As much as we would like to have a vaccine against all kinds of sin, some protection against ever taking that first step on a journey of one temptation after another, this fallen state, this human condition, this weakness of the will infects our species... ....As we pray “lead us not into temptation,” that’s not bad advice: Keep your eyes on the cross. Relax, breathe, and walk, one step at a time.
15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Of all the temptations before Jesus, it’s that first one, turning rocks into bread, that has to be the most difficult to resist.
Not just because, as Matthew tells us, “he was famished.”
But because, what harm could it do? Who would know? Nobody would notice a few rocks missing from a wilderness area. They were just sitting there not doing anybody any good. Why not try out a little of that Holy Messiah Son of God Shazam power on a few rocks, give it a good test and trial in private before going public and laying it on all those evil spirits down in the valley tormenting the people?
I have never been to the wilderness of Judea, but I have seen pictures: lots and lots of rocks. Imagine the potential. All that tilling and planting, harvesting, threshing, grinding flour, making dough, and baking? No more. “Watch this,” Jesus could say. Zap. “Here ya go, loaves of bread. Whose gonna crucify me now?”
On a radio program called Hidden Brain a couple of weeks ago, a researcher, Dan Ariely, told about his study of honesty and dishonesty. As part of his research, he interviewed staff in restaurants. He asked them, “If I wanted to leave without paying, how would I do that?”
And, after giving him a funny look, they told him all sorts of ways to wait for the staff to be distracted and walk out on the bill.
And they said it happened sometimes, but almost always it was inadvertent. The customers would most often realize what they had forgotten to do, call up the restaurant, and pay over the phone.
We have a conscience, Dr. Ariely says, and most people most of the time want to do right.
But, “when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” (That’s the apostle Paul, not the scientist.)
It’s always the first temptation, the subtle one, that people point to when they look back on a scheme gone wrong.
Dr. Ariely told this story: “Joe Papp was a cyclist. He loved cycling. He loved nothing else in the world but cycling. He was in the Olympic team, the American Olympic team. And then at some point, he went back to school to finish his degree. After a few years, went back to cycling, he goes in this race. But he feels that everybody else is slightly faster. And he's incredibly frustrated, and he cries that night. And one of his friends says, here's a name for a doctor. He goes to see this doctor - white coat and the stethoscope. And the doctor prescribes to him EPO. EPO is a drug that people use for cancer that increases the production of red blood cells - really good thing if you need energy, right? It means oxygen, basically. He goes to the pharmacy. He gives him the prescription. His insurance company pays for it. He pays the deductible. He takes it to his apartment. He gives himself the first injection - then, the next day, the next injection and so on. Eventually, it's a habit.
Then he moves to another team. He finds out that everybody else is doing it. They do it more publicly. Anyway, things continue. Then there's a shortage of EPO. But he has a friend that has connection in China, on the Chinese team. And he puts him in touch with a Chinese factory who produces EPO. He imports EPO for himself. Then his friends find out about it and ask him to import for them as well. So he imports for them as well. Eventually, he's a drug dealer. Now, if you just look at Joe Papp and you say, could I ever become a drug dealer who imports EPO, you would say no. But when you look at the first step, you would ask yourself, where exactly would we stop?
“Imagine yourself in his shoes. Like, it's the first day. You just came back to cycling. You do just as well as you thought you could. Everybody's faster. Don't you cry? Of course you do. A friend gives you an address for a physician. Don't you go? Of course you do. The physician gives you a prescription. Don't you go to fill it? Of course you do. You get the prescription. You have all these injections. Don't you try once? Of course you do. I mean, when exactly would we stop? And one of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not honest people is not necessarily character. It's opportunity, right? And if we were all in Joe's shoes, maybe we would have all been like this, exactly like that.” [Here’s the link to the whole episode: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/805808486 ]
Don’t you love it when scientists do all this research, a long hard journey down the rocky path of data and statistics and observations and logical conclusions only to reach the end of the trail and find theologians sitting around the campfire telling stories?
As much as we would like to have a vaccine against all kinds of sin, some protection against ever taking that first step on a journey of one temptation after another, this fallen state, this human condition, this weakness of the will infects our species.
These stories of temptation in Genesis and Matthew have been shaped by a long history of communities of flawed human beings with the courage to do a bit of self-assessment, to face the reality of falling short of God’s intention for us, and put it into a stylized narrative. In the story of Adam and Eve, we find a mirror—yep, that’s us, all right. Give in, blame someone else and equivocate.
In the story of Jesus, we find a story of what it looks like to live up to God’s intent for us, never to take that first step of turning a passion into an idol.
And while this story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness stands in contrast to our human experience, it also stands as a reminder—that we are not alone on this journey of discipleship. As difficult as it may be sometimes to discern the right path and take it, we have a Guide in Jesus Christ. While there is no inoculation against falling short of God’s intent for us, we have a light to our path, a lamp to our feet in Scripture.
At a Presbyterian Conference Center in the Hill Country of central Texas, Mo Ranch, there is a ropes course. It is an obstacle course designed to let people challenge themselves and one another to overcome their fears.
Obedience to Christ in an anxious time is something like walking across the high beam on the ropes course at Mo Ranch. Even when you’re wearing a helmet and a safety harness, every instinct in your mind and body tells you to look down at the ground.
But the only way across the thirty-foot telephone pole thirty feet off the ground is not to look down, but to look at a point on the horizon beyond your stopping place.
Several years ago when I attempted the high beam, the college student who coached me pointed out that beyond the post at the other end of the beam, a mile up the hill, through the live oak trees, I could just barely see the cross of the outdoor sanctuary.
“Keep your eyes on the cross,” she said, “relax, breathe, and walk, one step at a time.”
As we pray “lead us not into temptation,” that’s not bad advice: Keep your eyes on the cross. Relax, breathe, and walk, one step at a time.