Preached on Sunday, 05.03.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Today, the first Sunday of Lent, we begin our journey toward Golgotha and Gethsemane, toward defeat and despair, betrayal and denial, suffering and abandonment, wholeness and hope. Today we begin to consider again what a story from a different time and a different place and a different world can mean for people today who, it turns out, are not really that different after all. Today we here begin to look at our theme for most of this season, the theme of ‘breaking the barriers’. It’s a theme that will look at personal barriers, and societal barriers, and traditional barriers; at barriers of sickness and death; at barriers created that we find it hard, even impossible, to bring down or to live without.
Today, though, we begin with the overarching theme of the biblical narrative, that of the barriers created by sin and separation. If we had read the Old Testament reading set down for today, we would have found this:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘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.’
Today we are reminded again of the narrative of sin and salvation, the narrative that points to the ways in which, to the archetypal way in which, humanity manages to divert itself from the paths of continuity and contact with the divine, to divest itself of the clothes of justice and righteousness, and thereby to create barriers between themselves, and barriers with God. Because, as we know, the story of the Garden of Eden attempts to capture that primeval tendency we have: to go where we are told not to go, to do what we are told not to do. And, the biblical witness would tell us, this story encompasses all stories; this tale tells all tales; the man and the woman of this garden stand for all men and all women of any garden, any village, town, city.
And so Paul refers back to Eden, to the sin of Adam, the sin of disobedience, the sin of self-centredness, the sin of pride; and, Paul tells us, that sin is not just Adam’s sin, it is our sin. That man stand for all people, is all people – and in his sin we are all convicted. And then Paul goes on to his designation of Jesus as the second Adam, the second representative human being, the one to overcome the barriers. And if, says Paul, we are all convicted of Adam’s sin, all sentenced by its consequences, then equally we are all reprieved, all renewed, all liberated by Jesus.
So what does the wilderness have to do with it? Can the wilderness answer the sin of the garden, when every logical thought would suggest that the opposite would have to be the case? The Hebrew Scriptures continually dream of the day when the desert will spring to life, will suddenly be clothed in the green grandeur of growth; hope springs with the shoots of life from the seemingly dry, dead wastes of the wilderness.
And yet Jesus is led by the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the God of life, into the wilderness, to look for hope in the bareness, life in the aridity, rejoicing in a barren place of phantom oases, and wild beasts. Jesus is led into the nothingness, into the void, to re-imagine the world and his place in it, his mission to it, his message for it. It’s a process that is conveyed to us by way of a tale of temptation – it’s a process of working through the wrong choices to arrive at the right ones. Every temptation in the tale is offered as a possible re-imagining of the world, and every temptation is rejected.
And every temptation is rejected because it would build the barriers, deepen the ditches, widen the chasms of separation. Bread for the spiritual, safety for the special, power for the privileged, are all revealed as being of the devil. Barriers are not overcome by turning the wilderness into a place of tempting forgetfulness. The wilderness, it turns out, is not a place of forgetting, but one of remembering – a place where the parts of the body in danger of being cast aside are re-membered, because the body cannot afford to forget parts of itself.
On the front cover of the latest edition of ‘Christian Aid Magazine’ is a picture of a makeshift cross thrust into bare earth, with the caption: ‘this is what poverty looks like if the world turns its back’. Inside it speaks of the places where refusing to turn our backs has made a difference: Bolivia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, even India. It speaks of the hostility coming from sections of the British media to the idea of solidarity with the poorest, of the demonization of desperate. It speaks of the need to stand in solidarity with refugees subject to the same kind of vilification, here or elsewhere – with lies repeated by the most powerful about the most vulnerable, lies that remain lies whether yelled with venom at a rally, or spoken with seriousness in a senate.
And it speaks of conflicts and catastrophes about which we know little, the under-reported desperation and suffering war-torn South Sudan, or drought-ravaged Kenya, or Nigeria’s violence and terrorist threatened north-east, or Afghanistan with its 600,000 refugees returned to danger by its neighbour, Pakistan. And we can speak of how life in a garden tempts us to grab it all for ourselves, tempts us to turn our backs, tempts us to forget.
Christian Aid asks us to walk through Lent with our neighbours, to remember the people of Bolivia, Malawi, Haiti, Ethiopia, South Sudan; to remember those who walk through the wilderness of war, or waste, or want; to remember those deserted by hope and driven onto the roads; to remember the victims of domestic abuse, or domestic slavery, or domestic policy; to remember that the waste of weapons will never feed mind or body with anything good, anything of God.
We are always tempted by an easy or a convenient forgetfulness, tempted to turn our backs, tempted to grab the food, grab the security, grab the power, grab everything that our might can deliver into our hands. But the wilderness, it turns out, is not a place of forgetting, but one of remembering. The wilderness is the place where life can be re-imagined from the selfishness of the garden to the generosity and solidarity by which alone humanity can remain connected, by which alone the barriers can be broken, by which alone the life of God can be lived.
Maybe this Lent we can be led with Jesus into the wilderness to remember the world and the people with whom we share it, to remember the Spirit who leads us into unity, to remember the God who calls us from the tempting platitudes of selfishness to the re-imagination of the world – in solidarity.