Scriptures for today are Here.
We live in a death-defying culture. I don’t mean so much that we take risks, like jumping out of airplanes or walking tightropes across the Grand Canyon, though some people do those things. I mean that we do everything we can to lie to ourselves about the reality of death. We revere youth and beauty, we invent things like Botox and age-denying makeup and surgeries and hair dyes to cover the gray. Unlike some cultures that honor the wisdom gained with age, we are always looking to see what the next youth fashion invention will be. The advertising campaigns that appeal to us promise not so much that this product is a quality product – advertisers don’t really talk about the product any more – but they claim that this product – this car or this medication or this new technology – this will give you a lifestyle of eternal youth, happiness – we’ll be so beautiful in that expensive new car!
It’s as if the death-defying things we do to our bodies and the products that we subconsciously hope will make us cool, hip, young, happy, are all part of a conspiracy to bring new meaning and purpose to our lives. Because our culture has lost sight of ultimate meaning and purpose. If you believe what our culture tells you, you work toward things like youth and fame, celebrity and wealth and power, and you hope you’ll be remembered by a few people after you’re gone.
But ultimately those things don’t bring satisfaction. As John D. Rockefeller supposedly said when someone asked him how much money is enough? He said, “Just one dollar more.” No matter how much we have, it is never enough. That’s the human condition. We are never satisfied – we are always somehow empty, questing for more–more money, more power, more meaning and purpose. The 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal said: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone.”
That lost true happiness, that emptiness we suffer, is what the Garden of Eden story tells us about: the truth that in humanity there is a deep unsatisfaction that is always looking for more. We need to be clear that this story was not written as history or science – the people whose wisdom recorded this story would have been puzzled and confused by our modern notions of history and science. This story is in our Bible in order to convey a much deeper truth than mere facts – the truth about humanity, and God, and who we are in relation to God. The truth about humanity is that we have been given everything – a garden full of anything we could ever need – and yet we always want more. Faced with a symbolic choice between trusting God and trusting ourselves, we so often choose to trust ourselves – to believe in ourselves, do things for ourselves, defy death for ourselves – to put ourselves in the place of God.
That’s what the serpent’s temptation is: you will be like God, knowing good and evil. And note that the serpent lies: he says you will not die.
We don’t want to trust God, we want to be like God, we want to put faith in ourselves, we want to know that we can make it all on our own, we believe we have the capacity to judge for ourselves what is good for our lives and what is evil. And that desire to trust ourselves in the place of God is that modern, human disease of functional atheism – that is, declaring that we believe in God, but acting as if it’s all up to us, and therefore we better start making ourselves younger, hoarding our money, gathering power, etc.
We can’t trust God to care for us, so we put ourselves in place of God. That’s the original sin, the first sin of humanity – trying to be our own gods. And if you read on in the Garden of Eden story, you can see how that first sin, that first failure to trust God, that first action to put ourselves in place of God, spreads and becomes a disease that infects everyone. God discovers that Adam and Eve (don’t blame it on Eve, it’s clear that Adam was with her the whole time, and fully part of the decision) – God discovers that they have disobeyed, and asks them about it, and they start blaming each other. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, the harmony they had in the garden is broken, they are now full of the knowledge of good and evil. The kick to this is, in biblical language it means, they are intimately familiar with both good and evil, which is indeed a picture of the human condition.
They start a new life, a harder life, where getting what we need will be hard work and there won’t always be enough, because we hoard and save instead of appreciate and share – and they live in mistrust, always blaming each other, always trying to outdo each other, to force each other to submit, each person on his or her own, trying to trust each other just enough to stay alive. All of these misunderstandings and blames – the very same things we still do to each other in families, communities, politics, churches today – eventually lead to the first murder – one of their sons in jealousy murders the other. The first sin of not trusting God becomes an epidemic of sin and death that infects all of human society, and no one can escape it.
Until Jesus comes along. Into a world of mistrust, where people continually try to fill that empty space inside of them with the false gods of self, money, power, success, where all the blaming results all too often in hurting and killing each other – into this dark and sin-infected and death-afflicted world comes Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of God. He resists – he knows how to avoid infection by the disease of humanity.
In the final sentence of the baptism story which happens just before this one, God declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” In the very next sentence, which is the beginning of our gospel story today, Jesus is led into the wilderness and the devil says “IF you are Son of God….” God assures Jesus of his identity in baptism and Jesus is immediately tempted to question that identity, to get more for himself, to worship something other than God, to amass power for himself instead.
Just look at his temptations:
A very hungry Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread – Israel is full of stones, on our Holy Land trip Dr. Wayne kept looking out a the stones and exclaiming that if Israel could only figure out a way to sell stones, they would solve all their economic problems! In other words, that would be a lot of bread – this temptation means hoarding, saving up material possessions. Jesus says no – the word of God is more important than any material possessions.
A Jesus who has left the God he loves in heaven is tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of Temple – to call down that God to love and protect him. But Jesus refuses to test God, chooses to trust God instead, without a test.
A Jesus who is destined for kingship is tempted to take it now, without pain, without the cross, without death, to be the most powerful person in the world if he will just worship the devil. Jesus proves faithful to worshiping only God, Jesus refuses to put any other gods, including himself, before God.
And note that later in the story, Jesus receives all of these gifts anyway, in the backwards and upside down way of the gospel – he turns a few loaves and fishes into enough bread to feed thousands; when he is lifted up on the high pinnacle of the cross and killed, God yet resurrects him from the dead; when the sinful powers of this world try to kill him to do away with any kingship he might claim, he is raised by God to become king of kings and lord of lords. God gives him all the devil promises, but gives it to him truly, in a way no human could have imagined, eternally, in a way that saves not just him but all of us. Jesus trusting God gives him immunity to the human sin that infects us all, and allows him to effect the cure: the cross, the death, the resurrection.
That’s a cure that extends to us as we are baptized into Christ’s Body, as we come to an awareness of our identity in Christ, and also of our own limitations, our inability to be our own gods, our own mortality. Because as we realize our own mortality, we begin to understand that on our own we are incomplete. We still have the human disease. We spend our lives searching and hoping, always looking for that thing that is missing, the thing that perfectly fits the emptiness we feel inside us. And we try to fill it with things that will not last. But it doesn’t work. Ultimately our emptiness remains, we are still incomplete, insufficient, insecure.
Pascal is the one who said that we have a God-shaped hole in hearts. Yet he saw that hole not as a curse but as a blessing. It is the tether that keeps us throughout our lives attached to God. It is the thing that keeps us from believing we can be completely self-sufficient – a belief which in the end can only bring us death.
We can deny death, but we can’t avoid it. And the way to transcend it is, not through our own power, but through Jesus Christ. Only God can fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts.
And so here we are, beginning the season of Lent. It is a season that remembers our human emptiness – when, with Jesus, we commit ourselves to spending 40 days in the wilderness. If we take Lent seriously, we do with this season what Jesus did: we empty ourselves, we fast from the things that fill us up falsely – things that don’t fit that God-shaped hole in our hearts. What things present themselves to us as the perfect shape to fill that God-shaped hole? What lies is the devil telling us, what lies are we telling ourselves? Lent is a time for truth-telling about life and death.
And what disciplines do we need to take on, to train our longing hearts to grasp onto God for our identity, like Jesus in his desert, and not the empty things that tempt us to put them in the place reserved for God alone? This time of Lent becomes our time to remember who we are – not gods, but beloved children of God – and ask Christ who we are intended to become.
And Lent is our time to journey through this desert, this dry and dusty wilderness, with Christ. Because those words of Ash Wednesday – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – are balanced by the refreshing, life-giving words of baptism, which makes us beloved children of God: There is one Body and one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.