FOR DATE 5 March (Lent 1) 2017
TEXTS: Genesis 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11
(Display card with “ _______-ness)
This “word ending” is one way that, in English, you can turn an adjective, like “kind” into a noun, like “kindness”. A couple of others are “softness” and “Lateness”. The process works with other words and today we’re going to use as we consider the bible stories we’ve just read.
Both stories dealt with temptation. Because we’re Where that happened, so our title is “Whereness”, a word you won’t find in your dictionary, and that you shouldn’t use in front of an English teacher. And since we’re using a new word, we can’t do old stuff. Perhaps as you listened to the Bible stories you already figured out what’s going to be said. Well, whatever you might have expected, let it go. New words require new ways of seeing things.
Some Bible stories have “sermon outlines” right there in them: “Three points” just naturally fall out of them. Our Genesis story had 3 characters: 1) the snake; 2) the woman and 3) the man. Put in the setting as the introduction and make an application to contemporary life as the conclusion and you’ve got a sermon. I can’t remember if I’ve ever preached that sermon, but that just means I can’t remember. Maybe you’ve heard it somewhere. And in the story we read from Matthew, there are three temptations. I KNOW that I’ve preached that one somewhere else before. If I could have found the file on my hard-drive I wouldn’t have had to write a new sermon for us. But Praise God, I couldn’t find it. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t one of the better things I’ve written.
(Display card with “ _______-ness again)
From either of these stories we could consider several “___ness” es of temptation: 1) the “WHATness (focusing on the content of the temptations in the stories); 2) the WHYness (focusing on the human conditions of the ones being tempted); 4) the HOWness (focusing on the one who did the tempting and the methods). From any of those approaches, we could make applications to our lives here in 21st Century Tainan. That would produce what one of my colleagues at Tainan Theological College calls, “a SAFE sermon”. We could do the expected things and arrive at the expected conclusions. But then, you wouldn’t have to listen.
Today we’re going to take a risk, (something that’s not popular in church). We’re going to explore the WHEREness of temptation; the LOCATIONS and SETTINGS of the stories. Where they might have been on the map is not as important as where they were in the lives of the characters. We’ll try to apply that knowledge to where it is in our lives (not at which street corners in Tainan) that temptation comes.
As we move into the “where” of temptation, I have to admit that as I wrote this last week I kept falling into the “WHEN”. If you notice me doing that, wave at me or clap your hands or something. Get me back “WHERE” I should be. OK?
WHERE THERE IS EASE
Among the pictures that have been on the screen today are several that can be found when doing a Google image search for “Paradise” or “Garden of Eden”. The pictures that come up are beautiful, and make you want to leave urban Tainan and head for the hills. These places seem to be where the weather is warm enough so that you don’t have to wear too many clothes, or ANY clothes, and cool enough so that you don’t sweat too much. The food is near, the light is gentle, and someone else cooks the meals and washes the dishes.
The Genesis story was set in a garden. People there had the companionship of animals, of each other, and of God. Earlier in the story (in chapter 2: 18-24) it is mentioned that God had made the people to be suitable companions for each other. I’m pretty sure that suitability, companionability and being without clothes would have naturally led to sex. It seems to me that Paradise must have been a very pleasant place to live and to work.
In this wonderful place there was also something else…. Temptation to act in ways that would ruin the whole thing. Temptation is natural. It’s part of creation. As we think about it, we can spend our time blaming: We can blame the characters for being: 1) evil (like the snake); or 2) weak (like the people); or 3)negligent (like God coded the design of creation without taking weakness and temptation into consideration). We could do that, but it’s not our purpose today. Looking at WHERENESS means that we are here to consider the place.
Paradise is a place in our own lives. It is where everything is easy, and it is a place where temptation can be just too strong to resist. WAIT a MINUTE, we’re in central Tainan. Things here are crowded and noisy and not necessarily clean. Though we may HOPE for paradise, but we’re pretty sure that it doesn’t and won’t look like central Tainan. It will be somewhere FAR, FAR away from here.
But paradise is always right next door. It lurks in the place where our next job, the one AFTER our current one with all of its struggles, awaits us. In the time between knowing we can leave THIS job, (or degree program) and before we become disillusioned with that NEW job, we’re in paradise. In between living the sad reality of the present and basking in the false hope of the new and potentially perfect new reality is the place WHERE we get tempted. For the people in the Genesis story, paradise was wonderful, but the expectation of a greater perfection led to the taking of forbidden fruit.
Paradise also can be found WHERE the hard work ends and we’re freed from struggle, but it’s a place where we let down our attention to staying secure. Paradise is found WHERE we’re praised for having done good work, so next time we take shortcuts and do sloppy work, whether at home, at work, at the gym or in the art studio. And WHEREVER we go to feel good can be a place of temptation for us if it leads to us forgetting God or feeling that we can do all things by ourselves.
It’s easy for a preacher to say, and I’m sure you’ve heard it more than once, “If you experience temptation there, then don’t go there”. But since to tell you that would be to say, “avoid paradise”, I’m not going to say it. Be aware, though, that even where Paradise meets you, there will be the danger of messing it up.
WHERE THERE IS SCARCITY
The New Testament story also had a “WHERE” in it, the desert. A place where resources are scarce and people are few. The choices are pretty simple, as basic as life and death. In getting the story set up, the author of Matthew gets us to the “WHERE” pretty quickly. Following directly on mention of a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the son of God, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. By the second verse we have a time signature of forty days, and not much is left to the imagination. At the end of verse two, we’re told, flat out that “Jesus was hungry.
The “Whereness” of temptation in this story is that of scarcity, of hunger. Obviously there was hunger for food. There was also hunger for companionship, for conversation, and for meaningful work to do. Into the big holes left by these hungers, temptation came roaring. The “WHERES” of scarcity and hunger in our own lives are locations for our own temptations.
I have a car. Though my wife drives it to Chang Jung University a couple of times a week for her job, I don’t use it much, other than to go shopping for groceries on Saturday mornings. Last week Juan and Ruth Carmona came with me. We got a late start, so in between the first and second places where we were going to do our shopping, we stopped for lunch. It was a good stop, not just because the food was tasty, but because it kept us from buying too much junk food in the store.
People away from home and in a foreign place (as are many of us here) can become lonely for people who speak our own language, and we might find friends among them with whom we would never associate at home. It’s our need for companionship and the language that we hold in common that draw us to each other. In 1958 a political novel, “The Ugly American” came out. It was about the American failure in South East Asia even BEFORE the war in Vietnam. Part of the failure was that the Americans who went to deal with local people in South East Asia, diplomats, military advisors, aid workers, missionaries and others, could only communicate with each other or with the few people they found who could speak English. In the wilderness of no effective communication, they made friends with the wrong people.
Whatever it may be that we call ourselves professionally, scholars, scientists, teachers, homemakers, journalists, or whatever, our work must have meaning, or it will leave us hungry. A person in a lowly tech job, creating nothing but with all the power of cyber space at her command, may end up hacking into databases just to have something interesting to do. As a result, an evil man becomes the president of the United States of America.
Where we are hungry, we must take care not to fall to the temptation that is everywhere. 500 years ago Martin Luther compared temptation to birds that fly over our heads. He said that we can’t stop that from happening, but we CAN prevent birds from making their nests in our hair.
Going into the week ahead, 1) who we are, 2) what we do, and 3)why we do these things are all valuable to consider as we try to live righteous lives. WHERE we find ourselves might also be worth a look, too. Stay out of the desert, where hunger will make you vulnerable, but don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable with the ease of life in Taiwan, where you’ll let your guard down.
Wherever you go, wherever you find yourself, don’t forget that you are accompanied and strengthened by the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When the result of being tempted means you fall into some sort of failure or sin, remember that you are always welcome with God, who, through Christ, has forgiven every sin you have, and ever will, fall into. AMEN