Choosing Humanity

Posted on 01 Mar 2020, Pastor: Adam Yates
  • Matthew 4:1-11

    Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

    ‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

    Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

    ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

    Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

    Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

    ‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

    Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

     

There are many factors that have an impact on how we read any given piece of scripture. When we read the Bible, we bring with us what others have told us about a particular passage; our interpretation is colored by the interpretations of those before us.  Even if we are able to somehow forget or let go of what we have been taught, our readings are also influenced by how particular scriptures are paired with other scriptures and the context of when a particular part of the Bible is read during the church year. Today, all of these factors conspire against us as we read the story from Genesis and the Gospel lesson from Matthew, so I must start this morning by first asserting that today’s readings are not as they appear.

Our lesson from Genesis this morning, in which we find the second story of creation, is a perfect example. If we are to crack open the scripture, we must try to set aside the interpretations that centuries of church teachings have given us, for they are not helpful and create more problems than they solve and raise more questions than they answer. This is not a story about the origin of sin in the world, it is not a story about the fall of humanity, and it is certainly not a story about the weakness of women, as some have tried to suggest in the past. What we read this morning is a story that is primarily about the human condition.

Adam and Eve are the human archetypes—they are the stand-ins, the example, for all people—and like all of us, they are created with limits and frailty. Though they live in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, their lives are not perfect—they do have their limits and their imperfections! Neither of them can know what the future holds, they will both eventually die (again, ignore the old interpretation that before this story there was no death in creation, there is nothing to support that claim in the scripture), they are both entirely dependent on God for their sustenance and wellbeing, and they are limited in their ability to fully understand the world around them that God has created.

“Adam and Eve”, oil on canvas by Marlina Vera, 2017

Herein is the rub—it is not just that Adam and Eve are limited and imperfect, they are aware of their frailty! It is one thing to be limited and finite, but it is quite another to be aware of it, to know the edge of your capabilities and to know what is beyond that edge, forever out of reach. It is this anxiety-producing condition of being finite while knowing the infinite that leads Adam and Eve to turn away from the way that God created them to be as they grasp after the fruit that promises to lift away at least some of their limits and make them that much “stronger” and closer to being like God.

This story isn’t about apples, snakes, pride, or greed; this story is about what it is to be human. After all, I am limited, I am frail, and I know it! There are things that I have done that I am not proud of, there are many things that I am not good at, and there are days that I am filled with self-doubt, where I question my choices and decisions and feel uncertain of my ability to be who I want to be. As I grow older, I become ever more aware of the limitations of my own body, as I learn what I can do, what I can no longer do, and what I will never be able to do. For example, I can no longer eat certain foods before bed, because it will give me heartburn; if I don’t sleep well the night before, I can feel the slight mental haze that causes me to trip on my words during church; and if I go too long without eating, I know that I will get grumpy even if I don’t want to be.

What’s more, there are so many things that I do not know, so much wisdom that I do not have. Even if I devoted all my time and energy to acquiring that knowledge and wisdom, I would still fail, because I know that I will not live forever; my death will come as surely as it has for all the people who have ever come before me. Contrary to all the TV shows of my childhood, I cannot be anything that I want to be, I cannot do anything that I put my mind to, and my limit is not found in the stars, but much closer to the ground.

The story of Adam and Eve is my story, it is the story of all of us, for we are all limited. Do we not all try to escape our limitations, though our methods are typically less effective than a magic apple? Failing to over come them, do we not all seek at some point or another to put them out of sight and mind, willfully ignoring them as if it will make our frailty go away?

This brings us to the Gospel reading today, in which we find Jesus driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit right after his baptism by John at the start of his public ministry. This story suffers because of where we read it in the church year, coming as it always does on the first Sunday in Lent, and paired as it is with the story of Adam and Eve. Though we hear this story just as many people have chosen something to give up during Lent, this story is not primarily about resisting temptation, and it is most certainly not meant to be read as an example of how we are to resist temptation. Jesus did not fast in the desert so that we might stand strong against our cravings of chocolate, caffeine, meat, or whatever we have given up during these forty days.

This is a story that is primarily about making a claim as to what kind of savior Jesus will be; it is a theological statement about whom Jesus is. In light of our Genesis reading, we can see that this is not a story about temptation or sin; it is a story about human frailty. Jesus was fully human, and Jesus was limited and finite just as we are. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, not so much to be tempted, but so as to confront his own frailty. The temptation that Jesus experience there was wholly different than any temptation we have ever experienced; Christ was tempted with the option of not being human. The devil was reminding Jesus that he didn’t have to be bound by human limitations, he didn’t have to be finite, he didn’t have to be imperfect, and he didn’t have to be mortal. The devil was whispering in Jesus’ ear that not even the stars were his limit.

The point here is not the temptation Jesus faced, though. The point of this story is that Jesus opted for his humanity, embraced his frailty, and chose to be as God made him. The good news of this story is not that we might resist temptation as Jesus did, but that our savior comes to us, not on clouds with the flash of lightning and pounding of thunder, but as one of us: limited, frail, and aware of it.

Jesus chose to walk this path with us because he knew the Good News! Jesus knew that our weakness, in God, is strength. Jesus knew that our imperfection, in God, is perfected; our frailty and finitude, in God, is the possibility of new creation. Jesus would embrace his humanity all the way to the end, because even judgment and death, through God, becomes salvation and new life—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves; that is a story for another day.

For now, this day, as we start this season of Lent together, let us seek to follow Christ’s example. Let us embrace who God created us to be—embrace our humanity—seeking not to become something infinite and perfect, but to fulfill our potential of being fully human. My friends, our salvation is not found in our ability to be perfect and without flaw. Our salvation is found in God, who became human like us, with all the imperfections and shortcomings that entails. So let us trust in the God who created us, who has always watched over us, and who loves us as a mother.

Preached by Adam Yates