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At home: a sermon for Lent

February 10th, 2008 by isaac · 1 Comment

Title: God is home
Date: February 10, 2008, 1st Sunday of Lent
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

I’m a home body. I like being at home, and all the things that home allows me to do. I can make my coffee just how I like it. I have the choice of three different chairs I can sit in, depending on my mood, or what I’m up to. I’ve got plenty of books to read on my shelves. And I can work in the yard whenever I want, if I get bored with stuff inside the house.

But home didn’t happen right away. It takes time to figure out where everything goes. It takes a while to become comfortable. It takes a while to live into a place so that it really feels like your habitat, like where you belong. Belonging comes with time, it comes with tending, paying attention to your surroundings—what our passage from Genesis 2 calls, tilling and keeping. We belong, we find our home, when we till and keep the places where God has put us.

Adam and Eve are impatient with their habitat, with their home. They are impatient with their location. They don’t want to be who they are, and they don’t want to be where they are. God gave them a home, the garden. But they want more, and they want it now.

They want what all of us want: to be like God, to be lord of their own lives, to be in control, to be their own masters. The serpent says, “When you eat of this fruit…you will be like God” (3:5). It’s no surprise that Adam and Eve can’t resist.

Desiring to be like God, desiring to reach the heights of heaven, Adam and Eve eat the fruit. And instead of discovering that they have become gods, they turn and see their bodies: naked, bare, exposed, earthy, very much not Godlike. They come to see how earthly they are; they look like the ground under their feet. So Adam and Eve are ashamed of their bodies; their bodies tie them to the ground, to the earth where these earthlings belong, they are dust and will return to the dust.

This story is not about lust. It’s not about the lust that comes with nakedness. Instead, it’s about how we want to be something other than our fragile, funny-looking bodies. It’s about how we are impatient with our humanness, impatient with our limitations. It’s about how we want shortcuts, how we are always looking for escape routes. Adam and Eve want to escape their earthen flesh and soar the heights of heaven as gods. But eating the fruit doesn’t work; they still have bodies, made of dirt, tied to the earth… and so they are ashamed. They do not know how to be at home with their bodies.

We’re no different. We don’t like being human most of the time. No one wants to be that fragile. No one wants to be that vulnerable. No one wants to be dependent. We don’t want to be needy. So we run away from all that when we can.

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. And Lent is a season where we learn what it means to be human, to be human without delusions, to be truly human, to be truthfully human. Lent is a season for courageous self-examination—to look at our lives and realize that we are naked creatures of the earth, like Adam and Eve. Lent is about digging down into our lives and realizing that we dig right down into the earth. We are gathered from the dust, formed from the clay. Definitely not gods.

But that is nothing to be ashamed about. We don’t have to be like Adam and Eve and be ashamed when we look at ourselves. We don’t have to run—to run away from God and from each other. We no longer need to be ashamed of our bare life.

Why? Because Jesus doesn’t run. If anyone could run away from his flesh and become godlike whenever he wanted, it is Jesus. But he doesn’t. That’s what the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is all about. It’s a story of sticking to the ground, being patient, being at home with humanness. We find a life that doesn’t grasp at divinity, that doesn’t rush toward heaven, but that digs into the ground. Jesus shows us that the way to God is found when we learn the patience of being at home with ourselves, the selves that God has given us, the lives that are held together by God’s grace.

In Matthew 4 Jesus goes into the wilderness to do battle with the devil. He doesn’t eat for 40 days. His only company in the solitude of the desert is the growling in his stomach. As the days without food go by, Jesus comes to know more intimately his humanness, his dependency on bread, his neediness for a companion. He digs down into his flesh, into his body, befriending the depths of human emptiness and vulnerability.

In the wilderness, from some distance, Jesus sees a fuzzy figure approaching. Although Jesus is tired and hungry, he taps into the last bits of his energy stored up legs and gets to his feet. Maybe a jolt of excitement ran through his weary limbs. Finally, someone to distract him from his growling stomach.

As the visitor gets closer, Jesus hears him call out, It looks like you are hungry, friend. But I hear people say that you are God’s Son. If so, why don’t you go ahead and speak the word and turn these stones here into bread. (The tempter speaks the truth, but with a twist.)

This temptation is a big deal—it’s not the same sort of trite decision that we face if we fast and want to end it early with a nibble of toast. This is about the power over bread, which is the power over life. By turning rocks into bread whenever he feels the urge, Jesus is tempted with self-sufficiency.

It’s a denial of dependency—to be dependent on the long process of grain harvest, the way God supplies food from the ground. Jesus would deny his reliance on the bread-makers, and the way he pays for such things through the sweat of the brow, through his own work, or his dependency on the generosity of others.

Turning stones into bread is the denial of all things human, of human processes which God provides as conduits of grace, flows of God’s gracious provision for life. And, as anyone in a fragile economy knows, the power to make bread appear is political power over the masses. It was the case for Rome during Jesus’ time with Caesar’s bread distribution centers, and it’s the case for economies throughout the world today. Power over bread is power over people.

And Jesus, at this moment, has a chance to tap into a completely new, unheard of, techniques for bread production that would create an alternative economy, which means an alternative political power. It’s a chance to withdraw from bread production and bread distribution, with all its shortcomings, and create an alternative society, not dependent on anything or anyone. Turning stones into bread is the creation of a new kingdom, an alternative kingdom, and Jesus would be the new king, an alternative Caesar, with alternative bread distribution centers.

But Jesus refuses to be god in that way. He refuses that kind of power, and that kind of path to the kingdom of heaven.

Then the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple, the most public spot in all of Israel. There’s never a slow time at the temple; it’s always bustling with people. And with all those people below, the devil tells Jesus to jump.

If Jesus jumps to his death only to be caught by angels, then all of Israel would witness that Jesus bears the power of God. There would be no mistaking this spectacular display of God’s power. All of Jerusalem would recognize Jesus without any doubts. All of Israel would say what the centurion said, when he witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross at the end of Matthew, “Truly this man is the Son of God” (27:54).

But Jesus refuses. He refuses to find a way to be the Messiah other than death on the cross. Jesus refuses to escape death; he refuses a short cut to the kingdom that bypasses the cross. He refuses this spectacular display of messianic power and authority.

The devil has met his match. This isn’t as easy as the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden. So, the tempter plays that last card he’s been holding onto. It’s a card he probably doesn’t want to play, but knows that if it works, then all of history is open to his schemes. If he can play Jesus with this card, sure he’ll lose the bet, but then he will come to know the secret at the heart of all power, including the power of Jesus.

He took Jesus to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “All of these I will give to you,” the tempter says. “If you fall down and worship me.” The growling in Jesus’ stomach is silenced by the pulse of excitement and longing shooting through his body, and pounding in his head.

This could be it. This is the chance to set the world right. No more corrupt and power-hungry leaders. No more wars between nations. No more economic exploitation and political oppression. No more divisions. No more conquest and suffering. With me at the helm, Jesus says to himself, the world will be a better place.

It seems like this last temptation penetrates into Jesus’ heart and soul. With all the other temptations, Jesus seems in control. He replies without emotion—no wasted words. But this one—this temptation to take control of history, to take hold of the reigns of power—this one drives a spike into his heart, and he strikes back with anger before he thinks about it for too long, before he succumbs to this beautiful possibility. Verse 11, “Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Jesus reveals the shape of our struggle. It’s a struggle to refuse to make ourselves gods. Jesus shows us that to follow him is to resist the temptations to be like god. We read this story of temptation during Lent because it forces us to examine all the ways each of us try to be our own gods. We let the story call our lives into question, so we can welcome the kingdom of God that comes to those who know how to be at home with lives God has given us.

How are you faced with the temptation to be your own god, to grow impatient with the slow work of human experience, and try for short cuts, escape routes? How do you deny the pull of your body that ties you to the ground, to your habitat, to your neighbors, to your companions? What does it mean to dig into your context, the garden where God has placed you, and till it and keep it, instead of running from it to the secure heights of heaven, or the security of our high walls and commuter lives?

Those are my questions. I’m sure you have your own.

The good news in all this is that the serpent in the garden is right: We will be like God. But our path into the life of God looks very different than what the serpent offers in the garden and what the devil offers in the wilderness. The good news is that Jesus did not despise his flesh. Jesus did not run away from his earthy body. Jesus did not abandon his suffering and fragile body for the security of heaven. In the wilderness, Jesus did not hand over humanity, his body, to the devil, but he affirmed it as his home.

While we are like Adam and Eve, despising our flesh, looking for escapes, trying to be where God is; God comes to us and makes our bodies his home, through Jesus. Jesus lives with you, in the wilderness. God is at home in your body. You are dust, earthen vessels, held in existence through the abundant grace of God. In the wilderness, Jesus refuses to abandon you, even when the alternatives look good. Jesus is the way God refuses to abandon your dust to oblivion, and instead welcomes your earthen bodies into the eternal embrace of God’s love. God is at home in you; and so we are at home with God.

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