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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/09/2014

The devil goes one for two in today’s lessons. That’s not bad; if a baseball player went one for every two at bats he’d be the greatest hitter of all time. Any basketball player who makes one out of every two shots is considered a really good shooter. So the devil did pretty well, one out of two, succeeding with Adam and Eve, failing with Jesus. So we must give the devil his due, but then again, keeping score, keeping track of the devil’s wins and losses isn’t really the point here.

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is always the story for the First Sunday in Lent and there is good reason for that. Lent is the season of the church year that calls us to be honest about ourselves and our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. That honesty includes being honest about temptation, temptation defined as attraction to those things that get in the way of our relationship with God and with each other. You could say that temptation is the devil’s handiwork and he’s good at it and it doesn’t matter whether you believe in the devil as an actual person or being or just as a convenient way to talk about and personify evil. What’s important is that we agree that evil does exist and that temptation does exist and I’m pretty sure that we do agree on that.

This year we get the temptation of Adam and Eve paired with the temptation of Jesus and while the stories are similar they’re different too. With Adam and Eve, the source of temptation is identified as the serpent, the craftiest of all God’s creatures. In our minds I think we imagine the serpent as the devil, but it doesn’t actually say that; in the story the serpent is one of God’s creatures. With Jesus in the wilderness though, the source of temptation is called the devil.

So the identity of the tempters is different but more significant is the similarity in the way the temptations are presented. In both cases, with Adam and Eve and with Jesus, the nature of the temptation is suggestion; it’s taking something that has been said or assumed and twisting it just a little bit causing it to suggest a different truth. It’s very subtle, very clever and it’s significant not just in analyzing these stories, but also because suggestion is still the nature of much of what tempts us.

The serpent approached the woman in the garden with the question, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Note that the question is ambiguous depending on where the emphasis goes; the serpent was crafty after all. Phrased as it is, it could mean “Of all the trees in the garden are there any that God said you shouldn’t eat from?” or it could mean “Did God say that you shouldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Do you see the difference? With the first version, “Are there any trees you shouldn’t eat from?” God can still be seen as abundantly gracious, having offered the fruit of all the trees in the garden with perhaps one or two exceptions, but still, very gracious. The second version, “Did God say you shouldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” can make God out to be rather cruel, having put all these trees in the garden along with the delicious fruit that they bear but then saying, “But you can’t eat any of it.”

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” is ambiguous but the woman actually handles it well, staying with her assumption of a gracious God who has only placed one tree out of bounds. On the other hand, you could also say that the serpent had a degree of success because that seed suggesting that God might be other than the gracious God the woman assumed, had been planted. The serpent didn’t get her with that one, but he wasn’t done yet either.

Having planted the seed, the serpent then takes her statement that God said they would die if they ate from the tree in the middle of the garden and calls that into question, suggesting that they won’t die, but instead God is afraid that if they eat from it, they will be like God. By the power of suggestion the serpent puts thoughts into the woman’s head that weren’t there before, again implying that maybe this God isn’t who she thinks it is.

It’s another suggestion that twists the truth because in fact this God did want them and does want us to be more like God but the way the statement is phrased it makes it seems like God is afraid of a power struggle. But think about it; this God isn’t chiefly about power. Return to the Lord your God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That’s our Lenten refrain and it’s not a description of a power hungry God. Instead, it identifies characteristics that God would have us model. The goal isn’t to put ourselves in place of God or in competition with God but it is to be more like God in how we live and interact with others. We can’t share in God’s divine essence, but we can share in God’s attributes of love and compassion and welcome and forgiveness, all those things we ultimately see revealed in Jesus. With the subtle power of suggestion though, the serpent plants seeds that cause the woman to question her assumptions about this God.

In the Jesus in the wilderness story, the technique of the devil is quite similar to that used by the serpent. He too uses suggestion, this time it’s suggestions about the nature of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to be turned into loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and let your angels swoop down to save you.” “If you are the Son of God…” suggests uncertainty.

The suggestion for Jesus, the temptation for Jesus was that he could be something that he wasn’t intended to be. The devil knew that if Jesus used his divine power to draw glory to himself, he wouldn’t be who was supposed to be for us. So he suggested something different for Jesus, something more spectacular, a scenario where Jesus would no doubt wind up with lots of followers! People would have been impressed; people would have worshiped him, but it would have been worshiping him as a superstar but not a savior. Had Jesus taken the bait, the devil would have been two for two and actually a lot more than that, because then he could put all of us in his win column too.

But Jesus didn’t take the bait. His only defense was the word of God, scripture, but it was enough. The devil suggested a worldly reality for Jesus, one that was very appealing, based as it was on power and glory, but Jesus knew the alternative reality of the Bible, the alternative reality of God, the alternative reality that he came to live out because it’s the reality that gives life to all people.

What both of these stories show though is the power those seeds of suggestion can have as they begin to create questions in our minds about all manner of things but especially about ourselves and who we are supposed to be and about God and who God is supposed to be. It’s subtle and it’s often made to seem harmless but that’s where temptation starts. In the case of Jesus that’s where it ended. Unfortunately we’re more like Adam and Eve in the garden where we might resist the first volley only to have the next one get us as more questions are suggested.

They do keep coming so that resistance is holy work that we engage in on a daily basis. In part the season of Lent serves as a reminder of this daily work, work that begins with being more aware of those subtle suggestions that come our way. We probably can’t be aware of all of them; remember how crafty the serpent was? Knowing the alternative reality that Jesus knew and lived out is part of our resistance though. Knowing that the alternative reality also includes the fact that Jesus, in his resistance, has already won the ultimate battle means that we don’t have to despair when we fall prey to the suggestions. The serpent, the devil will have his moments, but in and through Jesus and his victory, the devil can never put us in the win column.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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