“Who Will You Listen To?”
February 26, 2023
Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘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.” ’Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
In the email blast that goes out before every worship, I gave you a hint of what we would be talking about today, as I usually do. I reported this: In the Gospels, Jesus is asked 187 questions. How many of those questions does he answer? Maybe 8 of them. How many questions does he ask himself? 307.
Maybe faith isn't about certainty, but about learning to ask good questions.
Maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but about learning to ask questions.
Spend time around any child and you’ll soon see they understand the value of a good question, too. Why is the sky blue? Why do animals have fur? What makes ice cream so delicious? Where do cats learn to meow? And then you when every answer to their question is followed by a “but why?” and a “but why?” you realize that children have perfected the art of wondering. It’s how their minds and imaginations make sense of the world.
While it comes naturally for children, though, the art of wondering fades as we grow older. After our schooling is done, we think we’ve learned it all and we tend to stop asking questions. In certain circles, oftentimes even in churches, it has been ingrained into us that questioning can be a disrespectful expression of doubt. We don’t want to offend anyone, especially God, or other authorities by letting them know that the information given to us sometimes leaves us with questions. Sometimes we don’t fully understand. It can be embarrassing and fill us with shame especially when it seems like everyone around us understands it all perfectly fine.
And yet, a world and a church where questions are not welcome is an environment that has closed itself off to mystery, particularly the transcendent mystery of God. This Lent, we are seeking a better way. A way that follows in Jesus’ footsteps to deepen our faith by asking questions that don’t necessarily always have answers. Lent is usually a time we set apart for growing closer to God. We use spiritual disciplines to help us with this. Traditional ones are fasting, praying and studying the Bible. But what if we treated wonder and seeking as a spiritual discipline itself? The definition of a spiritual discipline is a habit or a practice that strengthens one’s spirit and builds the character of one’s inner life. Particularly in Lent, we look for spiritual disciplines that stretch us and make us a little uncomfortable. Can asking questions do this? Can longing for more to do this? I think it can, and I think Jesus would have agreed.
So each week this Lent we’ll be centering our worship on one central question that the scriptures bring to the forefront and in the process, encouraging you to ask more. This week our central question is, Who will you listen to?
We heard Brian and Natasha read two iconic passages that are often the opening scriptures for Lent because they bring into focus the issue of temptation. In the Genesis passage, we have the familiar story of Adam and Eve in the garden. It’s a story of competing voices. God has given Adam and Eve choice in the garden of any food, save one. There is one tree that is too sacred to be eaten from. It’s the tree of knowledge. The tree of certainty, if you will. All of the garden was available and gifted to these humans with the expectation that they respect God’s boundaries around certainty and all-knowing. If they don’t respect these boundaries, if they reach too far for certainty, they will die, God says.
Then comes along another perspective. An influencer, as we might say today. It’s the serpent. You probably already knew that snake venom can be poisonous, but did you also know that sometimes it can be medicinal? Unfortunately, I think we all know which one the snake uses in this story, but it’s important to remember that it could have gone either way. Choices were made. The snake could tell there was a growing desire in the humans to be in control of their own destiny. He could tell they were persuadable and so he cleverly pitched an idea, a poisonous idea. You might have heard God say you would die if you eat from the tree, but don’t believe it. You will not die. In fact, you’ll grow powerful like God. You’ll know everything about good and evil. You will have no doubts. This was a very tempting offer for the humans. It was a solution that gave them the illusion of certainty. And they listened to the snake. They ate from the tree. And suddenly with the knowledge and certainty the fruit brought, also came boatloads of shame and embarrassment beginning with their appearance, and ultimately in the separation from God they experienced as they left the garden and fell from God’s trust.
Being right. Having answers. This is the lure of certainty. These are tempting propositions. How many of us have been tempted by the promise of certainty? Needing and wanting a hard, certain yes or no answer to a question that’s been lurking in our minds. For example, a definitive answer as to why we have illnesses that destroy good, healthy, fruitful lives. A clear-cut answer as to why bad things happen to good people. A proclamation that draws a distinct line between people who are right and people who are wrong. We want to know because we want to be right. It’s not fun to wrestle with uncertainty. It’s much more satisfying to get answers, especially when we can use certainty to confirm our own worldview and justify our own version of the truth.
But this kind of certainty can be poisonous. Life almost never fits neatly into absolutes. If you have been told absolutely, certainly that illness is a result of something you did wrong, like not having strong enough faith, or not praying enough, you will be spiritually devastated when praying more doesn’t automatically bring a cure. This is not okay. This is not true. If you are absolutely certain that the only way to be beautiful and confident is to make your body look a certain way, then you will be filled with shame and self-hatred when you simply can’t conform to the absolute beauty standards of this culture. This is not okay. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are absolutely certain that who and how one person loves another person could be a sin if it's not done “right,” then what will you do when your own child loves another person in a way that is not “right.” Living in a world of rigid certainty removes any hope of grace and growth. When honest questions are chased away by a demand for certainty, our faith is reduced to a black and white, binary landscape.
And in this way, a death surely happens, just as God said it would. It is the death of God’s mystery. The death of original blessing. The death of our wonder.
One of the hardest parts about being a person of faith is figuring out who to listen to. What is medicine and what is poison? We want to know what is true and real while also not being taken in by people who use influence and power for their own gain. Every day we are surrounded by voices that try to convince us of some sort of truth about ourselves that stands at odds with the most sacred truth we thought we knew from God.
Jesus was no exception. Three times the devil tried to convince Jesus to use his influence for poison. He told Jesus he could be powerful and strong and self-sufficient, but at what cost? All he needed to do was use his gifts for his own selfish purposes instead of God’s. And you know what, the devil even quoted scripture to make his influence seem more legit. Ever heard of that? Jesus knew who to listen to, though. He could tell the devil was wielding scripture like a weapon of absolutism to deceive and misguide. Jesus saw right through it. Not today, Satan, not today. Jesus knew what we are still learning. If the voices around you are trying to gain power, wealth, and prestige by influencing your behavior, then they are poisoning the well. Jesus fought back against this temptation. He knew the balm his ministry could be if he used his gifts for life-giving, healing medicine, not self-serving poison. This is the power of choosing who to listen to.
Who do you listen to? What kind of messages influence you? Are they poison, or are they medicine? And how do you know the difference?
Here’s a hint: Ask questions!
What is the motivation behind this voice? Who benefits? What is the source? Is it true? And is it spoken in love? Jesus used the power of questions to push back against the powerful influences of his day. We can do the same today. Maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but about learning to ask questions.
A Poem by Rev. Sarah Speed
who will you listen to?
Twitter or the BBC / the ads on late-night television / the wind as she blows / the echo of children playing / the quiet of snow / the ice bucket challenge / the phone when it rings / your pastor / your mother / your doctor / your gut / the tension in your shoulders / the restaurant singing happy birthday / audio books / TED talks / the rhythm of the music / the coffee drip in the morning / your therapist / the wisdom of the enneagram / the way your heart comes alive when you’re being creative / the man on the corner asking for change / the kid on the subway selling chocolate / the labels on the makeup bottle that promise timeless beauty / the magazines that tell you you need timeless beauty / astrology / the Dow Jones / the hiss of the radiator / the pitter patter of little feet / financial advisors / the top 40 pop / the top 40 country / the New York Times / the rumor mill / the Book of Psalms / your sense of self / Jesus, when he says, “I am with you, always.”
Grace and Peace,