Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
If I asked you to name a story found in the book of Genesis, I would guess that most people would first name the creation narrative. It is truly a beautiful story: God spoke the world into existence, and it was good. Probably the next story that comes to mind is our Old Testament passage for this morning.
From an early age, we’ve heard the story of how Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, all of their needs were met, and they experienced full communion with God. They talked to God just like they might talk to one another. Adam and Eve had it pretty good there in the Garden, and they only had one rule.
Just one rule. And they couldn’t keep it.
They were told that they couldn’t eat the fruit of one particular tree. I can avoid fruit if I have to. Chocolate, well, that’s another story. It seems like a small price to pay for that whole living in paradise thing that they had going. All it took was a little coaxing from a serpent to get them to go against the one commandment God gave them (that we know of).
We often refer to this passage as “The Fall.” This is not a reference to the season of the year, but the way that humanity fell from their position in the garden. The first humans chose to listen to a voice other than the voice of God, and it proved to be costly.
I heard an interesting assessment of this story this week from Stanley Hauerwas. Why do we even know this as “the Fall?” Why isn’t it just “the Norm,” or “the Expected?” Because if we really think about it, we don’t know any different. When throughout history have we not known human beings to choose to listen to voices other than the voice of God? Isn’t this the entire story of Israel? Isn’t this the entire story of the Hebrew Bible?
What other notable stories do we have in the Hebrew Bible? The Great Flood? That event took place because the entire world was sinful. The Exodus? They wandered in the wilderness because they sinned. The stories of the Promised Land and the years of the monarchy? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of heroes in the Hebrew Bible as well, but it seems like time and time again we find stories of human failure. And the story of human failure seems to be the norm, not only in the Bible, but even today.
According to Hauerwas, we know this story as the Fall because of Jesus. We know this story as the Fall because Jesus shows us what it means to be faithful. In Romans 5, Paul describes Jesus as a second Adam, only this time, Jesus got it right. Just as sin entered the world through one man, so too had God’s grace entered the world through Jesus.
Yet if we read Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, we find a slightly different approach to the same overarching story. Where Paul presents Jesus as a second Adam, Matthew presents Jesus as a second Israel. Where Israel had failed, Jesus proved to be faithful.
Matthew’s gospel is clearly written to a Jewish audience. Matthew is always making references to the Hebrew Bible, a text that his Jewish readers would know well. Now look at how Matthew begins chapter 4, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
I’m no Hebrew scholar, but when I hear these verses, I think of two events. The first is the great flood, which lasted…40 days and 40 nights. The great flood is a story of human failure at its worst. God was sorry he even created human beings. And who else was led out into the wilderness? The Israelites were led to the wilderness, where they wandered, not for 40 days, but for 40 years. So when a Jewish audience hears this, they are prepared to hear a story of human failure. Our modern ears pick up on things and ask questions like, Did God tempt Jesus? Did the Spirit lead Jesus out to the wilderness in order that he might be tempted? Those are fun questions to consider, but the point of these two verses seems to be to bring us back to the failures of the past.
The first temptation is for this hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread. There’s nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. I say if you can do that, go ahead and do it! But this gives Jesus a chance to refer back to the Hebrew Bible. And notice that all of Jesus’s rebuttals to Satan’s temptations are scriptures from Deuteronomy. Even more specifically, they are all references to Israel’s years of wandering—and failing—in the wilderness.
In verse 4, we find Jesus’s response to temptation 1: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” This is a part of a larger passage of scripture from Deuteronomy 8. Here are verses 2-3:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
This temptation never was about bread. It was about humility. It was about our reliance upon God, the source of all things that are good.
The next temptation involves the devil taking Jesus up to the highest point of the temple and daring him to jump. I’m pretty sure the devil even called him chicken, trying to egg him on a bit. Maybe not, but what does the devil do? He quotes scripture to Jesus, which just goes to show how much we can twist scriptures around to say whatever we want it to, especially when taken out of context.
I’ve always assumed that this temptation was about Jesus doing something miraculous in front of the Israelites so that they would believe in him. If you were coming out of church today and someone jumped off our roof, only to stop inches above the ground and hover there for a bit, you would take notice! But let’s look again at Jesus’s response in verse 7 and its original context. “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” This comes from Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.”
And now I want to know about Massah! This story comes from Exodus 17, where the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and they complain to Moses, accusing him of bringing them out into the wilderness so that they, their children, and their livestock will die of thirst. Verses 6-7:
Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?”
When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the temple, this wasn’t to show other people who he was. This was an effort to make Jesus second guess his own identity, and to second guess if God was really with him. If God saved him from this terrible fall, it was proof that God was with him.
The final temptation involves the devil taking Jesus to the top of the mountain and offering Jesus power over all nations if he will just bow down to him. Does this mean that the devil has power over all kingdoms, nations or governments? That’s debatable. It seems like the devil is offering Jesus a shortcut to power. Jesus is offered a crown without a cross. But Jesus needs to consider what kind of messiah he is called to be. And he responds in verse 10, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
This is also right out of Deuteronomy 6. Verses 12-13: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.”
How did the Israelites do at that? *Cough, golden calf. Cough.* The temptations of Jesus, and more specifically his response to these temptations, reveal that not only can Jesus overcome temptation, he succeeds where Israel had failed.
So obviously, the point of the story is that Jesus is good, humans are bad. You’re going to sin, so go forth and sin boldly! No, probably not.
I recently finished the New York Times’ Best Seller, Hillbilly Elegy. Hillbilly Elegy is the story of a family with its roots in the coalmining country of Kentucky who took part in the northern flight of the 20th century when factory jobs were plentiful in the region of the country often referred to as “The Rust Belt.” According to the author, JD Vance, many Appalachian Americans, whom he affectionately refers to as hillbillies, moved to places like his hometown of Middletown, OH when promised jobs and a step up the socio-economic ladder. And these hillbillies took with them their culture, infusing the northern territories with a little bit of the southern life.
Vance tells the story of growing up without a father, and with a mother who changed boyfriends and jobs on a regular basis. They moved frequently. His mother was arrested on multiple occasions. Factories closed, and narcotics soon filled the void. In two generations’ time, Middletown, OH, and many factory cities like it, had gone from a promising, up-and-coming place, to a dilapidated shell of its former self that could drain the hope right out of you.
Vance would become the first person in his nuclear family to graduate from college, and the first person (that he knew of) from his home town to graduate from an Ivy League school, completing a law degree from Yale. Most in his hometown would live a life of poverty. Many would be imprisoned. Many would die too young from drug and alcohol abuse.
It was common to see young men brush off homework assignments because they didn’t expect to be able to get a job after they finished high school anyway. Vance saw many people living off the system, abusing welfare and disability programs that were meant to be a safety net, not a career goal.
Vance doesn’t sugar-coat the community in which he grew up. He knows that the poor hillbillies of his hometown are not given the same opportunities as many upper and upper-middle class people are offered. Many of these hillbillies don’t have a stable home, which makes it all the more difficult to thrive. So what helped JD Vance earn his JD from Yale? Two things seem to stand out: encouragement from his family members and a passion to do better.
While so many people seemed to simply give up and accept the fact that they would either end up unemployed or dealing drugs, JD refused to accept such a fate. In part, because his hillbilly grandmother physically threatened him if he didn’t do his homework and finish school.
It is easy to look at the history we find in the Bible and say, Human beings are just broken. We have not and cannot do things right. From Adam to Israel, from David to the Disciples, we fail. Even when we know better, we give in to temptation. We take the easy way out. We accept defeat.
Yes, we have the grace of God offered to us for those times when we fail. But I don’t think that this story about the temptation of Jesus is just there to show us that we are sinners and Jesus was perfect. No, I think it is there as a reminder and an example of how to overcome temptation.
Like JC, we have the scriptures. Like JD, we have one another, and a passion to do better.