|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Capitol Hill United Methodist Church
March 5, 2017—First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 3:1-9; Matthew 4:1-11
I went to a university about 15 miles away from where I’d grown up. And I lived on campus. My parents and I were of the same opinion: I was going away to college—even if that college was right next to the mall we always used to go to see movies. That probably made it easier for me, because even when I went away to college, I was in large measure still home. The radio stations were all the same, the TV channel lineup and evening news anchors were those I’d been watching my entire life. I knew the weather, the city, the whole culture of the area. I just had to get used to classes—and that was the exciting part. But on balance, my transition to college was easier, because I could still feel that I was home.
Leaving home is not easy. In my nearly 17 years working on a university campus I have seen my fair share of students arriving on campus having left home. The students take it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some cannot wait to get to college and practically bolt from their folks as soon as the opportunity arises. Others text their parents immediately and remain in as near to constant contact as our current state of technology allows.
Where most of our students used to come from the Mid-Atlantic states, more and more are coming to D.C. from California, Texas, and the West. We have always had large numbers of students who come from all around the world. Most of the students who come to AU do so having left home far behind. And that can be traumatic.
Even when it’s for a good reason, leaving home creates discomfort and anxiety. We find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, surrounded by unfamiliar people, with unfamiliar practices, and unfamiliar rules that everyone else seems to know but us. We become anxious as to whether we’ll ever make a new home where we are, whether we’ll ever feel that we belong, that we fit in.
II. THE TEXT
The archetypal story for that experience is, of course, the expulsion from Eden that we read about earlier. The Man and the Woman have been placed in the Garden and given very clear instruction: eat of anything you like except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Got it? One rule.
The serpent asks the Woman if it is true that God had forbidden eating the fruit of the garden and she replies that they were not to not eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden and that they weren’t supposed to touch it either (it’s a mystery why she adds this), or they’d die. The serpent responds, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, the Woman, seeing that the fruit was appealing and good for food takes the fruit and eats it.
(Now, it is important here to point out that the way we traditionally imagine this story, where clueless Eve gets tempted by the Serpent and then goes and gets hapless Adam to eat the fruit is not supported by the scriptures themselves. In fact, as the verse says, “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Way to go, Adam. Way to speak up.)
As soon as the two eat, their eyes are opened and they realize they are naked and make loincloths out of fig leaves and hide.
Later, God takes a stroll through the Garden during the time of the evening breeze and God calls out, “Where are you?” When the Man responds that he was hiding from God because he was naked, God asks, “Who told you you were naked?” and then “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Now at this moment, the Man does something that does not quite distinguish him and the male sex from this point. He responds: “It was the woman you gave to me…” Way to shift the blame and throw your wife under the bus, Adam. When the Woman herself blames the Serpent, God has had enough: all are to be punished. The Man must now labor in the earth to get it to bear food, the woman will suffer pain in childbirth and be dominated by her husband, and the serpent will lose his legs and slither on the ground eating dust.
But furthermore, because they now know good and evil, they cannot be allowed to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever, they are cast out of Eden into the hard world. They must leave their home.
The pain of this separation cannot be overstated. This is not simply any two people leaving a home they’d grown accustomed to, this is two who were leaving a home that was meant for them. They had been placed their as the caretakers of the Garden. They had the option to eat from any of the trees of the Garden—including the immortality bestowing Tree of Life!—but one. They were in their primordial state. And now, they were in exile.
But not just exile from a physical location, but from their intended identity. The Man, formed from the soil, would now have to labor in that same soil to get it to yield bread for him. The Woman, formed as a helper and counterpart to the Man, is now subordinated to the Man; her ability to bring life into the world now a source of pain. The Serpent, made as one of God’s creatures (and one of the cleverest), now is cursed to slither along the ground and eat dust. Each of them has not only left their physical home, they have left their spiritual home, the grounding center of who it was that they were meant to be.
This theme of Exile and alienation is one that is found throughout scripture. Abraham is called to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house for a Land God will show him. Once he’s there, he travels from place to place, moving on by stages. His grandson Jacob and his sons will leave that home in a time of famine to go to Egypt seeking food and dwell there only to have their descendents enslaved generations later. Moses will lead the Israelites out of the only home they have ever known for that land promised to Abraham, with a 40-year sojourn in the Wilderness along the way. After centuries in the Land, the people are displaced by the mighty Babylonian Empire, which destroys Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and carries off the leadership classes into Exile in Babylon for two generations. Even after returning to the land, the people live under one empire after another—Persian, Greek, Roman—in exile in their own land, until the Romans expel them once again. The theme of home and loss of home is one we find repeated throughout the sacred stories of our tradition.
And that theme is frequently a metaphor for our own relationship with God—alienated, exiled, and cast off—in our rituals and liturgy as well.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time of preparation and fasting, of reflection and repentance. It is a time that is meant to emulate Jesus’ own 40-day period in the wilderness fasting and being tempted prior to the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus’ own 40-day period itself evokes the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness that the Israelites undertook on their way from bondage in Egypt to their new home in the Promised Land.
Our Lenten journey, like Jesus’ and the Exodus that it invokes, is a journey through the wilderness. It is a time of Exile. It is a journey away from home and a reminder of our having been compelled to leave that home.
IV. HOW WE GOT HERE
So, how did we get here?
The usual answer is simple: sin. But what kind of sin? Well, there are a bunch of them. The most obvious would be the sin of disobedience: God said ‘Don’t eat’ and we ate. But there is even more to that act of disobedience.
It’s important to note that when the serpent tells the Woman that they won’t die upon eating the fruit, he isn’t wrong. The Man and Woman do not die. But while the serpent doesn’t quite lie, he doesn’t tell the whole truth. Instead, he gives us the part we want to hear. And we, literally, eat it up. We are always more willing to have our own visions of reality confirmed for us, especially if they conform to what we want—to be like gods, to elevate our own importance or sense of self in the world. We are all too infrequently objective and thoughtful consumers of reality. We are far too frequently consumers of those portions of reality that confirm what we already believe about the world. This, it seems, is nothing new. It’s been going on since the very beginning.
Even more telling, once the deed had been done, once the fruit had been eaten, our first reaction was one of shame and we hid ourselves. Long before we were ever cast out of the Garden, long before the cherubim were placed at the entrance with flaming swords barring our re-entry, we exiled ourselves by hiding from God’s presence. God was coming, looking for us, seeking us out, and we were the ones cowering in the brush, hiding in our improvised loincloths from the Almighty. We walked away before God ever sent us out.
If were are no longer at home in the Garden, we have only ourselves to blame. We wanted what we wanted, we took a version of truth that suited that objective, and we hid ourselves from the one in whom we had our home.
When children leave for college, or for the military, or for work, or a new life elsewhere, their feelings about leaving home are not the only ones present. Parents are filled with all manner of emotions at the departure of their children from home. Sometimes that emotion is one of great satisfaction and the desire to turn that bedroom into the sewing room or office you’ve been wanting for a while. But even so, there is always a wistfulness, a sorrow at the departure of your children, even when their leaving is for their own good.
We are so used to looking at this story from the perspective of the human beings expelled from their primordial home that we don’t bother to consider what the story looks like from God’s point of view.
Why did God forbid the human beings from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the first place? Why even have that tree in the Garden? What’s so wrong about knowing what good and evil are?
In Hebrew, the verb that means “know”—ידע yada—does not mean to know intellectually, through cognition. It means “to know by experience.” (Just in case you were wondering about all those times in the Bible it said that someone “knew his wife and she bore a child.”) But if we understand this, then the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not about being aware of Good and Evil, it was about experiencing Good and Evil. What God, it seems, wanted to keep us from was knowing, really knowing what good and evil were like.
What parent wouldn’t want to protect their child from knowing evil in this way? What parent wouldn’t want to keep their child safe and sound, in blissful ignorance of the harshness of the world? But what parent wouldn’t also realize that to do so would deny their child real freedom to choose for themselves? We could never let our children outside, never let them encounter anyone who could get them sick, could hurt them, could break their heart, could disappoint or abuse them. But then our children would never be free. They would never truly be loved.
What if God sending the Man and Woman out of Eden is less a vengeful God punishing us for our disobedience and more a brokenhearted parent who knows that her children’s freedom—including the freedom to disobey—will now bring with it all manner of consequences, all kinds of suffering, and sorrow, and heartbreak? The mixed feelings of a parent who sends their children off to school or out into the wide world knowing that this freedom carries risk of pain and brokenness? What does that mean for our relationship with God?
What it means, is that we are not so much cast off as we are the ones who willingly separate ourselves from God. God came looking for us in the Garden; it was we who hid.
So, here we are in Lent in the middle of our Exile. Lent is a time where we talk a lot about forgiveness and repentance. But sometimes we don’t talk about them in ways that are constructive. Especially when it comes to repentance.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word for repentance is תשובה teshuvah. The word literally means “turning” or “coming back.” And in the Hebrew Bible, repentance always follows forgiveness, it doesn’t precede it. That is, God forgives first, then we repent.
Imagine this situation: You have done something against your parents’ wishes. Something that you feel ashamed of. Something so shameful that you cannot even bear to look at your parents. And so you flee, you run away. And as you’re running down the driveway, your mother calls out to you, “It’s okay. I forgive you! Come back!”
That’s what repentance is. The coming back is the repentance. It is the turning around to come back into the embrace of the one who has already forgiven you. Repentance isn’t the requirement of forgiveness, it is the response to that forgiveness: the amendment of life, the transformation of heart and mind, the commitment to renewed and restored relationship. The forgiveness is already there waiting for us, inviting us home, and we have only to turn around.
So here we are. In an exile of our own making. We were given freedom and we blew it. We made bad choices. We have wound up in a wilderness of the consequences of those decisions. We left our spiritual home of our own accord.
But there at the threshold stands our Father, our Mother, the One who gave us life. The one who would see us experience no evil. The one who would keep us safe. The one who would hold us in her arms and comfort us. The one who comes looking for us in the Garden and in the Wildnerness. The one standing with his arms open wide to us even now, calling out to us, “Come home.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.