March 5, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:-1-11
Imagine turning off all your devices and shutting down all your screens. Imagine sitting in a room in silence.
Except it wouldn’t be silent. Soon you’d hear a joist crack and the house shift. Or the furnace come on. The cat snore.
Maybe a warbler would fly past the window. Maybe your eye would rest on a picture on a shelf, a picture of someone you love or of a place you love, and those feelings would come back. Those memories would surface.
Robert Barron says that when we read this creation story in Genesis we’re so focused on the tree we’re not supposed to eat that we ignore all the trees we can, and I think he’s right. The word that stands out to be in the Genesis story today is “various”—the various trees in the garden, and how “delightful” they are, and “good.”
This is why we fast and this is why we try to resist temptations, not just to deny ourselves but to fulfill ourselves in the end–to make ourselves available to all the true abundance around us, hidden or unnoticed or forgotten.
“For if,” Paul says, “by the transgression of the one, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace . . . come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.”
The abundance of grace.
Jesus fasts for forty days in a desert, and a desert is a difficult place, and a harsh place, but it’s also beautiful and full of life and layers and depths of structure and meaning, if we know how to look, and Jesus did. And he was hungry, Matthew says, after forty days, and who could blame him, and imagine how good that apple must have tasted when he bit into it, or that fig, or that piece of bread.
On Mardi Gras night Barb and I had pizza, and I ate and ate, until my tongue got thick and my stomach congealed, and it didn’t taste good really after the first slice, didn’t satisfy any real hunger.
But when I have been more restrained and I have watched what I’ve eaten, and I finally bite into that apple, I am aware all at once of how wonderful apples are, and how pure and sweet, what a miracle food is, and I think that’s one of the reasons we fast, not to punish ourselves but to prepare for the deeper satisfactions of eating what is healthy and right.
It’s not the only reason, of course.
We fast because when we’re even a little bit hungry we’re in a better position to identify with all the hungry people of the world—the hundreds of thousands in South Sudan and neighboring countries, for example, who are suffering now through what the United Nations has just officially declared to be a famine, a terrible, terrible famine.
And because we’ve spent less on food, we have money to give them. From our excess we can distribute what is needed elsewhere.
Food isn’t a little thing and it’s not just a metaphor. It’s part of whole systems of production and distribution, some of which are just and some of which are not, so that whether we like it or not eating is a political act. It has consequences.
I also think that fasting from chocolate or coffee or something like that is valuable exactly because it’s so simple and conventional. It humbles us, especially those of us who like to think in terms of big ideas and symbols. No, this is down-to-earth, and it’s real, and by the way it’s not in the least bit easy. It’s difficult. It does involve suffering to some degree, and that suffering is necessary and that suffering is good.
But what strikes me the most today about the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the temptations of Christ, is that these temptations come from the outside, are external, and that they come into a naturalness and goodness that already exists.
Adam and Eve are in a garden, a perfect garden, and in a sense we are, too: we are fundamentally good, deep down. We are valuable and worthy of love just for who we are.
It’s like when we go on a vacation or a retreat, and we get away from all the pressures and the judgments and the evaluations, and if we have enough time we start to relax, we start to come back to ourselves.
But then we have to go back to work and go back to the competition, and the emails start to fly again and the gossip starts to circulate again and we start to let those outer voices get to us, disrupt us, build up in us, until finally that summer peace or that weekend peace or that peace that can come on retreat is compromised or stolen or made to seem foolish.
You’re no good, Satan says. Other people are better. You have to change, become more powerful, not let anyone else beat you. And these messages aren’t obvious, they’re subliminal, they’re snaky, they come through some image we glimpse on the internet, some little criticism on the edge of a remark.
The sin in the garden wasn’t that the Adam and Eve were naked but that they were ashamed to be. That they covered themselves up. That they lost faith in who they really were.
And what I love about Jesus in this story of his temptation is that he doesn’t listen to those voices, doesn’t let Satan convince him that he has to be more interesting or powerful or widely known. The desert is enough for him. Ordinary life is enough for him. What Jesus knows is that life is the miracle, and that joy comes not from excess but from breathing, from walking, from tending a garden or installing a floor or writing code, and from loving other people, embracing them, laughing with them, that the sweetest and most miraculous meal of all is the meal we eat in the company of others, and that all those other subtle temptations, all those other come-ons, are just an effort to get us to forget that, to walk away from that, to sinfully desire more than we have when what we have, what we have been given and are always being given, is wealth enough and grace enough and grace abounding—is abundance beyond all telling, always here, always present, in the quiet rooms of our houses, in the quiet moments of our lives, in our deserts, in our gardens, in our hearts.