February 26, 2023

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

“Tempted Not to Trust”

The obvious theme in the lectionary readings for this First Sunday in the Season of Lent is temptation. Adam and Eve are tempted by the “crafty” serpent in the Garden of Eden, and they succumb to that temptation and do the one thing God asked them not to do.

In contrast, Jesus is tempted by the devil during his forty days in the wilderness, and he resists. He quotes Scripture, stands firm, and stays faithful. And I am tempted to preach: Be like Jesus, resist temptation. Don’t be like Adam and Eve.

After all, it’s Lent. And if you decided to give up chocolate, or cookies, or alcohol, or Facebook for Lent, you may already be experiencing some temptation to break that promise you made to yourself and to God. Or if you decided to get up early each morning to pray, or to make time in your day for reading and reflection, perhaps you’ve already been tempted to skip a day and catch up tomorrow.

We may think of Jesus as the “super human” who is able to do the things that we struggle to do. He has that spiritual and emotional strength that we wish we had most days. Not only does he know the Scripture verses to back up his responses to the devil, but he is willing to keep on suffering from hunger, and to accept his humble human place in the world rather than test God and grab power for himself.

Eve and Adam pretty much do the opposite. The serpent encourages them, just as the devil encouraged Jesus, to take care of themselves. And when they see that the fruit on the tree looks nourishing and beautiful, and when they hear that it will also make them wise, making them like God, they take the fruit and eat it.

When it comes to saying “no” to food and other pleasures that we know are not good for us, we human beings have varying levels of discipline and determination to refuse what may give us a short-term benefit with a long-term bad result. And if we have peers or role models or advertisers telling us that the short-term benefit is so great that it’s worth it, or down-playing the long-term negative impact, it’s even more likely that we will give in.

So, we may be tempted to conclude from these stories that Jesus is the hero who stoically and piously resists the lures to comfort, security, and glory. And by resisting such things, Jesus demonstrates his fortitude. And we may be tempted to conclude that human beings (typified by Adam and Eve) are weak and disobedient, unable to resist the temptations of a talking snake and a nice-looking apple or banana.

But another way of thinking about both stories suggests that it’s not about Jesus being strong and humans being weak. Instead, Jesus is coming to us “as a human being” and showing us that we can trust God.

It wasn’t just that Eve and Adam were tempted by the fruit or the idea of becoming wise. The serpent got them questioning God’s actions and motives towards them, and they were tempted not to trust God to care for them, and instead to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves.

The serpent’s fundamental move is to contend that God is untrustworthy. Remember that first question that the serpent asked, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” That’s the serpent indirectly suggesting that God would deny human beings food.

Then the serpent goes on to insist that God has lied, saying “You will not die if you eat the fruit.” And finally, the serpent suggests that God is actually humanity’s rival, saying, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

Accordingly, while pride or greed may be involved in the couple’s decision, what’s primarily driving them is anxious mistrust. Is God trying to starve us? Is God lying to us? Is God trying to keep us powerless so that God can remain in power? They allow themselves to be drawn by the serpent into conceiving God as their jealous rival, their competitor, and their own lives not as symbiotic with God, but rather as over against God.

And that’s the same kind of temptation that Jesus experiences in the wilderness with the devil.

On the surface, the first temptation seems to be about comfort, with the devil pointing out that Jesus is terribly hungry and could simply make himself something to eat. But on a deeper level, the temptation boils down to this: Why not sustain yourself? You have the power on your own; you don’t need God to sustain you.

In response, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8 – “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And that’s not just an appropriate verse to make his point, but it comes straight from the story in which the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

It subtly points out that God’s people have been in wilderness times before, and that God was with them to guide them on the way. It argues to the devil and reminds us that God was faithful to the people in that wilderness. When they were hungry, God gave them manna and quails and water to drink too. And more importantly, God spoke to them through Moses, giving them the law and teaching them the way they should live.

The second temptation from the devil seems to be about security (“Prove that you’re God’s beloved!” the devil demands.) And the third one is about glory (The devil says, “Worship me, and all this can be yours!”) – But again, Jesus exposes the true stakes by quoting from Moses’ presentation of the law.

If living on manna in the wilderness was meant to cultivate a symbiotic reliance on God, the divine law itself has a similar purpose. It’s meant to form us towards worshiping and serving God, not an idol, and loving and trusting God as a child would a caring parent, not “putting God to the test,” like a child throwing themself into traffic to see if the parent truly loves them. God is the graceful fountain not only of nourishment, but also of loving-kindness and graceful, genuine power – not the anxious, cheap power peddled by the tempter.

Jesus is able to resist the temptations in the wilderness, not because he has super-human strength, but because he is living as a humble child of God. It’s helpful to notice that this story comes just after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River where he sees the Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Shortly after, in the wilderness, Jesus faces the devil’s temptations to sustain himself, and prove himself, and rule the world. In effect, the devil whispers: “For nourishment, don’t trust God – trust yourself! For loving care – well, really, who can you trust? God? If you believe that, why don’t you jump from this tower – and then we’ll see how many angels come to your rescue! And with your service, don’t trust God – trust me!”

But I think Jesus still had those words that he heard at the River – those words of blessing and assurance – ringing in his ears. And so he says, “No, I am God’s Beloved Child, and I will trust God my loving Parent. I don’t need to sustain myself, or prove myself, or rule the world, because God loves me and God will care for me.”

I suppose that during this Season of Lent – our forty days in the wilderness – some of us may be tempted to break our promises to ourselves, abandoning our spiritual disciplines when life gets too hectic or we get tired. And I do hope that we’ll all manage to stick with them because we made those plans in order to draw close to God, and that’s a good thing.

But today’s readings remind us that the fundamental temptations that we face as human beings are the same ones that Adam and Eve faced, the same ones that Jesus faced. There may be many serpents hissing at us, telling us that we’re in danger, that we need to fight for ourselves, that life is a battle and we need to grab power and make sure that we are self-sufficient.

So we must remember that, like Jesus, we are God’s beloved children. Like Adam and Eve, we were made for a life of humble, open-handed reliance on God. And like the Israelites, God will provide for us and sustain us through whatever wilderness journeys we need to make.

The SALT Lectionary Commentary suggests that Jesus’ three responses don’t just debunk the devil’s temptations, they effectively declare the good news of the Gospel:

Yes – God loves you, and loves us all! God is the One we are made to trust – with humility and grace – for nourishment, love, and guidance.

Even as we, too, travel through the wilderness, every good gift in our lives is manna from heaven, our “daily bread” for which we can and should give thanks – and for which we can and should pray afresh each day, presuming nothing, with empty hands and humble hearts.

For the God of grace is among us – and God’s own child, Emmanuel, “God with us,” walks at our side. In seasons of scarcity and plenty alike, God is the font of every blessing!

May we have a blessed Season of Lent.