TEMPTATION AND THE FAST TRACK TO DOMINATION
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
9 March, 2014
Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
The First Sin and Its Punishment
3Now 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”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Matthew 4: 1 – 11
The Temptation of Jesus
4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
In our two readings today we have 2 temptations with 2 different ways of responding to them and 2 very different outcomes.
- The first begins in a place of abundance and spells disaster for humankind.
- The second begins in a place of scarcity and signals hope for humankind.
God tells Adam and Eve they may not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Innocence knows no good or evil: it simply is. It is perfect relationship with God the Creator. A knowledge of both good and evil means a knowledge of what is right and wrong. It is knowledge of the law; and the lawmaker and law enforcer are the most powerful entities in any social dynamic. This is the attraction of law: it has to do with power, and Satan’s objective is and always will be to accumulate and exercise power.
One of the reasons Jesus clashed so strongly with the Scribes was that they interpreted the Law of Moses. They were the arbiters of how people should behave. They had power over others’ lives and they abused it.
St Paul points out the dubious relationship between law and sin in his words, sin is not reckoned where there is no law (Rom 5: 13a). Law may be a step up from licentiousness, but it is a step down from grace. An awareness of right and wrong for human beings means an experiential knowledge of sin.
When the Serpent approaches Eve he very subtly asks her what the law is. She only knows one law: don’t eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But he broaches the topic in the form of a question: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ thereby planting a seed of doubt about God’s word.
Eve survives this first salvo and informs him that they are neither to eat nor touch the Tree as doing so will result in death: in other words in separation from God.
The Serpent then plainly opposes God’s word, calling God a liar. ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
O the temptation to be like God! Especially this God who is denying you knowledge.
Then follows one of the most compact verses in all of Scripture, and you’ll notice that unlike Jesus, who fought back at every point, Eve capitulates at a great rate: 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
Let’s look at the temptation Eve faced and gave in to, and compare them with the temptations Jesus faced and stood firm against:
- the woman saw that the tree was good for food. We all have appetites. They are there for a good purpose (we need to eat to keep alive), but when appetite is engaged for the wrong reason we’re in trouble. Well-fed Eve begins to open the door to disobedience as a result of simple appetite. She saw that the tree was good for food – yum!
Jesus, on the other hand, is famished (says Vs. 2) as he’s been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. He’s hit with these words from the Tempter, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’
Far from beginning to doubt God’s word as Eve appears to have done, Jesus retorts with,‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ Jesus opposes the misuse of appetite with the very word Satan had cast doubt upon in the Garden of Eden. It would not have been wrong for Jesus to appease his appetite. He was hungry after all, but not this way. He was not about to respond to appetite as directed by the very personification of evil.
Back to Eve:
- 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes. The lure of the spectacular. Beauty of both form and action are wonderful gifts of God but when they are utilised for self-service or impressing others who lack them, they are a dangerous temptation. Eve (beautiful Eve) by now salivating Eve, is being drawn ever further towards disobedience. She is either doubting or forgetting God’s word which was clearly that they should not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Eve is entertaining the temptation. Notice she hasn’t sinned yet, and it’s worth noting that temptation is not the same thing as sin. It’s a slippery slope only when not rejected. As the old proverb goes, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.”
Jesus, on the other hand, is probably looking haggard after 40 days with no food in the desert. He too is tempted with the spectacular. 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Do this spectacular thing Jesus and you’ll impress the bejjabbers out of the punters – and implied in this is the temptation to gain Messianic power by Satan’s quick-fix methods, not by God’s.
Jesus retorts with, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ There is a world of difference between gaining the admiration of people by impressive one-upmanship rather than by serving in love. Jesus was not after power. His ethic was one of service and when, as the Messiah, he directed how people ought to behave, it was from a position of relationship with the Father, not from a position of Satanically directed power.
Back to Eve again:
- 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise. This is not normal wisdom – which is a good thing. The nature of this so-called ‘wisdom’ was made plain in Vs.5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
This is the desire to elevate oneself to the level of God, the law-maker, with a knowledge of right and wrong. You see when you know the law you can in your own strength embrace it rather than rely on God. This is why the law has such an appeal. Control of the law gives instant power. Relationship with God means dependence upon and vulnerability before God. But if you lose trust in God you want the law as a buffer between you and God. Giving up the freedom of relationship with God and submitting to the law gives you powerful options which do not necessarily include God. It is a declaration of independence from God.
Jesus, on the other hand, faces the most powerful temptation of all. 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’
Submit yourself (not to the freedom of a relationship with God) but to me. Be subject to my decree – give me power over you – and I’ll give you the instant power God is withholding from you. Your Messianic mission will take off! You can exercise power over all the kingdoms of the world!
But Jesus sees through this. 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
He’s prepared to shoulder the responsibility of freedom rather than submit to “the will to power” (as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called it.) The temptation to exercise power over others is the strongest of all temptations and it flies in the face of Jesus’ proclaimed mission in Luke 4 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.
Jesus came to free people because he knew that captivity was the worst of conditions. Whether captivity to sin in a life of licence – a life that ignores God completely, or captivity to the Law of Moses – a life dominated by the strictures of legalism, Jesus came to free from these oppressions. He came to bring grace – a life in relationship with God.
And relationship takes time:
- One can give in to appetite or licence in a second
- One can obey the law in a second
- It takes time to grow in grace – to grow in grace-filled relationship
The temptation is for a short-cut to power, to competence, to independence from God.
Someone once said that the Devil drives, while Jesus leads. And Jesus’ leadership was of a servant nature. We know this from his teachings and in one of the rituals he commanded us to practise – the ritual of foot-washing.
(John 13) 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
This ritual is probably one of the most neglected commands Jesus gave us. I wonder why?
You see, at the very heart of our fallen nature (the nature we have inherited from the Fall depicted in the story of Adam and Eve’s sin), is a desire to dominate. At its worst is the desire to dominate God. “Fall down and worship me” the Devil says to Jesus. Did he really think that the Son of God would fall for that one?
But the desire is so strong it will pop out eventually unless our relationship with God and our trust in his word is solid.
Lord Acton said that all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We see this in evidence at all levels today:
- at an international level in Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine,
- at a national level in the legislation against gay people enacted by the government of Uganda
- at a personal level in countless families, places of work, clubs and societies; and even in the church – anywhere where people are in relationship there is the temptation to manipulate other people.
Always there is somewhat mealy-mouthed self-justification:
- we are protecting Russian citizens
- we are protecting the moral fibre of the nation
- we are ensuring this person’s safety
Just as appetite is there for a good purpose, beauty of form and motion are inherently good, and wisdom and knowledge of the right things are good; used as a means of developing anything other than a relationship with God, in God’s way, they can be stumbling blocks to our spiritual progress.
Jesus clearly knew and respected God’s word. It was what developed his spiritual muscle and enabled him to overcome temptation. Make God’s word the loudest voice in your life, so that you can resist temptation. Don’t start a conversation with the Devil. Don’t entertain his thoughts.
James 4: 7 has some good advice: “Be subjects of God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
Lent is always a time of temptation. At a simple level, you’re going to be tempted if you’ve given something up for Lent. But the real temptation will come if you use Lent as a time to make spiritual progress.
There is a difference of course between our primordial parents, Jesus and ourselves, between these two seminal moments in the Christian calendar and ourselves today. We are not innocent beings being corrupted for the first time. Neither are we the perfect Son of God facing an onslaught from Satan. We are imperfect beings born into an already imperfect world, a world full of already established unjust structures and evils which are often socially accepted. The temptation we face is to ignore this, to live unexamined lives. Lent is a good time to reflect deeply on what we close our eyes to, on the culpability of silence or inaction on our part.
So stand firm then in God. Examine your priorities. Repent if necessary, especially from any tendencies to operate in anything other than a grace-filled and gracious relationship with God. Humble yourself before God. Acknowledge your need of God. Proclaim your subjection to God alone, especially in your relationships with others.
As Paul says in Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
In Vs. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
In Vs 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
And in Vs. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Lent gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves deeply: our attitudes towards God and out attitudes towards others.
Meditate on Jesus’ words. What is it you feed your spirit on? In Matthew 16 we read that the disciples understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
As we pray in the Collect today,
God of the desert,
As we follow Jesus into the unknown
May we recognise the tempter when he comes;
Let it be your bread we eat,
Your world we serve
And you alone we worship.