2.26.23 Sermon Transcript: Wilderness: Temptation and Testing
Lent is a Time of intentionally changing patterns, paying close attention to God's creation and our understanding of God's will. To what we do and what we do not do. Lent is an intentional response to God's grace and a preparation for Easter… an opening of ourselves to the gift of faith… a journey with Christ…in the wilderness in obedience.
These are difficult texts these are texts that the church as a whole has wrestled with. I had somebody stop me before the service and say that the second reading is a bit complex. It is!
I had to laugh a little bit because it's one I probably wouldn't pick, but one of my own Lenten disciplines this year - I've talked before about how I'm not really a lectionary preacher. I tend to discern where the church is at, what kinds of questions we're asking, what kind of encouragement we need… and then I put a theme together and pick scriptures and are quite intentional about drawing things in that are not often covered in the lectionary. I think that's a good approach, but sometimes it's also good to wrestle with texts you wouldn't pick. And so I made a decision fairly early on this year, I'm was wrestling with Lenten themes. I was looking at a number of things - I actually had a whole series together using the imagery of stones and it just wasn't where we're at right now as First UMC. It was good material… but it wasn't for us right now. As I wrestled with that I kept thinking I ought to do the lectionary. I want to just relax a bit and there's a reason there's a lectionary - smarter people than I am have put it together for decades if not hundreds of years. Then I looked and… I'd already preached on several of them here. In my own haphazard way, I'd covered several and I had to really laugh because a couple of them are coming up are some of the longest texts in Scripture - which I tend to pick long ones and now I'm rebelling against being assigned a long one. I want to divide it up I want to bring other things in… but anyway, I found the theme that we're using in a pastoral resource that took the lectionary readings and helped me find resources and combine them into this Leaning Towards the Light theme.
So I thought okay I'm gonna do lectionary.. and then I had to sit down and wrestle with these texts and so today very unusually we've heard all four assigned text. I won't promise you that we'll do all four every week but today we heard all four that are assigned by the councils of the church and the lectionary.
We start of course with the classic story of sin. Adam and Eve.
By my count there are at least six or seven maybe eight or nine creation stories in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures when we say the creation story, we usually mean Genesis 1 or maybe Genesis 1 through 3, which are two distinctly different stories. And we've heard some of the others recently - they're among my favorite in scripture. Psalm 8. “what is man that you are aware of him yet you've made him a little lower than angels” and around that a story of creation and the goodness of God's creation.
Psalm 104 “there go the ships” Humanity participating in God's creation in the midst of a hymn thanking God for the seas and the skies and the land and the creatures and our own being. John 1 I would argue is a creation story” in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and through him all things were made.” it's a different kind of creation story but it is telling us about why anything exists and again it tells us of God's goodness and God's love and God's light.
The first creation story is very structured. Seven days a particular order of creation, a message about Sabbath; a message about God's intention and will. The second creation story starts arguably in Genesis 2 4. you can make a case that 2:3 is a part of it but we're splitting hairs there - but it's quite different order. You really cannot fuse these two stories together easily. The first one light and the waters are separated and the land is created and then the plants and then the animals then on the sixth day male and female god makes them together in God's own image.
The second creation story starts off before the Earth was watered and all there is is dust… God reaches down and makes from the dust A’dam. It's a Hebrew word that means person or man. We make it a name, Adam. God crafts this figure from the dust and God breathed this life into this figure - the first human, gifted life and self-awareness. That human is then set into a garden that God creates and that human's purpose is to tend the garden, to care for it, to have dominion over it, stewardship over it - and oh how we have wrestled since what dominion and stewardship mean, how we are to treat God's creation and our place in it. And we go along for some period of time - it's not really specified and things just aren't quite working. It's “not good,.” For the first time God says not good in scripture. All through Genesis 1, God creates and it is good - but here God has created and something is “not good.” “It is not good that man should be alone.” So God creates – animals, birds, fish. God gives Adam the task of naming them, of helping to order creation, and yet for all of the wonder and diversity of this creation the right helpmeet… another terribly problematic word throughout Christian history… the right partner, I would translate it, for Adam has not been found. So we have the familiar story - Adam is put to sleep, a rib is taken and woman is created - not from the head, not from the feet, but from the side. Those of us that have a more progressive bent would argue that this woman is a partner to this man - throughout Christian history, we've made it about subservience and we've done that in part because… it's her fault, you know.
The serpent is the craftiest of all creatures. “Did God say you die?” Did God say you can't eat from any of the trees? “No God didn't say that… God said you can eat from anything but not the tree of Life.” Where was Eve when this was spoken?
God says that to Adam but notice… when the serpent asked… Eve knows the rules. So we're missing part of the story here. At some point, Adam has told her, or God has told her, there's been a conversation and she knows that she can have anything in the garden but not that tree.
I don't know about you but I remember being a child and being told you can have anything but that…. and I will scheme to get that…. any way I possibly can. Even if that's something I don't particularly like… I could have my favorite snack over here… but I can't have that. hmm
I've done that, you've done that, So… the tempter, this serpent, plants a seed and Eve takes another look and decides the tree is attractive and it's good to eat. She takes that. She eats that She gives it to her husband and he goes… “okay!” and suddenly they know… they understand good and evil… they understand, for the first time, that they are naked. And they need to hide - from each other, from God. I was talking with one of our members about this text a while back and he pointed out it - doesn't say so in the story - but I think he's right - this isn't the first time God has wandered through the garden. I'd like to think that's a regular occurrence. The first man, the first woman. God hanging out in the garden. Maybe we could make a slideshow of picnics and laughter and play and perfection. All is ordered… but now the order has been disturbed. So what does Adam do?
He points! “She did it! Her fault!” and he's not wrong… but he had a role in it…
What does Eve do” Points – “It was the snake! The snake tempted me! it's his fault! she's not wrong… but she had a role in it…
and so the order, the perfection of the garden is disturbed.
It is our classic story of why God is so far away? Why are things so hard? Why are we broken? Because we were tempted
Because we sinned
That difficult text Paul writes … many of you are journeying with me reading the entire New Testament and it's difficult sometimes. The Bible as a whole is a library. It's not written in one voice. It's not written in one style - even letters that we attribute to a single author like Paul are written in different techniques, different styles and here we have a Hellenistic style of debate. You see this in other contemporary writings, Plato and Augustine … when I was doing my Catholic catechism we did some reading in Aquinas. There's a tremendous Catholic scholar but it's really, really dense reading, especially for a teenager, because the style of argumentation is to quote your opponent and respond. So what is my word and what is my opponent's word and it gets very, very jumbled. It gets even more jumbled when you're reading it in translation of translation of translation. When you're reading in language that has different punctuation and verb tense and object and subject sentence structure
But really Paul's argument here is pretty simple. It is the church's notion of original sin. Why are we broken? why are we finite? Why do we sin? Why do we fall short of what God would have us be? Well because Adam sinned. Notice how, at least here in Paul's writing, for all Paul is notorious for not liking women. Here Paul doesn't blame Eve a bit. This is Adam's fault. Sin came into the world through one man. Adam did wrong, therefore our nature is corrupted and Paul's understanding of God’s solution to this is that Jesus comes in human form. He takes on flesh and he demonstrates for us how to be holy within the confines of human temptation and finitude. Jesus demonstrates the way, the correct choices: obedience, humility and because of Jesus demonstration we are made whole.
That gift is given to all, Paul would argue, and we have to respond to it. It's a complex argument that's also pretty simple. One of the reasons I enjoy that it's in the lectionary and that I'm called to wrestle with it is because very often in contemporary American culture we only hear about one kind of atonement. How does Jesus make it possible for us to get to heaven, which is a misnomer in the first place. Eternal life starts here and now - it's not about escaping this life for another even as I proclaim that hope.
Many times since I've been here, when I am blessed to do funerals and to provide that space I have proclaimed my hope of heaven and eternal life and being revealed as more than we currently are. I believe that. But it's not all about that… this life is good! This life is important! This journey is important to God, not merely as a way of earning our own salvation, but participating what God does in this creation! This creation which is loved and intended!
But very often all we hear what's referred to as “substitutionary atonement”- the idea that we are guilty and must be punished and Jesus took our place. That is - I want you to hear me carefully – that is profoundly beautifully true… as far as it goes. But some folks, particularly folks who haven't grown up in the church, read that kind of Theology and they go okay… Angry God needs a sacrifice, no sacrifice is worthy, therefore God sends his own son and kills him so that he can forgive us….
which is the logic of child abuse. It's the logic of abusive relationships. We understand the beauty of Jesus’ free gift including his obedience. We begin to understand… We enter into the mystery of Trinity where Jesus is fully Divine - this is not an other commanding this… this is Jesus, God's self-revelation, giving of himself and that's beautiful and that's true… but it's not the only way to understand this. it doesn't work for all of us and it's not even the first atonement theory that the church taught. Substitutionary atonement didn't become a dominant understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice until the middle ages… a time when God was thought to be angry and distant and war and famine raged and the way to escape was to give thanks that someone else had paid the price…
Another approach is a ransom theory that is beautiful and true… another underanding of God paying the price… but also problematic because it seems to elevate Satan's power almost like Satan has power over God and the only way God could free us was to Ransom us with his own sacrifice …again there's Beauty there but it's problematic.
We struggle because we are talking with finite language of mysteries too great for us to understand. Our reading from Paul offers the first atonement theory of the church taught and what Paul is writing of here is called “recapitulation.” The body/organization (humanity) was damaged. The head went astray. We lost our minds… because of Adam's sin, the body lost its head. Have you ever “lost your head” something… it has just irritated you so much you've flown off the handle? Your you've forgotten who you are for a moment… you've lashed out… you've gone astray. You lost your head.
Recapitulation is literally putting your head back on. Jesus is the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith. Jesus is the head of the church. Jesus recapitulates us and makes us whole.
Through one man's sin, sin enters the world. Through one man's obedience, sin is defeated. Jesus goes to the Cross to defeat sin and death. Sin and death cannot hold him. We are made whole. The tomb is empty. The good news…
Too often in human history the good news hasn't been very good news for other people. The church has been about “we're saved and you're going to hell” and talk of sin has been about power over others. If I can convince you that you are rotten and sinful enough, I can hold power over you. Too much of our world in this day encounters the church in that way. When sociologists do studies and they just ask representative samples for words that describe the church the words the world echoes back to us are not of love and grace and inclusion and wholeness and healing. They are of judgment and control and demeaning and exclusion and that's not the gospel! The gospel is good news… it doesn't mean that we are wrong to decry sin it means that too often we have decried other people's sin, forgetting our own or we have dumped all of our talk of sin into systematics with no personal responsibility - either way we've made it other people's fault and let ourselves off the hook that way.
It has to be both. It has to be both.
It's not even just Adam's sin it's my own. It's those times when I know that God's will is for me to do a certain kind of thing and I don't do it because I'm selfish or I'm afraid; I make excuses.
Or times I know that God's will is not for me to do this thing and I do it anyway because it feels good in the short term or I can rationalize it in some ways.
That's what the Temptation stories are really all about: self-control and why we do what we do and when we do it. I showed you that video 40. I adore that video. I have not been able to track down who first made it, it's someone's music and someone's art and someone else put it together and it's one of those things from the internet it is just kind of taken on a life of its own If and when I do find the artist, I will give them credit. I think it captures something really profound. We read that he was led into the wilderness. Jesius fasted for 40 days. We've gloss right over the journey and we get to the temptations. I don't know about you but most of my life I've read the temptations as rapid fire. Will you do this? This? What about This? w
But what if the temptations take place over days… I don't know about you but my temptation is often… I can resist the first temptation. “I shouldn't have another slice of cake.” I say no…
And…. 15 minutes later that cake's still sitting calling to me….
there it's not a one-time thing. It's a journey. So the slides they depict this as a vision quest. The first slide says “for my 30th birthday I gave myself a gift.” Jesus goes willingly in this telling - many indigenous cultures have a vision quest model. A young person of a certain age will go forth to seek a vision, to seek purpose, to find their identity, to claim it. To be tested - not just tempted. Testing is an interesting way to look at this because testing can be driving you to your breaking point proving that you're not good enough… or way of showing you what you still have to learn… or even confirming and celebrating what you do know.
How do we approach tests? My wife and I had this conversation many times early when we were dating because we have different approaches to school. I love tests - especially bubble sheets - love them. She does not like tests - especially bubble sheets. She seizes up - because her perception her encounter was “I have to know the right answer and if I don't know the right answer I will fail!” My approach to those bubble sheets is “the right answer has been given to me and my job is to find it.” I don't got to know nothing… I’ve just got to break the code!
A test can be given for both reasons. And ask her about our biology lab class… I only passed because of her notes. If it had been an essay, I would have been a dead in the water and we both know it and I admit it publicly because an essay is about demonstrating your knowledge - not finding the answer that's been given to you. Both have their place. Testing can be demonstrating what we still need to learn testing can be demonstrating that we do know more than we thought!
If God is omniscient, all-knowing, which is one of our classic Christian assumptions - then God already knows whether you'll pass the test or not! And my understanding of God as loving, as graceful - the tests are not set before us to humiliate us or break us down. They are to teach us - teachable moments - what we need to learn and to demonstrate that we can do what God is calling us to do.
I live in constant amazement that this is what I get to do for my living. My preaching instructor assigned us a task to preach a sermon with no notes and I failed the assignment. I could not speak extemporaneously… well into my first appointment I could not do it. I would hold a folder with everything I was going to say scripted out and I would read it in a way that wasn’t very effective… Now there is nothing wrong with manuscript preaching. There are some really, really good manuscript preachers who embody their texts. And there's some strength to that – they’ve organized their thoughts, they can outline effectively and because they have the text, if they happen to hit a home run they can give a copy of the text away!
During my first year here I was blessed to have people ask “could you give me a copy of what you said” and I couldn’t… Now, fortunately the technology allows me to make the video and make a transcript and we can send it out and I have a copy and it's wonderful… as long as the technology works. So I'm not bashing manuscript preaching. There's real skill to that. A discipline of ordering your thoughts and arranging it…
but one time I was giving a sermon that just happened to be one of my very favorite scriptures and it was this personal story and I knew them and writing the manuscript was getting in the way and I finally had the courage to not do it and it went well… I found skills and abilities I didn’t know I had and I got permission to organizing around art and poetry and storytelling and other ways of communicating beyond the written word.
and it's pretty much the last manuscript I wrote that wasn't for a funeral or a wedding. Those I script as I need to be really sure I get the right things in the right order - so I have a script but even there often I will just have for like the homily will just be a series of notes and I'll just let the spirit move.
I was talking to somebody the other day about that… where's that line… how much preparation do we need to do to be on the right side of the line of “letting the spirit work” versus “putting the Lord your God to the test,” If I show up at the funeral with scattered notes and I haven't done the work… if I’m thinking – “oh God's always provided before. God will again”… hmm Throwing myself off a building there… don't need to do that.
I've been gifted to plan. I tend to be a person that kind of works to deadline. I've gotten better about setting my own arbitrary deadline so I'm not really at the real last minute.. I'm at my self-imposed last minute and I've gotten to know more about my work style and realizing when I'm being productive and when I need to rest and finding ways that work for me…
Early in my preaching career, I was at a leadership workshop with Adam Hamilton from Church of the Resurrection and he said “why do we only think the Holy Spirit can work at the last possible minute?” Is the holy spirit not involved in our planning and our preparation?
Throughout the video I showed you there's all sorts of biblical Illusions and illustrations - the fox has a den but the son of man has no place to rest his head… and there's images that we don't find in scripture - of Jesus laughing and playing.
Those images are important to me. How do we spend our time even in the midst of a Lenten journey - seeking identity -0 how do we spend our time? play and rest are important parts of it as is recognizing our mortality, as is recognizing that we are finite.
(Slide of Jesus intently looking at a flower) Have you ever spent an afternoon just really taking in God's creation? Really appreciating a single flower? Have you set a boundary?
(Slide of Jesus looking at apple on tree) There's nothing wrong with eating that… at the right time… but right now I am fasting and I am fasting in order to create space… that I might be aware that what I am really hungry for is God.
or God has set a boundary - it's not the right time for that we wrestled with this with is it okay to eat meat or not yes there is no law unless my action affects the conscience of my neighbor and then for their sake I need to reign myself in.
(Slide of Jesus with robe caught in thorns) This one convicts me… I'm pretty even keeled. I will roll with the changes. I'm very adaptable and flexible. I can work well at the last minute, under pressure. I can bring scattered notes together into a coherent whole for a sermon or homily – finding balance of preparation and spontaneity… but man when something out of my control goes wrong.. something snares me and distracts me… that's when I lose it. I was on a roll and now I got to deal with this… that's when I break down… that's when I give in to temptation
That's often when temptation comes. When we're distracted. When we're weak and I think that's part of the story… this whole journey of fasting and did you notice… one of my favorite things about this video … and I don't want to go too far with it theologically, but when the tempter shows up it looks an awful lot like ourselves. I'm not saying that the devil is a mirror image of Jesus… I am saying my own deepest temptations usually come to me from myself Those are the ones that get me… the outside ones I can resist. Those I know somebody's trying to manipulate me, I know the devil's up to something. It's when I can rationalize it myself…
What would be the harm of turning stone into bread… Jesus turns water into wine to save the wedding and the credit goes to the host. He takes bread and multiplies the loaves not once but twice for Jews and Gentiles… they eat their fill. God provides Manna in the wilderness… what is wrong with this?
This story really hit me when I was privileged to go to Israel and I'm walking… even near Jerusalem, there are stones EVERYWHERE. “IF you turn these stones into bread…” there would be so much the world could not consume it all and it's temporary and it rots and it's not of God Is the Temptation pride? Is it showing off? Is it using the power and the gifts I've been given for my own Glory rather than God's? that's temptation and Temptation often comes in the guise of good things that we can rationalize, that we can take credit for.
I talked a little bit about being on the right side of putting the Lord God to your test and letting the spirit work. It is good to trust God. It is good to have confidence that God will hold us no matter what. It is as Carolyn said in the song, wrong to think God will work according to our plans and our timing. The Temptation… we see it so clearly… the good thing that could happen, the way we could prove to someone else that God is real in our lives - yet “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Well the good we could do with power over others… the temptation to let one little thing go because we'll gain the ability to do this wonderful grand thing. Temptation is Insidious even the devil quotes scripture and Jesus roots himself in the law. He says no. He quotes scripture back and then - I think might be one of the most important lessons in this whole journey - how do we read scripture. Scripture is not about absolutes. Scripture is about relationship with each other and with God. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a technique called midrash. It is discussing, wrestlingm with scripture. Thinking about how it applies in this case, at this time. Thinking about how it bears fruit and honors God. Not absolutes for all time…and yet how easy it would be to rationalize, to excuse.
It is a process. It is a journey I hope that you will remember that as you are reading scripture in different writing styles, poetry and persuasion, storytelling, sometimes legalese. I hope that you will see the big picture and understand how a text says this and another text says that and what is the right time. I hope that all of what we do in this lenten season, whether we're taking the reading challenge or attending worship or fasting from a certain thing, I hope all of that leads us to lean towards God's light. To soak in God's presence. To be that light for others. Jesus knows what it is to be human. Jesus has journeyed this life and these temptations with us. Jesus did not play this life with some sort of cheat code like your grandkids play in a video game where they can't be harmed. Jesus’ temptations and testing are real - which means his human responses are real - which means we can do what Jesus does through God's grace. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!