Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Preached by Rev. Haddox
Our scripture readings this morning present two stories—two deep, strong, rich stories about God’s invitation and how people responded to that invitation. Our first lesson, from the Book of Genesis, tells of the coming of evil into the created order. Adam and Eve walk together with the Lord God in the garden—full of beauty and abundance, plenty to eat and sustain life. And yet, there was something missing…
They both had wondered about that tree, you know. That one, particular, peculiar tree. It didn’t really look any different than the others, but somehow, at certain times of the day, it did. They both walked past it, looking and wondering.
The serpent was watching, to see what they would do. How they would react, just by walking and looking and wondering. And when he saw an opportunity, he took it. He promised them that they would be like God’s own self. And they both took, and ate, and were transformed by what they had consumed. And thus began a transaction, the story of a single moment, that has informed our imaginations and our theology for centuries.
What changed, that day? For the story says that, at least at that moment, they did not die. They didn’t fall down dead on the spot. But they knew something that they had not known before, something that changed everything: their relationship to each other, and to God, and to the creation. They were vulnerable to that knowledge—frightened by it—and confused and ashamed. And they tried to hide—from God, from each other, from themselves. They gained knowledge, and a sort of wisdom. But at a price.
God did not leave them there in that condition. It wasn’t safe, not now. They knew just that much too much—not enough yet, but enough to be disastrously dangerous if they were left alone. So God did not leave them there—God sent them out, and barred the way back. But God did not stay behind in paradise, watching them leave through the whirling of that fiery sword. God went into exile with them, away from Eden, every step of the way into the rest of their lives. They were not simply abandoned to their own devices even then.
In the Gospel, Jesus is sent out into an exile of his own, after his baptism. He has heard the voice of God over him, descending like a dove as he rises, dripping, from the waters of the Jordan River: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And straightaway he is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Mark says that “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”) A mysterious, irresistible force compels him to go, fasting for forty days and nights, into the place where the children of Israel went wandering for forty years. Into the place where Adam and Eve were sent. And there he too is watched and observed, to see what he will do.
When he is vulnerable and tired and hungry, the tempter suggests that Jesus manipulate or fix the situation. “If you are the Son of God…you can make bread from these stones. You can fly through the air. You can have all the kingdoms of this world at your feet.” Physical comfort; amazing wonders; POWER! In other words—you will be just like God’s own self—you will need nothing, no one. You can have it all, all by yourself.
This lie, the same one told in the garden to our first parents, is the same one we hear every day of our own lives. That if we just buy this product, or follow that program, or eat this or drink that or whatever it may be—that we will have it all. That we will never get old, or sick, or vulnerable. That we will need nothing, no one. That we can be God, all by ourselves.
Jesus will have none of it. He quotes scripture, refusing both the physical comfort of food to relieve his hunger, and the pyrotechnical display of unassisted flight to shore up his ego. Then third, and last, he asserts unequivocally: God is God, and no one else. And no-thing else.
“If you are the Son of God” is just as unequivocal. For Matthew, that’s exactly who Jesus is. No question about it. But ultimately Jesus does not—will not—use that identity to his own advantage. He willingly allows others—those who follow him, and those who turn away from him, and even those who put him to death—to choose their own way. He does not force them to love him, or receive him, or follow him. That knowledge for which Adam and Eve paid so dearly—the knowledge of good and evil, the ability to decide and to act, based on that knowledge—is not taken away from their children.
That contrast, the choice between the two ways of life or death, appears in the second lesson this morning. In the letter to the Romans, Paul is setting forth two lists, two stories. He compares the action of Adam (the willful disobedience of one man) with the action of Jesus (the intentional, self-conscious obedience of one man) as the antidote, the latter for the former. The argument is typical Paul—looping back on itself, contrasting between “the way of sin and death” and “the way of grace and life.” At its heart is the understanding that in Jesus, by his death and resurrection, we too are raised from death (in whatever form it may come) to new life. Hear again verse seventeen: “If, because of the one man’s trespass (that is, Adam), death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
“Those who receive…grace and…righteousness.” That’s US, folks. You and me, and all who have claimed and looked for, sometimes begged for, and even sometimes run away from, the presence of Jesus in our lives. That’s what Paul is claiming as a foundational reality for all of us—that in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are put back into right relationship with God, restored to the condition from which Adam and Eve turned away.
That is quite a claim, isn’t it? And it’s not about whether we “feel like it” or not. Sometimes we don’t feel that way at all. “Exercising dominion in life” feels very far away indeed. We’re sometimes up, and sometimes down, and sometimes almost to the ground. But even then, even in the midst of ugliness and horror, even when the circumstances of our own lives are a complete mess, even when the nightly news is screaming panic and disaster in our ears…even then—even now—we are part of something bigger than our own feelings. Bigger than all our fears. Bigger than anything we can dream of. We’re part of Jesus’ work of redeeming—which means we’ve been bought back from the slave-traders who would hold us captive. We are made righteous—set into right relationship with God, and with one another. We are not who the advertising agencies or the critics or the powers of darkness want to tell us we are; in Jesus Christ we too are the sons and daughters of the most high God.
Jesus knew that, when he went into the wilderness. And when he taught and healed and fed people who needed him. And even when he hung on the cross. That was who he was; that is who we are. And no power, in heaven or on earth, can undo that essential reality, or take it away.
This is not the truth of the right hand, the logical brain; but rather the truth of the left hand, of the intuition. Such a story cannot be described; it must be sung.
So then, let the poet come.
From the hymnwriter John Mason Neale (Hymnal 270):
Gabriel’s message does away
Satan’s curse and Satan’s sway,
Out of darkness brings our day.
He that comes despised shall reign;
He that cannot die, be slain;
Death by death its death shall gain.
Weakness shall the strong confound;
by the hands in graveclothes wound,
Adam’s chains shall be unbound.
Art by art shall be assailed;
To the cross shall Life be nailed;
From the grave shall Hope be hailed.
So, behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.
So, go then. Go this week, to the places of wilderness and trial where God may send you, in the sure and certain knowledge that this is who you are. And whose you are. Now and always.