Garden and Wilderness

Sermon preached for the First Sunday of Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Genesis 3:1-24

The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”

The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.

During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree, which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the woman, “What have you done?!”

And the woman said, “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the snake,

“Because you did this,
you are the one cursed
out of all the farm animals,
out of all the wild animals.
On your belly you will crawl,
and dust you will eat
every day of your life.

I will put contempt
between you and the woman,
between your offspring and hers.
They will strike your head,
but you will strike at their heels.”

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pregnancy very painful;
in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
but he will rule over you.”

To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’

cursed is the fertile land because of you;
in pain you will eat from it
every day of your life.
Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
even as you eat the field’s plants;
by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—
until you return to the fertile land,
since from it you were taken;
you are soil,
to the soil you will return.”

The man named his wife Eve because she is the mother of everyone who lives. The Lord God made the man and his wife leather clothes and dressed them. The Lord God said, “The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Now, so he doesn’t stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever, the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken. He drove out the human. To the east of the garden of Eden, he stationed winged creatures wielding flaming swords to guard the way to the tree of life.

 

Matthew 4:1-11

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

 

***

I often write my sermons on my couch. And that means a lot of time spent staring out my window.

I have seen wild places in the world—barren wastelands, vast deserts, dazzling cityscapes, crashing oceans. Prospect Point Landominiums and Apartments in Villa Hills is not one of those places.

From my window I can see the lake, manmade for our viewing pleasure. I can see the neat roads of condos, angled just so, so that we aren’t staring into our neighbors window. I can see the paid crews of landscapers cutting back the winter undergrowth to prepare for a perfectly manicured spring. Where I live is about as far from wilderness as you can get.

Except, perhaps, for those Canada geese, who come from the wild skies to poop over all our manicured lawns and ruin our perfect little subdivisions. Wilderness will find you, loud and honking, even in a suburb.

I wonder, though, as I look across the lake to my neighbors’ condos, neighbors I have never met, except perhaps to nod as they walk their dogs around the neighborhood, if the geese are not the only bits of wilderness to settle in Prospect Point.

The wilderness, you see, is not just a place we go to. It is a state we live in.

I wonder, behind the brick and vinyl, whose marriage is falling apart. I wonder who has been unemployed and rejected one too many times. I wonder whose child is breaking their heart. I wonder whose world has narrowed to doctors’ visits and diagnoses. I wonder whose faith is shattered and limping. I wonder who is simply lonely, heart achingly lonely, in this manicured homeowners association.

The people of God remember that their life began in a garden. A place that was beautiful, and safe, and teeming with life and food and sustenance. A place where they didn’t fight with each other. A place where God came to visit often, in person, in ways they could easily see and hear and understand.

Perhaps that is why we are so insistent on recreating garden spaces—carefully controlled, landscaped, watered gardens. Perhaps we are hoping to find God there once again. Perhaps, sometimes, in working the soil, we do find God. But in my subdivision, I expect there is more wilderness than we want to let on.

The first stories of scripture happen fast. God creates the world in seven days, vast swaths of life as we know it bursting upon the scene. God makes us, and calls us good, and just a few short verses later, we fail to live up to God’s dream.

The snake comes along, and tempts the woman of the garden with wisdom, wisdom like her beloved God possessed, and she wants that. I can’t blame her. Don’t we all want to be more like the ones we admire most? She takes the fruit, shares it with the man, and they both eat.

And discover that wisdom is a bitter pill to swallow, not the sweet freedom they were hoping for. They know good and evil, and that means the garden is no longer the place for them, because the only evil in the garden is in their own thoughts.

So God casts the man and woman out of the garden, out into the wilderness, out into the wide world of pain and lostness and loneliness. It is only then that Adam gives his wife a name, because it is only then he is worried he’ll have to call out to find her.

The ancient Israelites did not tell this story to teach their children the science of the world. They told it to teach their children the truth about themselves, how frail we are, how prone to error even with the best intentions, how it has come to be that we can feel so far away from the God who made us God’s own hands. It is a story not of our natural history but our theological history: that our lives may begin in a garden, but over and over and over again, sometimes in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves cast into the wilderness, scrabbling for food and longing for connection.

Lent is a wilderness time. Its 40 days are an echo of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, before his temptations. Most of us have been, at some point in our lives, in the wilderness, too. Perhaps only for a few minutes, perhaps for years at a time. The Greek for wilderness is eremos, and it comes from a different word, eremia, which means isolation. Loneliness, solitude, neglect. A place where we reach out for what we most need and find only sand and scrub slipping through our fingers. Most of us have been in the wilderness, even if we have never left our suburbs and subdivisions.

But that does not mean the wilderness is a bad place to be. The wilderness can be frightening, exhausting, painful, isolating; but it can also be the place where we find God’s strength and our own, because there is simply nothing else to rely on.

Lent, as a season is the intentional practice of wilderness living.

Tim Suttle, a pastor and singer, writes, “The more time I spend in the wilderness, the more convinced I become that time there is absolutely necessary for our spiritual vitality.”[1] He goes on to remember a story told by Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor, in a book she wrote on Leaving Church.

“Taylor tells the story of a workshop she attended during which a presenter told of how he took his students on “wilderness” trips to give them a taste of life nearer the edge. They would do activities such as hiking, white water rafting, ropes courses, and other activities meant to stretch their comfort zones. A member of the audience questioned the presenter – here’s the interaction:

“Excuse me,” a member of the audience said, “but are there predators in those places who are above you on the food chain?”

“Well of course not,” the presenter said, “I wouldn’t put the students in danger like that.”

“I wouldn’t either,” the man in the audience said, “But don’t lull them into thinking that they have experienced true wilderness. It’s only wilderness if there’s something out there that can eat you.”[2]

It’s only the wilderness if there’s something out there that can eat you.

Jesus met the devil in the wilderness. And the devil did try to eat him, tempting him, just as the snake tempted Eve, to bypass all the pain and frustration of being human and take the easy road to being more like God. But after forty days in the wilderness, Jesus knew God’s strength, and his own, and he said no.

I wonder today if the devil would have more success if he had been more punctual. If he had gotten to Jesus at the start of those forty days, before Jesus had had weeks alone with just the wind and stars and his Father in heaven, before Jesus had learned he could survive without bread, before Jesus had had time to miss the friends and family he would minister to for the rest of his short life. If the devil had gotten there sooner, perhaps he could have convinced Jesus that he would never make it in the wilderness without the devil’s help. But after forty days, Jesus knew the truth: God had taken him this far. God would bring him the rest of the way.

God’s people were made in a garden, but they found their strength in the wilderness. Again and again—as former slaves wander towards a promised land with bellies filled with manna, as prophets survive windstorms listening for a still, small voice, as exiles march homewards through unknown paths—again and again God’s people discover God is present even in the wilderness, giving them strength, giving them guidance, standing with them even in hunger and confusion and loss.

So if you are in the wilderness today, what I am trying to tell you is that you are standing on holy ground. You are standing in the place where all humans stand eventually, but even more, you are standing in the place where Jesus stood, and prevailed. You are standing in the place that will teach you more about God’s grace and provision than a lush garden ever could. In the wilderness, you won’t just visit with God. You will be carried by God.

The story of God’s people begins in one garden, and it will end in another, when Mary Magdalene tiptoes through the grass to sit once more with her dead savior and find him up and walking around instead. In the garden there is resurrection, and I promise you, each of  us will make it there one day, to soft grass under our feet and Jesus standing clear as day in front of us.

But in the meantime, we choose our wilderness paths, and we count our wilderness blessings: that despite it all, God is with us, with a wild, fierce, vast love, vast enough to flood the largest desert, fierce enough to muscle into the most gated subdivision.

This is the truth of the gospel: there are devils in the wilderness. But there are angels there too. In this Lent, “as the distractions of the world fade away, the things that are truly important come into focus, and the devil’s diverting words lose all power. Perhaps one of the gifts of the angels that dwell in this wilderness is the opportunity to discover how courageous, how steady, and how faithful we have the ability to be.”[3]

The way is hard, and there are things out there that can swallow you whole, but be not afraid:

God is with you in this wilderness.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Tim Suttle, Lent as an Intentional Wilderness Experience: Barbara Brown Taylor and Cloud Cult Show the Way. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology.

[2] Ibid, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 172.

[3] Slats Toole, “Wilderness Commentary On Matthew 4:1-11.” Wilderness Sermon Planning Guide. A Sanctified Art LLC.

One thought on “Garden and Wilderness

  1. Your words are truly enlightening and inspiring. I now understand the real purpose of living in the wilderness during this season of Lent. Thanks for that!

    Like

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