Sunday, March 5, 2017

The First Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 5, 2017 (Genesis 2:15-17 and Matthew 4:1-11)

I don’t know what the first thing you’re supposed to teach a child is, but the concept of “no” comes early on.

“No,” the TV remote does not go in your mouth.
“No,” the cat’s tail is not a lasso.
“No,” you do not need to scream and twist and writhe about as if someone is trying to kill you when, in fact, we’re just changing your diaper.

It’s a rather strange thing, if you think about it, because “no” sounds like such a downright negative, restrictive thing to hear, especially right here as life is beginning. In reality, though, as soon as a child lets on that she has the capacity to understand speech, a parent finds herself adopting a serious tone of voice and assertively saying “No.”

At our house, we’re in the middle of introducing the concept of “No” to our eleven-month-old, and just as with our two older children, we are having a rough start. The firmer and sterner our voices get, and the meaner we make our frowns, the bigger he will smile, the more he will laugh. And pretty soon the poor guy has not just a mom and a dad telling him “No,” but two sisters chiming in, too. It’s like he’s surrounded by “No.” And he thinks it’s absolutely hilarious.

I’m sure some child psychologist might disagree with me, but there’s really no way to parent without the use of “no.” Positive reinforcement, affirmation, and praise are good and important, but at some point you realize those won’t cover all the bases. Some boundaries need to be set down, for the safety of the child and for those around him, because there are some things that can’t just be instinctively figured out. Hearing “No” and that certain things are off limits as a child develops and deepens his relationships with the world is helpful for him to grow in the right way. It teaches him see how his behavior can affect others. It will help him live in a way that is not harmfully self-centered. And, first and foremost, it helps establish trust.

The story of our beginning as humans, as the ancient Hebrews tell it, involves establishing trust right from the outset. We may find this story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden to sound too fanciful or too simplistic, but the truth of it is really too obvious and too beautiful to deny. It’s what’s playing out, on a much, much smaller level, every time we say “No,” to our children. Humans were created to be in relationship with the One who created them. It was to be a relationship of trust and openness and caring, and that to guide that process along some boundaries, some “no’s” were going to be involved. God does not set humankind free to “figure it all out,” as if there are no rules to living. Humans are both too complex and too fragile for that.

"The Fall of Man" (Peter Paul Rubens)
That’s part of this business with the trees in the garden. They may sound a little fairy-tale like to us, but the trees [of life and of the knowledge of good and evil] are there to teach us and help us realize that trust-building and healthy growth and development are there at the very beginning. A desire that we deepen that relationship with creation and the Creator is also there from the very beginning. Evolve though we may, it is not a willy-nilly evolution. There is thought and purpose and, more than anything else, love behind the order of the universe. To be fully human is to exist in the relationship of trust with that higher authority.

But, unfortunately, what is our response to God’s thought and purpose and love? Essentially we just laugh at it. We’re convinced it is either some game or else some cruel, arbitrary limit to our freedom. What should ideally be a “yes” to this higher authority turns into a “heck yeah” to our own authority. We are tempted by some seductive voice to place ourselves where God should be. This is the nature of our sinfulness—a turning away from God and the good.

The story of the man and the woman in the garden is not in Scripture primarily to explain some historical or scientific origin of the earth. It is there to teach us deep truths about what it means to be human in this world that we cannot get from science alone (partly because science does not seem to be interested in these types of matters)—that we’re given great power and potential, but also some responsibility and the dignity to grow in relationship. This story reveals the ultimate silliness of trying to serve as our own gods…and it reveals our tendency to do so nevertheless.

God longs for us to respond with our whole being to his design of trust and love. God calls a people into existence, Israel, with whom God works and works to refine and refashion. God gives them his word on tablets of stone and on the lips of the prophets. God trails them along with manna in the wilderness to keep them fed and satisfied. God gives them a land to till and care for, but they ultimately, say “No” to God, too, convinced that it is the best way to say “Heck yeah” to themselves.

Then along comes this person named Jesus who is washed in the River Jordan and named as God’s own Son. He comes up out of the water and is immediately driven by God’s Spirit into the wilderness finds himself living the temptation that every human has ever contended with, hearing the same seductive voice of self-will that every tribe, every family, every soul has ever tried to drown out.

For the gospel-writer Matthew, the tests that Jesus finds himself enduring mirror perfectly the same tests that ancient Israel had been subjected to and failed. Just like they had hungered for food in the desert wandering, Jesus finds himself famished at the end of his fasting. However, unlike Israel, Jesus does not mumble and grumble. He resolutely accepts what it is that comes his way. He demonstrates by denying himself what we were originally supposed to learn: that he is totally dependent on God.

The next two temptations also speak to particular problems that ancient Israel struggled with, which also go back to the very beginning of our relationship with the Creator: the inclination to test God to see if God is real—to put ourselves in God’s place—and the constant battle against idolatry—to put other things in God’s place. In each and every case, Jesus submits fully to that “No” of God and says “no” to his own desires.

In a way, to hear these stories and only get hung up in the existence of some devil figure or talking snake is to miss the point. The real issue here is that God has sent a redeemer.  The real news here is that God understands temptation is real—our human pain, our failed promises, our tendency to look to places other than our Creator for that higher authority. The real news is that there is someone, finally, who can say “No” to himself and that seductive voice of unlimited freedom. There is someone who can speak for us, who can guide us to God our Father. We can’t do it ourselves, but he can do it for us.

It is not chiefly in the wilderness of Judea where Jesus does battle against temptation. He will eventually say “No” to himself, to claiming God’s authority for his own, in such a way that he will lose his life. On the cross, Jesus gives up every last of his ability to say so “Yes” to his own desires of autonomy. In Jesus, at long last, we encounter someone who can hear God’s voice above the clatter of self-delusion. His “Yes” to God becomes our “yes.” He guides us back to God.

Several years ago we took the high school youth group whitewater rafting on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia on our way home from a servant camp experience. When we were on the river’s edge assigning people to boats, a certain male adult leader older than I am who shall go unnamed pulled rank on me and stuck me in the raft with all the male youth. Conditions on the river, our guide said, were the best they’d been in thirty years. The rain had swollen the rapids to their maximum, and I found myself in a raft with a bunch of high school guys who promptly decided they wanted to chant the word T-E-S-T-O-S-T-E-R-O-N-E as we went down the river.

Our raft had a guide. He was a college-aged guy named Bryce, and he was very clear that we were going to have fun but that we needed to listen to him and trust in him especially when he had to tell us “No” to something. But we were noisy and boisterous just the same, excited to be out there in the water and show the strength of our rowing muscles. The other raft was all the female members of our group, and they were in front. Bryce pulled us into an eddy off to the side so we could watch as they hit the first rapid. We saw their raft plunge down into the spray, then it popped back up, and then about three people flew up into the air and out into the water. And our raft of shouting, whooping guys went silent like *that*, suddenly aware of the seriousness of the situation…and that they were next.

All the people in the girls’ raft ended up being just fine. After all, they had probably been listening to the instructions. But before it was our turn, one of the guys in the raft, aware of just how dangerous this could be, asked, “Hey guys, could we have a prayer?” What a display of faith! I never would have considered that. And as I sat there, wondering what exactly I would pray, I realized I could have used the 6th verse of this morning’s psalm: “Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them” (Psalm 32).

And so right there, before God and all creation in the middle of the wilderness of West Virginia, with life vests on and paddles in our hands,  nine guys prayed that Bryce would guide us through the waters. And when it was our turn, only one person fell out: Bryce. It was a surprise to us, too, but in going overboard he managed to keep us all in.

Life is perilous and faith is difficult. We hear “No,” and think it’s a joke. We are ever tempted by the idea of unlimited freedom. But we have a God—a patient God—who wants us back, who wants us to trust him, who knows we’re not always going to listen or respond in prayer but who still wants us to grow into the people he has created us to be.

And, more than anything else, we have a Guide who will launch himself overboard to get us there.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment