The shortest sermon ever recorded, which you won’t be getting this morning, consisted of the preacher going into the pulpit and quoting Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death”, and adding “there has been no change in the rate of pay. Amen”. It’s not very fashionable these days to talk about sin and temptation in church, but this is where the readings set in the lectionary for today are directing us. We have the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis, Paul speaking of sin and redemption, Adam and Christ in Romans, and the temptations of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.
Isn’t so easy to identify with the fallen state that we heard about in our reading from Genesis? I don’t mean on a personal level, but on a global level. When we hear about Israelis and Palestinians fighting one another, the continuing lack of peace in Northern Ireland, all the bad and depressing things going on in the world, it’s so easy to believe in a fallen world. Isn’t just so easy to see how the world has fallen away from goodness.
And isn’t it so hard to believe in what Paul says in Romans? Paul is telling us that even though the world is fallen, everything is OK because God in Christ loves us, forgives us, and makes all things whole. But when we see the fallen world, we can find it almost impossible to believe that this world, of so much darkness and sin, is redeemed and hallowed. Can we really believe that Christ, the second Adam, showed us God’s goodness, planted more deeply than all it is wrong? It’s certainly a challenge for us to believe that.
And then, in Matthew’s gospel, we hear about Jesus being tempted by the devil. The story of those temptations is a well-known one, in which simple symbols represent very significant issues. We’re going to look at those three temptations more closely, and then return to the stories from Genesis and Romans.
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn the bread into a stone. This is about doubting God’s goodwill towards us. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, and became very hungry. No doubt he wonders is God has forgotten him. The temptation is about more than just a meal, more than just a stone and a piece of bread. It’s about taking control, making up for God’s apparent forgetfulness or carelessness, doubting God’s goodwill. Rather like the serpent insinuates to Eve that God’s motivation was suspect in forbidding them this fruit: he did not want them to have their eyes opened. Perhaps doubt of God lies at the root of what is not whole within us? If so, then it needs to be replaced with trust in God’s ultimate love and goodness, even when God seems to have deserted us. In the end, Adam and Eve simply thought they knew better than God did. But Jesus doesn’t turn the bread into a stone; he commits himself to trust in God’s promise of sustenance in the wilderness.
The second temptation is for Jesus to throw himself off the Temple, to be caught by God. This is about trying to manipulate God to do what we want. It could be something simple like praying for a lottery jackpot, or it can be much more subtle, like the temptation presented to Jesus. Why not do something dramatic, to express your faith and call down a wonderful demonstration of God’s power? Adam and Eve felt that God could not possibly withhold from them something so obviously good, and so tried to pressurise God into agreeing with them, by taking the fruit.
So often things that we do in the Church, with the best of intentions, can fall into this trap of trying to box God into a corner so that he has to act. We can easily set up situations where we force God to act; manipulating events so that we hope only one course of action can result. But can we really present God with a fait accompli? All of this begs the question of why we do the things that we do. Is our desire supremely for God’s glory, or for our own? Is prayer motivated by self-centred fear, or God-centred trust?
The third temptation is for Jesus to worship the devil in return for earthly power. This is about trying to seek our own short cuts to God’s goals. Jesus wanted to win the kingdoms of the world for God, to wrest them back out of the clutches of evil. But he cannot win them by worshipping evil, even though refusing the offer means a long, hard trek to the cross and beyond. Adam and Eve saw a short cut to wisdom, and took it, and we know what happened after that. There are no short cuts to spiritual wisdom and maturity - just patient discipleship in the pathway of God.
When we look at the bad things in world, see and hear evil at work, every time we listen to the news, it’s so easy to believe in a fallen world – and so difficult to believe that Christ has redeemed the world, that God has made everything alright. But by doing that, which is ever so easy, ever so understandable, and something that we all do, we’re falling victim to the same temptations that were offered to Jesus. If we can’t really trust in God and his loving power, believing that his goodness, shown to us in Christ, is rooted at the deepest level in our world, our lives, our souls, then we might be in danger of making the mistakes that Jesus might have made.
But how can we trust in God’s goodness, avoid manipulating God, and not find our own short cuts to God’s purposes? I read a poem entitled "The Pit." Let me share just a little bit of it with you:
If you can, see in your mind’s eye a great pit: a pit perhaps of your own devising, or perhaps one devised for you by others. Visualise a pit into which you have fallen and cannot get out of.
A man fell into a pit and he couldn’t get out.
BUDDHA said: "Your pit is only a state of mind."
A HINDU said: "This pit is for purging you and making you more perfect.”
CONFUCIUS said: "If you would have listened to me, you would never have fallen into that pit."
A NEW AGE PERSON said: "Maybe you should network with some other pit dwellers."
A SELF-PITYING PERSON said: "You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit."
A NEWS REPORTER said: "Could I have the exclusive story on your pit?"
A FEDERAL BUREAUCRAT said: "Have you paid your taxes on that pit?"
A COUNTY INSPECTOR said: "Do you have a permit for that pit?"
A REALIST said: "That’s a pit."
An IDEALIST said: "The world shouldn’t have pits."
An OPTIMIST said: "Things could be worse."
A PESSIMIST said: "Things will get worse."
BUT JESUS, SEEING THE MAN, TOOK HIM BY THE HAND AND LIFTED HIM OUT OF THE PIT.
A pit is an awful place to be, particularly a pit created by the power of sin and temptation. But we are not alone. There is one who has managed to avoid the pit and who seeks to help us out of the pit. His name is Jesus, and through him God is able:
able to help;
able to save;
able to redeem.
Not only is he able - he is willing. And not only is he willing, he has already acted: acted to save us and to bring to the world a new day; acted to bring to each of us a new life.
We do not have to dwell in the pit. We do not have to accept the pit. Rather, we can reach out our hand to the one who has stretched out his hands for us, and who still reaches out for us today. We can reach out to Christ, and through Christ reach out to others around us and let them know that there is a better life, a life that is given freely to all who desire it.
This is the hope that we have through God acting in Christ, which Paul was talking about in our reading from Romans. This is our hope of God’s goodness, God’s ultimate loving purposes for us. This is no vain hope. The fallen nature of our world, however tempting it is to believe in, is not what God wants for us. Through Jesus, God has shown us his goodness and his ultimate and complete love for us, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
We are just beginning the season of Lent. This is time when we prepare our hearts and minds to once more live through the events of Holy Week and Easter, Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is through those events that we are assured of God’s ultimate and complete love for us, and their totality, and can know the reality of the God’s hope that is ours.