First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Well, even the devil quotes and uses scripture. I guess it’s no surprise then that we people do that to each other too. Some people use scripture as a weapon to repress and control others. Some use it to make their point to feel affirmed in their own beliefs. As we see with the devil here in Matthew, scripture says a lot of things. And sometimes it contradicts itself. The Bible wasn’t all written at one time or even by people who knew each other. That’s why it’s good for us to explore it and learn the history and context behind what is written, and read before and after the text we are exploring.
Before this reading of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is the story of Jesus’ baptism. The temptation takes place before he calls the disciples, which is what comes after. This temptation story is set before his ministry officially begins. And isn’t it interesting that it’s the Spirit who leads him into the wilderness in order to be tempted.
One thing Matthew shows us in his telling of this story is a force or a being or a creation that is not indifferent to the presence of God in the world through Jesus. It is out for rebellion, out to destroy it, so it will fight it. The text calls it the devil, or the tempter (which is a better word choice – this is not a man with a red suit, pointy ears, and a pitch fork). This character shows us that “the evil of the world is in active defiance against the will of the Triune God. Jesus, too, is not indifferent about redeeming the world, and he makes no compromise. Christ is so committed to overcoming everything that defies the triune God in order to redeem the beloved creation, that there will be absolutely no compromise.” (Rolf Jacobson in Sermon Brainwave from Working Preacher)
When we do the Affirmation of Baptism liturgy, (which is what we use when our young people are Confirmed, or when we bring new members into the congregation, and sometimes when we bless and install people for specific ministries) within it are the three renunciations before the three parts or articles of the Creed. There is a parallel there with the three mirroring the three. But there is also a parallel to our text today. Not only does it mirror the number three, the renunciations we are invited to declare seem to mirror the temptations of Jesus.
In the Affirmation of Baptism liturgy, it says:
I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
I renounce them.
(renounce means to formally declare your abandonment of something, to reject something outright)
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
I renounce them.
These renunciations reflect the temptations of Jesus. Bread, power, ways of sin that draw us from God.
Every year we begin Lent with this text – each year it’s from a different Gospel, and each writer tells it a little differently – but it’s always the same story. Our attention is called to the devil’s power, and we might get caught up in trying to see or name it’s presence in our world. But it might be better for us to focus on where our hope resides.
In the wilderness, Jesus encounters a force seeking to undermine his mission before it even begins. Is it possible even the tempter knew what God was up to in Jesus? But Jesus is not moved. “Get behind me, Satan!” might be a useful phrase here. And so our Lenten journey – one that will take us to the cross, to Jesus in deep suffering – begins with the devil being named and crushed underfoot. Jesus will continue this work throughout his ministry, and in the end he will conquer death itself.
You can hear the good work of the lectionary committee in matching the temptation story with the beginning of Genesis, what some might call the temptation for Adam and Eve at the beginning. These chapters lie at the root of so much theological discussion on deep topics like original sin, free will, and gender. I have to admit, it is always overwhelming to preach on them because there is so much baggage here. There is so much we read into the text that isn’t there because of depictions we’ve seen in stories and film or because of what we have been told. Talk about using scripture to repress and control others. This is one of the texts used to justify misogyny and sexism. And just to clear it up for any of you that might be wondering, yes, it still exists in our world today. Women are still blamed by those who would say that women brought evil or sin into the world. Nevermind that Adam doesn’t put up a fight in eating the fruit. But we won’t get into that today…
In looking at the context of this reading, you may have noticed that we skipped over some verses. One of those tells us that the man and the woman were both naked and were not ashamed. Scholars agree that what being naked actually indicates is ambiguous. And since it shows up later – “their eyes are opened and and they knew they were naked,” it is good for us to notice this. Does it mean they were vulnerable or powerless? Is it a reference to their sexuality? Was it about noticing their bodies? Either way, this story tells us how shame may have entered into humanity. It is a common part of the human experience to carry shame about your body. And yet, that is not what God wants for us. God wants us to know that we are beautiful no matter what we look like. God wants us to live without fear and shame, and to be who we are, who God has made us to be.
The story of Adam and Eve also shows us that just because you know right from wrong, doesn’t mean you always do it. This is also part of the human condition, something we have to struggle with.
There is a parallel between the Genesis story and the Psalm for today. In both, there is hiding or covering. Adam and Eve cover themselves because of their fear and shame. The version of the Psalm sung today said, “Tried so hard to cover it up…turns out God can cover it all…” How often do we try to hide because of our shame? Because we feel like we are wrong in our being. We aren’t enough…pretty enough, strong enough, good enough, patient enough, loving enough, smart enough…
Shame holds a power over humanity that deserves to be trampled underfoot the way that Jesus trampled the devil in the wilderness. It’s our shame that keeps us from believing and knowing God intimately, knowing ourselves intimately, and knowing others intimately. It’s shame that keeps us from remembering that we are children of God, no matter what. You are beautiful, beloved, and enough, just as you are.
In this season of Lent, there is sometimes talk about “denying ourselves.” And sometimes that might make us uncomfortable. But it is scriptural, like when Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” This work is about saying no to the power of shame and the power of evil or the devil that would have us believe that glory comes through anything but suffering. Not that we are meant to suffer, but maybe the story of Adam and Eve would have us believe that we are, since the rebellion. Life will be hard. And it will be work for us to deny ourselves – to say no to the shame and the powers of this world that rebel against God. They are not going down without a fight, as we saw with Jesus, and it will be work for us to make sure we remember God’s promises for us – of love and grace, redemption and peace. Because sin and the way it draws us from God is trying to make sure we don’t remember those promises.
You are invited into this Lent, to take up a Lenten discipline or practice that helps you remember and live in God’s promises, and disciplines that get you out of yourself. God knows that we are not meant for life alone, we are meant for life together, in community, but again, it’s something we have to work at. We have to deny ourselves, give up our own wants and comforts, in order to serve our neighbors. And in Lent, we might be called to do just that.
There are sheets out on the table with a list of ideas for your Lenten practice this year. Feel free to take one with you. I encourage you to take something on or give something up, something that will help draw you near to God as God draws near to you. It will be work, giving up ourselves always is, but it is the life to which we are called when we follow Jesus. God will be with us, and we will walk together, reminding each other that we are beautiful, beloved, and enough, just as we are.