This week as we are continuing in the season of Lent, and we are beginning our new series, Empty & Filled:
Discovering the Meaning and Power of Lent. Whether you have never participated in Lent or have done so many
times, we are going to look at how it can be meaningful and draw us closer to God.
Lent is a rich Christian tradition that points us back to our sin… Yes, no matter how good we think we are or we
think others appear to be, we all have sinned or have a separation from God that we have caused. This tradition of
Lent helps us to acknowledge the reality of our sin and our desperate need for a savior. Over the centuries,
Christians have participated in this season, not as a means of meaningless self-denial or pious ritual keeping.
Rather, it is a means of emptying ourselves of distracting comforts so that we can be filled with renewed faith
and hope. During this season, we will focus on the several sides of repentance – another one of those
uncomfortable words, repentance. These are recognition of our sin, hope in the Savior, and dedication to
following Jesus Christ in response to his grace. Rather than engage in empty ceremony or purely internal spiritual
growth. We learn that observance of this season produces in us a richer faith for the sake of the world.
We begin with the story of where it all started in the Garden of Eden. It is important for us to know that the original
audience for this text was … not us. It was for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob and eleven of
his sons along with their families moved from Canaan to Egypt during a famine. There Jacob’s twelfth son,
Joseph, had effectively prepared a place for them.
They we’re fruitful and multiplied. (Exodus 1:7) The round number used in Exodus 12 when the Israelites left Egypt
was about 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37), including women and children this number rises to around 2 million
people. It is an incredible amount. Whether, that number is accurate, we are to understand that this was a very
large group. It is no wonder that the Egyptians were threatened by their numbers. (cf. Exodus 1:8-12) This people
had lived in Egypt for 430 years.
They had been living with the Egyptian religion and their pantheon of gods and goddesses. They knew little of
anything about the one true God or their own ancestors. Through Moses, God gives them their history. It starts
with the creation of the world and its goodness. Of course, that begs the question, if the world that God created
is so good, why is life so hard and is there all of this evil abounding around us? In other words, why do people
behave the way they do?
Have you ever had those questions? I know I have. Our passage today begins to answer that question.
Please, get out your Bibles and read this pivotal passage along with me. It starts at Genesis 3:1, and we will be
reading through verse 19. Over the centuries, this passage has acquired a lot of baggage as people have tried to
twist it to oppress people and to say a lot of things that were never intended. Try to leave that all behind and
look at it new.
Genesis 3:1-19 NIV
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said
to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say,
‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or
you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when
you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye,
and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some
to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden
in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree
that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the
tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring
16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will
give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree
about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because
of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
We have this familiar narrative where everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else. No one
acknowledged their responsibility for the state of affairs. Adam wants to blame God. “The woman
you put here with me…” (Genesis 3:12)
So first, we have the sin, the break with God, not paying attention to what God said, but putting their own
observations and assessments above God. “When the woman saw the fruit of the tree was good for food and
pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom [according to the snake], she took some and ate it.
She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6)
That is something that humanity continually tries to do, put themselves on an equal footing with and even
above God, even the people who seem most righteous, like Job. God tells us that Job is righteous. As God says
Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and
upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. (Job 1:8)
Then later after all of the terrible things have happened to Job, he questions God. At the end of everything, God
still has high praise for Job, but in the meantime he does offer Job a perspective check. It goes on for three
chapters, but it starts:
Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off
its dimensions? Surely you know! (Job 38:4-5)
It is a different way of expressing with the Lord says in Isaiah 55:8-9:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways.
God is so much bigger, sees so much more, knows so much more than we ever can. We cannot begin to fathom
God’s perspective. Whenever we put ourselves on an equal level with God, we get in trouble. Why? We are made
in the image of God, but we are not God.
Our Scripture passage in Genesis gives us a perspective check. “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:19) It is the words that we traditionally say on Ash Wednesday to remind us of what we are without
God. We are dust. We only have life now because of God’s grace, not only eternal life. We only have life through
God’s unmerited favor, nothing that we earned for ourselves. How can dust earn anything? God breathes life
into that dust, and we live.
I realized something the other day. There is an area where scientists and the most fundamentalist Christian,
Orthodox Jew, fervent Muslim, and strident atheist agree. Humans are made of dust. Scientists may call that
dust atoms and molecules, but we all agree that we are made up of tiny bits of stuff that is fit together and
combined in the most intricate ways.
What gives this dust life? Scientists are trying to figure it out. It is a mystery, some would call it magic because
they don’t understand how it is possible. That’s because we know that dust does not become animate or alive on
its own. It must be subjected to some outside force. Dust can seem alive if it is picked up by the wind, blowing and
swirling. Random dust can’t simply be zapped with electricity even though much of what we do as living beings is
caused by electrical impulses running through our body. If the heart doesn’t have the right electrical charge
happening in the right rhythm, we can die. Often times with the proper shock, it can be reset.
That is what Lent can be, a reset button, or like rebooting a computer. But a very important thing has to happen
before any of that will work. We have to acknowledge that there is a problem. I have suffered for hours because
there was a program on my computer running in the background pulling power making the computer run slowly.
I didn’t realize for the longest time.
Have you ever had that happen with your computer? It’s running slow. It keeps getting locked up. The program
you were running crashes. One thing the computer experts tell you is to save your work frequently, so you won’
t lose too much should some sort of crash happen. One time as I was saving my 55 page document, it crashed.
*poof* The file was gone. I had made a backup file, but it was last updated at page 43.
So, you have this problem with your computer. You can’t resolve it, so you call the helpline. What is one of the first
things they ask? Have you rebooted your computer?
Lent is our chance to reboot, but only if we acknowledge that we are broken people living in a broken world.
Because of that brokenness, we have drifted away from God, or maybe we weren’t that close in the first place.
Maybe we don’t feel that we have really known God. We may even know that we are supposed to know God – or
at least to the limited extent that humans can know God – but it has never really gelled. This could be your
opportunity. To extend the computer metaphor, you could get an upgrade.
In this broken world, we are affected by sin every day in big ways and small. We can look back to our Genesis
passage and see it. People deferring blame, not taking responsibility for their own actions. There are
consequences for those actions: curses on the man, the woman, and the snake, a curse on the earth, everything
harder, not just for the people who sinned but for everyone. Life is hard.
There is the ripple effect. Several weeks ago we talked about the wonderful ripples when we do good things. One
simple act of kindness can start a chain reaction that encourages many people through the day. It can change
lives. The flip side of that coin is that there are negative ripples due to sin. You can see it in families with
generations of abuse. You can see it through the repercussions of pollution on whole communities.
On January 9th 2014, a chemical spill was reported by Freedom Industries, a company located near the Elk River
in West Virginia. It was reported after local residents complained about a strange smell. The company said that it
happened that morning, and they began extensive cleanup right away to avoid contamination. When the state
Department of Environmental Protection showed up, they found a cinder block bracing 150 pound bag of safety
absorbent to try to stem the flow of the four foot wide stream of leaking chemicals into the ground.
You may have heard about this in the news. The chemical leaked into the Elk River, which flowed into the
Kanawha River near the intake for the principal West Virginia American Water company. The spill of just 7500
gallons of the chemical from a 40,000 gallon tank contaminated and made the water undrinkable for up to
300,000 residents in nine counties.
The ripple effect of a one-inch hole at the bottom of a 40,000 gallon storage container to affect 300,000 people.
That is a man-made disaster with plenty of sin to go around, but what about natural disasters? There is the
tsunami that happened on December 26th in 2004. Over 230,000 people were killed with many simply swept
out to sea, just like that. No one to blame. We are dust.
It could be easy to say, “Yeah, but I’m not like that chemical company that ignored the maintenance on the storage
container, saying things like, ‘The overflow is going to seep into the ground. No one will ever notice.’ I’m not like
that guy.” Nope you’re not. You’re just like the guy that Jesus talked about when he said in Luke 18:
Two men went to the temple to pray, one of Pharisee in the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up
and prayed about himself, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men – robbers, evil doers, adulterers –
even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a
distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a
sinner.” I will tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:9-13)
What was the difference between these two men? Among other things, the Pharisee thought he could save
himself. He didn’t really need God. He had it all covered. The tax collector knew that there was nothing he could
do to save himself. He knew that he had to rely on the grace and mercy of God.
The trouble with many of us is that our attitude is much more like the Pharisee than the tax collector, and it really
should be the other way around.
Many of us think we’re pretty good, not perfect, but pretty good. We smile at people we pass on the sidewalk. We
don’t steal. We don’t lie, most of the time, unless we think it might hurt someone’s feelings. And if we are thinking
that far ahead we might even say, “I’ve been pretty good, so I should go to heaven. That’s only fair, right? I deserve
It does sound nice, but it’s not Christian. It’s a version of what is referred to as moral therapeutic deism. That says,
there may be a God, but God doesn’t get involved in our lives. You are responsible for yourself, and if you’re nice,
you should go to heaven. You deserve to go to heaven.
Who knows, maybe that’s true, but that is not the God that the Bible talks about. The Bible talks about a God
personally involved and has relationships with people in his creation. Whether you believe that God physically
walked in the Garden in this Genesis passage, it illustrates a God that wants to spend time with Adam and Eve.
He goes looking for them. By inference, he goes looking for us.
There are many examples of this all through the Old Testament. However, the best example is Jesus. There is no
denying that Jesus did walk with people, talked with them, taught them, had compassion on them, loved them.
Jesus came and participated in the messiness of human life. Then he personally chose to sacrifice that human
form of life for our sake. There is nothing more personal than dying for someone else.
We had another school shooting last week. Tragedy. Plenty of sin to go around for many in that incident. However,
the story that got my attention the most is about the football coach, Aaron Feis, who got between the shooter and
his students. He was shot several times and has since died of his injuries. He knew when he did this he might be
killed. He did it anyway. That’s personal. That’s the kind of God we have. That’s the kind of love God has for us.
Despite our messiness, our selfishness, the way we put ourselves on a level with God, he still loves us. Needs to
teach us of course but still wants to protect us taking the worst punishment on himself. He does that for dust.
The thing that we have to remember is that even with the great thing this teacher, Aaron Feis, did, he was still a
sinner that needed Jesus, and so do we. We cannot justify ourselves. You can think of it like the excuse-making
that Adam and Eve did when God confronted them. They tried to justify their actions even up to blaming God for
them. Don’t we do that all the time? “I know I should have done ‘X,’ but I was too tired. I had a hard day. I deserve
Like the Pharisee, we compare our actions with others. “I’m pretty good. At least I didn’t go to a school and try to
shoot people. Compared with that I’m great.” Ummm … It’s important to remember that pride is a sin too. 1 John
1:8-10 tells us,
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins,
God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim
we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
Have you ever been kind to someone in the hope that they would be kind to you? Or just try to be kind to people in
general, so that people will be nice to you and like you? What would you think if I told you that was a sin? It is,
why? It’s not the kindness, of course, it is the motivation. If I am kind to someone, so that they will be nice to me,
it is selfish. It’s self-preservation. It certainly makes life more pleasant, but it is selfish. It is not motivated out of
love. I am doing it for me. I freely admit that I have done it. As a Christ follower, I should be kind because the person
in front of me is made in the image of God. I should be kind to them regardless as to whether they have the ability to
be kind to me. I should love them even if they hate me. That is Christ like. That is being a good neighbor.
See that’s what we have to realize. No matter how good we think we are, how smart we think we are, if we are
doing anything out of selfishness, if we put anything before God in our lives at any time, we are sinners. I confess
to God and to you all that I am a sinner. I am dust.
That is Part 1, acknowledgment. However, that is not enough. I know people who love being sinners. They love
being bad. They think it’s fun. There’s a joke that hell will be where the best parties are.
Part 2 is a desire for change. Do you see how sin and being separated from God poisons our lives? The word
here is repent. We have to see our selfishness and self-importance, or separation from God as a problem, a
problem we want God to help us overcome. We empty ourselves, so we can be filled by the love of God. We can
hit the reset button. We can reboot our relationship with God.
Can you remember when you were a child? Did your family participate in Lent at all? Were you encouraged to
give up something for Lent? The classic is chocolate. Maybe you try to give up a bad habit? Clean out your closets
by donating things that you don’t use?
Lent leads up to Easter like Advent leads up to Christmas. There is the excitement and anticipation. As a kid what
were you anticipating at Christmas, the birth of the Savior of the world? To be honest, I was anticipating the
presents. And then it seemed like a conspiracy? Opening the presents always had to be the last thing. We have to
eat first. We didn’t even go to church most of the time on Christmas Eve. Maybe after watching a movie. Maybe
after the reading of the Christmas story. After all that was over, then presents, finally! Then the whole event was
over. Those stakes aren’t very high compared with the birth of the Christ Child.
If all it means is being able to go back to our normal lives enjoying our chocolate, especially with a basket full of
candy on Easter morning, deciding whether that diet worked, being able to buy new things to fill the closets we
emptied, then Lent is meaningless.
Is giving something up for Lent bad or meaningless? Not at all, but why? The intention is to empty ourselves of
unnecessary comforts, so that we can use that time to be filled with, to draw closer to God. Some people fast for a
day of the week. When they are hungry, they are reminded of God and of the hungry people in the world. They
might use the money they would have spent on food that day to the food bank or some other charity that addresses
food scarcity. If you are a diabetic, hypoglycemic, or have a healthcare condition that would make it dangerous to
fast, I wouldn’t recommend this. The idea is to eliminate an unnecessary comfort, not to put yourself in the
What about giving up a favorite TV program? Then using the time to pray, read the Bible, participate in a ministry.
Use that time to draw closer to God. Then as the Easter celebration approaches, the anticipation really builds that
the Savior of the World, the one who sacrificed himself for us, was resurrected, defeated death, and gave us
opportunity for new life, a whole new way to be reconciled, connected, and in relationship with God.
We may be dust, but God wants us to have life and have it abundantly with him. Lent is a way for us to be renewed
and live into that.
Glory to God!