God-given space in the desert

Peter Seal, 5 March 2017

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

Today, a Bible-based sermon for the beginning of Lent. The Garden of Eden is the setting for a classic story. Here we’re given theology through story. We’re presented with a universal truth.

The story reveals a profound insight into what it means to be human. In the Hebrew language, in which the Old Testament was written, the word ‘Adam’ means ‘human’. It represents humanity in general. In short, the story of Adam and Eve is a way of describing the human condition.

This version of the creation story dates from the 10th century before Christ. We hear how God had done the back-breaking work of clearing stones to plant a garden. He had also provided irrigation. These were dream conditions for the farmers then cultivating the stony hills around Jerusalem. The clear message of the story, told in this way, was ‘God is good’.

What the man and woman had to do you could say, all they had to do was to sustain and nurture the life that God had created. They could eat anything, absolutely anything, except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The message here is this: to be human is to be given freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Freedom with responsibility includes the opportunity for enjoyment, for relationship, for creative and caring work. Responsibility also includes restriction. That is, things that we should not do.

What happened next? Well, we hear an account of sly half-truths. The serpent, who was a crafty manipulator, used words to devastating effect. Without lying directly, he distorted what God had said. He cast doubt on God’s trustworthiness … something that has been happening ever since.

We’re all born with a beautiful innocence. We see this most clearly in the wonder of a newborn baby. When we look at a baby, we see the glory of a newborn human being. We delight in this sight because it connects with our original innocence, which we know we’ve lost.

Our life experience demonstrates, sometimes very painfully, that this innocence makes us vulnerable. It makes us vulnerable, amongst other things, to manipulation and exploitation. It makes us vulnerable to forces that are not rooted in the goodness, beauty and truth of God. As we grow from baby to child, and then from adolescent to adult, we discover that we often want what is forbidden; we want what is not good for us. We discover that part of our inbuilt make-up is to want to rebel; to overstep boundaries; to break time-tested guidelines and rules. In doing so, we, in effect, doubt God’s good intentions. Quite often we find ourselves in a mess.

We discover that part of our inbuilt make-up is to want to rebel; to overstep boundaries; to break time-tested guidelines and rules. In doing so, we, in effect, doubt God’s good intentions.

Adam and Eve wanted wisdom but got knowledge. That’s our experience too. And knowledge is often painful. The good news is that this is not the end of the story. There’s more to come.

Just before today’s gospel reading a voice speaks. Immediately before the sound of the voice, Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends. And then a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight’.

This a truly, profoundly, stupendously great moment.

You can almost sense the excitement of the gathered crowd. They had witnessed the baptism and then they hear God’s voice. After the voice from heaven comes this sentence: ‘Jesus was then led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil’.

Jesus has all the human attributes identified in the Genesis story, except sin. Jesus was led by the Spirit into a place of temptation. Jesus resists three temptations.

First, the tempter taunts him: ‘Go on Jesus, use your power to save yourself: make bread out of stones – after all, you are God’s Son’. Jesus responds, ‘No, I won’t; the more important thing is to be fed from the mouth of God himself’.

The tempter has a second try: ‘Go on, do something spectacular – make a big entrance. Get the angels to come and save you.’ Jesus responds, ‘No. I won’t manipulate my father. I won’t force him to intervene.’

The tempter tries a third time: ‘Jesus you could be great, if you would only let me help you – worship me and you will have the whole world as your kingdom’. Jesus responds, ‘No, my power will be shown through my faithful allegiance to the Lord my God. I will worship him and him alone.’

We know that Jesus’ power will be exemplified by self-sacrifice, by personal suffering and ultimately through giving himself into the hands of others, which will lead to his death.

As Lent begins this year, I suggest that we are being invited into our own desert. A place where we will have time and opportunity to take stock. To use the analogy of a car, Lent is a God-given opportunity to change gear. To take time, as it were, to listen to the engine of our lives and see what we hear. This will invariably be uncomfortable. How is the engine of my life sounding? What gear am I in? When did I last check the pressure in the tyres? Is the light flashing to tell me I’m nearly out of fuel?

The desert, you could say, is an opportunity for a personal safety check. I invite you now to get out of your car for a moment and look around. The desert is much more than a deserted place. The slower you walk and the more you look, the more you see. There are flowering plants. They may be small but they’re unmistakably there.

The desert is somewhere that’s different. For us, as for Jesus, it’s a space to let God be God, and for us to realise what tempts us away from him, however subtly. The desert is an opportunity for God-given space. It’s a place to reconnect with what is most important in our lives. It’s a place to rediscover some of our original baby innocence.

Grown up as we are, and at times fatigued by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, Lent is God’s gift to each of us. It’s a special, free invitation to ask ourselves (amidst the heavy demands or empty loneliness of each day): what is it I most need, for the next months of my human journey? What is it I’m most hungry for? What will nourish my inner life and give me strength and energy?

Lent is a time that is neither too scary, nor too safe.