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Calling New Disciples

The scriptures for today bind together the beginning of sin in the world, our salvation from sin, and Jesus’ own vulnerability to the temptation of the devil. We see that the devil is very clever (or that we can be very clever in fooling ourselves about our motives and the possible ramifications of our attitudes and actions).  

These passages set the stage for what we can be about during Lent. 40 days of fasting, or ‘giving up something’ for Lent (usually candy or between-meal snacks here in a country where most of us get enough calories) or extra service to God through volunteering for good causes, or extra Bible study, or going to worship more often. But Jesus attempts to understand what the voice had said when he was baptized (“At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”) clearly is the thing he is struggling to deal with in this desert sojourn (“Well, if you arethe Son of God…”). Who could blame him?

What does it mean when God tells us, “I am well pleased by what you have accomplished”? Or says, “You are one of my favorite people?” How can God have favorites? What have we done that God likes so much (or makes God love us, especially since we’ve so often been told that we are lower than a worm’s belly, unworthy for God to even look at, let alone love without Jesus’ death on the cross for us)?

One Ash Wednesday, as I was contemplating Psalm 32:1-5 (Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.) I heard God whisper to me, “Are you ready to forgive me now?”

I was amazed to hear this whisper and appalled at its implications. “Me, forgive you? You’re God. You get to make the rules. I can’t take it upon myself to accuse You of anything!” At that, several pictures out of my past flashed through my mind: my parents’ divorce when I was seven; my anger at my mother for working 40 hours a week, rather than taking welfare so she could be home for me when I got home from school; feeling so separate from the other kids at school (I went to four different grade schools before 7th grade); and on and on. Then quiet.

It took me a few years before I shared that encounter with my parishioners. I wish I hadn’t waited. I found out that we all have grudges against God, and the question of whether the crucifixion is enough for us to forgive God, speaks to all us to one degree or another. All our shattered dreams and fantasies, all the people who have failed us, all the people we have failed. All the uglies that we cling to can be cleared away if we can find it in our heart to forgive God, even as we ask God to forgive us. Reconciliation is prompted by 40 days of contemplation. We can be made new, and start again with God, if we take these scriptures with us through all of Lent 2020.

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Trying to talk about the story of Adam and Eve without referring to the Hebrew understanding of it and no understanding of the Hebrew language is rather like buying an action figure and expecting it to function like the actors in the movie. There are some basic understandings in this story that have not carried over into the popular Christian view. The fact that I saw no need to study Hebrew until I had been in ministry for over a decade requires almost no discussion; I thought that there were enough Hebrew scholars around that I could rely on their translations. I had no idea just how much I was missing the richness of the original. even though I had a foreign language major in college and had a basic understanding that languages don’t often translate directly, word for word.

Hebrew is an ancient language, and this shows in the fact that a single Hebrew word can be translated as “mountain,” “hill” or “high place.” The words used often are based on a mystical understanding of the world, the human and God. For example, Adam (humankind) was made by God from adama, the abundant red clay of the area. The children of Israel could not be separated from the land God had given them, and both they and God belong to the land. The story of Adam and Eve explains how we became separated from God through a story told in a way that even a child can grasp, but which moves from a simple folktale about a snake and a man and a woman to the story of our need to believe that we can hide from God, who doesn’t know our story until someone tells it to Him.

The fall of humankind was preserved from the Yahwist tradition by an editorial hand during the exile, when the rabbis could see that the young people who had been carried away into Babylon were losing their sense of Jewish (Hebrew) identity. As with youth the world over, boys and girls who could barely remember life before Babylon wanted to be like their neighbors. They came home from school teaching their parents what they were learning — namely, that there are many gods and goddesses, lesser deities and spirits inhabiting everything in their landscape. That the greatest of these was Marduk, a great and powerful God who granted life and visited death on whomever he wished, and who demanded sacrifices of the first-born of each of their female animals, and the first-born of each of their wives and concubines.

To ensure that the Hebrew faith would survive, the rabbis began to set down in writing the Hebrew creation stories that had been orally transmitted. The view that there is only one God, called YHWH (an unpronounceable world, deliberately, so that no one might commit the ultimate sin of using God’s holy name carelessly), and all of creation was made by YHWH. The only spirit that inhabits this earth is YHWH’s Holy Spirit, and that Spirit gives life.

These stories were shuffled in with the stories of the Elohist -- those who used the name of Elohim, a plural form, when talking about God. In this way, they tried to preserve both strands of their story for future generations, so that wherever we have these slightly differing points of view of ancient stories, both would be preserved.

The story of the fall is part of a second telling of the creation. It looks at the question of “If God created everything perfectly, how could we be so distanced from God?” Or, put another way, “How did sin enter the world when God came down from heaven every evening to walk in His garden and talk with Adam?”

God put Adam (humankind) and Eve (the mother of all living) in a garden, called Eden (fertility). Humankind’s assignment was to care for the garden and the animals. In return, we were given the right to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden except one — the tree of knowledge of good and evil (the ability to judge for ourselves what is good and what is evil). “In the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”

Now comes the interesting part (always when the devil/the snake/the dragon/ the father of lies) enters the scene.1 “Did God really say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” A close reading of the text proposes a tough question — does God lie to us? The snake knows very well what God said and is testing the woman. There is no mention of the woman being there when God stated this (one and only) law, but she knows that they may eat of any of the trees except the tree of knowledge. What she does get wrong is the notion that they are forbidden to even touch this tree.

There is a wonderful rabbinic story from the Middle Ages that says that the snake took advantage of the woman’s misstep. “You will not die. Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods!” The snake then shoves Eve toward the tree, and she bumps into it. But she does not die. It would seem the snake was telling the truth. Eve continues to live. Why is this? Did God lie to humankind? Notice: Adam was standing right there, because v.6 says “he was with her.” Yet he says not a word, raises no questions, offers no guidance or leadership.2 Eve hands him some of the fruit, and he takes it and eats it as she does.

What the Jahwist writer has done is make Adam ultimately responsible for the act of disobedience. He has not fulfilled his role in the family. Even though misogynist commentators have tried to pin the fall on the woman, that is not the way the story reads. Nor is it the way that Paul takes the story in our reading from Romans.3Since both ate, both will die — and so will all their progeny, all of us and our children. Every effort we make to live forever has failed, and some of those efforts have caused new problems.

But there is a more profound truth here. When we tell God “I can do it myself! Leave me alone!” as though we were all permanently three years old, God has little choice but to leave us alone. Why? Who knows? But we do know that God has left us the possibility of destruction as well as construction and creativity in the methods we use in either direction. It is the neglected part of the incarnation and crucifixion. God took the opportunity of Mary’s acquiescence in carrying Jesus (Joshua in the Aramaic, meaning God is Salvation) so he could be born into our world and find out what it is to be human. It is the meaning behind the time Jesus spent in the desert, probing the mind of God through the scripture, confronting what it might mean that he was Emmanuel (meaning God with us).

The meaning of all this is that our attitude is more important than the things we do. We can be “pure as the driven snow” as the saying goes, but if we carry an attitude of judgment, if we take pride in the state of our heart and judge others’ sins by our own inclinations, then we are no longer godly. We may keep all the rules of the Pharisees, but if our ego needs the deference of others as proof that we are better than they, we are sinners. If we ogle attractive people and engage in sexual fantasies, we are adulterers, even if we have never engaged in physical adultery.4

As soon as the humans ate the fruit, they knew they were naked. This recognition has no relationship to sex — neither thoughts nor actions. It is simply that when we are naked, we are defenseless. For that reason, they covered themselves with leaves; and when they heard God calling them, they hid in the bushes. Adam admits that they knew they were naked — defenseless before God’s anger. Like my little dogs when I discover a wet spot near the door, they were afraid, and slunk away to hide.

This is not what God had in mind. Considering their disobedience, God knew that it was only a matter of time before they would do things God detests. First there was the lie: “You won’t die.” But a part of them did die, right on the spot. Their easy relationship with God, the walks they had taken in the garden, enjoying the evening breeze and the companionship of the divine. Right behind disobedience came shame, and with shame there is fear. And there is always that question behind it all: Did God lie to them? To us? Do we have the discernment to know truth from lie? If we cannot tell truth from falsehood, if we try to cover ourselves, hiding behind expensive clothes and toys, a power car, a beautiful home, hoping to project an aura that depends on fear to enforce our own ways on others and cement our position in society, then we are constantly telling God, “Go away. I’m tired of your demands. I can do it myself.”

The three-year-old is supposed to outgrow this stage, to grow into the understanding that we can accomplish more if we work together rather than in constant competition. But the sad truth is, that three-year-old lives in us all our lives, demanding to be kowtowed to and crying if s/he does not get their way. That’s why we need Christ so much.

Romans 5:12-19
As we read in the Genesis story, Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man…” and we are, apparently, stuck with the result — a fallen creation. But first, a word about ‘sin.’ The Hebrew word for sin comes from the root that alludes to shooting arrows at a target — we have missed the mark. We used to call a person who spoke from the heart, honestly and fearlessly ‘a straight shooter.’ The ability to confront those who are misbehaving comes easier for some of us than others. Some of us don’t know how to beat around the bush (oh, dear — we seem to be back in that garden, hiding from God!). Others find confrontation terrifying and therefore would never, for any reason, correct a person who is behaving abominably. We would far rather talk to a third person, hoping that one will have more fortitude than we have, and so spare us the necessity. In 12 Step circles5 this avoidance of respectful discussion of the behavior of others is called triangulating, and people are helped to overcome their reticence. Those who simply trample on others without regard for their feelings are much harder to help. Those who don’t understand that others have feelings are labeled sociopathic. We recognize the problem, but we hesitate to diagnose it as sin.

Paul wants to make certain we understand that sin is not simply a breaking of the law. Therefore, he makes a point of saying that “sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” (v. 13) Children under the age of 6 or 7 really have no guilt and have no need to. Their emotions are primitive and egocentric by nature — sharing their favorite toys one minute and ripping a candy bar away from a playmate the next. As we get older, we normally learn how to put ourselves in the place of the other person and ask, “How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of what I just said or did?”

If we try to overcome the law of gravity, though, we are going to fall and probably break one or more bones. So, it is with other misbehaviors. Stupidity is not counted as a sin but can get us into a great deal of trouble even so. Therefore Paul said, “death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam” (deliberate disobedience, lying and excuses). If I drive drunk and hit another car, the result is going to be the same whether I know there is a law against my behavior or not — I will at the least cause damage, possibly causing injury or death as well. I may not die as a result of my sin, but the person I killed surely has paid the price for my sin.

But we have a gift, Paul goes on -- the grace of God which comes to us through Jesus. And that gift is not simply to justify the godly person. It is a gift available to even the vilest person alive. It is a gift that even a Hitler, a Putin or a rampaging shooter in a school or mall may receive, free for nothing. No matter how filled with rage a person may be, no matter how heinous the crime, there is hope for the salvation of that person. We understand that someone who is out of touch with reality cannot be held responsible for the strange or horrible things they do. But it is much harder for us to forgive someone who is stubbornly clinging to their bad behaviors and daring us to do anything about it. According to Genesis 9, God came to understand that simply destroying the whole mass of humankind to wipe out the ugliness that we had wrought would not change us. Even Noah and his family, who were the only people God chose to save, entered into blaming and shouting at each other when one of his three sons found his father passed-out drunk and naked on his bed. God repented, and declared that since we apparently cannot do better, we should not be punished for what we cannot do. Something else had to happen.

And so, God took on flesh and came and stayed among us, so that we might see what our sin had accomplished. That act ‘of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.’

I read an interesting story many years ago, so long ago, I cannot remember who told or wrote it, or where I read it, (so if you know, please refresh my memory) about people lined up at the pearly gates. There had been some sort of catastrophe, because there was a huge crowd, and St. Peter had to call out more angels to help people stop chaotically milling about. A couple of angels opened a few more gates to the city, so that everyone might get in more quickly.

Suddenly, there was a shout: “Wait a minute! I recognize that man! He made a fortune selling tainted pills! What’s going on? Is he going into heaven? And ahead of all us who’ve been waiting!”

Then another voice said, “Stop that man! I recognize him — he caused World War III! What’s he doing going into heaven?”

Several people realized what was happening and raised their voices too. “They’re letting everyone in! Bankers who cost us our pensions! Soldiers who murdered and raped and pillaged! They’ve no right to heaven!” And so on. It didn’t take long for pandemonium to break out, and chaos was again reigning in the crowd outside the gate. At last, a voice boomed so loudly that everyone stopped mid-stream and silence fell.

“All right. Now, would all of you who would stop these people from entering heaven please load up on the train right behind you? Thank you. Please keep your voices down and no shoving. You’ll all get where you’re going in as short a time as possible.” Everyone complied. Most of the crowd had climbed aboard, but there were still people lined up at the gates.

“Anyone else who doesn’t want to share heaven with ‘those kind of people’? Don’t miss your train.” Silence. And the train to hell pulled out of the station.

Paul ends by saying, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” There is hope for those who still feel like they need to hide behind a bush when God comes calling.

Matthew 4:1-11
It is common in many religious traditions that those who are seeking guidance or a deeper relationship with God will take a time of solitude to seek for a sign or an experience that will make their path forward clearer. They may be waiting to meet a certain animal who will be their guide, or totem, in their new life in spirit. This mystical practice demands a great deal of the seeker --fasting and silence, at least -- so their bodies will not get in the way of their hearing God. Christians down through the ages went to the desert or a mountain top or into a cave to wait for God or an angel or some other Holy Spirit to speak to them and tell them what God has in mind for them, should they accept their assignment.

In Jesus’ time, the Essenes followed this practice. They went to the desert, and their aim was to purify themselves, and stay separate from the tainted world around them. In Jesus’ case, he was driven by the Spirit of God “to be tempted by the devil.” In taking on human flesh, God’s awareness of things that would interfere with his normal development as a boy and then a man was washed away. Of course, many scholars would say that this story is a metaphor anyway, so this question is moot. Either way (or any of the two dozen or more explanations for Jesus needing this confrontation with the devil), Jesus is led (or driven) into the wilderness east of Jordan by the Spirit (of God). The purpose is to prepare Jesus for the struggle he will be confronted with, most especially his self-doubts and the easy solutions that occur to most of us.

The first temptation is one that so many pastors are subject to -- the temptation to be too hard on ourselves. Jesus fasted, according to Matthew, for 40 days and 40 nights. This is a magic number in the Bible. 40 days and 40 nights is how long it rained in Noah’s day. Another 40 days and 40 nights the animals and people in the ark waited for the water to recede. Moses was 40 when he killed an overseer for beating a Hebrew slave and fled to Midian; he lived there for 40 years until he saw the burning bush, and led the Hebrews to Mt. Sinai, where he climbed the mountain and remained with God 40 days and 40 nights. When they arrived at Canaan, Joshua (who was 40) led scouts through the land for 40 days and brought back a report of how difficult it would be to take over the land. Because so many of the people were too terrified to make the attempt, God told Moses to lead the people through the wilderness for 40 years, until all those who refused to enter the Promised Land were dead. King David reigned for 40 years, as did his son Solomon. The boy king Josiah, who restored the Law, also reigned 40 years. And after the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing to his disciples and teaching them for 40 days.6 The Jews say that the number connotes a great change or a new spiritual state. The Hebrews arrived at Mt. Sinai as escaping slaves, but after 40 days, the were the nation of God.

One of the reasons this number is so important in these stories is because this is the maximum number of days a man can survive without food. The gospels say the at the end of the 40 days Jesus was famished. Which gives “the tempter” a perfect opening:

“The Son of God, are you? Really? Then why are you starving? All you have to do is to turn these stones into bread, and you can satisfy your body’s needs.” Pictures of the desert in the approximate area Jesus was in show flat stones, about the same size as the pita bread that was commonly eaten by the people. It would be easy to see why this was the temptation the devil chose.

But Jesus knew his scriptures. Nothing is said in the gospels about his education, except that when he returned to Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry his understanding impressed his audience. But only Luke tells the story of the boy Jesus in the temple, asking questions of the scholars there, offering the possibility that he remained there to learn. Whatever the case, Jesus knew his scriptures well enough to quote them to the devil:

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Strike one. But the devil isn’t done. Too much is at risk. Instead, the devil took him to Jerusalem and “placed him on the pinnacle of the temple” and challenged Jesus:

Ifyou are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, that God will send angels to bear you up on their hands.”

This is one of those challenges that fits with “Still beating your wife?” God should send angels to protect you from damage, but only if you’re really God’s Son. But there is the built-in fear factor. Who would be so crazy as to throw him or herself from the tower? Even if you think you’re the Son of God, this is not a good idea. But if you don’t do it, there will always be that thought in the back of your mind — “If I really am the Son of God, shouldn’t I have the courage to trust Him to save me? But that’s crazy. Was God asking me to do that, or the devil?” And the thought could just spin out of control, over and over. But really, the main question is “Am I really the Son of God?”

But he is saved by his knowledge again — “The devil has the ability to quote scripture? Well, so do I: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

So, he refuses to relieve his own pain. He refuses to test his thoughts about being God’s son by challenging God to save him. But the devil must try a third time. The ultimate temptation for anybody in ministry these days, it’s called Evangelistic Outreach Ministries. TV preachers. Showpiece music. Drama. Spectacular layouts of Bethlehem Marketplace, the temple in Jerusalem, or the tomb at dawn on Easter. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about any of these things. They certainly entertain. And our young adults need to be entertained if we want them in church. The problem is, there is a terrific temptation to concentrate on the showpieces and the audience reaction, and that can lead to pastors and parishioners to give more and more time to the spectacle and forget the needs of the people. The power that accrues to pastors who concentrate on the show takes the form of pastors of small churches coming to us for advice on how to get more people through the doors, how to produce the special effects, and the money that can be made when we sell the package. We take the money to improve our ministry but too often end up taking the money to improve our personal façade.

So, the devil took Jesus to a “very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and made a direct pitch. “You want to be able to change the world? Bow down to me right now, and I will give you all the money and glory and power you could ever hope for. Why shouldn’t you have golden swans pouring water into your bath? Successful ministers do.”

But the devil had gone about this offer all wrong. He really wanted the Son of God, and he would know he had succeeded if Jesus would kowtow to him right on this mountaintop. But the approach backfired. He’d overplayed his hand. Jesus orders him to go back where he came from, saying “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And just like that, the devil was gone. Angels came and removed him from the mountaintop where the devil thought he had stranded him. His first temptation was over.

It wasn’t the only time he’d have to deal with the direct temptation the devil can deal in. He often would feel alone, unappreciated, a failure. He would be betrayed by his own disciples, who never fully understood God’s purpose with their master and teacher; told by family members that he was crazy, overworked and in danger. He would be criticized by the “good people” and accused of being a drunk, a glutton, and a lecher because he spent time eating and drinking with those oppressed by the systems of the world. And finally, he would be turned over to the Roman governor with the demand that he be killed. He would even wonder, as he was dying, if he had, after all, misunderstood what his ministry was all about, crying out that God had abandoned him.

And our job is to call new disciples to follow in his footsteps.

1 See today’s Gospel lesson

2 Which was the duty of the father in a patriarchal world. His protection is required for his wife and children, and this would include running interference with the snake.

3 Romans 5:12-14 ff.

4 Matthew 5:27-28

5 The Twelve Steps refer to the program that was set down in writing from Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson in 1935. Both were alcoholics and found that the 12 Steps not only worked for them but related well to the teachings of Christianity. The Twelve Steps are now used by a wide range of addicts, from alcoholics to heroin addicts, sex addicts, compulsive eaters and their families. Attendance is voluntary. About 74% of recovery programs are based on these 12 Steps. AA meetings take place in a variety of settings; if you are looking for a program to refer to and cannot find a meeting, call AA (numbers may be found online) and offer a space in your church. The groups clean up after themselves and if you must charge rent, they will take up a collection to meet the price. Understand that many addicts have little or no money.

6 I have included only these major instances of the occurrence of the number 40. The sanctuary of the Temple is described as being 40 cubits long, and the number occurs frequently in the writings of the prophets.
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