Sermon preached for the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler. I don’t always post my sermons here but this sermon has a tone and subject matter that fits well within the Cure of Souls thread. Our approach to Lent at the Oratory is a form of group spiritual direction around different aspects of Lent and spiritual disciplines. This Lent we are fasting together.
- First reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
- Psalm: Psalm 32
- Second reading: Romans 5:12-19
- Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Was the serpent correct? Today we read the account of the Fall and Temptation of Christ. We hear of the first and last temptation of humanity. During Lent we confront sin and its consequences.
What are we to make of the words of the Serpent and this story of the fall? Is it fair of God to put in front of us this fruit we couldn’t eat, and did death truly result from it? In one sense, the serpents mocking of the consequence of eating the the fruit was correct, Adam and Eve didn’t drop dead on the spot, but as Paul says it brought condemnation and dominion of death. We see this immediately, Adam and Eve who were open and free with each other suddenly experience separation and shame and they hide from each other and from God. No longer are they free and completely open, naked with each other. They experienced separation; death ultimately is a separation that can’t be bridged. Don’t we know this separation, from ourselves, from our loved ones, from our friends, and most obviously from our enemies? We may have moments of connection, and yet there is always already separation; a painful awareness that we could be left alone. We have the painful awareness that making and keeping the connection with others is tenuous, this is part of the dominion of death. We might say that one act set in motion a world torn apart, where relationships are tenuous, even the best ones still come to an end. The serpent spoke a half truth.
We humans have this tendency to believe the half-truth, which is really to believe the lie that is contained in the other half of the half-truth. In both the temptation in the garden and Jesus’ temptation in the desert, we see what we are up against and what we (I think) can recognize in our own souls: temptation often comes as half-truth that appeals to a good desire, but asks us to trust only the desire, rather than trust the whole truth about the world, others, and God.
The tempter comes and says, “ Look, you won’t drop dead! You can look and see that this fruit is not poisonous. You can see and smell that it is good to eat.” All true but covered over in these true words is the lie that God doesn’t really care for you, God is keeping this from you for no good reason. This is the slipperiness of temptation and the winding path we follow into Sin.
We don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t grabbed at the knowledge of good and evil. We arent’ told what was ultimately intended by this one fruit. Did God intended us to have the knowledge of God and evil? What we are told is that we grabbed it. And what we do know is that our knowledge of good and evil didn’t give us the power to only do the good and avoid the evil, rather it has given us the propensity for both, and in such away that our doing good never really overcomes the evil. Many faithful have said that at some point this knowledge would have been given to us, but because we took it, because we sought it separated from God and God’s caring love for us, it could only distort our true humanity. Now that we have it we can’t deliver ourselves from evil and the consequences of that first mistrust of God, that first failure of faith.
The good news is that all our sin, our separation our pain and suffering all the evil in the world is just the beginning of the story, not the end. When we sin, when we see oppression and violence in the world, we are simply playing out that scene in the Garden with Eve and Adam and the Serpent, but God tells another story . God rewrites the story and changes the ending. This rewrite is that one comes, a human, and meets the serpent again. This human being is so united with God that trust in God isn’t shaken by the half-truths the serpent speaks; the tempter, Devil using the Scriptures the Word of God against God in human flesh. So, this time humanity is ready, In Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son, sees through the half-truth to the lie, and trusts that God truly fulfills our good desires. Jesus of Nazareth, hungry and tested doesn’t need to grasp after the good things because God never intends to keep from us any good thing. In fact all good is from God. Your desire is from God, even that desire which might be unfulfilled at any particular moment, or even for one’s whole life.
Here we are, on the edge of the desert and the garden, intentionally entering a period of fasting and yes temptation, called into the desert with Jesus. You will hear the tempter, the serpent; you will encounter your demons. Be not afraid, know your desires are good, know that God will truly fulfill them. However, hold your desires lightly. Accept that not all desire can or should be fulfilled immediately or at all times. We fast to remind ourselves that our desire for food and other things while good should not devour and control us. Desire is good, but if we accept the lie in the truth of the goodness of desire and believe that a good desire must be satiated now we fall into sin: we become separated from the one who will fulfill the desires of our hearts, the one who is what our hearts ultimately desire.
So, contemplate this Lent these two temptations, one which lead to our fall, the other which lead to our victory. Let Christ’s faithfulness be your faithfulness. Remember this Lent that you are Christ, you are the beloved, and in baptism you have the Spirit and have taken on Christ. Trust in this and see the Tempter flee from you. Even so, don’t be disheartened by a failure, for even in failure you are still Christ’s. Repent, get up and accept God’s grace and forgiveness, assured that you are being transformed into this new humanity, which saw through the half-truth to the lie through faith and trust.
God loves you, your desires are good but they don’t need to be fulfilled: before temptation trust this truth. And to paraphrase St Augustine: as we begin this Lent and fast together, Love this one who is the desire of your soul, and do what you will. Amen