Lectionary Texts: Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, March 5, 2017
- An Intentional Wilderness
So we’ve been here before—at the beginning of a journey. We assume that we should be prepared, that we should have everything that we need, because, after all, you don’t want to be caught out in the wilderness without something. I mean, if that happened, no telling what you’d be tempted to do. And because we do that—because we overprepare and overpack and overplan, we miss being in the wilderness itself.
Years ago, I was in England and had the opportunity to visit Hampton Court near London. It is truly the site of some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. As we walked through the gardens, we were hit by row upon row of colorful blooms—a horticulturist’s dream. There were roses and camellias and daffodils of all sizes and colors and just the fact that they were all so perfect was utterly amazing. The beauty of Creation was at its most picturesque. As we walked through the gardens, there was one area that looked extremely odd among the perfectly manicured plats. It looked forgotten and overgrown, full of weeds and not a flower to speak of. It reminded of those “open for adoption” litter signs where you know that the next mile or so will be littered with trash as a symptom of the “forgotten child”. I thought it was very odd in this plethora of perfection to see something so forgotten, so fallow, and so hopeless.
There was even a chain across the entrance barring any more investigation. As I was about to leave, I noticed a sign. According to the sign, in order for these gardens to bloom throughout the season with continual colors, there is a system of “rolling fallow”—a crop rotation of sorts. This wilderness-looking area was just that—a fallow, resting wilderness—an intentional wilderness in order that it might be nurtured and fed. It was not dead—it was allowing God to work on it.
That’s the part we miss. We are not called to prepare ourselves for Lent or prepare ourselves for life or prepare ourselves for God. We are not called to try to fix everything or even attempt to spruce it up somehow so that it will be presentable. We are not called to evade those wildernesses and hard times in our lives. We are called to journey WITH God through everything that the wilderness offers and allow God to work on us that we might become who God intends us to be.
- So, What Was It About That Garden?
So we begin Lent by reading two wilderness stories—one is the story of that familiar Garden from the second chapter of Genesis and the other is the account of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness that we read on the first Sunday of every Lenten season. The first reading is one of the most iconic passages in Scripture. It is probably our “go to” when we try to explain sin, somehow trying to place blame for our own shortcomings on these poor, defenseless first two humans. I mean, really, there is this man and this woman who lived in a beautiful garden full of peacocks and calla lilies and llamas (I love llamas). You can imagine that it had a babbling brook with the freshest water you could ever find. The weather was always stupendous. This place was perfect. They were given everything they needed. They were protected and sheltered. Life was grand. They could do anything they wanted—anything, that is, except eat from this one tree. (Really? You’re given all of this and you can’t leave one tree alone?)
So, you know how humans can be. Even with everything they had, the thing they wanted the most was the thing they shouldn’t have. The thing that they wanted was the thing that would kill them. Yet, even with that, they somehow convinced themselves that that tree, now to them the most beautiful tree in the garden, had the best fruit of anything in the garden and all this that they had was no longer enough. They somehow convinced themselves that this tree would make life perfect.
Enter the talking (and at this point walking) snake. A talking snake? What an odd character! But this snake was so easy to talk to. The snake explained EVERYTHING, much better than God had. I mean, everything about God seemed to be some big mystery. The snake explained it. The snake made them feel good about themselves. The snake told them life was theirs for the taking. The snake made them believe that they could do anything if they just ate the fruit of this tree (and that for only $19.99 and free shipping, they could have two fruits from this incredible tree, IF they eat it today—I mean, that’s what it sounds like, right?). The snake told them how to be in control of their lives.
So, in what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the “first recorded act of human initiative”, they decided what was best for them (in spite of what God may have thought). They ate the fruit and the snake was right. They did not die. But life was changed forever. They looked at each other and suddenly realized that they were vulnerable and exposed. They had lost their innocence; they had lost their security; they had lost that wonderful intimacy with God. They felt what it was like to be human at their deepest level—broken, needful, hurt. This story is not just a story about sin (in fact, notice that the word is not even mentioned); it is a story about being human. More than that, it is an account of humanity’s relationship with God.
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, described the condition of being human as having a “God-shaped hole.” He didn’t see it as a flaw. After all, we are not “only human”; we are made in the image of God. Our humanity is a gift. God affirmed that in Jesus Christ, both human and divine. This is the way that God keeps us sort of tethered to our life-giving relationship with the Divine. It is that connection that draws us toward God—if we will only let it. In this story, Adam and Eve are tempted not just to sin but to fill that hole, that original gaping hole of insecurity and need not with their God-relationship but with something quick and easy like the fruit of a forbidden tree.
III. Jesus Led Into the Wilderness
Now jump to the Gospel reading. You know, I used to really be bothered by this story. I mean, if Jesus was tempted to be someone he was not, what hope is there for me? And we read that the Spirit “led” him there. Good grief, what kind of guardian Spirit is that to lead him there? It was as if he had no choice but to go. Jesus was baptized and affirmed as God’s beloved (that was in the previous chapter) and then immediately driven out into the desert. It was as if it was all meant to be. So, how do we explain that? Why would God’s Spirit INTENTIONALLY lead Jesus into temptation?
“Thor Heyerdahl was Norway’s most famous modern-day explorer. He gained international recognition for his sea travels aboard a raft he built called the Kon Tiki. As he sailed the Kon Tiki from Peru to Polynesia to prove a point about migration patterns, he observed that the real dangers on such an adventure lie not out at sea but close to shore. Near the shore, a boat can run aground or get dashed against the rocks. But out at sea, these dangers do not exist. There is freedom and the mystery of the sea.” [i] Our faith journey is the same way. Staying tethered to what is familiar and comfortable, to what we think we can control, causes us to become complacent, perhaps even sort of bored. We quit searching. We quit noticing that God is continually offering us something new.
But when, like Jesus, we journey into the wilderness, we are vulnerable enough to let God show us the way. Yes, we will face temptation, just as Jesus did. Remember, Jesus was human and faced human temptations. But he was led into it—on purpose. Fred Craddock says that “temptation indicates strength”. Jesus was led into the wilderness to gain strength to do what he needed to do, to get to know himself at a deeper level, so that he would also know the God that worked within him. He was led by the Spirit so that he could encounter the mystery of God.
- Led Into Temptation
And the first temptation that Jesus encounters is to turn stones into bread. It was the temptation to put his physical needs ahead of his spiritual ones. I mean, think about how famished Jesus must have been. All he has to do is say the word and he would have what he needed.
It was also the temptation to be successful, to be relevant, to matter. If he had transformed the stones, he would have had everything he needed. He would have been able to give others what they needed (or what he THOUGHT they needed). It would have been putting his own self, his own ego, his own physical desires, ahead of what God was calling him to do. We do it. We want to matter. We want to have our own needs met, our own egos stroked a bit. And when we get caught up in this, our needs become more important than the hope that God’s Kingdom offers the world. We become so focused on ourselves that we lose the perspective of God’s vision for us and the world.
There is a story about Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and this “ego-trap”. He was on vacation in Maine in an attempt to get away from the place where he couldn’t even go out without people recognizing him. But “when they arrived in a secluded Maine town, they encountered rainy weather, so they decided to go to a movie. Upon walking into the lighted theater, they were greeted by the applause of the small audience gathered there. As they sat down, Shula whispered to his wife, “I guess there’s no place where I’m not known.” When a man from the audience came over to shake his hand, Shula said, “I’m surprised you know me!” To which the man replied, “Do I know you? We just applauded because we’re glad to see you folks. The manager wouldn’t start the film until at least ten people came in.””[ii]
Sometimes we forget that who we are or what we want or what we need or even what we think or believe is not what everything is about. This is a reminder to get out of ourselves. God has created us as beloved children, but not the ONLY beloved children.
Then we read in the Scripture that Jesus is offered all of the Kingdoms of the world. Look, Jesus, all of this could be yours. You would be incredible. We all want that, to be incredible, to be spectacular, to be powerful. And think about it, Jesus was just beginning his ministry. This would be a guarantee that everyone would LIKE him, everyone would follow him. Well, that would certainly make it easier! And he would be in control. That would make everything a whole lot easier.
We want to be in control. Humans are always tempted by that. Here, Jesus is offered power and control if he would only sell his soul. The truth is, remember that Jesus did not come to be a political leader. If he had, he would have taken this. Instead, he came to be a vulnerable, suffering Savior and to call us to do the same. Trying to gain power over others goes against God’s plan for us. It is not our world. It is not our nation. It is not our church. God has entrusted it to us. It is all God’s. So, Jesus responds by simply saying, Worship God, Serve God. That’s all. Let go. G.K. Chesterton, was an English theologian and writer in the early 20th century. When asked what was wrong with the world, Chesterton’s response was, “I am.” Wow! That’s a good message to remember. Just let go of needing to be in control.
OK, so the first temptation was physical. It has to do with our egos and our needs. The second was political. It has to do with political or social power. But the third one is perhaps the most dangerous, because it is a spiritual temptation. Jesus is told, “OK, so if you ARE the Son of God, throw yourself down and let God save you.” In other words, PROVE God’s existence. PROVE that God loves you. PROVE that God will protect you and save you.
It is always a temptation. After all, we want to be sure. We want to know that we have it right. We want others to know we have it right. We want to know that we’re on the right road. It’s back to the Adam and Eve story. Why can’t we just trust that God is God and we are not? If we could prove God, God would not be God. God would be our image of the God we want. Yearning to be with God, wanting to follow the REAL God IS the journey. GOD is in control of our salvation; we are not.
- This Lenten Journey
You know, it’s tempting (no pun intended) to look at this with the assumption that Jesus wasn’t really tempted. After all, he was divine. But, then, we are discounting that Jesus was also human. Jesus had to go into the wilderness to be tested. It was not a pass-fail examination; it was a way of Jesus finding out who he was and who he was not—sort of like you test a chemistry experiment to find what it is. It was the way that Jesus became who he was called to be for his life, for his ministry, and for the Cross.
And his temptations would never end. The testing was always there—right to the last minute on the cross. But God is also there. Falling down, failure, difficulties—they are part of life. That’s what Lent shows us. It is a reminder that we are human. We just had Ash Wednesday. We were just reminded that we are dust. But from dust comes life. That’s God’s promise.
Remember, Adam and Eve did NOT die from eating the tree. Or did they? What was gone was innocence. What was gone was that unblemished connection to God. What was gone was that childhood view that nothing could ever go wrong. What had died was the self that they had created and with which they had become so comfortable.
There are those whose faith understanding is that we are called to return to the Garden. Hmmm! Why would God create this whole incredible universe and then expect us to stay locked in a garden? The truth was, they did die—they died to themselves. And God began to show humanity the way home, the way through temptation and exile and wandering in the wilderness. God began to show humanity what it was like to return. Our whole faith journey may be more about returning home, returning to God, than about anything else. Perhaps that’s the point. I, personally, don’t think we’re headed back to the Garden; I think that was only the beginning. God has a whole lot more in store for us. We can’t go back. Because we’re not innocent; we are forgiven.
- Our Wilderness Quest
So why continually relive those forty days when we know that the suffering gets resolved in the end anyway? Have you ever thought that perhaps these fallow days are not so that we can understand Jesus’ suffering, death, and eternal life but, rather, ours? We are not walking this road to commemorate Jesus’ life; we are walking it to find our own.
Did you know that the word “wilderness” appears in the Bible close to 300 times? Have you ever thought that maybe this wilderness journey, this intentional pilgrimage through the unfamiliar is not just a Bible story that keeps recurring, but it perhaps the whole story itself? This is where we learn who God is—mystery and all; this is where we learn who we really are; this is where we meet and walk together to the Cross, to that home that God has prepared just for us. Havelock Ellis once said that “the promised land lies on the other side of a wilderness.” And the promise is that God will lead us there, even when we are tempted to stay behind.
[i] Taken from “From Sacrifice to Celebration: A Lenten Journey”, by Evan Drake Howard (Judson Press: Valley Forge, PA, 1993), 3-4.
[ii] Ibid., 6.