- The Very Reverend Rod MacDonald
“In the Beginning” Sermon 5 March 2023
The Old Testament reading from last Sunday intrigued me. Why suddenly go back to the very first book of the Bible, chapter 2, for the first Sunday in Lent? The Old Testament this Sunday, the first reading today – the second Sunday in Lent -gives us some of the answer.
Today’s very short reading is the second critical milestone on the journey of the Hebrews not only into the Promised Land, but ultimately towards the point that Jesus the Messiah strides onto the stage of the Israelite people. So it’s part of a brief and concise re-telling of the journey of the Hebrew people, the people of Jesus heading towards the Messiah event.
Last Sunday’s OT reading was then the critical starting point of it all - God’s creation of the human race. Not necessarily to our more scientific, analytical minds so much about the ‘how’ of creation, but more about the most important truths, which are WHO created, and WHY.
The WHY is familiar to us. One of the weekly prayers of our newer prayer book goes:
“Almighty God, by whose LOVE we are created, and by whose POWER we are redeemed “. That puts us on the right track. *
And the WHO, that is, God as Creator, is fundamental to us as a progeny of one of the great Abrahamic faiths.
So when I look at the actual text from last Sunday, I find nothing much about the HOW. Fair enough! But what about the seven days of creation, the tempting by the serpent of Eve, then her tempting (dreadful person) of Adam. And Adam’s rib, which proves men are the original species? While there is much in these parts that modern medical, social and gender learnings might ‘gag’ at nowadays, they are nevertheless, in the absence of our sort of ‘modern’ explanation, an attempt to explain what is, or what should be, rather than any fundamental ‘raison de etre’ for creation itself. If you like, they are ancient Hebrew Dreamtime.
A little explanation for the moment here. For five if not ten thousand or more years, like our Aboriginal people, all Hebrew information including the very important stories were passed verbally on about “how, why and where”. Like stories about ULURU, to where to find the best fish in country. Young Hebrew boys, in preparing for adulthood, had to learn and recite large hunks of these stories about their land and history, and later scripture by heart, word for word, with NO error, for the same reasons as our First Nations people. Because there was no formula for writing the words! We call that ‘oral tradition’, and many many cultures including some well into the modern era, and a significant number of groups still rely largely on this pre-literate, almost totally verbal, and VERY VERY accurate method of preserving their group history and their working culture. Simple art, and place, were often essential in preserving the very heart of these stories.
When the Hebrews began to develop basic written forms – well after their crossing of the Red Sea – they began to write down these fundamental - and for their life and culture also – life-giving and life-defining stories. The creation stories of Genesis 1, 2 & 3 are the result of this writing down process. But at the time there was more than one story, more than one oral tradition, amongst the diversity of the 12 tribes of Irael, and the priestly class was also charged with remembering the most sacred. There was even two different names for God at the time, both well accepted!
So in short, the early editors of the written Torah – the first five books of the bible – chose to illustrate one creation tradition, using a second. With much more HOW in it. This is the one we all seem to know best. Why?
Because it is easier to illustrate - to develop pictures about. Stained glass windows, emerging Middle Ages art forms. I can just see the artists, centuries ago, restricted to religious art if they wanted a living, licking their lips at the opportunity to paint a supple female nude, sensually wrapped around by a serpent, apple in hand with Adam slightly in the background and the unspoken words in the way it is painted (said seductively) “Oh Adam. Look what I’ve found.” It flew under the radar of censure, because it was ‘religious’ art, but it spoke more of the culture of their time, the 1500s, than of the only original Hebrew understanding.
The wisdom of those who selected the first reading of last Sunday was to select a passage which still reflected the ‘who’ and the ‘why’, but instead of a lot of ‘how’ detail, contained a fair bit about the WHAT that is the substance of creation, and being more existentialist if you like, it speaks then more clearly to us, in our modern context.
So early in Genesis we find phrases such as:
So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
Sorry, the ancient Hebrews may have had firm male and female stereo-types, but I don’t see significant gender inequality above. And for a small part of Anglicanism to say ‘no female leadership in the Church;” is not only to me abhorrent, but does not match up with our most fundamental documents.
Nor our CofE history.
There has been an official Head of the Church of England since Henry 8th separated from the Papacy 500 years ago. Since then, the Cof E has had a strong and capable female leader for a third of its history. It’s easy to gloss over the facts when we look at things through the lens of our own contemporary culture. Let’s not do that with last Sunday’s very important first reading, and what it is pointing to – which is why it is there. Together with a description of the ‘the man and the woman eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge together’.
But more importantly, in this WHAT based reading we find that, in eating the apple, they are made wise. Firstly, made in the image of God, then made wise. No longer innocent. Yes - nor is God, as we see reflected in the temptations of Jesus – but we are NOT damaged beyond rescue either. Suddenly, the story tells this truth – the emerging human race becomes not only creatures of a creator to whom they owe their existence, but wise – knowing good and evil as God does. No longer innocent - think about that for a moment – no longer drifting about like some amoebic life form, but real creatures now, and through that wisdom, with the capacity to love - and to hate. To make good choices - and some very bad ones! But real, gutsy, capable beings with the most fundamental powers in the world, the capacity to love. And to know what they are doing.
In short, no wisdom. No loving capacity. But as potentially self-centered beings also. We do not always choose the right. St Paul’s mournful cry - “for I do not do the good that I would, but the evil I do not want, I do. - Wretched man that I am! Rings true for us!
If you like, the Lenten journey for us – individually, and as a community of faith – is about re-examining how we are using that wisdom. As a series of loving actions, with significant self-giving - or are we challenged again (and again) to compromise. ANY parent knows that challenge – but they also know the joy and potential of creation, and the depth of love as God does.
So the OT readings in Lent are taking us on a ‘potted journey’ from the love of God in creation, to the love of God in redemption.
The NT readings similarly, will take us on a parallel journey - from Paul’s explanation of the significance of Jesus the Messiah towards the gospel narratives of the self-giving love of Jesus. To the inescapable events of Holy Week - the highs of Palm Sunday, and the depths of Gethsemane.
Today is ABM Sunday. ABM is the official Australian Church mission agency - it reminds us of those who used their capabilities and their wisdom, their ability to choose good from evil, and proselytized this Asian Pacific region. And amongst the 100,000 or more missionaries, there were some whose self giving also led to their martyrdom. From the martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597, the Martyrs of New Guinea last century, and then the seven Melanesian brothers in very recent times, seeking for justice and the right.
It is worth noting that recently it was the missionaries in the less explored places of PNG who were respected enough to help arbitrate the release of the hostages. Be generous in your support of ABM. The need is still very real.
But while we are not all called to that particular work, as our prayer for a new Dean says, ‘enable us to fulfill our vocation and ministry’. We ARE called to that!
Let us use Lent, assisted by the journey our readings will take us on, to reflect on that call – TO US. To re-examine our use of the wisdom that God has given us, and to challenge ourselves to a better, wiser use of that primary reason for creation - to love, and to be loved. And take on board that the Father’s desire is not to redeem us to innocence, but to a full loving capacity again. It should be of little surprise to us, that love is the key verb, the action word, central to our Lord’s Two Great Commandments.
And we can give thanks to God, by whose power we are created and whose love we are redeemed. *
Note that the members of the Liturgical Commision couldn’t fully agree on where to put ‘power’ and ‘love’ and agreed that they were interchangeable in this prayer! (Source Ian George)