Monday, February 14, 2011

King of the Tempted

Preached Sunday, February 13, 2011
Scripture readings:
Genesis 3:1-10; Mark 1:12-13

I was watching the Nickelodeon Channel (You know it’s a kids’ channel?) and I started thinking about all those commercials for kids: all that stuff; those toys; those sugary snacks and cereals. And then I had a picture in my mind of children saying to their parents, “I want that. I want that.”

Do you parents remember back to the time when you were kids like that? Think how sick and tired your parents must have gotten of hearing you say that; over, and over, and over again. “I want that. I want that.”

Then I remembered the times when said, “I want that.” And I got what I asked for; and played with it once or twice, and then forgot all about it, or left some toy to be ruined in the rain. I don’t think I was a particularly evil child, but I do remember that most of my passion was in getting what I wanted, and not in loving what I wanted when I got it, or being thankful for what I wanted when I got it, or taking care of it.

Think about being a child again. Did you ever get taken to a really good candy store, and do you remember what that was like? Can you imagine being asked what you wanted? And can you imagine yourself saying, “I want everything?”

I think it might be cute to hear a child say, “I want everything!” but not it that were my child, or not if I thought that child really meant it. If I heard someone else’s child say that (and mean it) I would be afraid of what those parents were in for, and I would be afraid for that child’s sake.

That is part of what temptation is about. And it isn’t just about children. We never grow out of it. We only learn to be strategic about what we want.

I am not uncontrollably tempted by “Legos” anymore. (Actually, when I was a child, I don’t think legos had been invented. You got tinker toys when you were a little kid and erector sets when you got a little older, and I got both. If you don’t know what those are, you’ll just have to ask your parents. But I wanted the miniature garage that actually had a lift for the toy cars. And I wanted the miniature fire station (at the point in time when I wanted to be a fireman). I knew other kids who had them and I wanted them too.

As we get older, our wants, our desires, change. If we grow up and still want toys, the toys get a lot bigger and a lot more expensive.
As we get older we have other wants and desires, besides toys, that have much bigger consequences for our lives, and our relationships, and the lives of others. And this is the stuff of temptation.

Temptation is not the powerful attraction of whatever it is that other people tell you shouldn’t have, or shouldn’t do. Temptation is not about something naughty, as if you were nothing but a child, or even if you are a child.

Temptation is the presence of a choice that puts you to the test. In this test that we call temptation, you face some choice that will determine who you are, and who you will become. You become identified with what you will say “yes” to, and what you will say “no” to. It will define you. It will actually make you.

Setting the Book of Genesis beside the Gospels we have two tales of temptation. In Genesis, in Eden, the first members of our human race said “no” to God. They said “no” to the desires of God. They said “yes” to their own priorities when they ate the forbidden fruit.

In the Gospels we have Jesus, the Son of God who came down from heaven to be the first member of a new human race, who said “yes” to God and “yes” to his identification with us. Those were his priorities.

Both stories make us think about our answers to the question of, “What do you want?”

The first members of the human race, into which we are all born, determined by their choice what kind of human nature they would hand down to us. They handed down to us a nature that says, “I want everything.” In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything but one thing. Only one thing was forbidden to them: the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were not content until they had everything.

It may seem cute for an innocent child to say, “I want everything,” but you can’t have happiness and have everything in this world. You can’t want everything and be any good to anybody, not even to yourself. You have to say “yes” to certain things and “no” to others.

There is an example of this that I saw in some thoughts of a young father on Facebook. He was thinking about the difference that having a family made in his choices about what was fun. He had come to the conclusion that you have to say “yes” to some things and “no” to others. Here’s what he said: “There comes a point in your life when "FUN" means board games, children’s movies, going out for family dinners, bedtime stories. And sleeping in means you’re up at 7:00 AM. Becoming a parent doesn't change you. It's realizing that the little people you made deserve the best of your free time!

The same underlying principle applies to all of life. It applies to your spouse, your neighbors, your community, and the world you live in. It may not always be about fun, but it is always about goodness. And it is all about the kind of goodness that will bring no regrets at the end. It is about the kind of goodness that belongs to everlasting joy.

Being tempted is not the dangerous attraction of what is bad. It is about the dangerous attraction of what seems to be good. You never want anything because you think it is bad. You want something because it seems like it is good to you at the time. Or you want something because it seems better than any of the alternatives.

For instance, knowledge is a good thing. Isn’t it? But all knowledge is not good for everyone all the time.

The sort of knowledge that God is concerned about, the knowledge the Bible is concerned about, is not merely the knowledge of facts. It’s not just head knowledge or information. Knowledge is the direct, intimate experience of something.

For example: after our first ancestors were banished from the Garden of Eden the Bible tells us that Adam “knew his wife Eve”. (The New International Version paraphrases this as “Adam lay with his wife”, but more literal translations use the word for “knowledge”. “He knew his wife.”) Saying that Adam knew Eve is a Biblical way of saying that Adam had an intimate, direct, personal experience of Eve, physically, as his wife.

Adam and Eve already had the direct and intimate experience and knowledge of good by simply being part of God’s creation; because God, himself saw that it was good. “It was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) And Eden was a place where God walked with them (Genesis 3:8), and God is always good, all the time.

By stealing the forbidden fruit, they added something new to their knowledge so that it went beyond the knowledge of what was good. By their very action of taking the forbidden fruit, our human race added (to their knowledge of good) the direct and intimate experience of evil.

How did they experience evil? In their desire to be like God, they achieved a new status in the garden in which the presence of God was a threat to their plans. God became a competitor. I knew a girl in college who wouldn’t think of being a Christian because it would require her to change the way she wanted to live. Jesus was not a friend. Jesus was a competitor, because she was the god of her life.

Adam and Eve wanted to have an intimate and direct experience of everything so that they would have options of their own, independent from God. They wanted the potential to be in control of themselves, instead of being under God’s direction.

Adam (in order to save his own skin and maintain his status) blamed Eve for his eating the forbidden fruit. He acted, in practice, in a way that he would probably never confess. He showed that his security, and his convenience, and his freedom were more important to him than Eve’s safety. His happiness was more important than the issue of her trust and vulnerability.

Isn’t this how we all act? Isn’t this part of the choices we make every day? We have a choice, through where we say “yes” and where we say “no”, to honor the trust, and worth, and love of others.

Is this being attracted to what is bad? Isn’t your security, isn’t your convenience, isn’t your comfort, isn’t your freedom, a good thing? Yes it is; but not at the price of injustice, and betrayal, and carelessness, and pure selfishness.

This is the price of being your own god, which is a choice that is so embedded in our nature that we need to become a new creation in Christ. And yet it is also so much a part of our human nature (that we have inherited from our first ancestors) to avoid our creator. We avoid the only true God, our only true source of life, the only one who can truly help us.

We have inherited, in our very nature, the failure of the test we call temptation. This failure is embedded in our spiritual DNA. Because of this, God became directly, intimately, and personally involved in our evil (as he always knew he would) by dealing with it himself, by facing it himself, for us.

God snuck into our world, in Jesus, to take the test over for us, to carry the guilt of our sins on the cross, and to embed something new (something from him) in our nature. God’s confrontation of our failure in the face of evil forms God’s knowledge, God’s intimate and direct experience, of good and evil.

In the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of the Gospels there are two gardens and two deserts. Adam and Eve tried to become the gods of their garden. They tried to become people who could say no to God (if necessary) and claim that garden for their own.

So they were banished from the garden where everything they wanted was within their reach. They were sent out to experience life in the desert. The land outside Eden may not have been a real desert, but (after Eden) anything else would look like a desert.

It is like the time I lived on the Oregon coast. It was so green there, all the time, that anytime I went somewhere else I couldn’t see the green that was there.

Out of Eden they would live by the sweat of their brow. It would be a hungry, thirsty life. The desert would be a land of toil, and drudgery, and hard labor, and anxiety. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Adam and Eve took their temptations from the garden to the desert. Jesus left the garden of the Jordan River to find their temptations, and ours, and deal with them himself. The Old Testament (in the Revised Standard Version) called the valley and the banks of the Jordan, “the jungle of the Jordan.” (Jeremiah 12:5) It was lush and thick and green. Jesus left the jungle paradise and took our test over again in the desert of our temptations. He left the paradise of heaven to do this.

Jesus became empty, hungry, thirsty, lonely, and needy. He fasted forty days in the desert. He became weak.

We hate being weak. We are descended from our first ancestors, who wanted everything; who wanted to be like God; who wanted to be strong in their own strength.

Eden was a place where God wanted to tell the human race, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.” And the human race said “no” to God there; because, being God’s children, even when we had everything that was good for us, was not good enough for us.

Jesus went into the desert direct from hearing the words, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.” Matthew and Luke tell us that Satan tempted Jesus with the words, “If you are the Son of God,” do this, do that. (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) But Jesus would not do this or do that to prove he was the Son of God, because it was enough for him to simply be the Son of God, just as he was, there in the desert.

If someone had asked Jesus in the desert, “Jesus, why are you here? Why are you doing this? What do you want?” He could have said, “I want to create new sons and daughters of God by what I do here.”

What Jesus did in the desert to make us sons and daughters of God was the first installment of what he would do for us on the cross. The Gospel of John tells us: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

By not wanting to lose anything, the first humans lost everything.

Jesus is the everlasting Son of the Everlasting Father. He had everything, but he gave up everything for us, even though we wanted everything but him. By losing everything for us he wins us. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

Jesus knows what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. In the Letter to the Hebrews it says: “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 1:18) By saying “no” to himself he was able to say “yes” to us; and by saying no to himself he got what he really wanted. He got us.

Jesus was tempted for us in order to win us and build his kingdom among us. He did, through his temptation, what we could never do through ours. He made it possible for our old life to end and a new one to begin.

Through God in Christ we become a new creation. By faith in his dying for us, we die to ourselves. By relying on him, we say a big “no” to ourselves. And, so, Jesus can be our king, when we are tempted.

In temptation everything hangs on this; knowing what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. Parents say “no” to their children in order to say “yes” to them in a bigger way. Parents say “no” to their children in order to give them a happiness that the child cannot foresee. Saying “no” is their strange way of saying “I love you.”

Sometimes we have to say “no” to others for their own good, and for their happiness in the future. And, sometimes, we have to say “no” to ourselves, in order to find a happiness that we cannot foresee. By saying “no” to ourselves, we actually say “I love you” to those who are watching us; who are hoping and praying for us. By saying “no” to ourselves we may be acting in a greater love for ourselves than we can understand. By saying “no” to ourselves, we may even be giving ourselves the love of God, as God himself loves us.

The Lord’s Supper is a feast for the tempted. We receive him like a meal in our desert. When we live in a desert of temptations, we know Jesus walked in the same desert road with us. We come to be fed by the one who was tested just as we are. Just as the angels attended him, a heavenly world that we cannot see surrounds us and holds us in the Lord’s care. Even in our desert of temptation Jesus is our king.

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