Sunday, February 5, 2012

In the Desert

In the Desert
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 15, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 4: 1-11

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I'm very excited to preach on this passage this morning. It is one of my favorites for so many reasons that I will get into in a moment, but the other reason I'm excited, is that I can think of so many times that I have been sitting where you are sitting, and I've heard this passage preached, and I 've heard the image of the cookie in the cookie jar that you just weren't allowed to have, but wanted anyway. I've heard that image of temptation time and time again, and I always thought it missed the mark so pointedly. I've always wanted to have the chance to paint a different picture of this passage because I think there is so much more to it. So here goes.
I like this passage because it deals with an expanded understanding of sin, and it has Satan as a character in it. I've always been intrigued by Satan as an idea, and Sin has also been area of specific interest for me. These two aspects of Christianity have been used by the church, debated by the church, have been the cause of schisms and splits, motivation for persecution and exclusion, used to excuse action and inaction; they have been used to scare people straight, to inspire people to believe, to fear, to give alms, to help their neighbor, to kill, to go to war, to love, to hate, the best and the worst of human history seem to be caught up in these ideas, more so than any other aspect of the Bible. That being the case, I think it is important that we take more away from this passage than simply a feeling like we are kids desiring a cookie that we've been told we can't have. I'll start with Satan and then flow secondly into this new expanded idea of sin.
Satan has certainly been a big player in the history of Christianity. But I had mostly thought of Satan as just that, history. I thought to myself, who in the modern world thinks about Satan, other than in cartoons, when the little angel figure is on one shoulder and the little red horned devil figure is on the other? The angel inspires the character to do the right thing, while the devil is there inspiring the bad. Or there was the movie, The Devil's Advocate, where the devil was stealthily running, wouldn't you know it, a law firm. Also comedy movies, like one called Bedazzled, (if you haven't seen it you're not really missing) where the devil grants wishes like a genie, and the character learns that maybe he doesn't want what he thinks he wants, the classic Faust Tale updated. Satan, I thought at least was more like a cartoon character, than something people actually believed in and feared. Until one of my students this week, the timing was amazing, one of my advisees, a kid that has a lot going for him, talent, leadership, charisma, all of it. He came to me this week and asked if he could talk to me. I said sure. He said, "I need help, I have been having trouble sleeping. I see the devil in my room when I close my eyes, and I'm worried about my own death." I won't go further about what else he said, because even though you don't know him, I certainly want to protect the confidentiality and privacy of this kid, but what amazed me was the devil part of it, that for someone the devil was very real, and therefore I felt worth talking about this morning, just for the reason that some of us share this student's fears somewhere in our subconscious, we don't usually admit or talk about, and by avoiding it we let it control us in some way.
Let's look at the history of Satan for a minute this morning. In the Bible, it is believed by many that he rears his ugly head in the Garden of Eden, that the serpent in the garden is the manifestation of the devil. It certainly fits with the character "Satan's" M.O. The word Satan in Hebrew means, accuser. . . and in the Adam and Eve story you could make the claim that the serpent is accusing, and in this case accusing that God is a liar, saying that Adam and Eve won't really die if they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, but the text doesn't call him that. Even in Job when the Satan figure questions God and "sets up Job" it doesn't seem like Satan is the embodiment of evil, but rather some kind of questioner, like a critic or pundit vetting God rather than being a real adversary. I was amazed to find that the word Satan is only found in the Old Testament 14 times, and all but 3 of them are from that story of Job, and the other three certainly do not seem like the Satan idea that many of us may have and that has prevailed throughout history. Interestingly "Devil"  is not found in the Old Testament at all; the word/character is first used here in this passage in Matthew. So why does Satan or the Devil seem to have such a sway on our history? Where does the idea of an pseudo-equal challenging adversary come from, if not the Old Testament Jewish tradition? And is it that equal adversary to God what we see here confronting Jesus in the desert?
I teach World Literature, and I have a great interest in comparative religions, not because I have a real hunger for some universal understanding, but more because I think seeing the differences in religions can help us get a real grasp on the distinctions between the religions, helping us understand our how our own tradition works that much easier. The idea of an evil complement for the goodness of God, is first introduced into the Jewish understanding, during the time of the Persian empire, towards the end of the exile. The main religion of the ancient Persian empire was Zoroastrianism, which is a religion where there are two deities: one good and one evil. They both create the world together and every time the good God "Ahura Mazdah" creates something, the evil God "Angra Mainyu" creates something to counter it, so you have this dualistic conflict, leaving a cosmos whose future hangs in the balance of a final victor. Sound familiar. . . But did this idea come into the Jewish consciousness, during the time that the Persian Empire occupied Palestine, probably, and more importantly is that what is going on in this text, Jesus' temptation, embodied in the character called, Devil by the Gospel writer?
I would like to posit that the character of the Devil here in this story in Matthew is more of the accuser type Satan of the Old Testament than the equal adversary idea. Look at it. The Devil doesn't really seem to have any power at all, unless Jesus gives it to him. All he can do is tempt, ask, suggest, and misquote scripture. Sounds like the Satan character from Job, and if you want to include it, the serpent character from Genesis. There seems to be nothing to fear. Jesus doesn't fear this creature called the devil. Instead he just refuses what the devil offers. And look at what he offers. Food, to a fasting man, a doubt test to a faithful man, and power to a humble man. All of these it seems Jesus easily combats. There is no soul searching from Jesus, no pauses; he simply refutes all of the things that the Devil throws at him, and then the devil leaves. Jesus says, "Away from me Satan," and Satan leaves. End of story. . . If you look throughout the gospels it seems that you see demons fleeing from Jesus in the same way. As if there was no challenge at all, all the way through to Revelation you see a devil with no power compared to God.
The devil then for us is nothing to be feared because the devil has no power except that which we give him. None, absolutely none. And if we look then at this passage anew with that understanding, which seems to be a much more biblical understanding, then the idea of sin and temptation take on a new meaning. Look at the three things then that are the so called temptations. Food, hey turn these stones into bread. . . If you don't you may starve. . . fear that God will not provide. . . Putting God to the test. . . seeking to control God, placing God in a box that says when and where God's power will manifest next. .. and three complete power and control over all things. I would say that these three categories are the big three in terms of what we could call natural human weakness, i.e. human nature.  How will I get enough food to survive? Can I get God to do my will? Can I get people to do my will?
Look at the history of humanity. . . people have fought for centuries over food, and other natural resources. Who has what? Who gets what? Is there enough to go around? We are somewhat removed from this because we live in a land of plenty, but look at how quickly our society's ethical and moral structure seems to fall apart when the economy slows. Every one fights for their piece out of fear that we will somehow not have enough, rather than believing that God will provide, we doubt, we murmur, we act just like the Israelites in the Desert, even in the midst of manna falling from heaven, they sang out, let us return to Egypt to our chains, is it better to die in the desert?
The next, can I get God to do my will. . . If I were God I would run this world differently. I would not allow for hunger in the first place, I would not allow for war, or injustice, what kind of world are you running here? Maybe there is no God, maybe I should test to see. Let me jump, ok God if you catch me I know you exist. . . That is the metaphor used here in Matthew, but our deals with God don't only involve false attempts at suicide, instead they are more small. God, get me through this, then I'll go to church, help me pass this test then I'm yours. In the Middle Ages they did trials by ordeal. Where they would put a suspected criminal's hand in boiling water, if it healed correctly then they would proclaim the man innocent because God would always be on the side of righteousness, right?; of course, and God would show up every time we've got a case to be tried. . . God fits into our court schedule. . . We know that God is on our side when we succeed and are so sure God is against us when we fail, but is it only our successes that build up our spirit, or do our failures also seem to work for the good of us. The truth is that God is with us in both, in all. One of the big differences in Christianity from other religions is instead of my will be done, performing rituals and actions in order to control God, we pray thy will be done. . . at least in theory.
The last one is the biggest. How can I get the world to follow me or us? If only these people would get out of our way. If only the democrats would cease to exist! Or the Republicans! We could really get things done for the greater common good of all. If only those evil men on wall street! Or the winey Occupy Wall Street folks! Or Muslims! Or Iranians! Or that neighbor of mine who won't cut his grass! or the guy in traffic who just cut me off! or my mother in law! or my sister or brother! or wife! or kids! If I could get some power over them, bend them to my will, or if they could all just cease to exist then I could really get somewhere. I could be in control and this world would be so much better. How many times in history has that type of thinking prevailed. Slavery, war, genocide, tyranny, demagogues, oppression, divorce, abortion, exclusion we've done it all. Hoping if we could just control those others, or get rid of those others, then we can then live as we'd want. Bow down, and all of this can be yours. . .
So this is Sin, right? These things. . . Doesn't that expand the concept of sin a little bit. That sins are not just breaking of the Ten Commandments, or putting our hand in the cookie jar, but instead our sins are our doubts (that God won't provide for our very needs or that God doesn't exist), our sins are our claiming God for ourselves, placing God in our own self shaped box, thinking that God is in our Control, and our sins are our desires to control the world, people, and situations around us. . . Does that about sum it up?
These are the temptations that Jesus resisted in the desert. . . these are the temptations that Adam and Eve failed to resist in the garden. . . These are the temptations that we find ourselves challenged by constantly. . . Oh but only if we could blame the serpent, or the devil, or Satan, or each other, but the truth is we all seem to partake, and Satan has no real power.
I told my student that there is nothing to be afraid of that God is in control. And he told me, "That's the thing, I seem to have trouble believing in God." So I said back to him, "Then why do you believe in the Devil? If there is no God, do you think that we as human beings would have made it this far, when our very being seems to cry out for destruction by our doubt, fear, and desire to control?"
The Reformers of the church in the 1500's found in the Bible the idea of redemption by faith alone, faith in a God reaching out in love, a God who loves, and a God who provides, a God of relationship. Faith in a God that forgives us our sin. . . but doesn't faith do more than forgive us our sin, it works to eradicate sin, because faith seeks to fulfill our 3 basic wants and desires. . . allowing us to believe that they have already been taken care of and will be, including our fear even of death. For "Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Believe the word of God when it promises to provide. "Do not put the Lord Your God to the test." Instead love God with all your heart, mind, and the fullness of your being. And "Worship the Lord, your God, and serve him only." For God is worthy to be praised, nothing else is on level with God. . . Think about it this way Faith is the key to salvation, but then include with that the Greatest Commandment, to Love God, not control God, and to Love our Neighbors not control them. Faith, love and love, gives us hope, even in the desert, and allows us to be free in perfect relationship with God rather than returning to be slaves in Egypt, or our fear, or some other manifestation of perceived evil that has power over us, that we don't willingly give it ourselves.
I'd like to conclude this service with the 3rd verse of Martin Luther's hymn, and my favorite, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
And tho this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph thru us.
The prince of darkness grim --
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure --
One little word shall fell him.

One Little word shall fell him, and the devil left. . . Amen.