You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. (Psalm 32:8)
Each one of us knows what it is like to be tempted. We can be tempted in ways that can put stress on our health and well-being—either staying up very late to watch a movie or binge watch a TV series, or eating too much rich food, or deciding because it is a beautiful day you will catch up on all your exercise that you have missed for a month, or spending too much money on impulse so that our budget is strained.
We may also know what it is to be tempted in a way that can bring us life or allow us to experience abundance: to take that new job, to say hello to that handsome stranger, to take a chance on an interesting trip, to ask a rebellious or out of the box question, to stand up beside someone who is being bullied, to speak up in the presence of bigotry when you are also tempted to stay quiet.
In the first Sunday in Lent, the readings all seem to focus on temptation and sin. I am sure that you, like I have heard sermons about sin as the great reality at the heart of human existence and how Lent is the time to repent, to turn away from sin and embrace the good news.
But I prefer a different slant. Not because I do not believe in sin, because I do. But I prefer to call it by its proper names: ANGER, FEAR, HATRED, GREED, INJUSTICE, VIOLENCE.
Too often what is considered to be ‘sin’ seems mostly to be low level failures that cause very little harm but can trip the alarm of the moral police. While those things that really are evil and cause devastation to individuals, families, communities, and our earth tend to escape the label of ‘sin.’ So in Lent, I invite us all to look at temptation and sin in a more open way.
In Lent, I encourage us all to search for ways to address the larger and more potent forms of evil that are truly threatening God’s creation. I invite us to consider how to face temptation and where to turn to recognize whether the temptation we face as part of the human reality will bring life or bring, if not death, separation and misery.
The story this morning from the second chapter of the book of Genesis is difficult to hear without centuries of built up prejudice as to its interpretation. Nowhere in this scripture does the word “sin” appear. Yet in the 5th century, this story was taken to describe the fall of humanity. In particular it led to seeing women as inferior and even dangerous, and our bodies as shameful.
It also is commonly believed to be an explanation of how ‘evil’ came into the world. But the Bible is more interested in how humans respond faithfully and cope effectively with life. The Bible offers no statement about the origin of evil except to respond with compassion when it occurs.
The story in the garden of Eden, is about God’s infinite capacity and desire for creation. God creates a human (adam) out of the earth and animates them with God’s ruah—God’s spirit or breath. The NRSV translates adam as “man.” But in the Hebrew, we hear that this first human is a non-gendered being. So I will use the pronoun “they/them.”
God places the human in the garden and gives them a vocation. The work is to care for the garden—for God’s very good creation. From the beginning the human creature is called to share in God’s work.
Then God gives the human permission or freedom. God tells the human that the garden is theirs to enjoy. The permission of creation is for providing the sustenance that is needed for life. Everything they need to flourish is here.
Then God makes a prohibition. God sets a limit. The story does not explain the reason.
There is no interest in the character of the tree, simply the authority of the one who speaks and the unqualified expectation of obedience. God can be trusted.
God continues to create and realizes immediately that “it is not good for adam to be alone.” So God creates “every animal of the field and every bird of the air” and brings them to the human to be named. But these creatures will not do as a companion for adam. For the well-being of the human, a fresh creative act is necessary.
The emergence of the helpmate, the partner, woman is as stunning and unpredicted as the previous surprising emergence of adam. The woman is also God’s free creation. Now the two coequal creatures of surprise belong together. At last, they have each other and they seem to have everything to make life a “delight”—which is the meaning of ‘Eden.’
But even in what seems to be perfection. Even when it appears that all needs and desires are met, along comes that niggle of anxiety or insecurity or unexpected desire that asks us,
“Is this really all you need?” In the story the ‘niggle’ is in the shape of a talking snake that places that drop of doubt in the woman. And in her curiosity or desire or innocence, she takes the fruit from the prohibited tree and shares it with her helpmate.
As with many temptations, it does not kill them, but it has caused a disruption in their relationship with God and with creation.
Did God lie to them? Why did God not want them to have knowledge of good and evil?
They choose knowledge rather than trust and there is a cost. And now they have it and it is more than they could have wanted to know. But there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
And when God discovers their disobedience, there enters a crack between Creator and creature. The Creator becomes the questioner and the pitiful answer is “I was afraid.” It is the answer given by many who cannot trust the goodness of God and instead seek their own way of satisfying their self-interest. They fail to see that limits are necessary for abundant life and God’s prohibitions are given in love and compassion.
When we read this story we often see only God’s prohibitions, and fail to notice God’s call and God’s freedom.
Their choice also causes a disruption in the relationship within creation. When confronted with their decision, they turn on each other, blaming in the hopes that the other will take the fall and their own culpability will be diminished or forgotten entirely. It seldom works that way, but it is a choice.
And then we are offered the story in Matthew’s Gospel where we follow Jesus into the wilderness and watch as the Son of God confronts the fullness of his humanity. Jesus is starving after fasting for forty days. He is at the end of his strength, he is alone, and he is facing the daunting journey ahead of him. The glow of his baptism recedes into a hazy past.
No lush garden here. Only vast emptiness.
And it is here in this state of heightened vulnerability that the tempter comes recognizing the potential.
“Do you want to be like God?” is the cunning question the tempter poses to Adam and Eve in the first garden. “Do you want to know everything God knows?
In Matthew’s story, the devil comes to the exhausted Son of God in the guise of a brilliant, scripture quoting, interrogator with a different take on those ancient questions: “Can you accept being fully human? Can you give up your power? Can you work in humility and obscurity? Can you bear the vulnerability of what is means to be weak and mortal and human?” But Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses even in his weakness to trust.
The tempter is not asking Jesus to do harm to others. He comes to Jesus to make him do what seems entirely reasonable—but for all the wrong reasons
The first temptation targets Jesus’s hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The temptation implies that God’s beloved should never hunger or never want. And that Jesus should magically change this situation for himself. But Jesus chooses to recognize that hunger is a part of his being human, that he will align his desires with the good of Creation, and he will not exploit for his own needs. He trusts God.
The second temptation targets Jesus’ vulnerability. “God will command his angels concerning you,” the devil promises Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The implication is that as beloved children of God, God will keep you safe. Safe from harm, safe from disease, safe from accidents, safe from death.
It is such an enticing lie, because it targets our deepest fears about what it means to be human in a broken and dangerous world.
But as Christians, if the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s beloveds still bleed, still suffer, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it. Jesus tells the tempter that God must not be tested.
The third temptation targets Jesus’ ego. After showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” the devil promises him glory and authority. “It will all be yours, if you worship me.” Fame. Celebrity, Power. All of it yours! But Jesus chooses God’s mission over the world’s definition of success.
The uncomfortable truth about authentic Christian power is that it resides in weakness. Jesus is lifted up—but he is lifted up on a cross.
Temptations. We all are faced with them. Making choices is a sacred human attribute. Sometimes we make poor choices and those poor choices may cause hardship for other people, even those we love.
And sometimes we make good choices, even brave and holy choices. Those choices will also have consequences for other people, those close to us and even people we may not know directly.
In this time of Lent, perhaps one of our opportunities is to explore our temptations, those that are trivial and often go unnoticed and those temptations that lead us deep into our core needs and desires.
Temptations can lead us to great good. Our own hunger can lead us to caring deeply about the needs of others. And temptations can bind us, holding us hostage to fear, insecurity, anxiety.
God sees us in all our beauty and in all our weakness. God offers us the chance to choose life. God calls us to a brilliant vocation. God offers us prohibitions that only enhance our freedom.
Lent is not a time to do penance for being human—to see ourselves as tainted from the beginning. To feel shameful and inferior because we hope for something beyond our reach. It’s a time to embrace all that being human means—tempted, hungry, vulnerable, beloved.
Lent is a time to allow the grace of God to transform us more and more into God’s image. May God who meets us in the garden and in the wilderness, accompany us in the time of a holy Lent.
Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973