WHAT’S AT THE CENTER
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 26 February 2023 [Lent 1/A]: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7;Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
What do you think: Is temptation a bad thing? It must be. After all, in the prayer that Jesus taught his followers, we do pray not to be led “into temptation”. So, shouldn’t we avoid temptation as best we can? And by the way, how’s that going? Does God grade on a curve?
In our scripture lessons for this First Sunday in Lent, we have two rather famous Bible stories, both of which speak directly to the questions I have just raised. In this sermon, I’d like first to comb through the story about Adam and Eve and then the one about the “Temptations of Christ” to clarify the nature of temptation and its place in our lives.
In terms of the Adam and Eve story, commonly referred to as the “Story of the Fall”, God has created Adam and then Eve as the prototypes of humanity. But I maintain that in this morning’s narrative they are in their “Beta testing phase”. They are not quite ready yet for “prime time”; and the reason for this is that they have yet to face temptation.
So at this initial stage of our inquiry, we have already reached a crucial point about temptation: namely, it is an indispensable and unavoidable element of what it means to be fully human. So then, could it be that temptation is not necessarily such a bad thing?
Back to the story. The version of the story that we heard read this morning compresses the action for effect. For instance, our reading jumps over the important part where Eve is created as Adam’s needed partner. The narrator does this to keep our focus on the impending emergence of the temptation issue, which after all is the “First Sunday in Lent’s” primary aim. So, our attention is directed to God’s appointment of Adam and Eve as caretakers of the Garden of Eden. God tells the man and woman that the reward for farming the garden well is that they may eat from its bounty, save for the fruit of one tree – a very special tree: The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. Even nibble on that tree’s fruit, God warns Adam, will result in their death.
Now here is another crucial point of the story. First, why does God lay down such a law with the threat of such a drastic penalty? At first glance, it sure seems as if God wants a monopoly on the “knowledge of good and evil”. Why? Is God threatened by the prospect of competition over sharing this knowledge? If so, this is not a good look for God! Is it? Or is the deeper issue a matter of God’s protective love: that at this pre-temptation stage the human prototypes aren’t ready for such knowledge? Stay tuned.
As interesting as all this is, the narrator pushes onward toward the story’s climax, which is the substance of today’s lesson. With Eve now occupying center stage, the narrative shifts to the portentous dialogue she has with “the serpent”. The serpent, we are immediately told, is “more crafty than any wild animal that the Lord God had made”. Not the devil, the serpent is much more like a sleezy, smiling, corner-cutting lawyer. In any event, the serpent leads Eve like the hapless witness she is, pressing her with a question, the answer to which he (like any lawyer worth his or her salt) already knows. But Eve does not. And that is the problem.
Of course, the serpent leads the witness with this entrapping question: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Now Eve, having memorized what God said (sensing that its answer would eventually be on the test!) had a fleeting moment of triumph in correcting the serpent’s question. She knew that the admonition did not apply to just “any” tree but only to the one right-smack-dab in the middle of the garden: aka., the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
At Eve’s benign recitation to the serpent’s question (that God’s warning concerned a specific tree), I imagine the look on the snake’s face foreshadowed the malevolent grin of the Grinch. The point being that the serpent knew that he had Eve right where he wanted her. Quickly springing his trap with such syrupy smoothness that the dear Eve never noticed her capture, the serpent cooed, “You will not die.” Then he explained, “for in the day that you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…”
Well, you know what happened next, but to describe this as “the Fall” is a bit too simple. Rather, it speaks to the deeper issue of the nature of temptation and its place in our human lives and more centrally in our life with God. Specifically (and here is the big point of the story), it is not until Adam and Eve make a choice that they become truly human. In fact, in the biblical context, human history only begins at the moment that they make a decision in the face of -- you guessed it – temptation.
You see, temptation entails choosing; and choosing stems from what we value; and what we value and thereby practice is the essence of – wait for it! – “religion”. And please, please remember that by definition everyone is “religious”. The problem is what we worship, what we hold at the center, what we value above all else. The fundamental and lasting point of the “Fall” story concerns the temptation that we humans have to choose to keep or to replace the Creator of heaven and earth as our essential orientation point. Of course, the vexing problem with the temptation to replace God is that the job is not open. Even more profoundly, God created humanity to be the Holy One’s partner; but in order for that partnership to be real, to be mutual, humanity needs to choose to say “yes” to God. And as history reveals, it is often much more convenient simply to do what we want to do, as opposed to checking in with our heavenly partner.
Don’t you think it is curious that in spite of all its craftiness the serpent did not lie to Eve? The serpent knew what the humans did not – could not -- know due to their inexperience at the time. What Adam and Eve were “too young” to know is that while the nature of God does involve laws that function as guardrails on the proverbial “road of life”, the great and deepest knowledge also reveals that beyond all laws and rules and behaviors, there is God’s love and mercy that has the capacity to overcome the worst decisions we are tempted to make.
Now be careful to hear me:! The love and mercy of God are not a matter of a free pass on whatever destructive decisions we make; that God will kiss our boo-boos and ‘make them all better’. No! There are always consequences to our decisions, and some of them hold fatal consequences. Yet – yet, when we recognize that God is God, when we choose to allow God to be at our center, then there is more to life -- our life -- than what we make of it. Humanity has the propensity to make a mess of things; but the mess we make – as horrendous as history conveys it to be – the mess is not the last word.
And this is where the “Temptation of Christ” comes in to make the point of God’s abiding, redeeming life and love in the face of temptation. For me, the overriding point of the story of Jesus’ temptations is that he chose to remember and honor his relationship with the Father. The temptations to change the world by eradicating hunger, to provide certain safety and well-being through religious actions, and by exercising power over human institutions: Jesus saw them for the dangerous shortcuts and fake-outs they were. For Jesus, it was always God first.
This is the poignancy of T. S. Eliot’s line in the play, “Murder in the Cathedral”. Eliot has his main character, Thomas a Becket, speak these telling words: “The last act is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” This is to say that Jesus would rather die than break Communion with the Father. God first. His choice is firm, even though the temptation is agonizingly real. And only through the cross, Jesus’ ultimate moment of temptation, and his resurrection is his choice of unbreakable trust in God vindicated. And so is ours. We strive to choose God, and as we say in the Confession, we also pray for “forgiveness, restoration, and strength” so that we can do better … in Christ’s Name. Amen.