Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (NIV)
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV)
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Today we are beginning our Lenten series, “Encountering God: What have we witnessed?” The writers of our Lenten resources have arranged the worship services in two movements: “Encountering” and “Witnessing.” I like the way that these writers have considered just what these words might really mean. Does the phrase “Encountering God” refer to something we do, or is it an attribute of God? Likewise, does “Witnessing” refer to something we see, or something that we do? Regardless, our hope is to encounter God in a new way this Lent, and to be a witness to all of the world.
Before we get to our text, I feel that it is always important to remind everyone of the purpose for observing Lent. Lent is simply a Gaelic word that means spring. Traditionally, the church has observed a period of 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday as Lent. Many people associate Lent with giving something up, but that is not a requirement. The idea of giving something up for Lent comes from today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days, but nowhere are we commanded to do likewise.
I prefer to look at Lent as a period of preparation. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was not just a time to be tempted. It was a time where he was being tested, formed, and made ready to begin his life of public ministry. And the early church saw the 40 days preceding Easter Sunday as a time of preparation for new converts to Christianity.
Originally, the church welcomed new converts into membership in a baptismal service on Easter Sunday. But before they were baptized, they first needed to go through a 40 day period of intense study, quizzing, and active participation in the life of the church.
So when you hear the word “Lent,” do not feel like you have to give something up in order to observe this season with the rest of the church. I have given up things in the past like Facebook, sweets, and fasted for a period each week during Lent. But I have not given up anything this year. Rather, think of Lent as a period of preparation for the next stage of your ministry. How might you become more tuned in to what God wants from you during the next 40 days? If giving up something helps you to grow in your faith, then by all means, do it. Perhaps adding something, like additional prayer or scripture reading, or alms giving might be more helpful. Either way, let us make the next 40+ days a period of preparation, a period of growth, and a period to rededicate ourselves to Jesus.
We begin our Lenten journey with what might seem like an obvious theme in today’s scriptures: temptation. These stories are relatively well-known, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. We begin with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Life is perfect. There is no death, there is no sickness. There is no hunger. If you want to eat, all you have to do is pluck a piece of fruit from a nearby tree. As long as it isn’t from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is.
You see, God had commanded Adam to not eat from that specific tree and the punishment for disobeying God is death. But along comes a snake, presumably slithering upright, and calling God’s commandment into question. The snake says that eating the fruit will not cause Adam and Eve to die, but that their eyes will be opened. They will have a new way of seeing the world around them, including knowing good and evil.
Here is a challenging observation: the snake didn’t lie. Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit, and they did not die. They did not die immediately, that is. And the text tells us that their eyes were opened, just as the snake said they would be. Oh no, the snake didn’t lie as much as stretch the truth a bit. But the real problem was that Adam and Eve disobeyed a direct order from God.
But the good news, or maybe I should say “The Good News,” is that the story does not end there. The Apostle Paul tells us that there is a new Adam, a second Adam, who comes along in the 1st century. And where the first Adam failed, the second Adam will succeed. Of course that second Adam has a name of his own, and we call him Jesus.
Matthew tell us that when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John, Jesus immediately went out into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus had not eaten for 40 days, a period of time that calls our attention back to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. And the tempter challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread.
Evidently there is something wrong with making bread out of stones. As we will learn elsewhere in the Bible, it must be okay to turn bread into more bread and even turn water into wine, but we dare not turn stones into bread. Man does not live on bread alone!
Perhaps it is obvious, but there is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. The Bible verse that Jesus quotes doesn’t say that there is something wrong with this metamorphosis, either. So what is the big deal?
Let’s look at the exact wording here. Verse three says, “The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God…’” I don’t need to go any further. The bread part doesn’t seem to be the issue. The issue is Jesus’ role as God’s son. That same phrase is repeated in verse six, “If you are the Son of God…” If you are the Son of God, prove it to me. Show me your powers, because to me, you just look like some tired, worn out, disheveled, hungry man.
The power of this temptation is lost is we fail to read today’s scripture in its proper context. Those challenges of “If you are the Son of God” come in verses three and six in chapter four of Matthew’s gospel. Do you know what the very last thing recorded in the previous chapter was?
Verse 17, “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”
Adam and Eve were told one thing by God and another by a snake. They chose to listen to the snake. Jesus was told one thing by God and the tempter called that into question. Jesus chose to listen to God.
As I read through these two texts, I am very aware that the name given to the tempter changes from text to text, even from line to line. In Genesis, the tempters is simply called “the serpent.” Many of us will want to name this serpent Satan, but that is not a name given in this text and I want to let the text stand alone for right now.
When we turn to Matthew we find Jesus tempted in the wilderness by “the tempter,” “the devil,” and “Satan.” And there are other names given to the tempter throughout the Bible. Beelzebub, the father of lies, Lucifer. By some counts there are over 20 different names used to describe the tempter in the Bible.
I don’t often speak of Satan or the devil by those names, in part because I believe that western society has anthropomorphized the tempter to a point that is no long helpful. “The devil made me do it,” and the red, horned man with a pitchfork don’t seem consistent with the biblical text.
But I believe in evil, I believe in temptation, and I believe in a force that is opposite of God. And I believe that the fact that the Bible gives over 20 different names to evil should be a reminder that evil comes in many different shapes, forms, and quantities. And one of the greatest temptations that we face as Christians today is the very temptation that Adam, Eve, and Jesus faced: the temptation to question our relationship with God and our own insecurities.
The reformer Martin Luther is probably best known for his sharp intellect, especially his understanding of salvation by grace through faith. Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and the changes that had been brewing in the church came to the forefront.
What many of us don’t know is that Luther dealt with insecurity his entire life, both before and after his understanding of grace changed. In fact, I would say that it was his insecurity that moved him to his findings.
Luther’s writings suggest that he was obsessed with unanswerable questions like, “What if I died after committing a sin on the way to confession?” and “What if I sinned and did not realize it and therefore did not confess?”
Even after his change of heart, Luther questioned whether or not he was the one to bring about the changes in the church he was suggesting. There are stories told that when Luther was working on translating the Greek Bible into German, holed away in a private castle, people would overhear him yelling, “Ich bin getauft!” Often this angry verbal outburst was followed by the sound of shattering pottery as Luther was known to throw his ink pot against the wall out of frustration as he worked.
Luther’s frustration came not from his inability to translate the Greek into German, but from the nagging sense that he was worthy of being the one to do it.
Ich bin getauft, I am baptized. This is how Luther encourage himself, reassured himself, and managed to press on. He didn’t say, “I was baptized,” or “I will be baptized,” but “I am baptized!”
Luther did not believe that his baptism as an infant kept him safe from temptation and self-doubt (at least I don’t think he did). Luther understood baptism as a covenant between God and human beings. Like a marriage between a husband and wife, baptism reminds us that we belong to another. We are God’s children, his beloved. With us God is well pleased.
When we are faced with temptation, when we question our relationship with God, God’s promises to us, and we feel we need to defeat our insecurities in a way that may not be consistent with God’s desires for our lives, call out into the night, Ich bin getauft. I am baptized. I belong to someone else, someone who loves me so much that he was willing to die for me.