Read an Excerpt
Lent 2014 God's Gift of Life
A Lenten Study Based on the Revised Common Lectionary
By Larry F. Beman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Scriptures for Lent: The First Sunday
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
If you prefer to dip your toe in the water before getting into the pool, it's time to take a deep breath. The Scriptures that open this Lenten season will plunge you directly into highly charged and, perhaps, deeply personal matters of life and faith. They will introduce you once again to temptation and consequences, the human condition, and a faith-filled way out.
It all begins with Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a snake, and the first couple. The Genesis story is, in some ways, so familiar that its meaning can easily be overlooked. Yet there is power in this story as you consider what it means for each of us to try, in the words of Scripture, to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5). The Scripture brings with it the pathos of guilt and vulnerability, the agony of consequences, and in the end a moment of redemption.
Paul's letter to Christians in Rome pulls together his lifetime study of the Torah (also the first five books of the Christian Bible) and his understanding of what Jesus' life was all about. Beginning with his understanding of the ways sin entered the world, he presents Jesus as an instrument of grace multiplied. This grace, for him, was both life-as-he-knew-it shattering and life-as-he-discovered-it freeing.
The Gospel tells of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness. After a very long time of fasting and prayer, he faced three temptations that forced him to choose between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world. Each one held enormous possibility as he began his public life. Each one holds enormous possibility for us as well. Yet Jesus saw the demonic in each of them, claimed his future as Son of God, and prepared to introduce the kingdom of heaven to a suffering world.
LEAVING EDEN GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7
In 1983 Charles McCullough wrote a book called Heads of Heaven, Feet of Clay. I do not remember much about the book, but I do remember the title. It speaks plainly to me about our humanity: created to reach for the stars and yet stumbling through often self-inflicted mire.
The Book of Genesis says it in another way, and it is our story as well. We are the characters in the plot. We are Adam. We are Eve. And we can see ourselves in the story of the garden, as the saga of Genesis 2 and 3 begins. Everything was just perfect. As the story goes, all earth's creatures could communicate with one another. The two humans lived in a state of—well—perfection. They could enjoy their days, eat when they wanted to eat, sleep when they wanted to sleep, play when they wanted to play. They were naked, but no one noticed. No one cared.
Their diet was apparently vegetarian. They were allowed to eat all the fruit they wanted, with one exception. They could not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why not? Because, as God put it to the couple, you will die if you eat that fruit.
The four-legged snake was a pretty sly character. In fact, Genesis 3:1 says it was "the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made." In Hebrew, the phrase "most intelligent" is a play on the sound of the word naked. The humans were naked and susceptible; the snake was crafty and "intelligent." Curiously, the woman did not fear the snake. Perhaps, in Eden, there was nothing to fear.
The snake initiated the conversation:
Snake: "Did God really tell you not to eat fruit from these trees?"
Woman: "That's not true. We can eat lots of fruit. We just can't touch anything from the tree in the center of the garden. If we do that, we'll die."
Snake: "Not so! This is what will really happen: You will have a whole new vision of what the world is all about. In fact, you will be like God!"
The woman was hooked. After all, who wouldn't want to be like God? How much effort do we all expend trying to control the world around us? How often do we unconsciously set ourselves up as our own god, forgetting the One who is Creator of the universe? Perhaps her sin (and ours) was not so much in eating the fruit, but in the effort to be god-like.
You know what happened next. The woman ate the fruit, loved it, and gave some to Adam. Then the plot really thickened. They discovered they were naked, and vulnerable. Their first order of business was to try to clothe themselves. They did not manage well, because they chose fig leaves, and fig leaves are scratchy. Their fumbling efforts left them with an attire that must have felt like they were wearing scouring pads.
The story continues in the remaining verses of Genesis 3, and I invite you look at it and think about it. They were found out. God called out: "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9). Well, they were hiding. What else would you do if you were scratching as if you had poison ivy and didn't want to be seen? They also did not want God to find out where they went wrong. Of course, that plan lasted for a very short time. God quickly figured out that the humans had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God asked, "What have you done?" The blame-shifting that happened next would have made good stand-up comedy.
The man said, "The woman YOU gave me, SHE fed me" (3:12).
The woman said, "Not my fault. The snake tricked me" (3:13).
The snake kept quiet for a change.
What is there about human behavior that is so reluctant to accept responsibility? Therapists and priests both know that confession really is good for the soul. It is often terribly difficult to admit wrongdoing, yet it is the path to healing and restoration. "I'm sorry" can be one of the most powerful sentences in the English language.
Consequences, after all, are consequences. God told both the humans and the snake it was time to leave the garden. The snake would from that time on crawl upon the ground and be hated by humans. The man would till the soil, and he would forever have to work for food. The woman would have pain in childbirth.
So they left Eden forever. But there is a fascinating little footnote in this story. It is almost—but not really—an afterthought. God's judgment is, after all, tempered with mercy. As they left the garden, God offered a gift of love: God made the man and woman a new set of clothes to replace the fig leaves. The label on their new clothes read: Made of Leather (3:21).
What has it meant in your life to try to be like God? What have been the results? When have you tried to avoid responsibility by shifting blame? Where in your life have you experienced consequences tempered by mercy?
GRACE MULTIPLIED ROMANS 5:12-19
Seminary is a great time for would-be pastors to have all kinds of theological conversations. If you are in your twenties, as I was at the time, you can make grand pronouncements without knowing any better. So it was that I was sitting with my friend Eddie in the living room of his dormitory apartment when we delved into the murky waters of original sin. He was on the "yes there is" side of the argument, and I was on the "no there isn't" side. He argued for the reality of sin originating with Adam; I argued that we didn't need much help and that we grew into our sinfulness.
Our children were very young at the time; my daughter was an infant. I argued there was no way this beautiful child could possibly be tainted by Adam's transgressions a zillion years ago. Eddie's children were a little older and one of his sons was in the midst of being an independent two-year-old. Eddie pointed to his son, who was shouting "no" at the top of his lungs. He argued that such behavior was in his son from the beginning. (If I were Eddie, I might have taken a little less theological approach and said, "He didn't get it from me!") Neither one of us scored any points, but I remember the conversation.
The truth is that we both missed the point. If we had paid attention to Paul's letter to Rome, we would have discovered that the origins of sin take a back seat to something far more powerful: grace multiplied.
I confess that my eyes glaze over whenever someone stands at the lectern on any given Sunday and reads from one of Paul's letters. In fact, that is pretty much what happened when I read this segment of Romans 5 for the first time. What message can I take from this writing, I wondered. I decided to do what I do every week in preparation for attending the Sunday worship services. I read the selected Scripture every day for a week and let it seep into my soul. In that way, the Sunday worship begins for me long before the appointed hour. Following my own advice, I read Romans 5:12-19 over and over. After about the third day, Paul's logic began to filter through for me. After the fifth day, his message began to stand out.
In order to make his point, Paul dug back into his roots and his understanding of Hebrew Scriptures. He started with Adam and told how sin and death came into the world through the first man's misbehavior. Then he said sin continued until the Law came into being at the time of Moses. The Law became a measuring stick against which people were judged and found wanting. In other places, Paul spent a lot of time talking about the shortcomings of the Law, but that wasn't his purpose here. Here he wanted to talk about the gift of grace multiplied. He wrote that God's free gift of amazing love came in the person of Jesus Christ. Through God's multiplying love, women and men can now move from consequences to righteousness and from judgment to acquittal.
Paul used courtroom images throughout this chapter, and it goes like this. Imagine you are standing before a judge, awaiting sentencing. You are guilty, you know you are guilty, and you can do nothing to change that fact. Even worse, the judge knows you are guilty. So there you stand. The judge pronounces the sentence and then does something totally unheard of. The judge comes down from the bench and accepts the punishment meant for you. You are made right, not by your own actions, but by the actions of another. "Now" said Paul, "the righteous requirements necessary for life are met by everyone through the righteous act of one person" (Romans 5:18). He went on to say, "Where sin increased, grace multiplied even more" (5:20). In other words, we are acquitted, not by being good enough, but by being loved enough.
A number of years ago, I served a wonderful church in a small mountain village. It was the kind of community where everyone knew everyone else, both for better and worse. Joy and pain were mutually shared. One summer, a teenaged young man whose family attended the church was arrested for a crime committed against his neighbor. His single mom was devastated, as most parents would be. She asked me to go to court with her son, and I agreed. There was no question in anyone's mind about his guilt. The only issue had to do with judgment and consequences. How would the neighbor he had wronged respond to him? What would the judge say and do?
The judge was a fair man who wanted to do what was right for everyone involved. The neighbors were rightfully upset and also concerned about the teen they had known for years. On the night of the sentencing, I met with the judge and the arresting officer. We talked about the crime committed and wondered together what best to do. Then the judge called the young man to the bench and talked with him in ways only a judge can do.
Unlike Paul's imagery, the judge did not let the young man go free. Consequences, as with Adam and Eve, are still consequences. In pronouncing the sentence, the judge let the young man know very clearly that people cared about him. The young man had to make restitution, seek professional counseling, and perform hours of community service under my supervision.
I cannot say miracles happened through that event, but I believe some God-things did indeed take place that mirrored in a small way what Paul said in Romans 5. The young man did everything asked of him, the case was eventually closed, and he did not get into trouble again. Grace multiplied! It happened through a judge who chose reconciliation over revenge. It happened through a mother who remained connected with her son even through her own anguish. It happened through neighbors who chose not to be vindictive. It happened through a church that continued to accept the young man (and welcomed the fresh paint on the Sunday school walls).
I don't "get" the impact of "grace multiplied" by reading, study, or conversation. Frankly, I need to be shown what "grace multiplied" is all about. I do begin to "get" it when I witness events such as the one I just described. I begin to get it when a parent welcomes home a wayward child, or when a community embraces someone in desperate need, or when a church welcomes a stranger with open arms. And I get it when it all comes my way, and I am the recipient of Christ-blessed love.
What does the phrase "grace multiplied" mean to you? Have you experienced "grace multiplied"? If so, how did it affect you?
TEMPTED MATTHEW 4:1-11
From time to time we all approach a new fork in life's road, and we make hard choices. Which direction, we wonder, will take us where we need to go? Deciding is almost never easy.
I don't use the word kingdom very much, if at all. "Empire" language is simply not part of my vocabulary. Yet the meanings behind it are very real for nations, individuals, churches, and almost any network where people band together. Jesus faced temptations that forced him to choose between two kingdoms. So do we. As we explore the temptations, we also ask questions that give depth to our choices.
Imagine you are Jesus. You are somewhere near thirty years old. Recently, you walked some eighty miles from your home in Nazareth to a place near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. There you met your cousin John and asked him to baptize you. Shortly afterward, you climbed out of the Jordan River valley into the Judean Desert. The Judean Desert is a huge, mountainous, parched stretch of real estate spanning nearly six hundred square miles. Rugged, life-draining wilderness stretches as far as you can see. People simply do not live here. If you ever wanted to be alone, and you do, this is the place to be.
You have come here, led by the Spirit, to make some hard decisions. You must choose how your life will unfold. How will you use your special relationship with God to make a difference? What will your career look like? Here in the desert you choose to fast. Scripture writers will say you fasted for forty days and nights, the same as the number of years Moses spent in the wilderness. Perhaps you did, but the number forty in your culture is a way of saying it was a very long time.
Have you ever struggled to make a career choice? Did the struggle seem to take forever? How did you prepare for your decision making?
Temptations appear. Each one challenges you to decide which kind of kingdom you will pursue. Will it be like the kingdoms that are so ingrained in your culture, or something else? The first is the challenge to turn the stones that surround you into bread. In other words, take care of yourself first. And what is so wrong with that? Make sure you are protected, then worry about those around you. This is what kings do. They gather "stuff." They build magnificent palaces. They eat very well. They wear the finest clothes. They live the good life. Anything left over goes to the masses. Anyone who is a "have" knows that you give to others out of excess. What is so wrong with turning stones into bread?
You reject this first temptation out of hand, basing your decision on the words of Deuteronomy: "He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don't live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the Lord says" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Your career will not be one of promoting your own well-being. Instead, you will focus entirely on the plan of God for your life.
When is self-care appropriate? When is it demonic? How much time do you spend "turning stones into bread"? What does this Scripture from Deuteronomy say to you?
Your second temptation is to be spectacular. You find yourself in your mind's eye being led to the pinnacle of the temple, known as "the place of trumpeting." Here is the place where new events are announced: the new Sabbath, the new moon, the new year. It is believed that the new messiah will be presented at the pinnacle. If you want to get your message out, one good plan is to go to the pinnacle and do something that will get you noticed. You will be immediately recognized and will likely attract all sorts of followers. In fact, Scripture seems to support the possibility. One of the psalms promises that God "will order his messengers to help you, / to protect you wherever you go. / They will carry you with their own hands / so you won't bruise your foot on a stone" (Psalm 91:11-12). It is indeed a powerful temptation. You reject it, however. You remember another Scripture from your law code that reminds you to revere your one God and to avoid following other so-called divinities, even the god of being spectacular. Your comeback is simple and direct: "Don't test the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 6:16). Your ministry is not about being spectacular or making a name for yourself. It is about being faithful, no matter what.
What does it mean to you to be recognized? What is the balance between promoting yourself or your church and being showy? What does revering God mean in the world of public relations?
Excerpted from Lent 2014 God's Gift of Life by Larry F. Beman. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.