Evolution and Faith–Progress of Meaning

In the Exodus texts which Matthew’s story of the Temptations alludes to, the people are learning to trust that God will provide their perceived needs. For Jesus, this training exercise is about stepping back and trusting God to give life meaning and purpose by playing our unique role in the story of God’s universe. This may mean that our individual perceived needs may not be met.

 

Evolution and Faith–Progress of Meaning   (Audio – right click to download)

Our gospel text is another one of those familiar texts. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 4, the first eleven verses. It’s Matthew’s version of the temptation story. It makes a difference whether it’s in Matthew or in Luke. It makes a difference because gospel author writes for a different reason. When Matthew writes his Gospel, he’s interested in telling us this story to set a standard that disciples will live up to. Not just the disciples who walked along the shores of Galilee but those that walk the streets of San Rafael as well.  This isn’t a story about Jesus the superman. This is intended to be the life of a teacher who people can follow. With that in mind would you listen for a creative word as Spirit brings it to you.
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. 4 But he answered, It is written, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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. 7 Jesus said to him, Again it is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.  8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me. 10 Jesus said to him, Away with you, Satan! for it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Delightful fable, yes? Jesus goes off for forty days and forty nights, (not an accident that it’s forty days and forty nights – like the forty years in the wilderness for the people of Israel). It’s amazing what happens in a wilderness. Wilderness is sometimes thought of as a dusty, hard, dry place. I guess when I think of the Middle East wilderness, that’s what I think of. But I’ve been in other kinds of wildernesses. The week between final exams and graduation from high school my friends Tom, Ted and I, took off for Nova Scotia; we drove all night long up Route One. It was a great deal of fun. Then we parked Ted’s old Cougar and off we went into the wilderness.
We were initially using paths, but then we realized several days later that we were late and needed to get back to the car soon. So we decided to leave the paths and instead use our compass. Believe it or not, we did not get lost. Lost was not the problem. The Hemlock forest was the problem. Dense, scratchy forest; it was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other. We came out of it exhausted, tense, dirty, sweaty, scratched up, scraped up. Some provisions we thought were important get left along the way.
We’d gotten through the wilderness, but it was a formative experience for us. You know when you’re pushed out to your limits, you have to let go of everything that’s not important? That’s the wilderness, that place of formation. Even if it’s not a literal wilderness, it’s still that place where a spiritual quest happens, a place of challenge.
That’s why the story of the people of Israel, moving through the wilderness is told. They become formed as the people of God – in the wilderness. It is why Jesus moves into the wilderness following being called the son of God. The Spirit was seeking to form this “Son of God.” In each case, be it the people of Israel or the story of Jesus, as they enter their formative moments, these wilderness moments, they do so after something has happened to change how the people see the world.
So, in the case of the people of Israel, God had saved them, God had brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. They were no longer slaves; they were free. That is a bigger transition to make than we might think. It’s in the wilderness where these things are worked out, where they are formed into the people of God, where they figure out what to do with the change that has taken place.
Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit just as he was responding to a clarion call from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  That is to say, Jesus is called to be the one who’s responsible for the rule of God. As in any agricultural society he, as the oldest son, his character, his wisdom, are what determine the texture and the character of the estate, in this case, the rule of God. He moves into the wilderness to be formed.
Some people think about these temptations are about Jesus being tested, as though it is a test you could pass or fail. But it’s not that kind of test. It’s the kind of test that forms someone. There’s no worry about whether or not he’s going to fail it or succeed at it, but rather he has to go through the experience to grow into the person God is calling him to be. That’s the kind of test this was. Jesus’ character needed to be set in place in order to do the work of the Son of God.
Disruption and then growth, that’s the way the evolutionary process works. These fundamental stories in the scriptures, the Exodus in particular, but Jesus’ story too, stories of moving into a new kind of life, are stories about the evolutionary process? Not biological evolution necessarily, (though it is how all evolution works), but in this case cultural evolution, and in Jesus’ case, an evolution of character. There is some disruptions, something that happens that shifts the balance of things the created order, then adjustments have to be made to set things back into an equilibrium. In the biological process, biologists talk about punctuated equilibrium – some startling change takes place in the created order, and then creation goes through an entire wilderness of time where species need to adapt, move, adjust. This dynamic evolution takes place internally for individuals, internally for groups, and externally for individuals and groups. Everything evolves, period.
Which means that the meaning of Scripture stories evolves as well. It means that the Exodus story and the story of Jesus in the wilderness, while pointing to an evolutionary process, describe different moments in the evolutionary story of creation.
Scholars compare these two stories. They recognize there are reflections of the Exodus in this story about Jesus, all the quotes from Deuteronomy are a clue.  They deal with moments when the people of Israel had failed one test or another. It is easy to think that the point of Jesus’ story is that he got it right where the Israelites got it wrong. But let’s not be lulled into that simple interpretation.
There are different lessons being dealt with for Jesus is in a different place consciously that the people in the story of the Exodus. To assume that nothing has changed in human consciousness is to fall into what some have come to call the Flintstone fallacy.  People sometimes assume that the cave men were just like us; they were just cave men and so did not have the same kind of technological advantage we do, but that’s about the extent fo the difference. Really?
Remember the Flintstones and the Jetsons? They are identically characters to us, same level of conscious development. It’s a fallacy. It’s not how it operated. If we look at these two stories as dealing with the same issues, we’ll miss something. Oh, there were some elements that were the same. But there are differences too.
Let’s take the stones turned to bread temptation. This comes from a time in the Exodus story when people were complaining. God had saved them, brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage and as they moved into the wilderness there wasn’t enough food to eat; they started complaining to Moses. “Oh, you just brought us out here to die.” Absolutely no trust in the movement and power of God – even after all God’s done. This story is about learning to trust.
That’s not exactly what Jesus was learning. Jesus was tempted to misuse power. It wasn’t about trusting God to fill his perceived needs. In this story Jesus had the power to turn stones into bread. He could use his own power to fill his own needs. The question was what kind of an impact would that have on the world around him. The question is, will he use his power to serve himself, or will he use it to further the way and purpose of the creative Word of God? Jesus chose the higher consciousness, Jesus stood where he could see what God was about in the created order, he sought to further God’s work, so he said, “No.” No, human beings don’t live by bread alone, they live on the word of God, they live on that word that goes forth and makes beauty out of chaos.
Next the Devil brings Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to jump off. “Don’t worry, the angels will save you; it says so in the good book, really.” In response Jesus refers to an incident when Israel was in the wilderness at Meribah. In that situation the Israelites didn’t have water. God’s given them food, God’s rescued them from Egypt, God’s been faithful to them, but they’re scared there’s not enough water, so once again, they complain to Moses: “Take us back to Egypt. We’d rather go back into slavery than die out here of thirst.” Again, they’re learning how to trust, learning whether or not God will give what’s needed, what they perceive as needed.
But this second time around, this raises a question for me, “What would it take for them to trust God? What would it take for them to trust that God was going to take care of them?” Or maybe more to the point, never mind them, let’s ask ourselves, “If God was a wish fulfilling machine, if God could fill all your wishes, what would God have to do to get you to trust that God would care for and love you? I know what it would take for me. It’s pretty neurotic. The way I was brought up, saddled me with a psychological dilemma that some preachers kids deal with. I was in competition with Jesus for my parent’s time and love. He was the overachieving older brother in my life. What would God need to do to convince me that I was loved by God? I’d literally have to start a new religion . . . and it would have to be pretty darn successful too, otherwise my small, neurotic self can’t trust that God’s power is unfolding within me, loving me in the same way as Jesus.
Crazy I know and I hope I’ve grown beyond that, (I know I have to a point, but there are lots of layers for growth don’t you think?) But when we get down to that place of fear, wondering whether or not God is going to take care of us, whether or not the universe can be trusted to fill our perceived needs, what would it take to make you trust God?
That is the question which comes to Jesus. The Devil’s challenging him: find out. Find out whether or not you can trust. But Jesus wasn’t going there. Jesus knew that he would be jumping into the abyss soon enough. He was learning to trust God at the moment when life is forfeit. He wasn’t even looking to God to save his life at that moment. His consciousness was bigger, he took a step up in consciousness, saw the entire sweep of God’s creative project and sought his own place within it. He wasn’t going to jump off to serve his own neurotic need, but he was preparing to jump at a moment that would give life meaning. He would jump in the context of God’s creative project. That was the moment he faced on the cross that day several years later in Jerusalem.
The third temptation is really about idolatry. You know, the “Bow down to me and I’ll give you all the power the world can muster.” It’s more tempting than you might think. What would you decide? The Devil says, “I’ll give you all the power you could possibly need to get the things done that you want to get done. You could right so many wrongs. You’d get your way. I’ll give you everything you need to be able to pull it off. Jesus had an agenda; he actually thought there should be a just society. He thought that poor people should have what they needed in order to survive and thrive. He thought kindness and compassion should be operating in the world, not war and death.
He was offered the power to do that and turned it down, why? The question is this: are you going to buy into the notion that power is the ability to make people do what they do not want to do, or are you going to live by the power of God that moves through death to a new and surprising life.
Idolatry is about power. The Israelites who first lived with these stories as Scripture were a practical lot, which is to say they were human and smart. If your crops weren’t doing well and your neighbor, two tribes over said, “We worship this other God and our crops are doing fine.” It’s going to be really tempting to pray to this new God at that moment, especially since you don’t understand weather patterns, or soil conditions, or whatever else might go into this. It’s like using whatever technological power we have at our disposal to serve our needs and desires. The Christian’s in Matthew’s time had the same issues. There was always that question of whether or not to bow down to Caesar.
Now in the Roman Empire you were pretty much allowed to worship whatever God you wanted just so long as you also worshiped Caesar. In fact, Caesar’s cult, the religion that was wrapped around the Emperor’s worship was also the banking system. So we’re talking about Christians who were facing a life on the outside economically. It would have been like living here without a credit card. They couldn’t participate in the economic structures of the time in order to get ahead if they did not bow down to Caesar. There was a real temptation to go ahead and use those unjust structures to make the world fit into your vision of what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s the temptation here.
Instead, Jesus said, “No, I’m not going to take that kind of power, I’m going to trust in the nature of God’s creative power.” He was trusting in the unfolding of spirit through evolution – cross and resurrection.
This is a difficult temptation because there are things happening right now that should not be in God’s creative order. We’ve talked about that before. How far do we go in using the coercive power at our disposal to construct a just society? It’s a question, I think, of the psychic space from which you act. On the one hand, we can say, “Everything is wrong; it’s awful and I have to fix it.” From that space it is our ego, our power that is being exercised to satisfy our desires – however high-minded they may be. 
But there is another approach, a trusting approach that forms you when you live connected to the source of the creative love that powers creation. In communion with that, we can say, “In this moment, everything is all right, exactly as it should be. There are next steps, but in this moment, I can trust the creative process, trust God for the unfolding of creation.” It is a very different place from which to act.
There’s a spiritual teacher whose name I have sadly forgotten who says that, “Problems did not come about in the world because people sat down to have a meeting to make some problems. Problems come up because people sit down to have a meeting to discuss solutions before they have dealt with their own internal suffering.” Before they have come to know that in the moment everything is all right, we can rest in the power of God to drive creation towards that perfect unity we long for.
It’s hard, but Jesus calls us to this different kind of trust. In this passage we’re asked to become disciple, to follow, rather than take hold of the power that will adjust the world in ways that we judge it ought to be. Everything is all right in this moment. But everything is dynamic and will change, because the power of God is unfolding and making all things new.
The progress of meaning: the stories of Scripture point the way as we grow into trusting God ever more profoundly. We learn to trust as consciousness develops and our understanding of humanity’s place in the Kosmos evolves. We come to know that it’s not about me, it’s about the power of all creation. It’s about the unity that each one of us is part of.
It’s that unity that we serve; in fact it can’t be achieved unless you show up. I love that. God can’t get it done without you. You have a unique roll to play in trusting the powerful creative Spirit to unfold within you. Joy and freedom are ours when live our lives in the creative arms of God.
So in the quiet, let these questions and temptations form you. How much would it take, what would God need to do for you, to make you trust the universe as it unfolds? What’s important to you? What gives your life meaning? Is it the living out of a secure individual life or being part of that larger, gorgeous project we call God’s creation?

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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