Every Word

February 26, 2023 homily on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11 by Pastor Galen

A Riddle

A father and son were in a car accident and the father died at the scene of the accident. The son was rushed to the hospital and it was determined that he needed surgery. But when he was taken in for surgery, the surgeon took one look at the boy and said, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son!” How could this be?

Well, an obvious explanation is that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother – the riddle plays off of our stereotypes that surgeons are usually men, and highlights the fact that women can be surgeons just as much as men. (Of course, there are actually a multitude of possible explanations: The surgeon could be the boy’s stepfather who loved him dearly. The boy could be the child of a same-sex couple. Or, since the riddle never uses any pronouns whatsoever when referring to the surgeon, the surgeon could be non-binary, transgender, or other).

The important thing, if we are to understand the riddle, is that we pay close attention not just to what is said in the riddle, but also what is not said as well, and that we do not bring our own presuppositions into the text. And if this is true of a simple riddle, how much more true is it when we seek to understand, interpret, and apply God’s Words – as we’ll see as we did into our Scripture lessons for today.

The Serpent and the Devil

Genesis chapters 2 and 3 tell the story of the first humans, and how they chose to disobey God and go their own way. A central character in this story is a talking serpent, who, according to the author, “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1). The serpent leads the first people astray by causing them to doubt the goodness of God’s intentions for them. And one way that the serpent does this is by taking God’s words out of their original context and twisting them around to make the people believe that God was holding back something good from them. Interestingly enough, when the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew chapter 4, he too takes God’s Word out of context and twists it around to suit his own purposes. But Jesus is able to withstand the temptation because of his deep and intimate knowledge of God and God’s Word, and his unwavering faith in God’s goodness.

So let’s look closely at the tactics the serpent used to tempt the first humans. After that we’ll come back to how Jesus was able to resist the temptation of the devil in the wilderness. 

The First Humans

In Genesis 3 verse 1, the Serpent takes a command that God had given to the first people, and extends it far beyond God’s actual command, asking them if God had indeed prohibited them from eating from “any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). In truth, God had actually said they could eat from every tree in the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17), and the woman rightly corrected the serpent’s misstatement. But then she mistakenly adds on to it, saying that God had also commanded them not to touch it, saying, “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’” (Gen 3:3). Now, we have to understand that when God said that Adam and Eve could eat from every tree except for one, God was being extravagantly generous. God had planted the garden, and so all of the produce of all of the trees belonged to God, and God was sharing it freely with Adam and Eve. 

Imagine being able to walk around and eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without ever worrying about how you were going to pay for it (or how many calories it would add!) And, imagine never having to worry about whether something was safe or not, because the only thing you had to avoid in the whole world was eating from one measly little tree that God had clearly told you not to eat from. Adam and Eve could essentially do anything in the entire world except eat from that one tree. Which meant that their lives should have been completely free of anxiety and worry and fear! God had clearly told them what was safe for them to do and what wasn’t. In many ways it didn’t matter that they couldn’t eat from that one tree, because they literally had the whole rest of the world at their disposal. God had given them way more than they would ever need. The command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was for their own good, because, as God said, “in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17).

Now, the word “day” here can refer not just to a 24-hour time period, but it can also refer more generally to a season of time, or even a lifetime. And, the word “die” doesn’t just mean instantaneous death, but it can also refer to premature death. So essentially, God was telling them that if they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil then their time on this earth would not be eternal – it would eventually come to an end.

So this command not to eat from the tree was absolutely given to them for their own safety and well-being and protection. God was not being mean-spirited or cruel. God was being explicitly clear with them so they didn’t have to live in worry or fear or anxiety. Meanwhile, God had given them abundantly more than would ever need. All they had to do was trust in God’s goodness and provision and protection.

And that’s where the serpent’s insidious question began to plant the seeds of doubt in their minds – that perhaps God didn’t have the best intentions towards them, that perhaps God could not be trusted after all. That perhaps God was being unnecessarily cruel and mean-spirited towards them.

The Temptation to Doubt God’s Goodness

And here we see a tactic that I believe Satan still uses to this day – causing people to take God’s very specific commands, given for a very specific reason, and lifting them out of their original context and applying them unilaterally towards people and contexts for which they were never intended. Or adding on to God’s commands, making God appear unnecessarily harsh or cruel.

We saw this a few weeks ago when we talked about the Sabbath laws, and how the religious leaders of Jesus’s day had taken God’s very simple command that they should take one day a week to rest and worship God – a command that one of my mentors liked to say was sort of like God saying “eat your chocolate cake!” (if you like chocolate cake). But they had piled so many additional layers onto it that Sabbath had become burdensome to people. 

We see this same phenomenon today when churches and religious people take what have often been called the “clobber passages” of the Bible and lift them out of their original context and use them to justify their own misogyny, or homophobia, or nationalism or racism, or to prevent certain people from occupying certain positions of leadership, or from serving in certain types of ministry settings.

The horrific impact of taking specific commandments that were originally intended for a specific group of people, in a specific time, for a specific reason, and lifting them out of their original context and unilaterally apply them across time and space is that God’s name is maligned – and it makes it difficult for us to see God’s goodness. Today, in fact, there are many people who want nothing at all to do with God or with the Church because they have been led to believe that God is a mean-spirited demagogue who holds evil intentions towards them, rather than good.

And this leads then to the final tactic that the serpent used in order to convince the first people to go against God’s commands, and that was to flat out deny the truth of God’s words. The serpent said, “‘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’” (Gen. 3:5).

This was the final nail in the coffin for the first humans, as it were. By introducing to them the idea that God had evil intentions towards them, the serpent was able to convince them that God’s words were not even true at all, and that they should disregard God’s words completely.

And so the serpent convinced Adam and Eve that they knew better than God and that they should go their own way rather than following God’s way. And we really can’t blame Adam and Eve all that much, because the reality is that each and every one of us do this each and every day. We think our way is best, and we choose to do what we want to do, rather than following God’s plan for us.

The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness

And so now we fast forward to Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. Here, too, in Matthew chapter 4 verse 6, the devil took God’s words out of their original context in an attempt to convince Jesus to go against God’s plan and to go his own way. But even though Jesus was hungry and exhausted after fasting and praying for 40 days, still Jesus was able to sift through the lies of the devil. He resisted the temptation to deviate from God’s plan, because he had absolute faith in God’s goodness and that God’s way was the best way. And it wasn’t just because he had memorized passages of Scripture and knew their original context, but even more importantly, he had a deep and intimate relationship with God, and an abiding trust in God’s never-ending goodness and love.

Now, you may say, “but Jesus was God made flesh, and so of course he was secure in the knowledge of God’s love for him!” But we have to remember that while Jesus was 100% God, he was also 100% human. And in his humanity he experienced every trial and temptation known to humankind. Every pain, every sorrow that we could ever face, Jesus faced too. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer and even experience death. And so absolutely the temptation to doubt God’s goodness, and to go his own way must have been very real for him. And yet through it all, Jesus clung to God’s goodness and never-ending love. He never strayed from the path that God had for him, no matter how difficult, because he had faith that God’s way is the best way, and that God is in fact looking out for our good. 

And ultimately, by following God’s plan, even to the point of giving his life on the cross for us, Jesus demonstrated God’s goodness and never-ending love for the world. When Jesus stretched out his arms and died, his arms were the physical manifestation of God’s extravagant and never-failing love reaching out to you and me and to each and every person who has ever lived and who will ever live on this earth. No matter who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness reach us right where we are. All we need to do is to receive the love and mercy and forgiveness that God offers, trusting deeply in the goodness of the One who created us and gave us life. Only then can we combat the lies that try to get us to doubt the goodness of God and of God’s intentions towards us.

Cultivating an Awareness of God’s Goodness

So how do we cultivate a deep awareness of God’s love and goodness? And how do we resist the temptations of the Enemy that try to get us to believe that God holds ill intentions towards us? One way is to get to know Scripture – like the riddle to see exactly what it says, and what it doesn’t say. To seek to understand the original context, and the overarching narrative of Scripture, and seek to understand how Scripture is intended to point us towards Christ, and towards God’s abundant love and goodness. There are many passages that are difficult to understand and where God may seem unnecessarily cruel and mean-spirited – but this is why it’s important to study the Bible in community with others – especially with those who may have a different perspective than we do – and who can help us understand God’s goodness and love for all people.

Our Lenten practices, too, should lead us to remember the goodness of God in our lives. Avoiding junk food or alcohol or social media for Lent, or intentionally giving of our time or resources to help those in need can remind us that God is our primary source of provision and protection.  

My prayer for us this Lenten season is that we would grow deeper in relationship with God, that we too may be able to withstand the temptations of the Enemy, and that we would grow more secure in the knowledge of the goodness and never-ending love of God. Amen.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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