Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The "Voice" is a Liar

The “Voice” is a Liar
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11[1]
  Among the many voices that compete for our attention in this world, some of the most difficult ones are the voices inside us.  We all have those inner voices.  You know them as well as I do.  There is the voice of fear that says, “There’s no place I can feel really safe.”  Or the voice of condemnation that says, “No matter what I do, it will never be good enough.”  Or the voice of shame that says, “I’ll never be worthy of love.”  Those voices are drilled into us by our culture, and they’re incredibly hard to ignore, let alone unlearn.  But those voices are all lying to us.  Because the truth is that we are already safe in God’s hands; everything we do is good enough for the God who loves us without our having to do anything to be “worthy.”
  There’s another voice that we all have faced from time to time.  It’s the voice of temptation.  It’s the voice that says, “You know you want it, so go for it.”  It’s a voice that comes to us in situations that can be mundane as well as  those that have life-long consequences.  Essentially, it’s the same voice our original parents heard in the Garden.  When the tempter came to them, he lied to them.  But he did so in ways that made it really hard to recognize that he was lying to them.  Notice how cunning the tempter was.  First, he distorted God’s original instruction to them.[2]  God’s voice said “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2:16), except for one.[3]  But the tempter made it sound as if any restriction was unfair: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (3:1).
  Next the tempter made God out to be a liar.  God had warned Adam that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die (2:17).  But the tempter flatly contradicted that: “You will not die” (3:4).  And, in fact they didn’t die the moment they ate.  But they did bring death into that beautiful garden.[4]  As if that were not enough, the tempter proceeded to call God’s motives into question, implying that God was trying to keep something great and wonderful from them: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).[5]  The truth of the matter is that they were already “like God” in all the ways that mattered, because they had been created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27).  But the voice of temptation always makes it hard to recognize that it’s lying. Just like the other voices that can trouble us, the voice of temptation is a liar.  It’s always a liar.[6]
  In our other temptation story for today, Jesus seems to handle the tempter’s voice with great ease, as if the temptations presented to him were no real challenge at all.  And yet, if we were to think that, we would miss an important truth about this temptation story.  As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are” (Heb. 4:15).[7]  If we think that he didn’t want to turn those stones to bread after fasting for forty days and nights, it’s only because we’ve never fasted that long. 
  Interestingly, the tempter’s strategy was the same with Jesus as it had been in garden.  First, he planted a seed of doubt about whether Jesus could trust the voice at his Baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).[8]  The tempter tried to get Jesus to doubt that declaration by talking him into indulging his hunger: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4:3).  But Jesus responded with the voice of truth from the Torah: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4, quoting Dt. 8:3).[9] 
  Next, the tempter shifts to the strategy of distorting God’s voice.  He took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and quoted from the Psalms: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (4:6, quoting Ps. 91:11-12).  But despite the fact that Jesus had the need for validation just like every other human being, he also knew that this wasn’t the way to get it.  And so he turned again to the voice of truth in the Torah: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7, quoting Dt. 6:16).[10]
  Finally, the tempter goes all out and challenges not only God’s motives but also Jesus’ intentions.  Jesus had come to transform the “Kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15) by stripping the power from evil on the cross.  He knew this was the reason God had sent him in the first place.  So the tempter offered Jesus an “easier” path: showing him all the kingdoms of the world he said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (4:9).[11]  As if they were his to give!  And as if it was not Jesus’ destiny to become the one at whose name “every knee shall bow” as a result of his death on the cross.[12]  But Jesus saw through the tempter’s ruse and again answered with the voice of truth from the Torah: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (4:10, quoting Dt. 6:13).  As in the story of the temptation in the Garden, so here the tempter was a liar.  In every scheme, every pretense, every aspect of the sham he tried to perpetrate, the voice of the tempter was lying.
  That is true for us as well.  As we enter the season of Lent, I think it would be helpful to take a look at how well we tell the difference between the voices that are lying to us and the those that speak truth.  It’s never easy, because the lying voices play on our doubts and our weaknesses and our failures in an attempt to convince us they’re telling us the real truth.  But in the end, those voices are always lying to us.  The voice that speaks truth is the one that tells us we’re accepted and loved.  The voice that speaks truth is the one that reminds us that we are precious and of inestimable worth in God’s sight.[13]  The voice that speaks truth is the one that points us toward what is good for us, and right, and life-giving.  That’s the voice we need to be listening for.  That’s the voice that will help us recognize that the other voice is a liar.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/9/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 47, where he points out that the interplay in this passage “serves to invert the realities ordained by God."  He also says (p. 48), that in the tempter’s approach, “there’s just enough of a twist to miss the point” of God’s original voice.
[3] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters Bible I:351: “To be truly a creature entails limits; to honor limits becomes necessary if creation will develop as God intends.  Yet, while the language takes the form of command, the issue involves trust in the word of God.” At the same time, the freedom to disobey was also a part of the creation (p. 365): “The temptation to reach beyond the limits of creatureliness belongs to created existence for the sake of human integrity and freedom.” Cf. similarly, Brueggemann, 48: the matter of death in the original prohibition “was not a threat but a candid acknowledgement of a boundary of life.”
[4] Cf. Fretheim, “Genesis” NIB I:352, where he points out that they were already mortal beings, so “It may be that death (and life) has a comprehensive meaning in this story ..., associated with the breakdown of relationships to God, to each other, and to the created order.”  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2.607, is more direct when he says at the conclusion of a long exposition that “the finitude of human life stands in fact in the shadow of its guilt. What else can death be for sinful man but the sign of God’s judgment, and therefore—if man is indeed not created to be a sinner or to suffer God’s judgment—not a divinely willed and created determination natural to his being, but an alien intrusion?”  To be sure, Barth’s conclusions are heavily influenced by Pauline theology, and especially by Barth’s understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross.
[5] Cf. Fretheim, “Genesis” NIB I:361: “The serpent engages in no coercion here, no arm-twisting, no enticement through presentation of fruit from the tree; everything happens through words.  The word of the serpent ends up putting the word of God in question.”  And he points out that the question is whether they can trust that God has their best interests at heart in restricting them from this particular tree.
[6] Cf. Brueggemann, 52, who points out that the crux of this temptation was about trust in God.  He says, “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets and who eagerly punishes the disobedient.”  Rather the point is that “there is something to life which remains hidden and inscrutable, and which will not be trampled upon by human power or knowledge.”
[7] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 26, where he says that the “basic underlying temptation” that Jesus shared with all the ones we face is “the temptation to treat God as less than God.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:165: here Matthew depicts Jesus as “one who fully shares the weakness of our human situation (cf. Phil 2:5-11; Heb. 2:5-18).  The picture of Jesus as the obedient Son of God does not abolish or compromise the image of Jesus as truly human.”
[8] Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 367: the question at issue in the temptation is “How should Jesus exercise his power as Son of God?  The answer is, In obedience to God.” Cf.  also Hare, Matthew, 23; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 92-93.
[9] Cf. Hare, Matthew, 24: unlike Israel in the wilderness, this “Son of God” “refuses to give way to mistrust.”  Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 362.
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 367: “The Father in heaven is not to be compelled; rather should every deed be an obedient reaction to what he has willed, a submissive response to divine initiative.” Cf. also Hare, Matthew, 25
[11] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 260-63, where he points out that all the temptations were intended to persuade Jesus to violate God’s purpose.  Cf. similarly, Moltmann, Way of Jesus93: “Filled with the Spirit, Jesus becomes the messianic Son of God; but through the temptations into which this same Spirit leads him, he is denied the economic, political and religious means for a ‘seizure of power’. Here, that is to say, his passion in helplessness is prefigured: his victory comes through suffering and death.”
[12] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 369-70: Jesus rejects this temptation because “Only after the passion, and then only from the Father in heaven, can Jesus accept all authority.”
[13] Cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 187: "Human life has eternal value because it is loved and accepted by God."

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