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Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Right Road

These stories of temptation show us a way to engage such temptation in our daily lives; our gift is that we walk this journey of faith together, and can help each other even as the Spirit is working within us.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday in Lent, year A; texts:  Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

We have such compelling contrasts in these two stories that frame our readings from God’s Word for us this morning.  A lush garden, paradise really, and an arid, hot desert, a wilderness.  Two people standing in for all of humanity in that garden, and the divine Son of God who is also fully human, in that desert.  A tempter in both places.  In the garden, the human beings succumb to the temptation.  In the desert, the truly Human One resists the temptation.  It’s easy to see why the Genesis reading was chosen in this year to pair with the story of Jesus’ temptation.

The crux of these two stories is how we as human beings handle temptation to disobey God, to walk away from God’s path, to go our own way.  This Lenten journey we do together each year is, as we said last Wednesday, a practicing, a rehearsing of the greater journey of faith each of our lives are, and the of shared road we all are walking together as disciples of Jesus.

If we are walking this road of life in faith together, seeking the faithful paths together, the godly directions, helping each other as we aspire to live as our Lord has called us to live, then learning what’s at stake in these two crossroad moments is important.

And what we learn is that neither of these stories describe a once-and-for-all moment, a fixed point in time, a story in the past for us to consider.  As we consider both stories and think of our journey of faith, we recognize that these events, these temptations, these issues, come before us again and again.

In other words, both the temptation in the garden and the temptation in the wilderness stand before us as examples of the decisions we make every day.

This isn’t how we’ve tended to read the Genesis story, which has been as simple history: Adam and Eve did a bad thing, and ruined it for everyone.  We even call this “the Fall,” as if it were a once and for all kind of thing.  I remember as a child regretting that they had sinned, because that permanently made a mess of things, as if no one since had ever contributed to the mess, as if I myself was not contributing to the mess.  So the point of this story has been for many that we look at the one moment when humanity destroyed everything, ruined the creation.  And ever since then, we’ve been tainted by this.

Of course, a problem with that is that then we can also compartmentalize this story as not about us.  If they hadn’t done this, we’d be fine.  If we weren’t guilty of original sin – which we don’t have to take credit for since it really wasn’t our fault, it was theirs – then we wouldn’t be sinful today.

In fact, I think the authors of Genesis understood the problem with this, and in fact told this story to move us to the opposite reaction.  This story is not intended to be an explanation of a single past event as much as a description of the situation which stands before every human being at multiple levels on every day of our lives: are we or are we not going to obey God?  Do we live for ourselves, by our way, or live as children of God, by God’s way?

And in the same way, telling the story of the temptation of Jesus isn’t intended as a history lesson but as the same kind of template for our daily lives: what will we do when confronted with choices that are not easily understood as simply right or wrong, good or bad, but complicated, difficult choices?  How will we deal with temptation in whatever way it confronts us?

These temptations are ongoing for us: to disobey God, to take God’s authority, to test God, to use our gifts for ourselves.

Will we let God decide what is good and evil, and follow that decision, or will we try to be God ourselves and claim we know better?  Will we obey God, even if we don’t always understand why God is asking something of us?

This is the question of Adam and Eve.

And if you don’t think that ever happens for us, let me ask you this: how are you doing on loving your enemies?  Following that command of Jesus requires obedience often without explanation or understanding, because it seems counter to everything we know about ourselves and the world.  We know what is right and what is wrong, and loving our enemies doesn’t seem to fit that.  So, like Adam and Eve, we’re asked to obey without fully understanding why our Lord would ask this of us.

And then: will we test God’s grace and love for us and not trust it?  Will we seek to be in charge, to use power and control over others in our lives so we can get what we want, or recognize we are not in control of our lives, God is?

These are the questions Jesus faced.

And if you don’t think that ever happens for us, let me ask you this: how often in your life have you justified something you’ve done that harmed another, or let you get your way, or made something happen, justified it on the basis that the ends justified the means, that you knew what needed to be done and they didn’t?

These questions Jesus faces in the wilderness on use of power and gifts for ourselves, on giving authority to the powers of this world, on trusting God’s care and trust above our own manipulations, these are not unknown questions to us.

Every day, in little ways and sometimes in large ways, we are faced with the same questions of obedience and direction as Adam and Eve, as Jesus.

But here’s a piece of good news: just as these stories are not given as past history, once for all decisions but as models for us, so, too, we are not simply good or bad, either/or.  We are on the road, on the journey.  Sometimes we walk God’s ways, sometimes we fail.  It’s not a once-for-all kind of thing, but a daily process.

The quote from Martin Luther on our service folder cover today reminds us of this. [1] Luther was responding to a criticism that he believed that after baptism we still had growth to do, changing to do.  That even though we were washed in the waters of baptism the Spirit still had work to do on us.

So he contrasts words that spoke of absolute, final status, for words of process and development:  We are not necessarily living in godliness yet, but we are becoming more godly.  We are not healthy, but we are getting well.  We are not what we will be, but we are on the way; we are not at the goal, but we are on the right road.

This is good news.  We can sometimes despair that we aren’t what God wants us to be.  Today we learn that is only part of the question.

But it does matter that we know the difference.  That we understand the choices of these stories and the importance of what they say.  Every day we have to figure out not only which path is God’s path, but whether or not we want to go in that way.

You want to walk the right path but if you can’t tell the difference, how will you choose?  And you can know the right path from the wrong path, but if you don’t want to listen to God, will you choose the one you know is best?

You see, if this is a process, a direction, not the final goal yet, then our direction is of critical importance.

What these stories raise for us is warning.  Are we on the right road?  On the way to godliness, health, becoming like Christ?

Both stories have a confidence that the paths we choose matter.  It is true that when we fail we are forgiven and picked up again by God.  But that assumes that there is a path of life onto which we desire to be placed, and a path of death that we want to avoid.  It assumes our decisions at crossroads of life matter.  Not because we risk God not loving us, but because we risk going where there is no life.

When we set out on our own way, doing our thing, not God’s, we move further and further away from the life God gives and desires for us.  All the decisions shown in these two stories imply that the decisions matter.

So, simply, to use some examples we already have: if we do not love our enemies, there is a cost to us, to our hearts, to our souls, to our lives.  We are less than we could be.  We are diminished.   And if we control others to get what we want, there is a cost to us, to our souls, to our lives.  We are less than we could be.  We are diminished.

And in all such decisions we face, in all kinds of ways (because those are only two examples of countless such decisions and crossroads), if we persist in these paths that lead away from God instead of the paths of life, we end up dying more and more inside.

So, these stories tell us that at the crossroads it matters which way we go.  It matters that we know there is a right road, even if it’s hard to discern at times.  This is why we need each other on our journey so badly, so that we can ask each other: is this the right road?  Is this the way God is calling us to go?  Are we moving toward healing, toward growth in godliness?

Are we on the way?

Imagine how different it would look if we lived into the Genesis story not in the way we usually do – which is like Adam and Eve, blaming others for our sin, denying our part, not talking to each other about it – and instead used each other as guides, as help?

What if Adam and Eve would have talked to each other during the temptation, and encouraged each other?  How might that have changed things?  What if we, who are Adam and Eve, would do the same when struggling: ask for help, wisdom, encouragement, guidance on the road?  What difference would that make in our lives?

Together we can help each other be faithful in our journey.

We not only help each other find the right paths, our encouragement to each other to want the paths of life is vital to our faithful walk.

Because we begin all this where we always begin, in the certain knowledge of our Lord’s love and forgiveness for us, we have this hope and promise: in the grace of God we can always trust God will pick us back up and get on the right road again when we fail.

While we are still living, there is time to be corrected, and to move toward God’s life of grace.  But together, we will be much more faithful in all our listening, all our journeying.

We’re not where we will be, but the Spirit is moving us there.

We rejoice that we are given each other on this journey, so that we can help each other listen, and see.  As each of us stand at crossroads in our lives, we stand with each other, as God’s grace to each other, in choosing which way to go.  As our community, as even the Church stands at crossroads, too, we listen together for God.

It matters which way we choose, which direction we go.  That we learn from the garden and the wilderness today.  Let us walk together, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might listen to our God, find the paths of life, and walk them.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1]  “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise.  We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.  The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.  This is not the goal but it is the right road.  At present everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

Martin Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” a response of Martin Luther, March 1521, to Exsurge Domine, the papal bull of condemnation of his writings issued by Pope Leo X in July, 1520.  Luther’s Works, vol. 32, The Career of the Reformer II, p. 24.

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