This morning we have three examples of two conversations. Eve and the Serpent. And two versions of Jesus tempted in the wilderness by the devil. It seems that the devil is our foil—the one who pushes at our core, asking questions, twisting questions, to see what we are really made of.
I was fascinated by the suggestion (in Seasons of the Spirit) that what happens in the wilderness (between Jesus and the devil) could have been a teaching moment—that each was trying to teach the other about the unfailing, steadfast love of God. And “they challenge one another with strategic rhetoric; they are worthy opponents in many ways.” (Seasons of the Spirit, 3/1/20) And that made me think of all the chatter on talk TV about how debates in a political primary help the eventual nominee. That there is something about having to present your argument, and respond to tough questions, that makes you a better candidate in the long run. I hope that is true. But it made me think, what if we were to view this wilderness meeting as Jesus’ primary experience? He sure seems already skilled!
On the other hand, Eve doesn’t fair as well. Now enough has been made over the millennia about Eve (ie, a WOMAN) and her choices—as if she doesn’t represent us all! And although we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, few of us think we can do it very well—so maybe we have discounted what Jesus is trying to teach us in this wilderness experience about the choices we make, and our true identity.
So, I know it’s hard, but let’s take a look at these conversations as if it weren’t Eve, weren’t Jesus. One conversation doesn’t go well, in hindsight. And one conversation is victorious. What was the difference?
The conversation in the wilderness, of course, is a learned one. The two conversation partners parry with each other, as if this were a duel. Who can cite Scripture better? Who can be the best debater? And this is where, we feel we are on very dicey ground. Who of us feels like we could take on the devil, take on the temptations, without any life lines, without any cheering sections, without any hand holding—out in the wilderness, alone?
We can marvel at the performance, but seen as a theological masterpiece, we can hardly think we could do the same thing. But the garden, that’s a whole other story. In the garden, the crafty serpent entices with promises of knowledge, grandeur, godliness. We understand this. We have bought a lottery ticket, dreaming that against all odds, we will win big! We have been suckered into buying a car, a piece of clothing, a TV, something that is really out of our budget but it makes us feel important, shows others how well we are doing, elevates our standing, at least in our own mind.
We can’t get tripped up on the apple/fruit thing. The wily one uses many disguises and many temptations. But as I looked at these Scriptures this week, I began to see that the only way to engage in this deep conversation is standing firm on our true identity.
I really liked the way Tyler Mabry (who wrote our anthem this morning) refashioned Jesus’ responses. They are simple, almost chant-like. “We live by the Word of Heaven, we live by the Word of heaven, we live by the Word of Heaven, not by bread alone.” I also loved the fact that Jesus sees himself as part of a community—he isn’t buying the noise from the devil about how special he is. He holds on to his identity as a child of God, a beloved. And he always points toward God, “We live by the Word of Heaven… Believe in the power of Heaven…my Lord is the God of Heaven.
This isn’t rocket science. This is simple stuff, kind of like, “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all our soul, and all your might and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I think the garden scene shows us what can happen when we stray from the simple. Eve gets caught up in the serpent’s slithering—don’t believe what God says, don’t believe that there are restrictions to being human, in fact, don’t believe that you are human. You can be so much more—if you just listen to me.
I think that the story of the garden is a warning—that we cannot evade having conversations with the Serpent. Even in the garden, in Eden, the Serpent is there. How much more will we run into this conversation, in our own minds, with our friends, in our lives. Now I’m going to say something controversial. I’m not sure what happened in the garden was Eve’s fault.
God knew that there was a Serpent lurking around. God knew that there was temptation. Why wasn’t there some training in Serpent foiling? Why didn’t God sit Adam and Eve down and talk about their identity—who they were, and who they weren’t? I see Jesus’ experience in the wilderness as a corrective. Jesus says, “Here is how to deal with the forces that want to strip you of who you are, your true identity. Remember you are a part of a community. Remember you are marked as God’s own. Remember that God is God, and we are not.”
So much of what Jesus and Eve are tempted by could be called hunger. Is that why the temptation is to EAT of something—to try to assuage the emptiness that we sometimes feel inside? Is that why the first avenue of the Tempter is to talk about BREAD? And then, of course, move on to other hungers—to feel important, to be powerful, to be a big fish on the world stage.
I think it is interesting that the wilderness story comes after forty days and forty nights (in Biblicalese, a long time) of Jesus fasting. He was hungry, physically, and maybe emotionally and spiritually as well. He was testing himself—can I hold onto who I think I am even in harsh conditions? Can I fight off the temptations of hunger that all humans confront? And since we are told about this meeting (because he could have kept it secret), is there something Jesus is trying to teach us, to school us in how to deal with our own Tempting experiences. Because Jesus didn’t let us know about this so that we could be more impressed (that would be falling into a devil’s lure if I ever saw one!). No, we know about the temptations because they give us a clue as to who this Jesus is—and also, they give us a clue about who we are to be.
If you follow the Lectionary readings, this temptation story is always the reading for the First Sunday of Lent. And Lent is the 40 days and nights (—not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Lent has often been a time of giving something up—in fact, I just read an article that “secular Lent” is taking hold—since it’s a good time to get back on your diet “give up sweets,” or it’s a good time to lower your stress “give up some social media.” But this secular “giving up” misses the point. We give up, or add on, in Lent, because we want to test ourselves, just as Jesus tested himself. We give up, or add on, because we want to remind ourselves of the simple bedrocks of our faith—the timeless mantras that we can pull out when we are faced with temptations of our own.
Lent, for religious people, is not a renewed New Year’s resolution, or a way of focusing on ourselves. Lent is something we do in community. Lent is a time when we can look around for the lures of the world that may have seeped into our ways of being. Lent is a time when we address how we face our hungers. As poet Abigail Vazcarra Perez says in the conclusion to her poem titled “Hunger”
The riddle of a famished soul
is solved when there is no desire
to turn stones
to make bread for the mouth
because the vessel held in place by abdomen and omen
with the wine of sunshine poured out to soak the horizon
in its daily lowing glow.
May it be so for us, this Lent.
Amen and Amen.