Sunday, March 05, 2017

Temptations – Set Up for Success

First Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, we hear the account of the temptation of Jesus. Immediately following Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. This forty-day experience is itself reminiscent of the children of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years as they journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And both Moses and Elijah endured forty-day periods of fasting during their ministries. A forty-day period that is the basis for our own forty-day Lenten journey.

As we emphasized on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, this season is somber in nature, with a penitential theme. A time to intentionally focusing on our sinfulness and even our mortality. A time to reflect on our relationship with God and with one another, and to take a critical look at just how we have fallen short in that department. And a time to take corrective measures in an attempt to bring us back into right relationship with God and our neighbors. Traditionally, this includes the disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – in more modern times symbolized by giving up something, or taking on something, as a Lenten discipline.

And here we are, barely beginning with our Lenten disciplines and we are immediately confronted with temptation. We pledge to give up chocolate, and then before we barely begin, a giant chocolate bar is being dangled in front of our noses, taunting us, tempting us.

As we begin our Lenten journey, are we being tempted, tested, beyond our limits? Are we being set-up to fail? Of course not. That’s not how God works. If anything, maybe the Gospel account of temptation is actually a good thing. A way of setting us up for success, as opposed to failure.

The Gospel actually offers some interesting ideas on the nature of being tempted. First, the Greek word translated as “temptation” can equally be translated as “testing.” Testing is perhaps a better description of what is going on here and characterizes the scene in a more positive light. The idea that this testing affirms Jesus’ identity as the Son of God – the identity that was revealed at his baptism, just prior to going into the wilderness. This affirmation is not so much revealed in the fact that he is able to withstand the tests set out by the devil, but in how the tests are actually presented. The Greek phrasing of the devil’s questions “if you are the son of God,” is not a question of doubt on the devil’s part, but presumes the statement to be true. The devil knows without a doubt that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. In saying “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread, throw yourself down,” he is not seeking proof. Rather the statements are intended to be more like, “since you are the Son of God, you could turn these stones into bread.” “Since you are the Son of God, you could throw yourself off the temple and not be harmed.”

These, along with the offer to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down to the devil, are really about testing Jesus’ character. Determining what he’s made of. Before he could be the true Messiah, he had to discover the sort of messiah he would not be. These are tests to determine how Jesus will use his identity as the Son of God. Will it be to serve his own interests? Or will it be to serve God’s interests for the sake of humanity?

Of course, in resisting the temptations, in passing the tests, it becomes pretty evident that Jesus is choosing to use his identity as the Son of God not for his own purposes, but for God’s purposes. For our purposes. To bring about reconciliation between us and God. For in the end, Jesus defies the tempter’s final taunt. When, as he hung on the cross, “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’” (Mt 27.39-40). As the Son of God, he could have saved himself. But instead, he chose to stay on the cross. He chose to die. He chose to save us instead.

Our reading from Genesis seeks to provide an explanation of why we need to be reconciled to God. The account we heard today offers one explanation of how, in God’s creation – that which was made very good, which was made in the image and likeness of God – there came to be sin, shame, and death. In short, it was because of disobedience. One simple rule. Not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the very first humans were tempted by that knowledge. They could not obey the one rule God set out for them. This was the first sin, the first breaking of a rule that brought with it separation from God. Genesis seeks to explain that our sinful nature, our separation from God, began with the very first humans. Interestingly enough, the Jewish interpretation of the Genesis story is a little different. It is not about “the fall” but rather an act of independence, which only confirms that we are made in God’s image. In that act of independence, humanity used its freewill given by God and chose to separate itself from God.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, provides an explanation of the purpose for Jesus’ life and ministry, in light of this exercise of independence, for the testing he endured to determine, as the Son of God, just what kind of messiah he would be. To do this, Paul creates a parallel between Adam and Christ. Adam the sinner and Christ the sinless. Adam the disobedient and Christ the obedient. Adam the unfaithful and Christ the faithful. Adam, the one who transgressed, and Christ, the one who brings forgiveness. Adam, who brought death, and Christ, who brings life. Those who are the descendants of Adam are restored to relationship with God because of their faith in Christ. Jesus’ trust in God, his obedience, leads to redemption and salvation for all of us.

Does that mean that we are no longer tested in our life of faith? Well, no. We know from our own lives that we are indeed tempted, that we are indeed tested. At one time or another in our lives, we face the same tests Jesus faced in the wilderness. Not necessarily tempted or tested to the point of truly being famished. Although some may have experiences such testing. But certainly at one time or another we are tested with the desire for the physical, the material, which we think will make us feel better. That we think will solve all of our problems. If only I had X, my life would be better. If only I had Y, I would truly be satisfied.

We are not necessarily tested with the prospect of throwing ourselves off the pinnacle of the temple. But at one time or another we may be tested with the overwhelming desire to seek comfort and avoid suffering at all cost. Even if it were at the expense of another.

We are not necessarily given the option of turning away from God with the promise of absolute power over all nations. But at one time or another we may be tempted by power or prestige, possibly at the expense of compromising our values.

The temptations of Jesus are really an invitation to us. In our life of faith, but particularly during our Lenten journey, we are invited to move more deeply into our own experiences of testing. The temptations of Jesus are invitations to engage and wrestle with our own demons and come face-to-face with our own unique temptations.

In his own testing, Jesus shows us the way that we can deal with our own day-to-day trials and temptations. Jesus’ example is that of faithful obedience to God. Of faithful discipleship. While he proved faithful in ways that human beings have never been able to, he nonetheless provides the example. Jesus withstood temptations by being informed by scripture and obeying God’s law. And most importantly, his relationship with God the Father enabled him to resist and renounce the assaults of the tempter. Thanks to Jesus, we have those same tools at our disposal. We have the scriptures to guide us, to inform us on how we are to live. We have our community of faith to support us and encourage us, particularly when the testing seems too much to bear.

Temptations may always be present. But so is God. The greatest resource we have is our relationship with God. Because no matter what – even in our disobedience to God – God remains faithful to us. And with his help, with the strength he provides us, the inspiration he offers us, we are enabled and emboldened, like Jesus, to resist that which displeases God, that which separates us from God.

We have begun our Lenten journey – a journey of forty days in which we seek to be particularly mindful of the ways we are tempted and tested, as Jesus was. In the Bible, forty is always the time between. It is the necessary amount of time to a grace-filled conclusion. For us, it is forty days until the celebration of the resurrection. It is forty days to the grace-filled confirmation that in Christ, sin gives way to forgiveness and death gives way to new life.

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