Sermon by Burton Cooper
Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness
Where he was tempted by the devil…
The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world,
And the devil said to Jesus,
“To you I will give their glory and authority …
It will all be yours, if you will worship me.”
Jesus answered the devil, “Worship the Lord your God,
And serve only him.”
When I think of Jesus’ temptations, I think of a line in the Lord’s Prayer, one that’s been puzzling me for fifty years now, and that line is: “Our Father in heaven … lead us not into temptation.” I’m puzzled as to why God would, as this prayer suggests, lead us into temptation, or, at the least, allow us to be led into temptation. And yet, some of the most powerful stories in scripture are temptation stories --- Job, Abraham, David, Peter, to name a few. Indeed, the Bible starts off with a bang of a temptation story, that of Adam and Eve and the serpent --- and that story provides some clues into the meaning of temptation for Jesus, and for us for that matter. You all know the story. The creation is just barely completed, the man and woman just placed in the beauty of paradise, the peaceful garden of Eden, when the tempter appears, or rather temptation appears, personified, in the form of a serpent --- for there’s no reason to get literalistic here. The serpent’s words lure the woman and the man to do the one thing prohibited to them: to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for the serpent says that if you eat, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And in so saying he catches the man and the woman between conflicting desires, for what is temptation except to be torn by contrary desires, in this case between the desire to preserve their innocence, to preserve the beauty and simplicity that comes with innocence, with not knowing, and the competing desire to exercise their God given human freedom in order to gain knowledge, and the power that comes with knowledge. And so they eat; of course, they eat, what man or woman would not so choose, driven by the overwhelming human desire to know about things and to exercise power over things, to transform the world around us to our liking. Yes, Adam and Eve eat in this story, thereby bursting humanity out of its dream of paradisial life into actual existence, into the actual creation, throwing humanity into the real world, the world that we know only too well, the world of good and evil, joy and despair, creativity, love and community, conflict, divisiveness, selfishness, cruelty, suffering, and, of course, death. For we do not have our humanity, our human lives, apart from this very ambiguous, complex, conflictual mix of wondrous, wonderful light, of goodness, and terrible, terrifying darkness, of evil. That, at least, is one of the profound meanings of this much mocked, much ridiculed story of the temptation of Adam and Eve --- and it leads us almost directly into the meaning of the story of the temptations of Christ.
First, there is this: temptation is real in the story of Adam and Eve, as it is in the story of Job and in other biblical stories, so we are to take the temptations of Christ as real temptations for him. And since there can be no temptation without a corresponding desire --- something we wish for, hope for --- so we are to see each temptation the devil places before Christ as pointing to something Christ desires, desires so strongly that it has the power to tempt him toward actualizing it. Today’s gospel story lists three of these temptations, three of these desires. If I were to talk on all three, this sermon would be longer than one of our annual meetings. So I’ll restrict myself to just one, the one that’s most puzzling, the one where the devil shows Christ all the kingdoms of the world, and says to him, “to you I will give their glory and authority …. it will be yours if you will worship me.” So why is it, I ask myself, that the idea of giving Christ, giving the messiah, authority over all the kingdoms of the world is seen as a temptation, that is, a desire to be resisted --- for is not the idea, no, more than the idea, the hope, of messianic rule, the hope of God’s kingdom come to earth, with God’s agent, the messiah, ruling over the kingdoms of the world, is not that the faith of ancient Israel, at least as old as the prophet Isaiah, who as long ago as the eighth century bce, spoke those achingly yearning words about “a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse … who shall judge the poor with righteousness … who shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall kill the wicked … (who told us that) the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” Why is this messianic hope, this great dream of a messianic victory over violence, divisiveness and injustice, why does the gospel see this hope as a temptation of the devil, and why is the realization of this hope coupled with worship of the devil.
I think this morning’s gospel lesson roused these questions in my head because only recently I had read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ searingly honest book, “Between the World and Me,” with its terrifying description of what it meant, outwardly and inwardly, to live one’s boyhood in the black neighborhoods of West Baltimore, and what it meant to be a black man, even a successful one, in our still racist American culture. If you’re willing to experience deep pain, read this book. And the pain is double. For Coates does not only what a good novelist does, lets us know, lets us feel, what it’s like to be another person in another world, in this case what it’s like to be a black boy in a black neighborhood, always fearful when walking on the streets, ever alert for violence, ever alert for death, or what it’s like to be a black man driving a car, worried about being stopped by the police, and what might follow from that, or what it’s like to commonly experience the small indignities of being mistaken in the restaurant for the waiter, or in the apartment house for the janitor. And to that pain, as if that weren’t enough, Coates adds the deeper, ideological one, the one that cuts into not only our socially liberal heart but into our religious heart. For Coates, a successful writer for The Atlantic Monthly, is writing this book to his son, a teen age boy being brought up in a privileged, prosperous, liberal environment, and Coates is warning his son not to be taken in by the congeniality of this privileged environment, that he is not to be taken in by what Coates calls, “the dreamers,” by whom he means those like Martin Luther King who look to a time when black children and white children will be judged by the character of their minds and not the color of their skin, or even by those like Barack Obama who talk of the arc of history bending to justice. Coates tells his son that there is no arc of history, that there is no reason to believe that the future will be more just than the past, that there may well be more injustice in the future, and, further, that racism is deeply rooted in American history, in the American psyche, fed by our tribalism, our instinctual fear of the other, that the son must know this, must expect this, must learn to live in a world that is racist, to adapt to it, to struggle against it, to mightily struggle against it, and yet to learn to live in it, to not be a dreamer. For to be a dreamer is to blind oneself to reality, to set oneself up for failure, for disappointment, discouragement, even despair.
So, what are we to say to Coates, to ourselves? Is there a gospel word that responds to him? He thinks not; he’s a thoroughgoing secularist. But perhaps we can surprise him. He thinks of us as dreamers, caught in unreal hopes. But perhaps we can draw a distinction between the real ground of our human yearning for peace, goodness, reconciliation and the dream of paradisial existence. The theologian Paul Tillich describes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as a picture of dreaming innocence, a dream of innocent, peaceful living that is immediately shattered with the first act triggered by human desire. I think Coates might like the idea that innocence is a dream, broken as soon as reality steps in. And he might also like the idea expressed in the second temptation of Christ, that Christ rejects the traditional Israelite notion of a messianic rule over the kingdoms of the world, that he sees such a notion as a temptation of the devil, the devil who tells lies. But then Coates might say to us --- what perhaps we say to ourselves often enough --- “the messiah, the Christ, has come but the history of sin and death continues, so what has been accomplished by this coming?” Brothers and sisters in Christ I will tell you what has been accomplished, I will tell you what you already know, particularly in this season of Lent, that God’s work is reconciliation, the restoration of people to a community of love and forgiveness, of caring for others, that God’s love is made known to us through the way that Christ lived, that the work of Christ is this new community in which Christ’s spirit lives, that with the discovery of God’s love, the discovery that God is love, that the very ground of Being is love, is goodness, we come to knowledge of the meaning of life, we come to understand why our being has such a yearning for goodness, we come to understand that mercy, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation are not just ideals of dreamers but what the love of God is doing in human history.
Praise God for this great mercy. Praise Christ. Amen.