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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

 

O God-chosen waif down the lane serving families and God with gentle obedience, a smile across your brown face, your brown hair tied back to keep it out of the way of wash cloth, dust mop, dish water and bath water; were you waiting, were you listening for angelic footfalls or the wing startling breeze shaking the world like a snow globe-in an upside down, sideways, topsy-turvy cosmic revolution of grace

Were you, grace filled young woman, singing the ancient song of joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!” after Gabriel surprised you with the unfathomable good news?  Did you think mouths full of laughter were as joyful and wondrous as mouths full of Godiva raspberry truffles or Leo Bakery cakes layered with butter cream frosting? Did you know the joy of those who sowed their fields with the tears of exile, but who brought the harvest  home, the home God created for them, with shouts of joy?

Was that what made you race to your cousin Elizabeth? Because you just had to share the joy and wonder with someone? Did you know your aged cousin would share your joy because what mother has not waited for the first stirrings of her child or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb? Was your and Elizabeth’s twin joy expressing the joy of all mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child, making every child’s birth a sign of salvation, of being blessed, of living with promise and realizing its fulfillment? Did you sense God’s saving work in your life to be the invitation to consider how the experience of patient expectancy teaches human beings God’s way of gracious work? Was your and Elizabeth’s joy peaked by waiting?  Did you realize your aged cousin’s son was the one who will bring one age to the close while you, the young mother, would birth a son who will usher into being God’s new age? Did you already feel blessed by God? Did you grasp the full meaning of the leaping joy of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb at your arrival? Did you realize your blessing for trusting God had already happened?  Did you hear all of that in Elizabeth’s song to you? Did you think the joining of this wonder with God’s saving work was God’s brilliant idea, so you might experience God’s gracious acts of new life in the same way the prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant in his song, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Was this servant’s song, your song, Mary? Did you feel the way the prophet Isaiah did at his call, you who are the unlikely one living in a remote, country village, yet blessed by God to birth a child who will be a blessing to countless generations throughout the world?

Is that why you sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Was joy filling every nano particle of your being until it overflowed in glad abandonment? Was that why you, Mary, so joyously proclaimed that all of your actions, your thoughts, your daily activities- every aspect of your being—the entirety of all that makes you this distinctive person named Mary-will point all people to see the greatness of God in all that God does? Pointing to the promises of comfort and strength for those who mourn that they might have garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning? Pointing to the promises of new life springing forth like crocus shooting up out of the earth. Pointing to the healing of all who suffer, Pointing to all who have been pushed to margins of society are being drawn toward the communities center.

Is that why Mary sings aloud with the excitement and wonder of a joy that pours out of her like a thunderous spring swollen waterfall cascading down a mountainside, “for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant, Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed?”

Indeed, God’s blessing of life within Mary, transforms her and her life so decisively she will never be the person she dreamed she might become. Instead, she and her life will be celebrated for the wonder and amazement of God creating a new life  the way a caterpillar is transformed by the cocoon into the stunningly beautiful Monarch butterfly that will fly from flower to flower in spring delighting our eyes and imaginations with such amazement and awe that we are compelled to share with others this wonder. Future generations will remember God-transformed Mary and will say, “Yes, God has blessed you Mary with such extraordinary joy that rejoicing and praise is the only possible response to this pure gift of grace.”

“There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy, “a theologian writes. “It has no relation to merit or demerit. It is not a quality they have wrested from the vicissitudes of life. To them joy is given as a precious ingredient in life. And, wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others. To be touched by them is to be blessed of God.”

Mary is one such person. Through her we experience a tantalizing taste of joy in this our season of anticipation and expectation. After all, she is one of us. She was not powerful like a queen or a president. She was not even one of the wise women of the village.

Yet, out of all the women in the world God could choose to take part in this wondrous blessing, God chooses Mary to receive this life-transforming blessing of joy. She didn’t get a detailed explanation about why she was being chosen. God simply sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary this good news with the familiar, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Which is, but one of the ways grace comes bounding into our lives like a puppy romping through new fallen snow. Mary’s experience of grace was mysterious because it did not fit with the rhyme of common sense or laws of logic, but worked based on some kind of out of left field, principle of divine math where two plus two equals 27.

However, at other times, grace makes a serendipitous appearance, showing up just when we need it most like a non-essential embellishing note in a musical score, whose beauty is unmistakable and carries with it splendor and an over-the-top quality of unanticipated loveliness.

Then, again we may experience grace moving unobtrusively, calmly gliding under our lives, so we might land on our feet when we’ve lost our way. Of course, there is the grace that dresses up in everyday clothes, experienced in the common rough and tumble moments of life, working through our myriad fragilities and adjusting to where we happen to be at any given moment to take us to the place where well-being and joy overflow. But, sometimes grace is weightless, effortlessly entering our lives with levity and humor like a precious buoy of hope reminding us that strident morality lends heaviness to much of life and legalism simply drowns the human spirit.

Whichever way grace chooses to come to us, it brings a fullness of life into being, which move us to songs of gratitude and joy. The same joy recurring throughout the Gospel of Luke from the joy of the annunciation and the visitation and births of John and Jesus to the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead to new life, outcasts of the community being drawn to the center of Jesus’ ministry to the ascension joy of the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and entering the Temple praising God for resurrection and the Holy Spirit pouring over them setting ablaze their passion for humanity transforming justice leading to peace.

This is the joyous praise for a new life as intimately connected to God as Mary is connected to the life within her, compelling all who experience it to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” because we too are those whose mouths are filled with laughter, those whose whole being is filled with the overflowing joy of God’s love.

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When I was about seven, I was busily writing the “Further Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” stories, which my sister illustrated with crayon drawings. We’d sell our books on the sidewalk to whomever passed by us. Most children had a lemonade stand; I had a small publishing enterprise. Grown-ups would stop to look at the books and they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I said, “I want to write stories and I want to tell stories.” They would say, “That’s nice.”

When I was twelve they began saying to me, “That’s a nice dream, but it’s too hard making a living writing stories” then off they’d go with a barrage of facts, making writing stories sound like an utterly ridiculous goal.

Invariably, they finished up by saying, “It’s nice to have big dreams, but you need to face the facts of life. You need to get a real job with a real income like everybody else. This is, after all, the 20th Century.”

The way they said it made it sound as if the mere fact of living in that century settled the issue for all time.  It was as though they agreed with Clifton Fadiman’s statement, “All of life is an earnest search for the right manila folder in which we get filed away.”  As if they lived in the grip of fatalism that believes everything is as it has always been and forever will be. As though life proceeds like clockwork. As if something need to have happened only a couple of times in the past three years for our minds to declare it “inevitable” and “irrevocable.” As if a leaf is green because it could be nothing else. The poor are poor because they are poor. Everything is as it is due to routine, predictability, and given enough time and government research grants, everything shall be explained and demystified.

“The world is as it is. It can’t be changed,” they seemed to be saying.

Yet, when I hear God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “And a child shall lead them” I wonder why will it be that a child shall lead humanity into the incredible beauty of God’s vision for our lives that is poetically described by Isaiah? After all, children in the ancient near east and even today are among the most vulnerable and least powerful persons in a community. On their own, children do not create legislation, pass laws, or even have their voice taken seriously by those who do make laws. They depend upon others to keep them safe and provide for them. They depend upon adult leaders to lead them into lives of creativity and vitality.

On their own, children are often unable or at the very least find it difficult to protect themselves or their interests.  Just look at the news reports and magazine articles about child labor in India, Pakistan and throughout South Asia, not to mention the plight of children in refugee camps in Turkey, or the young girls sold as brides to men old enough to be their grandfathers.

So, why does God tell us through the prophet Isaiah, in God’s peaceable kingdom a child will be the leader?  What is it about a child that will make them the best choice for leadership?

Well, take a look at the painting of the peaceable kingdom. What is it that adults see? Do you see all the animals just hanging out together, predators and prey standing next to each other? Do you see their faces and do you detect the smiles on their faces as if the painter Edward Hicks said, “Now, everyone say cheese?”  Do you wonder why it is that they are smiling? Is it because the prey is no longer fearful? Or maybe they are calm because they are in a forest with such an abundance of water and plants to eat, that hunger isn’t an issue for any of the animals, so the predators have decided it’s good to be a vegan. Do you see the children in the painting? Why are they the age the painter has depicted? And, did you notice that one is a male and one is a female? Do you see the angel? Can you see far into the background and see William Penn, the Quaker, affirming a peace treaty with Delaware tribe? Yet, what does this have to do with the peaceable kingdom and Isaiah 11?

Well, let’s think about it through the eyes of a child. What does a child sees in this painting? Does the child see the peaceable kingdom as perhaps really the Garden of Eden? I wonder if children would see the picture divided between the animals’ peaceable kingdom and the humans’ peaceable kingdom? I wonder if children might see more than we see?

Several years ago, Tina and I and two of our children went to see the movie August Rush. It is a marvelous movie not only for the music that runs like a thread throughout the story connecting each of the people together and drawing them together, but also for the story of a young not quite twelve year old boy who hears music in all the sounds of the world around him whether he is standing in the middle of a corn field as the wind blows the stalks in amazing swirling and flowing patterns or he is standing in the middle of New York City listening to music being created by the interplay of car engines, horns, shoes scrapping across pavement, water bubbling in a fountain, and people’s voices echoing in the air of the city. Each of these is its own symphony playing notes of music that is his life, which is seeking the music of his long lost mother and father’s lives, so they might be reunited and made whole.

While no one believes him or understands him, the boy refuses to give up on this vision and he finds imaginative ways to make the music of his life spread far out into New York City knowing that his mother and father will hear it and be drawn to him.

Perhaps, that is the reason God chooses a child to lead humanity to the peaceable kingdom. Maybe, it is because children see life as amazing. A child makes no rigid distinction between the tales of wizards and fairies and the tales of historians. As G. K. Chesterton notes, there was a reason why Cinderella was younger than her ugly sisters. “A child“ ,he writes, ”of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon.”

I think this is the reason children picked up Harry Potter books and couldn’t put them down.  I think they became enmeshed and awed to wonder by a world that is beyond our predictable, everyday routine. Where there are brooms to ride in games played high above our heads, invisibility cloaks and maps that show people moving about a castle school where the pictures talk to you. At least, I know this is why I couldn’t put them down and will be re-reading them for years to come. The Harry Potter books and books about knights of the round tables, princes and princesses and others like them invite us to open our minds and imagine there is more to life than what we see.

In imaginative literature, music, plays and art, we are invited to look beyond the surface of life and see that a leaf is green for a reason that has nothing to do with rational science.

In many ways, Isaiah is, also, reminding us to look beyond the surface of this life to see that a leaf is green because God meant it to be. Every leaf that is green or red or yellow and not beige is so because of God’s choice. The world is something, which has been meant, designed, brought into being by God’s choice. And, it is here for our wonder, our surprise and our enjoyment. Even the repetition of cycles and routines is meant more for us to wonder about than to see them as dull and pointless. Maybe, we are supposed to be looking at the grass as a signal to us. Maybe the stars are trying to get us to understand some message they have for us, maybe the rising of the sun each day is making a point we will discover only if we pay close attention to it.

Perhaps, the point it is making is that God has chosen the order of the world and the repetition within creation as a way to speak to us about its vitality and health. Like the child who laughs at a joke and says, “daddy tell it again and again and again. Or, like the child who falls in love with swinging on a swing and says, “Mommy, do it again. Do it again!” I wonder if God says to the irises each spring and apples and oranges “do it again. Do it again.” So, we might wonder at the continual renewal of life and be surprised at the first blooms of flowers popping up from the ground, reminding us how God creates life anew each day.

Maybe, the shoot that springs forth from the tree stump is God’s way of reminding us that God is the God of green life. That God is the one who brings forth greenness when we have felt as if we were dry as summer dust. Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th Century about the veriditas or the greening, healing power of God. “God through Christ is bringing the healing and lush greenness of God’s kingdom to a shriveled and wilted humanity.” Even, Paul’s word to the Roman church in chapter 15:13 of his epistle might be translated as Eugene Peterson has, “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”

Maybe we need a child to lead us in becoming children, so we might see the new heaven and new earth, which is not fully our present heaven and earth, coming into being as God intends it to come into being with a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse and a wolf living with a lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child leading us to hear God’s music of life creating the symphony which draws all people and creation together into God’s peaceable kingdom.

I pray this may be your vision and your hope for this Advent and Christmas, as surely as it is mine.

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“Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor. 1:30.)

As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”

These statements from the Theological Declaration of Barmen affirmed that Christ is King of our whole life. In doing so, they rejected the white supremacy, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism of Nazi regime that sought to take over the German Evangelical Federation of reformed churches and pronounce Adolf Hitler not simply the leader of the government, but head of the church supplanting Jesus Christ and declaring himself God.

The more than 100 pastors who signed this declaration in the town of Barmen, Germany and who went to their churches and preached this the next Sunday did so fully aware that they would be arrested and put into concentration camps, which they all were and where nearly all of them died.

Declaring Jesus Christ as Lord of the entirety of our lives, is a bold and profound statement of faith affirming that every aspect of our lives is evaluated from the basis of our being faithful followers of Jesus Christ. No ideology, no political party, no philosophical understanding, no Ann Rynd, no economic theory, no government or contemporary cultural movement replaces our commitment and obedience to God in Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible whether of thrones or dominions, or rulers or powers-all things have been created through Jesus and in him all things hold together. This does not make it easy or convenient to be a follower of Christ.

For one thing, we will be challenged to live fully the love ethic of loving God with the totality of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies, but at the same time we are called to stand with those who are the most vulnerable in our society to being bullied, to being oppressed, to being abused whether through words, emotional abuse or violence. We are challenged to be like the peacemakers who were trained to accompany Christian mission co-workers in places like Columbia and Iraq as they taught people how to read, to write, and to learn skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing or farming as well sharing the gospel, except we may be doing this in or own communities with Muslim brothers and sisters or Jewish brothers and sisters as well as migrant workers, the LGBTQ community and immigrant communities.

After World War II, one of the pastors who was present at writing of the Barmen declaration, Martin Niemoller, wrote this, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is the reminder that followers of Christ must be as publicly present and vocal in teaching and living the gospel as Jesus was when he sat with lepers, prostitutes, radicals, tax collectors and other people society labeled outcasts.

In this public presence, we are challenged to speak up as hate surfaces more and more. Since the election over 10,000 acts of hate have occurred ranging from signs of swastikas to words saying kill the Jews, Muslims, Latinos and African Americans appearing on dorm rooms, automobiles, public buildings and throughout social media, to a Muslim woman being robbed, to Hispanic and African American teachers at a New Jersey school being told by students that they didn’t have to listen to them anymore because those teachers would be gone soon; to the FBI releasing information that there was a 65% rise in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, to the announcement that a White House advisor to Trump is Steve Bannon the one who gives voice to white supremacists and anti-Semitics to Kellyanne Conway of the Trump campaign threatening U. S. Senator Harry Reid for speaking out against Trump.

As the Theological Declaration of Barmen reminds us when we are speaking out against hate we are to be “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together,” as Paul wrote to the house churches of Ephesus. “The Christian Church,” the Barmen declaration states, “is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it hasto testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order and that it lives and wants to live solely from God’s comfort and from Jesus’ direction in the expectation of his appearance.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

We are challenged to affirm that in Christ all false barriers separating us from other people have been broken down as Paul reminds us, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, nor male or female, for all are one in Christ,” all are one humanity and no one is to be excluded or denied their humanity. All the ways humans devise to create stratified societies are acts of sinfulness whether it is of elites and ordinary folks or wealthy and poor communities or creating societies based upon some lives mattering more than other lives because of an ingrained, cultural myth of superiority and inferiority or because some are considered chosen and some condemned or some deemed civilized and others uncivilized, since Jesus frequently crossed social boundaries to heal and to bring into the community those relegated to the margins, affirming by his actions that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and all are to be treated with respect.

We are to do all of this while knowing we are God’s beloved and clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience as well as bearing with one another in relationships where forgiveness is given and every aspect of our community life together is wrapped in self-giving love, which binds everything together in a harmony yielding peace.

We do this way because the one we declare to be Lord of our life is the one who is a total reversal of the roles usually assigned to royalty, leadership and servitude. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kings, presidents and leaders. He is the king who serves the other. He is the president who dies for the other. He is the leader who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable, most repugnant of all, is the fact that he is a powerless sovereign, president, leader. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is thrice taunted for the fact that he does not save himself. “You a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.” Even a criminal scolds: “I thought you were supposed to be a Messiah. Prove it.”

Jesus is so thoroughly unlike any notion we have of kings, presidents or leaders because he disavows armies, offers himself without self-defense, does not seek power or to rule over people by domination and intimidation, and he refuses to use or condone force and violence, even against his enemies. Indeed, his word from the cross to those who oppose him, reject him, mock him, and crucify him is simply, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Christ is the king who appears weak in the face of the powerful and accepts the humiliation of being whipped and spat upon as well as the humiliating death on a cross. Christ is the leader who is utterly innocent and yet completely accepts the appearances of utter guilt.

One of the criminals crucified with him embraced this startling truth—and he was saved. “We deserve it after all.” He said, “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Later, when the same criminal asks, “Jesus, remember me,” Jesus responds, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” In his response to the criminal Jesus reveals himself to be the king who is full of mercy and uses his power to save others.  Which is what he did throughout his life whether feeding five thousand people in the wilderness or raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus uses his power to save others. He doesn’t use it to save himself.

The kingship or presidential presence of Christ is not about power, certainly not the political or juridical power to “save yourself and us” from the ignominy of crucifixion. But, ironically, his power to save is revealed as he tells the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” All of this makes Christ’s kingship an abomination for any earthly royal or political power aspiration, since it is an assault upon the desires of every tribe or nation that ever craved ascendancy or empire. Which ought to give us pause because we live at a time when many nations and people are seeking ascendancy or at least hegemony, when power and wealth are the basis for celebration throughout the world, and when saving ourselves at all costs is acceptable, using whatever means are available, even if it destroys the lives of others.

René Girard, professor of language and culture at Stanford University, is a rare contemporary thinker who confronts the implications of Christian faith. In his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard shows how Christ dismantles the triangle of desire, violence, and retribution. He writes that, “In Christ there is no envy, greed, no lust for power, and no vengeance. Christ is the only sovereign to embody such principles.”

Girard continues by saying, “It can be shown, I believe, that there is not a single action or word attributed to Jesus –even those that seem harshest at first sight-that is not consistent with the rule of [God’s] Kingdom. It is absolute fidelity to his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no cause for his death other than the love of one’s neighbor lived to the very end.  He goes on to say that when we acknowledge Christ as God and king we accept his reversal of everything that dominates humanity.

We accept the challenges and the inconvenience of being a follower of Christ, walking down the same stony path he trod, being willing to lose our lives, giving up being centered in ourselves and picking up the cross leading to the fullness of joy and the deep peace of God’s love for us and all humanity as we too love our neighbor to the very end. Amen.

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“I am not really myself. I am someone else. When others see me to talk to me, they are talking to a stranger. Not me. I am kept hidden away, safe from discovery or attack, behind the cover of my masks. Each day, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. As I sift through my closet, choosing which clothes to wear, I also search my mental mask menagerie, carefully selecting the image I want to project. Like an actor, I have learned to portray many roles. Many faces. Many moods. And I use a different mask for each.”

In this moment of honesty the young woman poet says what many people want to say, but have a hard time admitting. Very often in one way or another people often hide behind masks. Masks of happiness, because we want to be happy, though we may not be. Masks of the socialite because we want to have friends, though we are afraid people may not like us if they knew our real selves. Masks of self-sufficiency because we want to take charge of our lives, particularly when life seems beyond our control. Masks of “I’m fine” even when I am suffering from an illness or disease that threatens my life and I’m in denial. Masks of confidence when I don’t want to admit mistakes, weakness or hurt. Masks of superiority to tamp down feelings of being a fraud just waiting to be outed. Masks of all kinds to fit all the situations life presents to us each and every day.

I have often wondered why we wear these masks. Is it because it’s simply easier to go along to get along? Have we been rejected so many times in our lives that we choose not to risk being real? Or, is it as Henri Nouwen suggests that we live in the house of fear when he wrote, “The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like.”

Or, is it because we feel like a bowl that a friend of Joyce Rupp owned. This friend had a bowl with a lovely oriental design on it that was used at every family gathering for years. Over the years the design faded, one side received a crack and was chipped in several places. Pat, Rupp’s friend, admitted she turned the bowl, so that its “bad side” faced the wall and the bowl’s flaws were less noticeable.

Whatever the reasons, the downside of hiding behind masks creates more problems for us as the poet reminds us, “As I continue to wear these masks they begin to feel too comfortable. Natural. Necessary. As I get used to my masks I begin to believe they might really be me rather than merely a façade. Yet, meanwhile, my true self lies dormant within me. Isolated. Forgotten”

This is what has happened to the Pharisee, who has come to the Temple to pray, though he doesn’t realize it.

The Pharisee stands with his hands upraised and his face looking up in the traditional posture for prayer. Then, he begins his prayer without realizing how where he stands combined with the words he is speaking betrays the mask he wears. Now, to be sure this Pharisee believes he is a good man. In fact, there are a number of congregations that would welcome him with open arms, including this one. After all, he is not a crook, not a timeserver, not a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn’t honestly earned, he gives everyone a fair measure, and he is faithful to his wife, and patient with his children. And, he is religious. He fasts twice a week, he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent of all his income is for God, and he gives God thanks. Or at least he thinks he does.

You see the Greek phrase “pros heowton” can be translated as “standing by himself” or “praying within himself’ or “praying to himself.” By the first way of translating the phrase he is standing aloof from all the other people praying suggesting he has physically separated himself from the community as one who is too pure to stand near them, thus his words, “Thank God I’m not like other people,” and his actions of standing off by himself reinforce each other. By the second and third way of translating the phrase, he is mainly talking to himself in a narcissistic soliloquy and has separated himself from God.

Perhaps Jesus means he has done both, since the words of his prayer separates him from his community in its very opening, “Thank God I’m not like all these people” and he separates himself from God by listing all the things he does to justify himself-to save himself without God having anything to do with it. This is a man who has little need of God or the community. This is a man who leaves the hour of prayer self-assured and self-justified in his mask of self-righteousness, sort of like Ann Coulter or Bill Maher.

But, he has forgotten the one very important truth.

The truth known personally and deeply by the other man who is praying in the Temple’s shadows. The tax collector is a man, who knows he is only fit for the shadows and barely has any right to be in the Temple because he has sold out his neighbors and taken up with those who are oppressing them. He is the Tony Soprano of the first century enforcing Roman tax laws on his neighbors as well as bleeding them dry by adding on top of the Roman taxes his own greedy sum of money. He is hated by his neighbors as a collaborator and oppressor and treated with disdain by the Romans overseeing his operations. He has no place in the community, except in the shadows, where he stands with his eyes fixed on his feet, beating his chest the way men of the Ancient Near East did in heart-wrenching anguish, saying only a phrase adapted from Psalm 51- “God, have mercy upon me- a sinner.”

Which is absolutely true. He is a sinner. He knows he is a sinner and is not about to pretend to be what he is not. He has come to prayer hoping for God’s mercy because only God can forgive him. Only God can save him. He cannot save himself.  By the simple words of his prayer he takes off the mask he has been wearing and admits he has separated himself far away from his community and from God. He knows that on his own he cannot be reconciled to his community or be reconciled to God, only God is able to do that. He has come to the truth novelist Douglas Coupland writes, “My secret is that I need God- that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

This tax collector has come to this moment because, I suspect, somewhere before he arrived at the Temple he discovered that one important truth the Pharisee has not yet discovered. We can hide from our neighbors by the masks we wear. We might be able to hide from ourselves even when we look in the mirror. But, we can’t hide from God.

God knows us as the psalmist tells us, “ O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.”

There is simply no place where we can go that God is not present. There is no thought we might think that is hidden to God. Nor words, nor actions. Like the Psalmist, we encounter God who knows us through and through. God knows our daily habits, our most intimate thoughts and intentions. God’s knowledge, moreover, is not casual or indifferent. It is searching, penetrating, disturbing. It lays bare the innermost core of our being. We are surprised to find that God is not only near, God is uncomfortably near. God is before us and behind us; we are surrounded and if we are as aware of God as the psalmist is then we too will feel the constraint of God’s hand upon us.

Such a God is disturbing, disquieting, unsettling. God threatens our self-sufficiency. God does not confirm us as we are. Rather, God upsets the compromises we have made with the world and ourselves. Like most of us, the Psalmist yearned to know God. Obviously, neither he nor us had expected such a God as this. One may discern in the shadow of the psalmist’s surprise that the God he yearned to know was a projection of his own wishes and values, the champion of his cause. Isn’t that the God we have often yearned to know? The one who will do what we want, who will answer our prayers as we deem best on our terms and on our time tables? However, the encounter with the One who is truly divine is too much for the Psalmist. It requires a revolution in his life he feels he cannot make.

Yet, here is the good news Jesus brings into the world like the rising sun lit dawn chasing away the darkness of night, “God loves us.” Loving us not for our perfections, but with our flaws and imperfections readily apparent. That’s why Jesus called a tax collector to be one of the twelve disciples. That’s why Jesus constantly ate with thieves, prostitutes, lepers, and all who were sinners and beyond the bounds of the community of respectable people. That’s why Jesus so infuriated those who opposed him. They thought they had the in with God and when the Messiah came they would be confirmed. They are like the older brother in the prodigal son story, who gets angry when the ne’er do well younger brother is forgiven and is welcomed with a lavish feast, but forgets he is already blessed by his father. They have forgotten they have already received God’s grace because they have become so comfortable behind their masks of self-righteousness and have forgotten they too are sinners just like all those other people. They too need God.

They too need God’s mercy to see that their flaws are some of their greatest treasures, being irritated and grated by the sand of God’s presence in Jesus, so they become pearls. The pearls that keep our ego in check by reminding us daily of our need of God’s grace. The pearls that keep us growing and becoming more the real persons whose lives resemble Jesus’ life. The pearls that helps us to be more understanding and compassionate with the inadequacies and flaws of others. The pearls that help us to continually grow into being more loving persons, seeing what our flaws tell us about our relationship with God and with others. Reminding us not to hide behind masks or to turn our flawed side to the wall, but to rejoice in the grace of a God, who knows us inside and outside and still loves us and wants us to walk God’s path of life where there is fullness of joy and peace.

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After a heated, but thoughtful discussion of Scripture in the little church a man stood up and said, “Well, all that’s been said is okay. But I think it can all be summed up by a bumper sticker I saw the other day, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” End of discussion.

             We do chuckle at the shrink wrapped, simplistic faith of the man who so glibly and simplistically speaks of the Bible, but if we’re honest, we admit that among us, too, there is a tendency to sheer off the grand reality of God to fit the narrow confines of our own experience, our own social context, or our own prejudices.

Which is to say, very often we want God in a box. We want to be able to confine God into a box built out of our individual definitions of what God can do, ought to do, must do, should do, and all that God certainly can’t and won’t do. But, the truth is God won’t fit into anybody’s box no matter how well constructed it seems to be. God will do what God chooses to do in all of God’s amazing, enigmatic, and disrupting way..

            One hot day in the middle of a life broken by failed marriages, societal oppression, poverty, and degrading town gossip, a Samaritan woman discovers how disrupting, enigmatic and amazing God can be when she goes to draw water from the well Jacob had created for his family so many centuries before outside the city called Sychar that stood on the site of the ancient city of Shechem.

As she approaches the well she notices a man, a Judean man, standing next to it, which is unusual for many reasons. First, this is a time when a person wouldn’t have come to the well to draw water then carry it back to the village. Water was fetched in the morning or in the evening when all the women came to the well and drew their water and shared their news, and gossip of the village. Yet, Jesus is just leaning against the well when a Samaritan woman comes to the well at the only time she could come because she is not welcome in her community. You see, she is the chipped cup of her community. She has all the bumps, scratches, cracks and chips, the imperfections, and the inadequacies so many of us have that keep us from being perfect. She is like the chipped bowl sitting in the cupboard at my home, the bowl with the flaw I keep at the back of the cupboard and the one I never use with company because I’d be embarrassed for anyone to know I have such an imperfect bowl.

I keep its imperfection, its broken and chipped side hidden in the same way this woman came to the well when no one else would see her or talk to her because she hid herself away from the rest of the community because the community turned away from her, they were embarrassed to acknowledge such an imperfect person lived in their village..

            The second unusual aspect of this meeting is that, Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Normally in the ancient Near East a man, particularly a rabbi, would not speak to a woman, who was not his wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, grandmother, or some relation to him, even to ask her for a drink of water or food to eat. Not only that, but Jesus is a Judean and Judeans never speak to a Samaritan because Judeans thought Samaritans were at best the scum of the earth often referring to them as half-human-half-animal. As a matter of fact, most Judeans would take a longer journey just to keep from traveling through Samaria. Though, they shared a common faith tradition, the Judeans did not consider Samaritans brothers and sisters in the faith and went so far as to say they weren’t even descendents of Abraham and Sarah. Sort of like today when one group of Christians claims those who don’t agree with them aren’t really Christians at all. Sort of like what happened when Rob Bell, a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina lost his position as pastor of a church because he openly has doubts about hell and its prominence in Christian theology.

So, the woman is surprised that a Judean would speak to her let alone ask her for water.  

            Then, Jesus tells her if she knew the gift of God he had for her and who he was, he would have given her living water, water more life giving than the water she comes to draw out of the well. Water that is like the water God poured out of a rock in the wilderness for the Hebrews, who complained they were dying of thirst. All she had to do was ask. But, she doesn’t understand what he is saying. Her mind is focused on the reality she has perceived in a particular pattern of life, so she  fails to grasp the paradigm shifting, counter-cultural, totally new thing God is bringing into being through Jesus even when he tells her that there will come a time when God is neither worshipped on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria nor in the Jerusalem temple, but God would be worshipped in spirit and truth because God cannot be contained on the top of a particular mountain or constrained within the confines of the Holy of Holies behind the large curtain in the Jerusalem temple. Geography or a particular building would no longer be important for worshipping God. Sounds a little contemporary doesn’t it? This is, in part, what the emerging churches that worship in houses, storefronts, gyms, health clubs and nightclubs are reminding us. God is worshipped when the people of God gather together. It is the people who make worship happen, who are the ones God seeks through Jesus. It is not a building with a lovely pulpit, stained glass windows, nor a temple high on a mount.

            While all of this seemed strange and mysterious to the woman, the most enigmatic, the most amazing and disrupting thing of all is Jesus knew all about this woman. Jesus knew everything there was to know about her. He knew she had been married five times and was not married to the man she was currently living with. Jesus knows this woman the way Psalm 139 tells us God knows us. When we are being formed in the womb, when we are born, when we rise up, when we go to bed, when we leave our homes, and when we return home. There is no place in the universe we can go to hide from God and there is nothing we do or fail to do that is beyond God’s sight or knowledge. We are completely and utterly known just as we are Just as this woman was.

            Being so completely known must have been a bit frightening for this woman because she lived on the edges of the village life. She was excluded from the social life of the village and treated with contempt by the other women of the village because of her past and because of her present. Indeed, she was daily rejected because daily she walked to the well-not in the cool morning with the other women, but in the heat of midday, alone. I suspect she was, also, degraded by the looks, and the comments made as she walked through the village. As Anne Lamont writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” Maybe, there were some people who prayed for her, but they would never consider coming near her. Speaking to her. Listening to her. I imagined she lived with the nagging voice of her own self-criticism bouncing around within her telling how imperfect, unworthy, and like junk she was.

            How would it feel to be her? What would it be like for each one of us to be so completely known that nothing is hidden? Would we be frightened? Worried, perhaps, that if people really knew us, they wouldn’t like us, wouldn’t let us belong to their community. That is one of the biggest issues for people today, particularly young men and women, because they desperately want to belong to a community. The isolation, cracked social relationships, the rapidity of change, the restless and broken communities of our society have left many young adults with a longing for a community, who can help them make sense of the world, help them find purpose for their lives, and where people care about them for who they really are, not as people would like them to be. But, do you know what is most amazing?

         Jesus does not reject her, exclude her, or treat her with contempt. Instead, Jesus does what no other person does; he speaks to her and listens to her. Then, Jesus does something equally amazing and enigmatic. He reveals himself to her. It happens in the simple “I am he” statement that echoes God’s answer to Moses when Moses asks God for a name to say to the Hebrews in Egypt, so they will know Moses comes as the one sent by God to deliver them out of bondage and bring them to the new life God has for them. God simply tells Moses to say, “I am” has sent me. Tell them the one who creates life, who is life itself, has sent you. In his own simple statement, Jesus reveals that he is God; he is life, to this unlikely Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  When Jesus makes this self-revelation, he does what no one would have expected God to do to one who was so clearly an outsider; he offers her the gift of God’s restoring and renewing living water that brings wholeness and holiness to her life. The living water that is God’s steadfast love, kindness and compassion we call grace. Grace that is as enigmatic and disrupting as it is amazing.

            As Paul reminds us,” the proof of God’s amazing love is this, when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” At the moment when we were estranged from God, when we turned away from God and rejected God’s way of living together, Christ dies for us. At the moment when we are at our weakest , the moment we are at our most chipped, scratched and cracked God comes to us and stands with us in the middle of our loneliness and alienation to suffer with us and suffer for us, to heal us to wholeness.

The gift of grace is not a gift given for being good and perfect. Nor, is it something owed to complaining humankind. Nor, is this gift of grace given because people had the good sense to ask for it. Rather, God chooses to come to us where we are and as we are with a hand grabbing us, holding onto us, and pulling us up out of the murky darkness and dead waters of our chaotic, chipped lives to set us on the path to a life of abundance, wholeness, holiness and hope. A life shattering all the accepted false patterns and paradigms of reality, so we might see what is really real.

            Receiving this gift of living water, the Samaritan woman could only respond by leaving her water pot on the ground as if she wanted it to represent the life she was leaving behind. No more failed relationships, no more attacks on her self-esteem, no more an outcast in life, she had tasted of the living water and was preparing to live. Blessed, forgiven, empowered, liberated, and filled with courage this Samaritan woman has a mission for the Messiah. This nameless Samaritan woman who left her water pot at the well has become herself a vessel for the gospel. Her life and testimony become the conduit for the redemption of all of her Samaritan relatives and neighbors. Her life, a clay jar, now contains the great treasure of grace, and she shares it with others, regardless of cultural codes, rules, or customs. Her life becomes the pitcher that contains Christ’s living water for the world. In her testimony she offers an opportunity to taste the water that will quench people’s thirst and restore their being to wholeness and holiness.

                 “Being a witness,” theologian Linda Bridges writes, “is allowing one’s life to be the conduit of God’s grace for another. Our name or family pedigree does not matter. Our past history is of no particular concern. All that God requires is willing vessels who will leave behind the past and walk boldly into the future, carrying the living water of God’s forgiveness and mercy in their lives. A nameless woman from Samaria walks before us as a paradigm of the new creation God intends each one of us to be.” May it be so for you and for me as we join her on the way.

 

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         “To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

            Mark Nebo reminds us with these few words that we, who choose to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, are all pilgrims. We are sojourners on a transformative journey whose final destination is far off into an eternity that stretches well beyond these Lenten days and weeks to the foot of Christ’s cross where we will weep our hosannas and shout joyous hallelujahs inside the empty tomb of resurrection.

            Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from home toward some distant place, however the truth is we are all pilgrims in the same way that all Christians are pilgrims because the Greek word “paroika” means sojourner and is the root of the English word “parish” meaning a “congregation of pilgrims or sojourners” and second,  because the life of faith is a continuing journey with and to God that is not limited by geography, but rather is both an outward and an inward journey. 

            Indeed, you traveled outward on Sunday mornings when you leave your homes to come to a church to worship and in doing so you continue your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even a sanctuary is a place for traveling whether one walks up the aisles to find a place to sit and rest and to listen or one is invited to walk up the aisle to participate in the Lord’s Supper by intinction or to bring an offering to God’s table. Classic cathedrals have ambulatories, which are simply a rounded corridor at the very front of the church that is literally, “a place for walking.” I suppose every sanctuary could a place for walking around if they did some major renovations. Of course that might be a risky thing to do.

            Yet, risk is part of every pilgrim’s journey. My favorite psalm, Psalm 121 speaks to us of the risks of sojourning in its very first line, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Here is the affirmation that every pilgrim knows, the world is a dangerous place. The psalmist wrote those words to describe the foreboding sense of danger from nomadic bands of bandits or armies as well as the wild beasts of the wilderness taking refuge in the crags and crevices of the hills. However, the world is still a dangerous place shrouded in the darkness of seeking hidden answers to big and important questions such as, “how did life begin?” How do I find the purpose for my life? Where will I belong? Where can I be safe and find good food and shelter?

            The world is, also, a place shrouded in the darkness of death from physical violence, emotional turmoil, unremitting and destructive chaotic change, disease, and fearful anxiousness leading to conflict. Think about how the survivors of the 8.9  and all the other 350 earthquakes and the tsunami and the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan must have felt after more than a week of complete darkness and bitter cold with very little heat,  little water, little food while saturated with grief and despair? How can they not be lifting their eyes to the hills and wondering, pleading, crying out, “from where will our help come?”

            I imagine Abram asked that same question as he and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey from Haran to the place God would show them. Their sojourn comes as a response to God’s call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” but this was not an easy call to hear because it meant leaving everything that was familiar, that was safe, that was secure, everything that defined who Abram and Sarah were at a time in their lives when life should have been settled. At a time when their lives had become routine and when the shape of their lives must have seemed complete. Instead, they leave all of this behind them to begin a journey solely based upon God’s promises. This is very much like what the Irish monk Columba did around 563 AD when he set out in a coracle, a circular dish boat, without anchor or oars, praying God’s wind would carry him to a new life.

             What makes this extraordinary journey possible is Abram and Sarah’s being like open cups ready to receive what God was offering them. And, they had to be open. As Joyce Rupp writes, “Most everything needs to be opened in order for it serve its purpose. Clothes need to be opened before we can put them on and receive their warmth and protection. A book requires opening before the contents can be shared. A house has to have a door or window opened before it can provide us shelter.”

            It is the same with a cup. If a cup is full to the brim, nothing more can be added to it. If a lid is placed over it, nothing can be poured into it. The same is true for the cup that is our being and our life. God needs an opening in order to get our attention, to have a conversation with us, to nourish us and to stretch us toward greater growth, to revitalize and renew us as Rupp has said. This means we have to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I have to say this was very much on my mind when my wife and I bought a house and realized we didn’t have enough room for all our furniture, so we have to decide which of our possessions we have to let go.

Indeed, letting go, emptying ourselves of all that clutters our lives physically and spiritually is one of the demands sojourners with God need to do. We can’t take everything with us on our journey because if we try to hang onto everything we won’t get very far. We won’t be open to the new direction God may be calling us to go. As a matter of fact we may not be able to hear God speaking to us for all the clanging and banging of the stuff we are trying to carry with us. In addition, we have to willingly take the lid off our resistance to change, so we might be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

            You see, I believe God is offering us a new life that is not just an extension of the same old life we’ve lived, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for an entire congregation’s life, for an entire community’s life and, for the life of all humanity and creation.

            That is what is significant about the promises God makes to Abram and Sarah. Yes, God promises to show them the land that God intends to give them, but more importantly God intends to give them children and grandchildren who will be the foundation of a whole people who will be a blessing to the world. Abram and Sarah have no children when God calls them and they are in their eighties, well beyond children bearing. They have been barren for all of their married life and in their old age this translates into them not having much of a future. Indeed, this family’s barrenness had become a metaphor for human hopelessness because there is nothing Abram and Sarah can do to create their own future. Until God speaks a powerful word of life directly into their situation of barrenness with the promises for the blessing of new life through children, who are brought into being by the sheer grace they receive as a gift. Abram and Sarah did nothing to earn or deserve this grace, nor will they do anything on their journey to earn and deserve this grace. God does not depend upon the potentiality or actions of this family to bring the blessing of a new and transformed life into being because God’s word of life carries within itself all the power it needs to create life, to create a new people defined, shaped and molded like a clay cup by God’s summoning and life creating word. God’s Word on its own asserts the freedom and power of God to work God’s will to bring life out of death like situations or even death itself.

            Here in this beginning of Abram and Sarah’s journey with God is the resurrection paradigm of a call to sojourn to a transformed life by being open to receive, to be filled with God’s presence and in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we will only comprehend in the light of hindsight when we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way as the psalmist assures us is the truth because our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth and it is the Lord who is with us always, in all our going out and all our coming in, today and for all our days..

            On this day, I invite you to pray with me this prayer from Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.” Amen.

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Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences? Or, is it about something more?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither person is more important than the other person because both are created in the image and likeness of God, so they stand together as one in the same way that the trinitarian God is one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden and pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority to act in a sustainable manner for the best interest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words.  The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.” The serpent, actually, reminds me of my friends when I was a child, who wanted me to do something I knew was wrong and who challenged me with the same kind of questioning. “C’mon, it’ll be fine. Your parents will never find out.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them. Indeed, the question about whether knowing everything God knows is a good thing or not never comes along. After all has our own knowledge of good and evil worked out well for humanity and creation?

Now, compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “god with us.” God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough for most of us just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

At this moment of vulnerability, enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God by offering an alternative reality and questioning God and God’s ordered reality. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re really the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is important for nourishment, but one does not live only by eating bread and food, but every living creature has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am or by giving people an amazing, entertaining experience. Nor, am I here to serve myself. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” This last response ends the tempting challenge, for the time being.

What is clear is that  Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their being, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do? Test this out by reflecting about any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of the choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land. Look at the choice to enslave other people. Look at the choice to create nuclear weapons or even nuclear power plants only to realize there may be a storage problem with the waste from those plants. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The question for all of us in this season of Lent is whether we will be followers of Christ by doing what God challenges us to do, “listen to him” or will we continue listening to the questions the serpents surrounding us ask us. Will we choose trust, choose faith, or not?

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