SERMON: 1 Lent A 3 1 2020
A couple of weeks ago Molly and I spent a night in New York City. We went to see a play which had been recommended by a friend, a play produced by a Christian dramatic group. It was off-Broadway, way west on 42nd street. We'd been to the theater before; it's in a building with a cluster of theaters of small to medium size. They attract plays out of the mainstream, often by unknown writers. As you can imagine a play by a Christian drama troupe might be.
The play we saw was "Paradise Lost," a dramatization of John Milton's famous epic poem of the same name, written in the seventeenth century. In a question and answer period after the performance the director told us that it would have taken 11 hours for the cast just to read the entire book aloud; they'd trimmed it so the play was only 100 minutes. It was stunning from beginning to end. It involved the scene in the Garden of Eden which was our Hebrew Bible reading from Genesis this morning.
The play opened with an unbelievable noise, loud enough to make us wonder if something was wrong, if more than the play was happening just then. But when the lights came up, we were staring at hell, complete with fiery glowing rocks and steam emanating from them. It was shadowy, creepy and scary.
Satan was on the stage, as was his sidekick Beelzebub. They were agonizing on their being thrown out of heaven, along with four hundred hundred million other fallen souls. Satan decided he would go to earth to foment unrest and aggravate God, at least, and possibly stage an uprising sufficient to gain control over heaven.
The lights dimmed and we were in the Garden of Eden. Eve entered from the wings and was lovely, smart, curious and, basically, perfect. She is figuring out things as though she had just been created. She encounters animals and birds and yearns to fly. She is wowed by creation. She represents the beginning and so she represents also, today, Andrea and Leanna, two girls being welcomed into the church in the Sacrament of Baptism. They are pure, innocent, delightful and, yes, curious. We want to give them every change to grow and thrive and to delight in the world that God has made for us. On this first Sunday in Lent we explore the perils of temptation as if it is something new, which it is for these two youngsters. But not for us. We just haven't quite figured out how --or we just haven't managed--to avoid temptation.
Back to the Garden: Adam shows up and tells her how she was formed from his rib. They are delighted to meet each other and eventually Adam relates God's prohibition concerning eating of the fruit on the tree of good and evil. Later, as you already know, Eve's curiosity leads her to taste the forbidden fruit, with a lot of urging from Satan who has made it to earth and the Garden of Eden--wearing a snake skin jacket, no less. You know what happens then. We read it in Genesis just now. Adam and Eve were ashamed. Adam is shocked Eve would disobey God's order.
But even though Satan's temptation of Eve is literally the oldest story ever and her disobedience is undeniable, we sympathize with her. We want to ask, why did God make us this way, curious enough to disobey? Was it a test? Was it God's fault, because after all we were given free will?
I suppose in another age someone might have accused Eve of not being very bright, not bright enough to follow such clear instructions. But in this production she was the smart one in the duo, make no mistake. And her yearnings and intelligence were palpable. We were on her side. We had to wonder, who was tempting her, God or Satan?
When we leapt this morning from the Genesis reading to the Gospel we recognized the power of temptation. It is very familiar in tone. It is the Garden of Eden but in the wilderness, on the pinnacle of the temple, on the mountain.
Now in the play Satan was a tall, impressive middle aged man who could persuade with his words, could raise an army of dispossessed souls. In our Gospel Satan is usually portrayed as kind of a cross between a person, a lizard and a bat. Not a fair comparison.
But Jesus, of course, knew the book of Genesis. He knew the story of Adam and Eve. He knew better. He knew better than to succumb to temptation.
I think the problem arises for us when we confuse our own curiosity with temptation. "I'm not tempted, only curious." Or, "This is really interesting. What could be wrong with trying it out?" Sometimes that kind of logic is really just evasion of the obvious, but there you have it. The common phrase these days, "What could possibly go wrong?" Stated ironically.
And though both Eve and Jesus were tempted greatly, it is often the smaller temptations with which we struggle. The temptation to have another piece of pie, or to spend too much time zoning out with television, or ignoring family and friends for video games or Facebook or other solitary pursuits.
Temptation is not only everywhere it's described in the Bible--the garden, the wilderness, the pinnacle, the mountain. It's also in the car, in the living room, in church, at work. Because temptation is in the things we know are wrong for us, whether they're doing something or not doing something. Being tempted to ignore the need to take out the garbage can result in domestic unpleasantness. The temptation to sleep in can ruin a day for us, making it impossible to meet our obligations, not to mention do other things we'd like to be doing.
This is not as significant as being banned from the Garden of Eden, or as dangerous as leaping from the pinnacle. But the results can be devastating on a more human scale.
Lent is a time to consider ideas like this and explore when it is that we succumbed to temptation.
In the version of the Lord's Prayer that we use we pray, "...and lead us not into temptation." In the other form provided in the Book of Common Prayer we can pray, "...save us from the time of trial." The older version presumes that God put the temptations in front of us like the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Genesis reading. The more modern version acknowledges that temptations abound, they virtually surround us. We need help.
Both versions of the Lord's Prayer ask God to deliver us from evil. I think that is like the prayer in the Baptismal Covenant, in which we pray, "whenever we fall into sin (we will) repent and return to the Lord." It is actually refreshing to openly acknowledge that we fall short not infrequently.
It helps to be clear. To determine which choices we make that then frustrate us, tempt us, harm our life in various ways. We need to figure out what we can do to avoid repeating them and we need to ask for God's help and guidance.
We ask God to help us. We ask God to help these two newly baptized Children of God. We want God to help us all. And we believe God wants to and will.
A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.