Sunday, March 5, 2017
3:1Now 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. -Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then 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.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 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. – Matthew 4:1-11
Listen to this sermon here:
Several years ago in seminary I was completing my required summer internship as a hospital chaplain, I was wrestling with a case that I couldn’t let go of, or rather it wouldn’t let go of me. I was feeling consumed by sadness and anger about a death I had been present to. I never even met the girl who died, only her family, and only for a brief hour. So it was, in retrospect, grief at a new awakening to a world where young people can die and families can be torn apart. But it was starting to eat at me, and I wanted it gone. I wanted to run away from it, hide from it.
I was sharing all this with my very skillful supervisor, and after he listened for a while he paused and then cautiously at first (he later confessed he had never before actually invited someone to do this) he asked me to talk to my feelings. Now, I might be slightly more touchy-feely than the average person, but talking – especially talking aloud – to my feelings was not in the realm of things I ever intended to do in my life. Talk to my feelings? Really? But in the spirit of learning I sat back, took a few deep breaths, and gave it a try. And what emerged, much to my surprise, was gratitude. Gratitude that in a summer spent being present to pain, suffering, and death, that I still cared, that I hadn’t become numb, that I hadn’t turned off that part of myself. I had spent the last several days trying to fight off the grieving, to make it go away. But in that moment, in naming it, talking to it, inviting it to say something to me, I made room for it, not giving everything over to it, but making room for it exist in me. As long as I had tried to fight it off, it had tried to consume me, but in making space for it to be, I found it had something to teach me.
Now, grief and sadness aren’t exactly the same as what we usually think of as temptation. But they are similar in the ways that we sometimes try to fight them off and they ways they try to consume us. They are part of what we might refer to using biblical language, demons that live within us. Sadness or grief that threatens to overtake us. Desire for power over others rather than power together with others. The anger that threatens to become more than useful and productive. The desire to satisfy our own personal wants at any cost. You can probably name a few of your own demons. Underlying them all, though, is the voice that whispers doubt into our ears about the promises that God has made to us, the voice that questions, “Are you really a child of God?”
That’s what the story of Adam and the Eve in the garden is all about isn’t it? A story that tells the truth about those demons that lurk within the human life? I don’t usually hear it from serpents, but I know the voice that questions, “Does God really have your best interests in mind?” The voice that prompts you to finish the sentence, “If God really loved you…” The voice that invites you to satisfy your desires when you know that isn’t best. And then when we give in, when we follow that voice and find ourselves alone and afraid, our instinct is to run away, deny the voice, pretend we don’t know anything about it. Running even from the God we know offers life and forgiveness. Because that’s how we tend to respond to the demons that lurk in us.
But if the story of Adam and Eve gives us one truth about ourselves in terms of messing it all up – the story of sin and death come through one human being, Paul tells us today in the second reading. Then, Paul reminds us, Jesus offers us the other story – the story of life come through one human being. And centuries of theologians have spun that out and talked about Jesus making up for all human sinfulness by his perfection. But what if Paul has the story of Jesus in the wilderness? What if instead of being about eliminating the temptations within us altogether, the story of new life in the face of death is, in part, about facing those demons head on, letting them speak, and inviting them into the conversation?
You see, if Jesus isn’t actually tempted by the voice that speaks to him, then this is some silly demonstration of God’s power over a less than skillful devil. But if we’re going to call what Jesus experiences in the wilderness temptation, and the story itself names it so, then we have to consider the possibility that there is something in Jesus that does in fact have impulses, temptations to veer off course. The offer is bread in the face of extreme hunger – innocent enough. But underneath is the acknowledgement that Jesus is full of personal, physical desires that might tempt him to fulfill them at the cost of the other. There’s an offer to put God’s provision and protection to the test. Something in Jesus that questions, perhaps, whether that protection will really be there. And there’s an offer of power over the kingdoms of the world. Something in Jesus desires that power, something there wants to give in. And every one of the temptations begins, as so many of ours do, “If you are the Son of God…” Is there something in Jesus that is tempted to forget, to wonder, to doubt his place as beloved child of God, even in this moment just after the words are spoken to him in baptism?
What if Jesus telling a new story about humanity isn’t about sinfulness vs perfection, but about making room for those demons in our lives. In the old story, we run with Adam and Eve as soon as we start to give in to temptation, we do whatever we can to distance ourselves from the demons within us, hiding not just from ourselves but from one another and from God.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. Refusing to acknowledge it. Trying to push it away only gives it more power over us. Not making space for it, only causes us to expend more energy fighting it. I had a brief conversation with a student on campus this week who responded to the question I posed “What do you want to let go of?” She had set a goal for herself of letting go of anger, but had been struggling with doing so. She wrote her answer, stood back, then said, “You know, I think writing it down helped.” I wondered if naming it in a public if anonymous way allowed gave it a place to reside instead of simply pushing it away.
Or think about it in terms of racism. Most anti-racism trainings will encourage participants to name and acknowledge that all of us carry bias, that all of us are shaped by a racist social structure. Denying that only gives that bias power to come out in other ways. Naming it allows us to begin to disarm the power it has over us.
In the new story that Jesus tells about what it means to be human, we are invited into the wilderness with Jesus to talk to our demons. To see what they have to tell us. In the new story, we are invited to make room for them to live in us. Not permission to run rampant, but permission for them to be a part of our human story, permission to name and engage them. I’m not suggesting we feed the demons, but inviting them to chat begins to open up a possibility for healing that running, hiding and denying simply doesn’t offer us.
It doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t answer the question of how to mend our world when those temptations do get out of hand as they always do. It doesn’t answer the question of just what strategies to use, what words to say when we step into the wilderness to have those conversations with our demons. Jesus’ strategy of quoting scripture only goes so far, at least for me. But this story of Jesus living out a new way of being human, gives me hope that in facing my demons Jesus is standing with me. That God indeed understands what it means to live with demons. It gives me confidence that God can hold the worst that lies within me and the worst I encounter around me. And it opens my imagination to God’s cradling all of us and all the demons that haunt us, in loving care until all things are restored and resurrected.
-Pastor Steven Wilco