Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lent 1 - Temptation

Preacher: Veronica

Readings: see below

I hope you’ll forgive me for starting this sermon with ‘one of me pomes’ - a rare one that’s in rhyme and metre.


In Eden's sun the woman basks,
she works, plays, loves as each day asks
and knows not she is God's mirror and sign;
till, curving elegant his tail,
the serpent (who is surely male)
insinuates a lack of the divine.

'To be like God' - a worthy goal
for any self-improving soul,
an offer she, or man, can scarce disdain.
Poor Eve! Why won't she realise right now
she's able, strong and wise
with nothing but the choice of good to gain?

Yet still the priests perpetuate the lie
that led to Eden's gate
and raised the fiery sword our bliss to bar:
still women make the same mistake
and bow to some religious snake
who tells us we are not the gods we are.

This poem explores a favourite idea of mine about the story of the Fall. This is that the serpent is actually offering the woman something she already has. He holds out to her the chance to become ‘like God’ by eating the forbidden fruit; but in fact we have already heard in the first creation story in Gen 1, that she and the man are in the image of God. So the serpent’s trick - and we are told that he is tricky - is to make her think she is less than this, and has something to gain.

I also have another favourite theory - that the reason the serpent tries out the woman first rather than the man, is not just because she has only heard the command second hand, but because her instinct on acquiring this new knowledge is to share the fruit. If the man had taken it first, he might have decided to keep his new knowledge to himself, to get one over on his partner. It’s only a theory, and this is an ancient, mysterious story that has a number of profound things to say about human nature. But one thing it could be saying, based on my theory, is that when we are tempted or tested, it is often our best human qualities that are used against us. In fact in the story of Genesis 3, the goodness of humanity is the only weapon the serpent has, because at the point of temptation, humankind has not discovered its divided self, constantly torn between good and evil. All that humanity knows, before eating the fruit, is goodness.

Another profound thing the story says to me is that God gives humans radical freedom. God’s first words to the couple are words of permission to eat from every tree in the garden - except one. But God does not make it impossible for them to eat from the forbidden tree - all God does is to warn them that this would have consequences. Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In our time’ programme recently, was all about free will and whether it exists. I didn’t have time to listen to it all, as I had this sermon to write, but I heard enough to hear something about scientific determinism, and about Calvinism. Well, I don’t know much about determinism or Calvinism, but I fail to see how anyone could read the story of Eden and not think that human beings are made to have free will. There is a genuine choice before this primal human couple: they can trust God and do what God says, or they can try to get hold of something God has not, as yet, given them.

You could of course argue that ever since humankind first sinned, we no longer have free will but our actions are determined by our sinfulness. This seems to be what Paul is arguing in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our will is compromised and we do not have the capacity to do everything the way we might like to do it. We can make a good choice over a particular action, but we clearly don’t have the choice to do everything right all the time - that is beyond human ability.

This might sound like determinism, but Paul makes it quite clear in this passage and elsewhere that in Christ we have freedom to make right choices. Also he suggests in Romans 2 that those who do not know God can still do good by the light of nature:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).

So actually, Paul is quite clearly teaching freedom of moral choice even for those who do not consciously follow Jesus.
What does all this musing about determinism and free will have to say to our Gospel passage for the beginning of Lent - a passage so well known that at first I despaired of having anything new to say about it?

Let’s go back to that theory about the serpent using the woman’s good qualities against here. Satan (which simply means ‘the accuser’, or we might say ‘the counsel for the prosecution’), uses Jesus’ own divine status as God’s son, to try to distort the shape Jesus’ mission will take. The phrases usually translated ‘If you are the Son of God’, can also be accurately translated ‘Since you are the Son of God’. It’s as if Satan knows that since Jesus’ baptism, Jesus will have no real doubt about whether he is specially called by God. So rather than sowing doubt, what Satan is doing here is to take the benefits of being God’s son, and use them against him. The facts that God will feed Jesus, protect him and give him power, are not in themselves bad things. What is happening is that Jesus is invited to use them in ways that will completely skew the nature of his ministry, right at the start.

First Jesus is invited by Satan to use miracles as spectacular demonstrations of power, rather than what he in fact goes on to do, which is to perform miracles in response to human need. Likewise in the second temptation, he is invited to expect a life free of difficulties, where God will miraculously airlift him out of all dangerous situations; but in fact his mission will lead to torture and death, and he never loses sight of this. Thirdly, he is encouraged to use the methods of the world to rule the world, rather than using the methods of the upside-down kingdom, where the Son of God must endure death to win victory over the powers of death.

What is striking is that when Jesus has resisted these offers from Satan, all the gifts he has refused from Satan actually get given to him by God. The angels that Satan promised would catch him falling from the Temple, do indeed come along to comfort him and feed him, not in response to a reckless act, but in response to his human need. There’s an echo of the story of Elijah, Israel’s favourite prophet, being fed in the wilderness by ravens. Actually the word translated ‘ravens’ could in fact be translated as ‘foreigners’, which puts a whole new complexion on Elijah’s experience. And like Elijah’s crisis point, which comes after his triumph on Mount Carmel, Jesus’ crisis also comes after the high of his baptism. It’s been my experience that trials often come to us in the same way. When I was in my first term at university, I had a dramatic spiritual experience which some would call ‘baptism in the Spirit’. But very soon afterwards I had a big low, partly provoked by falling in unrequited love with a Jewish fellow student, who by the way is now a Buddhist lama. It sometimes seems that every new step we take in faith, has then to be followed by a situation where that faith is tested out - a bit like breaking in your new walking boots.

Jesus does resist all the temptations, even when Satan uses his own weapon of Scripture against him. And that’s another argument for free will: if he was predetermined to resist, it would hardly have been worth bothering to tempt him, and his apparent commitment to God’s way would not really be commitment at all. Jesus freely accepted the upside down way of the kingdom, where suffering is redemptive and apparent defeat is victory. And because he chose this way, as Paul says in the passage we heard from Romans 5, he was able to fulfil the call that other human beings, represented by Adam and Eve, could not. So he became ‘the second Adam’, the representative of humankind, who both shows the best that humanity can be, and suffers the worst that humanity can dish out.

So what about us? Are Jesus’ temptations peculiar to his role as Son of God? You might think the particular nature they take could only apply to Jesus as he starts his ministry. But I think they are ours too, as we are called to replicate the life of Jesus in our own lives. As we seek to follow him in living Christlike, cross-shaped lives, we will encounter similar challenges and questions. We don’t expect to turn stones into bread, but we may expect God to perform miracles for our own benefit, or to make people come to our church. Wouldn’t it be great if God performed some spectacular miracle of healing in our church and people heard about it and started flocking to our door? But they would be ‘rice Christians’, as the missionaries used to call them - they would have come to Jesus for what they could get, and not for love of God.

Similarly we don’t expect to be able to leap from the top of a building and have angels catch us. But we may expect comfortable lives in which God gives us everything we want at all times - witness the popularity of the ‘Footprints’ poem. It’s a clever poem, but the reality is that even if God is really ‘carrying us’ when times are hard, we will probably not know this and only have a sense of God’s absence. And perhaps there are times when God wants us to walk in the dark, having no light to guide us except our trust in God and our past experiences of rescue.

We don’t think God will let us rule the world, but some of us come perilously close to wanting to. One of the main things that first attracted me to Anabaptism was that Anabaptists did not believe we could change the world just by having more Christians in political power, or by organizing marches for Jesus and singing ‘Into our hands he will give the ground we claim’. We have had a succession of professing Christians in the most powerful job in the world, President of the USA - but did the world get transformed as a result? Did it ‘eck as like. Even now that we have a Christian president whose politics we might be more sympathetic to, his hands seem to be tied by other professing Christians who think he is the devil incarnate. It certainly doesn’t look as though Christians having political power is the route to the Kingdom of God.

So what can we do to avoid falling into these kinds of temptations? My poem suggests that if Eve had seen herself clearly as a person in God’s image, a daughter of God in fact, she might not have been so easily deceived. Likewise, Jesus’ answers to Satan is in effect: ‘I know I am the Son of God, I don’t need to prove it to you or the world, or even to myself. And I will fulfil my role as the Son of God in God’s way, not in the way of the world’.

For us this might mean realizing we are already walking miracles, through our creation and redemption in Jesus. We don’t need either to believe six impossible things before breakfast or to demonstrate six impossible things before lunch, in order to be signs of God’s kingdom to others. Nor do we need to have a successful, ‘victorious’ life in order to attract others to the Jesus we follow. Our victories may be small, hidden and unspectacular - indeed we may be called to witness to God through our brokenness rather than our prosperity. And if we are involved in the corridors of power in however small a way (and just about everyone has some power in their lives), we can choose to exercise that power sacrificially rather than use the conventional tools of powermongering.

Our power to withstand temptation may be limited - as Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything except temptation’. But the Spirit of Jesus lives in us, and is slowly transforming us into people who instinctively do good. In the meantime, both the story of the Fall and Psalm 32 which we read together, remind us that there is always forgiveness when we are ready to ask for it. In the Fall story, God does not in fact kill the first humans and thus wipe out the human race at its start. God forgives them and takes measures which will limit the amount of damage their sin does in the world, and enable them to live in a new, less than perfect situation. And as we know, God’s eventual solution is to identify fully with our sin and to break the power of violence by Jesus’ non-violent life, death and resurrection. Whatever we take up or give up in Lent, it is not to gain spiritual brownie points, but to make us more able to live our lives in the light of Jesus - to live a resurrection life.


Genesis 2:15-27 and 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”...
...Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Romans 5:12-19

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle
of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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