Testing the Limits

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
March 5, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 4:1-11

In January, when you see the little girls of the neighborhood approaching your door with their form in hand, you know what they are selling, right?  They are selling cookies. Girl Scout cookies  Little boxes of temptation.

And in the fall, when the Boy Scouts are camped out with their card tables at the entrance to Kroger, we know what they are selling too. right?.  Overpriced, but very delicious flavors of popcorn.

Mid-summer...at the entrance to Walmart...when you see Lebanon High School football players lurking around, it's pretty likely they are selling their football discount cards.

Most of the time, we know what people are selling...so it should come as no surprise that when the devil, Satan, the tempter ...whatever you title you prefer to call him...when he shows up in scripture, we know what he's selling too.  He's trying to convince humans that we can have it all.  Whatever "it" might be.  That we can have it without restriction or limitation.   We can have all the power...fame...fortune.  That we can have the freedom to be selfish without regard for others or fear of consequences.  

The personification of evil that we often call the devil...you know, the devil made me do it guy...we can be pretty sure that when he shows up he trying to convince us to buy a story for our lives different than the one God has written.  He works really hard to sell us on the idea that we can take matters in our own hands and have the same power...the same knowledge and insight...the same everything as God.  He wants us to believe we can move beyond your limited humanness so we can be like God.

That's exactly what he was selling in the story of Adam and Eve that I shared with the children this morning.   Now, let me just say one thing...to make it clear...Adam was right there with Eve when the serpent slyly twisted words like a salesman to convince Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.   Yes...Adam was there...Eve does not deserve to take the whole rap for the fall of humankind.   In fact, if we examine Genesis closely we would discover that God issued the limitation on the tree at the center of the garden BEFORE Eve even existed.  He told it to Adam before he create Eve.  We assume then, that it was Adam who conveyed the restriction to Eve.  So, although the sneaky dialogue is with Eve...like many wives, it's clear that she was speaking for both of them.  And Adam did not try to stop her from eating the fruit.  So, really, he needs to take some responsibility too.   He had the chance to say no...but he didn't.

Neither of them did.   Apparently part of being human includes an innate desire to not be!  We don't like being limited.   We're like the toddlers in Ms. Rose's classroom.  Earlier this week I was in the lunch area when the toddlers were having lunch.  The stream of conversation from Ms. Rose was something like this - with the names changed, of course.  Bobby, you need to sit in your own chair.  Billy is sitting in that one.   Susie...that is Sally's lunch...you need to eat the food on your plate.  Johnny...the noodles go in your mouth, not Tommy's hair.  And my personal favorite...no, Jack, we don't dip our food in our friend's jelly.

Well....yes, true...most of us have much better table manners than the toddlers...but that inner desire to test the limits hasn't changed much.  We just test them in different ways.   Still we are tempted to have more than we have...to be more than we are...to control more than we can...to know more...to do more...more, more, more. 

The voice that speaks to us and tries to get us to believe that all of this (and more) is possible...the one that says we can be like God...isn't necessarily a snake or a devil with little horns...in fact, it's not really visible, is it?  But it's no less real than if we could see and touch it.  It's real, but it's just in our heads...it's the voice that tells us that who we are is not enough.  That we need more.  We deserve better.  We are being stifled by our limitations.   The evil one wants us...you...me...the church... to believe we are not enough.  And quite honestly, while the voice is in our heads, it is there for good reason.

The world keeps putting it there.   

And we keep believing it.  Oh, maybe not up here in the front and center...but back here...nagging at us...until we start to act upon that belief.  Eventually friends, if we believe we are not enough, we will choose unwisely.

We will choose to act in ways that hurt ourselves.  We choose ways that hurt others.  We choose things that are destructive and dangerous.  We choose to gain for ourselves...to protect ourselves...to give ourselves whatever we want...to meet our desires...and we end up creating a whole lot of pain in the process. 

That seems to be the point of the story of Adam and Eve...when we are tempted to go beyond our own limitedness, to be like God...somebody (or in their case a whole lot of somebodies...like all of humanity) ends up suffering.

When we internalize the message that "who" we are is not enough an emptiness is created in us...when we internalize the message that we, and not God, must fill that void...we develop an insatiable appetite for the cake that the devil is selling.  We crave the sweetness of having it all -- abundance, power and control -- in order to try to feed the emptiness within us.  Limited humans try to fill the void of self-doubt by testing the limits of wholeness and peace that God has given us.  We want to become limitless.  It's the forbidden fruit that tempted Adam and Eve...and it is the fruit that still tempts us today.

In fact, it seems to be the only true temptation that the devil has in his toolbox...can he create an emptiness in us in order to get us to trust in our own ability to fill it. Can he tempt us to go beyond the limits God has placed on us?  In a sense that's exactly what he was doing here with Jesus, too.  Could he convince Jesus to act beyond the limits that God had placed on him. 

Now here's the thing...we all know that the Son of God is not limited.  His knowledge or his authority or his power...all of those things will later prove to be unlimited.  No, the limitation or boundary that Satan is trying to get Jesus to cross is with his identity. 

Keep in mind that this wilderness experience occurs right after Jesus has just been baptized and God has anointed him saying...this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.  Jesus' identity..and authority has been made quite clear.   So, trust me, this devil-tempter knows very good and well who Jesus is...without a doubt.  He is however, trying to get Jesus to doubt it. 

The devil can't really tap into the emptiness in Jesus like he can humans.  I mean, Jesus is God's son, there is no void there.  Instead, Satan capitalizes on Jesus' hunger and weakness and exhaustion from the 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.  He's hoping for a void that Jesus will fill by proving his identity...again, there's that proving thing again...but not just proving he is the Son of God...but by misusing that identity for his own selfish gain. 

It's the same pattern as with Adam and Eve.  Jesus is being tempted to take matters into his own hands and make his situation better...even if it means making unwise, unholy, not trusting God kind of choices.  

The devil sets Jesus up three times...trying to get him to respond selfishly...to break the limits of God natural order...to seek abundance and power for himself...to operate outside the will and desire of God. 

Sounds familiar? 

It should...because you know what...when it comes to cooking up temptation, evil is pretty much limited to that one recipe. 

The good news for us today is that we know the recipe...and we have a Lord and Savior who knows it too.  We follow Jesus the Christ who faced temptation and stared it down without giving in.    We are not always as capable...but the closer we are to God...as Jesus was...the stronger we will be.

As we sit here at the beginning of our Lenten journey...this is an inspiring story.   We are reassured that by relying on God we can overcome the temptation to eat the dessert or drink the beverage that we gave up for Lent.  With God's help, we can resist the urge to go lax on our Lenten discipline of quiet time, or Bible study, or no political posting on FaceBook for 40 days.

But to what end?

The season of Lent is about a lot more than fasting and spiritual disciplines.  It's about facing the reality that we are limited...that we fail...that we are dust and to dust we will return...that we are not God.   At the same time, it's being at peace with this reality because God is God...and we know that we belong to him...that his love and mercy for us is unlimited.  Lent is a time of walking a dark and difficult road...toward a cross of sacrifice...with the light of hope and the promise that we are not alone.

The temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden...that's the story of who we are.  We are flawed...we fail...we are guilty of disobeying God...of testing all the good limits.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the story of he is.  Obedient...trusting...willing to suffer for righteousness...never greedy or self-serving...unwilling to test God or the limits of God's plans.  He is the beloved Son of God, unlimited in power and authority, who would limit both in human flesh so that we would know that in him "who we are" is enough...that "whose" we are is God's.   

Both stories reveal that we belong to a God who is always with us when we are tempted...who loves us - even when fail...who is faithful to us just as we are...and whose grace makes us "enough".

If we can learn to believe that...we, too, will send temptation packing:  Away with you Satan...for it is written:  "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."