Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
It’s almost spring! Our “snowbirds” will be returning to Seattle within a couple of months. Snowbirds, of course, are those who spend summers here in the lush Northwest–winters in the warm desert.
Spiritually speaking, it’s fair to say that we’re all snowbirds! We spend some of our lives in a beautiful garden: hopeful, confident, joyful. And, we spend some of our lives in the desert: sad, fearful, anxious, angry and uncertain. Where we are in our lives can vary from hour to hour, day to day, or year to year. Garden or desert—where are you this morning?
Ponder that as we explore what might be called snowbird scriptures. These readings from Genesis and Matthew are very similar; they describe two very different responses to temptation. Not only are the responses to temptation different; the settings are also very different. The book of Genesis describes a garden, full of wonderful plants—a bit like our Pacific Northwest. The book of Matthew, on the other hand, tells a tale of Jesus in a place more like Arizona or Nevada—and I don’t mean Phoenix or Las Vegas (although, speaking of temptation)!
These are not two stories but one; this story describes throughout the Bible our human condition. It’s the story of the temptation we face each day—the temptation to be independent, to be our own boss, to call our own shots. It’s the fundamental temptation to set off on our own and divorce ourselves from the precious, God-given gift of human community, grounded in a faith tradition.
In the garden, the instructions from God are pretty clear. These are rules that any child could follow. But then there’s this voice that’s familiar to all of us. It cleverly, persuasively urges us to trust our own impulses. In the garden this inner voice is represented by a snake, which asks, Did God say,”You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or, you shall die.'” You see? It’s not hard to understand the instructions. But on our own, it’s easy to become distracted. The voice inside says, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.
To be like God. Isn’t that what we try to do? Isn’t that why we gather on Sunday—to have our eyes opened? To become more like God? To follow the example of Jesus? This sounds like pretty good teaching!
But that’s just the beginning! 6So 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.
Good for food. Delight to the eyes. Desired to make one wise. Think about it: Health. Beauty. Wisdom. These are good things! How could God object? Not only that, the woman was practicing generosity—she gave some to her husband! These people weren’t trying to disobey God—weren’t trying to get away with something. They thought they were being obedient!
This is a story about the danger of becoming a “lone ranger”—in other words, separated from one’s community. It’s a cautionary tale about the power of individuals to trust ourselves, and in the process to make choices that harm the community—and harm ourselves in the process. It’s a reminder that God created us for community, not only to support us but to hold us accountable. People who are accountable to one another and hold each other responsible for their beliefs and actions are less likely to make choices that make the life of the community unravel.
Well, what do you think of this story? Americans value freedom, individual rights, independence. We talk about valuing community but when push comes to shove we have little patience with anyone telling us what to do. Or, as a different example, people are likely to just say nothing rather than be perceived as “getting into other people’s business.” And yet scripture, beginning with this story, warns against the ability of individuals to make good choices on our own!
In Matthew’s gospel, the setting is not a lush garden but a desert. Jesus has gone into a place that is hostile and life-threatening under the best of conditions. It’s not surprising that he would hear that familiar voice inside his head. The desert is a place that can mess with your mind!
Many years ago my wife and I were traveling in northwest China during the heat of the summer. This is the Taklimakan Desert, a vast and dangerous place. We were in the air-conditioned comfort of a bus at the time but at one point as I looked out over the desert I saw a lake. Or, at least, I thought I did! Actually, there was no lake there at all. This was a mirage—not like heat waves rising from a hot road in Eastern Washington. This seemed to me as real as looking out our window at Lake Washington.
The desert is a place that can convince a person that something is what it isn’t—especially if we’re feeling vulnerable and alone.
That was the experience of Jesus. After forty days without food he was hungry, hot, tired—and alone. A little voice inside his head said, “Why not turn these stones to bread?” What could be the downside of that? If the opportunity arose, why not save himself from hunger and danger? Makes perfect sense! The voice in the desert was the same voice that was heard in the garden. Take care of yourself. Do what you think is right.
But thinking for ourselves outside the context of the community is risky business. In the desert, Jesus is apart from his family, friends and faith community for a season. But even though he’s by himself he’s connected to a community of faith through the scriptures. He answers, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
And yet, quoting Scripture can also be a risky game. The voice replies, “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.'” But even in this difficult season of the desert Jesus uses scripture not to his own advantage but to remain connected with his community, to keep the focus on God.
All of us are spiritual snowbirds. Where are you in this moment? In the garden? Are you feeling good, confident, hopeful? Does your life seem blessed by abundance? Or, are you in the desert? Do you feel empty, confused, angry, depressed? Are you fearful of not having enough?
The danger of the garden is as great as the danger of the desert. The familiar voice that urges us to separate ourselves from the community of faith—to follow our own path–is as present in the garden as it is in the desert. We are constantly tempted toward independence and isolation. But God calls us to love one another—which is an invitation to interdependence, accountability, and community. May this season of Lent lead us to renew our commitment to one another and to the whole Body of Christ—for our own sake, and for the sake of the world God loves.