I chose to have the short form of the gospel read today because most scholars agree that this was probably what was actually spoken by Jesus with the rest being added by the early church. The parable is one Jesus used to address for his followers the fact that he really at times had few followers and even some who would leave and go away. The picture he paints is a farmer who haphazardly spreads the seed in his field while planting and loses much of it in weeds and rocky ground and to birds and so forth. Yet Jesus says the farmer will get a return of sixty to a hundred fold on his seeds. To a farmer of his time, this would be almost a miraculous return as seven to ten fold would be considered a good return. Thus, Jesus is saying, the word of God is an active and enlightening and growing thing. Nothing can stop it and numbers of the early disciples and the early church should not discourage or depress his followers. Amazingly he was right as we reach our own time, the word has spread around the world but unfortunately, we must ask has it reached the hundred fold that Christ said it could? Certainly, there will always be unbelievers who hear the word and move on. But truly, has the word gone out to all the world, to the far ends? Have we reached out to the hungry and suffering people in the world? Do we welcome the stranger seeking to enter our country or places where we live. The Word is alive and active, yet we need to listen and make ourselves live it out as a true follower. How each of us responds is how the word will grow.
12th Sunday in Ordinary time, 6-25-17; Jeremiah 20: 10-13, Ps 69, Romans 5: 12-15, Matthew 10: 26-33
Counting Hairs and Making Choices
Our readings this morning start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was only 13 years old when God came to him and said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you….I set my words in your mouth.”
The call to be God’s prophet was a heavy burden for Jeremiah because the nation of Israel was worshiping idols, again. God’s words were harsh, urging the people of Israel to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. If that wasn’t enough, the vicious Babylonian army was coming. The power of God was Israel’s only real defense against that army. But then loud men with great influence appeared; they mocked Jeremiah and bragged that Israel could defeat Babylon. They thought their positions and their power would be enhanced by silencing Jeremiah. So, Jeremiah was threatened and betrayed, he was put in the dungeon, left in a well, and had to flee to Egypt when Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians – all for doing God’s work, warning Israel and offering God’s forgiveness and protection.
Likewise, our Psalm today is a lament, a cry of anguish. It is the prayer of a man who is exhausted, an outcast from family& community, falsely accused, the butt of jokes & mean-spirited gossip. He says, “More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.”
So it’s against this dark background that we turn to the Gospel of Matthew. We read from the 3rd section of Matthew, where Jesus commissions the 12 apostles and prepares to send them out to heal, drive out unclean spirits, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. After all, “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Let’s look closely at this first commissioning.
It starts with “Fear no one.” In fact, Jesus says this 3 times in this one paragraph. I have been told that “Fear not” and “Do not be afraid” are commands that occur more than 300 times in the Bible; and it is a command, not some silly attempt at providing comfort – like the “Now, this won’t hurt a bit” that you might hear in the dentist’s office. The Lord is telling us not to let ourselves be afraid. We can’t afford to be scared. It just gets in the way of us doing whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing. Fearlessness does not come from being patted on back. It means making a conscious decision not to indulge ourselves.
Everyone gets scared. It’s okay to feel scared. There are some mean dudes out there. But you can’t let it run your life. If you’ll just mind the Lord on this one thing, you won’t need any courage. Just mind Him in this: “Do not be afraid!”
Next Jesus advises the apostles (and us) about the freedom of preaching the Good News. There is nothing secretive or hidden about the announcement of the Kingdom of God. Of course, we must know and study the truth of Our Lord’s teachings. You are so fortunate to have Bishop Ron with you, because he is so attentive to teaching the Word. The truth Jesus taught can be preached from the housetops; it is timeless, besides, it brings hope into a world that is otherwise sad and scary.
The next verses can be accepted as truth from Jesus, because he showed us how to do it. The 2nd “do not be afraid” is about those who can kill the body but not the soul. Surely we can testify to the life of the soul of Jesus after crucifixion. The resurrection is our proof. Oddly enough then, Jesus tells us to fear the one who can destroy both the soul and the body in Gahanna/hell. But this is not “scary” fear – this is the “awe-some” fear that we have of God. The awe that leaves us with our mouth gaping, our eyes big, our mind overwhelmed and stunned at the immensity, the power, the authority, the knowledge, and so many other qualities we have no words for or the ability to grasp; the “fear-some” awe we should rightfully have for God and our desire to be in God’s kingdom.
Jesus gives us then a concrete example of why we should trust God with our very lives and souls, and claim the freedom to declare the Kingdom. Jesus describes God the Father as having such minute knowledge of his creation that he sees each tiny bird, a creature we would hardly assign any value. Jesus says (in his 3rd “do not be afraid”) that we, even when we feel our most vulnerable and insignificant, we are worth much more than many sparrows. Unlike the Psalm writer, who felt he had more enemies than he had hair, Jesus says God knows the count of the hairs on my head. (God must love us more as we age, since the counting is easier.) But we live in a world and a society that is quick to view some of God’s children as worthless throw-a-ways, and if we choose to be God’s people, we must remember our value, and the value of each life.
Finally, Jesus brings us to the importance of spreading the Good News and the Kingdom. By doing so, we are publicly acknowledging Jesus. To declare his teachings from the housetops, we must believe those teachings. When we publicly act out those teachings and are fearless by choice, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. When we stand up for vulnerable and fragile people, and treat them with love, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. Then Jesus will acknowledge us before God the Father.
So we have two examples of people from the Old Testament who lived out the commission of faith, suffering all kinds of abuse, but who never lost their faith in God’s goodness. Then we read how Jesus prepared his apostles for similar trials: to know and teach the Truth that Jesus taught; and to focus on the God who knows and loves us intimately instead of focusing on our fears. We live in times that could make us constantly fearful. Many people are suffering greatly around the world as battles of greed and power are being fought with no respect to the innocent. Religion is being used as a feeble cover for terrible and senseless violence. We can work ourselves into a frenzy of fear, or we can accept this commissioning along with the apostles. We can save our awe-filled fear for God alone and hold tight to the value God gives us. We can let go of our fear for the cowards who try to act vicious and instead do what we were commanded to do- that is to live our lives publicly in the light of truth and love.
It is a very real choice.
Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9
Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality
He is risen! He is risen indeed! This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith. After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith. But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed. It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.
American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.
So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world? It’s not always easy. But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives: the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.
Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God. Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse. This approach to life is pretty futile. According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years. It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.
The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society. They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering. Life has become victorious over death. We must live and share this truth! Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.
Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.
Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure. Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.
Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.
Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people. He offered choices. He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives. Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return. He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort. There is no end to God’s love.
Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference. Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product. I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter. I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith. I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.
The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves. When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.
In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.
Dry Bones or Live Bones??
Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us. Let’s start with Ezekiel. As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture. So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel. The peasants were left, abandoned.
Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land. He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen. Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future. He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding. But the vision is more than just restoration. It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’” And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.
Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.
From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again. The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land. But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.
It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John. At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it. There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death. Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.
John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time. At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. Christians expected to live to see him return. But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.
Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died. For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused. They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.
John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.
When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you come sooner?” But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.
Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her. Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.
Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.
This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John. It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge. Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.
When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering? Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services. These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people. But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.
3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed. The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery. Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food. God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed. Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.
But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation. Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.
But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him. No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.
By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.” Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed. Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace. Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection. Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.
St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus. Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.
And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman. At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert. She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have. She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship. Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude. No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community. No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil. She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.
Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.” These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites. She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water. She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”
Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.
Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself. Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul. I don’t know what happened. She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.
I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:
- God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places. Love can provide enormous freedom. Status quo and expectations can be jails.
- God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us. God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look. God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
- The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
- People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up. All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal. Lent can happen at any time.
Paul’s death row letter to Timothy tells us how to face hard times for the sake of the Gospel.
We have a pivotal turning point in our first reading. It is the beginning of the story of Abraham. It is the point in Genesis where the creation story ends and the history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all start. It is the birthplace of so much – a place where a scholar could do their life’s work. But today we’ll pass it by. Our Gospel reading is a high point of Matthew’s revelation of the divinity of Christ, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It is a mountain-top experience in every sense. But today we’ll pass it by. I love the 33rd Psalm, but today we’ll pass it by. For what? For two sentences from a short letter to Timothy, which we only read once every three years, and often ignore.
So, are you thinking, “Did they nick her brain during the eye surgery?” Or hopefully, “Who was Timothy, why did St. Paul send him a letter, what’s it got to do with Lent?”
All good questions! Timothy was a young man, the product of a mixed marriage. His grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, were Christians. His father, who goes unnamed, apparently was not. Timothy was steeped in the Good News since birth. He traveled for some 15 years as Paul’s traveling companion throughout Asia and Greece, the entire distance of Paul’s 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys, as well as special trips to Jerusalem. He was with Paul in Rome when Paul was first in prison. Then he had been “ordained” by Paul and left in charge of the church in the Greek city of Ephesus. In short, Timothy, like Paul, had given his life, his time, his money, his efforts, and even his safety to spread the Good News of the Risen Christ – as Paul’s helper.
Paul suggests that Timothy was sometimes dismissed as just a young kid who didn’t know much (Paul writes him, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness”); and that Timothy was a little overwhelmed sometimes ( Paul tells him to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments”). I will never forget the first time I really studied the journeys of Paul and Timothy, as described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles. Without exaggeration, I can tell you it was truly amazing, thrilling, scary, and at times I cried. You might decide to study it yourself. I can help.
Well, let’s take a look at those two sentences we have today. I have to tell you that Paul would have failed any English class writing assignment I’ve ever encountered. His sentences stretch to the moon and back, and frankly, that’s one of the reasons you seldom hear homilies from the 2nd readings. What your missal has as two sentences really is one big train-wreck of a sentence. I made 10 complex-enough sentences out of it in attempt to make it understandable.
First sentence –Paul is saying to Timothy: “Don’t despair in the hard times and don’t give up. Continue to share with me, to join me in the suffering we have done for the sake of spreading the gospel. We do it all through the power of God.” Paul continues with second sentence, “Remember, it is God who has saved us. God called us to proclaim the gospel. God called us with a Holy Calling. It was not because we did such great works, but it was according to God’s own purpose, God’s plan for the world. God lavishly gave us the grace to do it…grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus since before the beginning of time. God’s grace now is personified in Jesus, who destroyed death. Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” Two amazing sentences.
Scholars pretty much agree that this letter was the product of time Paul spent waiting in prison, waiting to be put to death in Rome. The end of his letter tells us Paul knows his end is very near. This is a death-row letter, looking back at his life as the big picture, the final summary. And his life had been interwoven with Timothy for many important years. And with the oppression of Christianity probably near its height, Paul is wondering what will happen to those Christian communities he established and nurtured and prayed for. Will anything he worked for, literally would give his life for, survive? It is a letter that could have wilted into self-pity and despair, except for the faith behind it. Paul tells Timothy “God has not given us a spirit of being timid, but of power and love and discipline.” He writes, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that Christ is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.” Finally, Paul advises, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you…be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
This is beginning to sound like Lent, ah? When you give your all and it all seems to be going down the drain. When you are discouraged, and your friends and family are no where to be found. When you have to decide to speak up or shut up. When you are certain of your values, and feel alone. When you look into the future and you see the end.
Paul wrote, “Know the strength to bear the hardship comes from God.” God didn’t choose us because we could win our battles single-handedly, but we were called to do what was right and true and just, to be holy and part of God’s kingdom. Christ Jesus has already won the battle – abolished death, opened the way to eternity, shined the light to show the way home. Guard the truth in your soul, like Abraham and King David and Paul and Timothy, and our Lord Jesus. Lent is a time to settle firmly into the unshakeable rock of faith.
Grasping the Gracious Gift
This reading from the second & third chapters of Genesis always makes me sad. It is likely one of the most used and abused, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible. It has been used to prove that women should be oppressed, that men are spineless wimps, that God’s creation is faulty, and that both humans and snakes are inherently evil – when that was never the intention of the story.
What was the intent? It’s a beautiful creation story and by far more sophisticated in its vision than anything comparable found in the ancient world. It is older than the story we find in Genesis chapter one, and shares themes with other creation myths in the Mesopotamian region. And just in case you feel the need to explore your Bible a little more closely, check out the creation story in the book of Ezekiel chapter 28 that you’ve probably never heard.
But there are two things we really need to pay attention to here. First – the eternal question of evil. God in chapter one is said to create a good world. God is pleased with it. When you read Proverbs chapters 3-8, you find this theme again and again. So, where did the cunning of the serpent come from, and why did it lie to Eve? Interesting question, but that’s not really what we need to know, so I ask the 2nd question, and that is- what was Eve’s reason for making the choice of listening to the serpent’s lies? The text tells us, “the tree was… desirable for gaining wisdom.” The serpent had said, “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (little “g”) who know what is good and what is evil.” Sometimes I wonder if the story suggests that in Eve’s ears, she heard that she would be like “GOD”?
So what was humanity’s relationship to God when they were created? God had created humankind, and blew the breath of life into man. God gave mankind the power of naming the animals, and thereby giving man power over animals. God gave these humans the very best of everything. In chapter one, the creation of humans is the climax of creation, the grandest and greatest of creation, actually in the divine image. We are not God, but we are a reflection of God.
And somehow Eve thought that the glory of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God was something she and Adam could grasp by eating a piece of fruit. It is a concept still pitched by marketing snakes. Buy this car, and you will look rich and powerful and women will be attracted to you. Drink this diet soda and your body will be sleek and desirable. Take this drug and your sports performance will be Olympic. It’s the same old lie. And why do we still fall for it? Because we want to grasp the goal without developing the grit.
What does scripture say? Look at Philippians 2: 5-11: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Which is why in Psalm 51 David doesn’t say to God, “The devil made me do it.” Instead he claims his evil choice of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed. David admits his desire to be all-powerful (like God) is wrong, too great to be grasped. He asks instead for the “joy of (God’s) salvation” – a joy which God, and only God, freely gives to those who empty themselves of the pride of power, the need to control that which they did not create, the desire and greed for that which was not theirs to grasp.
St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reassures us there is a way out of our folly. He teaches that although these impulses of pride and control and desire haunt us, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift- of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for (us).” What was the gracious gift? It was his good and selfish choice of being obedient and coming to us as a humble man to face and overcome our murderous actions – actions which grow out of pride and power and control and desire.
Of course, Jesus was never one to simply tell us how to live and walk away, shaking his head at our endless repetition of the same bad decisions. He demonstrates it for us, he lives the trials; he shows us success and gives us solutions. Our reading from Matthew is only one example of that. He is tempted at his most vulnerable, when he was near starvation, when he saw power at hand and close enough to reach for, when he was shown glory and fame in its most magnificent and attractive forms.
Shucks, I hear the word “temptation” and I think of double chocolate cake with Breyer’s mint ice cream with chocolate chunks in it. But the solution is still the same- obedience. Trying to grasp the joy of the stomach or the joy of ego or the joy of stuff never really works, only the freely given joy of the soul lasts beyond the end of the day.
This time of Lent is when we re-set our moral compasses, when we hold out our intentions in the cold light of day and ask if we act with justice and love. We look at those things we do without thinking the rest of the year and consider the fruit of our actions. What do we seek to grasp, what do we reach out for?