1st Sunday of Lent
17 FEBRUARY 2002
Scriptual Reference: Gn 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-6a, 12-14, 17; Rom 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The Temptation to Take God's Place

       I saw a movie last week that was particularly appropriate for the season of Lent, especially as we reflect on the nature of sin and temptation. The movie was about a young, college-aged man who was dating a divorced woman with two children. This young man is killed in cold blood by the woman's ex-husband, who is arrested, but who soon is out on bail. This movie becomes more or less a character study of young man's parents, who, as you might imagine, were devastated. Both of them were good folks: he was an esteemed physician in the community, and she, a high school choral director. They know that their son's murderer is free, and even see him out and about in the community. Finally, the doctor, seeing the anguish in his wife and feeling his own, abducts the man who killed his son. Then, with total calm, the physician takes him off to the middle of nowhere. It is there that the physician, a man used to cooperating with God in the healing arts, takes God's place by ending the man's life with a hand pistol.

       Today's first reading is another story, that is more or less a character study. We know well the story and the characters. Adam and Eve are the first creatures made in God's own image, creatures who possessed within them the very life-breath of God. God allows them to eat the fruit of all but one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet the serpent, a symbol of temptation and a symbol of Satan, persuades Eve to eat from the tree. His most compelling argument: you will become yourselves like gods. So, Adam and Eve, forgetting their place in God's creation, eat of the forbidden fruit, and are given what the name of the tree implies: knowledge of good and evil. Except, this does not make them powerful like gods, it serves to distance them from God, as is evidenced by the shame they feel in their nakedness. This story, or allegory, conveys an awful lot of truth. We see that we are made in God's image. We see that through their own free will, the first humans disobeyed the very God that sought to care and protect for them. We learn something else of great importance: we learn about the greatest temptation that humanity faces. Adam and Eve's most compelling temptation was to become God and to forget their place in creation. The same temptation, the same truth is seen in the movie that I described: the physician, although moved by different circumstances and intentions, took God's place in deciding when his son's murderer should die.

       I heard a story once about a man trying to lose a little weight. His greatest temptation came in the form of chocolate-glazed yeast doughnuts, made fresh by a bakery on his way to work. So, this man would take a different route in order to avoid the bakery. But, during one particularly stressful week, the man thought and thought about the doughnuts, and when he arrived to work, he came with a box full of them. His co-workers laughed with him a little, and the man explained, "I said a little prayer to God that went like this: 'Lord, if you really want me to have some of those delicious doughnuts, let me find a parking space right in front of the bakery.'" The man continued, "Well, sure enough, on the ninth time around the block, there it was!"

       Temptation is a universal human experience. I'm sure that each one of us here could name our temptations almost immediately. Today in the gospel, we see Jesus in the desert, fasting and praying in order to prepare for his public ministry. Matthew makes it clear to us that he is there specifically, though, to be tempted by the devil. At the end of these forty days, he was hungry. The devil comes to him and tempts him in three ways: first, he tempts him to change the stones into bread. Second, he tempts Jesus to throw himself down from a high place for everyone to see in order to show his power. Finally, the devil offers Jesus the greatest temptation: power and control over all of the kingdoms of the world. Though human, Jesus is clearly in possession of his identity as God's son, and with valor, sends Satan away. Matthew, in recounting this event, is displaying the fortitude, the strength that Jesus had in the face of temptation, to be sure. But more importantly, Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus is indeed God's son, powerful enough to overcome the temptations of the devil. Jesus stands in stark contrast to our first parents. Jesus could have rightfully demonstrated the power given to him by God, but was not willing to do it for the reasons proposed by Satan. Adam and Eve were readily willing to contradict God's plan for the reasons that Satan proposes to them: that they might be co-equal with God. Matthew intends to show us that though human, Jesus is radically different from all humans who had come before him, and is rightly called, the "new Adam."

       Many of you might remember the comic book or TV show, "The Incredible Hulk." The premise of the series goes something like this: a scientist, after a self-experimentation accident, becomes a huge, raging monster every time he becomes angry. Though somewhat juvenile in its premise, the TV show dramatized the struggle of this scientist to control his anger. He was aware of what would happen to him if he were to cross a line within himself: he would begin to rage out of control as the Hulk.

       St. Paul's reading today is the lynch pin for understanding the liturgy today on the first Sunday of Lent. Paul says that one human being brought sin into the world, and another brought salvation. Each one of us has Adam in us: we have been born in the likeness of God, but we have Adam's sinful inclinations. But in us too is someone else, someone who came along to fix what was broken and set right what was wrong: and that's Jesus. Jesus is the new Adam, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, his presence dwells in us, too. That leaves you and me feeling a lot of time like the scientist who struggled to avoid becoming the monstrous Incredible Hulk. We struggle between Adam's nature and Christ's presence within us when we struggle to do what is right, to act in reasonable ways, to live holistically and healthily. And, we know from experience that the monstrous nature of sinful Adam is unleashed in us when we sin, and when our sin leads us to lose control of ourselves. The presence of Jesus and the impetus of Adam to sin are both within us.

       Last week, I attended a Disciples in Mission small group. It was the first time that this group had met, and I was impressed by how friendly, open and inviting each member of the group was. One of the questions that the group discussed was, "When do you feel closest to Jesus Christ?" I listened as the others shared their heart-felt thoughts, but it wasn't until the end of the meeting that I shared my own thoughts. The time that I feel closest to Christ, I said, is when I am with others who care just as much about him as I do. It is when I am gathered with others in Christ's name that I know he is near to me, and in fact, within my very being. It is important for all of us to remember that in our battle to conquer sin and to do what is right we must reach out to others in order to nurture the Christ presence within us. Then we can avoid making the same mistake of our first parents: we avoid the temptation to take God's place. And, when we are assisted by our brothers and sisters to find Christ's presence within us, we allow Christ to transform us, molding us more and more into the God-image in which we were created. +

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