Sunday, 9 March 2014

No More Ifs, Ands or Buts: an Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

…with reference to Gen 2:15–17; 3:1–7; Rom 5:12–19; Mt 4:1–11, Year A

Jesus had to field some tough questions from people who wanted to catch him out in something he said (Lk 11.54), who wanted to tear him down and knock him off course. Those who tried to catch him out didn’t want to have to accept who he was and to change the way they lived because of it; especially the religious leaders of the day. Many people, maybe even most people, found what he had to say too demanding. Jesus had a way of drilling down to the hidden places in people’s lives where foundations, motives and actions were shaky, shameful, compromised, sinful and selfish. So people tried to make excuses for themselves and to wriggle out from under what he taught. If I’m honest, I sometimes find myself doing the same. Such excuses are often expressed using the conjunctions IF, AND, or BUT—which happen to occur frequently through our readings this morning and which reminded me of something my mother used to say to me when I was trying to avoid doing what she told me to do: “BUT me no BUTs, mister!” They also reminded me of the phrase, “No IFs, ANDs or BUTs about it!”—meaning no excuses!

Let’s start with IFs, for example.

In his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus had to field some tough questions from the devil. Look at verse three in the gospel (Mt 4). “IF you are the Son of God,” says the devil to Jesus. He says it again in verse five. IF you’re who you say you are, IF you really have all that power at your disposal. Be spectacular. Show off. Do magic. Make God do what you want. Make it all about you.

Why the devil’s IFs? IF Jesus were to succumb to the devil's tempting, the devil would have an excuse not to obey and worship him. IF Jesus were to succumb, his status and who he served would be in question and we'd have an excuse not to obey and worship him either. BUT he didn't, so we do.

There’s also an implied IF in the serpent’s crafty question to Eve in our Genesis reading this morning. Look at verse one. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3.1)—what the serpent was craftily insinuating was, “IF God was being fair and reasonable—IF God really loved you—he wouldn’t forbid you from eating such delicious, beautiful looking, desirable fruit, would he?”

Here comes a veritable parade of ANDs. Eve responds with what God told her. Look at verse two: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; BUT God said (BUTs are good when God says them, not always easy, or what we want, but good—more BUTs in a moment), ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” BUT the serpent said to the woman (BUTs are not good coming from the serpent or the devil because they are always opposed to what God has said and done), “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, AND you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Notice how the rot sets in the series of ANDs through the rest of the passage. "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, AND that it was a delight to the eyes, AND that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; AND she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, AND he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, AND they knew that they were naked; AND they sewed fig leaves together AND made loincloths for themselves.” (Gen 3.2-7) For Adam and Eve, the serpent’s implied IF (which eventually became a literal one when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness—just as crafty and designed to spoil the good God intended) became an excuse for Eve and Adam to ignore God’s BUT you shall not eat of the fruit of that one tree (Gen 3.3) and, in a cascade of ANDs and excuses, they began their long fall into sin and death and the devil had his way. And here we all are because of it, trying to get serious about another Holy Lent.

If there had been none of those IFs or ANDs, things would have been different. Which brings me to some BUTs and whether ours are too big.

Look at verse four in the gospel. The devil tries his first IF, BUT, Jesus answers, (but did not sin) and this is a good BUT, this kind of BUT is never too big, BUT his kind of BUTs as much as you like. “It is written,” and he counters Satan’s attempt to tempt with Scripture. Jesus knew where the answers were to be found when someone came at him with IFs. Jesus uses his BUTs very well. “You have heard it said,” he said over and over again in the gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount over the last two Sundays—“BUT I say to you,” he said, and proceeded to sharpen and tighten God’s call to reconciliation, to resist not only murder, but even anger; to faithfulness in marriage, turning the other cheek, loving not only our neighbours, but our enemies and those who persecute us (Mt 5).

Paul has a nice BUT, too. He uses it well in Romans this morning. Look at verse fifteen (Ro 5): “BUT the free gift is not like the trespass. For IF the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many." (Ro 5.15) Succumbing to the devil’s IFs caused many to die because of one couple’s sin, BUT in Jesus "much more" happens; justification, abounding grace and righteousness, AND life for all. (Ro 5.18)

Let there be no more IFs, ANDs or BUTs about it! Praised be Christ Jesus!