Sunday, March 9, 2014

a different kind of power

Lent 1, Year A, 2014
All Saints’

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We are presented in the readings today with two situations of temptation. The situations have some similarities; for example, in both cases, there is an outside person doing the tempting. Also in both cases, food is presented as the desired object of temptation, but the underlying object, the true temptation, is actually the desire for power.  

The first situation is the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Imagine it: the two of them living in paradise, surrounded by luscious plants, exotic animals, and getting to hang out with God on a daily basis. They have free reign over everything in the kingdom. The only rule they have is not to eat from--or even touch--two certain trees, because the fruit will kill them. That’s the only rule: “Do whatever you want, just don’t go near these two trees, ok?” It’s a pretty sweet deal, right?

Well, everything is going great and everyone’s having a good time...until the snake comes along. The wily serpent makes them question God’s motives and ability to take care of them. He convinces Eve and Adam that eating from the tree is not actually a matter of life or death, but that it will give them knowledge that God is keeping from them. Now, I don’t think the quest for knowledge is bad, in and of itself. The quest for knowledge has led everywhere from the invention of written language to pizza to cures for diseases to putting people on the moon. But remember what the snake said? “...when you eat of will be like God.” It’s as if he’s saying, “You may think your life is great right now, but you’re blind. Just think of how much better it’s going to be if you eat from this tree. God is keeping things from you because God doesn’t think you can handle it.” 

How many of us, faced with the same situation, would eat the fruit? There’s a reason why reverse psychology is effective. And this is why we get in trouble, over and over again, throughout history. The tower of Babel wasn’t bad on its own; it was bad because people were trying to equate themselves with God, literally attempting to elevate themselves to God’s level. 

After Adam and Eve eat from the tree, they realize that they are naked, and make clothes for themselves. Gone are the days of total honesty and openness with God. Now they have secrets, they have shame, they have regret. The complete trust they share with God is broken, and their relationship is shattered. 

Fast forward several millennia. Jesus has just been baptized in the river Jordan. There is no question that he is the Son of God--when he comes up out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove comes down from the sky and lands on him, and God’s voice says, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Right after this, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted (Matt 4:1). 

On the surface, we might think, “Oh, it was easy for Jesus, because Jesus is God, so there’s no way he can sin. It’s not even possible.” But think about it. Jesus has been in the desert, alone, without food and water, for 40 days and nights. Jesus is the Son of God, but that doesn’t prevent him from experiencing pain and suffering. He is, most likely, physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, not to mention starving. But when the devil suggests Jesus eat some bread, he is not really talking about bread. “If you are the Son of God” he says, “prove it” (Matt 4: 3). “You’re hungry, so just turn these stones into bread. You say you are God, so show me! Use your power!” But Jesus refuses; food is vital for the body, but the soul needs nourishment, as well. 

Next, the devil tries to convince Jesus to call upon angels, even quoting scripture. “Look, you know that you can get out of this situation if you want. Just do it. Don’t you want this to be over?” Jesus refuses again. “Yes, I can get out of this situation, but that would miss the point of me being here.”  

Jesus cannot be convinced to flex his power. He doesn’t just flip a switch and act all-powerful when things become difficult; he chooses to suffer, wholly embracing his humanity. God becomes human not to show us how good God can be at being human, but to show us that God knows what it means to suffer, to be hurt, to get angry, to feel lonely. God empties God’s self, chooses to lay aside power, in order to be fully present with God’s people. 

What was God’s purpose in coming down to earth, only to die 3 years after beginning ministry? Ever since Adam and Eve’s mishap in the garden of Eden, we humans had been growing further and further away from God. The more we learned about the world and each other, the more we convinced ourselves that we were self-sufficient, leaving less and less room for God to be a part of our lives. But the more we filled our lives with other things, the emptier our lives became. God saw the suffering and came down to mend our broken relationship. Jesus was the Son of God, but he showed his power in unexpected ways. The Jews were looking for a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and become their new king. However, the only thing Jesus ended up overthrowing was their expectations. Instead of a show of force, Jesus demonstrated the power of love, healing the sick and spending time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and simple fishermen. Instead of ruling as a mighty king, Jesus led by serving, washing the feet of his followers and wearing a crown of thorns rather than one of jewels. Instead of taking over and fixing everything, Jesus walked beside us, took time to understand the world from a human perspective. Ultimately, Jesus redefined what power was when he purposefully got on the path that led to the cross, offering his life so that death would lose its grip on us, once and for all.  

While the promise of eternal life means that death has been vanquished forever, we continue to face temptations to this day. There are so many things that call our attention away from God: we’re super busy people, and our time, energy, money, and compassion are all in high demand. It takes a lot of effort to set aside time for prayer, service, and study. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve already gotten sidetracked from your Lenten disciplines. But rather than despair at our weakness and give up because we didn’t make it through all 40 days, we can look at each moment as an opportunity to start over. The point of being in relationship with God is not for it to be perfect, but for it to be authentic. We come before God completely open, with all our faults exposed. We do not overcome temptation through our own efforts; we are made clean through the work of Christ. In Jesus, God grants us forgiveness of our sins. In Jesus, God gives us an “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). In Jesus, we come to know the incredible, improbable, life-altering power of love. 

video meditation on today's Gospel reading by Si Smith:

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