A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent I, February 17, 2002, dedicated to the memories of Patricia Smith & Otto Schultz and always to the glory of God!
(II of VII in the Lenten/Easter Series:
"God's Word and our Struggle to Respond")
Genesis 2:15-3:7; Matthew 4:1-11
Throughout scripture God speaks. God says, "Come" and God says "Go." God says, "Turn around" and God says, " trust!" "Follow!" "Arise!" "Anoint!" Without saying much God says a lot. The question is - how do the people of old, and in my mind, what is more important, how do you and I respond to God's almighty words? During the next month and a half, we will take a closer look at God's word and our struggle to respond . . .
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
It has been written in the ancient wisdom of Midrash that before creating this world, God made world after world and discarded each of them, saying: this does not please me. At last God created this world and said: This one is good! It is beautiful, I like this one, I am keeping it. Then God made Adam and showed him all the world. And God said to Adam - don't ruin this one. I am not making another one. Take care of it!
And so here we stand on the first Sunday of Lent with two stories about how the creatures of the Creator turned out. In the first story from Genesis we hear of the first testers of the creation and the consequences of their testing God, which was to be cast out of the perfect world of the Garden of Eden into the work a day world outside the garden. In the second story, we encounter the testing once again - this time by the great Tempter himself, the devil, who pushes Jesus, the Creator's beloved child, to the furthest points of temptation.
One story begins in the garden and ends in the wilderness. The other story begins in the water of baptism and ends in the region east of Jerusalem called The Devastation. In both stories, God speaks. In both stories, the response to God's word is less than hoped for! Let's begin in the beginning with Genesis.
Can you remember the experience of your mother baking cookies when you were a child? As a 3 ½ year-old child, I lived with my grandparents in Canton, Ohio for several months. My parents went on a worldwide trip and I was taken 500 miles away from my Philadelphia home to Canton, Ohio. While I loved my time there, my grandparents had rules to which I wasn't accustomed. One day when baking chocolate cookies, my grandmother put the cooling cookies on racks right in the center of her kitchen table. She told me not to eat them, but I knew she wasn't serious. "She's not going to miss one cookie," I thought. So while she was in the bathroom, I took one (or maybe two or three) cookies. Somehow (maybe from the chocolate all over my face), she figured out that some of her precious cookies were gone. With no dog to blame, I stood there accused, convicted, sentenced, and banished from the kitchen. Apparently, she really liked her cookies and she was really serious about keeping all of them!
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve, the serpent and the fruit, and God is a lot like my grandmother's cooling cookies in her beloved scarlet and gray kitchen (yes, I was introduced to Scarlet and Gray while still in the infancy of my cookie stealing days . . . it was the Woody Hayes era after all!). Anyway, with the Garden of Eden as God's kitchen, Adam and Eve are told that the tree of knowledge and truth in the center of the garden is off limits. Like me with the cookies, they must have thought, God has got to be kidding. All Eve needed were a few simple words of encouragement from the serpent (I didn't even have a serpent to tempt me!), and she ends up breaking God's first law - which is: "do not eat this fruit or you shall die."
But, all sorts of questions arise about these words from God . . . First, why did God set the tree with the best fruit in the middle of the garden? Wouldn't it have made more sense to put the off-limits tree in a "no trespassing" area somewhere on the edge of nowhere? Secondly, why did God lie to them about the consequences of their fruit-eating escapade? God said they would die from eating the fruit. But, they didn't die. In fact, the serpent spoke honestly - he said they would not die and that they would gain the knowledge they desired about good and evil by practicing fruit-eating disobedience. And both things happen: they live and they gain knowledge, but the knowledge they gain is a disaster. The knowledge they gain is that they are naked and in so learning, they gain the feelings of shame in the face of nakedness. By the way, I think you should know that sin is not mentioned once in the Adam and Eves' story. Sin is mentioned first in the story of Cain and Abel.
Beyond the truth of the serpent is a greater truth. The truth is, God gives Adam and Eve free will. But, in becoming autonomous, in gaining the freedom to choose, first Eve and then Adam make bad choices. Herein lies our struggle. God gives us freedom. We have the power in the freedom of being human to make choices, too. Some of our choices are life-giving, and life-sustaining choices. Other choices are deadly decisions, they create addictions, form habits that can destroy us, and in so choosing, we lose the freedom to choose well.
I think God knew what was going to happen in the Garden, just like my grandmother knew what going to happen in her kitchen. Eve didn't want to take commands. She wanted to understand them. And we also need to remember, the command was given to Adam, not to Eve. Maybe, what we really have here is the first illustration where a man forgot to give a very important message to his wife! Certainly, if that's all that happened, it's no wonder God didn't kill the woman!
We struggle to respond to God's commands as well. I like this story, because not only do the humans fail God, but God is merciful to the fumbling humans. God does not wipe them out. In the pain God experiences in the face of their disobedience, God spares them, even as they try to cover-up their behaviors (the first cover-up recorded in human history). My grandmother didn't wipe me out. Like so many generations before me (and since), I lived to tell this story.
I like what Thomas A Kempis says in The Imitation of Christ. He writes, "The starting point of all evil temptings lies in inconsistency of the mind and the small confidence in God. The slack man who abandons his fixed resolve is battered by all kinds of temptation like a ship with no steersman, driven to and fro by the waves . . . So, I advise you simply this: resist the beginnings - because the cure is provided too late." Resist the beginnings. And listen to God, who has spoken from the beginning.
In the second story from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is in the wilderness forty days and forty nights. As I said earlier, the area in which he is fasting in silence is called The Devastation. It is barren, lonely, mystical, and silent. I know. I have been there! Jesus started into this journey right out of the waters of baptism. His body isn't even dry when he goes from water to devastation! Forty days without the skies opening. Forty days without doves appearing. Forty days with no voice from heaven reassuring him that he was beloved and beautiful! There was just Jesus, the desert and finally, at the end of forty days, the devil. Since you already know this conversation by heart, I won't go over it again. The important thing is to pay attention to tests that the devil puts Jesus through.
First, he tempted Jesus to practice magic. "Command these stones to become loaves of bread." Next he tempted Jesus to call on God's special protection: "Throw yourself down from the temple." Finally, he tempted him to take control of all the kingdoms of the world: "All these I will give to you, if you will but fall down and worship me."
In his testing Jesus, the devil begins by suggesting that Jesus deserved a better outcome than God was giving him. Why should he be starving? Why should he be subject to Caesar, when Caesar should be subject to him? If God couldn't do any better than this by his (supposedly beloved) Son, Jesus may want to consider shopping around for a new father! The devil begins two out of three of his tests with "If you are the son of God . . . " meaning that Jesus needs to prove himself to be more like God and less like humans. But, Jesus does not yield to the devil.
God's word in this story is delivered through Jesus. Jesus demonstrates by his word and his deed what "the son of God" really means. He proves who he is not by seizing power, but by turning it down. He will not practice magic to prove who he is. He will not ask God for special protection or political power. It may surprise you and everyone else who digs into this story - but Jesus proves he is the son of God by remaining human.
A son of God is not someone who is related to God by rising out of his humanity, but someone who shows his bloodline by sinking into it - even in the face of starvation and bettering tests. A son of God is someone who can listen to every good reason to become God and yet chooses to remain as a child of God instead. (Some of these illustrations are drawn from Barbara Taylor's Bread of Angels, p. 39).
You and I can learn a lot from this story. We learn that when we are tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, we can instead make choices that reflect Christ's way. The voices will come to us. Some of them will come from inside our heads. Others will come from family members, co-workers, friends who say, "If you are a real Christian, why aren't things going better for you?" Or "If your God is so good, then why are you struggling so much?" Or "If you are a Christian, why aren't you happier, healthier, richer, safer, blah, blah, blah?"
Let me tell you how to respond: "Go away, Satan!" (You need to watch how loud you yell this at co-workers!). I would rather be a hungry player on God's team, then a fat player on your team!" O yes, the temptations will come. The seductions of happiness, health security, and so on will come your way.
But, remember the other voice. You will hear it as well, "This is my beloved child. In you, I am well pleased! You are my adorable son! OR I love you for being a woman of integrity. I love your honesty. I love your humanity. I even love you, when you eat the fruit from the tree I told you not to touch! Yes, I will admit it, I love you even when you eat the chocolate chip cookies off my kitchen table!"
No matter how well the tempter, the tester, the devil, the serpent, the cookie monster - whatever you want to call him - offers the shiny side of the apple or the sweet-smelling cookie to you, resist the beginnings because the cure is provided too late. Also remember that he will return at an opportune time to tempt you again. But, most important, remember now and for all time that our God who created this beautiful world, and is done making worlds, is calling you and me to take care of it and take care of one another. Remember, the God who created Adam and Eve, who birthed God's beloved into this world, this God - our God - loves you! God loves You Unconditionally! And that's good news! Amen.
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