Good morning. I thought we’d start off this Lenten sermon series with a reading from the Book of Joel. Not the biblical book of the Prophet Joel, but the book of Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 steps to living at your full potential.
“I am confident,” Joel writes, “If you follow these simple steps, you will be happy and fulfilled. If you’ll do your part… You’ll be able to improve your life, develop your full potential, and become the best you you can be. It’s time to begin living your best life now,”
Sounds pretty good. Pretty tempting.
Clearly it is, it’s sold over 8 million copies and Joel’s church is packed every time he preaches. This catch phrase of his has caught on too and it’s the source of the joke in the title of this Lenten sermon series. It’s because of his book that we’re calling this series “Lenting Your Best Life.”
The Gospel according to Joel is one of many examples of the kind of things which tempt us because they promise to help us feel happy and fulfilled but, when we’re honest, we know. It’s not that simple. Our problem is bigger than anything 7 simple steps can fix.
Well that’s what Lent is for, a chance to be honest, to look in the mirror again and acknowledge that we can’t just improve our life with 7 steps. The problem is bigger than that. Big enough that it requires, well, an act of God.
It is customary on the first Sunday of Lent to take up this theme of temptation. People often give up certain things during Lent like chocolate or cursing, so it makes sense for the church to bring the subject up right now, when you’re really starting to crave that freakin’ chocolate bar.
In the scheduled readings for today from the lectionary the scripture lessons all take up this theme. We’re given two stories of temptation: the temptation of the Adam and Eve in Genesis, and the temptation of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. And between them we’re given this reading from Romans which puts the stories of Adam and Christ side by side.
Now, if we are not careful, we can go to these stories looking for 7 easy steps to avoid temptation. We can ask Adam and Eve and Christ, okay, how do I reach my full potential, resist temptation, and live my best life now? So hear me. To do that would be to misunderstand these scriptures. Simple Steps to Avoid Temptation is not what the Bible or the church or God are trying to give us today. It’s something else entirely.
Adam and Eve’s story starts in a Garden. God has created them and given them everything they need. There is only one prohibition, one tree the fruit of which they are prohibited from eating. God says that on the day they eat from that tree, they will die.
Immediately Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent. “Did God say you can eat from that tree? Of course you can! Surely you will not die. In fact, you will be like God.” Did you hear those temptations? There are three of them. First, “Take, and eat. Of course you can.” That’s the temptation of self-satisfaction. Second, “Surely you will not die,” the temptation to cheat death. And third, “You will be like God.” That’s the temptation to believe in our own divinity.
“Take and eat. Cheat death. Be like God.” In other words, “Go ahead. Reach your full potential. Live your best life now.”
And so they take and eat and immediately it’s clear. Things will never be the same. They are plunged into and overtaken by shame and fear. They cover themselves and they hide from God.
God finds them hiding in the garden and breaks the news to them of the cursed existence that is their new reality, saying “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Paul puts it this way in Romans, “Sin came into the world through that one man, Adam, and Death came through sin, and Death spread to all of Adam’s descendents because all have sinned. Because of the one man’s trespass, Death exercised dominion through that one, and Sin has exercised dominion in the death of many.”
The story of Adam and Eve holds a mirror up to us and says, look, this is the truth. The problem is bigger than you. It runs deep and goes back to the very beginning. To be human is to be under the dominion of Temptation and Sin and Death. We are not just untapped potential. We are captives, bound by something bigger than us.
Adam and Eve started in the Garden having been given dominion over the earth, but they end outside of the Garden, under the dominion of Sin and Death, in the dust-blown Wilderness.
And that’s where Jesus finds them. After his baptism, Jesus was lead by the Spirit and driven into the Wilderness where he too was tempted. Not by a serpant but by Satan himself. There He’s tempted three times.
The first temptation? “Turn these stones to bread. Take, and eat.” Sound familiar? Second, “Throw yourself off this precipice. The angels will catch you, you will not die.” The temptation to cheat death. And third, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says “all these I will give you if you worship me.” That’s the temptation to be like God.
But Jesus’ response to temptation was not like Adam’s or Eve’s. There is something in him that is stronger than they were. Stronger than the power of temptation. It’s like he’s not under the dominion of sin and death. Like he lives under a different dominion. He calls this Dominion his Father in heaven: the one who satisfies, and gives life by his Word, and whose divinity has no match and need not be tested. In each temptation, he replies in faith, in obedience. And so the tempter, having been bested, departs.
But he’s not gone forever. The lectionary gives us this story from Matthew 4 today, but it’s not the story Paul actually refers to in Romans 5. When Paul says, “for just as by the one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (Christ) the many will be made righteous,” he’s not just talking about Jesus’ obedience in the Wilderness. He’s talking about the cross.
The story of Christ’s temptation in the Wilderness isn’t the conclusion of Christ’s temptation, it’s just the beginning, it foreshadows what is to come. Paul says that this one man’s obedience by which many are made righteous wasn’t just Christ’s obedience in the Wilderness, it was his obedience in his crucifixion.
Christ’s ultimate temptation comes not at the tree of Good and Evil but on tree that is his cross where again he’s tempted three times. First he’s tempted with wine to dull his pain. “Take and drink.” He refuses. Next onlookers cry out “you saved others, save yourself.” He’s tempted again to cheat death. He refuses. Finally the religious leaders say “just come down from the cross and we will bow down and worship you, like a God.” He refuses. And he dies.
At first it seems he dies a failure. He was full of potential, but clearly he did not live his best life. And it seems as if, despite his obedience, the Dominion of Sin and Death have won. Until the third day when early on the first day of the week it is the Risen Christ in Matthew who announces what has come to pass.
Speaking to his disciples he explains, “All dominion in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” Obedient in death he has been raised to Eternal Life and holds the keys of Hell and Death. The Dominion that held humanity captive has been overthrown. How fitting then, that the Risen Christ in the gospel of John is found by Mary Magdelene who at first mistakes him for the gardner, for Christ has come to meet Adam and Eve in the Wilderness to get them back to the garden.
This is more than just 7 simple steps on how to resist temptation during Lent. This is the overthrowing of one dominion by another and the restoration of the first Adam by the Second. This isn’t instructions on how to live your best life now, this is the free gift of an entirely New Life, a New World Order.
Paul writes, “Just as one man’s sin led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
A member of our church, Marc Thompson, has been away for a couple weeks. He’s been spending time with his uncle Don who at 91 is in his last days of life. Marc reports that, nearing the end, Don was starting to feel worried, fearful really, about what was going to happen to him in his death.
Marc said, “Don was worried because he knew he hadn’t necessarily lived the best life, he was worried of what God would think of him, ashamed and afraid.”
And so Marc, for a couple weeks now, has been by Don’s side ministering to him. There’s really no other word for it. He’s been ministering to him, hearing his concerns, wiping away his tears, and trying really hard to help him hear the Good News. There’s only one other problem, Don’s Catholic. So, his nice Methodist nephew can say it all he wants, but he also wanted to receive Last Rites.
Do you know what Last Rites are? It’s a set of three sacraments that are offered one last time to someone in the hour of their death. There are three of them. Sound familiar? First, there’s the sacrament of confession and pardon in which Don acknowledged that he is not like God after which he was assured of his forgiveness through the righteous obedience of Christ.
Second there’s the sacrament of anointing with oil, through which Don was annointed, clothed by God in Christ’s own life, as he was in baptism, and marked with the sign of his cross so that Don will be fortified not to cheat death, but to face it through Christ whose power over death is given to Don for free.
And finally, the last rite is the gift of Holy Communion, offered for the last time, with the words “Take, and eat,” and “Take, and drink.” Not the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, but the fruit of the tree that is Christ’s Cross. Christ’s body, given for him.
In these three last rites, the same things that tempted Adam were offered to Don for free in Christ.
[Update: Don passed away on Monday, the day after this sermon was offered]
What has happened in Christ is the overthrow of one Dominion by another.
Hear the Good News: I am not here to give you seven steps to life your best life now. Instead I am here on behalf of the church, which is here on behalf of Christ, to give you new life, given for you for free: Christ’s life, which is the power of Grace over Sin, and Life over Death. Repent and believe this Gospel.