Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
They told me not to do it. They said I would break something if I tried to do it myself. But I couldn’t resist the temptation. I did it anyway. And I broke one of our stained glass windows. The Handy Corps of Pullen know exactly what I am talking about. You see, several years ago I was determined to hang the 10-foot banner of pregnant Mary on the outside of the building, from the second floor east side windows for the season of Advent. The first Sunday of Advent was just four days away, and I had missed my window of time (no pun intended) to ask the Handy Corps for their help. I called several of them on Thursday to see if they could help me but no one was available. Each told me not to try and do it alone that they would help me the following Wednesday. But that would mean missing the first Sunday in Advent.
What could go wrong, I thought. All I have to do is get it out the second floor windows, lower it down slowly, and tie it to the window handles on the inside and to the nails sticking out of the brick on the outside. No problem, right? Problem! You see, the banner has a wooden rod running across the bottom of it to help weight it down. As the bottom of the banner completed its final roll down a large gust of wind caught it and slammed it into one of the purple stained-glass windows in the information room. From the second floor, I could hear the glass shatter. To my ears, the sound was like a bulldozer tearing down the church. My first instinct was to run and hide and never show my face again. But my second instinct was to call Phil Miller, fall on my sword, and shamelessly beg for his help. Phil was more than willing to come help me repair the window. There was just one problem. No stained-glass company in all of the Triangle had the purple stained glass. It was old and as one stain-glass expert told me, it could take weeks, even months, to track some down just like it. I knew come Sunday, I, like the humans in the Garden, would stand exposed before the gods of Pullen. And honestly, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Like those humans in the Garden, the temptation of self-reliance had gotten the best of me and the consequences felt dire. Fortunately, it wasn’t long until I found a piece of the old purple glass and in a matter of a couple of weeks all was well again at Pullen.
On this first Sunday in Lent we are invited to see our own stories in two temptation narratives from our sacred text—the humans in the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the wilderness. Indeed, these stories are our stories. One of my favorite biblical teachers, Deborah Steely, reminded me of this truth—that these stories are our own stories—in a sermon she preached years ago. She writes:
“The respectful student remembers that the Bible is, first and last, a story. It has, throughout, two major characters: God and humankind. It has, throughout, an overriding theme: God’s hunger for relationship with humankind, and humanity’s thirst for relationship with God.
…So we begin by calling the Bible what it is: a story. A large, sometimes confounding, often obscure story, a story with a weighty theme, a sacred story, but a story nonetheless.
…We resonate to these stories because they are human, and because we are so human. We find in them echoes of the human struggle to be loyal friends, good parents, and faithful stewards. And we can find company when we have failed in our struggles. It helps to know that there are others who have also failed, and tried again.
…But the story becomes ours most significantly when we actively claim it as our own, when we begin to grant that it has power over us, that it shapes our thoughts and actions and that we willingly accede to that shaping.”
It is the bible’s overriding theme that Deborah has identified that I wish to explore in these parallel narratives of the humans in the Garden and Jesus in the wilderness, that theme of: God’s hunger for relationship with humankind, and humanity’s thirst for relationship with God.
But first, I cannot help myself. I want to make a few observations about the Genesis 3 story mainly because Christian tradition has done such a poor and narrow job of interpreting it. Traditionally, Genesis 3 has been known as the “fall,” the Bible’s first temptation and act of disobedience by the humans God created. This story if often interpreted with these assumptions:
- God created a perfect and static world, until the “fall”
- Humans lived in a paradise with no responsibilities, until the “fall”
- The evil serpent is a Satan figure who brings evil into God’s perfect creation, thus creating the “fall”
- The woman alone succumbed to temptation, and so she alone is responsible for the “fall”
- And, the main purpose of Genesis 3 is to explain how evil/sin came into God’s perfect creation
I would guess that most of us in this room grew up with these assumptions.
But for a moment, let us consider a more careful and responsible reading of this text.
- God does indeed create a “good” world but the story never says that God created a “perfect” world in the sense of a closed, static and totally divinely-controlled universe. We know this from Genesis 1 where the story repeatedly calls creation “good,” not perfect
- In the Genesis 2 creation story, the humans have work to do and responsibility from the very beginning. The Garden was never intended as a vacation paradise where all was pristine and perfect
- In its original context, the serpent in Genesis 3 is not Satan who invades God’s creation from the outside. The serpent is one of God’s own creatures who simply poses some questions and alternative explanations concerning God’s motivations in creation for the humans to consider.
- Most often, the scene of the temptation in the Garden is portrayed as the woman standing alone with the serpent, but a careful reading will reveal that the man was present all along. The serpent and the woman engage in conversation, she takes and eats the fruit, and then she gives the fruit to her partner, who is with her all along. He had the same information that she had.
- And last, the main purpose of Genesis 3 is to tell a story about the mystery of temptation, not explain its origin. Genesis 3 is simply describing the reality of what it is to be human, as God created us, and our tendency toward self-reliance rather than partnership with the One who created us. (Dennis Olsen, Professor of OT Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary)
And, it is this last point that brings me back around to Deborah’s thinking and what I think both of our narratives are about: God’s hunger for relationship with humankind, and humanity’s thirst for relationship with God. Maybe you are not sure about how much God hunger’s for relationship with you. But surely, you feel how thirsty you are for relationship with God.
It is tempting (pardon the expression) to treat these two narratives as opposites –the negative example (“give in to temptation, and you’ll get in deep trouble”) and the positive example (“resist the temptation, and you’ll do all right.”) And there is some truth to that. In the story of Eden, Adam and Eve’s choices have the consequence of separation from the garden, and to some extent from God. In the desert temptation, Jesus’ ability to stay true to himself, in part by denying the seductive idea of being all knowing and all powerful, binds him closer to God, and to the truth of his power in relationship with God. So it is true that there is a dichotomy there.
But before we jump to compare and contrast, let’s just listen again to these stories from a different angle. Deborah’s premise of the dance of God and humanity is that it is all about relationship. We are desperate to be in relationship with each other – God to humankind, and humankind to God. Knowing that this is a story, the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves, what do we think it means that Adam and Eve are in Eden, they break some rules, and then they are out of Eden. On the surface is the “don’t break the rules” answer. One layer down from that is the “don’t get bigger than your britches” message of not trying to know as much as God. But what if we imagine our relationship with God not as a parent/child relationship (as some of us were taught) where we get into trouble if we “break the rules” but rather a relationship that is mature and loving where each has agency and choice.
If what we want in life is mature love and relationship with a mature and loving other, then we have to be mature and loving. The love between a parent and child is beautiful. And it is the love of a child, which brings along all kinds of dependencies and caretaking and obligations and sacred blessing. But it is not the same as the love of a mature soul; one who thinks for herself, and still chooses to listen. One who can make her own way in the world, but chooses to stay. One who has disappointed and been disappointed, but chooses to trust. Those are the gifts of mature relationship that we seek from each other. Thus, is it so far fetched to imagine that these are the gifts God seeks from us? And that the only way to achieve that kind of mature, loving relationship is to set some boundaries and break some boundaries and live to struggle through it?
So what about Jesus in the desert? What does that teach us about what is available to us in terms of relationship with God? The setup is different. In this case, Jesus is all alone, and he is feeling it. He is presented with a choice to change the trajectory of his life, which he knows will be dark and very painful. And in the midst of these options, Jesus chooses to deny his own personal authority and power. When we read this story from a power mindset, it’s all about the power he gives away or refuses to use. And many of us learned this story from that sacrificial mindset – that Jesus makes those choices because he must be sacrificed. But what if we could unlearn that part? What if Jesus’ choices aren’t a predestined act that sets him up for crucifixion? What if this is a mature, loving man, who, understanding that he is facing a boundary, chooses to respect the boundary. Jesus inherently understands that all this power that is being dangled by the devil is, in fact, available to him, but it is available at a cost. And that cost is separation. If Jesus acts in that desert as and for Jesus only, then he is redefining his relationship with God. He chooses not to do that. He chooses to say that even personal power has limits, and that sometimes mature, loving adults choose to say no to themselves in order to preserve connection.
This is difficult and dangerous stuff, these stories. They can be read so many ways. And the reading is always, always informed by who we are at the time of the reading. We can read these, as children might, and hear black and white/right and wrong. We can read them, as some adolescents might, and hear only the boundaries. Or we can read them as about relationship. An example where God shows God’s hand of deep desire for relationship with a humankind that is willing and able to abide in mature, loving relationship. And an example where humankind shows that when we do our work, we are born to stay in relationship with the divine. And so I ask, or rather the narratives ask: How might these stories be shaping us this Lenten season?
As Deborah says, “the story becomes ours most significantly when we actively claim it as our own, when we begin to grant that it has power over us, that it shapes our thoughts and actions and that we willingly accede to that shaping.”
And just in case you are wondering: I will not be hanging any more banners by myself!