The First Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


You all know Murphy’s Law. What I didn’t know, until I googled it, is that there’s a cottage industry developing corollaries to Murphy’s Law. For instance:

  • If something can’t go wrong, it will.
  • If a series of events can go wrong, they’ll go wrong in the worst possible order.
  • After things have gone from bad to worse the cycle will repeat.
  • Nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse.
  • Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Some of you may have seen The Fly, either the original with David Hedison (1958) or the remake ofwith Jeff Goldblum (1986). A scientist develops a means of electronic transport. Two pods are linked by wires and a powerful computer. You go into one pod and come out the other. The scientist tests it successfully. He decides to try it himself, but a fly happens to have entered the pod. The computer does its work and out comes the scientist with his own and the fly’s DNA, and by the end of the movie the scientist is pretty much, well, fly.

OK, here’s the question. With Murphy’s Law and The Fly in mind, what’s going to happen if God decides to assume human nature in order to save the human race? Is that not the script for a disaster of cinematic proportions?

And from that perspective we can recognize what’s at stake in today’s Gospel. Jesus, declared Son of God at his baptism: what choices will this human being make?

Today’s readings tell two stories of temptation, and by attending to the first we can better understand the second.

In the Genesis story the first pair faces the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God has forbidden eating its fruit; do they eat it? But it’s not just or even primarily about the fruit—it’s about God’s character. Is God to be trusted? Notice what the serpent says: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God’s selfishly keeping something good from you! And if the serpent was right about that, most of us would think that Eve had a good case for eating the fruit. Is God good? Is God watching out for Eve?

(By the way, there’s a long tradition of putting the blame primarily on Eve, which works only if we ignore the text. The text doesn’t say “and she found her husband, and gave him some” but “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Adam’s been standing there the whole time and has contributed squat to the conversation.)

In Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, behind the specific temptations is the issue of God’s character. Is not Jesus something of a fool to be obeying this God? At the simplest level that question is present from the beginning. The Spirit, the text tells us, led Jesus into the wilderness. So up comes the devil reciting Ps 23, and wonders aloud where the green pastures went. “Jesus, you can do so much better than this! Start by getting yourself some bread…”

Unlimited bread, spectacular miracles, a discreet acknowledgement of the gatekeeper: getting all the kingdoms of the world does not need to be difficult. Challenge the gatekeeper and you’re liable to end up on some cross. Is the God that asks this of Jesus trustworthy? Is God good? Is God watching out for Jesus?

Ethics, what we do, are grounded in what is. If God isn’t good, isn’t watching out for us, it’s every man or woman for themselves! If God is good, if God is watching out for us, then obeying God is, in principle, a no-brainer.

Here’s where we get really good at mental games. Here’s one of my favorites: yes, God is good—to most folk. But God tends to forget me at critical moments. Rational? No. But it opens the door to very familiar emotional scripts: impatience, anger, etc.—precisely when I need the energy to stay faithful to what I profess.

The link between what is and what we should do is present also in the Ten Commandments. Because the Ten Commandments start not with “You shall have no other gods before me,” but with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have…” God has already shown Himself to be good, merciful, our liberator. That’s who the commandments are coming from. “I am the Lord”—and therefore we don’t need to kill, to steal, etc.

But back to the Gospel, what does Jesus do? Between Murphy’s Law, The Fly, and the first temptation story we’ve got plenty of reason to hold our breath.

To each of the devil’s suggestions Jesus responds with Scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God… You shall not tempt the Lord your God… You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” The point is not that Jesus is quoting Scripture, as though that’s how you’re supposed to argue. The point is that Jesus’ familiarity with Scripture empowers him to recognize that the devil isn’t offering anything new, isn’t offering anything that hasn’t already been tried and found wanting.

Is God good? Is God watching out for Jesus? Jesus, son of Mary, knows not only the Scripture of his people, but also the family stories, how an angel kept them safe from Herod, how an angel kept them safe from Herod’s son Archelaus. And so Jesus makes Moses’ words his own: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”—and we can stop holding our breaths.

The core of the account of the temptation isn’t so much a theology of temptation or a psychology of temptation—though we can usefully explore these—but an event: a new possibility in human history. When Jesus and Murphy’s Law step into the ring, it’s Jesus who emerges. Something new is in play in our history.

Our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, has given his testimony. If we permit it, his testimony can aid our hearts in encountering a God who merits our confidence, our obedience. May we open our hearts to receive this aid! Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s