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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Temptation of Scripture

“It is written” (Matthew 4:1 – 11)
I Lent – February 10, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Temptation. It’s an important theme of this morning’s readings from scripture on this, the first Sunday in Lent. We hear it in the first lesson from Genesis, the story of the Temptation in the Garden of Eden, when the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, were tempted to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

We hear it echoed in the Epistle to the Church in Rome. Using the rhetorical style characterized by pristine logic, St. Paul helps us understand that Jesus in the wilderness has redeemed the temptation that Adam could not withstand in the Garden. “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-19).

Matthew’s gospel wants to help us connect the dots from the Garden to the Wilderness. He wants us to be absolutely certain to know that, unlike Adam, Jesus was able to resist not one but three temptations by Satan - and, when he was at his most vulnerable point.

Famished after forty days and forty nights of fasting, Jesus was clearly at his weakest moment. It was then that ‘The Tempter’ appears before Jesus, enticing him to turn stones into bread, to risk his life on the promise that God will save him, and to offer him dominion over all the whole world.

These three temptations are at the very core of the vulnerability of being human: Never to be without basic need. Never to suffer pain. Never to be without possessions. This is even more tempting that a measly apple – even if it was from a ‘magic tree.’ No hunger. No pain. No poverty. Pretty basic, core stuff. Who wouldn’t have been tempted?

It is important to note that this passage, along with its parallel in Luke, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out in The Merchant of Venice (scene iii), that even “the devil can quote scripture for his own purpose.”

Which brings me to the real message about Temptation that I wish to address this morning. It’s about the temptation of scripture.

Allow me to begin my illustration of this by introducing you to my neon-pink “Answer Me Jesus”. I brought this with me to the last General Convention and it was an instant hit. In fact, the deputation from the Diocese of Massachusetts borrowed “Answer Me Jesus” for three full days. I had to talk pretty fast to get him back to The Diocese of Newark's table.

In the bottom of this statue of our Lord rests one of those Magic 8-Balls. You may remember them from your youth. You ask it a question like, “Will I have a date for Friday night?” And the Magic 8-Ball will give you an answer – something frustrating like, “Ask me again later” which was never helpful if you procrastinated an didn’t ask your question until Friday afternoon.

Sometimes, if you were lucky, it would be definitive: ‘Yes!’ or ‘No’. And, if you didn’t like the answer, you could try it again and again until you got the answer you wanted. Or, take the best three out of four. Heads I win, tails you lose. No matter. Whatever method you chose, you had an excuse for your joy or your misery. No need to take any responsibility your life.

‘Answer me Jesus’ works in much the same way, except his answers are for spiritual questions. He might answer, “I’ll have to pray about that.” Or, respond flippantly, “Offer it up.” Or, my own personal favorite: “Let me ask my Dad.”

Many of us come to the Season of Lent the same way we turn to Scripture. We move through sacred rituals just as we sift through the words of Holy Writ, looking for magic answers to the questions and temptations that are basic to being human.

We think secretly to ourselves, “If I give up chocolate or television or fried foods, will I be a better person?” We turn to the rituals the way some turn to the Magic 8-Ball or Answer Me Jesus for the answer we want to hear. For some reassurance that our sacrifice is ‘worth it.’ And, if all we hear is ‘Ask me again later” we will. Again. And, again, until we convince ourselves that we are, indeed, righteous in the Lord for this simple sacrifice.

Reading scripture often provides the same temptation. We read the passages we want to read. We hear what we want to hear. Or, as we see in this Sunday's gospel, it can be tempting to do what my friend Dylan Breuer names as the process wherein we "selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -often from entirely different documents, written at different times and in different contexts - and to read the resulting combination as a kind of secret message to us to us today. This tells us less about the meaning of scripture and more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices than they do about God’s will.

Satan tells Jesus that as God’s son, he can find bread in the desert. That was true in the past – God provided manna in the wilderness for the people of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It will be true in the future when Jesus feeds thousands from a loaf of bread and a few fish. Satan tells Jesus that the kingdoms of the earth will bow before Jesus, and they will. This is true to this very day. Satan also tells Jesus that God will care for those God loves, especially Jesus, God’s own Holy Child, and that is also true today as it was then.

In every instance, what Satan says is ‘biblical’ and every point Satan makes is, in a sense, true. But, the words of Satan are not the ‘whole truth’. The points he makes are not necessarily the point Scripture was trying to make at the time they were written for the specific audience they were originally intended. Context is important to a full understanding of scripture.

It is tempting to read scripture in this way, isn’t it? To be smug and certain that we have the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

Which brings me to the biggest temptation of all – the temptation which is at the core of a Holy Lent: impatience.

It's certainly one of my biggest flaws. Jesus has an important message about that for us this morning, in this Temptation in the Wilderness. It is not yet time, when he is vulnerable, and this is not the place, in the wilderness, for Jesus to use his powers. He must wait until the time and place are right. Jesus says this very thing just before he performs his first miracle at the Wedding Feast in Cana.

It’s hard to be patient, isn’t it? Especially when you already know the end of the story.

The real temptation of Lent is the same temptation of Scripture – to rush through it. There are still temptations to quote scripture to prove our point or make our argument for us. Jesus shows us a different way. He invites us to come in from the desert, to be nourished by the Body of Christ.

Jesus resists the temptation to play a round of 'scriptural gymnastics'. Instead, he invites us to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now, in our day and time.

The temptation to rush through Lent is much the same. We are impatient. We want to skip the struggle. We want to get on with it. We know how the story ends, so what’s the point?

As you enter into the discipline of self-sacrifice, allow yourself the luxury of time to really live into the fullness of the experience of Lent. Savor it. Marinate your soul in it.

There are few places in your life where you can afford this kind of luxury. Church is one of those places. With all due respect to St. Paul, scripture is not about pristine logic. With the same respect due to St. Matthew, neither is it about connecting the dots.

Scripture is about faith, not certainty.

So is Lent - a season of forty days and forty nights to live into taking the risk of your faith - to trust your hunger, to embrace your pain, to understand your own poverty. To have patience and listen to what God might have to say to you about these three things that are central to the enterprise of being human.

The world will try to tempt you away from this important spiritual discipline. Be patient with yourself. Enter into Lent fully – w/holly – that you may have a Holy Lent. It may leave you with more questions than when you began. Live the questions, as the poet Rilke writes, into the answer which God has for you, that you may have life and have it more abundantly, if not righteously.

If all else fails, you can always ask Jesus. Not this neon-Pink one. Ask the one who lives deep in the wilderness of your heart.

Just don’t be surprised - or disappointed - by his answer. Amen.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Wonderful sermon, Elizabeth!

For me, the difficulty is wrestling with scripture at all. For years, I read a lot about scripture--but my years growing up in a fundamentalist church had disinclined me to go back and read the "real" stuff. I felt snake-bit, in a was as if reading Bart Erhman, or Walter Wink, or N.T. Wright took the place of reading the Gospels or the Epistles.

So I am trying to wrestle with scripture once again. I've actually got a post up on my blog that you helped to inspire---and I had to go back to scripture to write it. Interesting stuff...though not easy to read.


themethatisme said...

Good sermon Elizabeth.
The advantage in the pink Answer-me-Jesus, is of course that you can pick it up and smash it of a wall.