The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 1—Year A; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
It’s the first Sunday of Lent, and that means it’s temptation Sunday! So, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just been baptized. He’s just experienced the Spirit of God coming down on him; he’s just heard that voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” So, kids, when you were baptized, what did your family do for you right after the service? That’s right, they had a party! You know what Jesus got right after his baptism? No party! The same Spirit that came down upon him in that really cool way, that same Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The devil, diabolos, the one who throws things apart not caring where they fall. In teaching this passage to our 4th-8th graders last month, it dawned on me, this wilderness experience is Jesus’ initiation rite; this is his rite of passage, and a rite of passage is about coming to terms with your identity as you transition from one stage of life to another. Jesus is in the process of going public as a Beloved Son of God. He has always been that, but now, he is coming to terms with it at a deeper level, and he has to go into the wilderness to work out what this identity and vocation is, and what it is isn’t.
So, Jesus fasts for 40 days and forty nights—that’s a long time. And afterwards, he is famished; he’s really hungry. Then the tempter comes. Now, we’ve got to understand a little about the nature of this tempting. So, the word for “to tempt” in greek is “parazo” and it has several meanings:
- to try whether a thing can be done—as in to attempt, or to endeavor;
- to make trial of, to test: for the purpose of ascertaining someone’s quality, or what he thinks, or how he will behave—and this can be in a good way, or in a malicious and crafty way where the person is expected to prove their feelings or judgments;
- and finally, it means to try or test one’s faith, virtue, or character by enticing them to sin.
There is a lot going on in this business of temptation.
So the tempter comes to Jesus, and presents him with three tests. What are they? Turn stones to bread, leap from the pinnacle of the temple and dare God to catch you, and the gaining the kingdoms of the world if you’ll just worship the one who lives to drive people apart. And the first two are loaded with a challenge on the front end—“If you are the Son of God…” “C’mon Jesus, if you are the Son of God, do this…” Hmmmm. Them’s fighting words.
What is the nature of each of these temptations? To what is Jesus having to say “No”? Remember, baptismal life is always about saying “Yes” to some things and saying “No” to others.
The stones to bread bit is about the quick fix. I mean, it’s understandable, Jesus is really, really hungry. A little bread would be lovely right about now. It would be so expedient to change all those stones in that Judean wilderness into bread. But Jesus is not about the quick fix. Jesus is about something much deeper—transformation, and often times, transformation is no quick process. Sometimes, it is quite sudden and dramatic, but often it is a long, slow, process. The quick fix often feels good; it brings relief, but that is a hair’s breadth away from turning Jesus into a dealer feeding our various and sundry addictions. Jesus says, “No. No quick fix. Come and follow me. This is the work of a lifetime.”
The second temptation, “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and dare God to catch you.” Ah, this is the temptation to the miraculous, the temptation to turn God into a magician at our beckon call. This is the temptation to avoid pain; this is the perspective that says, “If I just believe hard enough, if I just have enough faith, then nothing bad will ever happen to me. God will swoop in and make it all okay.” And sometimes, the miraculous does happen; I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have also seen suffering that is deep and profound that is not alleviated. Jesus doesn’t take the bait of turning God into a magician who can magically pull some levers to make it all okay. Jesus is going for something so much deeper—a God who will plant God’s very self at ground zero of suffering. The fact is bad things do happen to us no matter how much we believe in God, no matter how much faith we have. Cancer happens, car wrecks happen, violent death happens, war, hunger, unemployment, broken relationships, rejection—these all happen. Sometimes, they happen through no fault on our own; and, sometimes, it’s as if we’ve taking a flying leap off the pinnacle of the temple careening toward the mess that is fast coming to meet us—whatever the root cause, bad things will happen, and when they do, Jesus refuses to turn God into a Superhero who will swoop in, wave a magic wand, and make it all okay; Jesus does something much more radical—he willingly stretches out his arms and bears God right into the heart of the suffering and says, “I am here; God is here; and here God will remain. Period.”
The third temptation, the kingdoms of the world. Oh, the temptation to power and control. Just think what Jesus could do if he were in charge. Why, he could make countries get along and make governments do the right thing by their people. He’d be a great king, a wise and benevolent leader. But that’s leading from the top, leading from above, with a good bit of loving coercion, I might add. But that is not the way of Jesus, that is not the way of the Beloved Son; he will lead from below. He does not want to lord it over anyone—that would make a mockery out of the whole notion of incarnation. Jesus wants only to dwell with us, right where we are, breathing his life into our skin, shining his light into our darkness. To rule over all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus would have to relinquish his solidarity with all of humanity, especially his solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the weak, and he just can’t do that. He came to breathe divinity into all flesh, and he won’t do anything that pulls him apart from that communion with us.
When it was all said and done, the devil, diabolos, left him, and the angels came and waited on him.
There is one other aspect of temptation that comes out this morning through the Genesis passage that is important for us to think about. There, the LORD God has put the man in the garden and told him he could eat freely from every tree of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil—if you eat from that one, you shall die. Time passes, the woman comes on the scene, and the crafty serpent says to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” Did you catch that? God says, “You have all of this, every tree, to eat from”—overflowing abundance—and the serpent turns that on its head and goes to the place of deprivation—“You can’t eat from any tree.”
The woman corrects the serpent, but when she does so, she takes the command not to eat and extends it to a command not to eat or touch. The serpent tells the woman, “Oh, you won’t die. God said that because God knows that when you eat of that tree, then you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, when the woman saw that the tree was (1) good for food, (2) a delight to the eyes, and (3) desired to make one wise, she took of that fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
So, who was right, God or the serpent? Both. The serpent was right, the woman and the man didn’t physically die, and their eyes were opened to a new kind of knowing. And, God was right; the woman and the man did die that day—they died to their innocence. And somehow, as they came into that deeper knowing of good and evil, so also something else was born, a capacity for shame and a desire to cover our nakedness, that innate desire that we human beings have to cover our vulnerability was born.
The temptation came in the form of something good, in fact, several somethings good: food, beauty, wisdom. But hidden in that temptation was the desire to be like God with the fullness of knowledge, but are we really ready to know that much? There is such a fine line between being content with our humanity and its capacity to enflesh the divine radiance that lives within us, there is a fine line between standing in that place and easing God right on out of the picture and putting ourselves in God’s place trying to control every last aspect of our existence by trying to know and anticipate every contingency. The first is lived in relationship with God, with the Creator, the second is lived trying to be God in our life and in the lives of the those around us. It’s tricky, and there is always the temptation to move from the first to the second.
As we see these four temptations this morning, where do we see the dynamics of temptation in our life?
Where do we yearn for the quick fix?
How does a belief that bad things should never happen to us separate us from those who suffer?
How does our desire to be on top break solidarity with others?
How do we attempt to exercise Godlike control over our life and the lives of others?
What are we saying “Yes” to, and where do we need to say some “No’s”?
Jesus is working out what it will mean to live as a Beloved Son; he is working out the parameters of his vocation. In this Lenten season, this is our work. What will it mean for you to live as Beloved Son or a Beloved Daughter of God? What will be the parameters of your vocation? How will you say “Yes”? To what do you need to say “No”? And we can rest assured, that as we enter this wilderness time, as we wrestle with our own temptations, Jesus will be right there with us. He knows this journey, intimately. And in the end, the devil will not win. We will not be thrown apart. We are in communion with Jesus, and that can’t be undone. And just as the angels came and waited on Jesus, so too, one day, we will look up and see the angels all around us—in a hug, in a knowing look of compassion, in an unexpected kindness, in a felt presence of God. The wilderness doesn’t last forever, though 40 days can seem like an eternity. Nevertheless, this is a rite of passage we must make if we are to discover the transformative power that yearns to be set free within us. The Spirit will lead you there, Jesus will meet you there, and the angels will be waiting for you on the other side. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 9, 2014