Another Voice

The Bible tells us that our story begins with God who formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. God planted a lush garden in Eden, took the man and put him in it to till it and keep it. And 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.”

Our story begins with life in abundance, given by a loving God, and with a commandment, given to the humans who are to till and keep this place of lush life. But there’s another voice in the garden, the serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. The serpent doesn’t say much, only asks a question, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” It’s not what God said, but the serpent continues to sow seeds of suspicion and distrust, saying, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God did not tell the whole truth, the voice suggests, and the relationship between the humans and God begins to unravel. They eat, we all eat from the tree, and at the same time we wonder why: is it out of curiosity? Is it because we find being like God more desirable than being human? Or is it simply because disobedience becomes an option when there’s a rule?

We’re meant to be gardeners in God’s Eden, but we wonder if perhaps the other voice has a point … and we eat. When questioned by the Lord God, the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the serpent is silent. Guilt and fear, shame and blame have entered the scene, and jealousy, hatred, and violence soon follow. We look around, and nothing, it seems, is the way it’s supposed to be.

The story invites us to consider that the initial crack in our fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God. And with that, we’re also invited to consider that the wholeness of life we all long for begins with the healing of that rift. We trust, or rather learn to trust, that the God who made us and all things, is one who forgives and redeems. We learn to say, “I have sinned. I have not trusted you. Guilt and fear have built their walls around me, and shame has locked the door. Forgive me. Set me free. Take me home.”

Especially during the season of Lent, we make this confession part of our common worship, as we reflect on the way of Christ as our salvation. Some churches begin every worship service with a prayer of confession to make sure we remember that we are forgiven sinners. Kathleen Norris writes, 

I am a sinner and the Presbyterian Church offers me a weekly chance to come clean. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word “sin” that in church we end up confessing nothing but our highly developed capacity for denial. One week the confession began, “Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives which you want us to have,” which seems less a prayer than a memo (…). At such times, I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, “Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?” It would be refreshing to answer, simply, “I have sinned.”[1] 

The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and wholeness begins with the healing of that rift. We learn to say, “I have sinned,” and we learn to trust God’s word, “You are forgiven.”

When Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And right there, Luke inserted a long genealogy going back all the way not just to David or Abraham, but beyond, generation after generation, to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” This is Luke’s way of telling us that the gospel of Jesus, the beloved son of God, is for all the children of Adam and Eve, for all God’s beloved sons and daughters. The next thing we hear is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from; that’s clearly not the point. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. There’s another voice.

Jesus was famished, weak, and vulnerable when the bread whisperer said, “Since you are the son of God, how about one small miracle for yourself? Come on, help yourself to some bread. Nobody’s watching. It’s just you and me.” And Jesus said no.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world; but Jesus continued to be led by the Spirit, not by the power whisperer who said, “Come on, take it. I can give it to anyone I please. Worship me, and it will all be yours. Think of all the good you could do as ruler of the world.” Jesus said no.

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. It had to be the temple, a lonely cliff somewhere in the wilderness wouldn’t do. “Think of the possibilities,” the publicity whisperer said, “throw yourself down,” and he added a proof text from Scripture. But Jesus said no. No to the bread, no to the power, no to the angelic guards. His response to every test was to remain human and to love God with all his heart. Full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, he chose God’s way to Jerusalem, God’s kingdom mission, and God’s glory. The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and in Jesus’ life of faithfulness the rift has been healed.

The final encounter, the ultimate clash of the kingdom of God and the whispering tempter’s reign happened on the cross. Again three times Jesus heard the voice suggesting that he use his power for himself. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one,” some scoffed. Others said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And one kept deriding him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35,37,39). He didn’t save himself. He did not call on armies of angels. He did not use God for his own ends. He trusted in the faithfulness of God, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And this loving, serving, and suffering Jesus God vindicated by raising him from the dead, saying Amen to his teachings, his table etiquette, and his friendship with sinners that helps them remember that they are indeed God’s beloved. Beloved, forgiven sinners.

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” we want to sing, lost in wonder, found by love. Sadly, the word wretch has become unpopular in recent years, resulting in a particularly embarassing example of hymn improvement which Kathleen Norris tells us about,

Some hymnals have taken out the offending word, but the bowdlerization of the text that results is thoroughly wretched English, and also laughably bland, which, taken together, is not an inconsiderable accomplishment: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.’ Someone? (…) Is there a fabled “someone” who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh unforgivable, things that he or she has done? Maybe the unconscious of some people really does tell them that they’re okay, all the time. Maybe there are people who are so thorougly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched in spirit. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness—exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance—has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.[2] 

I think she’s right. And haven’t you at times wondered if God fully grasps what it means to be human? Haven’t you asked yourself if God is all eyes and ears, watching and listening from a distance, but not really in touch with the misery, the pain of being human?

The story of Jesus tells us that God’s grasp of what it means to be human is not superficial at all. The story of Jesus is the story of humanity and God, a retelling and healing of the story that began in Eden. Jesus was tested in every respect as we are, but without sin. He heard the whispers of the other voice, but he didn’t allow it to sow its seeds of suspicion and distrust. In the power of the Spirit, he followed the path of obedience and love, and he bore the full weight of sin: betrayal, hatred, lies, torture, exile, the arrogance of power – all of it. He bore it and trusted God to forgive, redeem, and heal – all of it. He didn’t turn stones into bread, but in the end his entire life was bread – blessed, broken, and shared for the life of the world.

[1] Amazing Grace, p. 165

[2] Amazing Grace, p. 166