Tempted by Beauty
Is anyone ever tempted by ugliness? Eve wasn't; Jesus wasn't; you aren't.
The Old Testament lesson shows us Eve in the garden of Eden surrounded by a dizzying array of edible fruit. Only one fruit among them all she wasn't allowed to eat. That's what God said, but what God said wasn't food for her soul. What the Devil said was. God said the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was deadly to Eve. The Devil said it wasn't. God said the tree wasn't good for food. The Devil said it was. The text reports, "The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food."
Eve was tempted by the Devil's words. They sounded good, better than God's. We too are tempted by better sounding words. The pleasant sounding words of musicians ring in our ears more so than the sound Words of God in hymns. We hold on to 3 second sound bytes more than we do God's Word. How many novels have we relished? How many poems have captivated us because they were indeed beautiful words while God's Words strike us as boring, confusing, not worth the trouble?
Beautiful words can be like the fabled Sirens, the bird-women who sang beautiful songs to passing sailors. They didn't tempt them with ugly, harsh, heavy metal music. Their voices weren't the sound of nails on a chalkboard. They were pleasing to the ear. They were easy to listen to, beautiful.
Eve and we are tempted by beautiful not ugly sounding words, and we are tempted by what's pleasing to the eye. No one knows what the fruit of the forbidden tree was. It's often pictured as an apple, but the Hebrew just says fruit. The Devil praises the fruit as being good for food. God had said it was deadly as food. Impress upon a child that a wall outlet is dangerous to him, and he'll give it a wide berth walking past it with big round eyes. There's danger there! This was Eve until the Devil spoke beautiful words about the deadly fruit, and suddenly this fruit was "pleasing to the eye."
Can't you see it? A red, crisp apple dripping with dew. An orange that to look at is to taste. Where's the ugliness? Nothing on the outside to warrant God's don't touch. So too the body of someone other than your spouse doesn't look deadly. It's pleasing to your eye carrying you away to pleasure not pain. In the original Star Trek when the crew finds the fabled planet Eden, all looks as Eden should: verdant vegetation, trees heavy with fruit, beautiful flowers everywhere. It was all pleasing to the eye.
Eve and we are tempted by beautiful words, beautiful sights, and beautiful ideas. God said to eat of the forbidden fruit would bring ugliness, decay, death to her beautiful body. The Devil said it would bring the beauty of deity, and Eve believed him. The fruit was "desirable for gaining wisdom."
Tell me you haven't been down this road before. You think God is hiding something from you. You need that piece of information to be happy, fulfilled, at peace, to believe. What God doesn't tell you, says you don't need to know, and is harmful to you becomes Pandora's Box. It takes on intense beauty. It's the one thing you must know at all costs.
We are tempted not by ugliness but beauty. If we didn't know the rest of the account, if we read just up to the point where Eve concludes the fruit is good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable to make one wise, there is no ugliness there. Thousands of years later John shows us the ugliness. He says, "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world." Eve concluding the tree was good for food is the lust of the flesh. Her concluding it was pleasing to the eye is the lust of the eyes. And her finding the fruit desirable for wisdom is the boastful pride of life.
Lust and boastful pride are ugly. Those beautiful words that make your mouth water for what God has forbidden are nails on a chalkboard; those beautiful sights are fearful; those hidden things of God you think beautiful are hideously ugly. As the beautiful song of the Sirens only sang sailors to an ugly death, as the beautiful fruit on the planet Eden was filled with ugly acid, as Pandora's beautiful box was filled with ugly greed, vanity, slander, envy, and pining, so all that your fallen flesh considers beautiful, pleasing, desirable will turn out to be unbearably, unimaginably ugly to you.
You will wake up to the reality of the ugliness either here or hereafter. Adam and Eve woke up to realize that the beauty they were pursuing was really ugliness. Have you? What God says is bad do you call good? What God says stay away from, do you run toward? What God says is deadly knowledge do you consider wise? Then the lust of the flesh is good; the lust of the eyes is beauty, and the boastful pride of life is wisdom to you. And the Devil hisses, "Sleep my pretties, sleep."
God says, Hit the rocks so you might hear the Siren's song for what it is: death. Taste the acid so you might know that what God forbids to you in thought, word and deed is poison. See that if you pry open a door God has closed you're dealing with Him in a way He doesn't wish to be dealt with and you'll find an evil you can't handle as Pandora did.
John tells us what Eve found out when she rebelled against God: all that seemed so good, beautiful and desirable, without God is only death. John says, "The world is passing and also its lusts." Because of sin your life and all that you think good, beautiful and desirable is passing through your fingers like so many grains of sand. Not only can't you stop it, but you will pass away with it and so come face to face with an ugliness that will drive you mad. The only one who lives forever says John is "the One who does the will of God."
Do you think that's you? Come on; perfect Eve couldn't do it, and neither can you. The fruit we're not to have we want and the fruit we can have we don't want. The only one who it can be said "does the will of God" is God in flesh and blood: Jesus, our beautiful Savior.
See Him in the desert doing the will of God. The Holy Spirit led Him there and He willingly followed. He gave up food for 40 days and 40 nights living by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. The Word of God that is often ashes, bitterness, or boringness to our taste was food to Jesus. He relished it; He lived on it while we avoid it and won't eat it.
Why did Jesus do this? Not for His sake but ours. He is the Word made flesh. What need did He have to "read, mark, and inwardly digest" the Word of God? He did it in our place. His Body lived by God's Word as you and I should, so His Body might become food for us. Having scorned God's Word as not good enough, God could have cast us off forever. Instead He sent His Son to do what we can't do. Having done it, the Word made flesh becomes food, life, and salvation to fallen flesh.
What a beautiful Savior. See Him in the desert giving up all that is eye-pleasing in this world to embrace the way of the ugly cross. The Devil flashes before His eyes "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor." Think of the adulation of billions. Think of vast palaces, mountains of money, and truly beautiful art. All this Jesus sees and the Devil says, "I will give it to You." No dark Gethsemane; no betrayal; no trials, no Calvary; no "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me." All the glory with none of the ugly cross.
Our beautiful Savior says, "No." He would go the way of the ugly cross to purchase us from the Devil. The Devil owns neither us nor the world by power or right. He owns us and it by God's Word. God's Word promised the world to perfect people, and God's Word promised that imperfect people must die. Even the Devil can hold God to His Word. By going the way of the cross after having perfectly kept God's Word, Jesus was able to suffer, bleed and die in our place thereby keeping God's promise to punish sinners. The gory, bloody, Jesus hanging on the cross is beautiful to us. God gave Him our punishment, so He might give us the world Jesus' perfect life deserved. The ugly, crucified Jesus is proof this exchange has taken place.
Our beautiful Savior is in the ugly desert saving us. He's there living by faith because you and I want to live by what makes sense. It makes sense that if the angels protect Jesus they should be able to save Him no matter what the circumstances. It makes sense to test what you believe protects you. You test your smoke and burglar alarms, don't you? So why not God? Because God says, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." Jesus lived by faith in those words to save us from being judged by those words and to win for us even greater promises than earthly protection. Because of Jesus' perfect obedience, we are promised forgiveness of sins, rescue from the Devil and eternal salvation. We are not promised these because we never sin but because He never did. We aren't promised these because we've paid for our sins but because He did.
You know how Orpheus got passed the Siren song that sounded beautiful but was deadly? He sang a song so clear and lovely that it drowned the Siren's out. Let beautiful Jesus be your Orpheus. You know the only thing the gods left Pandora in her box after she let out all that evil? Hope. Let beautiful Jesus be your lasting hope in the face of all the evils in your world. You know what delivered people from the mythical planet Eden? Their leader biting into the beautiful but deadly fruit and dying made them leave. Let beautiful Jesus deliver you from sin, Devil and death by suffering in His body the poisonous effects of all the forbidden fruit your body has ever eaten. Tempted by beauty we're saved by ugliness, by the ugliness that happens to our beautiful Savior. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Lent (20080210); I John 2:15-17