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Genesis 2:15-17 + 3:1-7
We enter into Lent this season courtesy of a lectionary set of readings that are kind of all over the place, an out-of-order, jumbled up mess…like life. It would make more sense if we read today’s passage from Matthew right after we read the baptism of Jesus passage a couple of weeks ago, but instead we jumped way ahead to the “transfiguration” last Sunday and now we’re back, hearing the second part of the story where the Spirit comes down upon Jesus, like a dove, pronouncing him the blessed Son of God, in whom God finds happiness.
The very next line, bereft of it’s drama since we interrupted it with a trip up a mountain, is this – “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit (the same Spirit who just anointed him) into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The lesson apparently is – if you get baptized, be ready! The devil’s coming after you. And there may be some truth to that, though it’s not the Devil we might have in our heads. We’ll have to try really hard to set aside our sense of Dante and Milton or the Omen movies or TV shows, which work on us as much as anything that’s in the text about a “devil,” which isn’t much. What is important is the sense of temptation…or the tempter, to personify it, or the accuser, or the slanderer…all of which are descriptors of this character that pops up in the Bible, in the book of Job, in the gospels and elsewhere, always playing the role of temptation to misuse power…a temptation that is often present.
What if, for instance, I were to ask you what animal tempts Eve to eat of the tree, you would say? (snake) And if I were to ask you who that snake really is, you’d say? (Satan or The Devil) That’s not at all what the text says, of course. The text just says a snake. But those years of artwork and theological overlay and, if you’re like me, irrational fear of snakes has made the association. Of course the snake is the devil. The devil is gross, snakes are gross, ipso facto snake = devil. Yet even if we’re not talking about a “devil”, the temptation part still exists.
Adam and Eve, in one of the myths of creation in Genesis, are given everything they need. They live lives of plenty in a garden that produces in abundance with no participation from them at all, truly manna from heaven, free from toil, from planting or watering or harvesting. It is simply there for them. And, just like they will in the Exodus story, human beings rebel against this “freedom” that really isn’t freedom, and they seek choice every time, because the tyranny of having to choose all the time is better than the “freedom” found in being cared for like a child. It’s a story about maturation, the kind of maturation we all go through moving from child to adult…at least most of us go through it. The garden has been sold to so many of us as a story about the supposed origins of sin and shame, even the subjugated role of women, but the deeper Jewish and Christian tradition lifts it up as as story about what it means to be human, and what it means to be in relationship with the Divine. It is a story about how we relate to power.
There is the one commandment in the garden – don’t eat from that tree. It is the tree of the knowledge of “the good and the bad”, which seems to be an idiomatic phrase in ancient Hebrew, something that, in other places in the Bible, means “everything.” In other words, don’t eat of that tree that is supposed to let you know everything that God knows, effectively making you a god. And the snake doesn’t represent the devil, the snake represents the temptation of wisdom. See, in the ancient Mediterranean world, snakes were a symbol of wisdom, which is why, to this day, they intertwine on the symbol for physicians.
It is wisdom tempting Adam and Eve. Now, don’t get me or the story wrong, it’s not saying wisdom is all bad. After all, the rest of the garden is open to them, to learn from, to study, to engage with – it’s just this one tree that says they’ll know everything. And guess what? After they eat? They clearly don’t know everything. They use fig leaves to cover themselves after they eat of the fruit, and any listener from that era would grimace when they heard that. Fig leaves are like #2 sandpaper, the worst thing you could choose for loincloths. They’re not like God at all, the story reveals. It’s a humorous take on the willingness of human beings to think we know it all when, in fact, we are all too quickly exposed by our own limitations.
The garden is a deeply psychological and spiritual story that won’t let us stop with “sex bad, women bad, naked bad, fig leaves good.” That’s an easy out. Instead it asks us for something deeper, though it asks us in ancient Hebrew which really narrows down it’s impact here in 21st century Tulsa. There’s wordplay at work here, the word for “clever,” used to describe the snake, is the same root for the word for “nakedness,” used to describe the couple. Those words are ‘arum and ‘arumim, a point that the hearers of this story in Hebrew would have immediately heard, something like one translator puts it – “The man and the woman were nude, and the snake was shrewd.” And, guess what? It’s also the same root for the word that gets translated as “cursed,” as in the “curses” that God places upon Adam and Eve post-fruit snack, as if all these things were connected.
Our cleverness, the “wisdom” that thinks we can “out-science” nature, is exposed. Our “wisdom” that thinks it can do things like split an atom and then we can control all that power. Our “wisdom” that thinks we can heal ourselves through pharmaceuticals, laying one drug on top of another and never considering the side-effects. It’s a cleverness that always thinks we know more than God, which always reveals a nakedness in us, a metaphor for the ways that we are exposed by our own cleverness. And there’s that curse – the consequences that we face for our lack of wisdom or for trusting too much in our own wisdom, so much that we reject God’s constant call on us to balance judgment with mercy, our knowledge with love and our power with compassion. And when we don’t do those things, when we don’t engage those connections, well, it can feel like we are cursed.
These are stories about how we use power. Our knowledge and wisdom are not things we possess, or things we own, or things we always have. They are fleeting characteristics which we must exercise and train ourselves in, gifts from God that we must be appreciate and hone, lest our tools fall into disrepair, or we lose them altogether. That’s the foundation of the idea of a covenant between God and human beings, an acceptance that the source of our power – all our different kinds of power – is, ultimately, God. Such a covenant begins with a humility, even a vulnerability, that we seldom practice as humans, particularly in our culture. We tend to do strength. And by strength, seen at especially high levels during an election cycle, we mean power, control, assertiveness, umph.
Yet, this is not what these stories model for us. The Eden story tells of innocence lost, and the move from vulnerability that is cradled in protection to vulnerability that is exposed and must be accepted by these first humans. And when Jesus is tempted in the desert, we ought to pay close attention to what he is tempted with, because this story also speaks of power. The accuser, the slanderer, this “devil,” does not tempt a man on a 40 day fast with bread, per say. He tempts him with the making of bread from nothing, the power to turn a stone into bread, the control of bread. The lesson for us, as theologian Douglas John Hall suggests, is beware of a theology which promises glory without sacrifice, resurrection without crucifixion, and cheap grace. Then, when Jesus refuses, he tempts him with spectacle, highlighting Jesus in the show of power, with angels lifting him high, for all to see. Beware of placing your trust in things that are all flash, but no substance. Finally, the adversary pulls out all the stops and promises power in that political sense – ruling over everything like a king. Beware of placing your trust in political power, which is all about domination and winning. Jesus’ way, this story reminds us, is about loving and forgiving. So we see in stark contrast – the way of empire is about consolidating and controlling power. The way of Jesus is about an emptying of power.
The way of Jesus is far more vulnerable than the way of empire. And right now, in the middle of a very pivotal election, with the strain of a potential worldwide pandemic on everyone’s radar, economic uncertainty, the chaos of climate change making weather not seem “right”…it feels like a good time to ask, which way are we going to follow?
The popular researcher-storyteller, Brene Brown, says that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness…that’s what the data has shown her across her many years of studying it. But, she says with equal certainty, it appears that it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. This was the beginning of her ow personal journey that the research led her to, not by her choice at all. She says, you know how there’s people who when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, they surrender to that and walk into it? She says, “A – I’m not that person, and B – I don’t even hang out with people like that.”
This is how I think the disciples felt as they encountered Jesus, the whole-hearted person who walked toward vulnerability and tenderness, who embraced the struggle and the pain, who sought encounter with the things he did not understand and the things that were completely uncomfortable. And they watched with marvel and awe and maybe, at times, a little revulsion. What are you doing, Jesus? Don’t you know how things work?
For the next few weeks of Lent we will be moving through a section of the gospels that we could call, “Jesus and friends.” Today it’s Jesus and the Adversary, then it’s
Jesus and Nicodemus,” “Jesus and the Woman at the Well,” “Jesus and the Blind Man,” and finally “Jesus and Lazarus.” All of these will be a chance for us to discover Jesus again for the first time, with an offer for us to embrace the vulnerability he gives to us, to surrender those feelings of shame, fear and the struggle for worthiness to the way of Jesus, which offers us joy, creativity, belonging and love.
We will also begin studying The Book of Forgiving by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his Daughter, the Rev. Mpho Tutu on Wednesday nights, which will be a journey in and of itself. More than a book, it is an exercise, a workout on forgiveness, that will likely leave us a little out of breath and with some sore muscles, for we are not conditioned for this framing of our world. Yet, I’m pretty sure that in God’s wisdom this Lenten season is perfectly timed. As we witness a sea of ads promising all kinds of messiahs come to save us, the cacophony of promises and the litany of plans and strategies and legislation, as we wrestle with an impending viral spread that will threaten our social fabric, it is good for us to remember that we already have a messiah, and he has taught us that if we have all the political power in the world, if we’ve worked super hard to look good (and kind of ignored trying to actually be good), even if we have absolute control over the basic necessities of life, but we don’t cultivate trust and forgiveness, if we can muster all of the needed things for ourselves and our family, but don’t have love and compassion…then we are being tempted, my friends, tempted by something that may be compelling and enticing, but it isn’t the gospel.
So, let us study together, so that we might remind ourselves where we are going.