First Sunday in Lent February 10, 2008

Readings for First Sunday in Lent February 10, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Lent 1 Textweek

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and as we come together on first Sunday to make Eucharist, to listen to the divine word, we come also to receive food for the journey, and we have classic Lent readings today – Genesis and the temptation of Eve, Matthew and the temptation of Christ, and in between we have Paul talking about sin and death. And with those three readings there’s almost an expectation that we’ll get into that orthodox rut and perpetuate Lent as a time of penitential piety.

However, if we engage Lent in a more true and real sense, then we will engage it with questions rather than answers, with an openness, a desire to find, rather than a set of predetermined doctrines that we’ve got to then reconcile ourselves with. And if we do want to focus on sin, then maybe let’s at least focus on the question, ‘what is it?’, because if we mine the scriptures it doesn’t seem to be a list of tiny little things that we’ve done wrong.

The other point of focus for Lent is to look back to last Sunday. We embarked on this journey first of all by celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration and an echo of that can still be heard, and maybe that’s a good reminder for us that we take ourselves into the wilderness of Lent. It’s quite important that we don’t step out of ourselves into another world for forty days, but rather take ourselves into it.

We have an opportunity to seek, to reflect on the life we have, to reflect on the life that we create, so let’s look at the readings - the word of God - for direction rather than for destination. It’s a tricky thing to do because, particularly with stories like Adam and Eve, culturally and religiously we’re already familiar with the stereotype interpretations, but after last Sunday, reading the story of Genesis, reading the text we heard today, all I could see was an echo of last Sunday, the Transfiguration.

If we break that reading up into three parts: ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."’ This is Moses, representing the Law; the boundaries have been set: this is how you will behave; this is what you will do.

“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." This is Elijah, the prophet, representing a new vision of the future.

‘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.’ This is Christ, fully human, male and female. They knew they were naked – fully human – they were also fully divine for their eyes were opened. What we have in Genesis is an echo of the mountain scene of the Transfiguration, Moses, Elijah and Christ - what is, what can be and the creative moment; what is birthed, what is to be born and the incarnation. We have the parent, the child and the adult – these are aspects of life, orientations of being.

As we move into Lent we might be aware that to know God we must first know ourselves; to find God we must first find ourselves; to be in relation with God we must first know where I am. It’s fine to ask, well where is God, but first of all we should ask where are we? The experience of wilderness and mountain-top take us out of and beyond the experience of suburbia. We’re shaped by our environment, we become a part of that which is around us and at the same time, although we often are unaware of it we shape our environment - it becomes a reflection of who we are. As we walk through Lent let us be aware that in each and every moment I am, we are a part of creation and participants in the act of and the unfolding of creation.

‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.’ What does it mean ‘to be tempted by the devil’? There was no being that met him in the wilderness and had a conversation with him. To be tempted by the devil means he was led into the desert to question his orientation in relation to the divine. He could have not gone there, but to have assumed that ‘I live my life as the divine would have me live it’. But with the environment around us there are too many confusing noises. Just the hum of the fridges in the world destroys the space where we can contemplate the deepest of truths, so he was led into the wilderness, away from the everyday in order to question his orientation in relation to the divine – to be tempted by the devil.

‘He fasted forty days and forty nights’, which again echoes Moses and Elijah, his companions in the Transfiguration. In Exodus 24, ‘Then Moses entered the cloud as he went up on the mountain, and he stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.’ When Moses came down from the mountain back into the world and saw the partying that was going on, he fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights: ‘I ate no bread and drank no water because of all the sin you had committed’.

Elijah – before Elijah sets out on his journey, in 1 Kings, ‘he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.’ The echoes of the Transfiguration, the bringing into awareness, the companions who will be with us in the journey through Lent seem to be an important part of the readings we hear today. So let’s allow Transfiguration to give us a context for Lent because Transfiguration gives us an illustration of life, a cameo of Moses, Elijah and Christ – the Law the Prophets and the Divine incarnation. It’s an illustration of life’s higher calling - the peak, the goal, the upward orientation of life. Lent therefore becomes a period of preparation, preparation for an encounter that gives shape and direction to life.

Lent and Easter are not Jesus stories, for the cult of Jesus to dwell upon; they’re not past stories, to be viewed as we would view an old film; rather they provide us with a reflection of life, a chance to see ourselves and to realise ourselves in our fullest sense: life lived not by bread alone, but rather echoed in the divine word; life lived not by testing God, but rather by participating in the divine unfolding; life lived not by serving our own selfish needs, but rather by giving to the divine. Transfiguration provides a context for us to walk the journey of Lent; provides an illustration of life, an opportunity for us to see ourselves. Those who wish to make a more orthodox Lent and wrestle with sin and guilt, another beautiful quote I found: ‘Sin truly is a life of aimlessness, missing the mark, perhaps not even aiming at it. Sin is not even knowing what the divine goal of life is: if there is no goal how can we even aim our lives?’ It very much links sin and Transfiguration together.

It’s a huge ask to spend forty days and forty nights in the wilderness without food, but there’s a part of us that desires to make that journey. And let us look to each other for courage to walk through Lent so that together we might arrive at East.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris