Sermon, March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
So, has anyone here ever done anything they were told not to?
When I was in high school, once I took my stepfathers’ red Mazda Miata convertible out for a spin. It was with good intentions! One afternoon, friends and I stayed after school for some activity and everyone missed their transportation home. I, being a licensed driver that lived close to school – and expecting our minivan to be sitting in the garage – told them I could take them home if they wanted to walk to my house. Well, they both did, but when I got home I found, instead of the minivan, Dale’s shiny Miata. Now, I had never been invited to drive Dale’s Miata. But since I had friends there already, I felt like I couldn’t just tell them to walk home, so… I carefully gave each of them an individual ride home in my stepfather’s 2-seater Sportscar (and enjoyed it.) And I almost got away with it, except it’s pretty difficult to get the seat right back in the perfect position…
It was too tempting to let the opportunity pass by…
Jesus goes to the Wilderness to fast, and we get a story about temptation. I have a confession; I’ve never been able to make much sense of this story. I mean, I get that after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was probably hungry – that’s easy enough to understand. But throw yourself from the temple? Possess all the kingdoms of the land? These things seemed like abstractions to me… irrelevant to my life as a Christian. And not really anything I could relate to anyways…
But the elements being offered up to Jesus by Diablo here in the story are seductions. The overall seduction, first and foremost, is for Jesus to claim his birthright as the Beloved Son of God. Prove it, the Devil is saying. Show everyone your true nature, your true divinity. That, in itself, would probably feel incredible! Who doesn’t want to tell off our critics, and do it with a little flair too! It feels like every scene in every movie when the browbeaten hero gets to make a speech of how they are great, and always were great, and don’t you forget it!
But, truly that would be mostly self-serving. It certainly would have made his time on earth go more smoothly… What Pharisee or Scribe would dare challenge his preaching and message if he had summoned angels to buttress his descent from the height of the temple to the rocky ground below? His hometown of Nazareth would have to respect him then! And heaven help the ruler who was tasked with delivering his punishment…
But Jesus is steadfast, and stays the course. Since it was Jesus, he probably didn’t even contemplate the Devil’s offers. But I wonder if he did… if he considered each offer carefully, weighed the options in his mind, batted it around a little. What do you think was the deciding factor that would make him say no? Perhaps he was weighing the unintended consequences.
We know, because we know the rest of Jesus’ life, that it would have been nothing for him to create bread from stones. Later in his life, he’ll take 5 loaves and feed 5000 people, and changes water into wine. But, had he taken the Devil’s bait, it would singlehandedly wipe out the difficult part of the fast. Unlike when the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert and lamented about their hunger, Jesus refuses to give into his hunger, therefore getting closer to God through an empty stomach. To shortcut that process would be to give up the sacrifice that makes it meaningful; the emptying of your stomach!
The temptation of satisfying our hunger for food, or let’s say, creature comforts. What could be the unintended consequences of that? We’ve all seen that movie, right? It’s been parodied in almost every movie about the devil, from the Devil’s Advocate to one of my favorites - Oh God, You Devil with George Burns. The seduction of plentiful creature comforts leads to excess. As we talked about last Wednesday in our program on Just Eating, today our food is plentiful and abundant – and wrapped in all kinds of colorful, convenient packages to make our consumption quick and easy. And we see the consequences of that in our lifestyles, and our habits, and our health…and in our trash! Not only do we waste 40% of food, but the remains of these packages can be seen everywhere. I was walking in Heartwell Park last night, and the evidence of our food packaging was collected all along the canal. The spoils of excess are all around us.
And then the devil entices Jesus to throw himself onto the hands of angels that will surely rise up to meet him. The lure of safety and easy security is everywhere around us – bought, sold and commercialized, and of course on film. ADT promises to keep our homes safe from would-be break-ins. Insurance promises to safeguard our lives against every risk. Every election, we are lured by promises of guaranteed security and safety for our loved ones. And the movie plot line about what can go wrong when you think you are safe never gets old. Anyone here see the movie Panic Room? Safe House? Air Force One? Guaranteed security is an illusion, but the unintended consequences of our repeated attempts to heighten security measures can be great. Just ask the Palestinian civilians who live under Israeli rule… or kids who attend schools with armed security guards… or African Americans who live under the heavy thumb of the Chicago police department in Chicago’s neighborhoods of color…or the recent stories of non-criminal immigrants getting caught up in this deportation frenzy we are engaged in. Enhanced security always comes with a human cost.
Finally, the Devil promises Jesus all the power and prestige he could ask for. Who doesn’t find this seductive? Who hasn’t said, “if only I was in charge, I could take care of all these problems.” Now’s the time to confess because you know we have our Annual Meeting after service… I mean, I know I have… and I’m sure I would be just and fair and never hurt anyone! Except, that’s impossible, because I’m not perfect. And again, movies abound with depictions of lust for power. But what comes to mind for me is Lord of the Rings, and the One Ring to Rule Them All. How many ways do we see J.R.R. Tolkien present the scenario of what happens when good and evil collide with the potential for absolute power? There’s Bilbo, and Gollum, and King Boromir… My favorite, though, is when Frodo offers the One Ring that will Rule them All to Galadriel, the Elvish Queen. “I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this,” she says. And then in the next horrifying frame in the film, we see her image turn dark and radioactive while her amplified voice perfectly illustrates the temptation of absolute power: “In the place of the Dark Lord you shall have a Queen…. All shall love me and despair.” I’ve never seen a better visual depiction of the lust for power.
Many times in our inherited history, we’ve learned the dangers of holding too much political power and prestige. From the kings of Israel, to Medieval Kings, to the dictators of the 20thCentury; the old saying holds – absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the church has also learned this lesson over our 2000-year history. When Christianity became the religion of the Constantinian Empire, it altered the nature of the church. With the power of Empire came the power to denounce, excommunicate or forcibly convert, violently persecute and even kill those who didn’t hold certain beliefs. It’s the story of the Christian Crusades, and our Congregational history of seeking freedom here from other Christians who had the power to make the rules. And then we turned around and did it ourselves in the colonies with the Salem Witch Trials, and now with religious tests for immigrants coming into the country. When one religion is married with political power, it has more often than not become a threat – not only to those of different religions, but to those within it’s own religion.
(Now, I am not trying to say that faithful people shouldn’t be involved in politics… But power is best in balance with others.)
Materialism, Security, Power and Prestige… the temptations that Jesus faced were parallel to the temptations Israel faced in their history, and seductions that we still face every day in our own lives. The failures of Israel – asking for food in the desert, testing God, worshipping idols and turning over power to kings; these were the places where Israel had failed, and Jesus succeeds. Jesus is the perfect culmination of Israel’s history remembered. But we, not being perfect, fall prey to these temptations all the time, because not being perfect, we can’t see the unintended consequences.
If Adam and Eve had known the consequences of eating the apple – that they would be expelled from the garden and not able to dwell near God’s presence, and made to till the earth and labor in childbirth, do you think they would have still eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge? The story of the Garden of Eden is often nicknamed ‘the Fall of Man’ – and of course, that implies that the woman is to blame for it! Sometimes the actions of Adam and Eve are highlighted as why humanity needed saving – because this original couple brought sin onto the human race. But while it’s a story about disobedience and consequences, it’s also a story about the pursuit of knowledge. In the story, Eve is simply curious. She’s been enticed by a wise being – the snake – that to eat of the tree of knowledge will make her and Adam like God.
How many times, as children, did we disobey rules that were barring us from being like our parents? Whether it’s a child getting into her mother’s makeup, or a kid taking out dad’s sportscar, or staying out late and trying something we’re not supposed to? And in each of these instances, as kids, we learn. Our curiosity, perhaps our desire to be like adults, allow us to see the unintended consequences of our actions, and become learning experiences for adulthood.
And the good news is, when Adam and Eve eat the apple, they don’t die. God doesn’t cut off contact. God’s unconditional love remains for his creation. Because we are not perfect, we often succumb to temptation. But when we do, God forgives us, just as we forgive each other. Lets spend these 40 days of Lent contemplating the places where temptation has led us down a path unintended, and ask God for the opportunity to show we’ve learned from our unintended consequences. Amen.