The Big Lie
There is a Big Lie out there, one that is both ancient and contemporary, and it eclipses all the “big lies” we are so accustomed to hearing about in the media. This is the Big Lie: God cannot be trusted, so you’d better do something, and fast!
We’re spending the year considering the cohesive story of the Scriptures, seeing it as a narrative tapestry with threads, themes, running through it, start to finish. My friend Canon Mary Hays contends that at the heart of sin there is always a lie. And the more I think about it, this truth emerges as a bright thread of warning in the biblical narrative.
Sin begins when Adam and Eve swallow the serpent’s subtle deception, persuading them that God’s instructions were not for their good...not to be trusted. Once Satan has planted the lie, he’s quick with the suggestion that they take matters into their own hands. Eat the fruit. Meet their own needs. Do something to somehow secure their own future. Be like God. These two are always paired: Doubt God. Take matters into your own hands.
Though we don’t hear it as overtly, what was the lie that motivated the people of Israel in the wilderness to disobey God and try to collect extra manna, only to see it rot? Surely they took matters into their own hands because they did not believe God would provide for them if they obeyed him—waited for him to provide day by day instead of stockpiling for themselves (Exodus 16:19-20).
Just as clearly, ten of the twelve spies believed the lie that they dare not obey God and go into the promised land as God had instructed his people to do. They didn’t believe God could handle their enemies. The enemy was too powerful, they believed, and they were too weak to be victorious, despite God’s repeated promises. Joshua and Caleb begged the people to put their weight on God’s promise of victory, but to no avail (Numbers 14:6 and following). While God’s spiritual enemies were not successful in destroying his people completely, still an entire generation was lost to wilderness-wandering before they were afforded another opportunity, and finally trusted the Lord at Jericho. The wilderness sojourn was never meant to last so long.
They swallowed a lie and God’s best for them was lost.
Once in the Land, God’s promise to his people was that he could be trusted to supply rain and secure their survival with abundant harvests (Deuteronomy 11:10-16). However, once again, they believed the lie that God might fail them, that their fate rested in their own hands, and this led to suggestive idolatries aimed at manipulating foreign gods to produce rain. “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen” (Romans 1:25, NLT).
So the pattern has been established. God’s people keep falling for the lie that he will fail in his promise to care for them (despite his astonishing resume of caring for them remarkably), and they repeatedly reach for some control of their own, hedging their bets, as it were. Again, they lose God’s best for them and are uprooted from the land he gave.
The Hebrew Scriptures essentially end in defeat. Even after their return from exile, God’s people did not ever manage to take God at his word, or to resist fruitless experiments to take matters into their own hands. The one note of hope is that God will send a Deliverer who will carry their sorrows, bear the punishment for their disobedience, and please God on their behalf (Jeremiah 33:5-16; Isaiah 53).
It is amazing, eloquent, powerful to me that as soon as Jesus is baptized he is confronted with this subtle lie and, in a way, his first triumph on our behalf is to resist the temptation—to take matters into his own hands. The devil tempts Jesus to DO SOMETHING to provide for himself (make bread from stones), demonstrate that God’s power was with him (throw himself off a great height and be rescued by angels), and exercise global control (worship Satan and rule the world). In each case, Jesus leans on the promises of God and resists (Matthew 4).
The glory at the end of the story is that in each of those temptations the devil tries to get Jesus to jump the gun on something that God was already planning to do through him, and did eventually do! Jesus would indeed miraculously create food, work wonders, and defeat death to take his place at God’s right hand to reign in triumph. He was willing to wait.
Just as we saw last month that Jesus becomes God’s vine and bears for God’s people the good fruit they had been unable to bear themselves, here Jesus resists the lie that has undone God’s people repeatedly, and in his willingness to wait he protects God’s eventual redemption of us all.
So what? That’s the question we should always ask of ourselves and of any preacher or teacher. What are we to do with this truth? I think of my own frequent temptations to sin or the fears that always nip at my heels. What is the lie at work when I battle anxiety before a speaking engagement (every time)? What is the lie at work when I reach for food or wine, or turn to some other diversion to calm the restlessness of the moment or ease accumulated pressure at the end of a day? As I learn to recognize it, I can tell myself the truth. And I can hear the Lord say, “I’m right here! Talk to me. Lean on me now. Remember who I’ve been to you. Remember what I promise.”
Jesus stood up to the lie, defeated the liar, and because he did, with his help, we can too.