The Garden and the Wilderness, March 1

Sermon for Lent 1, Year A, March 1, 2020


The Garden and the Wilderness

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Rev. Richard E. Edwards, guest preacher

Catskill and Palenville United Methodist Churches


Four days ago we entered the season of Lent. We launched into 40 days of turning to God. The days of Lent are the weekdays. Sundays are in Lent, but not of Lent. When we give something up for Lent, we are not bound to abstain on Sundays. Fasting on Sundays is a no-no. Sundays, for Christians, are always celebration days.


Think of Lent as a journey. Week to week, our gospel readings will go with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. It's an uphill slog, as he contends with fierce opposition and the stubborn powers of sin and death, to Gethsemane and Golgotha. For us it's a difficult climb up the rocky face of a mountain—the sin that affects our own lives, our own sin plus the evil that abroad in our world. Finally we will arrive at another encounter with Christ's last meal with his disciples, his arrest, trials, flogging, and crucifixion. Then the joy of Easter. It's our return journey to and through our own death and resurrection.


Lent challenges us to take stock. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Lent is the Church’s take on that idea. We look more closely at who we are and what we do, at our checkbooks and our calendars, at our relationships and our commitments. Are these useful and life-giving, or are they dragging us away from God? We employ spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and abstinence, and more generous giving. In all these ways we confront the hold that sin may have on us, as it clings to our very souls, and we ask Christ's help to make it let go.


Our scripture readings this morning take us into the lush garden of Eden and the harsh wilderness east of the Jordan River. These are the settings for two conversations that help us think about the way sin sneaks up on us and how we might resist.


In Genesis we have a theological conversation between a sly serpent, one of God's creatures, named by the man, and a woman who seems theologically naive. The serpent God created from the dust of the earth, while God created the woman from the first human's own flesh and bone. She is what he is, and he is what she is. This is not about woman's weakness leading man astray. This is about the vulnerability of humans to smooth talk. The serpent is not Satan, despite centuries of interpreters to the contrary. That’s a late interpretation. No, this is one of God's own creatures whom the man himself has named, and is therefore subordinate to the humans. But he’s sly. He asks a skewed question that starts his dialogue partner talking. Regrettably she overstates God's prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but her misquote isn’t completely out of the ballpark. What she adds is emphasis. But the serpent seizes on it and directly disputes that death will be the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit. It will make you like God, he says, knowing good and evil. She takes another look at the tree and its fruit, and forms a more positive impression. She invites the man to join her, and this pair of earth creatures disobey God's command. Their disobedience changes everything. The man and woman had been naked and unashamed. Suddenly they realize they are naked, and they are ashamed. This is the great realization the forbidden fruit has brought them. Now they want to cover up, hide their vulnerability. And when God next comes to visit them in the garden they do in fact hide.


There's a lesson here. Don't do theology without including dialogue with God in the conversation. It's a deep subject. You can stray far afield and get terribly lost.


In Matthew's Gospel we find another theological dialogue. This one, however, is a disputation, not a conversation. It's between Jesus, the Son of God, and Satan. It gives us a preview of the rest of Matthew’s gospel. The plot of this story is the conflict between two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God, represented by Jesus, and the kingdom of this world, represented by Satan.


And who is this Satan? Matthew uses the expressions “devil,” “Satan,” “the evil one,” and “Beelzebul, the ruler of demons” as synonyms. All refer to the figure that by Jesus' time had come to represent the personalized power of evil, also called “Beliar” and other names in early Judaism and the New Testament. But in the Hebrew Bible the satan, translatable as the “accuser,” is a member of the heavenly court, the divine prosecuting attorney who implements the will the heavenly judge, God, by putting suspected offenders to the test. In the 450 years from the Old Testament to the new, Satan has become the proper name for one who was believed to be a fallen angel, a rebel against God who continues to resist God's will in the present age by luring humans into sin. In Matthew’s gospel Satan is also a king with a serious handle on power.


In this wilderness disputation Satan doesn’t challenge Jesus' identity as God's Son. He challenges him about what it means to be the Messiah. Every one of Satan's proposals hinges on actual expectations about the Messiah among some segment of the Jewish people. Some expected the Messiah would repeat the miracle of manna in the wilderness, and in the messianic time there would be a superabundance of food. Similarly with the other temptations: in the Psalms there's a passage about God's angels protecting Messiah lest he stumble, so we get Satan's idea of Jesus casting himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. The Messiah was expected to restore Israel to political and economic power, and gain ascendency over the other kingdoms of the known world. Jesus responds to each of Satan's proposals with scripture quotes from Moses in Deuteronomy. Jesus knows his material.


And Jesus has it right. The real question is not what people expected of the Messiah but what God really wants the Messiah to accomplish. Not a powerful earthly kingdom, but a basic change in human values The basic question for us in Lent is this: Do our hopes and expectations reflect God's will for us, or do they simply express our own selfish desires? So Jesus' first response to Satan is key: Human beings do not live by bread alone. What nourishes in us our truly human life is God's word.


Lent above all calls us to recover our rootedness in God's word. When we engage in the discipline of prayer, let’s pray from our study of scripture, and for genuine understanding of God's intentions for us and for our world. When we fast or abstain, let’s do so to reduce our dependence on the physical and our addiction to our appetites--for food, drink, sex, money, clothing, property, and whatever else--and increase our trust in and dependence on the nourishment that comes from God through God's word. When we give to those in need, it is to learn to be as unstinting in our generosity to others as God has been to us, and to trust God's word to provide for us, to see that others have the daily bread they need.


In Lent we are living between the Garden and the Wilderness. God has made us and provided richly for us, and placed before us the choice of life according to God's intention for us, or the death that results from choosing authorities that ridicule God's intentions. But we choose to spend a time in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and giving more fully of ourselves and our substance, that as we return to the garden of resurrection we might live genuinely and fully. As the hymn reminds us, “We come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. And he walks with us, and he talks with us, and he tells us we are his own.” That regular conversation with God is what gives us abundant life. It awaits us in our life with Jesus Christ, whom we now accompany on the journey to Jerusalem and destiny. Amen.


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