Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ.
As we begin our Lenten journey, we hear the two great Biblical stories of temptation with commentary from the Apostle Paul. From Genesis, we hear the temptation of the first humans, and from Matthew, the temptation of Jesus. Between the two, we hear truth about our own reality in the face of temptation, and the source of our rescue from it.
First, we have to ask, what is this temptation all about? When I hear the word temptation, I tend to think of the bag of m&ms in my cupboard. They call out to me, “eat me- why did you buy us if you didn’t want us- we will make you happy- yummm….” While the Biblical temptation stories have to do with satisfying one’s own desires, like my issue with the chocolates, they go a little deeper than that.
Temptation has a voice in these texts. In Genesis, it is the crafty serpent whose retelling of God’s words intends to trip up the couples’ interpretation. In Matthew, it is the devil who quotes Scripture to find a breaking point in Jesus’ resolve. The character of the devil in much of the Bible, especially in Job and Matthew, has one divinely ordained job to do: to protect God and God’s honor. This devil travels throughout the earth, testing peoples’ allegiance to God, especially testing those whom God seems to put too much faith in.
Adam and Eve were created by God, and unlike the rest of creation, were made in God’s image and received God’s breath of life. One who was protective of God might wonder if God had made the right decision in sharing so much of Godself with a creature.
Jesus has just been baptized by John. At his baptism, the Spirit of God was seen descending upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 4:16-17). One who was protective of God might find this dangerous and blasphemous.
Surely the devil must think that God has been too free with God’s trust. So, he goes about to determine the danger. The most important question is if God’s sovereignty is being usurped. Are these new human creatures, and later this one called the Son of God, setting themselves up in the place of God?
The human couple fail this test. The serpent twists God’s words and convinces the couple that the tree will make them like God, knowing good and evil.
The temptation of Adam and Eve leads them into sin. One pastor I know described sin by writing it out on the whiteboard- a normal s, a normal n, but then in between a supersized capital I. Sin is about making oneself bigger. It’s making oneself the top priority, the final decision maker, in short- it’s making oneself God. This is also called idolatry. Idolatry is putting anything in God’s place that is not God, and looking to that thing or person with the trust and worship that belongs only to God.
This disobedience of God’s command and the selfish idolatry from which it arose is explained as the beginning of sin, marring a perfect creation. The whole story of God’s people throughout the ages is the story of a people who are under the power of sin. They often choose the same idolatry that the first couple did.
This same sin tempts us. We often seek to set ourselves up in God’s place. We trust in ourselves and our work to provide our needs. We think we know what’s best for our lives and our families. We choose whatever options seem to give us the most gain. It’s easier to go through life thinking first about ourselves. It is more difficult to try to discern how we can make choices that reflect God’s will for our lives.
We often fail the test the devil puts to both that first couple and to Jesus: we try to make ourselves gods of our lives, believing we can see the whole universe from our narrow point of experience. We want power and control over our circumstances, we want the knowledge that belongs rightly to God. We attempt to make ourselves bigger.
Generations later, God trusts in one person to carry God’s mission to the world. This one is Jesus, and the devil is ready again to see if God’s trust is misplaced. The devil comes to Jesus after he has been fasting in the wilderness for forty days. The three temptations offer Jesus the opportunity to define his role and path. He has just been named the Son of God, will he use his divine identity and power to protect himself, care for his own needs, and amass power? How Jesus reacts to these temptations sets the course for his mission and ministry. Unlike Adam and Eve, he has access to the power of God. He has the birthright to use it, but will he?
The first temptation relates to his physical condition. He is starving. The devil goads hims to prove his identity as the Son of God by acting as God does and creating what he needs to survive: a loaf of bread. The second temptation pressures Jesus to prove his identity by trusting in God’s promise to protect him from danger. The third temptation relates to the “what’s in it for you” question. The devil offers him the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him rather than God.
Jesus’ response to these temptations proves his willingness to make himself smaller. Unlike humans, who wish to displace God and put themselves forward as gods, in Jesus, God steps down from God’s exalted and powerful position to come to and for us. All of Jesus’ temptations were really acts that he had the power to do. He is God, after all, he alone can make bread out of stones, command the angels of heaven, and claim authority over all the nations. But his coming to earth, his being born human, his choices in these temptations, is the beginning of the path we follow to the end this season.
Jesus comes to us to be re-connected to a humanity that has forgotten the joy of relationship with God. When Adam and Eve followed the serpent’s twisted logic and sought godship for themselves, they forgot the joy of walking in the garden with the God who chose to come to them. They forgot the freedom of being in a relationship where they knew who they were. They forgot the identity they had been gifted as the only creatures blessed to be in the image of God.
Jesus’ path takes him deep into the hurt and suffering that creation experiences. Instead of choosing self-preservation, Jesus chooses self-denial. Jesus chooses to enter the experience of creation in all its difficulty. He is affected by the needs of the powerless, the outcast, and the hurting. He makes himself smaller for the sake of the smallest and most easily overlooked.
Jesus stays true to his course, and proves faithful to God’s trust in him. The devil is unable to make him waver. Neither will angry crowds, arrest, or a violent death force him from his path. Jesus’ faithfulness covers all of humanity’s unfaithfulness. His faithfulness is the great reversal of Adam and Eve’s choice. Through him, the fate of humanity is changed.
We continue to make Adam and Eve’s choice to try to be the gods of our universe. Jesus’ choice to be faithful to his path changes the consequences for us. Whereas Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden so that they wouldn’t eat of the tree of life, we are given life as we are named righteous, faithful people through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus is faithful for our sake. Jesus knows we will often set ourselves up as gods, that we would fail the devil’s tests of our loyalty to the one God. Despite that, Jesus lives God’s love for us as he faithfully follows his path to open to us the gifts of life and being made right with God. Jesus’ loving humility allows him to share the justification he has earned in conquering the devil, temptation and sin. God gives up the divine right to maintain power by passing damning judgment and instead welcomes us as holy saints through Jesus.
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