Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday In Lent: That Something Missing

Reading for the first Sunday in Lent:  Genesis2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalms 32; Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

So, this is the way the conversation probably should have gone :
Serpent:  Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the Garden?
Eve:  Well, not exactly.  God said we could eat from every tree, but not from the tree in the center of the Garden.  Eating from that tree will make us die.
Serpent:  Oh come on now – you won’t die.  God just doesn’t want you to eat from that tree.  God knows that the fruit of that tree will give you as much wisdom and knowledge as God has.  God just doesn’t want you to have all that.
Eve:  Why am I even talking to about this with you?  You’re just a serpent.  If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just check this over with God during our walk this evening.
Serpent:  Come on. God’s just keeping you down.  God is holding out on you.  This fruit is really tasty – the best in the garden.  Besides, you know you want wisdom.  You know you’re curious. Go ahead, and eat!
Adam:  Get lost.   Why don’t you go pester the hippo?  I’m sure he’d be delighted to listen to your blather.

  Or something like that, anyway.  But it didn’t.  And the question is why not ?
Because from the very beginning, we knew that there was something missing .  We knew that we alone were not enough.  Oh it wasn’t too bad at first.  God was there with us.  Somehow, when we were with God, we didn’t notice that nagging feeling that something was missing.  Actually, we didn’t have that feeling at all.  We were complete.  With God.
But out tending the garden that day – for God had given us the responsibility to care for that wonderful garden – when God wasn’t there right beside us, walking with us, we noticed that nagging feeling.  Something was missing.  Perhaps we were hungry.  The sun was high in the sky.  Yes, it must be hunger.
So we looked around at all the tasty fruit trees – which one would we snack on today.  Such a variety, such choices and each one so very delicious!  And up walks the serpent.
“Why not choose that tree today?  That one God said to avoid?” 
Why did we listen?  Because there, feeling that nagging feeling, the serpent sounded wise.  Maybe God WAS holding us back.  Maybe there was something better than God had already given us?  Maybe God wanted to keep us less, didn’t want us to be equal. 
It never occurred to us that the created could never be equal to the creator.  It never occurred to us to be grateful for all God had given us already.  It never occurred to us to trust God - that perhaps God knew we weren’t yet ready for the kind of knowledge that tree could give.  It never occurred to us that the nagging feeling inside was something only God could fill.
We decided that we could fill that something missing with the wisdom the tree could give.  So we ate.  The fruit may have filled our stomachs, but the wisdom it gave couldn’t fill the hole in our hearts. Something was still missing .
And we hid because we knew that we had betrayed the trust of the only One who could fill that hole.
God came and called us and cared for us.  True, there were consequences for our lack of trust.  True, the world changed. But God went with us from the garden into this changed world.  And anytime we were focused on God, we didn’t have that nagging feeling.   
You think that would have been enough for us. 
But it wasn’t.  There was just something in us – that thing that made us listen to the serpent and think that there was a way that we could fill that nagging feeling on our own – something in us made us look to all sorts of things to make that nagging feeling go away.  Something in us made us think that we could other ways, better ways, to fill that God-shaped hole in us.
Many years later, one of us stood in what used to be a garden before the world was changed.  In what was now wilderness, there was another conversation.  And that conversation went the way it should have. 
For the one of us who stood in the wilderness face to face with the Tempter, was also God-come-to-us.  He had that nagging feeling that there was a God-shaped hole, because he was one of us.  But he also knew that the only way to fill that hole was with God.
Still, he was tired and weak and hungry after 40 days of walking with God in the wilderness. And that’s when the Tempter said:
Call for bread.  Go ahead, you’re the Son of God.  The voice from heaven said so 40 days ago at the river.  So why should you be hungry?  Go ahead – turn these stones into bread and prove you are really God’s son.
Jesus responded:  Yes I am hungry, but bread is not all there is to life.  Only God’s word can give me what I need.
So the tempter changed tactics.  Taking Jesus to the top of the temple, he said:
Go ahead.  You are the Son of God.  Prove it!  Jump off this temple.  If you are really the Son of God no harm will come to you.
Jesus responded:  I don’t have to prove anything.  I don’t need to test God’s word in this way.  I know who I am and whose I am. 
The tempter tried one more time.  Taking Jesus to the tallest mountain, he said:
Why do things the hard way?  If you just bow down and acknowledge me as ruler, I will give you everything you see – the whole world is yours.  Do you know what is in store for you – how hard life is and what will be required of you?  This way is much better.  You can have it all now – everything you need, everything you want and more.
Jesus responded: I have everything I need in God and God alone.   Get lost.   Why don’t you go pester the hippo?  I’m sure he’d be delighted to listen to your blather.
Jesus knew that the created could never be equal to the creator.  Jesus was grateful for all God had given us already.  Jesus trusted God – even though the way was hard and maybe a bit unclear right then.  Jesus knew that the nagging feeling inside could only be filled by God.
Jesus collapsed to the ground in the wilderness.  And God came, sent angels and cared for him.  After he regained some strength, he came back to us and taught us. 
He told us about that nagging feeling that something was missing, that we were incomplete.  He showed us the many ways we tried to fill that something missing with all sorts of things.  And he called us back to the God who loves us, who created us to be in relationship, who is the only One who can give us what we are missing.
Later on, at the end of his time of teaching us, Jesus was in another garden.  A garden where he again sought God, where he prayed about the upcoming trip to the cross and death.   And because he was one of us, that nagging something screamed with doubt and fears and temptations to take the easy way out.  But God was there in the garden and the nagging something disappeared.
After the cross and pain and suffering and death, there was yet another garden .  This one had an empty tomb and abandoned burial cloths.  Jesus stood in the garden, back from defeating sin and death and the devil.  And he told us that because of him, we too could share in that victory.
Jesus gives us a way to fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts.  Because he tells us to, we stand at the river of the waters of baptism.  We, too, hear God call us ‘beloved child.’  We discover whose we are and that the something missing in our lives serves to call us to the only One who can give us rest and peace.

But there are other gardens , and other wilderness journeys, and families, and work and neighbors and all the places that make up life.  And although Jesus has filled the God shaped hole in our hearts, we discover that at times we still feel that nagging something.  We find ourselves trying to full that hole with something other than God.
We hear the voice of the serpent.  We hear the Tempter.  And instead of saying, “Get lost.   Why don’t you go pester the hippo?  I’m sure he’d be delighted to listen to your blather,” we actually listen.  And consider it good advice.  And do it.
We try to explain it – this puzzling tendency to turn to something besides God to satisfy our soul.  One of us started calling it, ‘the God’ shaped hole.”[i]  Another of the wise among us pointed out our restlessness without God.[ii]  Yet another wisely writes about how God gave us wonderful gifts, but also left room for our desire for God to pull us away from the bright shiny objects we would put in God’s place.[iii]  One of us said that it’s as if we are saints, fully in tune with God, but yet sinners, constantly pulling away from God at the same time.[iv]
It’s just the way we are, the way we have always been, from the very beginning.  The longing for God is part of being human.  And the desire to meet that longing with anything but God is part of us too. 
Sometimes the conversation goes the way it should and we tell the tempter to get lost and go pester the hippo.   And then we go talk to God about it during our walks together.

 Sometimes we listen to the tempter and grasp at something bright and shiny to try to fill that longing ourselves.

When that happens, we don’t hide from God anymore. 

We don’t hide –
because the one who is one of us and also God-come-down-to-us has freely given us abundant grace. 

We don’t hide –
we go and tell God what we have done

We don’t hide -
Because God calls us by name and forgives us and tenderly cares for us.

The something missing is found,
The gaping hole is filled.

We cease to listen - so the tempter goes off to pester the hippo.

[i] What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone."
    Blaise Pascal, Pensee 10.148.

[ii] "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."     St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1

[iii] When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by
"Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.“
So strength first made a way,
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of nature:
So both should losers be.
"Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
 George Herbert, 1633

[iv] “There are other sinners who confess that they sin and have sinned, but they are sorry for this, hate themselves for it, long to be justified, and under groaning constantly pray to God for righteousness. This is the people of God."   "Simul justus et peccator“ = simultaneously saint and sinner             (Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian)