March 1, 2020 – Tempted to Skip Ahead

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7Matthew 4:1-11

I have a strange relationship with scary movies. I don’t particularly enjoy watching them. As my wife, Katherine says, “why choose to be scared?”

But I find scary movies fascinating, because with a good scary movie, the monster, villain, what-have-you is not the thing that truly scares us. No, a good scary movie frightens us by tapping into something about what frightened, or frightens, us at the time the movie was made. In the 1990s, there were a lot of Vampire movies, because they tapped into a fear that the world was secretly controlled by shadowy other groups. In the 2000s, we started to be afraid that there was no control, that everything was on the verge of decaying into a state of no underlying order, and so we started seeing movies about zombies. It’s this tapping into deeper fears that leads to some of  greatest scary movies never showing us the monster. It’s also why M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs, starts so strong, when neither the audience nor the characters no for sure what is happening, and then falls apart at the end once we’ve seen the aliens. No costuming or makeup, and certainly not 2002 era digital effects could live up to what the audience created in their minds. Once we see the aliens, the suspense breaks, and we find that the ideas that had been represented by the aliens: including distrust of our community and even our own senses can’t be carried by their tall, thin, green bodies. We’re left thinking “that’s it? We were scared of that?”

Good scary movies leave the monster behind a veil, either never showing the monster, or leaving us with a clear sense that the monster we have seen is only a part of something larger. For example, in the movie The Babadook, in leaving the monster unseen, the filmmakers are able to make the movie a commentary on mental health: the things the Babadook does are remarkably similar to symptoms of depression. Or so I’ve read. I’m too scared to actually watch that one.

You can imagine then, how excited I’ve been by the recently released Invisible Man. It’s a strong concept, after all, who among us hasn’t, at some point, been afraid that we weren’t really alone when no one else was home, convinced that the noise made by the house settling, radiator pipes expanding or contracting is a footstep, or that a glimpse of a coat on a hook, or our reflection in a window is another person? From the trailers, it seems that Elisabeth Moss’s character’s friends all think that’s what’s happening and dismiss her concerns; she’s just wound up and over-reacting. It’s a brilliant concept for this adaptation because it mirrors the thoughts of so many victims of domestic violence who may spend years fearing they won’t be believed, or even working to convince themselves that nothing is wrong.

Of course, the idea this movie is based on is nothing new. It draws its title and inspiration from an 1887 serial and novel by H.G. Wells where a scientist accidently turns himself invisible and ultimately commits a string of crimes, even planning to unleash a “reign of terror” as he is convinced his invisibility renders him safe from ever being caught.

And, of course, because nothing is ever new, H.G. Wells himself was heavily influenced by Plato. In The Republic, Socrates and Glaucon, discuss a mythical object, the Ring of Gyges which could turn a person invisible at will. If you heard that and thought about the One Ring from the Lord of the Rings, which is enchanted to both render its wearer invisible and also to corrupt that wearer, you’re not alone. In fact, much of the discussion about the Ring of Gyges is about whether such a ring would inherently corrupt its owner. Glaucon argues that, faced with the possibility of acting with impunity, because the ring renders a person undetectable, it would inevitably corrupt its wearer by giving that wearer the ability to be like a god.

Or, in simpler terms, power corrupts.

This is an argument over moral reasoning: the age old question: do people follow the rules because of an inherent, internal sense of right and wrong and a desire to do what is right, or do we only follow rules because we’re afraid of punishment.

This is also the question in the story we read from Exodus today, the story often called “The Fall.”

It’s a rich text, and one that is deeply inserted into our cultural awareness. It’s also a text about moral reasoning on at least two different levels. The first level is the nature of the prohibition against eating the fruit. Adam and Eve are told not to eat the fruit because if they do, they will die. It’s this fear that has kept them away, that has even led to them expanding God’s prohibition against eating to include touching.

What has struck me most, though, in my most recent reading of the text, is what the serpent says eating the fruit will do. It’s almost the same words that Glaucon used for the Ring of Gyges. Glaucon said the ring would make a person like a god among men. The serpent says eating the fruit will make Adam and Eve like God, knowing good and evil.

This phrase, “be like God” is being used in different ways, but the conversations are ultimately both about moral reasoning. The knowledge of the tree of knowledge is not scientific or technical. They didn’t suddenly learn how to build a 747. It’s the knowledge of good and evil, which is to say, it’s the power of moral reasoning. That is what the fruit of the tree of knowledge gives to Adam and Eve: it’s not just a one-time infusion of knowledge, but the ability to learn. God had already granted Adam and Eve the power of choice: without that, the conversation between Eve and the serpent would have been pointless. God had not, however, given Adam and Eve moral reasoning. Adam and Eve have been avoiding the fruit, even themselves adding a prohibition against even touching the fruit when God had only told them not to eat it, because they were afraid of death, afraid of punishment.

Adam and Even had not yet developed moral reasoning. In this way, they were like children. My wife is an elementary school teacher. Her students don’t follow rules because of any innate goodness in them. Much of the time, they don’t follow the rules at all, but when they do, it’s because of the structure that she has created in the classroom. This isn’t just true of her students. One of my theology professors in seminary regularly declared that anyone who didn’t believe in original sin hadn’t spent enough time around a three-year-old…specifically his, then three-year-old daughter.

As God loves us, this professor loved his daughter, and that is why he had rules and boundaries. It’s why he didn’t want her to learn everything all at once. Parents and teachers here may know the phrase “developmentally appropriate.” This is the problem that was introduced by the fruit of the tree of knowledge: it was not developmentally appropriate for Adam and Eve at that time. They still needed to grow, but eating the fruit caused them to skip and miss that growth. They learned too much all at once, and we can see the consequence of that coming too fast: the first thing they feel as a result of that knowledge is shame…and not even shame for disobeying God—that came second. No, the first thing they realized after eating the fruit was that they were naked. Body shame came before concern about God.

I really wasn’t planning to end up writing a sermon series focused on patience. It’s not even one of my strong virtues. I remember once asking my small group at the orientation to my year in Northern Ireland to pray that I would learn patience. Lynnea, who is still one of my best friends laughed and said “Rob, never pray for patience. You know what you get when you pray for patience? Opportunities to be patient.”

Perhaps my own impatience is why this week I haven’t just looked at the Genesis story of eating the fruit as a story of skipping ahead, a story of impatience.

It’s also colored my reading of Matthew. I don’t know that I’ve really thought about the three things that Jesus is tempted with in todays text before this week, but it occurs to me that each of them is, again, a means of skipping ahead.

First, the devil offers Jesus food. Jesus is fasting, an ancient spiritual practice. This one even carried a whiff of the Ring of Gyges to it—after all, who other than Jesus and the devil, would know of he just ate a little bit. Who is there to punish Jesus? But Jesus resists, because with fasting, the process is the point. It’s not a path to weight loss, but a means of reflecting on the things that truly matter.

Second: the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and asks Jesus to reveal himself. The devil is trying to get Jesus to skip ahead to the resurrection, but also to change the nature of the passion: Jesus, instead of being unjustly executed by the Romans, a martyr to his own cause and message, would be revealed to the world in a fit of arrogance, and one that would likely lead to Jesus falling into the third temptation: worldly power, the establishment of the kingdom of God before the rest of us humans are ready for all that means.

All four of the temptations we have considered today: one to Adam and Eve, three to Jesus, are all about skipping to the end. Avoiding the work of moral and spiritual development.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. There is a common tradition of making a sacrifice during lent, giving up meat, or TV, or engaging in some other spiritual practice. I’m not going to ask what you’re giving up, or taking on for Lent. I’ve been so consumed in getting everything ready for me to come here that I honestly hadn’t given it too much thought, but those of you who came to the Presbytery meeting last Saturday heard me talk about walking and table fellowship as spiritual practices. We will have many opportunities for table fellowship in the coming weeks, and I’m going to try to get outside, even in the cold, to walk in hope that I’ll be walking with God. Walking, because it’s a reminder that ultimately, it’s usually the journey, and not the destination, that matters most. I look forward to us travelling together.