Balancing Act

March 9, 2014   1st Sunday in Lent   Romans 5: 12-19   Matthew 4: 1-11

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Do you ever get the feeling that the world is teetering precariously and could easily tip into war, financial ruin, or environmental disaster?  Is the situation in the Ukraine not frightening?  Will we ever feel secure in our health care?  Is ‘fracking’ the answer to our energy needs or a dangerous threat to the environment?  What will the economy do next?  The balancing act that we do to moderate threats, to control our worst fears, and to feel secure about the world’s future is rather exhausting.  How do you manage, in your own mind, in your own life, to hold these competing forces and threats in some kind of balance?  How do you deal with the uncertainty? 

     In fact, how do you deal with the certainty that things will go wrong, because temptation happens?  People will be tempted by power, wealth, and by the apparent freedom of living a godless life.  And when those temptations happen, sin happens.  And when sin happens, the delicate balancing act that keeps the world somewhat predictable and safe, that balancing act is upset.  Sin begets sin begets sin.  The world is not safe.  Sin leads to death and to the destruction of individuals, communities, nations, and the created order.  How can our balance be restored?  Do we dare to hope in a new and miraculous balancing act that will secure our future?

     Our reading from Romans, chapter 5 is a difficult one.  Paul is writing about huge ideas and he is looking at the whole of human history and God’s relationship with us.  He is trying to describe an elaborate balancing act.  There are a whole lot of things that are held in balance.  They are all mentioned in this passage:  Christ and Adam, sin and righteousness, life and death, the law and grace, God’s free gift and our trespasses, condemnation and justification, disobedience and obedience.  See how each pair represents a weight and a counterweight that serves to balance the two.  Christ and Adam, sin and righteousness, life and death, the law and grace, God’s free gift and our trespasses, condemnation and justification, disobedience and obedience. 

     Paul is arguing that without the considerable weight and power of God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, the world and everything in it would have long since tumbled into utter chaos, returning it to the state of that formless void that existed before creation.  It is only by God’s providence that the delicate balance of life is maintained.  Paul is in awe of the sheer power of God’s grace that is more than able to keep the forces of evil, sin, and death from upsetting and destroying the God-given balance of our world.

     This is good news, but it isn’t the best news, it isn’t the whole Gospel.  Paul wants us to see exactly how this apparently precarious balance is maintained so that we can have confidence and hope for the future.  That’s why this passage seems so convoluted and confusing.  Not only does Paul want us to understand those things that are held in careful balance, but he wants to assure us that, in effect, the balance was there from the beginning and through Jesus Christ it is a promise that will endure to the end.  But that requires some explanation.    

     The thing is, we sometimes get our ordering of things wrong.  We assume that in this balancing act one thing is the weight and the other is the counterweight, when it is actually the other way around.  So, for example, we might think that Adam sinned, completely upsetting the delightful balance of God’s creation, and bringing both sin and death into the world, destroying our original good relationship with God.  Paul would actually agree with that.  But there is more that must be said.  Because Adam’s sin isn’t the first thing that happened. 

     Human sin is not the oppressive weight for which God was forced to supply a counterweight in Jesus Christ.   God’s will to save is not triggered by sin.  God always wanted to save us.  Jesus was, from the beginning, the true man, the Savior.  Remember that he is the eternal Son of God.  Jesus pre-dates Adam.  He was the Word who spoke Adam into existence.  Adam’s rebellion, humanity’s sin, represents a counterweight to God’s far more considerable weight as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer.  Adam’s sin did upset the balance of creation, but, from the very beginning there was never any doubt about the fact that God would put things right, restoring the balance of our relationship with God and of the whole creation through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

     You might say, what difference does it make what came first, which was the weight and which the counterweight in this balancing act.  It makes a huge difference because while Adam’s sin obviously had real destructive power, God’s greater power and will to heal and reconcile and re-create was never really threatened by Adam’s rebellion.  In Jesus Christ the solution existed before the problem existed.  And the sheer irresistible weight of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ was not and could not be threatened by the counterweight of Adam.  There is just no contest. 

     If we go back to our original balanced pairs:  Christ and Adam, righteousness and sin, life and death, grace and the law, free gift and trespass, justification and condemnation, obedience and disobedience, there was never and never should be any doubt about which one is heavier, which one came first in the divine scheme of things, and which one will win out in the end.

     In our reading from Matthew we see this acted out in the story of the temptation of Jesus.  Like the baptism of Jesus, this is one of those events in Jesus’ life that only makes sense if we realize that it was done for us.  That doesn’t just mean that it was meant to show us something, but that it was part of God’s powerful maintaining of the balance of the whole creation from which we supremely benefit.  One of the calls to confession that we use in our worship is a paraphrase of a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews:  “Remember that our Lord Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakness, since in every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Tempted as we are – in what ways was Jesus tempted? 

     The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, relates to the hungers we feel, hungers that drive us to try to meet our own real or imagined, physical or personal needs.  Jesus recognized this basic temptation for what it was:  a desire to be independent from God by taking our lives into our own hands.  Adam, faced by the same temptation, took the apple that promised knowledge and independence from God, and he ate it.  But Jesus strongly resisted this temptation to satisfy his own needs and desires, and he did it for us.

     The second temptation, the devil’s suggestion that Jesus should throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple to see if God would save him, relates to our tendency to mistrust and to test God, to doubt his power and providence and God’s ability to hold his creation in balance.  Jesus recognized this basic temptation for what it was:  a test of his faith in God.  Adam, faced by the same temptation, failed to trust the word of God about what would happen if he ate the apple; he did not act in faith.  But Jesus strongly resisted this temptation to doubt, and he did it for us.

     The third temptation, to covet power over all of the kingdoms of the world, relates to our desire to rule, to dominate and to control.  This is played out in our families, community, and nation, extending even to a desire to control and use our whole environment with little thought for the future.  Jesus recognized this basic temptation for what it was:  a temptation to serve sin, evil, and even Satan himself, in order to gain power.  Adam, faced by the same temptation, willingly listened to the voice of the serpent and obeyed him, rather than God.  But Jesus strongly resisted this temptation to worship and serve anything other than God, and he did it for us.

     Did you really expect a different outcome?  Was there any suspicion in your mind that Jesus would give in to those temptations that perpetually plague us?  Was there any chance that he would have followed Adam down that same road of misplaced desire, doubt, and disobedience?  Jesus was tempted as we are tempted, but No!  The profound and pre-existing weight of Jesus’ Sonship, his obedience and his faith are what hold this world in balance.  They have done so from the beginning of all things, and they will do so until the end.  It is no contest. 

     Consider again those pairs that we discovered in our passage from Romans.  Christ is far stronger than Adam, his righteousness will overcome our sin, life will be victorious over death, grace did exist before the law, God’s free gift does mean forgiveness of our trespasses, the condemnation we deserve will be turned into justification in Christ, because we now share in his obedience through faith, not in Adam’s disobedience.

     This balancing act is not a trick and it is not a challenge.  It is not wishful thinking or an impossible test that has been set for us.  The balancing of all things in creation has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.  This balance existed before the world was, it is a reality now, and it will be our future, because it is God’s will for us and for creation.  So, we can live without fear or anxiety because we belong to Christ and not to Adam. We trust in his righteousness, his obedience, his faith, his forgiveness, and his victory over sin and death that was won for us.  As we begin the season of Lent, let us remember how very weighty the promises of God are, more than heavy enough to balance the counterweight of Adam’s sin and our own.