Confession, Resistance, and Restoration

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

 

“Going to confession is hard…. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step of getting rid of them.”

~Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

 

This week’s Sunday cycle of texts brings with it a change in season, moving from the period of ordinary time after Epiphany to the journey of Lent. Having been reminded of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, we now walk with Jesus and the disciples toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him there. On that journey this week, we are confronted by the reality of sin and its remedy.

In the Genesis reading, we see a hopeful story and a promising future go south in a flash. The man is given important work in the garden and virtual freedom with its contents. Even though there is foreshadowing of a potential calamity in Genesis 2:17, the story actually moves on to the creation of animals and later of woman to be a suitable partner for the man. In other words, while the prohibition is given, we might not necessarily expect it to be broken. However, that is precisely what happens in the next chapter. The woman (and the man) give into temptation and eat of the tree after perceiving its apparent benefits (3:6). Their eyes are opened, and they realize their shame. Even as readers of this passage, we feel a tremendous sense of loss. They cannot undo this action. Everything will be different from now on. As Romans declares, “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (5:12). If the story ended here, we would easily fall into despair.

Matthew provides us with a similar story of temptation. Reading them side-by-side helps us recognize where these two stories are parallel and where they diverge. Isolated like the first humans (though in the wilderness instead of a garden), Jesus is tempted, except here the temptation does not look like the fruit of a tree. Instead, we find temptations to make bread (Matthew 4:3), perform miraculous feats (Matthew 4:6), and claim total earthly authority (Matthew 4:8-9). The shape of these temptations is instructive; sin cannot take many forms, even those that may seem honorable in some situations (e.g., exercising earthly authority).

Despite the similarities between these two stories of temptation, they end quite differently. Instead of succumbing to these offers, Jesus resists and rejects the invitation to sin, choosing to “worship the Lord your God, serve only him” (Matthew 4:10).

What has happened here? Is Jesus the exception to the story of temptation? If so, we would be left with the same tale of despair coming from Genesis. The Romans passage gives us the words to describe and respond to these juxtaposed stories. Paul writes that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (5:18). Of course, this is about more than the temptation in the wilderness, but Jesus’ response to this temptation is certainly part of his righteousness. Still, as Adam is a type or figure of Jesus, they are linked, according to Romans (5:14). Thus, Jesus’ resistance to temptation offers us a path toward restoration as through Christ we “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). In short, the story of despair was replaced by one of hope, and we can declare with the psalmist: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (32:1).

This is why confession is so important, as the opening quotation from Dorothy Day makes clear. We are not sinful all the way down, but we are harassed by temptation and sin, or as Paul Wadell writes, “God’s creation remains indisputably good, but it is not whole” (Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 169). This reality must be dealt with as part of our continual turning toward Christ. During Lent, it is not uncommon to find a confession of sin, often expressed corporately in worship:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Statements such as these are important because they help us name sin for what it is, both in our personal lives (e.g., lack of compassion for the needy) and in the social structures around us (e.g., systemic racial bias). We become capable of seeing how we, like Adam, have given in to temptation.

To be certain, there is liberation to be found in confession, but if we left it there, we will not have arrived at hope. So confession is not the last liturgical word, for it is followed by an assurance of forgiveness, a moment when we acknowledge and receive God’s gift of grace. Then, like Jesus in the wilderness, we discover that “steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (Psalm 32:10), and we are filled with hope as we continue on our Lenten journey with Jesus.

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