On this first Sunday of Lent, we continue with our theme of “A Time to Grow”, a Lenten series that likens our spiritual growth to the process of growing a garden. This is a theme that I couldn’t resist adapting to our worship, as I have become an avid gardener in this second part of my life.
As I mentioned in the Ash Wednesday message, I came late to the joys of plunging my hands into the rich soil of the garden. Upon moving to the Midwest and having an actual house and yard, I delved into gardening: first into flowers – roses and iris, before discovering the wonderful world of fresh vegetables, particularly home-grown tomatoes. There is nothing available commercially that even comes close to the deliciousness of a garden grown tomato, as my father-in-law taught me.
As I began my foray into the world flowers and vegetables, I quickly learned of the need to have some semblance of order in my garden beds. There are certain areas in my yard shaded by my neighbor’s trees, and where light is minimal at best, so I have to be careful to plant shade tolerant plants in those shadows. Tomatoes need to be spaced for growth in a sunny plot – or pot- and labeled carefully for the harvesting of seeds at the end of the season. There is even a science of companion gardening; determining which plants enrich each other when grown close by and which diminish the abundance of growth for its neighbor. The order of all things is vital to the health and life of the garden. Without order, one finds a sense of randomness or chaos.
“In the beginning”, God brought order out of chaos. As God created the world, every day’s creation built on the previous act. Light parted from the darkness, followed by land and sky, with waters above and below on the land. Then God caused vegetation to grow on the earth and ordained the seasons, so the plant life could flourish and be renewed. Only then, did God call forth living creatures, from the sea, air, and land to be sustained by the foliage and produce that had been created. And as the crown of creation, God created humanity in God’s very image, giving them dominion over the created order in which they would find their physical sustenance and God’s very presence for their spiritual nourishment. God’s creation was that of a deliberate and well-ordered action.
As the author of our study comments, “Time and time again in scripture, we hear God’s call to order the life of humankind: God calls us to choose the way that leads to life – in other words, to choose the way that leads to the giver of all life, who is God. Conversely, in scriptural terms, sin equals death or the loss of life. Sin is anything that turns us away from God, and anything that turns us away for the divine is the opposite of life-giving, it is death-giving and death-dealing”. In other words, the fulness of life God intends for us depends on our turning toward the giver of life, God indeed.
We are reminded that God created within this world a delicate balance of all living things. In Disney’s The Lion King, the young cub Simba has a conversation with his father Mufasa. Mufasa is training his son to become the next king, and tells him, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As King, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” Simba interrupts his father and asks, “But don’t we eat the antelope?” Mufasa gently tells his son, ‘Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life.” Creation is intended to fit together, creating this circle between dust and life, a cycle that repeats again and again.”
But then, as we read in our first lesson this morning, man and woman opted to break God’s ordered cycle, by choosing to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, despite God’s warning that they would die when they did so. They disrupted God’s order in the world. And while they did not die the day they ate of it, they began the slow journey toward death with that act, moving from an abundant life to ultimate death and decay. From out of God’s order, chaos returned.
It is by no coincidence that our story of the sin and fall of Adam and Eve (literally, those names mean “dirt” and “life”) is paired with the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in order to highlight Jesus’ role as the new Adam and the new Eve, in that Jesus demonstrates what they could have been. Genesis tells the story of humanity’s fall away from the divine bringer of life, but Jesus’ resistance to temptation demonstrates how life can be found in the reliance of God. Jesus is the antithesis of the fall and shows by example how we might all avoid temptation to sin. In the face of sin and temptation, Jesus brings back order from chaos in the kingdom of God which he proclaimed
Now, the author takes time here to give us a definition of sin, one with which you may or may not agree. In its simplest form, sin is anything that draws us away from God. In the context of order, sin is anything that disrupts our inclination to stay in relationship with God and God’s creation. The issue with this definition is that is a nuanced and perhaps more individualized definition of sin, and requires more reflection, thought, and work rather than a black-and-white list of “thou shalts and” thou shalt nots”.
She further states that we live outside of God’s creation at our own peril. Moral guidelines – those things that keep us from sin – do not exist because God is punishing. They exist because God is loving and wants to be in a right relationship with us and with others and wants to show us the way. The order in creation is for living things to thrive. When we attempt to align ourselves with God and God’s created order, we take a step toward a closer communion with God and our neighbors. This same concept applies with our rules in our homes and organizations. Rules are not created to be punitive, but to give a sense of order and expectations for living in harmony with others.
So, in light of the fall of humanity and restoration in Christ, how do we work toward order in our lives? If faced with the temptations that the devil placed before Christ, we would surely fail – well, at least I would. Thus, maybe we need to realize that while our intentions are good, we are not a completed work, and that God is not finished with us yet.
I was once told a story about a little, 5-year-old boy who was misbehaving one Sunday morning in church. The boy's mother couldn't get the youngster to stop talking and fidgeting, so she turned to her son, bent down, and whispered in his ear, "Why are you acting like this, honey?" She paused for a moment, placed her hand on his tiny shoulder, and in a gentle voice, quietly questioned, "Don't you know who created you?"
The boy glanced at his mother and smiled, with his eyes filled with hope. Then, he explained, "God made me, mom, but ... He is not through with me yet!"
Meanwhile, we are called to do the work of Christ in the world, working toward bringing God’s order back into a world that still toils in brokenness and chaos. In the words of hope spoken by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it”. You are God’s wonderful work in progress. Go and seek to be God’s reconciling agent in this world. Amen.