Adam undid the sin of the old Adam. Paradise lost becomes paradise regained at least potentially. Jesus resisted the temptation to be successful by feeding the world, to be spectacular by surviving a dramatic fall from the temple and to be powerful by replacing the Romans in ruling the world. The constant human tendency to give into those three temptations lies behind all the evils in our world and in our own lives. Instead like Jesus we should look to the word of God, not seeking to test God and giving worship to God alone.

So how can we regain paradise? The gospel answer seems to be that we should go into the wilderness. It could be a real desert retreat or it could be in acknowledging the wilderness of modern life that lies all around us. If you want desert in Watford you could spend a week in a multi-storey car park for example! Both can point us to the spiritual wilderness within with its essential emptiness. The point about Jesus' time in the wilderness was that everything was shown in sharp relief. There were no distractions, no comforts only those stark questions of the type most of us avoid most of the time. Wilderness time with those questions can help us to reorientate our lives God-wards. In so doing we receive his grace and hear is gentle calling leading us to the paradise of his kingdom.

In a way my postcards are right, Eden, the tree of knowledge, the serpent and temptation; all are to be found in drab town squares in the ordinariness of everyday life. It is only in such places that we can acknowledge our true fallen sinful state and receive redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, by resisting temptation and embracing life. Paradise is to be regained here and now.

Amen

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