SERMON 5 MARCH 2017 LENT 1
Not far from here is the rather expensive but very nice Eden Gardens. It’s a good name for a garden centre that also sells other accessories that can make our outdoor living quite luxurious. I suppose there would be many people who understand the Garden of Eden to be some sort of idyllic place, some kind of paradise lost. So, presumably, if we can set up our outdoor living with a degree of luxury, be it a garden, a courtyard or a balcony, then we are getting nearer to that lost paradise. Maybe!
For those of us with a greater degree of biblical awareness, we understand that the story we heard from Genesis 2 is an account of how that paradise was lost. There was, all the time, a serpent in the garden, a serpent that was craftier than any of the other creatures. Inbuilt into this story is the command “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” And with that instruction there follows the choice, to obey or to disregard. That is where the shadow lies, because when we become aware of choice, there follows temptation. We know what happens. From that first decision that leads to disobedience comes the first named emotion: shame. Now there is loss of innocence, and when that has gone it can never be regained. Was this temptation to power? If there has been no need for power, or comprehension of what that might mean, it would seem that the choice was more about simply seeing that the food is good to eat, albeit with a suggestion of something bigger behind that. After all, what was good and evil about before this? It did not exist in Adam and Eve’s little world.
It seems that the creations stories in Genesis 1, 2 and 3 were written down in the time of the Babylonian exile. These stories had been handed on, part of the rich oral tradition of the Hebrew people. They are about their own “dreamtime” if you like; their way of understanding how the world came to be, just as all the Ancient Near East cultures had their own stories. In Babylon the people had generations in which to reflect on how they came to be in such a powerless situation; how and why good and evil exist in a world where God is also there. How were they to understand God? It’s interesting that, read, one way, the Genesis account we heard seems to suggest that God didn’t want humans to threaten God’s power and wisdom, that God didn’t want them coming that close. But another way of looking at it is that God didn’t want humans to have to deal with the consequences of such knowledge of good and evil.
But we do. We cannot return to an age of innocence, and God knows, we are needed in the world outside that garden to labour in it, care for it and to make it work. It is, in a way, a metaphor for the journey of faith. We begin in the innocence of childhood, which hopefully lasts long enough for the child to grow securely in some wisdom and understanding. But then the gates of that garden need to be opened so that the child can grow in maturity, equipped to keep learning and growing in the more challenging environment outside. Part of the pain of the world is that so many children do not have that security and innocence of childhood.
Now we are outside the garden and the world around us seems very threatening at times in many different ways. One of the temptations for us is to close our eyes to what is challenging and to look longingly over our shoulder at that faintly perceived vision of Eden. Someone was saying, and I hope I never have to witness this, that if you put a frog into cold water, then gradually raise the temperature, it never discerns the threat, feeling comfortable in the gentle warmth, until it is too late. That’s a rather awful image but maybe it is apt as we think about our awareness of the world around us.
Janine Kitson, last Tuesday, spoke at Open House about the Royal National Park, here, and Yellowstone National Park in the US. She pointed to what happens when the biodiversity is changed, when the balance of species is altered. The affect is profound, and, most often, those changes are the result of human intervention. Fortunately, nature can also restore itself when the balance begins to be readjusted, as with the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. These parks are a spiritual resource, because, without these places, these hints of Eden, we are impoverished. We need wild places. Creation needs them for the very health of the planet. But these spaces are always under threat because of powerful money focussed interests, whether of developers or of those who do not judge them in need of an investment of care. Are we in danger of being frogs in the ever warming water around us, the ever rising temperatures of our climate?
It seems that there is always a choice before us: to value the wilderness places that are also so symbolic of threat, or to turn the other way and fail to see how we lose our spiritual capital when we would rather just look at the economic capital in the bank. It is impossible not to look at some of the choices that are being made by the new regime in the United States, where the temptation to power is manifest in the rhetoric of defensiveness as opposed to community, and where vast sums of money are being directed to build up the military while the environment is ignored or exploited. And Australia seems to be in danger of going down that route too. That feels a very long way from any Garden of Eden. It feels more like walking towards a wilderness that is deadly.
Jesus walked into the wilderness, at the Holy Spirit’s leading, straight after his baptism. It seems to be an inescapable part of his journey, and ours also. He faced up to the aloneness, the fears from within and the dangers from outside, for a long time. If we take 40 days and nights literally, that is more than 5 weeks. 40 days with no-one to talk to except himself and God, and, ultimately, the voice of the devil. 40 days to go over and over in his mind, his heart and soul, what God was calling him to be and to do. 40 days with very little to eat. How dark the nights would have been! How starkly demanding the days! It is at the end of this time that the temptations are put before him. It is significant that the first temptation is about bread. Of course he was hungry in the extreme. But what Jesus knows is that the spiritual need is far greater. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus had been listening for the word of God and had come through that desolate time knowing how to survive: by listening. Last week, in the story of the Transfiguration, we heard the instruction from God to Peter and James and John, and so to all who follow, to listen to Jesus his Son. Unless we find our spiritual hunger met, all our efforts are shallow, maybe like seeds planted on rocky ground.
Many years ago in Edinburgh I went to a course on spirituality run by a Catholic priest called Jock Dalrymple. It was based on a book he wrote called “The Longest Journey is the Journey Inward”. I don’t remember anything really about his talks now, but I do remember that phrase: the longest journey is the journey inward. That, I think, was the journey that Jesus had been making in his wilderness time. It is the most challenging journey of all, and it is the journey that this time of Lent offers us.
Jesus’ response to the other temptations – to worldly power and its challenges - were other aspects of the temptation to fill his hunger physically before anything else. He was being presented with a choice to avoid the painful consequences of what lay ahead for him. In making his choice, he became bread for his followers through the ages, and we will celebrate his self-giving so that we can find nourishment for our spirits as we share in the bread he made holy.
What are we to take from all of this, for our lives, for our place in the world now? The issues are many and complex. There are big questions around power and vulnerability. What power do we feel we have as we respond to what we see happening? Jesus gave up on worldly power based entirely on trust in God. The devil said to him “If you are the Son of God..” The question that is out to us is “If you are the children of God..” then how do we behave? Jesus trusted the voice of God, the word of God that he had heard. We may find it hard to hear that voice, but we should begin by listening for it, in trust. If we are withholding our trust because we are tempted to think we need to hold onto our power, then we may find we have become deaf. Maybe the frog in the warming water needed to hear something telling it to jump out, now.
These are not easy things to ponder. The wilderness was not an easy place for Jesus. Maybe the challenge for us is that we don’t notice how the wilderness may creep up on us when we are looking to ourselves more than listening to God. The wilderness becomes more stark when we accept our vulnerability. The vulnerability connects us to so many in the world who live in vulnerability all the time. It is when we choose that path that we begin to see that such fear and powerlessness is the beginning of our growth. And Lent, for all its starkness, is about that long journey inward that becomes the womb of growth.
Lent is not so much about what we might be giving up, though that can be a helpful discipline. It is more about what we might be discovering as we step out into the wilderness. It is not, after all, an unfamiliar place, because we will all have known our wilderness times. But this Lenten time maybe we can have our ears open to listen for the word of God that feeds our spiritual hunger as we open ourselves up in trust. After all, it is only when we have journeyed through the wilderness that we then appreciate the beauty we are also promised when we have held true.