A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on March 13, 2011.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
I love the story of the overweight businessman who decided it was time to shed some extra pounds. He took his new diet seriously, even changing his driving route to work so he could avoid his favorite bakery.
One morning, however, he arrived at work carrying his favorite coffeecake. Everyone in the office got on his case, but his smile remained angelic.
“This is very special coffeecake,” he explained. “I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning and there in the window was a host of goodies. I felt this was no accident, so I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to have one of those delicious coffeecakes, let me have a parking space directly in front of the bakery.’
“And sure enough,” he continued, “the eighth time around the block, there it was!”
Temptation is no stranger to any of us. Someone has written that opportunity only knocks once but temptation bangs on your door for years. How well we know! Oscar Wilde has written, “I can resist anything but temptation.” How well we know!
These days we are on the front end of Lent, that special season of the Christian year when God invites us to take a 40 day journey into the depths of our souls. Today, on this first Sunday in Lent (Sundays are not counted as days of Lent), we dive head-first into one of the murkiest pools of water in the life of the spirit—our temptations.
We rarely if ever delve publicly into what tempts us, especially at church where we work very hard to project a respectable image. This is not the easiest place to admit our deepest, darkest impulses. But there is a wisdom in the ancient tradition of Lent that assigns this troubling topic to the very first Sunday of the season. Because if you survey the history of humanity, you see that the Evil One has had no better tool for sabotaging our life than temptation.
Look, for example, at how quickly and effectively the Devil uses temptation to cause Adam and Eve to stumble and fall at the beginning of creation. You will remember that in Genesis 2 God creates a man from the dust of the earth and places him in a paradise called the Garden of Eden. God plants all sorts of trees in the garden that produce delicious fruit. In the center of the garden he places “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
It is the responsibility of this newly created man named Adam to tend and care for the garden. But with this awesome responsibility comes a stern warning: “You may freely eat of any tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.”
Even so, the man is given an astounding amount of freedom. God does not erect a barbed wire fence around the forbidden tree. The man is given free rein to go wherever, and eat whatever, including the forbidden fruit.
In the remaining verses of Genesis 2, a wonderful thing happens. The first man is given a companion—a “wo-man”, taken from his side. When he sees this woman, named Eve, for the first time, Adam is thrilled by such beauty. He revels in her nakedness, and she enjoys him as well. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25).
Sadly, all that was about to change.
Now, the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” The lying serpent is never identified as Satan in this story. But over time, the Christian church identified the serpent as the Evil One. Apparently, Adam is not close by, and the serpent is having a one-on-one conversation with Eve.
In the space of seven verses, the crafty serpent convinces Eve, who in turn convinces Adam, that the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—that fruit that was good for food and…a delight to the eyes and…(able) to make one wise—was just too good to pass up despite what God had commanded.
So Adam and Eve helped themselves to the fruit that is so tempting, and the results are deadly. When Adam and Eve choose to rebel against God, their rebellion triggers a moral and spiritual earthquake throughout the universe, and creation goes into a free fall from perfection into depravity. On that day, something very precious within Adam & Eve dies. On that day, shame and guilt and fear are born. Like toxic waste, sin oozes out into the river of humanity, infecting all who will follow. Through the tool of temptation, Satan seeks to sabotage the paradise God has created, and he succeeds…brilliantly.
Until Jesus comes along.
Despite the devastation in the Garden of Eden, God does not give up on his wayfaring children. He keeps trying to turn them toward a different direction and transform them into the kind of people he originally intended. But over centuries of time nothing works. His chosen people, the Israelites, repeatedly disobey the Law and ignore the prophets.
So God unleashes a brilliant strategy of his own. He arranges for his only Son, named Jesus, who will eventually be called the “Second Adam”, to come to earth and turn things around by inaugurating the Kingdom of God. Jesus is born to Mary, and trained to be a carpenter by his earthly father Joseph. For thirty years Jesus plies his trade while deepening his relationship with God, and his understanding of his mission.
Finally, it is time to formally launch Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, declaring him to be the beloved Son of God, most pleasing to his Heavenly Father. Then, a strange thing happens. The same Spirit of God leads Jesus, still dripping wet from his baptism, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Oddly enough, it looks like God is one more time giving the devil a golden opportunity to sabotage God’s carefully laid plans before they have a chance to succeed. No doubt, the devil is licking his chops at the prospect of cutting God, and the Son of God, down to size.
Jesus fasts forty days and forty nights, and he is of course famished. Just when Jesus would no doubt kill for a crumb of bread, the devil strolls by and urges Jesus to use his superpowers to turn the nearby stones into bread, a miracle Jesus is clearly capable of performing. You have to believe the devil was at least mildly surprised, if not irritated when Jesus did not fall for the bread trick, since all it took was forbidden fruit to bring the first Adam down.
But the devil is not be easily defeated. He invites Jesus to demonstrate his power for all to see by throwing himself from the roof of the temple, and even quotes scripture to convince Jesus that God would approve. But Jesus doesn’t fall for that idea. When food and the prospect of glory don’t work, there’s one other temptation in the devil’s play book that almost never fails—the temptation of unlimited power. Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of this world to rule as he pleases. All Jesus has to do in return is fall and worship at Satan’s feet.
“No thanks,” says Jesus. “And furthermore, get lost Satan!” Satan leaves, making room for the angels of God who now attend to the Son of God. As Satan slithers away, he must be trembling in his boots because for the first time since he’s been dealing with human beings he has clearly met his match. Clearly, the Second Adam is going to be harder to sabotage than the first.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost more than my share of temptation battles with the Evil One. And on this first Sunday in Lent, I need to learn all I can from the experiences of the first two “Adams” about how the devil operates.
For example, I notice that the devil works hard to entice both Adam and Jesus to forget God’s will and go their own way. In Adam and Eve’s case, the devil very quickly twists God’s words and questions God’s motives hoping to seduce Adam & Eve into believing God can’t be trusted. “Look at God!” he hopes they’ll say to themselves. “He plants all these trees with luscious fruit, and then says we can’t have any! What kind of God would do that? And why doesn’t God want us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Maybe that’s the fruit we need to eat first! We’ll show him who’s boss!”
Sadly, Adam and Eve take the devil’s bait hook, line, and sinker. After eating the forbidden fruit, they will be forever prone to determine good and evil out on their own, apart from God’s wisdom. And their God-less autonomy will lead to disaster.
Meanwhile, Jesus doesn’t fall for this gambit. He knows he can trust his Father’s wisdom when it comes to making the Kingdom of God a reality.
Notice, too, that the devil exploits both the strengths and the weaknesses of his prey. The serpent very cleverly approaches Eve first about eating the forbidden fruit, for one simple reason—she was not around to hear God expressly prohibit Adam from eating this fruit because she had yet to be created. So the devil takes advantage of Eve in her vulnerability, and the rest is history.
In Jesus’ case, the devil goes first for a weakness, then a strength. First he appeals to Jesus’ famished appetite, and anybody who’s ever been tempted by coffee cake or anything else knows how vulnerable we are when we’re hungry. Then he entices Jesus to abuse his superpowers for his own needs and glory, and he fails at that too. But that temptation is worth noting because sometimes the abuse of our gifts will lead to our downfall even faster than the exploitation of our weaknesses.
And of course, the devil plays fast and loose with the truth. He’s not called the Father of Lies for nothing. He twists what God says, and even quotes scripture when he can do so to his advantage. He also conveniently leaves out inconvenient truths. For example, Adam and Eve gain new wisdom as the serpent promises after eating the forbidden fruit. But the serpent doesn’t bother telling them that their new knowledge will badly damage their souls.
We’ve got to give the devil his due — he’s good at the game of temptation. But as good as the devil is, Jesus proves he can be beaten. How does Jesus do it?
The traditional answer is that Jesus responds to the devil quickly and biblically. He doesn’t play footsie with the devil, allowing the devil’s temptations to grow and develop in his mind. And he doesn’t invent his own responses. He quotes directly from the Old Testament—“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Not even the Son of God trusts in his own wisdom to fend off the devil. He has spent time memorizing the word of God, and he wisely uses it in the moment.
But, today I also want to point out two often overlooked strategies used by Jesus. The first is a forty-day retreat. Juliet Benner suggests we look at Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the wilderness not just as a prolonged time of temptation, but as a retreat deliberately planned by God to test and ultimately fortify his son. Remember, according to Matthew, Satan didn’t even show up until the 40th day.
On the one hand, the devil’s timing looks brilliant, given that Jesus is so hungry. But his timing is actually Satan’s undoing because Jesus is coming off 40 days of spiritual practices associated with retreat that make him very formidable in the face of evil. For forty days and nights he has experienced solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, meditation and reflection. He may be hungry in body, but he is mighty in spirit, and truthfully the devil doesn’t stand a chance! Jesus comes out of this 40 day retreat stronger than ever, ready to save the world—which he does.
One final thing—Jesus shares his experiences of temptation with others. We know Jesus was alone during his time 40 day retreat. So how else does his temptation story slip into the biblical record if he doesn’t share it with his disciples? In fact, that’s the only way to explain how Jesus’ rather embarrassing account of wrestling with the devil in the Garden of Gethsemane (where he asks God to spare him the cross) could make it into the canon. Even in this regard Jesus shows us that a wise way to manage our ongoing temptation is to find someone safe that we trust, and share our temptations with them.
It so happens that I followed Jesus’ example just this week when I shared some rather embarrassing temptations with my spiritual director. I’ll be honest, it was not an easy conversation. But I felt stronger afterwards because I know the devil will have a harder time sabotaging my spiritual life with those issues. And you know what? That’s more than worth a little embarrassment!