Lent 1 A - Where Are You?
What is perhaps most interesting in our episodes from Genesis and Matthew (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7/Matthew 4:1-11) is what is missing. Don’t get me wrong, what is there is important, if somewhat overly familiar to the point that we tend to think we know what these stories are all about. But the punch-lines are missing.
Let’s begin with what is here. In Matthew’s story of Jesus testing his new vocation as God’s Beloved Son in the wilderness, we are meant to hear some important resonances. We are meant to recall, for instance, the forty years God tests the Hebrew people, and that Moses sat atop Mount Sinai, fasting for forty days and forty nights waiting upon God to deliver what would become the basis for an eternal relationship with God – a covenant based in commandments meant to determine our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. The takeaway here: Jesus is the new Moses.
If we recombine this story with the story that immediately precedes this one, our Lord’s baptism, this “new Moses” is in fact the Beloved Son of God who will in every way embody those pronouncements from Sinai in all that he says and does. That is, Jesus sets the example for how we are meant to fulfill our Baptismal Promise that all that we say and all that we do will proclaim the good news of God in Christ!
Just as Moses and the people of God were tested in the wilderness, so Jesus is tested – perhaps a better word than “tempted” under the circumstances here. During the forty year sojourn the Hebrew people were tested three times and failed. Jesus faces the same three temptations and does not fail.
Responding to each test to do something spectacular, something super-hero-like, and to make the ultimate power grab, Jesus quotes Moses’ famous sermon we know as Deuteronomy three times: “You cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3)”; “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16)”; “The Lord your God shall you worship, and God alone shall you serve (Deut 6:13).” It would seem that to truly understand who Jesus is it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with Deuteronomy!
Evidently being God’s Beloved has little or nothing to do with power and spectacular displays such as turning stones into bread – we might recall that Jesus teaches us to rely on bread that is given daily, just as Moses and the people did in that first wilderness.
Jesus appears to pass the test – the SAT’s or Entrance Exam - to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Which, after being waited upon by angels (and wouldn’t we all like to have a bit more detail on what that was like!) he sets out to proclaim to one and all, “Repent, for kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That is the part that is missing, and which I consider to be the real punch line here for the first Sunday of Lent. God’s world is near, at hand, you can reach out and touch it. Take one step and you are in it!
To repent means to turn or re-turn to God. The idea is that God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. It is we who have strayed from God’s ways as articulated way back on Mount Sinai. We are like lost sheep. So to turn or return to God is the order of the day and the focus of Lent. It is the only way to get home again, as the first man and woman would learn the hard way in the garden.
The Garden – another story we think we know all too well. It is easy to miss, however, that the central problem here is not the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit, as problematic as that is. The real problem is believing what we might call The Big Lie – when the tempter says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God…”
It’s the same lie the tempter offers Jesus in the wilderness over and over, “Do this, or this, or this and you will be like God.” A funny thing to say to someone who already is God! And in the garden the sin is believing they “will be like God.” That is, they forget who they are and whose they are – imago Dei, created in the image of God: male and female God creates us to be images of God.
The idea here is had they not believed the lie they would not have eaten the fruit which, we recall, God had told them not to eat. Why? It is like your mother or father saying, “Don’t go across the street by yourself.” God was simply protecting those he loved from the believing the big lie. To forget who we are and whose we are is the beginning of trouble.
Once again, however, what is perhaps the punch line for this story comes after they sew some clothes, loin-cloths actually, to become the prototypical Puritans and the origin of species homo protestantorius. After joining the Garment Workers guild, they hear the footsteps of God in the garden in the cool of the evening. Ashamed of having believed the lie, they hide. Really?
Surely any creature created in the image of God knows that you cannot hide from God. Nevertheless, they attempt to hide. God plays along with them and cries out, “Where are you?”
This is the punchline. This is the central question we are meant to ponder for the next forty days of Lent: Where are you? God really wants to know. God really wants us to come home. God really wants us to repent and return to God. And it can begin with a simple, “Here I am, Lord,” another one-liner that appears and reappears throughout the entire sweep of the Biblical narrative.
For when we say, “Here I am, Lord,” we join with all those who have gone before us in getting involved with God’s work in God’s world on behalf of all God’s people and creatures, including the very earth itself. The earth, from which the first man is named, Adam from the Hebrew adamah, which means “ground” or “earth.” As we remind ourselves every Ash Wednesday, God takes up a handful of dust from the ground, breathes his breath, his ruach, his spirit into the dust, and just like that, here we are – imago Dei. In our baptism we learn that we are God’s Beloved with whom God is pleased. Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return - adamah. We are Holy dust!
Lent is a time to come up with an answer to God’s primary question, “Where are you?” For until we know where we are, it is hard to know which way to turn to go home to God – the God who comes to us wherever we are, seeking us, so that he can love us and take us home. Amen.