by Elle Dowd
We are beginning the season of Lent and this Sunday begins with two powerful narratives on temptation. Lent is a time of reflection and these narratives both have much to reflect on. I have offered up some questions, musings, and prompts. You will likely want to choose one or two to expound upon based on the needs of your own context. But be courageous, Lent is a time to push and challenge the people under our care for the sake of the transformation of the world and for their own discipleship.
GENESIS AND THE GARDEN
Gender and Race
First a note about the queer aspects of gender for the characters in this story. As The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out, early rabbinical Judaism held that the first human creature contained all human genders, man and woman, and anything else. The first human was called “the adam,” drawn from the Hebrew word “adamah” for “earth.” This first human was as brown as the rich earth they were formed from. This is an opportunity for preachers to note when you preach it in early March, because although Black History Month is officially over, Black church history has origins in the very beginning of our sacred stories. This first human character, our original ancestor, had brown skin. The name for this human, “the adam” was a play on words, something akin to “the dirt creature,” reflecting their origin as a part of and created from the earth. Hebrew does not have a gender neutral pronoun for this person, but calling them “they” is a faithful interpretation based on the Talmudic understanding of gender which exists outside of a simple binary. In the deleted/omitted passages in the RCL reading, the earth creature is put to sleep and the all-gender earth creature is pulled apart at the side, resulting in a woman and a man.
The Relationship Between Human and Nonhuman Nature
In the second half of this pericope, the woman (not yet named) is confronted by the crafty serpent. Although we often anachronistically read the snake as the devil in this story, the original audience of the story would have seen the snake as representing something else. Historically, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom and discernment.
This crafty serpent challenges the veracity of God’s warning about the forbidden fruit saying, “You will not die.” This statement ends up being technically true. The man and woman did not die on the day that they ate the fruit. But another being did die, and all life is connected. Outside of the bounds of this particular pericope, only a few verses later in Genesis 3:21, death enters the story when God kills animals to make clothes from their hides for the humans who are ashamed of their nakedness. The choices that human beings make have consequences for nonhuman nature. Instead of caring for the animals as relatives, animals become resources for the humans to exploit. As a result of human actions, humans become more and more alienated from nonhuman nature when they are driven from the garden they had been tasked with tending. The original human, made from the earth named after its origin in the earth, is now at odds with the earth.
Homiletically, this aspect of the story may be a good place to lift up the way that the temptations of capitalism have caused us to view the earth as a resource to use up instead of a partner to live in harmony with. Perhaps you might use this sermon to invite your congregation to consider a Lenten discipline of caring for the earth through composting, organize around clean air or water, or challenge those who are voting to align their voting patterns this primary season with candidates who put our relationship with the earth above the profit of corporations.
Lenten Disciplines: Legalism or Focus
During the woman’s interaction with the serpent, she tells it, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
But looking back at Genesis 2:16, God does not actually tell the human not to touch it.
God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”
The woman has editorialized God’s command. We might interpret this as a moment of legalism, that it was the adding of an extra prohibition to what God had actually said that led to disobedience. Perhaps these extra, human-created commands made the fruit even more of a temptation for the humans and set them up to fail. We might also interpret this addition, “nor shall you touch it,” as a moment of proto-rabbinical interpretation by the woman. Sometimes more boundaries provide more cushion, an extra buffer between humans and sin. In those times, the law can make us more safe. If you don’t touch the fruit you are certainly less likely to sin and eat it.
In light of the season of Lent, where many people take on disciplines or deny themselves beyond what God had commanded, it may be helpful to preach on this tension between legalism and extra boundaries. Does denying yourself chocolate make you more able to follow the commands God has actually given? Maybe it doesn’t if it just makes you self righteous or causes you to obsess about chocolate. But maybe, if a fast from chocolate causes you to pause and think about the slavery that often goes into the manufacturing of chocolate so that once Lent is over you have the knowledge and self control to change your consumption habits, maybe this fast actually does help you to live more fully into God’s command to love your neighbor. How can we make sure that our Lenten practices make caring for our neighbor our focus this season, instead of self-denial for the sake of self-denial?
What Tempts Us?
The garden was a place of God’s abundance, where everything is provided for. Humans had time for leisure, play, and rest. They did not have to worry about survival. Yet the humans were tempted to want more. We might ask ourselves what does the tree symbolize in our lives? What beliefs tempt us away from believing and trusting in God’s abundance? Is it capitalism, that - in opposition to God’s economy - tells us to hoard our resources, that things are more valuable if they are rare? Is it the temptation of white supremacy, cis-hetero patriarchy, colonialism, or other systems that seek to always want more, more, more, and depend on devouring others in order to have it?
The Power of the Woman
Interestingly, although the woman features prominently in the Genesis story, the reading from Romans puts all of the blame on the man, Adam. In some ways that is a soothing antidote to the ways that Mother Eve and therefore all women are blamed for the sin of all humankind. In other ways, though, the verses in Romans erase the woman’s power and agency. I am reminded of Sojourner Truth’s interpretation in her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, where Truth says, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
MATTHEW AND THE WILDERNESS
God as Agitator, Jesus as Organizer
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness takes place after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus is baptized by his cousin, mentor, and comrade John who lives in the desert and is the leader of a movement for spiritual renewal. After this baptism into this radical movement, scripture tells us that the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. That means that God intended for Jesus to face this interrogation from the devil. Why would God do that?
In some forms of community organizing we utilize something called agitation in order to help people become clear about who they are, what they care about and why. Agitation in this sense is not just merely annoying someone, and when done well, it isn’t about shaming or bullying them. Agitation is supposed to be rooted in a deep relationship, where both people know each other and trust is established. Agitation in these cases is done out of love, wanting to help people overcome the things that are holding them back. God sends Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted and endure some hard questions in part so that Jesus can get clear before starting his ministry. And the stakes are high. After Jesus returns from his time in the desert, he learns that his comrade, cousin, and mentor, John, has been arrested. This arrest, coupled with Jesus’ clarity from his time in the desert, leads to Jesus’ radicalization and the beginning of his ministry. Once he is clear on who he is and what his purpose is, he is able to begin to gather disciples and build his movement.
Part of Jesus’ trial in the desert are the questions that come from the devil. The devil begins his tempting by saying, “IF you are the Son of God.” This is a challenge to Jesus’ identity. Jesus had just been told during his baptism directly by God in a voice from Heaven that he was God’s son. But the devil tries to put doubts into Jesus’ head, mocking him, saying, “This guy thinks he is God’s begotten one? Ha! Who do you think you are!?” But Jesus is secure in his baptism and doesn’t take the bait. Instead, God uses this moment to make Jesus even more sure of his own beloved identity.
The devil goes on to tempt Jesus using many of the same core temptations that all leaders of liberation movements face:
1) Fear of scarcity. You are hungry? Worried about feeding yourself and your family? Worried about providing for your physical needs? Many people never begin movement work because they let these very real fears keep them frozen. Jesus rejects this fear and proclaims that humans need more than just basic needs, we need the word of God. We need truth and freedom and joy and art and beauty. We need to be focused on that world and build it, not be intimidated into making our dreams smaller so we can focus on meager survival.
2) Flash over substance. Many of the most faithful builders of liberation movements don’t get interviewed by MSNBC or get their face splashed across the cover of the New York Times. The devil brought Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to throw himself down so that the angels would catch him, and it would be a miraculous sign that would catch the eye of many. Jesus was tempted to use gimmick to gain the attention of the masses instead of putting his head down and doing the real, hard, grassroots work of building relationships. But Jesus knew better than to test God, Jesus knew that real and long-lasting influence comes only with established trust. Instead of using some contrived stunt or the force of his own charisma, Jesus chose to live among people, to heal them and speak with them, and then to invite them into the movement.
3) Ego. Jesus was tempted to believe that the devil had control of the nations of the world, that the devil could turn them all over to Jesus if only Jesus would sell out. Jesus was powerful and was going to go out and build power regardless. But he had a choice; would he do it for selfish reasons or for the love of humanity? Ultimately Jesus cast out the devil and sent him away. Jesus chose to make his mission about God and God’s people and not about his own pride. Jesus gave up a movement based on his own glory and instead got clear about building a movement centered in God’s vision of Love and Liberation.
This trying time in the wilderness, these attacks on his identity, all helped Jesus understand himself and his calling so that he could be prepared for the news of the arrest of John the Baptist and begin building his base by calling disciples.
Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare
White Western Christians tend to ignore or explain away supernatural narratives in scripture. But the majority of Christians are in the Global South, where spiritual warfare, angels, and demons are all part of the worldview. Instead of explaining away the angels and demons in these stories, I challenge you to trust the experiences of Christians who have seen the supernatural in this way. I wonder, instead, if we might explore why forces of good or evil show up differently in different contexts. We believe that God came incarnate in a particular time and place, that the Gospel is contextual. Why wouldn’t we believe that evil operates contextually too?
You may notice that the devil quotes scripture in his temptation of Jesus. In our own time, people weaponize the Bible to repress and control others. The charge for Christians is not to abandon scripture to the hands of those who use it to abuse and destroy, but instead to become so intimately acquainted with scripture that, like Jesus, when the devil quotes scripture at us, we can quote it right back. Maybe that could be part of a Lenten discipline for you or your community, to really get God’s saving words of Love and Liberation deep within your bones. I have written a little more about this here http://thesaltcollective.org/memorizing-scripture-a-progressive-case/
At the end of this passage in the Gospel reading is a part of the narrative particular to Matthew and not found in the other versions of this story. Matthew says that after the devil was cast out by Jesus, angels came and waited on him. God did not leave Jesus alone to heal from this trying encounter with the devil. In times of difficulty, what angels has God sent to comfort you? What did that comfort look like? I recently went through a challenging time and the people in my life sent aid to me in the form of GrubHub gift cards, a trip to the spa, and most importantly, prayers and the space to cry and process. These people in my life were a Godsend, they fortified me and encouraged me in my recovery so that I felt less alone. You might ask about the ways you or your congregation has acted as angels and waited upon people in need of relief. How could you use this time of Lent to thank the angels in your lives or to act as angels to others? These questions in particular might make a good children’s message in a story that can be a little scary for young ones. Like Mr. Rogers said, in times of catastrophe we can always look for the helpers. The angels were Jesus’ helpers in this story. Who are the helpers in our lives? How can we be helpers?
The richness in these stories is present in the various angles and interpretations available to us. There truly is comfort and challenge for every person and every context. My prayer for you as you preach this Lent is that, like Jesus, rooted in your own baptism and identity as a beloved child of God, you may be able to take risks in your preaching this season and break open these stories in ways that enliven your spirit, foster creativity, and empower you to better love God, yourself, your neighbor, and all of creation.
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This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.