March 5, 2017
Donna G. Joy
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm32; Matthew 4:1-11
On Ash Wednesday this past week we were reminded of the frailty of the human condition, and that we can only catch a glimpse of the fullness of God once we come to terms with our frailty (our sinfulness). God created us for the sole purpose of living faithfully in relationship with Him and living obediently according to His ways; always putting God first, taking care of God’s creation, and responding to the needs of others, the earth, and ourselves. So, what does it look like to live faithfully in relationship with God, and obedient to God’s ways? For Anglicans this is made very clear within the context of our Baptismal Covenant, to:
- Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
- Persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
- Proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.
- Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
- Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
- Strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth.
This is what living faithfully in relationship with God and according to God’s ways looks like, and yet we all know that to be human is to allow temptation to lure us away from the path that God has called us to follow. Although human sin and repentance is something that we are called to examine throughout the whole year, Lent is that time in the liturgical year where this is a particular focus on examining our lives, discerning where we have strayed, where we continue to stray, and where we must seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. This year during the season of Lent, we will reflect each week on one particular mandate within our Baptismal Covenant, which will prepare us to renew this Covenant as we celebrate Easter. Today, at the beginning of our worship, we prayed: ...let us remember the covenant of our baptism and test our hearts and conscience to know how faithfully we have persevered in resisting evil, and whenever we fell into sin, have repented and returned to the Lord.
And it is with this in mind that we turn to our readings, where we discover one primary theme, and that is... Although Adam and Eve, the original parents of humankind were unable to resist temptation, (unable to resist the coercion of evil), that tragic narrative is reversed with Jesus’ lonely and painful resistance to the power of temptation. As we discovered in our epistle, the old Adam’s failure to resist temptation is redeemed by the new Adam’s grace.
Our first reading tells that well known story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience; their weakness, their frailty, as they give in to temptation. They were instructed by God to do one thing, and they allowed themselves to get derailed; they allowed themselves to be convinced to do otherwise. This text leads us back to the basics. It narrates the most foundational memory we have of humanity's life with God. God places the human creature within the context of the garden, where the human creature is called upon to care for the garden, while the garden sustains this task. This is a symbiotic relationship. It is mutually beneficial: the human is called upon to care for the garden, and the garden sustains the work of the human. And God has created this whole magnificent system of mutual accountability. For the human, this arrangement assumes a primarily relationship with God who is the true source of all this, and a secondary relationship with the garden (the earth).
But unfortunately things don’t remain that clear and simple. God gives the humans tremendous freedom in this garden, and yet instructs them – clearly and simply - to not eat from the tree of knowledge. But, being human, they are tempted to disobey God’s command, and they give in to this temptation. The sly serpent is persuasive as he says that if they eat of this fruit their eyes will become open and they will become like God; they will possess the knowledge to gain power much greater than the power God could ever give. We have often heard it said that knowledge is power, and power is often used as a way of gaining control... a way of gaining power over others. This kind of power is never from God. God's power working in and through us is always fused with humility.
A close reading of the Genesis text (not just within this particular reading) sheds some interesting light on how God is conveyed in contrast to how the serpent is conveyed. God acts with strong, transparent, and decisive verbs: God created (the heavens and the earth...); God formed (man - and in some translations woman - from the dust), God breathed (into his nostrils), God planted (the garden), God put (humanity into the garden), God commanded (humanity to behave in a certain way). Clearly, God is being conveyed as a self starter, capable of bold and transformative acts. The actions of God are what we know about God. Nothing else is said about God except how God acts.
The serpent, on the other hand, has no strong verbs, does nothing, has no power to act, is incapable of transformative intervention. The serpent can only talk. The serpent is marked by craftiness: all he does is to speak twice; he first questions what God said, and the second time he contradicts what God says. Clearly, the speech of the serpent is cunning, calculated, and powerfully manipulative.
I think this is a really important observation as we explore what might be the cunning, calculated, and powerfully manipulative voices in a secular culture that continue to effectively draw the masses away from a relationship with the living God. So, this is a story of human weakness. This is a story that speaks of our innate tendency to succumb to temptation. This is a story that speaks of our tendency to satisfy our own needs (or wants), rather than feeding from God – who is the Tree of Life. This is a story that speaks of our need to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, with the misguided notion that we may ever find wisdom anywhere other than from the tree of life, which is that which feeds us – informs us – nourishes us – with the wisdom that can only be found in God.
And then we turn to our Gospel, where we discover Jesus who turns the effects of this temptation on its head, as he rises above it; as he reverses this trend on behalf of us all. This passage follows immediately after Jesus’ baptism, where he is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, and that same tempter enters, once again, into the story. But this time, the cunning, manipulations of the tempter do not win the day, despite his great attempts to tempt Jesus, and derail his commitment to be faithful to God.
The tempter promises him great things: (1) the power to transform the things of this world in order to satisfy his own personal wants and needs, (2) the power to make a spectacle of himself so that the world will see his importance, (3) the power to possess magnificent kingdoms of the world. But Jesus resists all this all this by drawing from and responding with the greatest wisdom of all: the wisdom of God found in Scripture
The tempter was offering Jesus an easy life of fame, notoriety, and wealth, and in refusing to give in to the cunning manipulations of the tempter he is embracing the way of the cross. It is this life of faithfulness and sacrifice that has led to the cross, the very place where the sins of humankind have been forgiven. All these human tendencies toward selfishness have been overcome by Jesus on our behalf and carried to the cross. And this is why our Baptismal Covenant calls us to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. We are human, and because of our frailty we do allow ourselves to become tempted, but when we do we are called to repent, truly repent, and discover the forgiveness that Jesus has worked out for us on the cross.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 32, is one of the seven penitential psalms. One of the foremost early church fathers, Augustine, is said to have had the words of this Psalm written above his bed so that they would be the first thing he saw every morning. It is a wonderfully balanced Psalm, because it acknowledges sin and the need for forgiveness, and at the same time acknowledges the joyful celebration of forgiveness. This Psalm is suggesting that the effects of sin are real, but the reality of forgiveness is even more encompassing that the reality of sin. Whereas sin encompassed the psalmists’ life, God’s forgiveness encompasses – washes away - sin. Forgiveness (and, as Christians, forgiveness through Jesus) is more powerful than sin. N.T. Wright says, “The enticing whispers that echoed around Jesus’ head were designed to distract him from his central vocation, the road to which his baptism had committed him, the path of servanthood that would lead to suffering and death. They were meant to stop him from carrying out God’s calling, to redeem Israel and the world.” This manipulation succeeded with Adam and Eve, and was defeated with Jesus.
I suspect we all know what it is to give in to temptation: That cunning, manipulative voice which says, “You don’t need to go to church, or synagogue, or mosque... where you will discover the Tree of Life, because you will find so much more wisdom in so many other places instead.” That voice is a dominant voice in this culture in which we live. (And yes, there is wisdom to be found in countless different places, but as a people of faith, all wisdom must be filtered through the wisdom of God.) Temptation is all around us, particularly and increasingly, within the context of this culture in which we live, where wealth, power, self fulfillment, self satisfaction, pride, competitive advancement (to name just a few) have the potential to seduce us, and often succeed. Sometimes we are the ones who give into these temptations, and at other times we are the ones who are trampled over as others embrace the tempter’s voice. And this is where forgiveness enters into the equation: forgiveness of ourselves, and forgiveness of others.
The temptations we all face, day by day and at critical moments within the context of the decisions we make, and the vocations we attempt to fulfill, may be very different from those of Jesus, but at the root of it all, they are exactly the same. They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us away from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us. God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each of us. The enemy – the tempter – will do everything possible to distract us and derail us from God’s purpose. N.T. Wright makes the point that if we have heard God’s voice welcoming us as his children, we will also hear the whispered suggestions of the enemy. But, as God’s children, we are called to use the same defense as Jesus himself; that is, to feed off the Tree of Life; to allow Scripture to be our main food group; allow Scripture to be the life giving fruit that informs and directs our lives and the vocations to which we are called.
To engage Lent and to be engaged by it is to render oneself vulnerable to the reality of who we are as human beings. We are weak, and frail, and we give in to temptation – we fall into sin – and Lent is a time to examine all this, to name it, confess it, and seek forgiveness, because... Lent is also a designated time to open ourselves to the nature of God as Redeemer, the One who will not tolerate the space that sin has created, and who insists on transforming the temptation/confession/forgiveness cycle with love.
Starting this coming Tuesday evening, there is a Lenten Study series offered in which there will be opportunity to study the Scripture readings for the upcoming Sundays in Lent. This will allow us to actively review our Baptismal Covenant, and feed on the Tree of Life – the Word of God – as we prepare to repent and return to the Lord.