(Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent A, March 5, 2017, based on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11)
Some things never change. Adam and Eve had it all: Every day they walked and talked with God in a beautiful, bountiful Paradise. What more could any human being possibly want?!… Ummm…well, according to today’s lesson from Genesis, it seems they wanted more! All it took to rupture their idyllic relationship with God was one slithering serpent. This crafty character sneaked up on the unsuspecting newcomers to the garden and used the power of suggestion to sow seeds of discontent and distrust: “Did God really mean you would die if you ate the fruit from that tree…or was God just trying to fool you and deprive you of your full potential—the potential of being like God?…”
The small seeds of the serpent’s deception sprouted quickly in Eve’s and Adam’s hearts and grew into an immense tangled thicket of disobedience and self-imposed separation from God and from each other. In the moment the humans chose to trust the tempter’s persuasive sales pitch for the forbidden fruit instead of trusting in the steadfast Word of the Creator who’d given them all they needed for life—in that moment, they didn’t realize it, but they were setting out on a path that would lead them away from God and away from their true identity as human beings created in the image of God…. As soon as their eyes are opened to this new reality, Adam and Eve see their own vulnerability, which is most evident in their nakedness. They sow fig leaves together and make loincloths, which serve as a kind of symbolic acknowledgment of their separation from God and from each other.
Of course, you and I know that Adam and Eve are archetypes: symbolic figures that serve to explain a universal truth about humankind. As I said, “Some things never change!…” Throughout history and in our own time there’s ample evidence of the destructive and self-destructive behavior we humans engage in when we choose to trust the voices that assault our true identity as children of God on a variety of fronts every day. On one front we’re inundated with advertising that tells us we’re somehow inadequate. On another front we’re bombarded by headlines that tell us there isn’t enough to go around, so we’d better get ours. Quickly!… On all fronts it seems we’re confronted by the message that we should be afraid. Very afraid…. My friends, when we open ourselves up to listen to the voices that sow the seeds of discontent and distrust in our hearts, then we, like our ancestors Adam and Eve, end up separating ourselves from our God and from each other…. I don’t know about you, but I see ample evidence of this separation everywhere I look today. The effects of this separation are devastating, because it seems the longer we continue to insist on going our own way, the wider the chasm grows between us as fellow human beings and between us and God….
But take heart, friends, because there is Good News! Jesus shows us how we can overcome our separation and live into our God-given potential as human beings who are fully alive…. In today’s gospel lesson, we meet up with Jesus right after he’s been baptized and the Spirit of God has descended upon him in the form of a dove. But then, right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, that very same Spirit leads him out into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil!…” Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, and in the very moment when he’s famished and weak with hunger, the tempter comes and tries to convince Jesus to use his God-given power for his own benefit: to turn stones into bread to still his hunger…. Now, you and I need to understand that this temptation is very real for Jesus, who’s fully human, just like you and I. Yet Jesus is able to withstand this temptation because he clings to his baptismal identity: He knows he’s God’s beloved Son, and so he trusts that God will provide for him in his hour of need…. The devil, however, is undaunted by this first rejection and decides to up the ante: He takes Jesus to Jerusalem, places him on the pinnacle of the temple and quotes Scripture in an effort to trick Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Again, Jesus thwarts this temptation by clinging to his baptismal identity. Because he’s rooted and grounded in his relationship with God, Jesus knows it’s not his place to put God to the test…. Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to a high mountain and promises to give him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor if Jesus will fall down and worship him. But Jesus, who’s clothed in the power of the Spirit, is able to see through his adversary’s empty promises, and he swiftly dispatches the devil with a word, ““Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him….’
My friends, some things never change, and the power of temptation is one of those things…. So, who are the tempters of our day? Who are the ones who strive to manipulate and mold us for their own selfish purposes? Who are the ones working against God’s life-giving purposes? Is it the advertisers? The media? The wealthy and powerful? The politicians and preachers? All of the above?! [Here’s where you get to help with the sermon!.. Who or what are the tempters today?]… In contrast to the biblical figures we encounter in today’s Scripture lessons, the tempters of our day aren’t likely to slither on their bellies or sport horns and a tail; instead, they probably look a whole lot like you and me. The sales pitches have been updated, but the temptations themselves are pretty much the same ones Adam and Eve and Jesus faced: the temptation to listen to voices that promise us we can “have it all” and be in control of our own lives; the temptation to satisfy our own needs while turning our backs on neighbors in need; the temptation to insist that God’s faithfulness needs to be tested from time to time; and the temptation to choose the power the world values over obedience to God…. In the wilderness Jesus was shown what it looks like to live a life where one is separated from God, from God’s world, and from God’s people. He saw that this way could never lead to abundant life, and so he chose the prophetic vision of being intimately connected with God, with God’s world, and with God’s people…. Jesus chose this way because he saw there was something even more powerful than the power of temptation: God’s steadfast love for God’s people. To say it another way, Jesus knew that some things never change, and God’s never-ending love is one of those things!… Jesus surrendered his whole life to God, because he knew this was the only way to receive the abundant life that is God’s gift for the whole human family—including you and me…. And so, my friends, in the midst of all the temptations that swirl around us in this Lenten season, let’s pray for wisdom and strength to follow the example of Jesus:
Faithful and loving God,
The voices of the tempter are all around us,
seeking to lure us away from you.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to know
which voices belong to you
and which belong to your adversary.
Give us wisdom and strength to trust your promises.
In our time of trial, help us hold onto our baptismal identity,
so that we may choose the way of abundant life
with you, with your world, and with your people,
through Jesus Christ our Lord;