Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Sin and Trust

Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

 Lent is the season of the Christian year that especially calls us to reflect on our sins and seek God’s grace to be free from sin.  These are both appropriate passages for the first Sunday in our Lenten journey.  

 Let’s start with the most basic question:  What is sin?  We usually think of sin in terms of a particular sin, some certain thing that is wrong in God’s eyes:  Murder, theft, adultery, etc.  But there is something more fundamental than a sin, and that is sin in general.  What is sin?  Genesis chapters two and three tell us of the very first sin, so there can’t be a much better place to start.  

 God gives Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden, a place full of goodness.  But there is also a choice available in the garden.  There is a forbidden tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In the Hebrew way of thinking, knowledge is always experiential, never just intellectual.  So this tree represents more than just knowing about good and evil; it’s also the chance to choose between good and evil, between obedience and disobedience. 

 Is the tree real or symbolic?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  The meaning of the story doesn’t change one iota if you say it’s just a symbolic story.

 Why does God give them a choice?  Wouldn’t it have been simpler not to?  Well, that is certainly a question that vexes theologians.  I think the best answer is that without the freedom to disobey God, we are not free to obey God and so to love him.  Unless we can reject God, we can never truly love him.  A computer or a robot is incapable of love.  It can only do what it is programmed to do.  We would be the same without the freedom to reject God.  

 In chapter three, the serpent comes to tempt Adam and Eve, and we know from other places in Scripture that the serpent is the incarnation of Satan.  Satan is a rebellious angel, who tried to take God’s place.  He was cast out of heaven, and now he seeks to entice others to join his rebellion.

 Again, is Satan real or just a symbol?  I would certainly say he is real.  Evil is more than just our own individual choices.  There is a super-personal power of evil at work in the world.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that we are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against powers and authorities in the unseen world.  The human agents of evil we see in this world are themselves victims of a greater power that has deceived them.

  

 When Satan comes to Adam and Eve, he comes in the form of a serpent.  That is also significant.  The serpent was a symbol of many things in the ancient Near East world, but especially it represented death, because of its venom, and wisdom, because of its lidless, unblinking eyes.  Both are appropriate.  Satan promises wisdom but delivers death.

 Now we would say Satan is tempting Adam and Eve, and it is both.  If you look at verse 6, you see that they are both present.  No excuses for Adam about “just listening to his wife!”  And in English, the word “tempt” is always a negative word.  But the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible do not necessarily have a negative connotation.  If anything, the word used in Scripture is “test.”  Adam and Eve are being tested.  They’re given the opportunity to prove their faithfulness.  

 Satan’s first tactic is to make God seem overly restrictive:  “Did God really say you couldn’t eat any fruit?”  He is casting doubt on God’s goodness and love.  “Why would God not let you have anything?”  

 Eve passes the first test, so Satan says, “You won’t die.  God is keeping you from something good.  If you eat it, your eyes will be open and you will be like God.”  

 Now, we are supposed to be like God, right?  Yes, certainly.  But the way to become like God is through obedience, not disobedience.  The problem isn’t the goal, being like God, it’s the method.  We can’t become like God through disobedience, through grasping after God’s place, through trying to replace God with ourselves.  It just doesn’t work like that!

 But the deception is successful.  Eve looks at the fruit and sees it is desirable.  Sometimes the battle is lost with the eyes.  Paul told Timothy to run away from everything that stimulates lust.  Don’t sit around in the presence of temptation and see how much you can get away with!  And both of them eat the fruit.  

 Sure enough, their eyes are opened.  But all their opened eyes see is their own nakedness.  They feel guilty, ashamed.  A guilty conscience is actually a gift from God.  It tells us we have done wrong and it should motivate us to seek reconciliation.

 Adam and Eve tried to gain freedom apart from God by putting themselves in God’s place.  It is the great illusion of sin.  Sin tells us that freedom is doing whatever we want.  But the truth is that freedom is found in relationship with God.  Only in relationship with God can we find freedom from fear, guilt, and death.  

 Our other text for today is the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness.  It happens right after his baptism, which, of course, was a high point for Jesus, as he hears the voice of God affirming him.  And it often happens, as it did for Elijah after his contest with the prophets of Baal, that tests come soon after our high points, when we are most likely to be full of pride and to forget our need for God.

 Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast for 40 days.  Forty days remind us of the 40 years of wilderness wandering for Israel, the 40 days when Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai.  And it is at the end of this time of fasting that the testing comes.  Jesus is alone, he is hungry, and he is tired.  He is in a weakened position.  

 There are three temptations.  The first is to turn stones into bread.  Nothing wrong with bread, of course, but the timing is wrong.  Jesus is here to fast and pray; not to eat.  It’s the right thing in the wrong time.  

The second temptation is to leap from the Temple and call on God’s angels for protection.  Satan even uses Scripture, Psalm 91, to justify it.  Satan knows Scripture.  He just doesn’t obey it.  But Satan is quoting Scripture out of context.  Psalm 91 is about how God protects us from dangers that come our way, not from dangers we invite on ourselves.  Jesus responds with Scripture again: “Don’t test God.”  All three of Jesus’ responses are from Deuteronomy, a book about Israel’s testing in the wilderness.  

The third temptation is to receive the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping Satan.  This time it’s the right goal in the wrong way.  Jesus will receive the world, but through obedience to his Father, not through a shortcut.  

Philippians chapter two tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, did not cling to his divine rights, but laid them aside willingly, when he became fully human.  A child of God is defined by a trusting relationship with God.  In order for Jesus to be obedient, he had to have the chance to be disobedient.  And Jesus passed the test.

At least for now.  In Luke’s Gospel, the time in the wilderness ends with Satan leaving Jesus “until an opportune moment.”  Testing never ends.  It just changes.  The tests of our trust in God change as we grow from children to teenagers to young adults to mature adults.  But testing never ends on this side of glory.  We are always going to be tempted in some way to doubt God, to think that he really doesn’t want what is best for us, and to think that we would be better to replace God with ourselves.  That is the essence of sin.  Sin is casting God off the throne, putting ourselves in his place, and saying, “I know better than God what is good and right for me.”  That is sin.

 

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