Temptation comes in many forms – and as someone who has recently gone back on Weight Watchers, right now temptations smell exactly like Grace Church’s Sunday Lenten pancake breakfast! And the truth is that I lost the battle to resist those pancakes the minute I heard about that breakfast, because for me breaking bread with the members of my new parish family is more important than getting back to a size – well, let’s just say it’s more important than dieting. Of course, the Weight Watchers police might not agree with that analysis. They might, in fact, call it an excuse.
Which is one of the hardest things about being tempted. It’s usually pretty easy to find a rationale for giving in, but it’s hard to know if it’s a real reason or a justification. For example, many of us may have grown up with the tradition of fasting during. My family did not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and, as an adult, my husband and I also began the practice of foregoing all solid food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It was a choice that I thought was pretty pious. Recently, however, a priest I know and respect gave a sermon in which she said that she no longer tries to fast because it’s not a spiritual experience for her. Rather than imagining Jesus’s suffering on the cross, she visualizes what she will be having for breakfast the next morning. My reaction to her thoughtful and honest confession was to think, “What a wimp! She doesn’t even have the willpower to fight temptation for one day!” I felt pretty superior – until I realized that by reacting with pride, I had just given into temptation myself. Devil: 1; Deb: 0.
But that’s the way temptation is. It’s sneaky. It’s subtle. It is inevitable. But not, perhaps, for the reasons we think. Today’s scripture readings all deal with the issue of temptation, drawing a parallel between what happened to the people that God put in the garden of Eden and Jesus’s experience with “the devil” in the wilderness. All three people were tempted but only Jesus did not sin. Why is that? Well, what I learned in Sunday school went something like this: The snake tricked the woman into eating the fruit (which was not, according to the Bible, an apple), the woman talked the man into eating the fruit, and they got in big trouble with God. That’s why, according to the theological doctrine of original sin, all people are born “sinful.” Even though God created people without sin, Adam and Eve spoiled everything by biting that apple.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to that doctrine – because it suggests that humanity is basically bad – and, despite the fact that I worked in the prison system for almost twenty years and have probably seen the worst of human nature, I still believe that human beings are inherently good – that we are made in God’s image.
This view is consistent with today’s reading from Genesis, which is actually not about “sin” and “punishment.” In fact, the words “sin,” “fall,” and “punishment” never appear in this passage. Here is what the story does tell us: God created people and, like any good parent, gave them boundaries. “Please,” God said, “take care of this nice world that I have given you and don’t eat from that tree because it’s not good for you.” And, just like any teenagers, the man and the woman got distracted by the popular media of their day and did exactly what they had been asked not to do. And God, like any good parent, did not kill them (even though he may have wanted to), but instead sent them out to experience the “real world.” And, as we know, it did not go well.
So, what does this story about the “original sin” tell us? It tells us, first and foremost, that sin is not natural. God did not create people who were naturally bad and set out to do something wrong. He created people who were basically good who made a mistake. And their mistake had a terrible cost – for them and for God. The consequence of their disobedience was to be sent away from God, to be separated from their creator. That is what sin is: separation from God. And it is painful, and it makes us sick.
Jesus is our physician. God sent him to make us well and to show us how to deal with temptation – not as a god, but as a human being. Jesus was tempted just as we so often are – when he was tired, hungry, and stressed- and probably very afraid. But unlike the first man and woman – unlike us, Jesus triumphed over temptation, because Jesus did not allow the “devil” or, as it is more properly translated from Greek, “the one who misleads,” to cause him to sin – to separate him from God.
That is what true temptations are – the things that separate us from the love of God. And that is how we can tell whether we are “giving in” to temptation or not- by whether what we choose to do separates us or draws us closer to God. After all, what are the seven “deadly sins” but the ways in which we are most often separated from the way of Jesus? Envy is the temptation that comes “when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.” Pride is the “temptation [that] comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand,” wrath is, “when we allow our tempers to define our lives” – and so on. Just as the serpent distracted the first humans from the purpose God had given them, so the distractions – the temptations – of our lives keep us from the purpose that God has given us: to love one another as God loves us.
But Jesus has shown us how to deal with temptation -and it is not through our own willpower. We must deal with temptation in the same way Jesus did, by remembering that we do not face it alone. Scripture tells us that people have made mistakes from the beginning of time, but it also tells us that God has never abandoned us when we make them. God has always and will always be with us in our temptations. And we, like Jesus, know that. We know what the first man and woman did not when they hid from God. We know what the psalmist knew. We know what Paul told the Romans. We know that when we acknowledge our sin to God, when we do not conceal our guilt, when we confess our transgressions to the Lord, God forgives us. That’s why in Lent we are asked not beat our breasts and wallow in our unworthiness, but instead to examine ourselves and see our weaknesses and acknowledge them – to look into our dark places so that God can bring light to them.
And we do not do it by ourselves. Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” but I say, One does not live alone, for we are best able to hear the word of God when we hear it from the lips of our fellow human beings. We are not alone. God did not make us to be alone and God has never left us alone. We are in this together – and we are in this together with Jesus. We have been blessed with the joy of belonging to a Christian community –this Christian community – this community of amazing grace. My prayer on this my first day as your spiritual leader is that we will continually and joyfully walk in Christ’s love and share our lives with one another – the good and the bad – the joy and the sorrow – the temptations and the triumphs – and that we will do it together. AMEN.
Maryetta Anschutz, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (First Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.