Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The ancients had a little richer vocabulary than we do, and didn’t seem to have the same semantic problems we do with these stories. The word used in Matthew’s gospel to describe Jesus’ ordeal can have the negative connotations of “temptation” or “test”—to try to cause someone to sin—but it also can also have more positive connotations, like proving the quality of or refining something.
In this sense, testing can be a way of preparation. Think of it this way: if you are preparing for a written driving test or the SATs, you might take practice tests. As we go through school, we face a myriad of tests which are intended not only to evaluate our progress, but to teach us, to prepare us for life beyond graduation. In the same way, the tests we see in Scripture are not God trying to trip us up or see if we are good enough, but are often milestones along the way to what God has in store.
This is why one reason why testing (temptation) has historically been such a big part of the Church’s Lenten practice. Those who choose to give up chocolate or sugar or whatever don’t do it so that they can lose weight, but in order to experience temptation and to practice resisting it. The idea is that if we can practice resisting that desire for instant gratification in small ways we might be able to better prepare ourselves to resist temptation in larger ways that might help us be better followers of Christ.
The story in Genesis shows how we are prone to give in to temptation. Even though God told the humans not to eat from the tree, they couldn’t get past how beautiful it was, how desirable its wisdom was. While the snake puts the idea in their heads, they choose to disobey; and it was that disobedience, Paul says, spread to all humanity—and through that disobedience came death.
Just as the Genesis story is about how prone we are to failure, the story in Matthew’s gospel proves that we are capable of more. In the wilderness, Jesus shows us that when we trust in God it is possible for human beings to choose life and obedience. When he was offered the same opportunity as Adam and Eve—to trust in his own authority and power rather than God’s—he refused. Not only that, but Jesus was weak and starving; Adam and Even wanted for nothing and still made a poor choice.
As all biblical stories do, these stories both operate on multiple levels. On the one hand, the story of Adam and Eve is a just-so story about why we make bad choices. It’s in our DNA; we can’t help it. Jesus’ ability to resist temptation in the wilderness shows us why he is worth listening to; even at his weakest, he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed.
Taken together, these stories show us the arc of a narrative that describes how God is preparing humanity for the kingdom of heaven. Each of these temptations—these tests—is helping prepare humankind for what is to come. It was Adam’s failure that set the stage for Jesus’ success. Adam the human failed in the garden, Christ the human Son of God succeeded in the wilderness, and now as we each face the same tests they did, we learn from the examples of each and, with God’s help, we corporately continue to move closer and closer to the vision of wholeness that God has always had for all creation.
None of us is born a finished product. Throughout our lives—right up until we take our final breath—we are always growing and changing. Creation is the same way, evolving over generations and across millennia, always in a process of transforming into something new. It only makes sense that God created humanity to be the same way. Our faith is not a destination, but a journey: throughout the course of human history, we have always been and always will be journeying through the wilderness, facing new and different temptations.
Even Jesus himself—God’s own son—had to be prepared for his work with the trials in the wilderness. The question at stake in these temptations is not whether he is really the Son of God, but what it means to be the Son of God. He could have created bread from stones, feeding not only his own starving body, but the whole world, taking away hunger and poverty forever, but he chose instead to rely on the power of God’s word for sustenance. He could have leapt from the temple and proved to himself and all who saw that God would rescue him from the worst that could befall, but he chose instead to trust that God would protect him if and when the time came, that neither he nor anyone else needed that proof. He could have ruled the whole world as he saw fit, but he chose instead to trust that God will—in spite of all evidence to the contrary—accomplish what God has set out to do from the beginning: God will redeem all creation in God’s own way and in God’s own time.
Even when we inevitably fail our own tests along this wilderness journey, we know that God is with us, sustaining us, like God sustained Christ. Like Adam and Eve, even when our failures bring dire consequences, we know that God remains with us. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” Paul writes, “For just as by [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by [Jesus’] obedience the many will be made righteous.”
We are tested and tempted daily; sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail; but with every success—and every failure—God is preparing us and shaping us into the kind of people that God has created us to become. The free gift of God’s grace means that God takes even our failures—failures like our rejection of God’s Son on the cross—and uses them to bring us closer to God’s promised vision of wholeness for creation. “[T]he free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”
Christ has shown us not what we are capable of, but what God is capable of through us. From the beginning, all we Adams and Eves have known failure like our parents in the garden before us; but Jesus in the wilderness and on the cross, shows us how God uses even our failures to bring about God’s ultimate success. Along our wilderness journey, as God prepares us for the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has given us his own self to sustain and nourish us. The failure of the Old Adam within each of us brings death, but in baptism we have already shared that death with Jesus. Raised to new life with him, we are now free to follow Christ without fear of what happens when we fail.
The choices we make are still important, but not because we will die if we are wrong. The choices we make along the way are important because, without the threat of death hanging over us, we are freed to boldly follow wherever God my lead—even through the cross—knowing that eternal life is ours through Christ who saves us.