Parish Eucharist 5th March 2017
Sermon 10:30 a.m. Sunday 5 March 2017 – Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7; Psalm 32; Romans 5: 12 – 19; Matthew 4: 1 – 11
“Our founders were insightful students of human nature. They feared the abuse of power because they understood that every human being has not only "better angels" in his nature, but also an innate vulnerability to temptation — especially the temptation to abuse power over others.”
Those words were said by Al Gore, at an Address at New York University (25 May 2004). He was, of course, speaking about the founders of the US Constitution.
It seems that those who drew up our lectionary also understood only too well our vulnerability to temptation. Lent has barely got under way - and we are offered stories about temptation and advice on forgiveness in our readings and our Psalm this morning. We perhaps made some resolutions at the beginning of Lent to give something up, or to take something up. Often when we make an effort to move forward in the Christian life this is followed by a realization that it’s more difficult than we thought – as if the battle has heated up. I’ve been dipping into C S Lewis’ ‘Screwtape Letters’ this week, where a junior devil, Wormwood, seeks advice from his Uncle Screwtape about how to divert a young man from his Christian journey. It certainly rings true to my experience, and it’s a very entertaining source of some good advice on temptations of various kinds.
But what do today’s readings tell us about temptation?
The story of Adam and Eve is a very familiar one. Although it is ancient it is highly sophisticated. Adam and Eve’s original destiny is to live in God’s world with His other creatures on God’s terms. The garden is designed for community, and God has put in place boundaries, which are symbolized by the one tree – of knowledge of good and evil – from which they must not eat. The problem begins when Adam and Eve begin to talk about God, to discuss what He has said about what they may and may not do, rather than simply talking to God. There must be a warning there for all theologians! From that point onwards the trust between Creator and created beings begins to break down, and God becomes an object rather than a person to whom they relate. Adam and Eve begin to realise that disobedience is a real option for them; they think they could be independent of their creator – and therein lies their temptation. The greatest temptation is to treat God as less than God, and this is what they do. They had wanted knowledge more than trust, and now they have it. From this point on the focus turns to themselves, rather than to God. They have become self-centred rather than God-centred. The miracle is that they continue to live. Their sentence is not death, but life outside the garden, because this is what they have chosen. They did not want God’s boundaries. And life outside the garden is life as we all experience it! Adam and Eve stand for us all.
We are all self-centred; we often find community difficult; we find it hard to trust God; we have a tendency to perhaps talk about God more than we talk to God; we too often hide from God when we feel guilty; and listening to God is perhaps the most difficult of all.
I’m sure we can all think of examples for ourselves of the particular things that tempt us away from God.
One reason why the story of Adam and Eve is so powerful, is that we recognize ourselves and our own predicament only too well.
The greatest temptation is to treat God as less than God. To put our own interests first instead.
Jesus, of course, knows this too, and because He was fully human He experienced it as well - as our Gospel makes clear. For Jesus, the temptation comes just after a high point – his baptism - when God has publicly assured Him of His favour – that He is God’s beloved Son. Now Jesus faces three challenges. Firstly, hunger, a physical need; secondly, the temptation to try to manipulate God for his own purposes; thirdly, the worship of something or someone other than God – in other words - idolatry. During their journeyings in the wilderness the people of Israel had failed in all of these tests. Jesus shares with us the temptation to treat God as less than God, to serve His own interests. But He is single-minded, he trusts God completely, and will not compromise the boundaries set for Him by God, or the mission which He has been given. That single-mindedness and commitment will take him to the Cross – and in the depths of that experience He must suffer even the sense that He has been abandoned by God.
Jesus, who is God, under extreme temptation, still treated God as God. As the letter to the Philippians puts it “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6 – 8)
Jesus did not grasp at things for Himself as we are tempted to do, but poured Himself out, just as God first poured Himself out in the act of Creation. Jesus came to show us that God never withdraws His love from His created beings, even if we choose to go our own way.
It is in the knowledge of such love that we are invited to make the journey back into the garden, to receive what the New Testament calls ‘eternal life’. Our Psalm reminds us of the agony of guilt, and the joy of knowing oneself forgiven by God.
As the Psalmist puts it:
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin in covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
And in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32: 1 -2)
We can choose to go back.