The Garden and the Wilderness – 2/10/08 – Genesis 3:1-13, Matthew 4:1-11

Since we are now into Lent, I begin with a confession: My first impressions of the Genesis 3 Garden of Eden story this week were not all that serious or reverent:  On Tuesday I’m starting to do some study on the passage during the last half hour or so that I have in the office.  I leave Peace House and on my commute home already have my mind on other things.  So you can imagine my surprise when I walk into our house and find Eve completely naked playing quietly on the floor.  This is the first time this has ever happened and her timing is perfect.  She looks up at me and smiles, and I’m thinking, girl, you’re such a wonderful creature you can stay in this garden as long as you want no matter what.

Other first impressions were mainly questions that don’t resolve themselves all that easily.  If the serpent is such a negative character here, being the most shrewd of all the animals, then why did Jesus teach us to be shrewd as serpents?  Since when is it a bad thing to be like God, knowing good from evil?  When God said to the man ‘Have you eaten from the forbidden tree’ and the man pointed to the woman and said “she made me do it” and the woman pointed to the serpent and said, “It tricked me into it,” if the serpent was so shrewd then why didn’t it point back to God and say, “Hey, you’re the one who put the tree here in the first place.” 

For whatever reason, these were some initial thoughts I found myself thinking in going through this story.  Maybe my brain was still fresh off hearing some of the poetry of Jeff Gundy from Mennonite Arts Weekend and his willingness raise the kinds of thoughts some people think but don’t actually say.  Or, really, any of the artists’ commitment to being completely honest with their medium.  To ask it questions and see what kind of shape the responses take when it speaks back to you.  Or maybe I have a built in defensiveness about this particular text since we did name our daughter Eve, which has the beautiful meaning of ‘mother of all the living’, and this passage has so often been misused to blame her for the problems of the world.  This is part of my own personal context for approaching this scripture and each of us bring our own questions, issues, and curiosities to the scripture as well.

Along with our personal contexts is this larger context that we are now entering into together, the season of Lent.  The next seven weeks involve an invitation to place our own journey alongside the journey of Jesus as he moves toward the cross — when we become more aware of the suffering within us as well as the suffering of the world, and consider Christ’s suffering as an expression of God’s identifying with the most troubled parts of our humanity.  And if the garden story is about anything, it’s about beginning to shed some light into the troubled parts of our humanity. 

I would like to offer that the season of Lent is a time when we explore what it means to be human.  Every year the liturgical cycle allows us to recognize that human is something we forget how to be, or at the very least, that over the course of time we have the tendency to let our humanity get twisted out of shape.  We lose touch with what is most essential in life and get caught up in mindsets and habits that cause our spirits to shrivel rather than thrive.  We become a smaller version of ourselves.  Less able to be in healthy relationship with others, less able to sense how our own lives intersect with the Divine life.  Lent is an opportunity to contemplate, to fast, and to experiment with new habits.  Being human takes work and intentionality and grace.  And we don’t always do such a good job at it.  And so we keep coming back to this season, this place, that has been carved out for us in our calendar.  And there are two places where the scriptures for the week ask us to enter.  The first is the garden.  And the second is the wilderness.  We enter with ourselves – our questions, our hang-ups, and our longings for insight into who we are, in the light of God’s grace. 

In the biblical imagination, the garden is the place where the human drama begins.    Although the garden is often thought of as the place of original sin, it is better thought of as the place of original blessing.  The first, and most original characteristic of our humanity is that we are created male and female in the image of Elohim, God, the creative spirit of the world.  Well before any of the curses in the garden in chapter three of Genesis, chapter one notes that “Elohim blessed them.”  And Elohim declared it all very good indeed.  The original vocation of humanity is to bear a resemblance to the creative spirit of the cosmos. 

Chapter two of Genesis, which is a follow up telling of how humanity came to be, imagines the first human, the adam creature, being formed from the dust of the ground, Adamah.  As glorious as humanity is, we’re made from the same stuff as the rest of the earth and the other creatures.  And, in a rather literal way, astrophysics is now teaching us that we are indeed made from the same dust that has been a part of different stars throughout the universe.  The dust creature comes to life when God fills it full of breath, spirit.  And The adam is set in a garden and blessed with the work of gardening.  

I find it interesting how the first 11 chapters of Genesis portray God as one who is learning right along with creation about what is needed for things to go right.  The first sign of unease with the human creature doesn’t have anything to do with a serpent or a fruit, but has to do with aloneness and the need for partnership.  After declaring creation to be good and very good, for the first time God sees something that is not good.  Genesis 2:18 – “Then the Lord God said, It is not good that the adam should be alone; I will make a partner.”  The human creatures, now male and female, are relational by nature.  The humans need the companionship of each other for meaning, the fruit of the soil for food, and the breath of God for life.

So, in entering chapter 3 a significant question that the story speaks to is How will the human dust creatures live in healthy relationship with each other, the other dust creatures, and the rest of creation?   Poet Scott Cairns sees relational fracturing as the real tragedy of the human story.  Here’s what he says in his poem titled “The Entrance of Sin:” 

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgiving the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.  For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.” (Online reference here.) 

I don’t know.  Maybe this is how sin finds its way into the story and our story.  A tiny act of withholding love leads to a widening chasm between the one and the other.  Eventually the serpent slides its way in between them, they both take the fruit without any discussion over the meal, and soon they’re both scared of their previous vulnerability to each other in their nakedness, afraid of God finding out, and shifting the blame around for whose fault it is that they’re so fearful and alone.  At the end of chapter three, the blessed, image-of-God, human dust creatures are just a shadow of themselves.  They’d pretty well forgotten how to enjoy the garden, so God says they might as well leave and not come back.       

Part of me is still a little unsatisfied with those unanswered questions I have for the text, but another part recognizes that the text has plenty of questions for me that are the more important ones to consider.  Questions about ways that my own humanity gets twisted out of shape and ways that my own relationships are fractured.  Questions about what it means to be a healthy human being in a world that has generation upon generation of broken relationships adding up to broken individuals, broken families, and broken political and economic systems.  Questions about how to be a part of the blessings of creation rather than the curses.  The garden poses these questions back to us, and is probably still a little unsatisfied with the answers we try and offer it.

There is a place where the search for answers for the garden’s questions begins.  This is the second and quite crucial place that Lent asks us to enter.  The wilderness.  If the garden is where things went wrong, then the wilderness is where we become aware of our brokenness and begin something new.  The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness.  Jesus spent 40 days.  The Matthew text notes that Jesus is led there by the Spirit.  The creative spirit that is the very breath of life, is at work here.  And Jesus’ time in the wilderness is something like a “recovery of humanity” project.

The wilderness is desert really, a fairly inhumane place to be.  And Jesus doesn’t take much of anything with him to make it a whole lot easier.  The availability of all kinds of food for eating in the garden is here reversed.  He fasts for forty days.  This is Jesus taking the voluntary path of slowly stripping away all the extras of his existence until he is left with nothing but what’s really necessary.  Temporarily separating himself from all his relationships in order to live fully and gratefully within each of his relationships. 

Over the course of this time, he faces down those forces that have magnetically drawn humanity toward themselves over the years.  Physical comfort, reputation, and power.  All things good in themselves, but easily idolized and pursued for their own sakes in a way that deforms our humanity.  The devil would have Jesus and us have all these things in a way similar to how the serpent offered pleasant fruit to the man and the woman.  To possess them in a way that benefits us personally, but puts a wedge in our relationships with others.     

I sometimes glance through reflections by Episcopal priest Barbara Crafton.  This is a quote from her that is a good summary of the wilderness experience:  “Jesus sits in the wilderness and wants the things we all want. He sits there until he knows he can live life without any of them, because he knows, as we all must know, that we all will lose everything. And then he arises and returns to his world, as we return daily to ours.” (Barbara Crafton, Wed. Feb 6th eMo, Online reference here

How has our humanity been twisted out of shape?  In what ways do we grasp to possess things that bring harm to our relationships with our household family and our global family?  How have we been   unwittingly drawn into the magnetism of materialism, greed, and domination?  In what small and large ways have we withdrawn love from others?  How have we become alienated from ourselves and filled with fear toward God?  What does it mean to be human in light of Christ’s example and God’s boundless grace toward us that offers us that creative Spirit breath of life?

Over the course of this season we will have the opportunity to dwell on these questions together.  And as we walk through this wilderness, God promises to meet us and lead us into the way of life.