Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse
This war of words between Jesus and the devil is one of the most interesting exchanges in the gospel. It is written as dialogue, a clear back-and-forth, a test of wits known as the temptation of Jesus. The devil – or the tempter – appears to Jesus when he is alone, when he is the most susceptible to other voices, and tries three times to steer him off his path. Many of us might draw comparisons to what happens to us sometimes when we wake up at 3 am, tossing and turning to worries that feel larger than what we are able to handle. Often at that time of night, lying alone in the dark, people describe that all their problems seem bigger, and all the solutions that come forward in a sleepy mind feel more desperate. The more they ruminate on those problems – money, family, health – the larger and more intractable they seem. In the light of day, however, all that worry often feels nonsensical and overblown. Jesus has a clear advantage over us. In our story, he is confronted by the tempter, by the devil, who reveals himself. First, he asks Jesus to prove himself – to turn stones into bread. Isn’t that something that Jesus Christ could do easily? But Jesus deflects smoothly: “Why would I bother?” he tells the devil. You can’t live by bread alone. And every word for God should be spent wisely. The devil moves to his next question, this time asking Jesus to prove God’s love for him: “Throw yourself off this mountain,” the devil taunts, “and see how God will save you.” But Jesus parries easily: “Don’t put God to the test,” he says. God stands by us, and guides us, through plenty of tests of our own inadvertent making. And the devil’s final question is for Jesus to walk away from his difficult path and his austere life, and trade it all in for riches. Now that is a temptation we can truly understand. And at this, the contempt that Jesus feels boils over: “Away with you, Satan,” he says. “I won’t lose myself for a pot of gold. I serve God and the gospel alone.” This is the true sign of a rich life. The devil having lost, he goes away. And the better angels of God appear to keep Jesus company. This story is intended to be a guide for us, a reminder of the ways that we are also tempted. We don’t see the devil, but the voice of temptation whispers to us throughout our lives. Sometimes, it is easier to see – when we are tempted to break rules, or to break our moral code for material success, to lie for personal gain. We see it often so clearly among our leaders and our politicians who protect their power with the price of ourselves. But let’s not kid ourselves: we face similar temptations, and we sometimes fall short – when we choose money over family, or prestige over good works, or when we make self-serving choices that hurt those around us. The hardest temptations are those that come to us more subtly, that feel right and fair at the time. Why shouldn’t we show off our success, or reveal our talents if we have them? Doesn’t God want us to be successful, to know our own strength? God does, indeed. But not for others - for ourselves. When we do good, when we are good, it should be enough, for that goodness is a valuable asset in its own right. We don’t need to be seen changing stone to bread. And indeed, feeling that way only taints our motives and takes the goodness out of our actions. This one is trickier still. Perhaps we are ill or grieving, we have suffered a loss, and we choose to blame God. We stand at the top of the metaphorical mountain and toss ourselves over and wait for God to come through and save us. Yet nowhere in the gospel does it say life is easy; nowhere does it say that faith makes life perfect. In fact, the gospel is one big guidebook for how to help ourselves - how to hear God when life is a mess. We don’t need to test God’s love, because God is not at the bottom of the mountaintop waiting to catch us. God is already standing at the top with us. What is the advice that we are given by the Gospel for those 3 a.m. wake-ups? Now that is also interesting. The advice often given is for us to change the conversation: to tell ourselves that the night has magnified our worries. That we will fall back asleep and rise to greet what the day brings. That we will manage to get through what troubles us. But it is interesting to me that the self-help approach is to shift the conversation – for what is that but praying in the end? In the middle of the night, we can go to God about our troubles, and seek the wisdom of the gospel. We can work things out. Let’s take a minute to talk about the conversation that Eve has with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, one that has been used throughout history as an excuse to treat women as less than men and perpetuated great harm on society because of it. To say nothing of costing us the wisdom of half the population through all these many years. It is true that Eve, based on that story in Genesis, broke the rule that God had sent, and listened to the serpent who told her the key to wisdom was hers to find in the Tree of Life. (There is nothing to say, by the way, that Adam also didn’t know what he was eating: that Eve didn’t tell him what it was, or that he was fully aware of it, before he himself had it.) So, what happens? The two of them eat the fruit, and they do not die. They go out into the world to face the trials and joys that it holds. One imagines that God, having created humanity in God’s image, understood our thirst for wisdom would not be satisfied by a life without challenge, without striving. But when Eve and Adam become aware of themselves -- of who they are, when they acquire free will, God doesn’t abandon them. God joins them in the real world. What does that story teach us? Perhaps first of all, that we, imperfect, could not perpetually exist in perfection. But perhaps most of all: when we give into temptation – as we do, as we will – God doesn’t discard us. Sacred text teaches us over and over again that God tries to guide us back to the gospel again and again. This is an important lesson for us to remember; yes, Jesus tells us the answers to give when we are tempted. We just won’t always use them. And when we give in to temptation, we are not condemned. We are forgiven. This is the gift of faith, given by God, to humanity. Amen.