Sermon, Year A Lent 1, March 13, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ , Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
Two stories of temptation. A great way to begin Lent, by bringing up the source of sin: temptation, and the act of sin: giving in to temptation. Lent begins with temptation and ends at the cross, because Jesus refuses the temptation. If Jesus had given in to temptation, he would not have made it to the cross. And so we read these two stories of temptation as we begin our Lenten journey following Jesus to the cross and contemplating our journey. In Lent, that’s what we think about. We look within ourselves: Who am I? What tempts me? How’s my relationship with God?
We just read two stories of how others answered those questions. Adam and Eve answered the question “How’s my relationship with God?” by saying, through action, “I want to BE God! I want God’s power!” Which action led to shame; and ultimately, expulsion from Eden and disconnect from God.
A sad day in human history, for sure, but can we really blame them? God put the tree right there in the middle, then says to go ahead and eat anything here, this entire place is all yours to eat whatever you want, except for this one tree, this one right here in the middle. I imagine that it’s also bigger and shinier and more attractive than anything else, too. Well, of course they went for it! It’s human nature. And if God made us, then surely God knew our character, and must have realized that we’d eventually choose what has been forbidden.
And if we’re made in the image of God, what does our attraction to low hanging powerful fruit of temptation say about God? Might biting into temptation occasionally be part of God’s image? In some of the early texts in the Old Testament God seems quite often to eat the fruit of temptation of violence and smiting and raining down wrath as a good solution to a whole host of problems, and sometimes deciding not to because of intervention of Moses or Abraham or someone else.
I don’t know. And I might be skirting heresy by asking such questions, but a good part of doing theology – talking about God – and being a follower of Jesus, is to ask questions no matter how odd they seem. Don’t ever be afraid to ask your questions, because that’s how we move to the truth. Don’t be afraid to think of new questions because that’s how we grow as disciples, and that’s what we want: growth in our faith.
But, back to temptation. Notice the insidious, snake-oil salesman way that the serpent justifies eating the fruit. God told them, “If you eat this fruit you will die.” Plain and simple and direct. That’s all that will happen, “You will die”. Swift and easy. The serpent denies God’s warning. “Oh, you won’t die,” the serpent says, “God’s just afraid that you’ll become like God. But you won’t die. Go ahead. Take it, and eat!” They ate, and they didn’t die. But they discovered shame, a death worse than bodily death.
How often does that conversation take place in our heads, between our conscience and the serpent of our desire for immediate gratification? Excuses flowing like a wild river: No, go ahead and do it. No one will know. You won’t get caught. It will make your life better. Everyone else is doing it. They deserve to be punished. I need this more than they do. Why should they have something I don’t have ... It’s just a little lie, but it serves a good end. Or perhaps the big deception of ease: this is the easiest path, and I don’t want to try any harder than doing what’s easy. When those rationalizations start popping into our heads – and make no mistake, they are no more than rationalizations – we can ask ourselves, “Is that God-talk? Or is it serpent talk?” Are we doing what God would have us do, or are we trying to justify our actions by claiming God sanctions them?
I believe that one good way to judge an action is that if it’s an easy solution, if it doesn’t cost you anything, it’s probably not God’s will. Jesus asks us to do the difficult thing: turn the other cheek, love our enemy, give our cloak as well as our coat, take up our cross and follow.
Jesus wrestles with these questions of temptation and easy paths as well. As soon as he’s baptized, he goes into the wilderness. Like his ancestors did after leaving Egypt, like our 40 days of Lent. He fasts and prays and after 40 days, he is tempted by the easy things — power, domination, stuff. Selfish things. “Command these stones and they will become bread!” the tempter says. But Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God.” Bread alone is a way to death. And using his power for selfish gain is not what Jesus is about. Then the tempter takes Jesus to the high pinnacle and says “Jump and God shall save you!” And this time the tempter is quoting scripture. So he should be correct! He’s quoting scripture. But scripture can be used to abuse, to hold power over others, or other evil purposes. Quoting scripture verses doesn’t automatically make you right. So Jesus replies with another verse, “Do not put God to the test.” Don’t commit the sin of claiming God is on your side.
And then the devil offers all the nations of the world, everything that is. “All these can be yours!” like the host of the ultimate game show. “All you have to do is bow down and worship me.” Now, that’s not so bad is it? Pretty easy. But Jesus isn’t here to wield earthly power based on violence and oppression. He’s here to wield heavenly power based on weakness, vulnerability, compassion, and love. And I wonder if there is an implication here that Satan had the power to give the nations because they had already given themselves to evil. And what does that say about our nations and our attitudes toward the power of the state and how we organize ourselves as a people? Who do we worship? How is our relationship to God? Jesus rebukes temptation a third time saying, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” He refused power, violence, selfish gain, domination because his ministry was outflowing. Satan – our evil tendencies, our dark side – is a cheerleader for selfishness and tribalism, which is the path to death. Jesus’ way is selfless love, flowing outward. If he had taken any of these temptations, he’d never have made his way to the cross. Each resistance was a step toward it.
We all are daily faced with the temptations of a broken world, and struggle with the powers of this world. So often it’s easier to take the way of the world than the reconciling ways of God’s Kingdom. Easier to toss stones at one another, than to pass the bread of life. Easier to claim our actions are sanctified by God than to say, “maybe I ought not do this.” Easier to bow down in worship to the idols of convenience or greed than to follow Jesus to the cross, as he calls us to follow.
In these 40 days from temptation to Jerusalem to the cross, walk lightly, deliberately, with your hearts open wide to the movement of the Spirit, listening for Jesus as he calls us from the cross in the midst of death and domination, the false idols of convenience and greed or our own godhood. Walk lightly, and listen a Jesus calls us to face our temptations, and choose life. Choose life.
Let us pray: Almighty God, as your Son was led to the wilderness to be tempted, so we are faced daily with our temptations. In the confusion and attractiveness of easy paths or immediate gratification, give us your son’s Spirit to know the difference between our sinful ways and your way of life, and help us to choose life. Amen.Tweet
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