Matthew 4:1-11 involves the story of Jesus heading into the wilderness after he’s baptized, for 40 days of temptation and throw-down with the devil. We’re getting into the season of Lent now, the 40 days that lead up to Easter when the Church wrestles with our own lives in preparation, so the season usually kicks off with this story from Jesus’ life as a tone-setter.
The other reading for today, for the same reason, is from Genesis when we here about the first temptation, and fall, and our struggle with sinfulness starting with Adam and Eve. These are the roots of our understanding of why things aren’t perfect, why many of us feel so inclined to wrongdoing, why the world is full of such junk sometimes, and also, what God is up to to redeem it all.
Bill Cosby cracks me up, so I wanted to share his version of Adam and Eve’s story. Cosby says that in the midst of the task of creating Heaven and Earth, we know that God created Adam and Eve. And as God’s first two children, he found himself as the universe’s first parent. And the first thing he said to them was: “Don’t.”
So now Adam couldn’t help asking, “Don’t what?”
God: “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
Adam: “…forbidden fruit, eh? …really? Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” said God, and he rather wondered why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants. And wouldn’t you know, only minutes later, God saw the kids having a snack break of those forbidden apple slices, and God was angry.
“Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?!” God asked.
Talking with his mouth full, Adam replied, “Uh huh.”
So God wondered, “Then why did you??”
And, shrugging, Adam simply answered, “I dunno.”
So, in the end, Bill Cosby says, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have the experience of children of their own.
What we hear there is the way a lot of us treat Lent. A big “Don’t.” It’s that church season when people have traditionally given things up. And I want us to get at the heart of whether or not that’s enough, if that does Lent justice. The same old 40 days of: “Don’t eat chocolate, don’t gossip, don’t lose your temper,” etc. etc. Maybe there are other ways to do it. How about another way to start with the garden of Eden, and its events, and look at things differently?
How about this — in the midst of God’s creating, when it came time to form humans, we have this image that Adam was formed up out of the dust. Dirt. That earthy, physical side to us. So imagine us as a glass or clay vessel, this earthenware thing being fashioned out of the ground. And now we’re told that God gave life to the dirt by breathing into it. So we have that spiritual side to us. So imagine that same glass or vessel filled up to the brim with crystal clear water, like God’s spirit.
By nature, then, from our beginning point, humanity looks like it’s designed to be filled. The pattern shows up in what God does with humans. God endows them with God’s own likeness; God gives them purpose and direction (be good stewards of creation, be fruitful/multiply); God is deeply connected to them in relationship. They walk and talk together, they’re blessed. Do you see our original human hearts as filled, if not overflowing?
But it all came under assault with temptation, and at the heart of the temptation were questions like, “Isn’t there something better out there that you’re missing out on? Can’t you have even more? Who is God, anyway? “Isn’t God just trying to keep you from living your fullest?” So humans tried to add just a little something. And giving into temptation was like a little drop of something no-good into our hearts, like this:
So it spread through our whole being, polluting every part. And for me, with Lent, if all we do is try to tackle some of the little junk that permeates us, it’s like pouring outta that glass a little bit at a time. We feel our hearts filled with wrongdoing and we’re trying to remove it.
We try to stop smoking and pour a little out. We stop cursing, and pour. We bottle up our anger or disappointment or jealousy or greed, trying to pour it out. And in the end, if all goes right and we reach the goal, we think we’ve poured out all the green oozey bad stuff. Mission accomplished!
But what are we left with then? Even if somehow we’re able to remove all the junk (good luck with that, by the way). Then all that’s there is an empty glass. And I wonder, is that gonna cut it for us with temptation? Truly? Is that the ultimate goal for us?
I think Jesus deals with those questions in Matthew 4, out in the wilds of the world. His experience starts by giving us insight into the inner-workings of being tempted. To get a feel for it, let’s see if we can take a moment to sit intp his shoes a little bit, to try to imagine even a tiny bit how Satan was weaselling with his heart. There are three major temptations, so one at a time we can reflect —
1. How would it feel for Jesus to be challenged: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread?”
What does that appeal to or strike against? Maybe…the idea that there’s no reason for Jesus to suffer needlessly, over something so trivial as hunger? I mean, he’s the Messiah, with important work to do, can he be troubled to worry about food all the time, and let that get in the way of his work? Surely God didn’t send him to earth to starve in the desert, so it’s time to take care of himself.
And don’t forget the big “If” in there. Ultimately, Satan is questioning Jesus’ true identity, and daring him to demonstrate his power to prove it.
2. How would it feel to Jesus to be challenged a second time: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and God will save you.”
The “If” is still there. Only this time he questions Jesus’ identity as if to say, “God will take care of his Son, so why not just prove to everybody, including yourself, that he actually loves you.” The question is: will God come through for you? Challenging God’s character, too. And we hear this kind of thing preached a lot, that if we devote ourselves to God there’s no reason he shouldn’t keep us from any and all harm — our paychecks and property will increase and we’ll see all sorts of evidence like that, if God really loves us. It’s dirty.
3. Last, how would it feel to be taken to look on all the world and and be told, “If you bow down and worship me, I’ll give you all of it.”
Ultimate power and ownership. Authority. The ability to rule and make things however Jesus would like. Lots of folks point to this and say it’s no real temptation at all because these things all belonged to Jesus already. He was already King of kings and Lord of lords, so why bow to Satan?
It’s true, but for how much of Jesus’ life did he walk around virtually homeless, not wealthy, and pretty well unknown to his people? I doubt Jesus wanted to hit the lottery, but I bet he wished people would listen to him. Knowing that he held the way for them to eternal life, and to be with him forever; knowing that he came to redeem all things; knowing how much it took for God to come to earth in the flesh, how frustrating might it be for Jesus to still be mistreated by the Jewish rulers, disliked (or even hated) by his own people, and unable to convince so many to listen let alone believe???
Not only that, but God’s method for Jesus to save things was for him to suffer and die. Here, it’s like Satan offers him what is already rightly his, only an easier way. He can just grab the throne of the world without all that bloodshed. That’s heavy stuff.
Think about the questions it might raise in him, and the ones that rise in us in deepest temptation: “Do you matter? Does God love you? Have you any power over anything? Why suffer or be uncomfortable? What are you worth?”
Letting those questions sink in, let’s go back to our original picture: our hearts as the glass that we’ve tried to clean all the bad stuff out of. Do we think that an empty glass will stand up to assaults like these we see with Jesus?
Won’t work for me. Not if we’re made to be filled by something, something that gives us a sense of purpose, direction, relationship and value. That empty glass looks vulnerable. And I think we’ll search for something to go in it. And i think most often it is always easier to just refill the glass with some of that same old green water. The very stuff we just poured out. It’s just easy to dip right back into it…we’re used to these things, they feel good or are familiar, we’re even addicted. When life is tough or scary, and the itch starts to rise within us, or we have unanswered questions, that polluted green water is better than nothing. Fill’er up.
But clearly Jesus shows us an alternative. He was certainly filled differently. I guess by the most clear, fresh, satisfying water we could pour into a glass. The Spirit of God. Jesus’ connection with the Spirit (I mean, geez, they’re one in the same) is the ground he stood on to beat temptation.
Because he knew God’s heart, Jesus was familiar enough with God’s word to defy Satan (quoting the Old Testament in all three temptations). Because he knew God’s heart, Jesus could correct the way Satan tried to trap him even using Scripture (quoting Psalm 91 to dare Jesus to throw himself down). Because he knew God’s heart, because he is Christ Jesus and God’s embodied Word, Jesus not only quoted Scripture, but he spoke a command: “Away from me, Satan!” And what did Satan do? He left. Because he had to. Because he has no power over Jesus’ authority.
For all the malice and schemes of evil, Jesus is victorious because he is filled up, he is intimately connected to God’s heart. The question for us for Lent might not be, “What do we give up?” or even “What good deed do we do?” I think the question is just, “Do we want to know God more?” Do we want to? Do we believe we can no God more? Is God the kind to reveal God’s self? Absolutely. Then what holds us back except our own desire?
These 40 days can be time to pursue God and be filled freshly with something new, and clean, and fulfilling, the way we were made to be.