(a sermon for February 14, 2016, the 1st Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Genesis 3:1-13 and Luke 4:1-13)
Let me begin this morning by stating something that while true, may not seem all that obvious: that the Bible is meant to be taken as a whole; and that the Biblical story is, in fact, “one great drama in which all the parts fit together.”
Which is actually pretty amazing when you think about it: in his book on the subject of Scripture, Robert Saucy writes that when you consider that the Bible consists of the writings of more than 40 people from all walks of life, “including kings, herdsman, poets, philosophers, statesmen, legislators, fishermen, priests and prophets,” and that these scriptures were written over a time span of over 1,500 years from the shifting perspectives of history and culture, and in a wide variety of literary styles, it’s nothing short of remarkable that “from ‘Paradise Lost’ in Genesis to ‘Paradise Regained’ in Revelation, the Bible presents the unfolding of God’s great purpose of the human race that is worked out through His Son,” Jesus.
In other words, every piece of scripture in one way or another ends up being part and parcel of the larger Biblical message; chapters and verses literally, figuratively and spiritually link together in a common whole. As the Psalmist puts it, “The sum of [God’s] word is truth; and every one of [God’s] righteous ordinances endures forever.” (119:160)
I say this to you this morning because it seems to me that if we’re to take this “journey to the cross” together in these weeks of Lent we ought to understand that the events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection were not by happenstance, but represent the culmination of a much larger narrative in which the Almighty God – El Shaddai, in Hebrew – the God who created heaven and earth demonstrates, once and for all, a great and relentless love for humanity; as well as a deep desire for humanity to be in relationship with him! Every step we take on this journey is marked, you see, by God’s great saving acts throughout history; now made manifest in Jesus Christ, and offered to us by grace “for the love of it all.”
Like I said before… from creation to the cross and beyond, it all connects.
Take our two readings of scripture for this morning. Two different stories: one from the Old Testament, about the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and the other from the New Testament Gospel of Luke regarding Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Two different stories, told in two very distinctive ways; and yet, when you heard them read today, did you notice that what we have here are basically the same stories with two different endings? Well, friends, that’s by design; and telling these stories together gives us some real insight as to what God intends for us – what he has always intended for us – as his beloved creation!
Well, first we have the story of Adam and Eve; which, by the way, is amongst the most often quoted, meticulously interpreted and sadly misunderstood passages in all of scripture. Years ago, I had a woman parishioner who threatened – no, actually she simply told me this outright (!) – that if I ever dared to preach a sermon on this text or anything else coming out of these first few chapters of Genesis, she not only would she get up and walk out of church while I was speaking, she’d make sure to slam the door as she left! And the fact is, friends, I understood her misgivings (if not her vehemence!) because I knew that somewhere along the way in this woman’s spiritual development she’d been falsely led to understand that this story of Adam and Eve supported an archaic idea that women were somehow created by God to be lesser than or subservient to men! In her mind, my even reading that part of the Bible would make me nothing more than some male chauvinist pig!
Suffice to say that though I tried, I was never really able to convince this woman otherwise! But let’s be clear: this story of Adam and Eve isn’t at all about the subjugation of women in any way shape or form, any more than it is intended as a manifest against marriage equality or, for that matter, the assertion that where fashion is concerned, fig leaves are optional! This story from Genesis is meant first to be an evocation of God’s creative power; as well as the desire of God from the very beginning that we have everything we need, most especially in a “fit partner” in and through life and living; and above all, it ends up being about our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship.
Think about this with me for a moment: the Book of Genesis paints this wonderful picture of a beautiful garden in which the man and the woman can live, and work, and find joy and pleasure in their relationship with one another and most especially with God. In truth of fact, that’s what the “nakedness” represents here; it’s that Adam and Eve were living as they were meant to live: totally transparent and without fear, clothed in the full glory of God. It’s total innocence, completely open before God and it’s who they are; it’s their God given identity: and that’s why we’re told they were both naked and “not ashamed.” (2:25)
So then, when the serpent starts getting “crafty” with Eve, what’s the temptation? Never mind, for a moment, the image of that tasty apple growing from “the tree that is in the middle of the garden,” the very tree (the only tree, I might add!) that God had forbidden Adam and Eve from which to eat. Rather, think what that “forbidden fruit” represents: it’s the notion of “knowing good and evil;” it’s this idea that maybe there might just be more than merely this rich, idyllic and utterly perfect garden to live in harmonious relationship with God (!); it’s the opportunity to possibly abandon one’s identity received from the creator himself, and to do so all for the sake of something else… something fleeting, something unknown… something, well… tempting!
I think that’s what we often misunderstand about temptation. Most of us tend to think of temptation toward something; specifically, toward doing something that we shouldn’t be doing! But isn’t it true that more often than not, temptation has a way of wanting us to pull away from something; away from who we are, away from what we believe, away from that which we know – or at least what we thought we knew – to be right or wrong? How often do we hear from one who has succumbed to some sort of temptation or another, and in the aftermath of that breach of ethic or morality, confess that somehow they had “lost themselves” and had done what they had never dreamed they would ever do. That’s the temptation set forth by the serpent in this Genesis story; in the determination to pull Eve, and then Adam (who, in all honesty, didn’t require all that much temptation… just sayin’!), away from their relationship with God and thus away from their full and blessed identity as people who were – and here’s that phrase we heard again and again all through Epiphany – named and claimed as God’s own.
And you know the rest of the story… once they yielded to that temptation, once Adam and Eve quite literally lose themselves with that forbidden fruit it’s all over; and paradise is lost. All that remains, in the words of Victor Pentz, are “the shattered fragments of God’s original dream.” And for Adam and Eve, “naked and unafraid” becomes “the nakedness of shame,” and from that moment forward humanity carries the scar. This is what we refer to as “original sin” (what’s that old rhyme – I think it’s from the Puritan tradition – “From Adam’s fall, we sin all”); and ultimately, it all comes down to our willfully abandoning our true identity as God’s own beloved people!
But… that’s not the end of the story!
Fast forward to Luke’s gospel; and the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” I love what Frederick Beuchner has written about these forty days: he says that this the time Jesus spent learning “what it meant to be Jesus.” And truly, when you think about it, each of the temptations the devil sets before Jesus seeks to undermine his very identity and his relationship with God. Notice how the word “if” figures so very prominently in this passage: “IF you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” IF you will worship me, I will give you all the kingdoms of the world. “IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Do you see the similarities to the Adam and Eve story? All it’s going to take, according to this serpent, is to erode the certainty of that relationship between God and Christ and his identity will be gone forever!
But the difference between this story and what happened in Genesis is that Jesus knows better. That’s why when the devil offers him bread, Jesus responds with an affirmation of trust in God.” That’s why when the devil sets before Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his allegiance, Jesus says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” And that’s why when the devil tries to goad Jesus into putting God to the test, Jesus steadfastly refuses: because Jesus knew who and whose he was; that his identity was and would ever be that of the Son of God.
And that, friends, is an affirmation that makes all the difference for us.
The Rev. Dr. David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary says that ultimately, this particular story from Luke is “really about identity theft. And not simply the devil’s failed attempt to steal Jesus’ identity but all the attempts to rob us of ours.” Bread, power and safety; those are the three temptations that Jesus faces in the wilderness. But, writes Lose, “it just as well might have been youth, beauty and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security.” Because these, and so many others we could name, represent the same kind of specific, concrete temptations that “seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity.”
And lest we think this is merely theoretical, take a look at the vast majority of advertising out there that sets out to convince us that we will be more beautiful, more popular, more successful if we’ll only yield to the temptation of buying this company’s particular product, whatever it happens to be. And what have we been experiencing these past several months here in New Hampshire if not the constant barrage of messages proclaiming that if we offer up our allegiance to one particular candidate or political party then and only then will the American people know safety, security and a robust economy (and no, I am not comparing any of the candidates to the devil!).
What I am saying, however, is that all around us we are assaulted by the kinds of temptations, both personal and corporate, that seek to draw us away from our true identity: which is ever and always beloved children of God! In Jesus, you see, we are reminded that despite our propensity to sin and to occasionally wander away, sometimes even far away from what we know to be true, we never, ever lose ourselves completely, because our God-given identity is never truly gone from us. To quote David Lose once again, “God loves us and will love us no matter what.” Our true identity is sealed in our baptism; it is proven and purchased by Jesus on the cross; and it is God’s gift to us, given by grace “for the love of it all.”
A good thing, it seems to me, for us to remember as we set out yet again on this Lenten journey to the cross of our Lord Jesus; good that amidst all within and without that would seek to pull us away from God that we have our true identity renewed and restored for the way ahead. So let us begin, so that along every step we might live in the confidence of God’s abundant life, perchance to share with those around us God’s unending love.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c, 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry