Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent 1, March 13: The Keys of the Kingdom: Unlocking Satan's Riddles

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 83.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

The serpent in the garden is not evil by nature. The serpent is innocent until we give it power, until we believe it. The serpent gives voice to the attraction of the world, to the allure of nature, to the mystique of our desires and the seduction of our potentials. Our appetites distract us from the special devotion of our species to God, our flesh diverts us from the obedience to God which comes with the special station of Homo sapiens on the earth. The voice confuses good and evil. The voice makes a riddle of our meaning in the world and of our relationship to God.

The Genesis story is always true. It’s a paradigm story, we repeat it all the time. In the Garden the voice was a serpent, today it is the good life, or economic growth, or the best for our children, whatever. It is attractive and reasonable. It never actually lies; it just never tells the whole truth. It speaks for the wisdom of the world, and for the certainties of experience, and for social science in the expertise of its small capacity. You can never answer this voice from within the world. The Genesis story is always true: from our life within the world we keep failing to solve the riddles of our existence and the riddle of good and evil. The only way to solve these riddles is from a perspective from outside the world but which still includes it, the perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven. The keys of the Kingdom unlock the riddles of good and evil in the world.

Our gospel lesson takes place just after Jesus’ baptism, just after he heard the voice from heaven call him the Son of God. That title confirmed him as the Messiah, the heir of David, the rightful King of the Jews in whose reign the Living God would come again and dwell with them. Okay, so now what? Do it like David? Like Alexander the Great? Solomon began his reign by going on retreat to a lovely place to seek the will of God. Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray. More like Moses and Elijah.

His temptations are not three easy choices. The hardest temptations are not the ones to do what’s clearly evil, but to choose the wrong good, which might be good by other rules. The devil dares him, “If you’re the Son of God, then act like it. Shouldn’t you be doing miracles? Back in the Exodus, didn’t your Father make bread in the wilderness? If you saw 5000 hungry people and you had on hand only five loaves and two fishes, wouldn’t you do a miracle?” Your followers will pray to you for help when they are suffering. Wouldn’t you use your power to help them?

Jesus is determining the policies of his Kingdom. Yes, he will do miracles but not to save himself or win his people’s loyalty. He will prove himself in the world not by breaking the laws of nature but by simple obedience, by faithfulness to the Word of God, even at great cost. Jesus’ perfection is a moral perfection—not in being a superman or invulnerable, but in his faithfulness to the Word of God. He believes that the Word of God is the moral diet of ordinary human beings. That’s the first key of his kingdom, the key that is the word of God, which opens many riddles in the world, by which we know what’s good and evil in the world, which opens the mysteries of our own lives and our experience.

But opening this riddle leads right to another. Satan says, “Oh, ‘every’ word of God? Well, how about this one: it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you.’ Live by that word, Jesus, abandon yourself to God’s incredible promises, I dare you. Why aren’t you jumping? Do you doubt the promise of your Father to rescue you?” Where is your God? Where is your faith?

The riddle uses scripture, but it’s a trick. This is not a true-to-life example of how we have to put our trust in God. It’s not for getting rescued whenever we’re in a scrape or for having a nice and easy life. To use our tie with God to play with God for a comfort of our own is “tempting God,” as Jesus calls it here. The special care of God for us is for the purpose of enhancing our mission. God’s special care for us is our incentive to risk a life of love and service, which love and service will probably lead to what, from the perspective of the world, might look like an increase in our suffering. The purpose of God’s special care for us is to get us through the suffering that comes with our mission, not to keep us comfortable.

Jesus does not accept this dare, this artificial test. But three years later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he will pass an even harder test in this same subject. He will take the test upon the cross, he will have to enter the cold, dark door of death as if it’s his Father’s warm and loving care. He will trust in a silent and distant God without resorting to the supernatural. He will submit to all that we endure, and he will ask no miracle of God to free him from the burden of ordinary human existence. Because he has a key—the key that God’s will for us contains God’s care for us, and that God’s care for us does not exempt us from the realities of our humanity, but gets us through the realities of our humanity for the sake of our mission and to do God’s will.

Unlocking the second riddle leads you to the third. “Okay, so you’re not going to resort to any special power, you’re going to accept your limitations and be righteous within them. That means you’re going to lose. Our side has the power, we are in control. We will beat you, we will bury you. So be realistic and make your peace with the powers of the world. I’ll even make you Number Two, I’ll let you run the whole thing. You can save your people just like Joseph did in Egypt when he was Number Two. It’s Biblical. I’ll be Pharaoh, you be Joseph.”

The voice that every single politician listens to. The voice of the powers and principalities that tell you they control the world. In the Bible, the devil is not a voice from hell, he doesn’t even live in hell (that will be the place of his punishment). The devil dwells on the surface of the ground, like the serpent in the Garden, but the original innocence of the serpent has been corrupted by all the human evil since Adam.

The voice now has the pride of its misery, it has sophisticated doubt and well-developed deconstruction, it has angry ingenuity and bitter independence. It seems more real, while obedience is less glamourous, less heroic, less cool. It feels that way to me. I don’t want to be out of it with the world. I want to fit in. I want to enjoy it, I want to be included.

The third key is to worship God. To honor God and pledge to God your absolute loyalty, to confess your other loyalties and be released from them. The worship of God is not just praise, but also the of confession and absolution. This key unlocks so much. Because you have riddles in your life that Adam did not have, the riddle of your guilt, the problem we hold up high in Lent. Look, we have just read the Sermon on the Mount, and heard the teachings of Jesus, and we’ve had described the way of life that we must live inside the Kingdom of Heaven, and we recognize that we fall short, and we confess our guilt. And even by the standards of the ordinary world you feel your guilt. Your guilt and frustration can drive you to even greater doubt and unbelief than if you’d never heard of God. The voice of the serpent is most powerful when it reminds you of the truth of your guilt, as the problem you cannot solve. But it’s not the whole truth.

The whole truth is only known from the news that comes beyond the world, the good news that Jesus not only taught us but also suffered for our redemption and forgiveness. The weekly promise of the gospel is the theme of our worship, the key that unlocks this riddle to open the mystery of grace in our own lives, the mystery of Christ in our place, the mystery of lavish love, the mystery of the world that finds its meaning and its truth in the love of God which overcomes the world.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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