Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
It’s pretty common to think about things to give up during Lent. Chocolate is a perennial favorite for many people I know. Soda can be another popular choice. In the digital social media age many people fast from social media. I did a weekly fast for many years but the past few years I’ve focused on taking on something, usually in a prayer or devotional discipline. All are worthy choices if they serve the purpose of spending some time focusing on the season of Lent and what we reflect on during the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
This Lenten season we’re giving some thought to Giving Up. Not giving up in an existential crisis kind of giving up but giving up different mindsets and approaches to life. Today/tonight we’re giving up control. Our readings highlight a couple of approaches to this, each with a distinctive outcome.
Our first reading is the classic story of Adam and Eve in the garden. It’s one of history’s most badly interpreted stories in the Bible so it’s a lot of fun to work with. The classic interpretation is that Eve fell under the evil power of Satan, represented by the snake, succumbing to temptation and eating the apple of knowledge of good and evil that God had said not to do. Thus, sin is released into the perfect world God has created and Adam and Eve get kicked out of the Garden of Eden, dooming humanity to a life of pain and suffering forever. Thanks a lot, Eve. Have I got that pretty close?
The trouble with that interpretation is that it isn’t what the Bible says and it misses a far larger point.
For starters, the assumption that God created a perfect and idyllic world where Adam and Eve sit around in their birthday suits doing nothing is entertaining but flawed. Back up a little bit in Genesis in chapter one and earlier in chapter two. If the world God created was perfect, we wouldn’t have two creation narratives, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Not to mention, the word used for creation in Genesis 1 is not perfect. Instead, God created this that and the other thing and “saw that it was _______”. In fact, God saw that the creation process was good six times and very good once. It’s a good and active creation, not a staticly perfect creation where Adam and Eve sit around doing nothing.
We know the creative process isn’t static because we have the second creation story in Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, God creates everything in six days and then rests. You know, that whole even God took a sabbath day after the work of creation. Then we get a few more details on how humanity enters the picture. Genesis 1 and 2 should not be read as historical timelines with a beginning and end but instead this extraordinary unfolding of God’s work in the world. Not to mention, we know Adam had work to do in the garden because v15, “15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” So much for sitting around doing nothing.
One final note on resetting our expectations of the creation stories in the Bible is to note what word does not appear in any of this story. Sin. Say what you want about Adam, Eve, the apple, and the serpent, sin is not part of the story.
What is part of the story is the problem of temptation. Temptation is a good topic for the season of Lent in our repentance and reflection because it is temptation that let’s loose our need for control. It isn’t the apple that lets loose sin, it is temptation that lets loose our flawed thinking that we’re in control. That’s the real story here in the garden. Life is good for Adam and Even but the temptation to believe themselves in control of their world dooms their very nice life together.
Their story is a pretty good story about us, as well. They lived and worked in a very nice place that was created and ordered by God’s hand. All they had to do was follow God’s leading, God’s desire, God’s will and all would continue to be well. Instead, they thought they could do better by believing they were in control and things did not continue to be well.
We’re not so different. In fact, you can make the case that we handle temptation and the desire to be in control worse than Adam and Eve. We know the story and how following the temptation to believe we’re in control doesn’t end well. And yet, we still insist on taking control rather than giving up control. Spoiler alert, that doesn’t end well. In case you haven’t had the news on in the past several years you can look at our current political climate for any number of examples. And if any of you just had the thought that the other guys are worse, guess what you just did. There are any number of examples up and down the political spectrum of people acting outside of God’s desire. Because they’ve taken control, instead of trusting God!
Conversely, our second reading today/tonight shows us a more excellent way. Not surprisingly, we find Jesus as the center of our much better way. Jesus has been lead by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Note that this wasn’t a random meeting and circumstance but Jesus walks straight into this encounter FOR THE PURPOSE OF FACING DOWN TEMPTATION. The name of the devil character even changes to ‘tempter’ which explains a lot of things.
Now, we’re not Jesus so I don’t recommend running headlong into temptation to see if you can overcome it. We do learn a couple of things from Jesus’ approach that are helpful to us when temptation strikes, as it surely will.
It is important to note that Jesus is following the lead of the Holy Spirit. That’s an excellent starting point for any action on our part. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Then let’s God be in control through relying on God’s word. Three times Jesus is tempted and three times he responds, “It is written”. Jesus’ response to temptation is to rely on God through God’s word. It is interesting to note that the tempter tries to use God’s word too but it doesn’t work. It rarely does when you try to misuse God’s word.
It comes down to this. We can give ourselves control and give into temptation and have an outcome we likely won’t enjoy. Or, we can practice giving up control and let God lead our lives. It’s a pretty safe bet that God’s plan will be better than ours.