The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 1—Year A (video link)
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Lent came roaring in on Wednesday with the first day of March and ominous clouds and a 30 degree temperature change and gusty northwest winds. The weather whiplash seems a rather fitting way to mark this seasonal shift spiritually. Bye-bye glorious mystical mountaintop of last Sunday where God proclaimed once again that Jesus was his Beloved Son; bye-bye, cool waters of the Jordan River in Matthew 3 where Jesus has just first heard God declare him to be God’s Beloved Son, one in whom God is well pleased. No, those Ash Wednesday winds have catapulted us straight into the wilderness and a whole host of temptations.
It is one thing to hear that you are God’s Beloved; it is a whole other thing to believe it, to really believe it and trust it.
But before we get to what Jesus, and we, are wrestling with, we’ve got to go back to the very first temptation—oh, Genesis 3 and that crafty, crafty serpent.
God has created ‘adam, the human of the ground, and has put him in the garden with great generosity and only one itty, bitty boundary. God has given ‘adam meaningful work, purpose; God has told ‘adam, “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.”
And remember, at this point, the woman is not even on the scene. Right after God sets the boundary with ‘adam, God figures out that it’s not really good for ‘adam to be alone—he needs a helpmate, he needs a companion. The cattle, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field—they aren’t quite the helpmate ‘adam needs. ‘Adam needs someone who can go toe-to-toe with him.
God creates the woman, and a relationship of complete mutuality, reciprocity, and equality is borne, and the text tells us, “The man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
Then, comes the exchange between that crafty serpent and the woman, and that serpent’s craftiness is shrouded in subtlety. “Really,” the serpent begins, “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.’”
Okay, could we pause here? I would like to know how clearly ‘adam explained this directive from God to the woman because she wasn’t actually present when this conversation between God and ‘adam went down. Did ‘adam communicate all of this clearly to his companion? Or, was there a bit of, as we say, “a failure to communicate”? Did the woman get that sense of God’s complete generosity when God told ‘adam, “Every tree of the garden is yours for the eating, save this one tree?” Did she take that generosity for granted? And why did she intensified the boundary that God had set—in addition to not eating it, you couldn’t even touch it?
Okay, temptation 101, what is the quickest, surest way to make something completely enticing. Yes, tell you that you can’t even touch it.
But this serpent is crafty, and a master of subtlety. “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.”
Oh, that is just downright irresistible. “You will be like God. God doesn’t want you to 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.
The woman and the man didn’t die when they ate of that fruit, or did they? They didn’t physically die, but something in them did die. What died? On one side, their innocence died. On the other side, they lost their capacity to move through this world without that painful self-consciousness that we all carry. Before this event, they were naked, read completely vulnerable, and they could move easily through the world wide-open. Now, they knew that they were naked, they were aware of their nakedness, and so begins the process of covering themselves. Knitting together that very first piece of armor in the form of a loincloth to cover that deep sense of vulnerability.
Professor Jay Johnson has argued that the very first temptation to humanity is not the fruit that is such good food, and such a delight to the eyes, and that superfood of wisdom—the first temptation is much more subtle than that. He contends that the first temptation is tempting the woman to be like God, which answers a much deeper and darker fear, and that’s that our humanity, our simple humanity, is not enough. “The first temptation,” Johnson says, “was thinking our humanity wasn’t enough.” We can’t be content to just be human beings.
Jump forward to the temptations that Jesus faces today, and by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into his body and declared Beloved sons and daughters, temptations that are surely waiting for us, too.
Over and over, the devil tells Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, if you are the Son of God…” Jesus is tempted to doubt that he’s a Beloved Son, and on an even more subtle level (there’s that ol’ crafty serpent again), that being a Beloved Son is just not enough.
The devil, diabolos—the one who would throw us apart, like throw us apart from our deepest, Truest Self—that devil keeps whispering in Jesus’ ear, “Oh, that Beloved Son identity, it’s just not enough. You’ve got to do some serious dressing up of that identity. How about putting on some “idealized identities”1. Why not try Miracle Worker, Total Truster, Benevolent King? Your True Self isn’t enough, Jesus. You’re not extraordinary enough, you aren’t trusting enough, you aren’t powerful enough. Jesus, Beloved Son is not enough. You have to be more.” And that tempter whispers that last temptation in Jesus’ ear, “I can give you more. I can make you more. Then, you’ll be enough.”
Can you hear echoes of that crafty serpent, that tempter whispering in your ear? What idealized identities are you tempted to put on when you feel shaky about your core identity as a Beloved Son or Beloved Daughter? When you are struggling to trust that being Beloved of God is plenty enough, what messages do you hear and what behaviors are you tempted to sew into loincloths to cover your naked vulnerability?
Beloved Son, Beloved Daughter, it doesn’t seem like much to go on, but it’s everything. In fact, it’s the only thing that is absolutely secure.
Jesus knew that, and at some level, we know that, too, but we have to circle back again and again to drop down into that core identity as Beloveds of God. It’s a naked place to stand, and the pull to dress it up in some way is almost irresistible. But the devil’s promises ring hollow—they promise the world, but they don’t satisfy, not really, because they’re just the trappings of the False Self that’s trying to dress itself up to make itself acceptable to God, instead of collapsing back into the glorious good news that we’ve already been accepted. Our task, as Paul Tillich preached so long ago is “to accept that we’ve been accepted.”
These temptations will come—they came to Jesus, the come to us. But the fact that Jesus has walked this road before us means that we’ve got someone to guide us back, always, to the only identity that matters—Beloved Son, Beloved Daughter, and the absolute truth that THIS IS ENOUGH. You are Beloved of God; from that center, you are always enough. You don’t have to be God; you just have to believe, trust, accept that you are Beloved.
Live from that place, and you will feed hungers that stones turned to bread never can. Live from that place, and you will bear people up when they fall. Live from that place, and you will be a window into the kingdom of God where all the kingdoms of the world beat their swords into plowshares and feast together at the table.
That serpent may be crafty and oh so subtle, the devil may try to throw us apart from our deepest Truest Self, but Love has already won, and he has called us know, in every fiber of our being, that we are Beloved no less than he.
Believe that, trust that, accept that, and start whispering that good news into every ear you can find. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 5, 2017
1The phrase “idealized identities” is borrowed from Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame triggers.