Sunday, February 10, 2008

(Lent 1) Seeking God East of Eden

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

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We celebrate the season of Lent every year,
not because it’s a fun thing to do—which it clearly is not.
At least I’ve never heard anyone ask,
“What can we do for fun, during Lent this year?
I know. Give up chocolate!
Or maybe no desserts for 40 days!
And in church, let’s have more confessions,
and less ‘Alleluias’!
Ah! This is going to be great!”
No, we don’t do Lent for the fun of it.
We do it out of spiritual necessity.
If we claim to be Christian, we simply must do Lent.

No, I don’t mean we have to set aside these 40 days before Easter,
and go through some particular ritual on these particular days.
We don’t even have to give up chocolate.
And we definitely don’t have to give up coffee... Do we??
What I mean is that Lent calls us, as Christians,
to take on a certain kind of posture before God.
And if we cannot take on that posture,
we cannot claim to be Christian.
It’s that simple and stark.

Living the Christian life is not, I’m sorry to say,
one great big long season of Easter,
lived in constant high celebration.
That should be obvious to all of us.
But as obvious as it is,
we often act like Christians don’t belong in the wilderness...
ever...period.
That if we find ourselves groping in the dark,
and having trouble seeing the light,
we must be in a state of moral and spiritual failure.
It’s not failure. It’s an opportunity.

It takes people who are empty,
to experience a full measure of God’s presence, and God’s grace.

In fact, I think that lying at the root of all sin,
is this failure to admit and to embrace,
this state of emptiness before God.

Remember the two men praying in the temple, that Jesus talked about?
The man who bowed low, crying,
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
went home reconciled with God, Jesus said.
The man who stood tall, full of himself,
thanking God he wasn’t empty like that other poor man,
went home still carrying his burden of sin.

And I think this same failure to embrace emptiness before God,
is what caused all the trouble in the garden of Eden.
We heard the story again this morning.

Adam and Eve were placed in the garden to care for it, on God’s behalf.
They were given the task of being God’s humble servants.
Utterly dependent on God.
In themselves, empty.
The temptation, presented them by the servant,
was to reject that emptiness.
The serpent said, “You can be like God.”
Boy, that sounded good. To be like God.
Better than being empty, and dependent on God for everything.
That was the temptation. And they bit on it, literally.

And suddenly their eyes were opened.
And they knew they were naked.
And that made them uncomfortable.
Well, yeah!
If emptiness and dependence was a problem,
how much more the vulnerability of being naked before God.
So they sewed together some fig leaves.
This tendency of human nature,
to cover up before God,
to hide our vulnerability,
to deny our emptiness and need,
causes us to act in all kinds of sinful ways.
We start orienting our whole lives around ourselves.
Protecting. Guarding. Securing.
Looking after our own interests first.
With force, if necessary.

Lent is the season we so desperately need, spiritually.
It forces us to face up to this lie that we’ve been living.
That we are self-sufficient.
It brings to light the shadow-side of our humanity,
and reveals us to be what we really are.
Creatures loved by God,
but sorely in need of redemption.
Of forgiveness. Of grace.

The punishment for Adam and Eve,
later in chapter 3, which didn’t get read,
was that they were sent out of the lush green garden of Eden,
and into the wilderness beyond the garden,
and God placed a team of cherubim on the east side of Eden,
to keep them from coming back in and eating of the tree of life.
So Adam and Eve, in this primeval story,
and still today, all of us, figuratively,
are living East of Eden.
Not in the garden, but in the wilderness.
Not where green plants and fruit spring up spontaneously
by the hand of God,
but where we have to toil, to fight against natural enemies—
thorns and thistles, insects and disease—
and produce our food by the sweat of our brow.
This is where we live. East of Eden.

So where has God been, since Adam and Eve were sent East?
In the garden, God came to them, and walked and talked.
Where is God east of Eden?
Are we destined to wander alone in the wilderness?

That is the big question that humanity has wrestled with,
ever since the cherubim took up their stations at the garden gate.
The whole story of God’s people,
throughout the Old and New Testaments,
and throughout the history of the Christian church,
is a story of seeking God in the wilderness.

At times we have remembered and embraced
this place of emptiness and barrenness before God,
and we have looked to God in deep trust,
and willingness to risk and obey.
And God has often blessed us
with love, and presence, and joy, and peace.
At other times we have stubbornly clung to this deception,
that we can do this alone, on our own strength and wisdom.
And we walk away, as did the man in the temple, in Jesus’ story,
still carrying the burden of our sin.

Where is God east of Eden?
That is the question Jesus himself had to face,
at the beginning of his ministry.
In today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew chapter 4,
Jesus was led by the Spirit,
right after his baptism,
right after God’s public affirmation of him as God’s beloved,
right after Jesus’ mission was becoming clear to him,
and he was filled with the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit led him into the wilderness.
Jesus found himself east of Eden.
And here, in the wilderness,
the same place Adam and Eve were sent,
Jesus, the new Adam, was sent to encounter his own emptiness.

40 days of fasting laid bare Jesus’ desperate need, his utter emptiness.
So the tempter met him there,
just like the serpent in the garden,
and fed Jesus the same compelling lies.
You don’t need to be empty like this!
You don’t need to be content with this helpless position
of complete dependence on someone else.
You can take matters into your own hands.
Why wait on God? You have what you need.
Use it for your own benefit.
Turn the stones into bread, and eat!
Jump from the pinnacle of the temple, and be saved!
and draw a following!
Own all the kingdoms of this world,
and seize the power that is yours!
You have it! Use it for yourself!

In other words,
“Skip the wilderness altogether!
Why suffer? Why toil and sweat?
Live in the garden...now.”
I doubt we can fully appreciate,
how powerfully Jesus must have been tempted
to take this short cut back to Eden,
rather than seek the face of God in the wilderness.

That is the basic temptation we all live with.
To skip the wilderness.
To skip this place where there is
suffering, with no relief in sight,
violence, with little hope for peace,
emptiness, and no evidence of food and water,
questions, with no ready answers.
The basic temptation is to usurp the place of God in this equation,
to take matters into our own hands.
The temptation with which Jesus was faced,
and which faces me every day,
is to abandon my identity as God’s servant,
and become God’s rival, instead.

Every time I reject my emptiness,
and take matters into my own hands,
I work against the purposes of God in this life East of Eden.
I become God’s rival.

Every time I live as if I have to prove my worth,
I become a rival to God, who made me worthy,
created me in his own image.
Every time I turn my back on someone in need,
I become a rival to God, who provides for me,
to whom I owe everything, even the air I breathe.
Every time I act out of anger, bitterness, or resentment
against someone who has done me wrong,
I become a rival to God, who loves me no matter what I do,
and forgives me without hesitation, time and again.
Every time I participate in violence,
and we all do, in one way or another,
I become a rival to God, and to Jesus the Prince of Peace,
who called me love even my enemies.
Every time I put my hope in the political process,
as I will undoubtedly do, the closer we get to November,
I become a rival to God, who rules over a greater Kingdom,
and invites me to live differently, as a citizen of that Kingdom.
Every time I grasp for power and authority and control,
I become a rival to God, who in the person of Christ,
emptied himself, even to the point of death on the cross.
Every time I gather wealth and possessions around me
because of the comfort and security they bring,
I become a rival to God, who revealed himself to us in Jesus,
living as a servant of all,
refusing to let the things of this world
distract him and own him.

Every time we fall prey to the sin of denying our emptiness,
and our need for redemption...
every time we commit the sin of taking matters into our own hands,
we move from being God’s servants, to being God’s rivals.

Seeking God east of Eden
requires a constant, vigilant, awareness
of who I am in relation to God.
The world around us, this side of Eden,
would have us believe we belong to ourselves.
That by a sheer act of the will,
and the power of positive thinking,
I can become the person I want to be,
no matter what.
But that is not God’s story about me. That’s not God’s narrative.

God’s narrative is that God has an exclusive claim on me.
Though I am always free to choose,
free to accept or reject this claim,
free to take my life in my own hands.
Nevertheless, God’s narrative says I am God’s child.
I am loved by the one who willed me into existence,
and whose love continues to draw me toward Godself.
All that I am, and all that I possess...
all that I ever will be or ever will possess...
is owed entirely to this lover-creator God.

The position of God toward me,
is one that I must gratefully receive and live into.
When I reject it, and begin to usurp God’s role,
and start orienting my life toward myself,
seeking to manipulate others toward my advantage,
I become a lost soul in the wilderness east of Eden.

The season of Lent is a golden opportunity for me,
and for all of us,
to wake up from the self-oriented stupor of our culture,
and to be reminded of our holy emptiness.
I say holy emptiness,
because it’s an emptiness that we
hold before a loving, redeeming God.
And God will fill it.
Not, perhaps, with the food and drink our culture values,
but with living water.

The season of Lent is a time for us to repent of our sin,
and turn toward God the source of all life.
We began this season four days ago on Ash Wednesday,
when we openly acknowledged our emptiness and need.
Now, we are moving, slowly, deliberately,
from these ashes of repentance,
toward the fountain of life that will wash us clean
in a flood of grace.

—Phil Kniss, February 10, 2008

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