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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tempted and Fallen

This was prepared before the dreadful earthquake in Japan. I did sort-of mention it: "What if the temptation had been for the earthquake not to happen.....?"

The first reading today was about a man, and a woman and God. The man and the woman don't have names – later on, they are called Adam and Eve, but at this stage they don't need names. They are just Man and Woman. They are the only Man and Woman that exist – God hasn't made any more, yet – so they don't need names. Man can just go, “Oi, you!” and Woman will know he's talking to her.

God has made the Man and the Woman, and put them in a garden, where there is plenty of food to eat for the picking of it. It's lovely and warm, so they don't need clothes, and in fact they are so comfortable with themselves and with God that they don't want clothes. There are animals to be cared for,and crops to be tended, but the work is easy and pleasurable. And all the fruit in the garden is theirs, except for one tree,which God has told them is poisonous. If they eat the fruit of this tree, God said, they'll die.

Well, so far, so good. But at this point, enter another player. The serpent. Now, the Serpent is God's enemy, but the Man and the Woman don't know that. They think the Serpent is just another animal. Now Serpent comes and chats to Woman.

“Nice pomegranate you've got there!”

“Mmm, yes,” says Woman.

“Look at that fruit on that tree over there, though,” says Serpent. “That looks well tasty!”

“Yes, but it's poisonous!” explains Woman. “God said that if we ate it, we'd die, so we're keeping well clear of it!”

“Oh rubbish!” says Serpent. “God's stringing you a line! It's not poisonous at all. Thing is, if you eat it, you'll be just like God, and know good and evil. God doesn't want you to eat it, because God doesn't want any rivals! Go on, have a bite! You won't regret it!”

So Woman has another look at the tree, and sees that the fruit is red and ripe and smells tempting, so she cautiously stretches out her hand and grabs the fruit, and, ever so tentatively, takes a tiny bite. Mmm, it is good!

So she calls to Man, “Oi, you!”

“Mm-hmmm,” calls Man, looking up from the game he was playing with his dogs. “What is it?”

“Come and try this fruit,” says Woman, and explains how the Serpent had said that God had been stringing them a line, and how good the fruit tasted. So Man decides to have a piece himself.

But it's coming on to evening, and at evening, God usually comes and walks in the garden, and Man and Woman usually come and share their day. But tonight, somehow, they don't feel like chatting to God. And those bodies, the bodies they'd enjoyed so much, suddenly feel like they want to be kept private. They look at one another, and both retreat, silently, into the far depths of the garden, grabbing some fig leaves to make coverings for themselves.

Presently, God comes looking for them. “What's up? Why are you hiding?”

“Well,” goes Man, “I didn't want to face you, 'cos I was naked.”

“Naked?” says God. “Naked? Who told you you were naked? You've been eating that fruit I told you was poisonous, haven't you?”

“Well, er, um.” Man wriggles. “It wasn't my fault. That one, the Woman you gave me. She said to eat it, so I did. Wasn't my fault at all. You can't blame me!”

So God looks at Woman, and says, “Is this true? Did you give him the fruit?”

Woman goes scarlet. “Well, it was Serpent. He said you, well, that the fruit wasn't poisonous.”

But, of course, the fruit had been poisonous It wasn't that it gave Man and Woman a tummyache or the runs; it poisoned their whole relationship with God. They couldn't stay in God's garden any more. Serpent was going to have to crawl on his belly from now on, and everyone, almost, would be afraid of him. Woman was going to have awful trouble having babies, and Man was going to find making a living difficult.

But God did show them how to make warm clothes for themselves, and didn't abandon them forever, even though, from that time forth, they weren't really comfortable with God.

Well, that's the story, then, that the Israelites used to explain why human beings find it so very difficult to be God's people and to do God's will. And it shows how first the Woman and then the Man were tempted, and fell.

They fell. But Jesus resisted temptation. You may remember that he was baptised, and there was the voice from heaven that said “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And then Jesus went off into the desert for six weeks or so, to come to terms with exactly Who he was, and to discover the exact nature of his divine powers.

I often think that what Jesus was tempted to do was to behave as though he were Harry Potter – to misuse his divine powers for his own comfort and safety.

It must have been so insidious, mustn't it? "Are you really the Son of God? Why don't you prove it by making these stones bread? You're very hungry, aren't you? If you're the Son of God, you can do anything you like, can't you? Surely you can make these stones into bread? But perhaps you aren't the Son of God, after all...." And so it would have gone on and on and on.

But Jesus resisted. The way the gospel-writers tell it, you would think he just waved his hand and shook his head and said, “No, man shall not live by bread alone!” But that wouldn't have been temptation. You know what it's like when you're tempted to do something you ought not – the longing can become more and more intense. There are times when you think, Hmm, that'd be nice, but then you think, naaa, not right, and put it behind you; but other times when you have to really, really struggle to put it behind you. “If you are the Son of God....”

The view from the pinnacle of the Temple. So high up.... by their standards,
like the top of the Canary Wharf tower would be to us. "Go on then – you're the Son of God, aren't you? Throw yourself down – your God will protect you!" The temptation is to show off, to use his powers like magic. Yes, God would have rescued him, but: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” That's not what it's about. That would have been showing off. That would have been misusing his divine powers for something rather spectacular.

Jesus was also tempted with riches and power beyond his wildest dreams – at that, beyond our wildest dreams, if only he would worship the enemy. We can sympathise with this particular temptation; I'm sure we all would love to be rich and powerful! But for Jesus, it must have been particularly subtle – it would help him do the work he'd been sent to do! Could he fulfil his mission without riches and power? What was being God's beloved son all about, anyway? Would it be possible to spread the message that he was beginning to realise he had to spread if he was going to spend his life in an obscure and dusty part of the Roman empire? And again, after prayer and wrestling with it, he finds the answer: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Let the riches and power look after themselves; the important thing was to serve God. If that is right, the rest would follow.

You may remember that Jesus was similarly tempted on the Cross, he could have called down the legions from heaven to rescue him. But he chose not to. It wasn't about spectacular powers – often, when Jesus did miracles, he asked people not to tell anybody. He didn't want to be spectacular. He'd learnt that his mission was to the people of Israel, probably even just the people of Galilee – and the occasional outsider who needed him, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the Roman centurion – and anything more than that was up to his heavenly Father.

And, obviously, if the "anything more" hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here this morning! But, at the time, that wasn't Jesus' business. His business, as he told us, was to do the work of his Father in Heaven – and that work, for now, was to be an itinerant preacher and healer, but not trying deliberately to call attention to himself.

St Paul deliberately contrasts Jesus with the first Man, Adam: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ all are made alive.” Jesus, by resisting temptation, balanced out the first Man and Woman's failure to resist. Jesus, we believe, paid the penalty on the Cross for humanity's failure to resist the lures of the evil one; for our failure to live as God's people should; for our failure to live as God's people. And because of that, we shall all live.

Because, in the end, that's what it's about. Not what we do or don't do – that's just petty details. But are we going to be God's person, or are we not?

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