By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Arthur Miller’s play The Death of a Salesman is a story about a son (Biff) and his father (Willy Loman) who learn the painful, unpleasant truth about one another, namely that they are much alike. Step by step, Biff comes to see that his father is no hero. He is a senile washed up, failed salesman, full of pompous clichés about honest hard work, without any principles, a cheat in his marriage. Biff came to see that the advice his old man gave him was nothing but a lot of hot air. They were ideas and dreams that he had never lived out himself.
“You are a phoney…” says Biff, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house.”
And though at first Biff sees his father’s faults better than his own, he eventually sees that he is not only a liar like his old man, but also a thief and a drop out of every good job he’s had since high school. He admits this readily but blames his failed life on his old man. He says to his father, “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!”
Biff comes to the painful discovery that he is no better than his old man.
On the first Sunday in Lent, the season of honesty, the first Lesson is about our old man, the one at the root of the family tree, Adam.
The book of Genesis tells us that God forms the first people from the dust of the ground, and places them in a good, rich garden with only one restriction – don’t touch that tree over there. But they saw that the fruit of the tree was very appealing to the eyes, it looked ripe and delicious, and they were sure that it was the kind of fruit that would make them wise. They took and ate it. (Here is where you and I come in.) That first act of disobedience, says Genesis, is the genesis, the beginning of our condition as imperfect and flawed people.
In Adam we see the link between our hunger and our rebellion against God.
We hunger for food, for sex, for knowledge on our terms, rather than on God’s terms.
We see, we take, we eat. It’s in the family. A fatal family disposition to have everything our way.
We rebel. And so when we look at the faded portrait of great-great-grandfather Adam, we see ourselves. We, in our disobedience, are just like our old man, Adam.
Adam says “yes” to the forbidden fruit, and we have been saying “yes” ever since. Some have called great-great-grandfather Adam’s fall as a matter of weakness. He didn’t disobey and say “yes” because he was too weak to say “no”. He rebelled in a desire to be strong, to know for himself, to stand on his own two feet, to be Creator rather than creature.
Yes, I will have knowledge (No matter what the cost).
Yes, I will do as I please.
Yes, I will help myself regardless of what others say, even if it is God.
Adam said “yes”, making himself “like God”, and got not power, life, wisdom or satisfaction, but death. “Death reigned from Adam until Moses”, says Paul (Romans 5:14). Read today’s newspapers and you will see what Paul meant when he said it all started with Adam. Adam said “yes”. Sin came into the world through one man, says Paul. Father Adam is our old man. We are his children and death has spread to all. We realise with Biff in the Death of a Salesman that we are no different to our old man.
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Paul says, “All sinned” (Romans 5:12). Not just once in Adam, but all of us, always. We are “chips off the ol’ block”, as they saying goes. All of us have been saying “Yes” to sin since the time of Adam.
And isn’t it true that we do the most damage to ourselves and others when we are say “yes” when we should be saying no. Like the fruit on the tree in the Garden of Eden, we see things that look enticing, tasty, exciting, and we pick it because it’s there to be picked and besides, we want it.
• “I want to sleep with you because I like you”. What’s the harm in liking someone? So we say “yes” to casual sex.
• “I drink large amounts of alcohol because it makes me feel better”. What’s wrong with wanting to feel better? So we say “yes”.
• “I don’t give to charities because I believe ‘God helps those who help themselves’”. Doesn’t God expect us to use our resources wisely? And so we say “yes” to selfishness.
• “I have no qualms getting back at those who hurt me in some way”. What’s the harm in teaching someone a lesson and feeling good about it? And so we say “yes” to revenge and paying back.
• “I like eating, even if it is the wrong kind of food and it’s ruining my health”. God wants us to enjoy his gifts. And so we say “yes” to feeling stuffed and being overweight.
• Babies are wonderful but if they don’t fit in with my plans, then I have every right to get rid of it. God wants us to be sensible about these things. And so we say “yes” to destroying a life.
The tragedy of our sin is that we are at our worst when we are saying “yes”. Fearing that when we say “no” we would be disadvantaged in some way and we could miss out on something that would give our lives substance and meaning, so we say “yes” to things that we know we should say “no” to.
Our society encourages us to find direction and purpose in life simply by saying “yes”.
Whatever is our desire at any particular moment all we have to do is say “yes”.
“If it feels good, do it, say ‘yes’”, we are told.
We’ve done this to all of God’s good gifts – sex, food, knowledge, power – in a world where there are no limits, having once said “yes”, we lack the resources to say “no” in the future. So everything and anything is possible.
In fact, we are our worst enemies when we keep on saying “yes”.
While everyone was saying “yes” there was One who said “no”. Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). Satan offered him power, power for doing good.
• Turn these stones into bread. (Don’t you believe in helping the hungry?).
• Throw yourself down from the temple tower. (Don’t you believe in the power of faith?)
• Bow down and worship me, I will give you all the kingdoms of the world. (Don’t you believe that as ruler of all the world will bring so much good, preventing crime, helping the poor, and have governments that will only do what is just and right?)
To all Satan’s worthy offers, Jesus said, “No! No! No!” Thundering over the wreckage that all our “yeses” have caused, and reversing our march toward death, he said “no”.
What the old Adam in all of us could not accomplish, Christ did. In one stunning act of obedience, placing God’s Word and will over his own hungry desire (he had been without food for forty days), he reversed the course of history.
By his refusal to march to the beat of Satan’s drum, he overcame the power of Satan who urges us to say “yes” to every temptation that flies our way.
Jesus’ “no” turned us from enemies of God to friends of God. As the apostle Paul says: Death ruled like a king because Adam had sinned. But that can’t compare with what Jesus Christ has done. God has been so kind to us, and he has accepted us because of Jesus (Romans 5:17).
He said ‘no’ to sin when he gave himself up to suffer and die for us.
He said ‘no’ to the all-powerful and all devastating effect that sin has in our lives, destroying any hope that we might have for eternal life.
He said ‘no’ to death and the fear it brings.
His ‘no’ to himself and his safety and well being was a resounding ‘yes’ to God, a ‘yes’ to us, a ‘yes’ to truth and so also a ‘yes’ to life.
Our hope in life, according to Genesis, Matthew and Paul, is not that we will somehow be better than our parents, that somehow Adam’s sin was a temporary unpleasantness, that sin is just a momentary weakness and we are bright enough and now far more civilised to fall into the same trap again like great, great grandfather Adam, that ‘the youth are the hope of tomorrow’ and will not repeat the same mistakes as we have.
Our real hope is that God might graft on to our flawed family tree someone who succeeds where Adam failed…
• one who gives us the means to say ‘no’ to the mess that we and our ancestors have made…
• one who enables us to say ‘yes’ to the new life God offers us…
’yes’ to a new humanity in Christ. Jesus is God’s “yes” to us.
May God grant that we might say “yes” and “no” to the right things and at the right times.
• “No” to Satan and his seemingly innocent yet destructive ways and
• “Yes” to Jesus and the new life and the hope he offers us. To Jesus may our response always be a resounding “yes”!