Sermon preached March 9, 2014
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Electronic games are quite popular and quite convenient. We carry them around on our phones. How many of you have ever played “Angry Birds”? For some games you still need a game system, and if you have one, here’s a game you can play – “God’s Playing Field.” Here is the description: You decide who lives and who dies. If you’ve ever wanted a chance to play God, there it is. Will you be merciful or merciless?
When kidney dialysis first became more widely available in the early 1960s, because of the development of a Teflon shunt, decisions needed to be made about who would receive the treatment. At the Seattle Artificial Kidney Center at Swedish Hospital in 1961 an Admissions and Policies Committee was formed to determine who would receive hemodialysis. The committee was a private-sector creation and consisted of seven citizens–lawyer, minister, banker, housewife, state government official, labor leader, and surgeon– all selected by the King County Medical Society. The committee’s work became well-known through a 1962 article in Life magazine. It became known as “the God committee.”
Playing God. There is something about “playing God” that we think quite objectionable. When the work of Seattle’s “God committee” came to light, it sparked a national debate and national legislation which made kidney dialysis virtually universally available in the United States. We did not want committees of seven “playing God.”
There are deep roots to our concerns about playing God. We find them early in our Scriptures, in the story in Geneis of the man and the woman in the garden. The man is given instructions by God not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” The crafty serpent, craftier than any other wild animal, tells the woman, however, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” They eat, they do not die, they gain knowledge, but their lives are forever changed. “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
This story is absolutely fascinating on all kinds of levels, and here’s just a couple of them. Everyone reading this story understands that a part of being human is having some knowledge of good and evil. To be human is to have some measure of self-understanding and self-awareness. And the story does not dispute that there is something God-like in this. There is something God-like in this, and there is also something uncomfortable about this ability to know, reflect, feel. There is a sense that we are stuck with this God-likeness and it is not always easy.
I want to push the point further. I want to suggest that playing God is just what human life is all about. The early Christian saint and theologian Athanasius, wrote, “God was made human that we might be made like God.” More recently, the biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink wrote, “to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (The Human Being, 30)
Finally, let me draw your attention to the longer quote on the bulletin insert. Allen Verhey is a theological ethicist who writes in the area of bioethics. Should human beings “play God”? It depends, you see, on what it means to “play God.”… If we are to “play God” as God plays God, then we have a pattern for our imitation in God’s hospitality to the poor and to the stranger, to the powerless and to the voiceless…. If we are to “play God” as God plays God, then we will work for a society where human beings – each of them, even the least of them – are treated as worthy of God’s care and affection. (“Playing God and Invoking a Perspective”)
Playing God is just what human life is all about with one significant qualification. We are to play God as God plays God. One way to understand the story of Jesus’ temptation is to see it as a series of temptations to play God badly. In the end, Jesus wants to play God in the right way.
Jesus is famished. There are stones and he is tempted to turn them into bread. In the story, the temptation is real. He might be able to do this, but he chooses not to. We live in a world where hunger is real and solutions to hunger are not always easy. To turn stones into bread would isolate Jesus from that world, remove him from it, would make the point of power such isolation and removal from the deep hungers of the world, not all of which are for bread. Jesus will play God by staying engaged with this hungry world.
Jesus is tempted to throw himself into danger, trusting that nothing will harm him, that he will not dash his foot against a stone. Jesus refuses. We live in a world where people get hurt, where our feet get dashed against stones. Jesus is tempted to isolate himself from that world, to remove himself from that world, to make the point of power such isolation and removal from the hurt and pain of the world. Jesus will play God by staying engaged with this hurting world.
Jesus is given the opportunity to have it all, to make success and splendor the point of his life, and to get there any way he can. He refuses. We live in a world that often idolizes splendor and excess, where success is defined primarily in material terms and people are tempted to reach that goal any way they can, even if others are left behind. Jesus is tempted to isolate himself from the toils and struggles of the human community, to remove himself from that world, to make the point of power such isolation and removal, to make the point of power self-aggrandizement. Jesus will play God by staying engaged with the daily struggles of people for a better world, stay engaged with the community building a newer world.
We are like God, knowing good and evil, being self-aware. We cannot go back. So how will we play God? “To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (Walter Wink). “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (St. Irenaeus, in Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul, 181) So how will we play God?
I think Allen Verhey is right. Play God as God plays God. Then it matters very much how we imagine God. Marcus Borg: How we image God shapes not only what we think God is like but also what we think the Christian life is about (The God We Never Knew, 57) Jesus was tempted to play God as a God whose power removes God from human struggles, from human hurts, fears, hopes, dreams. Jesus was tempted to play God as a God whose power isolates God from the world in which we live. And aren’t we likewise tempted? Don’t we sometimes think of God as sitting up there somewhere making decisions about who lives and who dies, sometime with more mercy than others? Don’t we sometimes imagine God far removed, making inscrutable decisions about illness and plague and death?
How we imagine God matters. How we view the shades of God matters, and peering into some of the shades of God is where we are going on Sunday mornings this Lent. But for we Christians, we look to Jesus to understand God best, and to understand what it might mean to play God as God plays God. As I said on Wednesday, the goal of all this exploring is not to construct an intellectually satisfying theology, as interesting as that can be, at least for some of us. The goal is a transformed life.
I need to add a cautionary note. Inviting us to play God is not an invitation to a mono-maniacal ego trip. Taken in the wrong way, the invitation to play God can lead one to become an insufferable bore or to a room in a psychiatric facility. There is an important truth in the acknowledgement that we are not God, but that just means we are not God in God’s fullness. There is something of God in each of us that needs to be tended, nurtured and allowed to grow.
The invitation to play God as God plays God is to make God more real in our lives here and now, to make God more real in our lives even in these aching, hungry, dying bodies, to make God more real in our lives in this place and in this time – at First United Methodist Church, in Duluth, Minnesota, in the United States, in this world of 2014 with all is beauty and joy and heartache.
The invitation to play God as God plays God is stated so well by St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171) Somehow being our best selves and playing God are inextricably linked together. We have a joyous adventure of discovery ahead exploring our lives and the shades of God. Amen.