Texts: Genesis 2:7-9; 15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape, and a reality of the soul.
If you’ve ever visited a place considered wilderness, you most likely have some distinct memory of that place: The towering trees of an old growth forest; the long expanses of sands in a desert; the almost unfathomable layers of geological history in the faces of rock formations. The wilderness has a way of confronting the human ego and putting our small lives in perspective. The wilderness is so different than our human shaped environment. The wilderness is wild. The wilderness can be dangerous.
If you have ever been in a wilderness of the soul, it too has no doubt left its mark. A wilderness time of life can be highly disorienting. One can feel overwhelmed by the immensity of what one does not comprehend and cannot control. One might not feel safe or secure and certainly not savvy for finding the way through. This kind of wilderness may be a place you have been before. You may be in the wilderness right now.
Experiences of wilderness are woven throughout scripture, and Lent is intentionally structured to be a wilderness – like the 40 years of the Israelites and the 40 days of Jesus after his baptism. The season of Lent spans from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, 40 days, not including Sundays, which are meant to be observed as little Easters, signs of resurrection, within the context of wilderness.
Lent is a built in feature of our liturgical calendar such that every year, if you are so inclined to keep hanging around the church, you will be invited back into the wilderness. You will be reminded and invited to again visit this geography of the soul. And, if you have already been dwelling in the wilderness and need no reminder of its existence, you will be reminded that you are not alone, you are accompanied by a community, and the church universal, practicing wilderness living. As with Jesus at the end of his wilderness time, there are angels, seen and unseen, caring for us.
If I were to personally choose the kind of wilderness I’d like to hang out in, I think I’d choose something close to the wilderness of Genesis 2. It’s kind of a wilderness. Genesis prefers to call it a garden, planted by the very hand of God. But for the human being placed there, it’s a place of wildness, and it’s up to the humans to navigate their way through it, and to begin to cultivate it and, in the process, to cultivate themselves.
In this primordial garden/wilderness, there are many trees, but two are in a species of their own: the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Any tree is fair game for food, except for one. The tree of knowledge is explicitly off limits.
We might as well say here that when we are in the early chapters of Genesis we are in the world of Hebrew myth. “Myth” is a word that has not fared well in the last several hundred years. In our rational/scientific mentality, it has come to be synonymous with “not true.” To say, “That’s a myth,” is to say, “that’s something many people believe to be true but is actually verifiably false.” Myths are meant to be busted.
If this is one of the definitions “myth” needs to have in our time, then so be it – as long as we can also retain the more ancient notion of myth. When we are dealing with biblical myth and myths of other cultures, the appropriate question to ask is not “Did it really happen?” at some specific place at a particular point in time. What makes a myth true and powerful is not whether or not it describes a one time event, but whether or not it illuminates a particular aspect of reality that is true throughout time.
There’s an Iroquois story about how death came to be: The Great Spirit spoke to the first people and gave them a choice – they could either have immortality, or they could have children. All of the people huddled together and unanimously decided that they would rather have children. And so it have been. (Told HERE, scroll down, in the 6th video)
Did it really happen? But is it true?
It gets at the heart of an ongoing reality we continue to experience.
These two trees of Genesis are one of the ways our Scriptures set up the human condition. I have a dream still in its beginning stages of designing an overnight retreat in the forests of Southern Ohio and using the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil as a framework for pondering our place in the biosphere. It would have something to do with the Tree of Life having received a new lease on life outside the realm of myth when Charles Darwin found it to be a perfect metaphor for his theory of the origin of the species by means of natural selection. The reimagined Tree of Life is composed of all life forms that have ever existed, branching off in different families and species, some with dead ends and some still thriving. How healthy is the Tree of Life and how are we learning to honor it, and enjoy it? It seems like the kind of conversation that should happen in a forest.
After Genesis, the Tree of Life disappears from the biblical narrative until the very, very end, the last chapter of the book of Revelation, when it shows up again in the redeemed earth, the New Jerusalem, with the river of life flowing through it. Revelation says, “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Healed by the tree of life.
Our relationship to the Tree of life is complicated by our having eaten from that other tree – the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. The presence of this tree in the Garden of Eden provokes a couple questions worth asking. First of all, what’s so bad about having knowledge of good and evil? This sounds like an important kind of knowledge to have, perhaps a knowledge that marks the transition from animal to human consciousness.
One of the possible interpretations of this phrase is that it presents a pair of opposites in order to mean that if you know those, you also know everything in between. To have knowledge of the good and the evil is to know everything. This would be the reverse of the expression of not knowing your right hand from you left hand. If you don’t know your right from your left, you don’t know anything. If you know the good and the evil, you know everything.
In Genesis God doesn’t want humans to eat this fruit. If you do, God says, “the day that you eat of it, you will die.” Ah, not true, says the clever serpent. You won’t die, your eyes will be open. You’ll be like a god, knowing good from evil. Knowing, everything? It looks really good, it tastes really good, and the woman and the man eat it, and, their eyes are opened. They don’t die that day. So who told the truth, God, or the serpent? Maybe both, in some way. The humans get their desired knowledge, but become alienated from the wilderness garden, from themselves, from God, a certain kind of death to be sure.
Another question worth asking of this story is Why would God create this tree that we’re not allowed to eat from, placing it in the center of the garden? It sounds kind of like baking a really tasty dessert, putting it in the middle of the table, and telling your kids not to eat it. I’m pretty sure this would not work at all. It didn’t work for God either.
It’s strange, but is it true? Do we find ourselves in a world in which we actually have options of doing things that might be harmful to ourselves and others? Just because we can eat the fruit, should we? Just because we have enough knowledge to do something, should we do it? Just because we can build the bomb, Just because we can fly the drone, Just because we can frack the gas, Should we? Or, much more ambiguously, Just because we can alter and patent the gene, just because we can create artificial intelligence, make and buy lots of stuff, Should we? I don’t know. Probably Yes in some cases, no in other cases. Congratulations to us. We have great knowledge, and with it, great power. We are Homo sapiens sapiens. Clever, clever humans.
But in the wilderness, we confront our vulnerability. We cannot help but be humbled. We cannot help but pay attention to these larger forces around us. In the wilderness we receive the invitation to tune our souls with the larger mind, metanoia. Repentence.
The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape. It is also a reality of the soul.
It is this physical and soul journey into the wilderness that Jesus makes after his baptism but before the beginning of his ministry. It is the Spirit who drives him there, Matthew says, and it is the devil who becomes his conversation partner during those hungry and lonely days.
Just because you can, should you?
Turn stones into bread. Think of all the hungry people you could feed.
Believe you’re immortal and untouchable to suffering and throw yourself off a great height. Surely God won’t let you get hurt.
You see this world? It could all be yours.
John’s gospel does not include the story of the temptations in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism, but it does include this story. In his version of the feeding of the five thousand, after the hungry crowds eat their fill from the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, after the disciples gather up the twelve baskets, bread for everyone with plenty left over, it says this: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
What does it mean that we call Messiah, Lord, and Savior, a figure who refused to live out those titles as they have always been imagined and hoped for by us? Who refused the devil’s, and the people’s enticing offers, and instead presented us with a whole different model of what it means to be human.
What does it mean that what Jesus wanted us to remember about him was not that he turned stones into bread, or even fed a large hungry crowd with a few initial scraps of food? But what he wanted us to remember about him in relation to bread, was what he offered his disciples during the final meal together. This bread is my body, this wine is my blood. Whenever you gather at table, remember me. Rather than turn stones into bread, Jesus invested his spiritual energies into turning himself into bread. Rather than simply hand out bread to people, a pretty heroic solution, he taught people to share their bread among themselves, which can get you in trouble.
We have the knowledge and the technologies to make bread for lots of people. It’s a good thing, because there’re a lot of people who need bread. Seven billion and counting, I believe. But the harder task, and one of the major tasks of Lent, is to ourselves become bread. To do the kind of soul work such that our lives themselves become a source of life in this world. We are very clever, and there is no going back to life before we partook from the tree of knowledge, but that tree of life is still there, offering healing to the nations.
In the wilderness we are stripped of all our false pretensions, and we listen to the Spirit. Our lives are available to become truly human, like Christ, and what that will look like in our time is still on its way into being. And, by the grace of God, it is coming into being through you. Through us.