Thursday, 9 March 2017

Temptation and Sin- Lent 1

Our Genesis reading not only talks about how sin entered the world, but it also speaks about how sin works. To deal with any disease it is important that we have an intimate understanding of how the disease works and how it effects the body. Likewise, if we are to deal with temptation and sin we have to understand how they are likely to effect us. 

God has created Adam and given him purpose. God gives the human permission to eat from every tree in the Garden except for one- The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Some people wonder why God would put a tree like that in the garden at all. The explanation I find most convincing is that for love to be genuine it has to be chosen. For Adam and Eve’s love to be real it had to exist alongside the reality of rejection. Someone can’t put a gun to your head and make you love them. They can make you say it, but they can’t make you love them. The tree is the opportunity to reject God. If the tree didn’t exist then Adam and Eve wouldn’t really be able to love. … There are consequences to rejecting God, who is the source of all love, beauty, grace, peace, and joy. The consequences of rejecting God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is that by rejecting God they will experience evil. Up to then, they have only experienced good. The day they eat it, which means the day they reject God, they enter spiritual death.

The command from God is quite clear. Eat from any other tree in the garden, just not that one. The serpent causes doubt to arise in Eve’s mind. He asks the question, “Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The answer is almost the exact opposite. Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

We notice something interesting when we compare what Eve says to the original command. Eve has somehow added “nor shall you touch it”. Ancient rabbi’s wondered where this extra command came from. Eve wasn’t created when God gave the command, so they wondered if maybe Adam added that bit when he passed the command on to Eve- just to keep Eve extra safe. But then they imagined the serpent pushing Eve up against the tree showing her that when she touched the tree nothing bad happened.

The serpent causes Eve to doubt God, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." God is keeping something good away from you. What a mean God. And Eve sees “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.”

We can learn a lot about the process of sin from this passage. First, it seems like they were hanging around the forbidden tree. It doesn’t see like they had to travel to get to the tree. You have the sense that the tree was right in front of them. … Don’t we sometimes do that with those sins that we are most drawn to? We dance around the line. We put ourselves close enough to the sin that we aren’t technically sinning, but we are close enough to make it easy.

Then we see the sin as a good thing God is denying us. Eve didn’t desire the fruit because she desired to be disobedient. Her motivations were to eat the beautiful fruit and obtain wisdom. … That is how sin tends to work in our lives. Take stealing for example. Wanting money isn’t bad in itself, but stealing as a means to get it causes it to enter into the realm of sin. Pleasure isn’t bad, but when we become addicted to an illegal drug to obtain it, then we enter into the realm of sin. Desiring intimacy with another person is good, but not when the means are an extramarital affair. …

We can see this on a broader scale as well. Did Hitler think he was a bad person? … I don’t think he did. In his mind he was creating an empire that would eventually bring in an era of peace. He was following the principles of evolution to help the human race become stronger in the long run. So he tried to remove those elements of humanity that he thought were weak and emphasize those elements he thought of as strong. Did he think he was doing something evil? No, he probably saw it all as a means to a good end. … That is why we always have to beware of “means to an end” thinking to justify our behavior. Sin, in my own life, and in the lives of those I encounter seems to be a desire for something good, but the means of attaining it makes it sinful. We obtain the thing outside of God’s plan.

The temptations of Jesus (Mat 4:11) follow a similar pattern. Jesus wasn’t tempted to do evil, he was tempted to good … outside of God’s plan. What was Jesus tempted to do? Jesus is hungry after fasting for 40 days and the Devil tempts Jesus to use his power to turn stones into bread. The desire for bread is a good thing, but his hunger in fasting is a reminder that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. His fasting and hunger in that moment have a purpose. It is preparing him for his ministry where he has to rely of his Father’s provision.

The Devil then took Jesus to the top of the temple where he is invited to very publically throw himself off and allow angels to catch him, which would remove any doubt in the minds of the temple elite that the messiah has arrived. Again, Jesus isn’t tempted to do evil. He is tempted to good. Jesus will do miracles as a part of his ministry. He is the messiah and invites people to arrive at that conclusion. However the invitation will begin with fishermen and tax collectors in the towns and villages, not with the ruling elite. The invitation to perform this particular miracle is outside of God’s plan.

Then the Devil tempted Jesus with the promise of giving him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus as the ruling king of the world is not a bad thing. In fact he is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. We read about Jesus in Colossians that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). His ultimate destiny is indeed to be King of the whole world. But not through force, and not by avoiding the cross. His empire is to be built on love. The Devil is tempting Jesus to attain good things, things even appropriate for Jesus to have. The Devil even uses Scripture to support his temptation. Jesus recognizes that he is being tempted to take shortcuts that avoid the poor, love, and the cross.

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as our true high priest saying, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is the Second Adam who was able to not eat the forbidden fruit. He is the one who resisted sin, but understood the strength of it. As C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of [an] army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” (Mere Christianity). Jesus resisted and invites us to share in his victory over sin.

Jesus is tempted to avoid the way of God- but he is tempted by good things. This is important because unless we realize that we are tempted to good things we will justify our sin. Cheating on our spouse is not sin, we just fell in love. We aren’t stealing, we just took what we deserved. We can hurt someone and think they deserved it because they did something that made them deserve it- it was for the sake of justice. It is usually the means that makes is sin. It is attaining some good, or some pleasure in a way that doesn’t fit with the ways of God.

The bible tells us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Temptation will not come to us in a cloud of black smoke, speaking in a raspy voice, wearing horns and carrying a pitchfork. Temptation will come to us as a beautiful good, but avoiding the ways of God, and especially avoiding any cross that God might be asking us to carry. AMEN.

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