Jesus’ Temptation or: Who Does Government Belong To?

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice interviewed Stanley Hauerwas about the Lectionary Readings for Lent 1 (3/4/17). You can listen to our conversation here: Strangely Warmed

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There is a temptation, during the season of Lent, to make it all about our temptations rather than Jesus’ temptation. While people today (Ash Wednesday) are embarking on the beginning of their 40 fast from the likes of chocolate, coffee, and candy, the Revised Common Lectionary forces us to confront the truth about Jesus’ temptation on the first Sunday of Lent. Our conversation with Hauerwas brought forth some interesting insights about comparing Jesus temptation by the devil with the serpent’s tempting of Eve in the Garden for both pastors and laypeople. If you’re preaching the first Sunday of Lent, or if you are interested in the connections between Genesis and Matthew, check out the episode from Strangely Warmed.

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Devotional – Matthew 4.1-2

Devotional:

Matthew 4.1-2

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

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In a few days churches across the globe will begin the season of Lent through Ash Wednesday services. Countless disciples will have ashes in the shape of the cross on their foreheads at school, at work, at the gym, and everywhere in between. The season of Lent marks our journey with Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem that culminates in the empty tomb on Easter.

For a long time, Lent has been a season in the life of the church focused on personal piety and repentance. It is an opportunity for Christians to confess their sins and spend a number of weeks turning back to the Lord in spite of their previous choices. And this emphasis on repentance has been made manifest in the popular decision to “give something up for Lent.”

We are told that it is good and right to give up a temptation during the season because it allows us to focus more on God and because it allows us to mirror Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil. When done faithfully, giving something up can be a truly fruitful activity; fasting has always had a place in the life of disciples. However, the season of Lent is about a lot more than personal piety, and when we limit our participation in this important season to “giving something up” we neglect to remember that Jesus’ temptation is not our temptation.

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When Jesus was hungry the devil challenged him to turn stones into bread and yet Jesus refused. When the devil enticed Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to put God to the test, Jesus refused. And finally, when the devil offered Jesus all the governments of the world in exchange for Jesus worshipping the devil, Jesus refused.

The devil offers things to Jesus that only the devil can offer to the Son of man. We, like Jesus, can be tempted by hunger, contractual prayers with God, and with a desire to control our lives through things like government, but they are not offered to us in the way that they are offered to Jesus. Jesus’ temptation marks the beginning of a ministry that will upset the expectations of the world and eventually result in his death on a cross. As the Son of God, Jesus is offered, and tempted, with the devil’s way out but he refuses. He refuses because he is God incarnate and cannot deviate from the path that leads to resurrection.

If we want to give something up during Lent in order to grow closer to God, by all means we can. However, perhaps a better thing to give up is not a physical and tangible item like chocolate or watching TV, but instead we can give up the false notions that we are the central characters of scripture, that we can earn our salvation, that we are more important than we really are.

Instead, maybe this Lent we give thanks to the Lord our God who came to walk among us, be tempted like us, yet be totally unlike us, and save us from sins, from death, and from ourselves.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

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This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

Bryson City UMC

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

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But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Devotional – Matthew 6.1

Devotional

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
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When I was in seminary we called the season of Lent, “The Spiritual Olympics.” For those of us enrolled in higher theological education, we loved competing with our peers regarding our public piety during a season of fasting. Whereas many Christians rightly use the season of Lent to return to God’s way by confronting their finitude, we used the season to show off how holy we thought we were.

It was not uncommon to hear subtle brags throughout the hallways of our esteemed institution: “This year I’m going to give up sweets…” “Sweets? That’s easy! I’m going to give up meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation…” “Meat? Give me a real challenge! I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain of the Word of God…” And I was there in the thick of it, offering up my own sacrifices to demonstrate my piety for anyone with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

What made the Lenten season so ridiculous was the fact that everyone knew what everyone else was giving up because it became the forefront of our conversations. In those moments of “Spiritual Olympics” we wanted everyone to know how pious we thought we were, and we had lost contact with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It was frightening how easy it was for us to turn the gospel around to be more about our own selfishness than the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Resisting temptation is a powerful practice during the season of Lent. When we take the time and energy away from bad habits and give that time back to God, it gives glory to the Lord. But if we take this season as an opportunity to flaunt our piety, it bears no fruit.

This Lent let us challenge ourselves to engage in acts of piety. Perhaps we know of something in our lives that we need to give up this season, a distraction away from recognizing God’s grace in our midst. Maybe we know of a practice that we need to add into our daily rhythms like prayer or bible study. But instead of sharing what we are giving up, or adding, with everyone around us, instead of making this vulnerable season in the life of the church into “Spiritual Olympics,” let us keep our piety to ourselves.

If we can keep our piety in check, which is to say if we can be pious for God’s sake and not our own, we will begin walking down the path that Jesus’ prepared for us.

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Red With Envy – Sermon on Genesis 25.29-34

Genesis 25.29-34

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

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There was a man who lived a perfect life. For years he did his very best to maintain the commandments of God, love his family, tithe to his local United Methodist Church, serve on the Trustees Committee, and volunteer as a coach for local little league sports. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. He was charismatic and hardworking, personality traits that would come to reward him when he started his own business.

He was a shrewd business man who seemed to be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market, quickly amassing a vast sum of money that he would then reinvest in the right companies. Yet, even with his vast wealth, he never overdid it with his community. He was humble and thrifty, fitting in with everyone else even though he was wealthier than anyone he knew.

As his life progressed he found success in nearly every direction. His company continued to expand and produce wealth, his family was the ideal example of love and compassion, and he had a strong relationship with his church. Near the end of his days God appeared to him one morning in his office. The Lord said, “Do not be afraid! You have lived a wonderful and virtuous life. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to make an exception for you; when you die you can bring a briefcase of whatever you want to heaven. So think about it while you still can, and I’ll see you soon.”

During the final weeks of the man’s life he thought deeply about what to bring with him to heaven, and when the time came he was confident with his decision.

Standing on the clouds of heaven, right beside the pearly gates the man was thrilled to see St. Peter ready to greet him and let him into paradise. “Welcome” St. Peter began, “we have been waiting for you. But if I’m being honest I can’t wait to see what you brought to heaven! God doesn’t make a deal like that with just anyone and we have been so curious to see what you brought!” The man smiled and proudly passed his briefcase over to St. Peter. As he opened the case he discovered six perfectly polished gold bars that glowed in the light of heaven.

“Interesting choice,” St. Peter said, “but we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”

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Greed. Our current economic downturn is often attributed the vice of greed, having grown out of control. For many of us, we’re not exactly sure how this actually happened, but we are ready to believe that we are suffering because some became too greedy. Greed has no limits or shame; while CEOs make millions and millions in bonuses, regular people are stuck in debt, unsure of the future, starving for work, and afraid of the consequences of others’ greed.

Greed is seductive and always waiting in the recesses of our minds. It is something that tempts all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Just like the hypothetical virtuous man who lived an incredible life, he failed to appreciate the goodness of God’s kingdom when he brought gold bars to heaven. We so desperately cling to the materialism of our world that we are unable to imagine a life without greed.

Have you ever heard a sermon about greed? The fact that we do not hear about this particular topic seems strange considering how prominent the temptation of greed is considered to be one of the greatest threats for Christians.

Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24). Paul suggests that the love of money is the root of all evil leading some to walk away from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10). James is very blunt about the folly of greed: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4.1-2)

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Time and time again scripture frustrates our conceptions about the world: If we are Christian and wealthy or if we desire to have wealth, we have a problem. 

Greed, however, is not limited to monetary gain alone. Greed sits at the root of most of our sins. We become greedy for wealth, power, position, place, people, and programs. We want more than our fair share. We desire the most for the least effort.

Jacob and Esau were born in conflict with one another.

The first born was red and covered with hair so they named him Esau, which means Red. The second born came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel so they named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber. Esau would grow to become a mighty warrior, skillful hunter, and a man of the field whereas Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob.

So it came to pass one day that while Jacob was cooking a meal, Esau came in from the field completely famished. “Let me have some of that red stuff, because I am starving!” Esau said to Jacob. So Jacob replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to, but first sell me your birthright.” “Are you serious, I am about to die from hunger; what good is my birthright to me now?” “Swear to it” said Jacob. And so Esau swore to his younger brother and traded his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. When Esau finished eating he rose and went away and began to despise his birthright.

Who is the greedy one from our scripture? 

Esau’s greed is evident and obvious. Rather than trust in the Lord’s provision, Esau’s vision was limited to the present and he wanted immediate gratification for his desires. In order to satisfy his appetite, Esau’s greed became so powerful that he was willing to give away his future for the present moment. 

We are a generation of busy people, consistently fighting a battle to determine what to give up and what to continue. When our plates become too full with responsibilities we plan to remove that which is unnecessary and no longer life-giving. So many people give up the important things of life to pursue something that is meaningless because we are consumed by our present needs rather than steadfast in our trust of the Lord. Many of us are tempted to ignore our baptismal identifies when we see someone in need, we are tempted to disown our family, friends, and children when they do something wrong. We are often tempted to sell out for something less than what we are truly worth.

Esau’s greed is obvious because it is so similar with our greed. Forgetting the long-term cost, we are quick to serve our sinful desires and natures right here and right now. What do I have to do to make more money as soon as possible? What do I have to do to get that girl at school to like me? We are captivated by the fast sprint rather than the patient marathon.

Pastors love to chastise Esau for so quickly releasing his birthright, and use him as an example for what not to do. But what about Jacob? Jacob who used crooked and deceitful ways to steal his brother’s birthright. He was no doubt the promised one, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive him for taking advantage of his brother’s need.

Jacob’s greed is subtle and relentless. Instead of offering his brother some food out of kindness he is always looking out for number one. Later in the story, after Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob is willing to give away all his animals, wives, and children just so that he might save his own neck. Jacob was blinded by the greed of power, to draw to himself everything he could by whatever means necessary, even letting his brother starve.

We are a generation of individualists who are taught from infancy the importance of a capitalistic world view. When we see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain we are willing to do whatever it takes to amass power. So many people will go against their values, morals, and ethics in an instant, purely to make our lives a little better. Many of us are tempted to forget who we are and whose we are because we have forgotten the true meaning behind “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

Jacob’s greed is apparent when we realize how similar it is with our own. Consumed with our lives alone, we ignore the needs of others when they prevent us from getting what we want. Why would I give my money to the church when I am the one who earned it? Why should I be responsible for helping to poor when they should be the ones helping themselves? We are captivated by our solitary vision of the world rather than seeing the world through the eyes of Christ.

Years ago I was preparing to help lead a team of youth on a mission trip to Guatemala. We would be serving the needs of the indigenous Mayans in the highlands for a week by building stones, playing with children, and planting trees. In order to go on the trip, as a youth, you had to regularly participate in youth group and fundraising. Throughout the year there were numerous opportunities to plug into the regular programming and this requirement helped to foster strong bonds and fellowship before we left the country.

There was a man at the church whose daughter wanted to attend the trip but had not participated in any of the youth activities, nor was she part of the fundraising. Her father believed that these requirements were frivolous and he was going to beat the system.

One morning he arrived at church and walked straight to the pastor’s office with a smile on his face. He held up a substantial check that he was willing to give to the church with the following stipulations: I will give this money if it directly goes to the mission trip to Guatemala, and if it guarantees my daughter a space on the trip.

Greed. I’m sure that the man felt he was doing a great thing for the church and indeed for the kingdom of God, after all here he was willing to give of his own money to help others in need. Yet, don’t you see how similar he was to Jacob and Esau? Rather than encouraging his daughter to give of her time through participation in youth group and fundraising he, like Esau, wanted immediate results for the minimal effort. Yet at the same time he was willing to challenge the church and, like Jacob, was willing to have his needs met at any cost while foregoing the need of others.

Greed is mighty and powerful. It seduces us and tells us that we are the most important beings in the universe. It fuels our desire for gratification in ways that are even beyond our imaginations.

Yesterday I arrived at our church to do some pre-marital counseling only to discover the church had been broken into and my office door had been kicked in. With a knot in my stomach I walked into my office: all of the drawers had been opened, most of my paperwork examined and scattered. Thankfully nothing seemed to be missing which furthered the mystery of the break-in. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what they were looking for. But I’m sure that they were fueled by greed.

Jesus, thanks be to God, calls us to a different life. Less is more. We are not the center of the universe, God is. We have more than we will ever need because God’s love and grace abound and our cups runneth over.

In order to break free from the slavery of greed we begin by acknowledging it in our lives, in whatever forms it presents itself. It’s easy to point out the greed in others, but now we have the challenge of looking inward at our greed. We may succeed in our fight against greed only when we learn to trust God for our needs, when we see the world the way that God sees us, and when we are prepared to give our lives for others because Christ gave his for us.

Amen.

The Temptation of Temptation – Sermon on Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but 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 eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but 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.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So 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. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

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The Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but 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.”

In the entire range of the world’s writings, it would be immensely difficult to locate any passage so brief that has had such immense influence on human thought. I have heard this scripture preached upon countless times, I can remember learning about it in confirmation class years ago, and I can vividly remember struggling with the text as I attempted to explain it to pre-school age children during a particular Vacation Bible School. The story of Eden is so well known and discussed that even most self-affirmed “non-religious” people can even explain what took place in the Garden. 

This passage has been debated, ripped apart, examined, micromanaged, and exegeted for centuries. Generations of Christians have dwelt upon these verses unlike any others to explain the introduction of sin into the world through the one man, Adam.

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I know a family that had it all together. The husband and wife always sat next to one another in church, fingers wrapped together as they listened to the sermons week after week. The children were all attractive, known in the community for their well-behaved manners, regular fixtures on the honor roll at school. Because of their wide interests and pursuits the family was known throughout many of the segmented areas of the community; sports, music, drama, politics, faith, etc. On the surface they were that perfect family. Others families would often hold them up on a pedestal and compare their own flawed family to this ideal one. Why can’t my children work harder like theirs? Why don’t our parents love us as much as theirs do?

What no one realized, was that underneath the exposed public appearance, the family was about to fall apart. I don’t know all the details about what happened leading up to the great schism, I don’t know who was to blame for the many rumors than began to spread around town, but I do know that it began with the husband.

He felt unfulfilled. There was a constant nagging sensation that he deserved more than what he had. Though he had that ideal wife, and the ideal children, with the ideal house, and the ideal job, he believed he deserved more.

Thats when a younger woman appeared in his life. He knew that it was wrong to flirt with her, he knew that it was wrong to lie to his wife about spending time with her, but he did it anyway. As time went on, casual get-togethers became more frequent, the conversations moved from flirting to romance, and soon they were engaged in an affair.

I don’t know if this is true, but I imagine that late at night, when laying awake in his bed he would rationalize what he had done: If she makes me happy how can it be wrong to be with her? I deserve her love. I deserve this kind of happiness in my life.

Eventually he could no longer continue to live the lie. He told his wife what he was doing, without remorse he left her and the children, and started a new life.

Europe_a_Prophecy,_copy_D,_object_1_(Bentley_1,_Erdman_i,_Keynes_i)_British_Museum

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He gave meaning to existence, brought forth light and life, and populated the earth with his creations. The paramount of this creative work were our first parents, Adam and Eve, made in God’s image. They were given everything they needed: life, land, food, companionship, and purpose. At the beginning of our scripture this morning Adam and Eve were content with all they needed, but they did not have everything. 

Enter the serpent; crafty and wise. He said to Eve, “Did God tell you that you could eat from every tree in the garden?” and she replied, “Of course we may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God told us not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, not even to touch it, because if we do we will die.” But then the serpent said, “Surely you will not die! God knows that when you eat of that tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” At that moment Eve saw the tree in a new light, she believed that it was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and that it would make her wise. So, she took the fruit from the tree and ate, gave some to Adam who also ate, and their eyes were opened. For the first time they realized they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Real temptation is never an offer to fall, but instead it comes as an offer to rise. Notice: the question was not, “Do you wish to be like the serpent?” but instead, “Do you want to be like God?” The truest forms of temptation are indications of strength, not weakness. We are not tempted to do what we cannot do, but what is within our power. The greater our strength, the greater the temptation.

This is how the seductions of sin and temptation present themselves: Want to know a little bit more about life? Want to be a little bit greater than you are already?

The serpent of life, the deepest part of our imaginations, plays on our condition and places the seed of doubt: I know this is wrong, but if the fruit of it is good, what sense can there be in not enjoying it? The way the serpent tempted our first parents in the garden comes to us still this very day, presenting us the idea that we can know better than God.

Reinhold Niebuhr once asked, “Do we belong to God, or do we belong to the devil? We most certainly belong to God, but we are in danger of becoming the devil by imagining that we are God.” That is true temptation at its most frightening degree; you can be like God! In our pride and lust for power, we begin to define our own understanding of good and evil. We become masters of rationalization for the sins and the wrongs we commit.

Thats what happened to the man from that perfect family. Its what happens to each of us when the temptation of temptation dangles before us. We rationalize ourselves out of making the right choice. We instantly become the center of our own universe, our own god; we become the only thing we worship.

And its not just us. This has been going on throughout the entirety of human history, particularly through what has been revealed in scripture. When God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they reached out for the dangling fruit and consumed it. When God commanded the wandering Israelites to have no others gods before him, they created their own golden calf and began to worship themselves instead. When Jesus called Peter to follow him, Peter was quick to deny Jesus three times as he was being led to the cross. When temptation strikes, it hits us in the very core of our beings, and once it enters the realm of possibility it can be dangerous and evenly deadly.

But the fact remains that we live in a universe which God controls, not us. When God gave each of us the breath of life to exist in this world, to live, laugh, and love, he did not intend that we should take over the school and change the expectations to suit ourselves.

Temptation will confront us whether we ask for it or not, it hangs out like fruit begging to be plucked and consumed. In order to confront our temptations we are called to recognize that we live in a created world where we must accept reality and not believe that we can indulge in every single wayward fantasy. There are some things in life that we are not to have, some prizes we shall not win, and some ambitions that the grace of God will not let us gratify. When our consciences tells us, as it told Adam and Eve, that some particular temptation is not for us, we do well to not rationalize our curiosity or our appetite into an justification for reaching out to take it.

We live in a risky world full of temptations. Some of us are strong enough on our own to resist the constant bombardment of sinful choices, but most us will give into temptation when it appears before us. As Christian disciples we recognize that God means for us to grow in this difficult world, surrounded by influences clamoring for our allegiance. Our call is to not shift our responsibility onto someone or something else, but to make our own creative choices for the good.

Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” Many people act as if no one could reasonably be supposed to resist temptation. Temptation is a present element in every life and it comes to everyone. But it is possible to confront our temptation and not yield to their alluring powers. Just because a choice exists, that doesn’t give us reason for choosing the wrong one.

In my experience, one of the best ways to resist the temptation of temptation is to speak them aloud and confess them to our trusted friends or loved ones. The cost of this honesty is a remarkable amount of vulnerability. To confess our weaknesses requires a fundamentally strong trust with others.

So, confession time. One of my greatest temptations is to believe that I deserve this. That somehow I have been blessed with such an incredible community, church, and vocation because I have earned it. That the reason so many new people have been coming to church is because of ME. Now on some level this is true, I have worked hard to be where I am, but there is a remarkable temptation to believe that I have achieved this all on my own. There is a power that comes with the pulpit, a tempting power to become the center of my own universe, to preach myself, to be the shining example for all of you to follow.

The truth, however, is that I am called to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him alone. I am a flawed and weak creature, guilty of sin and falling short of God’s glory. I want all of you to know about this temptation in my life, so that in speaking it aloud I might confront it, and that by making it known all of you can help me battle against it.

For some of us, though, speaking aloud a temptation is too difficult. The amount of vulnerability required to admit a temptation is so staggering that we cannot even imagine sharing it with someone else. Thats okay. There is another way that we can begin to address our temptations. Before sharing it with someone else, we do well to admit our temptations to ourselves. 

WoodFire

In each of your bulletins you will find a blank piece of paper. I encourage you to take it out, and in the next few moments prayerfully consider the temptations in your lives; the true and deep temptations that you wrestle with. Write one of them down on that piece of paper. Admit the temptation to yourself so that you can begin to resist it. When our service ends this morning there will be a fire (in a fire pit) on the front lawn of the church. Throw your confession of temptation into the fire. Let God take that temptation from you. Let the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, help carry your burden. Watch you paper burn in the fire knowing that God is with you in this life, walking beside you, loving you in spite of your temptations.

(Pause to write down the temptations)

My friends, here we are taking our first steps into the season of Lent. This liturgical journey is always tough. But it gives us an opportunity to confront the different sins and temptations in our lives. Over the next six weeks we can begin to reconcile our broken relationship with God, with others, and with creation. As you prepare to leave from this place, watch your temptation burn in the fire. Repent and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. Witness the flame of the Holy Spirit consume that temptation in your life knowing that nothing will ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.