Texts: Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17; Matthew 4:1-11
If you’ve read the Lent devotionals, looked at the bulletin cover, or found the pattern in the hanging dots behind me, you’ve likely noticed a visual theme. We’re using the labyrinth throughout Lent as a symbol of the Inward / Outward journey.
It’s an ancient design. Not necessarily this particular one, but the labyrinth. One site in northern India has a labyrinth pattern estimated to be 4500 years old. A cluster of islands in northwest Russia have over 30 stone labyrinths that may be as old as 3000 years.
Greek mythology includes the story the part human/ part beast minotaur who wreaks havoc on the population until the great architect Daedalus designs and builds a labyrinth whose sole purpose is to contain the minotaur at its center. The hero Theseus eventually enters the winding labyrinth and slays the minotaur. Some labyrinths still portray a minotaur at the center.
In later medieval times stone labyrinths show up in regions like Scandinavia, frequently around the coast. Fishing communities likely built these with the superstitious hopes of trapping harsh winds and trolls that may endanger a successful fishing outing.
Around the same time, the labyrinth was being adopted more fully as a Christian symbol of pilgrimage. Labyrinths were embedded into the pavement of grand cathedrals. Worshipers were invited to pray their way along the path, into the center, a place of holy encounter, and pray their way back out. Some writings suggest that walking the labyrinth was an alternative option for those unable to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Christian crusaders regained and then lost control of the Holy City to the Muslim armies. There’s a real bright spot in religious history.
In the last few decades the labyrinth has made a resurgence in the Christian imagination. Labyrinths are popping up in all kinds of places. Maybe you’ve seen one and wondered what it was. They’re used frequently at retreats as a more active prayer practice. During my years at seminary AMBS decided to mow a labyrinth into a large area of native prairie grasses growing on the campus. The labyrinth is a trending piece of spiritual technology, and we’re riding the wave.
One of the primary differences between a labyrinth and a maze is that the labyrinth has only one path, with no dead ends or false trails. This is different than, say, the hedge maze at the Triwizard tournament that Harry Potter had to find his way through, the four contestants frantically darting through corridors, trying to avoid wrong turns and blast ended skrewts, and find the Cup.
If you put your finger at the bottom opening of the labyrinth on the bulletin cover, or if you do the same with your eye with the banner, and start to trace the line, you’ll notice there is only one way to go. In a labyrinth the task is not to avoid getting lost, but simply to keep going. If you keep going, you will make it into the center. And after arriving, you will find your way back out, if you only keep going.
So why go on a pilgrimage like this? Why go through this circuitous route when it would be much easier to walk a straight line into the center? And, since when did anyone decide that the journey into the labyrinth was a good thing? Aren’t there harsh winds and a minotaur waiting for you in the center?
The scriptures for the first Sunday of Lent speak about why such a journey may be necessary.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the opening scenes of the Bible. It’s an origins story about who we are and where we come from. In Genesis 2, the human is formed from the dust of the ground. Shaped by the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, breathed into being through the Divine breath of life. The humans begin life surrounded by everything they need to flourish. They live in a lush garden. There are all kinds of trees planted by the very hand of Yahweh Elohim, producing different kinds of edible fruit. Humanity starts out in a perennial forest garden. The only hitch is that one tree from which the humans are commanded not to eat. The tree of knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge of good and evil could have a moral meaning, or it could also be an expression of comprehensiveness. Like the “heavens and the earth” includes those two things and everything in between. “Good and evil” could also mean those two things, and everything in between. The tree of knowledge of the full scope of that which is knowable, all the way from the good, to the evil.
Now if Yahweh Elohim would have had any kind of parenting experience whatsoever, God would have known that as soon as you declare something off limits, you inadvertently and immediately awaken the very desire you are seeking to quelch. I guess it might add a little extra incentive for obedience if you say, “On the day you do it, you will surely die.” In Genesis, God is learning right along with humanity how to make this whole creation thing work. And so the stage is set.
We’re so familiar with the general outline of the story of the Garden of Eden that it’s easy to miss how surprising an origins story it is – one in which humanity is surrounded by abundance. It seems much more intuitive to tell a story of scarcity. These up and coming humans struggling against all odds in a hostile environment. Scrounging for food, fending off wild beasts, never more than an annual cycle away from the threat of starvation or annihilation. Within our own myths of economic competition and perpetual progress, it’s tempting to look back into the mists of pre-history and imagine that kind of continuous struggle for survival in which life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 1651).
But Genesis proposes another scenario, another way to think about our origins, and thus our present predicament. It’s a story in which the central question is not How will we have enough resources? but rather How will we use the abundance of our resources in a way that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than the destruction of life? That’s an important enough point that I’m going to say it again. In the biblical imagination, the defining question of human origins is not How will we get enough food and clothes and resources to survive? Food is abundant. Clothes are optional. The defining question is What will or won’t we do with the many resources we do have?
One of those resources, of course, being the acquisition of god-like knowledge.
The Garden of Eden story famously hinges on the role of the serpent. In later tradition the serpent came to be conflated with the devil, but here it is simply described as more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh Elohim had made. And that word “crafty” doesn’t have to be negative. That word is elsewhere translated “sensible.” In Proverbs it is most frequently translated as “prudent.” Even Jesus said to be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Now the serpent was more “prudent,” “sensible” “shrewd”… “crafty.” The Jewish Publication Society translates it as “subtle.” The subtle serpent.
And the subtle/sensible/shrewd serpent says, No, you won’t die, you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil, the full range of knowledge. And the serpent is right. When they eat the fruit, they don’t die, at least not that day, as Yahweh Elohim had said. And they do obtain knowledge.
And they get booted out of the perennial forest garden – and they have to start farming, struggling with the earth. It’s the agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators and DDT (See last week’s sermon). Such far ranging knowledge.
And that’s the broad framework in which the drama of human history unfolds. What will we do with our tremendous knowledge and god-like power?
And it starts to become more evident why a pilgrimage into the center of the labyrinth becomes essential. Just because we have the basics of what we need to live, doesn’t mean we know how to truly live. How to live in such a way that glorifies God and resists temptations detrimental to the flourishing of life.
Might this kind of pilgrimage be precisely what Jesus is doing at the onset of his public ministry?
Jesus has just been baptized, he has just been declared the Beloved Son of God, and the first thing to follow, Matthew says, is this: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Congratulations on your baptism. In case you didn’t read the fine print, we’d like to inform you you’ll be spending the next 40 days in physical and spiritual anguish.
In so many ways, Jesus has all he needs. He’s got Resources, with a capital R. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that before he exercises any of this, he has to go into the wilderness, the place of physical scarcity – led there by the Spirit. And in the wilderness, the question of the tempter, the devil, is not, do you have the power? Do you have the ability? But since you have the knowledge, ability, how are you going to use it? What kind of power are you going to exercise? Since you are the Son of God…
Jesus walks into the labyrinth, keeps moving up, down, around that singular path, and arrives in the center, in the wilderness, distant from the outside world but face to face with the most common temptations humanity faces. In the center there is indeed a minotaur, of sorts, waiting for him. Jesus faces these temptations in the wilderness so that when he faces them in the land of abundance, he will have already made his decision.
The temptations seem eccentric on the surface, but there is an interpretive tradition that links them very much with the human experience. If you like alliteration, you can think of them as the temptations of possessions, pride, and power.
The devil first tempts Jesus, who hasn’t eaten for weeks, to turn the desert stones into bread. In response Jesus says something to the effect of “Even if every single stone in this desert were a steaming hot loaf of bread, it wouldn’t be enough. We don’t live just on bread, we are sustained by every word and that Breath of life that comes from the mouth of God.” Even though one might have possessions, they need not define one’s life and worth.
And when the devil suggests that Jesus might leap from the pinnacle of the temple because he’s so special that there’s no way God would let him get hurt, Jesus rejects that kind of prideful thinking. Years later, back in a garden setting, he will pray that if it be possible for his life to be spared, that God would do so. But not my will, but yours be done. And there are no angels who intervene to stop the whole procession that leads to his state execution on the cross.
And when the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world which he will gladly hand over if Jesus will only genuflect before the altar of power dominance, Jesus again rejects this offer. He sends the devil away, angels come and attend to him, and he soon makes his way out of the wilderness, out of the labyrinth, back into the land of abundance. Now finally ready to do his work.
The early church father Irenaeus wrote that the “The glory of God is humanity full alive.”
Lent is a time when we confess that we don’t know how to be fully alive. We think we have some ideas, but we know enough to know we’re likely screwing it up. We live in the land of abundance, we have tremendous knowledge, but it doesn’t fill out the full picture of how to live lives that bring glory to the Creator and add to the flourishing of life.
So we head into the labyrinth. We take the inward journey, assured that this is not a trick. There are no dead ends or false paths. There is simply the road that leads to the center where we will encounter what and who we need to encounter. What we need to encounter in order to come back out with a renewed sense of who we are, and the small part we play in the abundance of creation. It’s a journey we take multiple times throughout life.
Let me end by saying that this journey can take many forms, but if you want a way to get together to pray with others, we will be meeting every Wednesday of Lent here in the sanctuary. We’ll be teaching and practicing Centering prayer, a simple form of silent prayer. And we’ll be praying from the Anabaptist Prayer Book which includes open spaces for voicing our concerns and intersessions. We’re having these at 5:30pm with the hopes this can assist some folks in joining in route to their way home from work, and still have most of the evening to be home.
May you know that the Breath of Life, the Christ of Love, accompanies and sustains you on your journey, and may you be led by the Spirit to go where you need to go.