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Two Ways to Deal with Temptation

February 17, 2002, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
First Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11;

Today's lessons show us two ways to deal with temptation. Adam and Eve find themselves in the garden with everything they need including instructions for how to live in this paradise forever. Sounds simple enough. Their task: dress, till, keep, replenish and establish dominion over creation on God's behalf.1 They have only one prohibition—don't eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Naked, we are told they know no shame. Like the toddler forever shedding the constraints of clothing, they live in the joy of perfect freedom. All is well in paradise.

But then the serpent—the first theologian—arrives on the scene with its vexing question about God. We are told that of the wild animals over which the woman and man were to have dominion, the serpent was the most crafty. On the surface of things the question seems innocent enough. However, if you examine it carefully you will discover the question is designed to discredit God, raise doubts in the couple's minds, and draw the woman into a conversation that will entrap her. Not bad for one question; crafty indeed! "Did God say...?"

Well, what did God say? What was that single prohibition? Are we to eat the fruit of none of the trees, or just this one having to do with good and evil? Drawn into conversation to clarify God's word, the woman not only repeats the prohibition, she amplifies on it; thus she is sunk. Now the nascent theologian's question designed to create doubt turns to a declaration which is accusation—"You will not die...! God's been lying to you. Want to know why?" The theological dialogue has turned to questioning God's motivation. Is God's prohibition providential, or simply God's way of preserving God's privileged position in and over creation? Why should God be the only one in creation who is wise—the only one to know good and evil?

It is time for a little Hebrew—wouldn't be a decent Princeton Seminary sermon without a little word study, now would it? The word that is translated "to know" means much more than "cognitive recognition." More basic than that, it has to do with the way we really know anything in life—we must experience it. To know here means to experience through behavior that leaves an imprint on the other, in the way Adam and Eve knew one another as they became one flesh.2

Now consider, nowhere does this story suggest that good and evil should not exist in the garden, nor that it must not be touched. In fact they surely would have touched it as they lived out their vocations. It just may be that evil serves a purpose in God's design of things. We don't know. What the story does make clear is that only God is able to know both good and evil in a way that is not destructive to creation. Eve truly has overstated the prohibition. The man and woman may not eat of it's fruit for in that day they will die, but God said nothing to suggest that they might not touch or be touched by it, only that in paradise it has no power to harm them if they do not eat of its fruit. In other words, the providence behind the prohibition is the simple fact that God is the only one in the garden who can know good and evil and do so in a way that is ultimately life-giving.3

Doubt having been planted with the first question, now they become theologians as well. Questioning God's wisdom, they succumb to their own rationale: the fruit looks good for food and is a delight to the eye. Ever notice how what turns out to be evil initially looks very good indeed? Why else do we indulge in it? We are, after all, not evil. Rather we succumb to evil's corruptive power out of a desire to do good—like wage a war on terrorism or displace a despotic ruler. It seems desirable to be like God. So she ate the fruit and gave some to her husband who ate also. Adam is not saying "Yes Dear!" He cannot get off that easily.4 Adam eats for his own seemingly good reasons.

Thus wisdom comes—they discover themselves naked and ashamed. They find themselves vulnerable and powerless, naked in a world where good and evil live side by side, often wearing each other's faces. The shame of it is they are not only powerless to do the good they would do and avoid the evil they loathe,5 but worse, they are no longer able to faithfully fulfill their divine vocations as God's stewards.

Why did they do it? What need had they of wisdom in paradise? Wanting to be more than they were created to be they allowed their reach to exceed their grasp, and not only they, but the whole world came away mortally wounded. Unwilling to be a creature they did what they had to do to become like the creator, but discovered they didn't have the resources to handle wisdom in such a way as to keep it from becoming destructive. So, they have lost it all. No wonder they went into hiding, putting a pasty fig leaf on in a flimsy attempt to cover their shame. At the beginning of time, when at the height of their power, Adam and Eve refuse to listen to or trust God.

In the fullness of time, a son of Adam emerges from the Jordan hearing God name him Son and beloved servant, and found himself driven by his Father's Spirit into the wilderness. For this test must come, not at the height of his physical strength nor the zenith of enthusiasm over the recent revelation of his divine son-ship, but only after being denied the daily provisions necessary for life. Forty days and nights—whether literal or symbolic, the point is the same—he is exhausted and famished, at the depth of vulnerability when the tempter arrives.

Once again temptation comes as a theological question challenging the veracity of God's word: "If you are the son of God....?" If? The Father has just said so. Why this question? To whom must this be proven? God knows who is in the tempter's clutches. There is no doubt in the Devils' mind. Who is left? Only the son. Does he not believe what God has said?

quot;Turn these stones to bread." It sounds like a command but it is really a question. Will he, when dared, prove who he is? Where the initial response to the test in the garden had been an attempt to defend God's word, Jesus simply repeats it: "our real bread is God's word and work. That will sustain us."

Quoting scripture can be a helpful defense in temptation if its purpose is to reinforce your own will. But be warned, the Devil knows God's word better than you do and is very clever when quoting it. Consequently, the second question has to do with God's word. Will God do what God has promised? "Throw yourself into a situation where God will be forced to act to preserve you." Oh how tempting that is for God's servants. Leverage the relationship, Make God be true to God's word. Quoting scripture again Jesus reminds the devil that such testing of God is forbidden. Careful when you are tempted to put God's word to the test, it will probably be you who ends up being tested by it.

The third temptation assumes Jesus' identity as beloved servant; how will he accomplish his task? Now the test is more overt. Think on this for a moment: the overt temptations come when we know who we are, whose we are, and set out to do what we have been called to do. And almost always the test suggests an easier way, one that involves a short-cut, albeit one that is somewhat indiscreet.

quot;Do you want to be Lord of all the kingdoms of the world and receive their splendor? Who will you serve for them?" It is, of course, a twist on the Faustian deal: trust God or yourself; serve God or yourself; worship God or yourself, or another. These are the options in life and you and I must tell one of them "Yes," and the other "Be gone!"

quot;Be gone Satan!" and he is. Where Adam chose to be like God, the Son of God chooses to be a son of Adam, truly human, living out his vocation as God's servant without any short-cuts. Where Adam's indiscretion brought havoc, mortality and death, this Son of Adam's integrity brings about a new reality.

For these two ways to deal with temptation are about more than one being triumphant where the first two had failed. In Jesus' initial act of obedience the nature of life has begun to change. The kingdom has begun to break in. There is no longer any need to run, no need to hide, no need for short-cuts. Before it is over this Second Adam will have undone the curse of the first and made us his sisters and brothers, named "Beloved of God" as well. But hear this word of warning: this needs no proving, only living.

I remember the first annual evaluation of a young assistant pastor in Harrisburg. She had been out of seminary and ordained one year, at a time when the future of women in ministry was still in considerable question in this denomination. It had been a difficult year, not only because she was inexperienced, but also because of the obstacles thrown in her path by those women in the congregation who saw their own leadership threatened by her's, or who were envious of what she was doing with her life. We talked about all of this in the review, including a strategy for healing the broken places and moving on. As we signed off on the written evaluation, she said, "Oh, one thing more, Fred. Thank you for putting up with me while I tried to prove to God and myself that God had not made a mistake in calling me to pastoral ministry." From that point on she gave up the temptation to prove herself to God, to herself, and to all of us around her. She simply gave herself to her vocation as Christ's servant and her ministry took off like a skyrocket. Six month's later the congregation called her as an associate, and we served together for another eight wonderful years.

As we begin this Lent, let us not give up or take on things to prove to God, ourselves, or anyone else who we are and what we ought to be doing. Rather, remembering these two ways to handle temptation, let us listen for God's word and trust it, and in the moment of test say "Be gone, Satan!" Only then will we be able to be who God has made and called us to be.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. Genesis 1:28
  2. Genesis 2:24
  3. Which is precisely what will happen in the cross. Evil will be swallowed by up in the death of death.
  4. Genesis 3:17-19.
  5. Romans 7:14-20

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