Sermon - 13th March 2011
Lent 1 - Temptation, Seduction and Betrayal
Genesis 2:15-17, 3: 1-7 & Matthew 4:1-11
Rev Andy Braunston
Temptation, Seduction and Betrayal. This sounds like the tag line for the latest Jackie Collins novel or Hollywood movie, but it is, rather, the themes of our two readings today for the first Sunday of Lent.
The two readings are linked – the tempter appears in both, temptation is offered, succumbed to in one and rejected in the other. There are contrasts – the lush garden in the first reading gives way to the arid desert in the second. Adam and Eve are together in the first, Jesus is quite alone in the second; but the central themes of temptation, and (attempted) seduction and betrayal are there in both.
Throughout Lent the Old Testament readings reflect key events in the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Today we look at the fall of humanity. The account from Genesis of the fall of humanity appears at the start of the Old Testament and it’s tempting to think that this is the earliest writings of the Bible. This isn’t so, whilst the events told in Genesis relate to humanity’s pre-history, the book itself was a compilation of many folk stories told by the Jewish people from generation to generation but not actually written down until, possibly the Jewish people were in Exile in Babylon around 500 years before the time of Jesus. At a time of national disaster the Jewish people were fearful that they’d cease to exist as a separate people with a distinct identity. They had a great need, therefore, to understand and celebrate their origins and so those old stories of their prehistory were written down and eventually took the form we now know as the Book of Genesis.
From the story of the Fall we see a number of things that the ancient Jews realised about the world; some of those things don’t sit well with what we think we know. We’re used to thinking of the Garden of Eden as a mythical place where everything was perfect. We read again and again in Genesis that God made the world and what He made was “good”. Yet the fact that something is good doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The writers of Genesis envisioned God’s creative activity as pushing back the waters of chaos behind the “dome” - the sky and under the earth. In other words the good world is created but at the margins lurk chaos, and possibly evil. In a week where we reflect on the unimaginable destructive power of earthquake and tsunami we see a little of what those early thinkers were trying to express.
When moving on to our Lenten themes of temptation, seduction and betrayal we notice interesting things in the Genesis story. The serpent doesn’t come from outside the garden but is one of God’s created animals. He is crafty and makes Eve doubt what she has been told about eating of the tree of life. Eve is seduced by the crafty words of the serpent – she takes some persuading. Her husband, however, doesn’t need any persuading at all to eat of the apple. Adam didn’t speak up as he watched Eve be seduced by the serpent who was playing with ideas and yearnings that were within the hearts of Adam and Eve –
- did God really tell the truth?
- would they really die if they ate of the tree?
- why should they be denied what they want?
Sometimes when we see a beautiful new-born baby we struggle with the Christian idea of original sin. We see the perfection of a baby and wonder how the Church can say that this beautiful child is, like us, a sinner. I think the idea is more subtle than that. The idea of original sin recognises that we are flawed, there is a structural weakness within us which is always tempted to sin. It doesn’t become manifest until we are older, but we see in the portrayal of Adam and Eve their struggle to resist what they know is wrong. Being human is always a struggle with this flaw; it doesn’t mean we’re less loved, or corrupt, or even that we will sin – as that decision is always ours alone- but it does mean we have a weakness that means it’s more likely that, left to our own devices, we will choose the wrong thing to do.
Sin, it seems for the writers of Genesis, is a mysterious force that arises from within God's supposedly "good" creation. The serpent is simply one of God's creatures. And the yearnings and suspicions of the humans about God's motivations are somehow already embedded within the human heart from the beginning and simply needed the encouragement of the serpent to bring them out and convert them into action.
The Genesis story about the fall then is less about "explaining" the origin of sin and more about describing the reality of what it is to be human and our mysterious human tendencies continually to rebel against God, to resist the gracious boundaries and limitations that God places around us for our own good, and to desire to be like God rather than thankful creatures of God.
The result of this “being human” meant that Adam and Eve were tempted, seduced and then betrayed by the wily serpent. Their choice to disobey God led to them being cast out of paradise and subject to mortality. They fell at the first hurdle.
The tempter appears again in the story of Jesus’ temptation in St Matthew. St Paul and the earliest Christians saw Jesus as a “second Adam” (sadly they seemed to forget about Eve) who, unlike the first Adam resisted temptation. We find it easier, I think, to relate to the temptations of Jesus than we do the Adam and Eve story, as the three temptations of Jesus are all in areas we can readily understand, but the themes are similar, Jesus is tempted, and had he been seduced he would have been betrayed.
The first temptation was to do with the body. Jesus had been fasting. St Matthew is at pains throughout his Gospel to portray Jesus as a good Jew who observed all the commands of the ritual law – and one of these was fasting. Following his baptism, Jesus went out into the desert to spend an extended time in prayer and fasting to focus on his mission and to be close to God. Now, as may be obvious, I am not a natural faster. I can just about manage a day – particularly if I don’t think about it. But if I resolve “oh, this Good Friday I will fast” I wake up hungry! The idea of fasting for an extended period of time is awful to me.
Clearly Jesus would have drunk water – after a few days humans die without water – but he went for an extended time without food. Things happen when we don’t eat. At first we can ignore the hunger, after a while it becomes all-consuming and great will-power is needed to keep the resolve not to eat. After this, evidently, the body starts to shut down various functions and I’m told the person no longer feels the hunger. Satan’s temptation would, therefore, have been most effective when Jesus was experiencing the overwhelming sense of hunger.
All of us know what it is to be tempted to give into the desires of our bodies. We may be tempted to eat too much, or eat the wrong things, to drink too much, to avoid exercise, to refuse to learn to control our desires. Traditionally Christianity has been very distrustful of the body which has led to some very odd theology and ideas which are particularly oppressive to women. But in our reaction against this, in our desire to show that the body is created by God and is good, we can forget that we still need to learn to discipline ourselves. Cream cakes are good, sweets are good, cheese and chocolate are particularly good – but if we’re not disciplined in how and when we eat these things we do ourselves harm. Jesus resists this temptation by reminding Satan that we don’t just live by the desires of our body, but also by our spiritual values. This realisation will help us as we seek to discipline ourselves.
Putting the Lord to the Test
The second temptation was more pernicious. God had not given his Son miraculous powers for them to be used for his own benefit. The second temptation suggested Jesus should do this; to do something so sensational that everyone would immediately recognise that he was the Messiah. Jump from a pinnacle of the Temple and assume that God would send angels to catch him in mid-air. The crowds would see and believe. Doubters would be convinced, sceptics confounded. What could be wrong with that? Again the temptation was rejected. To ‘put God to the test’ is intrinsically wrong. This short-cut to faith for the crowd would involve doing God’s work in the world’s way. There was no Calvary by-pass available to the Son of God, as the Garden of Gethsemane demonstrates. We too can be tempted to take short cuts to do it “my way” instead of God’s way.
The last temptation seems to be the most subtle, but – at face value – the easiest to resist. Satan seems to think he is in charge of all the nations and realms of the world and offers them to Jesus if only Jesus would bow the knee and worship him. At one level this is easy to resist, but on another it’s deadly. Imagine what you’d do with all that power. No more shilly shallying around with Ghadifi and his antics –you’d have the power, he’d go straight to the Hague for trial. No more hoping the world would finally agree to limit greenhouse emissions – you’d have the power, you’d sort it out. No more unjust regimes, no more human rights abuses, all that power. Tolkien offers a similar picture in his Lord of the Rings Trilogy where the young ring bearer, Frodo, offers the ring of power he is carrying so that he can eventually destroy it in Mount Doom, to the efl queen Galdadriel. She realises what power she could have with the ring but also, in the nick of time, realises too how that power would change her.
Lord Acton famously said of the Roman Catholic Church that “all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The history of the Church shows that when it gets too close to the state or when it exercises secular authority things go tragically wrong. Had Jesus bowed the knee to Satan then he could have done no good as the basis of his power would have been faulty.
We face different temptations every day of our life; temptations to give in to what we think we’d like but what we know isn’t good for us, temptation to do things our way instead of God’s, temptations to misuse power for our own aims. Through Lent we seek to get to know ourselves better and through the traditional disciplines of prayer, giving and self-denial, we hope we get better at resisting temptation. Amen.