Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matt 4:1-11
First Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s; 5.3.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Just under thirty years ago I was sat in a chair in a small room at university having a conversation with a professor who was one of the leading experts in the world on determinism – the philosophy that we don’t have free will, that all our choices are the product of our environment and culture. He presented me with an absolutely flawless, water-tight argument for why he was right, but for all my philosophical inability (I think I was the worst student he ever had – but that’s a different story) I remained unconvinced. It just didn’t make sense of my experience. Free will, our freedom to choose, seemed to be fundamental to who we are.
A couple of years later, living in apartheid South Africa, I saw for myself the impact that denial of freedom could have. That freedom is a fundamental part of what it is to be truly human.
Our two Bible readings this morning touch on what it means to be truly human and what freedom looks like.
The story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity. Indeed the word Adam in Hebrew simply means “human”. It is a story that gives incredible insight into what it means to be truly human.
Adam and Eve are given wonderful freedom – in the whole of the garden of Eden they are encouraged by God to eat from whatever trees they like – the range and variety of fruit and tastes is endless. “Go and enjoy, go and delight in the wonder and goodness of the world around you”, God tells them. “Just one thing. In all this wonderful space there is just one tree not to eat from. That’s it. Everything else is for your enjoyment and delectation.”
We may wonder why that tree is there at all. Couldn’t God have just left that tree out of the garden, or just placed an unscalable fence around it? But the tree expresses something profound for us all: love can only be expressed when there is the choice not to love; goodness can only be lived out when there is the choice to do evil instead.
We are at our most truly human, most like the people that God has created us to be, when we make those choices to love and not hate, to do good and not evil.
But as the story of Adam and Eve captures in a nutshell, despite the abundance of goodness and delight in choosing the way of love, we all too readily choose the opposite instead. We choose to do things on our own terms, to ignore God, to think we know better.
Sometimes we do that wilfully. “You know what, I know I shouldn’t say this, but let me tell you something shocking about this other person…” Sometimes we do it through weakness: “I just couldn’t control myself. I was so upset, so angry…” And sometimes we do it by failing to act, by failing to respond to the needs of others: “I was so caught up with my own situation I didn’t notice them…” We can all too easily identify with Adam, or with the character from Oscar Wilde who said: “I can resist everything except temptation.”
But there is good news. As Paul was to put it in one of his letters, there is a second Adam, a second representative of humanity who shows us another way, and that person is Christ.
In our Gospel reading we see Christ battered with the same temptations that assaulted Adam and Eve. Indeed, his time of testing and trial is far longer and harder, as evil, Satan, tries every means at his disposal to tempt Christ to make wrong choices.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote that Jesus, like other human beings, was tempted in every possible way.
He is tempted to turn stones into bread to abate the gnawing hunger of his fast. It is the temptation to put our physical comforts and needs before our faith in God, to say that other things matter more than God. Few of us I imagine regularly spend 40 days in the desert fasting, or are tempted to miraculously turn stones into bread, but we may be tempted in other ways. I confess I find it much easier to just curl up with a book or watch something on TV rather than make that phone call to a family member that I have been neglecting. I find it much easier and more rewarding to do and tick off the next job on the to-do list rather than consciously step back and give the next five minutes to prayer. Those things I choose aren’t always bad – bread is of itself a good thing, and Christ we know enjoyed meals – but they become bad when they are done in order to avoid more difficult but more loving acts. We become fully human not by meeting our needs for comfort but by living lives of love. I wonder, where are you tempted to put comfort before love? Lent is a good time to re-assess and live our lives differently.
The second temptation Christ faces is to seek popularity, fame, applause. What could be more dramatic than to throw oneself from the highest building in the land – think in today’s terms, The Shard in London – and land unharmed? Then people would really listen to him. We too face the temptation of wanting people to like us, be popular, be respected. Again, not bad things in themselves, but if those things are our goal, rather than the by-product, of our actions, we may find ourselves all too easily flattering some people, gossiping with others, boasting about our achievements to others still. Christ shows us a better way, a way to become more fully human, a way that embraces love rather than popularity. Look around you. Here in church, in your workplace, in the school playground, in the community group. Who are the people who need love? Who are the people who are on the outside that need to be included? What can you do? Lent is not just about giving things up. Its about actively choosing to embrace others too.
And the third temptation Christ faces in the wilderness is the temptation to seek and exploit power. “Surely the easiest route to achieve things, to get things done, is to be in control”. Once more the thing being offered is not altogether bad. After all we speak of our God as the God of power and might. But power that denies that God is sovereign, as Christ is urged to do, is evil. Power used for anything other than the glory of God and the love of neighbour is abusive. Whether at work, at home or in our community, the influence we have, whether large or small, needs to be used for the good of others. Christ shows us that being truly human is about serving others, not lording it over them; about humbly acknowledging our need of God and relying on him, not acting as if he doesn’t exist.
When things go wrong, when we mess up or let people down, occasionally we may be inclined to hide behind the defence “Well, I’m only human”. The good news is that Christ offers us a way to be fully human, fully the people God intends us to be. We cannot do that in our own strength. We need the Spirit of God within us to strengthen and guide us, but by his grace, by trusting in his word just as Christ did in facing down his temptations, we may increasingly come to choose the way of love.
May this Lent, we face our temptations and choose the way of love.