Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17 and 2.25-3.15

Matthew 4:1-11

(readings from Lent 1, Year A, RCL)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Fall of Man by Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-29 (Wikipedia Commons)

The first story in the Bible is the story of the creation: God makes the world, and he sees that it is good. But then follows a darker story, the one we read today: the ancient tale of the first man and woman, and how they came to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. For Adam and Eve are every man and every woman- their story is our story. It’s a story of good and evil, shame and embarrassment, about temptation, avoiding God, humanity and nature becoming enemies. This deep, dark, myth is the Bible’s account of the human condition.

Our reading begins with part of a description of the paradise in which God had placed the first man. All that Adam (as he is named later in the chapter) has to do is to cultivate and guard this lovely garden, which will give him all he needs to live. God says to Adam, ‘You have only one job’, and if Adam does it properly, he simply has to pluck the fruit from the trees to live.

Not only that, God gives Adam a mate with whom to share the pleasures of the garden. They are innocent, and so they can live without shame- they are naked, but not embarrassed. What can possibly go wrong? Paradise!

But there is a snake in the grass.

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. The image is a screenshot from the trailer of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 released by Warner Brothers Pictures in October 2010, and intended for wide distribution.

In JK Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels, the evil wizard, Voldemort, ends up looking a bit like a snake, with thin eyes and hairless skin. He’s accompanied by a terrifying companion- a giant snake. And it turns out that Voldemort has an ability which few other wizards have- he speaks a language called ‘Parceltongue’- the language of snakes. When the hero, the boy wizard, Harry, discovers that he, too, has the ability to talk to snakes, a friend warns him that it’s not good, for Parceltongue is associated with dark magic.

There is something about snakes, which causes many of us to dislike them, even to be afraid of them. And the snake who comes into the Genesis story has, I’m afraid, given his successors a bad name, in cultures, like ours, which have been influenced by this tale. Two and a half thousand years after the first chapters of Genesis were written, snakes still stand for evil!

The Genesis snake represents how we humans can be dissatisfied, even when things are great. The man and the woman can eat the fruit of any tree- except one. God has told them that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it will fatal. Oh no, says the snake, that’s not true. For the snake represents lies, and he gives the humans snake fake news, saying: God doesn’t want you to eat those fruits, because then you will be like him. And, rather than trusting God, the humans listen to the snake. For the forbidden fruit seems like the juiciest, sweetest, tastiest fruit in the garden, and the humans can’t resist tasting it.

And the mess they are in is quickly revealed, as suddenly Adam and Eve suddenly think that it’s somehow not right that they should be uncovered. Like people today taken in by adverts for fashion, they begin to think that they would be much happier if they were wrapped up (although, at this stage, there’s only fig leaves available). In a few short steps, Adam and Eve go from paradise, towards our world of fake news… and Gucci! And they are not happy any more.

They try to hide from their Creator, because for some reason, they are now afraid of him. But God knows there is only one way they can have learned they were naked: you’ve eaten the fruit, Adam, haven’t you? And Adam blames the woman (which men often do- here comes #metoo). Eve blames the snake, and there’s this bit about the eternal enmity between snakes and the offspring of women.

We blew it, folks. We are cast out of the Garden of Eden, never to return. And so the first two chapters of Genesis give us a sense of what a Christian environmentalism will look like. We are meant to be the stewards of God’s good earth. But we no longer live in harmony with nature. Instead, we empty the seas of fish, turn fertile land into desert, and change the very climate with our greed, treating nature as if it were our enemy.

We turn from that gloomy Genesis tale to another tale- another tale of a man grappling with temptation. It’s a story which sort of parallels Adam’s story, for today we heard in Matthew’s Gospel another story of someone grappling with temptation.

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy, 1872 Wikipedia Commons

And in today’s Gospel story, there are three temptations, each of which threatens to derail the mission of Jesus, each of which threatens to derail the mission of the Church, each of which threatens to derail our own salvation. The great thing about the story of the temptation of Jesus is that it reminds us that he was one of us. God chose to redeem our fallen world by coming among us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Christ shows himself to be fully human, because in this story he experiences what is common to all human beings- he experiences temptation.

For Jesus is preparing for the mission God has set him. He does so by the traditional practice of withdrawing from the world for a time, and fasting. After forty days, a hungry Jesus is tempted to use his power to make bread for himself. But Jesus tells the devil that human beings can’t live by bread alone.

So often, the Church has been, and still is, tempted to live on bread alone. Our measures of success is that of the accountants. We measure our success, not by how faithful we are, but by how much in in the bank, whether we are turning a financial profit. We forget that Jesus said,

 [W]hat shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?[1]

It is a temptation which still faces those of us who belong to congregations which are relatively well off. How do we spend our money? Do we use our offerings, and the interest from investments (which are really the offerings of members of times past) to try to keep things going the way we like it? Do we want to minister just our own congregation, or should our priority be a ministry to those beyond the walls?

So Jesus told the devil,

Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.

For if we are tempted to live on bread alone, we will fail to hear the Word of God. If we are tempted to use the Church’s worldly goods just to suit ourselves, then we will fail to hear what it is God is calling us to do in the world. Jesus felt hungry, was so he tempted to feed himself. But the price of making bread from stones was that he would fail to carry out the mission that God had given him. In every generation, the Church faces the same temptation; we have the choice to just feed ourselves, but it will be at the price of no longer participating in God’s mission to the world.

And then a tired Jesus is tempted to use his power to make a spectacle of himself: he is tempted to jump off a tower, knowing that God will save him.

We live in an age which loves spectacle. Governments spend money on flashy sports events, instead of investing in health care a policies which would help people get fitter. A politician is far more likely to get coverage if he or she has entertainment value.

Churches, too, are tempted by this. Yet in recent years, especially in North America, super churches have developed which offer spectacular services and, for a long time, drew vast crowds. But in many of them, it turned out that their star clergy were abusing their power. And often they have preached a theology which has been inadequate to the rise of populist politics. Now, their congregations are drifting away.

For spectacle is no substitute for doing the will of God. Of course, we should do our best to ensure that the Church, the good work that it does, and our message, gets as much good publicity as we possible. But God’s plan was not for Jesus to do spectacular magic tricks. God’s mission for Jesus was to take him to Jerusalem, but not to the city’s highest tower, but to the hill outside the city walls, where they executed criminals. For the Church does not have a fancy logo. Our brand is the cross.

So- no magic tricks. Don’t put God to the test, Jesus tells the devil- for Jesus is aware there are no short cuts if he is to carry out the mission God has set him. So the Devil tries one more time.

Look at all these nations, look at all these people, all the power and wealth of the kingdoms of this world. You can have all this, Jesus, if you will do one simple thing: kneel down and worship me! And this, of course, is also the great temptation of the Church- to align itself with power as the world knows it.

By all means, let us have politicians and rulers who are influenced by the values of the Kingdom of God. But, like Jesus, we have to say no to those who want us to abandon God and bend the knee to them. This is a particular temptation for churches like ours, which still has pretensions to be a national church.  This week, Vladimir Putin was proposing, among other things, that the Russian Orthodox Church would have more privileges in Russia[2]. A church which chooses privilege over servanthood is in grave danger of worshipping the wrong God.

And so, again, to every generation of Christians, we must hear anew Christ’s challenge, expressed in words from the Old Testament law book of Deuteronomy: ‘Worship and serve only the Lord your God’. Success for the Church is not measure by how spectacular we can be, or how influential with the powerful we can be, or how wealthy a church is. The Church is only the Church when it worships the one God of our faith: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God whose face we see in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. For that is through him that God has chosen to reconcile humanity- and all creation- to himself.

Last week, Dot was helping us think about mission. The mission of the Church is really the mission of God. The church is supposed to be part of God’s mission- a mission to redeem humanity and the world, a mission to undo our expulsion from Paradise. And just as Jesus had to choose whether he would take part in God’s mission, so do we and every other generation of Christians. Do we choose to take part in God’s mission, to bring the good news to our fallen world? Or do we choose something less- wealth, spectacle, privilege?

The way of the cross is risky, unglamorous, risky, uncomfortable. But that was the way Jesus chose. And he had to, because that was the mission which God intended for him. Yet we are told that after the Devil left him, angels came and helped Jesus. And when we, his followers, take up the challenge, and participate with him in the mission of God- then, brothers and sisters we will have chosen to be on the side of the angels. And the angels will bring the help we need!

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2020 Peter W Nimmo

After sermon: 483 Come let us to the Lord our God


[1] Mark 8:36 KJV