“Pulled Off Our Center,” March 1, 2020, The Rev. Daniel Simons
Sermon preached by the Reverend Daniel Simons
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
We’ve all probably felt the experience in life of being “played.” When somebody has an agenda for you that serves their own ends, and their agenda in part depends on you not fully knowing what that agenda is, and playing into their game. It’s a game you wouldn’t pay on those terms if you knew what was going on.
It’s pretty much what advertising depends on. The marketer needs you to need something that you didn’t know you needed a minute ago. Like that new car, or that skin toner what will make all your blemishes go away.
And sometimes we do know that we are being played, and we go along with it anyway, because there is some payoff in it for us.
This is what is happening in the story of the Garden of Eden, and in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
The serpent plays Adam and Eve, saying: ‘You will not die. God told you that so you would stay away from the REAL power: knowing good from evil — and that’s a good thing, right? And when you know that, you’ll be wise like God — and wouldn’t that be a good thing?’
‘Well… I guess so’ Adam and Eve think — ‘it is shiny and nice to look at, and it would make us, smart and pretty and cool’ — and by then they have already been played, and are playing themselves. They are trading away this formula that is at the core of Hebrew/Jewish religion (which I talked about in my first sermon — total dependance and total abundance — for independence from their source. It’s a creation story of its own — the creation of the small separate self.
Adam and Eve find that gift of knowing good from evil is a very mixed bag. The first thing they experience is their nakedness, their vulnerability as shameful. It’s the beginning of the “you’re not enough” and “you don’t belong” script I spoke of last week. It’s a tragic story.
The story of Jesus heading out into the wilderness is exactly and intentionally the opposite of the Eden story. (and remember, everything we read is a story-sermons of the early church — wisdom in color, or in chewable form.)
The wilderness in Jewish and early Christian imagination was not primarily a place of desolation. It’s like the mountain of the Transfiguration from last week: it is the place of spiritual encounter, where the air is thin, the schedule is uncluttered, there is no wifi, and unseen reality becomes visible. Notice the story says it’s the Spirit that carries Jesus there; that’s a give-away that we’re in vision-quest space.
Once in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by “the devil.”
Now, those might be trigger words. “I don’t believe in the devil, so how can I take this seriously?” It’s signaled up front that this is wisdom teaching: the story comes in threes, and it’s presented as a vision-quest, an interior journey that’s full of symbol.
And a word about the devil. Don’t think horns and tail — that’s medieval not biblical imagination. Satan is not a proper name of someone, it’s a function. The Hebrew ha satan simply means “the accuser.” It’s the very sensible realization that there are forces out there that are playing us against ourselves. Sometimes they feel external; sometimes they feel internal.
So let’s listen to it in this way. Three temptations:
— If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread
— If you are the Son of God, jump from the temple and let the angels catch you
— You can rule the kingdoms of the earth if you bow down to me.
Henri Nouwen wrote that these are the three leadership temptations to be Relevant, Spectacular, and Powerful, and that seems right on the mark.
“If you are the beloved child of God, then prove it, the accuser, the ha satan, says.”
Jesus is tempted to NOT believe what God has just said about him at his baptism: “You are my beloved.” It’s the same temptation as the Garden of Eden, to believe that you are not enough.
Is that really true?… Just think this through on your own… — the little voice on the shoulder says.
The devil is playing Jesus; if the accuser can pull Jesus off his center, without him realizing it, if the devil can separate Jesus from what he knows to be true about himself, that he is the beloved of God, then Oh! the places they’ll go! —to hell and beyond.
Jesus sees through this lure. His responses say in effect: ‘If I truly am the Beloved of God, why would I need to prove that to anyone? This is my foundation; it needs no justification or outside approval.’
And he does the opposite of what Adam and Eve do in thinking it through on their own; he quotes scripture. And the point of this detail is not to recommend Bible verse battles, (like I was trained to do.)
It’s this: to show that even Jesus, the Christ, finds his total dependence in the Source, the Presence, pure Being, God, whatever you want to call it. Any other imagined source is a lie.
The last temptation drives this home: “If you want to rule the world, you’ll need to bow down to me.”
It doesn’t get much more direct than that. At the top of the world is a domination system, and if you want in, you have to play it this way.
And Jesus responds equally directly: “Worship God and only God.”
And notice what happens in the story: with that declaration, that alignment with Reality-capital-R, the devil – – vanishes.
And notice what else happens: “And suddenly,” goes the story, “angels came and waited on him.”
That’s the second half of that ancient Hebrew creed of total dependance and overflowing abundance:
Those who go through the desolate valley,
shall find it a place of springs,
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
(from Psalm 84)
Jesus had power over temptation —
not because he had Superman powers;
not because he could out-quote the devil’s bible verses,
not because he was missing some gene that made him ego-less,
— those are all separate-self powers —
—but because he stayed in the flow of God, utterly dependent, and immersed in the belovedness that was given to him at his baptism.
This is what will power us through. This is the only thing that will power us through, without either being ground up by, or coopted by, the domination systems of this world.
This power is not esoteric wisdom, it’s not exclusive, it’s common and available to us all in every moment of every day.
So why don’t our lives look like Jesus’ life?
Well, the story we’ll soon be telling in Holy Week shows us that it requires our death — meaning the death of the small separate self, the ego-self that doesn’t want to ever die or be displaced or be accused, and which will do everything to protect itself, including accusing others, scapegoating, playing others. And of course when we do this we get played; we get pulled off our center into a world of scarcity and anxiety.
And if we try to get back on center by trying harder, it’s a little like New Year’s resolutions that seldom stick. It’s like the Garden of Eden story, where having the knowledge of good and evil just makes us aware of how naked and ashamed we are.
Maybe when we bottom out we will try it like Jesus does: “Worship God and God alone.” I think that’s his way of saying: ‘Don’t do; just BE.’ That’s what worship is.
‘Be aware that you are always and forever already in God; inseparable even if you have cut yourself off. Be beloved. Not: Be lovable. But sink into your belovedness. Allow for that possibility to be true. That’s what we come to church to remind ourselves of week by week, because we forget so easily.
Every week after the sermon we sit in silence to reflect on what we have heard in scripture. That combination of Scripture and reflection exposes our misalignments and invites us back into awareness of the Grace that surrounds us like the breath of God.
So here’s a question I’m inviting us all to sit with for a couple of minutes:
Where in your life are you becoming aware that you are being played, either by external forces or internal forces — where are you being pulled off your center in ways that are not serving you well? And what might be the invitation back to God, back to your center, look like for you now?
Let’s sit with that question for a couple of minutes, and listen to the Spirit speaking within us in the silence.