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Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
The year was 1927. A women was teaching Sunday school and made a comment that was perceived as questioning a literal understanding of the Bible. Because of this, she was asked to resign from her teaching post, and before long left that church.
That happened right here in Sterling at United Presbyterian Church, almost 100 years ago. Arn Froese discovered this event while doing research into the lives of the Porter family.
It was a different world in 1927, and we’ve come a long way since then. Today, not only will someone NOT get ostracized for asking questions, but our Lent series encourages them.
Honest questions for deeper faith. Asking questions helps us grow in our life with God.
Today’s question: Who will you listen to?
In our Old Testament reading, God tells Adam, “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.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Then the serpent comes along and asks Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Well, no, that’s not quite what God said. The only tree God said to avoid was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said that when they ate its fruit they would die.
In the story the serpent convinces Eve they won’t die, and so Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. What dies after that is their innocence.
It’s hard for us to read this story without hearing everything that we’ve been told about it, in Sunday school and sermons, in books, and in all the allusions and characterizations that show up in our culture.
It struck me this week that I have never thought to question the idea of a talking snake. Have you ever heard a snake talk? Me neither. But thinking about that got me wondering why a snake is talking in this story. I can’t give you a definitive answer, but I can tell you that Greek and Roman mythology is full of symbolism about snakes, as is Judaism. The snake can be an instrument of destruction or of healing. The snake is also a symbol of renewal because it sheds its skin.
The fact that a snake is talking gives us a clue that we should not look at this story as historic or take what it says literally. But through this story we see that God has blessed humans with the ability to think for themselves, and make choices, and ask questions. God has given us agency.
Theologian Paul Tillich says it should be “seen as a symbolic story of the human moral dilemma.” He suggests a question: “How do we decide between the conflicting choices our freedom permits us without increasing our estrangement from ourselves, others, the natural world, and ultimately God?”
This week I started reading the book Original Blessing by Danielle Shroyer. She suggests that we have read into this story more than is really there. What if the snake isn’t Satan? Verse 1 says “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” God made the serpent.
Shroyer says, “In Genesis 3, I believe the serpent represents that which it declares—good and evil, and all the knowledge of both. In fact, this overarching sense of complex oneness is at the heart of serpent symbolism. It is head and tail, poison and medicine.”
Asking questions and finding answers can lead us to find out some cool stuff. But it also takes away some of the mystery, and sometimes that can be disappointing or disillusioning. My husband Rob and I have always loved going to the movies, so about 20 years ago, Rob and I set out to learn how to make movies.
There was a lot to learn about how to film the sequences and achieve certain affects, how to edit, how to record the sound. The end result was a music video that came out quite nice…with a lot of help from friends in the business. Around that time, the movie The Prestige (2006) came out. It’s about two magicians in 19th century England trying to sabotage each other. We were quite excited about seeing it, and it was good, award-winning good. But I was disappointed. Now that I knew more about how movies were made, I couldn’t see past that and enjoy the story.
Ecclesiastes 1:18 “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Ecclesiastes can be so depressing. But the reality is that the more we know, the more we see how much we don’t know. And sometimes that can feel like being in the wilderness.
…which brings us to today’s gospel reading. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tested. The tempter uses scriptures to challenge Jesus. Jesus counters with scriptures, and then tells the tempter to go away.
Why did Jesus go through this time of testing? Did he need to prove that he was the Son of God? Hadn’t God just said so at Jesus’ baptism? In comparing different Bible translations, we find that some of them have the tempter saying, “If you are the Son of God…” and some saying, “Since you are the Son of God…” The second way changes how we see what’s happening, basically saying, “Since you are the Son of God, then you have the ability to do all these things I’m tempting you with, so will you use that power now?”
What if this story is showing us how scripture can be used as a weapon as well as an encouragement? They’re sort of having a proof text battle, aren’t they?
There are connections to other Bible stories here. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is the same amount of time that Moses was on the mountain fasting and seeking God. Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert. In Genesis 7, after Noah and his family and all the animals got into the ark, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Genesis 50 tells us that it took 40 days to embalm Jacob after he died. That’s why Lent lasts for 40 days, not counting Sundays.
I think we need to remember that although we can read this story in just a few minutes, it didn’t really happen that fast. Jesus, being the Son of God, probably has quick and decisive answers, but for many of our questions, answers won’t be so quick or decisive. Sometimes we need to resist the temptation to settle for quick answers and sit with the questions for awhile. As we seek answers, who will we listen to?
The obvious answer is God, but discerning God’s answers is not always easy. It helps to spend time praying about the questions, finding different ways that scripture might answer the question, talking with people you trust, reading commentaries and other sources. And sometimes the answer will come through one or more of those, and sometimes the answer will come through something or someone unexpected, and sometimes the questions go unanswered.
It’s been my experience that answers can sometimes take days, weeks, months, even years. And so we might give up on asking questions or seeking to go deeper with God. But God doesn’t give up on us. God sticks with us. In the story of the Garden of Eden, God sent Adam and Eve out after they listened to the serpent instead of him, but he was still their God. In the next chapter, when Adam and Eve have children, Eve says she’s done this with the Lord’s help (Gen. 4:1).
God is gracious with us, even when we are stubborn or contrary or rebellious, and whenever we turn to God he receives us with open arms.
It’s easy to listen to the snake instead of to God. Sometimes it helps to remove ourselves from everyday life so that we can focus on listening to God. In a sense, this is what we seek to do during Lent when we choose to do something different during these 40 days, whether it’s a new prayer practice or fasting from something. Seeking God in a deeper way can feel like wilderness.
But there are beautiful places in this world that can only be reached by hiking through wilderness. Asking questions and seeking a deeper walk with God can feel like hiking through the wilderness. But we’re not alone. God goes with us. May God bless our seeking.
Prepare our hearts, O God, to accept your Word. Silence in us any voice but your own, that, hearing, we may also obey your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
 Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
 Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
 Danielle Shroyer, Sermon Planning Guide SA Seeking, Sanctified Art.Org
 Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash
 Jeremy Yunt, Love, Gravity, and God: Paul Tillich and the Existential Depths of Reason…, Kindle Version.
 Shroyer, Danielle. Original Blessing . Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash
 Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Publishing, pg. 60.