Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11, Romans 5:12-19
by Nathan Hosler
Yesterday at 4:45, long before we are typically even thinking about thinking about getting up, our alarm went off. We got up and quickly ate breakfast and gathered our things. By 7:30 we were standing with a crowd of 250. The lady with the microphone was telling us that the 33 miles of trail we were going to spend the next several hours running on were covered in snow, ice, slush, and a lot of mud. At 8:00 when the race started this is exactly what we did: sound tempting?
Tempted? This title is intentionally ambiguous–it could refer to something positive and not necessarily particularly problematic—for example while at home on a Saturday I might say I am “tempted” to go outside and enjoy the Spring day. Or perhaps someone walking by the church feels drawn to come inside to our worship service. We might also say someone is tempted by a bribe or some other lucrative crime. Yesterday we ran a long race. On races over an hour long it becomes important to consume calories. When a race gets longer than 4 or 5 hours it is critical to eat—and eat a fair amount. Our bodies can only sustain burning 500 or 600 calories an hour for so long. Typically, as people training for such a race we try to eat in a fairly healthy manner but when racing distances over a marathon length (which is 26.2 miles) getting and keeping calories down is more important than what sort of calories they are. Yesterday M&Ms and Pepperidge Goldfish were what worked for me. While on a typical day I might say I am “tempted” to eat M&Ms, but during a race it is often an act of discipline to eat.
The confluence of the passage in Genesis and Jesus’ going into the wilderness is intentionally related to Lent. Traditionally Lent is a time when Christians give up something. This giving up is for the purpose of refocusing on God. This time is a time to disciple ourselves. Today, just a few days after Ash Wednesday, we are going to take a look at these passages in which we find two accounts of someone being tempted. The first is near the beginning of the Bible. This is the passage we read in Genesis.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”….So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
This Genesis passage is the early break of the perfection of Eden. It is the account of the entrance of sin, pain, and estrangement into God’s good creation. No longer is life an unspoiled stroll in the park. The sequence of events is fairly easy to follow. In the first verses we see Adam placed in the garden—and given the task of caring for it. Though he is living there in relative freedom he is commanded to not eat from a certain tree. This very tree, the one thing in the garden that was off limits, ended up being the very object they desired. This raises a question for me. Why have the tree? Perhaps the inclusion of the tree is so that humanity has choice—without choice there is little possibility for agency. That is, there is no possibility for humanity to truly love God.
So the tree, though the eventual object of desire and downfall, allows humanity to choose love of God. It would seem that Adam and Eve were doing just fine but then the serpent came. The serpent—which is noted to be the most crafty of animals came and inserted doubt into the mind of the humans. Was God really looking out for them or simply trying to control them by limiting their partaking of a powerful fruit?
To stay with the theme of running—my first ultra marathon was a 50 mile trail race. On the same course at the same time were also a 25 kilometer and a marathon distance. The course was 15 mile loop through a forest and, oddly cow pastures—which we need to open and close gates to enter and exit. The starting and finish line were in a large campsite where there was food and even a grill running. The shorter race got to run the loop and then stay in the campsite to rest and eat. The longest race, which I was doing, also returned to the campsite. The course actually went between tables of food and past people reclining on lawn chairs. While we could get food we always needed to keep going—keep going, unless we decided we just wanted to stop, eat and rest. Whereas a race in which you need to keep running in order to get home provides motivation to move your feet this race seemed determined to taunt us as we passed through the camp site for another couple of hours running through the mud.
So—they ate. The fruit which was placed in order to give them agency—given to allow them to truly love God—ended up facilitating their turning away from God. By turning they depart from the calling to which they were called.
Our second exposure to a sequence of testing, or temptation, is in Matthew starring a confrontation between Jesus and the Devil. In this narrative we see Jesus—the tested—emerge victorious—or at least without sinning.
As I was reading commentaries on the Matthew passage, however, most of the writers noted that the point of the passage is not really—“Jesus was victorious over temptation and so should you.” Not that this isn’t a legitimate statement–This idea as noted, while perhaps not in Jesus’ temptation does show up in Hebrews where it states that Jesus was tested in every way that we have been and is yet without sin. In Matthew, however, the temptation of Jesus reveals what he and the Kingdom of God which he proclaims is made of.
Jesus is tempted—shows who he is—what he is made of. It is his maintaining his mission for the Kingdom of God.
A few years ago I saw an ad in a running magazine. The ad was for a fifty mile trail race. The picture was of runners coming down a boulder and rock strewn hill. Not only was this 50 miles but it was 50 rough miles. In addition to information on the race the full page advertisement challenged the reader—“Show what you are made of.” Such an ad assumes that what is inside is not immediately evident. In the case of running there is the need to be tested to see what we have. This seems somewhat different than a test that one takes while in school. Most of these tests are indeed testing what is inside—in terms of skill or knowledge—but are typically not looking to reveal the grit, fortitude, stamina or courage that long races require.
Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God. The devil came quoting scripture. This is a sort of standoff of wits and resolve. The testing received is “to see what Jesus is made of.” Does he have the fortitude to achieve the kingdom of God? Does he have the focus to run the path set before him?
Before looking at this encounter we need to set the context for this standoff—Matthew 4 is obviously close to the beginning of Matthew. Being the beginning means that this is also near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In fact it is directly after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus comes out to the river Jordan where John the Baptizer is baptizing and requests—submits—to baptism. As he comes out of the water the Spirit comes down in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father is heard from heaven. Rather than capitalizing on this dramatic kick off to his ministry Jesus is led—or driven—out into the desert where he fasts for forty days. This forty day sojourn bears obvious similarities with the Israelite’s forty years wandering in the wilderness and Elijah’s forty day trip to the mountain where he meets God.
At the conclusion of this isolation and fasting Jesus is met by a final challenge. The challenge is nothing less than a Bible quoting Devil.
In the same way that there is agency, or the ability for Adam and Eve to say “no” to eating the fruit so to Jesus has agency to say no to the Devil’s challenge. There is no “the Devil made me do it” here. In Johnny Cash’s song The Devil’s Right Hand Johnny’s mom tells him that the pistol is the Devil’s right hand. Later after buying a Colt 45 When he “got into a card game in a company town” and “shot a man down”. When arrested the next day “You’ve got the wrong man, nothing touched the trigger but the Devil’s right hand.”
The things Jesus was tempted to forfeit for promised gains in his mission.
He is challenged in his hunger with Food –create food from stones. By meeting real need Jesus could end his hunger and gain a following. While we see Jesus caring for people’s needs at points during his ministry he doesn’t resort to this a bribe to gain followers. Food is also a fundamental form of dependency. We cannot get around it. We must eat. We must sustain ourselves. This challenge to food also mirrors God’s providing manna for the Israelites in the desert. It is from this time that Jesus quotes scripture to challenge the Devil’s encouragement to turn stones to bread—He says “people do not live on bread alone but on the word of God.”
He is challenged to prove he was something special by forcing his rescue after a jump from a high place in full public view. A stunt—literally a publicity stunt—to gain a following and prove that he is sent by God. This maneuver Jesus also rejects.
The final temptation is power— to have control over “the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor”
At the beginning of his ministry just after his baptism Jesus is tempted to circumvent the challenges that await his coming to proclaim the Kingdom of God. But what does this have to do with Genesis. There are some obvious similarities but a similar circumstance doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a meaningful connection. In Romans 5:12-19, our third scripture reading we see this link developed.
In Romans Paul links Jesus back to Genesis. Whereas “sin entered the world through one man” and subsequently affected all humanity, Jesus’ coming in some way reverses this.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
But how does Jesus address sin—how does he “undo” the damage caused by the sin of Adam and Eve. Before Jesus pulled off this reversal he was, as we read in Hebrews 5, “tempted in every way that we are.” Sin, the walking away from the calling of God, entered into the experience of humanity by Adam and Eve. Through this –death gain dominion over us. In Jesus, this dominion has been broken. Death and sin no longer rule over us.
Now such talk may feel a bit hyperbolic—somewhat or maybe very, overblown. Our experience is certainly not one free of sin and certainly not free of death. If Christ has freed us, in what way are we free?
We are free to live beyond ourselves. We are free to live out our calling that we have received.
The priority of and focus on the Kingdom of God is our calling. To be tempted is to be distracted from the call on our lives. Jesus was tempted by arguably good things but these were a diversion from his mission embodied in the presence and continued coming of the Kingdom.
Lent and resisting temptation is more than a repeated refusal to do this or to eat that. It is the continual focus and priority on the Kingdom of God. We are free to live beyond ourselves. We are free to live out our calling that we have received.