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15-43 149th Street
Whitestone, NY 11357

718.746.7858

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has been at work in northeast Queens since 1871, seeking to proclaim God’s Word and live out God’s justice and peace in our lives and our community. We welcome all to join us for worship, fellowship, learning, and service in our small but vibrant community of faith.

Sermons

The Stories That Define Us

Andy James

a sermon on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

When I was seven years old, my grandparents took me to Minnesota and North Dakota to meet their family that lived there. It was quite a memorable trip. Beyond meeting some people that my family talks about regularly but don’t often see, those two weeks together cemented an already-close relationship with my grandparents that continued until their death. We also visited some pretty incredible places, like the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota, the most northerly point in the lower 48 states, that you can only reach by land from Canada, and Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Near Lake Itasca, in Bemidji, Minnesota, we visited a giant statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox—supposedly the second-most photographed statue in the United States, after only Mount Rushmore! The myth of Paul Bunyan and Babe suggests that the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota were formed by Paul and Babe’s footprints as they wandered around during a nasty blizzard—and that the Great Lakes were created by Paul as a watering hole for Babe!

The stories of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stand in a long line of human stories that intend to tell us how things came to be as they are—stories somewhat like what we heard in our reading from Genesis this morning. These biblical stories carry a very different kind of truth than fables like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, for they tell us not how some natural phenomenon came to exist but how we came to be as we are with God and one another. The Old Testament stories that will serve as our primary Lenten texts over the next five weeks recount some of the great figures of the Bible who are important in our story as the people of God.

Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Ezekiel—all these great figures tell us something about who we are and how God relates to us and help us connect more fully to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These stories, much like but even more than the story of my trip to North Dakota and Minnesota with my grandparents or the stories of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, ultimately are the stories that define who we are.

Today’s story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden is quite possibly one of the best-known stories in the Bible. It carries so many important questions into our own time as it tries to explain not just how woman and man were forced out of the Garden of Eden and into the world, how pain appeared in childbirth, how women must be subject to men, or even how we came to wear clothes to cover our private parts. Most importantly, it tries to explain the origin of our human sin.

But wait a minute—did you ever hear the word “sin” in our reading this morning? Actually, that word doesn’t show up anywhere in this passage from Genesis! No—in these verses we simply hear about how God instructs Adam on what to eat in the garden and makes it clear that there is one tree whose fruit is forbidden. The story then turns to the woman’s temptation by the serpent, who tricks her into thinking that God’s instruction can be ignored for one reason or another, that the forbidden fruit was good, and that if she ate it, her eyes would be opened to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” The serpent was partially right: the fruit of that tree at the center of the garden was good, and their eyes were opened when they ate it, but he was very wrong in suggesting that God’s instruction could be ignored. Our reading this morning cuts off God’s extended statement of the consequences of this action, but it is still very clear that everything has changed for humanity through this one act of disobedience.

For centuries, Christians have used this story to define us as sinful people, to describe our so-called “original sin.” Sin is so deeply ingrained in us and our world, beginning with this story of Adam and Eve, that even the psalmist could write, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” It is tempting to focus our energies in thinking about this topic by trying to figure out how this sin is transmitted from generation to generation, but I think it is more important to focus on what this “original sin” means, as Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner does in his definition:

‘Original Sin’ means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 89)

Another way of thinking about this original sin is to recognize that Adam and Eve’s story is our story, too. Over and over again, like Adam and Eve, we too ignore God’s instructions and forget that God is the source of all that we have and all that we are. Over and over again, we too put ourselves at the center of things and exclude God and others from our self-centered lives. And over and over again, we find new ways to live all this sin out in our world—or as John Calvin puts it,

This perversity never ceases in us, but continually bears new fruits—the works of the flesh…—just as a burning furnace gives forth flame and sparks, or water ceaselessly bubbles up from a spring. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.1.8)

Adam and Eve’s story defines us more than we will ever fully understand, and there is clearly nothing we can do to change that.

But then Jesus enters the story. In three of the four gospel accounts, Jesus begins his ministry only after a strange period of testing and temptation as we heard about in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew. Just as the human story begins with the tempter winning, Jesus’ story begins with the tempter being defeated. After Jesus fasts and prays for forty days, the devil goes after him in three potent ways, appealing to Jesus’ physical hunger, his vulnerability in the wilderness, and a seemingly natural human desire for power and prestige. Jesus never buys the tempter’s wares, instead feasting on the word of God, trusting in the safety of God’s presence, and taking greater comfort in worshiping God alone.

In these three moves, Jesus turns the tables on sin and makes a new way forward possible for us. These are only three small victories, three initial moments where he manages to conquer the evil intent of the devil, but these three victories set the stage for everything to change as his story progresses. After these challenges, even Jesus still faces the temptations of life in the world, but in his death and resurrection God shifts things once and for all, showing us that the self-destruction we bring upon ourselves over and over again is not the end of the story, changing things not for those who are perfect but as theologian Shirley Guthrie says “precisely [for] people who are dead in and as a consequence of their sinfulness” (Christian Doctrine, p. 227).

When we put the temptations of our world alongside our natural propensity to sin, we have a truly horrid combination that can easily define us. We easily combine our very natural tendency to put ourselves at the center with the possibility of exploiting others for our own gain. We so easily take advantage of the freedom made possible for us in Christ by pushing the limits and ending up more distant from God and one another than we could ever imagine. And we so easily slip deeper and deeper into the possibilities of sin that we become mired in the brokenness that quickly spreads into all that we say and do—and into others around us.

Yet Jesus changes the story that defines us. He doesn’t take it away or give it an unnaturally happy ending—he gives us a new story to stand at the center of things. Because of his life, death, and resurrection, we do not have to be defined by the story of our original sin. While we still may not be able to escape our sin that keeps pushing us away from the center, we can trust that God has conquered sin once and for all in Jesus Christ and has sought us out to make us and our world different. While we may not be able to overcome the temptations of this world on our own, we can be certain that God gives us the possibility of repentance and hope. And while we may not be able to fully set aside this very human tendency toward sin, we can have faith that God will give us grace enough to face each day anew, to walk the Lenten road with a new bit of hope each day, to seek a new freedom in the new beginning we share with Christ as we too emerge from the wilderness into the world.

So may these stories that define us, that explain us, that tell us who we are, remind us of our need of God’s grace and show us the depth and breadth of God’s mercy so that we can live in this divine love shown so freely in Jesus Christ and share it with the world each and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.