Transparency (Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)
Today is the first Sunday of Lent in which we prepare for the remembrance of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and, beyond that, Resurrection at Easter. In Lent, we have an opportunity to consider where we are as pilgrims through our particular barren lands. I have had colleagues who have said that Lent is their favourite time of the church year. That’s not true for me, which is probably a function of my past where Lent has often been a time when we were encouraged to do little but feel bad about what sinners we are. This was, sometimes, unfortunately, linked to a definition of sins as violations of rules about drinking and dancing which I’ve never found helpful. Now, there is no question that the Bible has a good deal to say about the topic of destructive behaviour, the old religious word for which is “sin” in English. It is also important that we remind ourselves that temptation to counter-productive living is a major roadblock to life in the presence of God, but that, unless you’ve been raised in church, today, the word “sin” means only, “church-stuff” that has very little to do with real life. We need some new words that actually communicate to people outside the church today. Not using old words, like sin, will not send us off to perdition. I hope that this Lenten season we can resolve to reflect more deeply on our lives than just to feel bad about sin.
There’s again no doubt that everyone has problems with destructive behaviour. In Romans 5 Paul made it clear that this is the case. Here’s the bottom line on what Paul said there. First, he assumed that the creation texts in the Bible (especially in Genesis 2-3) narrate the story, not only of our first parents, but also of the whole human race, and, on the basis of his ancient understanding of those texts, attempted to explain why, although humans were created for relationship with themselves, God, neighbours and the environment, it doesn’t happen very often, but rather we are alienated from all of these. As I say, we know this is how it is with us, whether we always admit it or not. Paul argued that, when our first parents succumbed to temptation, a door was opened, through which we have actually walked, succumbing to the temptation not to be related to God and others. He also argued that Jesus opened another door, the door of reconciliation with God and others, a door also open to all. There are two poles of human experience: The Old Humanity and the New, represented by the names of those who”opened the doors” Adam (which, in Hebrew, means “humanity”) and Christ. Both are used as communal designations here. As Paul said more clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “As in (the community of) Adam (humankind) all die, so all will be made alive in (the community of) Christ.” There are two ways of being in this world: alienated or reconciled, in Adam or in Christ, again taken as communal names. That’s the bottom line of Paul in our Epistle.
Now, I wish my experience were always this clear. Even as I find myself in the community or sphere of Christ (to use Paul’s metaphor), having walked through the Jesus-door, my life is sometimes in close communion with God and others, and sometimes – not so much! Sometimes it seems like following Jesus is not just difficult, it’s so boring that it’s hard to go on. Since I already walked through the “Adam-door,” at birth, I can’t go back and “un-walk” it. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this in public, but sometimes I’m distressed when I look at how much more time, money and fun many people who don’t worry about following Jesus have than I do. I know lots of ways to get much further in the world than following Jesus. Sometimes it’s even tempting to rationalize that these things are discipleship, but in my better moments, I know that’s self-deceptive. When I look in the mirror, so to speak, I recognize the contours of Adam’s face and Christ’s. Maybe you sometimes think thoughts like this, too. If so, we’re at least all together in the same leaky boat. And, in a way, our Gospel text tells us that even Jesus was in our boat. After his baptism he faced temptation in the wilderness. Now because of his vocation (or calling) as Messiah, his temptations had to do with the ways in which he would approach and accomplish his coming work.
The Gospel story has three tests or temptations of Jesus. He was tempted to command stones to become bread so that he might feed himself. The temptation was to use his power for himself – he was hungry. Today, we are very mindful of what is called “self-care,” which is often short-hand for making sure we’ve got ours, and some of this is important, but it is an ongoing temptation to put it in the centre of our lives by using the power and resources we have been given for ourselves and not for others and to lack the transparency to admit the temptation to which we, sometimes, succumb. Jesus quoted his Bible: “One does not live by bread alone…” (4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3a). He rejected a use of power that was only for self, even self in need.
Second, Jesus was tempted to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the temple. Although there may be a bit of the temptation to do use power to do the spectacular thing here, he didn’t respond by saying, “Don’t just go for spectacle,” but with Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” By this he really meant, don’t test God by looking for miracles when God intends us to do whatever it is with the resources we’ve been given. In Jesus’ case, the temptation was to ask God to do things God had prepared Jesus to do. He saw this as putting God to the test and a misuse of power. He was honest enough to have admitted the temptation and transparent enough to have rejected it.
Temptation three was to bow down and worship the Tempter in return for “all the kingdoms of the earth.” The temptation is, if you like, to use the devil’s means to accomplish God’s ends. Some people say that the ends justify the means, but Jesus knew that evil means corrupt good ends. Judging such harmful means to achieve God’s goals shows a remarkable capacity for dishonesty or lack of transparency. The Tempter wanted Jesus to market himself well and not to bother with a cross and tell everyone it was God’s will. Do what’s popular now, attract a crowd with what sells. Don’t worry about the messiness of a cross. For us a cross means costly service. It means doing for others what Jesus did when he washed disciples’ feet, not seeking to pack the place by using slick devices and whatever’s cool for Christians at the moment. Jesus responded with Deuteronomy 6:13: “Worship and serve only the Lord your God.”
Succumbing to these temptations would break a relationship with God and others because they are basically passing the harmful off as the helpful. The point I want to make today, is that temptation to relation-breaking lack of transparency comes to us all, even our Lord Jesus. All of us are travelers through both doors.
Now, the Psalm lesson today invites us further into the whole struggle of living in the presence of God. Psalm 32 is one of seven Psalms that Christian theologians have called the Penitential Psalms. Each of them recognizes that humans have problems in relationships with themselves, their neighbours, their environment, and, crucially, with God. They hold that the only way to get beyond the temptation to cheat on relationships is to “own” it, take responsibility for it, and live transparently, openly, and start the process by giving a voice what our real condition is.
The Psalm begins with a Beatitude that gives a thumbnail of the outcome: “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean…GOD holds nothing against you.” We sometimes say, “blessed,” as in Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, rather than Peterson’s “Lucky,” or the NRSV’s “happy.” The Hebrew word indicates those “people who get what real life is all about.” The point is that life is better when we’re forgiven. The stained-glass “sin words here are “transgression”, “sin,” and “iniquity.” They aren’t to make us think about specific kinds of destructive behaviour, but to help us think of “every kind A-Z.” There are many creative temptations to sabotage relationships. It’s better when we “own” our sabotage and are transparent about it than when we don’t.
The most important part of the psalm for us today is in verses 3-7 where the poet isolates the real problem by giving us a ”before and after” snapshot. In verses 3-4 we see how it is when life is wrong, when we give in to temptation. It begins in silence. “When I kept it all inside…” it says. Those who are silent and don’t own their relationship-breaking behaviour are killing themselves, even physically. Psychiatrists and counsellors get rich helping people get their “stuff” into the open. The psalmist knew that it’s easy to tempt ourselves to deceive ourselves. We even can deceive ourselves into thinking we’re deceiving others, and God. We’re not, and it’s costly. The psalm literally says, “my bones wore out and it dried up my juices, like a summer drought.” The temptation is to live without transparency. Silence and deception will kill us. In verse 5, we have the life changing discovery. “When I let God know my sin, when I didn’t hide my iniquity, when I confessed my “relationship breaking behaviour from A-Z” then God forgave me.” The word “forgive” simply means that God lifted up the burden, so that I could begin again. In Peterson’s words, “the pressure was gone.”
Verses 6-7 pursue the after picture. The first thing the psalmist does is to urge everyone who “gets it” to offer a prayer of transparent honesty at our teachable moment when we finally do “get” that our lack of transparency is killing us. We voice (at least to ourselves and God) what we have had locked within us. And it brings the life back. After that the psalmist overflows with enthusiasm to share the discovery. Who wouldn’t?
This psalm comes in ancient words and ideas, but gives great wisdom. Here are three understandings it offers. First, life is better when we’re forgiven by God, ourselves, and others. Second, the grace of God is both real and offered, but people must activate it by being transparent with God, ourselves, and others. The psalmist insisted that our actions can block communion with God and others. Our destructive behaviour is not about infractions of rules about what we consume, with whom we do it, or about saying bad words in public, etc., but about sabotaging relationships at every level – within ourselves, with God, with others, with the environment itself. We can deceive ourselves into thinking it is not so, or it’s only about our feelings, but the psalmist is clear that the effects of this sabotage pervade all of life, right down to having physical effects on us. Third, and perhaps basic to the other two, is that God is not an choice nor a hypothesis, but a real, active, persistent, sometimes pesky, covenant partner who will not be ignored, but insists on being taken seriously. Refusing to be transparent brings guilt and guilt is destructive. The answer is to “own” the problem and bring it out of the silence, for the silence will kill us one way or another. When we give words to our silence, forgiveness and redemptive grace become usable for us. To be honest, little in contemporary culture, and sometimes in the Church, is willing to take such understandings seriously. It is interesting that therapists and organizations such as AA and NA know these things full well, and take them for granted. And it’s in the ancient wisdom of the Psalms. It’s time we caught on.
The real problem with us and this Psalm comes in wanting to make it a simple “how-to” on confession. Just say, “Forgive me,”, or “the sinner’s prayer” or “make me transparent” to get God off our backs,” without changing anything in our relationship with God or others. This psalm is not intended to be that, but an encouragement to open a challenging dialogue on transparency with God and others. And it may take a long time to get to the state of getting what real life is about, with which the Psalm begins. The process begins with taking responsibility for our relationship-breaking and, then accepting the fact that we are accepted by God in Christ. And moving on with life.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.