Pebbles and Mountains

Lent 1

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

Today’s Hebrew Scripture… about Adam and Eve and the serpent… brings to mind ideas about sin… and perhaps original sin… but neither the word sin… nor any synonym for it… appears in Chapters 2 or 3… and Chapter 3 doesn’t talk about punishment or the fall… it is simply a temptation story… maybe more about how we humans want to rely on ourselves and what we think… than on our relationship with God…

About Psalm 32… New Testament scholar Reta Halteman Finger writes… this psalm is attributed to King David… and most likely refers to his own sins of adultery and murder… but after David repented and experienced forgiveness… he was able to eloquently express both his misery… and the rush of relief… and wild joy that accompanied his confession and repentance… you’d think… she wrote… that people would try repenting more often…

Our reading from Romans presents… quite honestly… some deep… and difficult to understand… theology about Law and sin… and so I’ll just say… that if it’s unclear to us just how Eve and Adam’s trespass affects us all… then it may be equally unclear how Jesus’ act of righteousness is passed on to us as well…

But what is clear… is that our forty days of Lent have just begun… and Jesus’ Lenten journey has just ended… he had just been baptized… and was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness… and we have just been baptized with ashes… with stardust… and even in the city… we are surrounded by some wilder-ness… our forty days have just begun… but Jesus has already been in the desert for forty days…  and as the text says… forty nights… let’s remember that nighttime is safer for us than it was in Jesus’ time… the dark nights then were really dark… there were real dangers… the text may even imply a sense of chaos… that which cannot be controlled… we are just beginning to think about the ways in which we miss God’s mark for us… Jesus… although weakened by hunger… and thirst… and the desert’s daytime heat… and its nighttime cold… has three opportunities to affirm all the ways that he still hits God’s mark with bulls-eyes…

All three of the synoptic Gospels… Matthew… Mark… and Luke… refer to this Temptation story… but Mark… which is the earliest Gospel… the one written first… conveys the story in just two verses… with no specific temptations… Matthew… which scholars believe was written next… and which was written more for a Jewish audience… uses eleven verses to list them as… (1) stones to bread… (2) the pinnacle of the Temple… and (3) the high mountain… and Luke’s Gospel… which was written last… takes thirteen verses… but changes the sequence to… (1) stones to bread… then (2) high mountain… and lastly (3) the pinnacle of the Temple…

Theologian Douglas John Hall writes… the request to turn stones into bread… can be seen as an attempt to displace the most essential Hebraic commitment to creation… with a redemption theology that tries to avoid the Cross and go right to the Kingdom… it’s a temptation to seek miracle by abandoning the world we have in favor of another one… but as the Son of God… Jesus will not suspend the laws of planting and harvesting… and baking… he knows he’s loved by God even when he’s hungry… and he will be hungry…

Then he’s asked to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple… to put God to the test… but as the Son of God… he will not suspend the laws of gravity now… he will not put himself in danger and presume on divine love to protect him… though we know that later on in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does just that… when he walks on water… but Satan’s request is the temptation for spectacle… for the cult of celebrity… it’s an attempt to resist the hurt that comes with feeling invisible or superfluous… and make a name for oneself… as they tried to do at Babel… but Jesus knows he’s loved by God even when he’s hurting… and he will be hurt…

Then he’s asked to fall down and worship the Satan… and while the text says that Jesus was shown all the kingdoms of the world… I wonder if at a deeper level… what he was really shown… what he really understood… was how all the kingdoms of the world operate… which is by division and accusation… but as the Son of God… he will not suspend the deep unity he experiences with his Abba… so that he can rule… the way evil rules… Jesus will reject the ways of the world and remain politically powerless… and it will work against him…

Over and over again… Jesus is weak… and hurt… and mocked… and rejected… and powerless… and he engages people and circumstances… not with the world’s answers… not with the world’s authority… but with God’s… he gathers with the disciples to teach them… through stories and parable… how to be humble…

In our time… sometimes… when people gather socially… they like to tell stories… and some of the stories are about common experiences… like parenting… or having travelled to the same foreign city… or having watched all six seasons of Game of Thrones and really disliking the end… stories that help them feel affirmed and connected… but sometimes… and this is true for only some people… they tell stories to earn more social capital… to puff themselves up… to increase their standing… to do each other… one better…

But how would it be… if culturally… we tried to outdo each other in how we miss God’s mark for us… that’s what sin is… missing God’s mark for us… both individually and corporately… but how would it be… if the acceptance of imperfection… was commonplace and mundane… we’d still need to find the best people for the job… we’d still need to be held accountable… there might still need to be some consequences for some of the things we did or didn’t do… but that kind of perspective would be a game-changer…

And while… it seems to me… that too many American Christians are focused on things like smoking… drinking… gambling… swearing… and shhhh… sex… it seems to me that God is more focused on us putting ourselves first less often… and last more often… and I don’t mean in the coffee hour line… I mean in the ways that matter more to God… things like feeding the hungry… clothing the naked… healing the sick… and expressing Gospel values through our legal and judicial systems… that is… after all… what the prophets spoke about…

So what if… when someone asked… and how are you today… I said something like… oh… I was so disappointed that my sport’s team lost … that I got really impatient with Joel and yelled… or… how are you today… oh… I’m feeling really guilty about not putting my shopping cart in the cart corral in the parking lot… because the wind caught it as if it were a sailboat… and it dented a nearby car… but I just kept on driving… or… how are you today… oh… I’m feeling some regret… because I voted for someone who promised they’d support the stewardship of creation… and all they’re really supporting is them-self…

Truly resisting temptation is hard work… repenting of sin may be harder work… but… as Amy Ziettlow… pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois…writes… our willingness to change is infinitely more important to God than is our skill… when we’re willing… God can equip us for whatever God calls us to do… our sacrifice is our willingness to follow… and then we can expect to grow in our abilities to be faithful…  the same faithful Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness… leads us today… just as Jesus was tested… so we are tested… Jesus was asked to give up… his implicit trust in God… and he would absolutely not compromise… in our humanity… we will continue to compromise on some things… but maybe during Lent… we can at least acknowledge that we do it… then our good deeds may grow from pebbles… if not into mountains… then maybe at least into hills… and that would be a good beginning…

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family, and who believes that diversity was never intended to be divisive. He serves as the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan and the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan, and on the ELCA's North/West Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, "Open Hearts, Open Church."