Be careful what you wish for!
My mother must have said that to me a thousand times in my childhood, and I thought of it often, and continue to, whenever I have a craving.
Be careful what you wish for: that lottery winning may bring all sorts of relatives you never knew existed, asking for a handout.
Be careful what you wish for: that job that seems so very shiny and powerful may turn out to be a nightmare, with the boss from hell and responsibilities that require you spend 80 hours a week chained to your desk.
Be careful what you wish for: that great guy at work who seems so intriguing may lead you to a place of deception and pain and eventual loneliness.
Would that Adam and Eve had heard that phrase, “be careful what you wish for,” before that snake turned up on the scene.
They had been living a blissful life in Eden, aware of nothing but each other, the delightful animals, the great things to eat, and their Creator God in regular conversation with them. It was easy conversation of course, although occasionally they would be given an instruction. Nothing harsh, just some gentle guidance about their life in this exquisite paradise. And one of these instructions was a simple one, regarding their food.
"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."
Well, that was a bit dramatic, that “you shall die” business! But nothing God had asked for was much of a problem, so Adam and Eve didn’t think too much about it. It was a lovely tree, of course, with apples as round and red and juicy as anyone could ask for, but it wasn’t the only apple tree in the garden. They could avoid this one easily enough, and they did…
…at least until the snake showed up. The snake, the one who suggested that God’s motives in keeping them from this tree were less than pure. “Can you not eat from the trees?” he asked. “Of course we can eat from the trees,” Eve replied; “just not that one in the middle of the garden. If we eat from that one, we die.”
“Nonsense,” the snake said. “It’s just that selfish old God keeping the best for himself. He doesn’t want you to eat from it, because then you would have the same knowledge that he has! Eat from it, and you will know as much as God!”
Hard to resist, a suggestion like that, isn’t it? Don’t we all want to be in on all the secrets, all the knowledge, especially if it feels like we should by rights have that knowledge too?
And Eve was hungry, not so much for an apple, but for knowledge. The snake understood that hunger, and played on it. So Eve ate, and invited Adam to eat, too. He ate just as willingly. No word of him saying, “Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t that the tree we aren’t supposed to eat from?” No, he bit into that apple just as greedily, while the snake slithered away, chuckling at their foolishness.
Be careful what you wish for, be it a winning lottery ticket or knowledge that is God’s alone.
The snake spoke truly: they ate and they got knowledge.
But what was the knowledge?
They looked at themselves, and realized they were naked.
Revealed in all their humanity, and in all their weakness. Something they had never known before, and now they had this new knowledge, this understanding of who they were and what they were and what they were not. No longer did they feel that great closeness and identity with their creator, who had made them in the divine image. No, now they knew their difference and it frightened them. It shamed them. They knew that they were less than their creator. That was their true nakedness.
And it was a nakedness of body and soul, born of their frailty. They were tempted, and they were left bare in their inability to fight the temptation. And in that realization, they worked to cover themselves, to hide that frailty as they hid their bodies.
What a different picture in the Gospel!
Jesus, praying alone in retreat in the desert, faced another snake, a tempter. What greater triumph for that snake, the devil, than to take the Son of God and crush him under his foot? Having crushed the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, now he would come full circle and crush this son of God. That tempter knew he was clever and so he waited for the right time.
It was forty days into Jesus’ time of prayer and fasting. Forty days without food. Jesus wasn’t in Eden, not in a paradise with everything you could want to eat before you. He was in the desert. There was nothing to eat. Jesus was famished.
Someone should have told that devil “be careful what you wish for.”
The devil knew Jesus was hungry. And he also knew that Jesus was ready to live into his divine ministry, with all the divine gifts to make miracles. And so he tried to seduce him with two things. The first was the obvious one: food. Jesus was starved. Bread…a whole loaf, fresh from the oven…it makes your mouth water as I speak….you can almost smell it, can’t you?...and you haven’t been fasting for forty days. But there’s more to it. The devil dares him to turn the rocks into bread. “If you are the Son of Man, do this thing. Prove that you really are who you claim to be. Do it.”
In his weakness, in his hunger, Jesus might be forgiven if he was tempted to do it. Hungry, tired, lonely. Such a simple little miracle, turning a rock into a loaf of bread. But he turned on the devil and said, “No, silly devil. I don’t need to do it. I’m doing something for God here. It’s not about the bread, it’s about the Word of God.”
That devil wished to challenge Jesus, to engage him. Jesus engaged, all right, and squashed him. Jesus would not be the devil’s pawn.
This Jesus, he wasn’t the pushover that Adam and Eve were. He was made of sterner stuff. So the devil upped the ante. He knew that Jesus would be leaving to start to teach and to preach, so he said, “You think you’re such hot stuff? Prove it to me! Show me that you’ve got the goods. Throw yourself off the cliff, and let’s see if the angels come to catch you before you splatter all over the desert floor.”
Jesus shook his head. “You’re going to quote my Father’s words to me? Come now! Remember the words say ‘don’t test God.’”
Oh, devil! Be careful what you wish for! Try to beat Jesus by using Scripture? I don’t think so.
But what about power? Commanding all the world? Surely this Jesus would want that power, wouldn’t he? He was about to start his ministry. Wouldn’t it be infinitely easier if the world would just fall at his feet? Quicker? More…I don’t know…FUN?
So the devil tried to offer him the big package. All the world at his feet. Wouldn’t anyone want that? All it would take would be a little concession, just a little obeisance…just worship me, your friendly devil, Jesus, and I’ll give it all to you!
Hah! Such foolishness. Jesus swatted him like an annoying bug: ”Begone! Worship you? I don’t think so!”
Be careful what you wish for…
The devil had said to Jesus, “take a flying leap off this cliff and the angels will come take care of you.”
After the devil was gone, off to lick his wounds after this defeat, what happened? The angels came to take care of Jesus.
Be careful what you wish for, for it may indeed happen.
Jesus, in defying the devil and his temptations, saw something in himself in that moment, just as Adam and Eve saw something in themselves when they ate that apple. They saw their nakedness, their failure. Jesus saw his divinity, his glory. He was affirmed in his mission and in his single-minded devotion to the task ahead of him, just as the Father had said when he was baptized. He was the beloved, in whom God was well-pleased.
But what about us?
We know who we are. We are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We know our nakedness, our failings, all too well. That gift of knowledge, bequeathed on us by our first father and mother, keeps us awake at night when we think of the ways in which we imperfectly follow Christ.
We struggle. We are tempted. The devil puts all sorts of things in front of us, and maybe a third of the time we say, “sure, why not?”
Be careful what you wish for. The extra beer or doughnut. The chance to make yourself look better at the expense of someone else. The sidelong glance by the cute co-worker when you know you should be true to your spouse.
We wish for things that we should not, and sometimes we get them, and then we face the aftermath as we look at our naked face in the mirror and say “why didn’t I say no?”
Be careful what you wish for.
But there is another wish.
“I wish you would help me to resist, Lord. Please give me the strength to say no.”
We take our naked weakness to the one who is strong, the one whose nakedness on the cross on Good Friday shows his strength and redeems our weakness. We cannot resist the devil alone. Only with him do we find strength.
We wish that our nakedness becomes more like his on the cross, that our frailty is turned to resolve.
What do we wish for? There is only one wish: to follow him, to learn from him, to be comforted and encouraged by him, to be found at the last day to have wished for righteousness.
We wish and we pray and somehow we cover our own nakedness with his power and strength and glory. We spend our Lent and our lives wishing and praying, and he is with us, saying, “you are my beloved.”
Copyright 2011 The Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe