The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
Preached at the Church of St. Michael & St. George, St. Louis, MO
14 February 2016
Luke 4:1-13 [via Genesis 3:6 & I John 2:16]
There are many temptations in this world, but there is a clear tradition within the Scriptures of both the Old Testament and New Testament that divides all temptations to sin into three broad categories. It is this three-fold view of temptation that gives the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness its particular shape. But before we look at the gospel story appointed for today, we should ask where these three categories come from.
The answer, quite simply, is from the beginning—that is, from the book of the Bible whose name means “beginning,” namely, Genesis, and from the story of the first sin recounted in the third chapter of that book: “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?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘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.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘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.’”
And then we come to this key verse: “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…”
We all know how things turn out with Adam and Eve after that. God concludes what could be called “the sentencing phase” of their trial by proclaiming, “…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Does that last phrase sound familiar to you? (It should if you were in church this past Wednesday.)
But let’s return to those three things that motivated Eve: she is tempted by the fruit because it “was good for food,” “a delight to the eyes” and “to be desired to make one wise.”
These three categories of temptation are elucidated in the first epistle of John, where we find these key verses: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”
The “desires of the flesh,” corresponds to Eve’s seeing the fruit as “good for food.” “The desires of the eyes” corresponds to Eve’s seeing the fruit as “a delight to the eyes.” And what I translate here as “the boastful pride of life” can be correlated to the fact that the fruit was “desired to make one wise,” that is, Eve believed it would confer power, so that she could rely on her own strength and abilities apart from God.
With Genesis and I John as background, we can turn to look at the temptation story and see how it corresponds exactly with this view of sin. One by one, Jesus takes on the same temptations that tempted Eve, and relying not on his own strength but on the power of God his Father, overcomes each one.
The devil’s opening gambit is to say, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’’’ But why would it be a sin to turn a stone into bread? He’s famished, after all. The simple reason might be that God did not intend stones to be eaten. But I think the deeper reason is that the devil is trying to tempt Jesus to use the power that the Father has bestowed upon him for selfish purposes. Jesus has the power to work miracles, but this power is intended for others, not for himself. In John’s gospel Jesus’ first sign is to turn water into wine—simply to give joy to others, not to draw any attention to himself. He may have the power to turn stones into bread for himself, but that is not why his power (or the stone) exists. So too, when we use our God-given gifts not for others but solely for our own benefit, we fall into sin.
Next, “the devil led Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’”
All the kingdoms of the world are the biggest “delight to the eyes” imaginable. But Jesus’ rejoinder is that God is the only thing that should motivate us. If it “does not come from the Father but from the world,” in John’s words, it is not worth desiring. Nothing is worth desiring more than God.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, but this is why we gather in community week by week: to remind ourselves that God is to be desired more than all the kingdoms of the earth. This is not to say we cannot take delight in the goodness of creation, but that we must not let the created order distract us from the Creator. In this regard, Lent allows us to take stock and re-prioritize our lives: If we desire something more than we desire God, we either need to give it up for Lent or reconfigure our relationship to it so that God is at the center.
Finally, we are told “the devil took Jesus “to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’”
This last temptation is a strange one. Essentially, the devil is saying “If you are the Son of God, do something to prove it.” In other words, the devil is appealing to Jesus “pride” and inviting him to show off. What good is it if you’re the Son of God if you can’t strut your stuff? Jesus’ answer is again from Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Here again, Jesus shows that he relies on his Father for power. Eve may have been attracted to the fruit because it “was desired to make one wise,” or to use John’s phrase, because it would confer “the boastful pride of life,” but Jesus has nothing to gain by showing off and nothing to prove.
Such are the parallels between Jesus’ temptations and the temptation that our first parents faced. But there are significant contrasts here, as well. Consider this: Jesus’ temptations take place in the wilderness, while Eve’s temptation takes place in a garden. Jesus is alone, while Eve has her husband and companion with her, who could have intervened, but apparently stood passively by and let them get into hot water with God. (Or you might say that Jesus’ companion was his Father, who didn’t stand by passively, but through the Scriptures actively gave Jesus the grace he needed to resist every temptation.) Finally, consider that Jesus was famished after fasting forty days and forty nights, while Adam and Eve had every conceivable need for food already provided for, freely and in abundance, in the garden. In other words, the deck was stacked against Jesus, and he still came through his temptations victorious.
The message we are meant to take away from this story is simply this: because Jesus has been tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin, we can put our whole trust in his grace and love. Whether we struggle with the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, or the boastful pride of life—or all three—Jesus knows what that feels like. Our incarnate Lord is not some distant stained-glass figure, cold to the touch and beyond human passions. He knows our frailty, and does not despise us for it, or merely pity us, but loves us dearly and wishes to restore our full humanity to that which Adam and Eve enjoyed before they were tempted and fell.
Ultimately, the only difference between Jesus and Eve is that Jesus knew he already had everything he needed from God in order to live a fully human life, while Eve was convinced she had to have more in order to be like God. But in Lent, less is more. We are invited this Lent, therefore, to put our trust in Jesus, so that we may daily die to sin and rise to newness of life.