“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and
flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.”
English-speaking Christians have prayed or chanted these words for almost 500 years. Often, they have been chanted in public procession, beginning at their first use back in 1543. The Great Litany is the first piece of the liturgy officially published in English and it was first used before Henry VIII embarked on one of his failed attempts to defeat the French. Since then, it has been prayed in times of plague and war. We use it here at Grace on the first Sunday in Lent both to mark the changed liturgical season and to emphasize human sins and shortcomings, and our need to repent, to ask God for forgiveness, and to receive God’s mercy and grace.
In many years, the language and imagery of the Great Litany seems not really to speak from or about our experience and our world. Words like “flesh and the devil” or petitions to “beat down Satan under our feet” remind us of the vast cultural distance that separates us from the people of the sixteenth century.
This year, our experience of the Great Litany may be different. Prayers that our political leaders would do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth seem eerily on point and all of us are praying that we be delivered from plague and pestilence.
Ancient words made new and meaningful again. As we worry about immediate threats like the spread of coronavirus, about the health of the economy, about the direction of our country, and about the growing threats of global climate crisis, it’s increasingly clear that human existence is fragile, that the world we have known and in which we many of us have thrived may be in the process of becoming quite different, with threats on all sides, not just to our comfortable lives and living standards, but to human life itself.
Ancient words, ancient stories. We heard two stories that have deep power in our culture. From the gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. It occurred immediately after his baptism, immediately after the voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And it’s as if this scene is set up to challenge that statement, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God is well-pleased with him.
From Genesis, a foundational, perhaps the foundational story of Western Christianity, and with it all of western culture. The story of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden. It’s a story we think we know. The reading from Romans 5 shapes our interpretative lens: “As sin came into the world through one man, and through sin came death…” The lectionary and our previous assumptions teach us that this is the story of original sin, the fall, an explanation of why there is evil in the world, why humans die, and why we have to work hard to achieve anything.
While that’s the story we know, it’s not the story that appears in Genesis 3. In the first place, the words “sin” nor “Satan” or the devil do not appear in the text. It’s the story of a woman, a man, and a serpent, who we’re told “was more crafty than any other of the wild animals that the Lord God had made.”
The inclusion of the verses from chapter 2 helps us understand the authors’ perspective on human beings and on creation. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden, the Hebrew literally reads, “to serve it and to guard it.” Human beings were created to be in partnership with the garden, to protect it and preserve it. It’s a very different notion than that which appears in Genesis 1, when God commands the humans to have dominion, lordship, over all the animals and plants. We see here a sense of human beings cooperating with creation, given responsibility to protect it. One more point—there’s no sense here that before the fall, humans were intended to live in idleness, rather, they were placed in the garden for an end and a purpose. Created in the image and likeness of God, God intended them to flourish and to aid in the flourishing of creation.
But something happened. They met a talking serpent who gave them a different way to think about themselves and God. The serpent questioned what God had told them and promised them that by eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would become like God.
Everything the serpent tells them is true, if somewhat one-sided. They did not die after eating of the fruit of the tree and they did gain knowledge. And the fruit was desirable. Eve ate because the fruit was beautiful, good to eat, and would make one wise—all of these are appropriate reasons for her decision. And, I would add, of the two humans, at least the woman showed some agency: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”
What were the consequences? They gained knowledge; most immediately, of their nakedness. They were ashamed. So whatever intimacy the two beings, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh” had had was suddenly gone—they needed protection from each other. And they needed protection from God. Their nakedness and exposure broke the pair’s intimacy with each other; it also broke their intimacy with God. Instead of becoming like God, they becoming frightfully aware of their difference from God. They wanted to escape from God but God wasn’t done with them. God sought them out in their hiding place, and when God located them, God showed continuing care for them by sewing clothes for them from animal skins. Any punishment would come later.
It’s a story of disobedience and rebellion against God. God created the humans for a purpose, for relationship with God and to participate with God in the care of God’s creation. Rejecting that purpose, they chose to aspire to be like God and so spurned their true nature, having been created in the image and likeness of God. It’s the story of humanity; it’s our story. Like Eve and Adam, we grasp for the beauty and knowledge we can see; and in grasping for what we want, we turn away from God and deface the image of God in us. The knowledge we gain is knowledge of our own fallen humanity, knowledge of our shame and embarrassment.
The man and the woman in Eden grasped to become something other than who they were and who they were created to be. In the gospel reading, we see Satan testing Jesus to see what sort of “Son of God” he would be. Would he be one who gave people what they wanted—bread for their stomachs? Would he be one who would take all that he could, who would rule the world with power like the Roman emperors? In the end, Jesus chose a different model and would follow a different path, one that would end in a humiliating, tortured execution. In the end, Jesus accepted his identity as God’s beloved son, and loving the whole world, he offered himself for us.
The story of the man and the woman in Eden is a story about humanity, about our nature. We are curious, we desire wisdom and new, exciting experiences. We want our freedom and we want to challenge the limits of our identities and nature. And in so doing, we come up against our own limitations and discover, if we are discerning, our nakedness before God.
The story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is in some ways a very similar story. He is presented with everything any human being could want, wealth, power, popularity. But Jesus chooses to follow his call, accept his identity. In so doing, he shows us the possibility of human existence, and in the end, by his death and resurrection, offers us the possibility of being remade, truly in God’s image.
The purpose of Lent is not for us to beat ourselves with our shortcomings, to bewail our sins and weakness. The purpose of Lent is for us to discover and confess who we are—that we are broken human beings, broken by our self-indulgences, our sins, our disobedience, to admit that we are naked before God. When we do that, we make room in our lives for God’s grace and mercy, and we allow ourselves to begin to be recreated more fully in God’s image, more fully human. May this Lent be such a time for us, a time of self-discovery, repentance, and being recreated. Amen.