How do we come to want what we want?
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 1, 1st March 2020
The preface for Lent which is added to our Thanksgiving prayer in the Eucharist says that Jesus ‘was tempted in every way as we are, yet he did not sin’. Today the stories of the garden of Eden and of Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, both mention temptation. In the garden of Eden story, the man and woman give in to the temptation to sin, whereas Jesus does not. We might interpret this to mean that Jesus holds the world record for being good, so that perhaps, as a baby, he never threw his food on the floor, as a child he never stole a biscuit from the biscuit jar, and as an adult, he always told the truth. But that’s not what it means for Jesus to be without sin.
The answer has something to do with what it was that the man and woman gave into, but Jesus did not, which was letting someone else tell you what to want. In other words, for your desire to be given to you.
The man and the woman were happy in the garden of Eden. God told them they could eat of every tree except one. They were satisfied with that and didn’t want anything else until the serpent came along. Before the serpent appeared, they didn’t want to eat the forbidden fruit, but afterwards they did. It could be that they were attracted to the fruit because it was forbidden, like when someone touches wet paint to see if it is really wet, despite the don’t touch sign. But the story tells us that the serpent caused the woman to desire the fruit. After the serpent spoke to her, the woman ‘saw that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired’. And then the woman passed on her desire to her husband.
This being given your desires by another person is not remarkable really. That’s generally how we come to desire things. We’re not born with a manual of how to be a human being, so part of becoming who we are is coming to desire things, and others help us with that. We come to desire things because others have them. This simple truth is what lies behind the tenth commandment, the last and most important of the second five commandments about avoiding violence towards others: Do not covet anything that is your neighbour’s. Except that’s a poor translation. What it really says is don’t desire anything that is your neighbour’s. Don’t want what is your neighbour’s. Behind that lies the truth that we tend to want what others have. Think of a group of children playing outside. One finds a stick and starts playing with it. How long will it be before others want that stick? The possession of the stick by one, results in a desire for it in others. Fortunately, we don’t seem to want everything others have, but there is a fair bit of wanting what others have. Without that there would probably be no wars.
Jesus also faces this situation, the temptation to have his desires given to him by another, except that he resists it. The devil wants Jesus to want what he wants – to possess what others need so they rely on you for their needs, to be able to dazzle people with amazing feats so they will follow you, and to be able to shape the world as he wants it. There are good reasons to want all of those things, but Jesus knows there are flaws in wanting them too.
Jesus doesn’t let the devil give him any desires, not because he’s super-resistant, but because he desires something else more than what the devil offers. Just before the Spirit shoved Jesus into the wilderness, he was baptised, and in his baptism, he had a profound experience of God’s love. The story puts it as him hearing a voice from heaven telling him he was precious. In other words, that God loved him absolutely, which implies that he would never need anyone else’s approval or assurance. He was free to be whatever he wanted and do whatever he wanted. It was the gift of life-giving freedom. That love from God became his deepest desire, what he wanted more than anything else. He was tempted to want what the devil offered, but none of it came close to his ongoing desire for God’s love.
In contrast with Jesus, the man and the woman in the garden of Eden gave in to the temptation to mimic the desire the serpent’s desire for the forbidden fruit, and then things deteriorated. They immediately realised they were naked and were ashamed – in other words, they felt there was something bad about themselves, something lacking. God had never said they should wear clothes. God never said they were deficient in any way, or needed to compensate for any lack. As far as God was concerned, they were just fine as they were.
The sewing fig leaves and loincloths was the start of their decline. Before long, they were afraid of God, in conflict with one another, and the earth suffered. Interestingly though, God then got out his sewing machine and made clothes for them, giving them what they wanted, so the story goes – saying that even though human beings may lose their way, God adjusts and still provides for our needs.
From since the serpent gave the desire for the fruit to the man and the woman, our desires have grown more and more: we’re always wanting more – more things, more approval and so on. The other side of being given our desires by another, or by others, is that we can end up feeling we lack things, such as our worth, being loveable, and so on, so we try to compensate for that. Advertisers have had been able to sell us stuff that we don’t need, we accumulate more than we need, and we can waste our lives trying to become the sort of people who we think would be better versions of ourselves than we are. There is a cost to all that – to ourselves, to our relationships and to the earth.
The deepest desire of any person is the desire to be loved, that is, to be approved of, or considered worthwhile. So much effort goes into pursuing that, unfortunately, from other people, who are not always perfect at satisfying that desire. Imagine how different life would be if everyone desired to be loved by the One who always gave it.
Jesus is the model human being. He shows us how different life can be if we allow our deepest desire for love to be given to us by God, so that we desire what we need and can always receive. The problem with human beings is not that we desire things. It’s that we sometimes desire the wrong things, by allowing the wrong desires to be given to us.
At our 10am service this morning, the choir will sing the words of a 15th century song. Its message is summed up in the line ‘blessed be the time the apple taken was’. Behind that is the recognition that it is through our desiring the wrong things that eventually we can discover how to desire the right things, or how to be given the desire for what is life-giving, rather than what is not.
We cannot escape being given our desires by others, or at least some of them. Sometimes that will be a good thing, for our desires to help others and do other good things are probably also given to us by other people.
Allowing others to give us our desires is not what sin is. Sin is the rivalry that comes if our desires lead us into competition with one another. As we can’t avoid having desires given to us, and as some of them are good anyway, rather than trying to avoid being given what we want in life, the best thing is to allow God to be the one to give us our deepest desire. From that we can choose what else is worth desiring.