A sermon preached on February 10, 2008 based upon Genesis 2:15 – 17, 3:1 – 7, and Matthew 4:1 -11, entitled, “It’s All Good.”Thinking about the two scripture readings this morning, a line from a movie popped into my head: “It’s good to be king!” It took me a few minutes, but I traced it back to Mel Brooks and his comedy, “The History of the World: Part I”, in which Brooks plays King Louie, shortly before the French Revolution. Every so often in the movie, when the privileges of his station in life permit King Louie to possess pretty much anything he desires, Brooks looks into the camera, raises his eye brows and addresses the audience, saying, “It’s good to be King!”
Ah, to have no limitations — none of the constraints that the mass of humanity is forced to live under — to be so special, to be exempt. It’s a funny line in the movie, and we can’t help but laugh.
The line, however, begs some examination. In a certain sense it reflects the point of view that drives our whole culture. It is the appeal of this line that makes it possible for the credit card companies to seduce us, and the lottery to entice us. A great deal of the advertising with which we are bombarded is based on the notion that if we will only buy their product, we will be as happy as old King Louie.
Our economy is designed on the principle that in order to have perpetual growth in the economy a perpetual discontent is required by you and me with our present lot in life, with the assumption that the longed for contentment would be ours if we could only have the consumer goods offered by the manufacturing sector.
But I digress.
The underlying assumption of the statement “It’s good to be King!” is that it isn’t good to be you and me, the peons who struggle under the constraints and limitations of being merely ordinary.
The opening chapter of the Bible tells the story of creation, where God creates the cosmos in six days, resting on the seventh. Now as historical truth — as an explanation for exactly how the world and everything came to be — this story isn’t much use. It does, however, contain spiritual truth, the core of which is found in the oft repeated line, “And God saw that it was good.” At the end, God contemplates everything God has made and declares all to be “very good.”
(Interestingly, Alex Hawkins has taught me that there is a popular phrase in the lexicon of young people these days: “It’s all good.”)
Now, I would suggest to you that everything kind of hinges upon whether or not we buy into the notion that Genesis, rather than Mel Brook’s King Louie, has it right.
Is it good to be alive, and here I mean to possess simple, ordinary human life? Is it good, or no? Or is life only good if we can leave behind being ordinary — to be special, exempt, unlimited.
This morning we heard the two most famous temptation stories. At the heart of both of these stories is the temptation to buy into some version of what Mel Brook’s King Louie would have us believe.
Genesis chapters two and three tells us about Adam and Eve living in the Garden of Eden. They have everything they need. It is all good.
The talking serpent comes along, however, and quickly calls attention to the limitation God has placed into their lives. “You mean you can’t eat of the fruit?” No, they say, we can eat all of the fruit, we just can’t eat that particular fruit. “You know the real reason God doesn’t want you to eat that specific fruit is because God wants to keep you from the truly good stuff. The truth of the matter is that if you eat the fruit of this particular tree, you will become LIKE GOD.”
In other words, happy, at last, like the King.
Before we turn to the New Testament story, there is another Old Testament story worth considering, and that is the one where the middle-aged King David looks from his roof top and sees beautiful Bathsheba sunning herself, and he turns and looks into the camera and says, “It’s good to be king!” taking Bathsheba for himself. He does this even though she is already married to a man named Uriah, who happens to be off at the battlefront serving as a general in David’s army.
Like King Louie who ended up killed by the angry masses fed up with his privilege and debauchery, things don’t turn out so well for King David. When David discovers that he has gotten Bathsheba pregnant, he calls Uriah home from the battlefront. In an attempt to cover his tracks, King David tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife. Curiously, Uriah refuses the special treatment offered by his king. His soldiers who serve him are at the battle front aren’t able to sleep with their wives, so neither will he. He reflects a kind of honor which, for the time being at least, David has lost.
King David ends up arranging to have Uriah murdered when he returns to the battlefront, which simply goes to show that once you start down the “I’m special and the rules that constrain other people don’t apply to me” path, well, there’s no telling what you’ll be capable of doing.
When we turn to the New Testament story, it is important to keep in mind what happened immediately before the story of the temptation of Jesus. Jesus shows up at the River Jordan where John is baptizing masses of people in the River Jordan — ordinary people, like you and me.
Now John intuitively recognizes that in a certain sense Jesus is indeed special. He is taken aback by Jesus coming to be baptized WITH all these ordinary human beings, as if he were just, well, ordinary. Jesus, however, doesn’t want special treatment; he wants to be baptized like everybody else. When he rises up out of the water, the voice of God is heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I’m well pleased.” Well, that certainly sounds like God is declaring Jesus special, and yet, his pleasure with Jesus at that moment seems to be related precisely to the fact that Jesus has chosen to take his place beside the rest of us ordinary slobs.
The Spirit of God then drives Jesus out into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. All of the devil’s temptations involve the possibility of Jesus getting special treatment for himself. As the son of God, you deserve being able to turn stones to bread whenever you’re hungry. You should be able to ump off the top of the temple and make the angels catch you, dazzling the masses with just how special you are, not even bound by the laws of physics. And finally, you deserve to take possession of even greatly worldly power than either David or Louie possessed.
Through it all, Jesus turns down the special treatment option, choosing instead to walk the same walk that the rest of us all have to live, with all the same basic limitations.
Each of us is given this gift called life. It’s a good gift, in spite of the fact that we all live under basic limitations. To name just a few: We can’t fly. We can’t go without food and water. We can’t live forever. There are plenty of others, but you get the picture.
Our lives can vary greatly. Some are rich and some are poor. Some have healthy bodies; while others deal with illness throughout. Some are able to get an education, while others never get the chance.
But here’s the thing: Every single life consists of a combination of that which is possible (the opportunities), and that which is impossible (the limitations.) Where exactly those possibilities and limitations are in each life vary widely from person to person, but in this we are all the same: in every life there is opportunity and there is limitation.
How we relate to our particular combination of opportunity and limitation is, on a practical level, what life is all about. There is that wonderful prayer we’ve all heard that comes out of AA that spells it out nicely:
God, grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change; the courage to change that which I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Accepting the limitations that are fixed and taking responsibility for what can be creatively improved — that’s what it’s all about.
Part of what all this means is that every life will have some measure of suffering, and every life will have some measure of joy. Don’t miss the joy be being preoccupied with the suffering. Life is good in spite of the suffering.
A lot depends on how we relate to our sufferings and the fact of our limitations. We can feel sorry for ourselves, which certainly is an understandable response in the face of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But a lifetime of feeling sorry for ourselves is a wasted life that has missed the truth that, nonetheless, “It’s all good.”
Jeannete Nichelson was a beloved member of our church who died a couple of years ago after a long life. She had some good advice that several of us remember her sharing. Jeanette would say, “Give yourself 15 minutes to feel sorry for yourself, and then put it on the shelf.”
You can spend your days resenting the fact that you weren’t born to be king or queen, and part of the foolishness of this would be that the king and queen you imagined weren’t all that happy either.
Life is good, even though life involves suffering. There is this basic choice when we find ourselves in suffering. We can either go searching for special treatment — a special exemption. Generally speaking, what this ends up meaning is that we bemoan the fact that we’re not getting special treatment. We end up isolated, alone, bitter.
There is, however, another choice when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering, and it is the choice modeled by Jesus. It is what I would call the path of “solidarity and compassion.” We recognize under the burden of our suffering that we’re in this thing called “life” with everybody else. Our limitations and our suffering (as well as our joy) link us with everybody else. We’re not alone. The suffering ends up creating bridges rather than isolation. We find in our own suffering the essential capacity to feel compassion for others.
I love the fact that when at the end of the story of the temptation, when Jesus finds in himself the capacity to definitively say “no” to the tempter’s suggestion he seek special treatment, it is then that the angels show up. I think we find in our own lives this to be experientially true. When we come to the place of acceptance of, rather than rebellion against, the life God has given us to live, we discover blessings to which we previously hadn’t been open. Doors open. Connections are made. There are bridges to cross.
Life is discovered, once more, to be good.