Scripture Readings: Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32, Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-8
Our three-year-old son Lucas has recently begun to enjoy playing “hide-and-seek.” He does the “seeking” part well enough, counting slowly to ten or fifteen—counting being half the fun for him—then walks through the house shouting, “Where are you, Mommy?!” But Lucas doesn’t really get the whole concept of “hiding.” He tends to choose the same, rather obvious places, in plain sight of whoever is supposed to be “seeking” him. And he doesn’t like to stay hidden for long. Only half-covered by his Thomas the Train blanket, he throws it off to uncover himself as we approach, and he jumps up with joy, proclaiming, “Here I am!”
Though they are perhaps just as unsophisticated at hiding, Adam and Eve do not want to be found. They are hiding from God, having disobeyed and eaten of the “knowing” fruit. They are also hiding from each other. Distrust entered the garden, along with disobedience, and these two, who previously stood before God and one another, “naked and unashamed,” a relationship of trusting intimacy, have covered themselves with awkward fig leaf garments. Finally, it turns out that they are also hiding from themselves. Hiding from their sense of shame by diverting it to another, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent for the choice they both made to eat the forbidden fruit. How did it come to this?
God had given them so many gracious gifts! After tenderly breathing life into the dust-made man, God placed him in a garden with every tree “pleasant to the sight and good for food,” and gave him an important vocation: tilling and keeping the garden. And if that was not enough, God made companions for the man, first the animals, and then the woman, the one of whom the man said with joy, “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” Finally, God gave them freedom—within limits. “Eat freely of every tree,” God told the man, “except one.”
Oh, but that’s where the trouble starts, isn’t it? One limitation set by God to preserve and sustain a creation where harmony between God, humanity, and all creatures is the way of things. But the serpent takes that one, little limitation and subtly sows distrust of God’s intentions. “You will not die,” he tells them, making us all wonder. Suddenly there is suspicion of God and God’s intentions. Did God lie about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as the serpent suggests? And why does the serpent seem to know the insatiable curiosity of human nature better than God? Or has God somehow set Adam and Eve up to fail this temptation?
It begs the question about the Creator which continually nags us in these days after Eden. If God created all things “good,” than how and why did distrust, disobedience, and the sin and evil which ripple out from them, come to exist in our world? It is a mystery which has not been fully answered, and the text we are given does not satisfy in this way. The story of Eden, like much of scripture, simply testifies to the predicament human beings find ourselves in.
The bad news is that we also find ourselves “set up.” On the one hand, we have been gifted with life and placed in a marvelous creation, from which we derive what we need for sustenance. We have been given the purpose of stewarding the creation for the good of all. But we have also been given limits which are to be respected. These limits are not arbitrary, but are established to sustain relationships of harmony with God, each other, and all creation.
And so, temptation is ever-present in our individual and collective human experience. Temptation strikes whenever we hear that voice provoking us to exceed our own or others’ limits. And as we exceed them, we move into abusive behavior. Derrick Jensen notes, “The guiding principle of abusive behavior is that the abuser refuses to respect or abide by limits or boundaries put up by the victim.” Feeling entitled to take whatever we desire, we pervert good things to bad purposes.
Ultimately, God didn’t lie to Adam and Eve, and God doesn’t lie to us. Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden, and it did mean death—death to the abundant life of trust and intimacy God had intended. In our world, we see every day the pernicious ripple effect of transgressed limits. Families and communities are destroyed by addictions. Hunger, homelessness, and violence are the costs of the poverty we sanction, lauding the few who amass fortunes while many barely scrape by on leftovers. Our waters and air are polluted, and life-giving soils erode, as we continue to pursue an unlimited growth economy. Our young men and women die in far off lands as we engage in wars securing our access to the oil which fuels our way of life.
Or do we see?
The truth is, rather than be faced with the shame of our abusive choices, we often try to hide like Adam and Eve from the mess we have made with God and one another. Walling ourselves in our wealth, professional status, familial relationships, and even our religion, we seek places we can feel secure amidst the chaos. Ironically, the hiding places we choose turn out themselves to be temptations, as we again misappropriate things and people to deny responsibility and secure ourselves.
The Hiding Place is Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography about her life in World War II, German-occupied Holland. At first, it appears the book’s title refers to the safe house Corrie and her sister Betsie ran, or the secret room in which they hid Jews. But as their Dutch Resistance work is discovered, and the Ten Booms are captured, eventually ending up at the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp, the title comes to have a different meaning entirely. At their first imprisonment, Corrie remembers her father, faithfully keeping his evening prayers, reciting Bible verses from memory: ‘Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word… Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’” Later, after Betsie has died at Ravensbruck, Corrie is released, and she experiences their sufferings transformed by God into the mission of creating safe places for both persecuted and persecutors to recover from the war. Corrie remembers her sister’s soft words: “There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety…”; “His will is our hiding place.”
“You are a hiding place for me,” proclaims Psalm 32 “you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” This is a lesson well-learned, the psalmist tells us. While remaining silent and attempting to cover up feelings of guilt and shame, the weight of that burden was unbearable. But: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the guilt of my iniquity.” The Psalmist experiences great relief—and even happiness—in the experience of confession and forgiveness. As he releases guilt and shame to God, he is relieved of their burden, restored to a relationship of trust, and freed to share that good news with others.
We see it again in the story of Jesus, carried from his baptism to the desert by the Spirit for forty days and nights of fasting. Just like Adam and Eve, just like us, Jesus seems to have been “set up” in his encounter with temptation. Physically weak and hungry, all the usual hiding places are stripped away. There is no running for cover in the desert.
So of course, the devil comes. He invites Jesus to an attitude of entitlement. Surely the One whom God named “Beloved Son” is entitled to exceed the limitations of human life, first by magically turning stones into bread, then by spectacularly avoiding suffering and death, and finally by claiming the power to control all the kingdoms of the world.
But Jesus denies the devil all three times. How? Accepting God’s limits as good and gracious, Jesus holds fast to the refuge of God’s word, clings to the center of God’s will, and hides himself fully in God’s trustworthy love. “Away with you, Satan!” he rebukes, and suddenly angels wait upon him.
So what about us? Our temptations may not seem quite as dramatic or as blatant as Jesus.’ But they are just as powerful and destructive. They come upon us, not just once in our lives, but relentlessly in subtle, everyday moments, spoken by mundane faces without names.
Yet, we are not unprepared to hear and rebuke those voices. I’m not claiming it’s easy. It is a lifelong struggle to overcome sin, and there is there is no magic formula. And it is a lifelong labor to recognize and accept the limits upon our lives as the blessings they truly are. But we do have Jesus to show us the way. We, too, can learn to recognize and reject the voices which seek to sow doubt in our relationships with God and one another. We, too, can put our trust in the gift of God’s word, learning the scripture by heart and holding fast to God’s purpose. And if Jesus’ example is not enough, we can take refuge in the whole truth of his life, death, and resurrection. No matter how far gone we feel we are, Jesus goes with us all the way to redeem us.
We have entered the season of Lent, the church season in which we deliberately face up to the limits of our lives. We began by marking ourselves with ashes and reflecting upon one of the most painful limits we experience, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Such a practice is in direct contradiction of the endless voices which suggest, as one author notes, that if you only “take fish oil…exercise in strenuous short outbursts, buy hot shoes, do something outrageous–eat dog cockroaches if you have to on TV,” you can avoid insignificance, possibly aging, maybe even death.” There is a strange refreshment in accepting our limitations.
Further, we also have the opportunity in these forty days to deliberately face up to the ways we have tried to escape or exceed our limits and thus transgressed against God and each other. Openly and humbly confessing all the ways we have strayed from God’s purpose, we can let go of the things we use and abuse to hide our shortcomings and destructive behaviors. We can return to a way of life characterized by intimacy and trust.
My friends, there is nowhere to hide from the dangers of this world. There is nowhere to hide from the guilt and shame we experience when we have succumbed to temptations. The only true hiding place, the only place we are preserved from trouble, the only place we are surrounded with the joy of deliverance, is in plain sight. Let us throw off everything between us and the God who steadfastly loves us and promises to forgive us, each and every time we return to his arms, saying, with the humble joy of God’s children, “Here I am!”
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.