The Common Lectionary has brought together for us an interesting group of readings for us today, starting with our Old Testament lesson from Genesis that takes us back to “the fall,” the Bible’s first temptation story, starring Adam and Eve and the Serpent.
God didn’t create a “perfect” world in the Garden of Eden, but rather a “good” one. Six times in Genesis we hear, “It was good.” But Eden is no Caribbean vacation in paradise. God places Adam in the garden “to till it and keep it.” From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing work with periods of Sabbath rest. God says they may eat from any tree, but he places the tree of knowledge off limits.
Enter the serpent: He’s a clever and talkative animal who provides what we’d call today some “alternative facts.” The serpent is not alone with Eve, as often pictured; Adam is quietly standing right there, probably hearing every word. After the serpent and Eve talk, she takes and eats the fruit, and she gives the fruit to “her husband, who was with her.” Adam and Eve both yielded to temptation, and God kicked them both out of the Garden. And the serpent? He was condemned to crawl on his belly and eat dust all the days of its life.
Just an aside here that’s always bothered me: First, possibly because they shed their skin, serpents and snakes have historically been symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Somewhat like the phoenix from the ashes, yet the serpent here seems to be the bad guy; he gets a bum rap. Also, the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of ts life – yet nowhere in the Bible does it mention exactly how the serpent moved around before the curse – Did it walk upright on its tale or what? But neither phoenix nor snake is our focus for today.
So our first heroes in the Bible (Adam and Eve) failed, if you will, in the original temptation story. This Genesis tale is what we might call a theological metaphor describing what it means to belong to a humanity in a broken relationship with God and with the rest of the world. When we get to today’s Gospel of Christ, it doesn’t really depend on a literal “first couple” and original sin, or on the claim that there was no death in the world before humans and their “original sin.” The billions of years of life’s evolution would pretty well argue against this.
Our second lesson today, Psalm 32, is a Psalm of penitence, but it is also the song of a ransomed soulrejoicing in the wonders of the grace of God. We don’t know exactly what occasion in David’s life prompted this song, although we do know it was after David’s giving in to temptation after seeing Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. In the psalm, sin is dealt with; sorrow is comforted; ignorance is instructed.
In the Psalm, David gives a word of caution to sinners that the way of sin will certainly end in sorrow. At the same time, it’s a word of comfort to saints. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; Shout for joy, all who are true of heart!
Our reading from Romans takes Paul back to Eden. He holds onto the paradox that we cannot escape sin since we are connected to Adam and Eve, stuck under sin’s tyranny, with the reign of sin’s ally, death, over us. But even if one agrees with that idea (and I personally agree with Paul on not a lot), Adam’s act of disobedience has been overcome by the more powerful obedience of Jesus with his faithful death on the cross.
Finally, for the Gospel lesson here in Matthew, it’s no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism. As the saying goes, “Not all who wander are lost.” Jesus is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done. He’s been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested by the devil (the original Greek here means either tempted or tested). His scriptural debate with the Devil functions as an assessment (or a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son for the mission that’s being entrusted to him. As shown in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narratives, Jesus has both the credentials and the authority for this mission. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points him ahead to a future still unfolding.
Throughout scripture, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For 40 days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.
The Bible seems full of the number 40, as well as both physical and metaphoric wildernesses:
What happens here in the wilderness doesn’t stay in the wilderness (No Las Vegas mentality here of thngs staying) – rather, it plays again in Jesus’ life and ministry. The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:
The wilderness temptations are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they’re tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Here in Matthew, we have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters
Our story suggests that if Christ had followed any one of these temptations, he’d have been a sinner another fallen human like us, unable to redeem anyone, and the mission would have been ruined by the devil. But he was sent into the world to redeem us, and to do that, he had to conquer Satan.
I look at this Wilderness tale as a sort of vision quest, where the temptations are strong. Jesus is tempted with riches and power, and the only requirement is that he make these temporal purposes his God – that is worship “the tempter” instead of God.
Shortly after his Wilderness experience, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains that we ought to focus our worship on God: He says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”
Rather than take advantage of his unique awareness, Jesus sets about a ministry devoted to awakening that same awareness in all people.
“And it was good.” Amen.
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