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Lead Us Not into Temptation, Lent 1 (A) – 2008

February 10, 2008

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” or “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.”

Whichever version of the Lord’s Prayer you say, the request is the same: we ask God to be our strength and guide when we’re faced with temptation and sin. In our Collect we just prayed: “Almighty God, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.” The realities of temptation and sin are very apparent in each of our readings today.

In Genesis we have one of the most well-known, often quoted, and unfortunately usually misunderstood Old Testament stories. We’ve heard this since our Sunday school days. A serpent who is more crafty than any other wild animal, the passage says, tricks Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and to add insult to injury, Eve gets Adam to take a bite of the apple too. And, oh my gosh, the result is that instead of dying, as God proclaimed would happen, all that happened was that Adam and Eve realized they were naked. Of course, we also know that they eventually got kicked out of Paradise. If only they had obeyed God, we would all still be living there and life would be perfect. It’s all Eve’s fault.

Honestly, haven’t we all at one time in our lives heard this passage played with this way? At least as children in Sunday school, didn’t we think it was completely unfair that we have to suffer for what Adam and Eve did? Or let’s be honest, Eve started it, so the guys can feel a little less guilty, but still, why do we have to suffer for their sin?

Unfortunately, some adults never learned anything different as they became adults. There’s that nagging feeling of “if only.” But there are a number of problems with this.

To begin with, where did we get the idea the fruit was an apple? Nowhere in this Genesis story is “apple” mentioned. And oddly, this forbidden apple is often seen to have something to do with sex. Sex gets the label of being evil in many traditions. Today of course, we may smile to ourselves and say, “certainly not.” But deep down, many people wonder if just maybe that’s what this story is all about. This shows how images and stories change through history, and that should make us realize how important the careful study of scripture is.

Then we have the problem of Adam being duped by Eve. This passage is too often used to show that women are the “sinful” ones, and they have been under suspicion ever since.

These issues that come from reading this passage literally can blind us to what we need to learn. Adam and Eve aren’t two historical figures who destroyed our chance to live in Paradise. Adam and Eve are us – all of us, from time immemorial!

This story teaches us that temptation and sin are part of human nature. They’re part of our nature because we’ve been given the gift of free will. There is that bit about the tree in the middle of the garden, you remember. With that gift of free will comes the responsibility of choice. We can choose to do good or evil, and even if Adam and Eve were historical figures, human nature being what it is, at some point they would probably have chosen to do wrong. We have to admit we all would have at some point. We all do; there’s no getting around it.

The mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brings up another interesting point. Notice that it says “good and evil”. It doesn’t say “good or evil.” Scripture scholar the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Wright describes this very subtle difference in a most interesting way. She says:

“The knowledge referred to is not limited to moral knowledge; rather, it is the tree of infinite knowledge, of knowing all that it is possible to know. The point is not that trying to discern between good and evil is somehow wrong or at least prohibited, but rather that trying to have all knowledge is a grasping to be God, to be without limit. That may be what God is warning the first gardener.”

Words that might come to mind here are pride or self-sufficiency. When we think we know so much that we don’t need others – or worse, that we don’t even need God – then “knowledge,” which is a very good thing, becomes an occasion of sin.

It would be a good meditation for each of us to go back and re-read this passage from Genesis when we have time to look at each image, maybe with the help of a good biblical commentary, and consider carefully what each image is pointing to on a deeper level. This whole story is so much more wonderful when we understand what the story is really saying to us. Then of course we need to consider our other readings, lest we think that the story ends with “and they knew that they were naked.” Where’s the good news?

Well, the good news is the Incarnation. In Jesus we find our model, our guide in how to resist temptation for one thing, but even more importantly, that when we do sin we are always given the chance to repent. The gospel passage from Matthew is another of those really well-known and often told stories about Jesus. This is a favorite from Sunday school days because it’s so visual. We can picture the desert and Jesus being almost dead after 40 days of fasting. The tempter tries to get Jesus to turn stones to bread. That would be a great trick. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do that! We can picture the tempter coming and taking him to a pinnacle of the temple. We might wonder why people didn’t see him up there. But again, Jesus doesn’t give in. What Jesus does is remind the tempter that God is the authority, that God has the true power. Only God is worthy of humankind’s worship. The temptations that the tempter offered Jesus weren’t, in truth, the tempter’s to offer.

There are many things both these passages teach us, but we might focus today on faithfulness. If Adam and Eve had been faithful to what God asked of them, like Jesus, they would have been able to resist the temptation to sin.

The consequence of their sinfulness was that they saw very clearly their nakedness, their humanity. If we’re honest, when we sin, don’t we know deep down and quite clearly our own weakness – our frail humanity? That’s when we must not lose hope.

Yes, the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to lose the garden. Our sinfulness causes us to lose our balance, our peace of heart. Jesus came to show us how to live. His ministry was to call us back to faithfulness – to show us how much God loves us. God loves us enough to become like us, to die to redeem us, and to rise to bring us back into a loving relationship with Him. We see in Jesus a comrade, a model, someone who knew in a human way what our struggles are.

Lent is a wonderful time to re-read these Scripture stories, to remember what we’ve learned and what they still teach us. Lent is a time to pray for metanoia, the Greek word for a change of heart and life, a renewal of faith. “Happy are we whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”

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Christopher Sikkema


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