The Wildness of God

Wmily Owlsley

March 5, 2017

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
     Psalm 32
     Romans 5:12-19
     Matthew 4:1-11

Good morning. It’s a gift to be able to share with you all here on the first Sunday of Lent.

In reading and thinking about this week’s lectionary scriptures what stood out to me is the sheer extremeness of the stories and reflections. There is significant drama, deception, tragedy, and amazement in the story of the fall of man, in Jesus’ fasting and temptation, and Paul’s summary to the Romans of sin and grace.

This morning I will reflect on the physical and spiritual habitat described in these stories, what we can learn from that as we begin the season of Lent, and how this connects with our current times. Throughout this teaching I will refer to God as “God” and would like to say that to me that is an open name that can mean different things to different people. Please be free to replace the name in your mind with the name you might find closer describes who or what you think of as ‘God’ - The Life Force, Holy One, Great Spirit, etc.

The Genesis passage begins with God putting man and woman in a garden to work it and take care of it. It says that God planted all sorts of trees in the garden (that were pleasing to the eye and good for food), that there was a river flowing through it that was the headwaters for four other rivers that spread throughout the region. This garden was a fertile, highly cultivated, and natural environment that God designed intentionally for humans (and many other plants and creatures). Which is probably why the Garden of Eden is often referred to as paradise.

I’ve often wondered why the human body is not designed to be more sturdy and resilient for the outdoors. Many would say that it used to be that way and has evolved to become how it is now through the process of natural evolution. I believe that is probably true. And still, I’d like to have a thick coat of fur and the abilities to run really fast, climb upside down, dig really well with my hands, breathe underwater, use echolocation, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if we could naturally fly and save the planet all of those carbon emissions from airplanes? One simple explanation could be that we were never intended to need those abilities so we don’t have the physical bodies to support them as well as many other animals do. Maybe we were meant to be much more connected with animals so they could share their abilities with us.

Perhaps, God intended humans to live in gardens and gave us the advanced intellectual capacity to serve the trees, plants, waters, and animals, to help appreciate and cultivate (not hinder) the natural balance. There would be no domination or exploitation of resources, all in harmony. But that is not the world we have today.

While in the garden Adam and Eve fell into the temptation of becoming ‘like God’. Immediately after sinning they realized their nakedness. They immediately became self-conscious. An ego was birthed that needed to be protected from one another and God, so they made coverings for themselves out of fig leaves. I wonder if this is the moment when humans lost their ability to live peacefully ‘in the wild’ even if it was the protected ‘wild’ of a garden (as in the story).

God banishes them from the garden and tells them (among other things) that now they will have to fight against the land to produce food and survive. God removes humankind from the cultivated garden environment taking away their food supply and making them much more vulnerable to the natural elements. Life becomes a toil with the wild earth.

In Matthew 4 Jesus is led by the spirit into the desert or wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. This is the story that was always used to explain Lent to me in Sunday school growing up. Jesus fasted before he began his ministry so Christians fast to grow closer to God and to Jesus’ suffering in preparation to celebrate his death on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter.

Jesus is led into one of the most dangerous environments for a human, the desert, and he puts himself in an even more vulnerable state by fasting. The devil transports Jesus for some of his temptation, taking him to the highest point of the temple in the holy city, and also to a high mountain. Jesus stands firm against the temptation of the devil and finally fights off Satan by quoting scripture, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” In this statement he is denouncing any other God. He does not give in to creating a new, false god within himself (as Adam and Eve did).

These two passages leave most people with a lot of questions, including me. One of the big ones is why does God allow temptation? I’m not going to attempt to answer that question this morning. However, it is true that our God allows the devil to tempt us. God can handle temptation; however, humans are quite weak against it on our own. We have a God who is infinitely deep, loving, just, forgiving, righteous, beautiful, kind, inclusive, creative... and quite difficult to follow.

Our God is quite extreme. In the Romans passage Paul writes that one sin made everyone sinners, and one beautiful sacrifice brings life and forgiveness to everyone. This is so incredibly different from what humans are capable of. When I do something wrong, I have to suffer the consequences while others in the world--past, present, and future--don’t. When someone is forgiving or kind to me, I experience grace, while others in the world--past, present, and future--don’t. God understands that when I hurt someone it has ripple effects greater than just that one person, and when I experience grace it is more than just me who is affected. God’s justice is so unlike our version of justice. Our God is extremely powerful and I’m going to suggest somewhat wild to behave like this.

Now back to the physical setting for these passages.

A garden: this is highly cultivated, beautiful, lush, protected, growing, usually has water, food, sunlight and shade. A good habitat for a human.

The desert or the wilderness--uncultivated and inhospitable without food, water, shade, and no or anyone. These two environments--garden and desert--are extreme opposites.

Humans were sent outside of the garden. Out of necessity we have created alternate, cultivated or protected environments for ourselves. Some examples of those are nomadic dwellings/communities, farmland / the country, the city, and the suburbs (where the devil lives … just kidding!).

In Lent we are called to fast, pray, and give alms as a way of relating to the fasting of Jesus. I wonder if it is also an invitation to enter into the wild-ness of God for a period of time. In denying luxuries, being generous with what we have, and striving to be disciplined in prayer, the strings of our egos are loosened and we are better able to attach to God’s unrestrained way. With our human frailty and flaws this is not intended to be a permanent endeavor. It is only meant for a season--for 40 days, or 44 days, depending on how you count it.

I’m reminded of the film, “Into the Wild,” based on a true story about a young man who, after graduating from colle, donates his life savings to charity and journeys out to the wilderness of Alaska to survive on his own. He ends up living in an abandoned school bus and struggles to survive by hunting and gathering all of his food. He comes to beautiful realizations about life and his relationships, particularly the fractured relationship he has with his parents, and internally forgives them. (Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen it!) Tragically, he accidentally misidentifies a poisonous plant as edible and dies alone in the wilderness before he can return home to reunite with his family. This is not what I am suggesting that we do.

We do not journey into Lent alone. While it is a solitary practice we do it at the same time and in the same spirit, so as to provide support for and learn from one another. What I am suggesting is that we strip our lives of what is unnecessary to be able to follow The Great Life Spirit’s intentions more clearly. When we open ourselves up, we may find the way--unknown, surprising, and somewhat wild.

The words “wild,” “crazy,” and “uncontrolled” do not usually have positive associations for me. They generally mean that something is wrong and needs fixing or tending to. Which may be true of humans as wild, but what about God as wild?

Matthias, has helped me to appreciate the wildness of life as a positive. He often exclaims, “Life is crazy.” Up until last week it has silently bothered and annoyed me when he said this. To me it meant that, life is messed up and out of control, we’re stuck in it, and sometimes things turn out good, and that’s nice, but it’s mostly chaos. However, to Matthias it is a way of recognizing the immensity of creation, the smallness of people, beauty, and the intentionality of God or the Life Giving Force in the world and our lives.

Many of you may feel as though the world is wild, crazy, and spinning out of control right now. I have an underlying feeling of unsettledness, an inner disturbance that I’m working to process. Our spiritual life should be a source of inner peace, consolation, and life. This is essential now, and always, and can work alongside the wildness of God.

I wish that our current political leaders would take some time to fast and pray and look at their lives critically. I don’t know if they’re doing anything to observe this liturgical season, since some of them say they are Christians. However, I do not need to know.

This practice of taking things away, being more generous, and committed to prayer is useful at many different times throughout the year, however, it seems to be particularly appropriate now. How can we know how to serve our families, community, neighborhoods, city, country, and broader world if we are not connected to the Life Force? Our own egos (or gods) will not give us the wisdom, energy, and grace needed in this time. We seek to find God where our physical bodies are placed, today it is in the city, and God is here. We must be open to entering into the spiritual wilderness with God, trusting in his power with it, not our own. This helps to dismantle our own egos and creates more space for God. It is a form of surrendering.

I find Psalm 32 from this week’s lectionary encouraging as we contemplate God’s uncontrollable-ness, our smallness / our sin, and the power of divine forgiveness:

            Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven,
            Whose sins are covered.
            Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him
            And in whose spirit is no deceit.

            When I kept silent,
            My bones wasted away
            Through my groaning all day long.
            For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
            My strength was sapped
            As in the heat of summer.
            Then I acknowledged my sin to you
            And did not cover up my iniquity.
            I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” -
            And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

            Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
            While you may be found;
            Surely when the mighty water rise,
            They will not reach him.
            You are my hiding place;
            You will protect me from trouble
            And surround me with songs of deliverance.