Lent 1 – The Generosity of God

Creation of Man, Byzantine mosaic in Monreale (12th century)

Lent 1 2020 – Generosity of God
Rev. Doug Floyd
Genesis 2:4–3:7, Psalm 51, Romans 5:12–21, Matthew 4:1-11

On Monday nights, we’ve been discussing Rowan Williams’ book Being Human. There is one quote from that book that has lingered in my mind over the last several months. In fact, I may have already mentioned it here before. Williams writes, “What is the ‘human face’ that is being uncovered in the practices of faith? It’s a question increasingly posed about the habits of our contemporary world. Sennett’s important work on the human psychological effects of capitalism has posed the question, ‘What kind of human being does current global market practice presuppose, and what kind of human being does it nurture?’ adding, ‘Is this the sort of human being we want to be caught in a train carriage with?’ But the question is the same for any religious practice, habit or system: what kind of human face is being uncovered? What sort of humanity is being educated, nourished, developed, in this context, by this language?”[1]

We are being shaped by habits of daily life, and these habits are often developed in larger contexts of work practices, family rituals, church life, and even basic aspects of what we read, what we watch, what we talk about. Let me repeat those earlier questions. “What is the ‘human face’ that is being uncovered in the practices of faith?” “What sort of humanity is being educated, nourished, developed, in this context, by this language?”

I want to keep these questions in the background as we meditate upon today’s readings. Our readings take us back the very beginning. Genesis 1 gives a larger picture of the creation story, then Genesis 2 focus on a specific creation story: the Garden of Eden.

In Genesis 2:5, see a picture of land with pure potential. There are no bushes or plants. There is no rain because the land itself is apparently watered by springs of the rivers that will be mentioned in verses 10-14. These abundant springs mean that the land is not dependent on rain. There is no drought, no famine in Eden. The land awaits the creation of man because “there was no man to work the ground.” In some parallel creation stories from surrounding cultures, humans are created as slaves to work for the gods. But in this story, man is a co-laborer in a sense with God.

Man is fashioned from the dust of the ground and the LORD God breathes into his nostrils. This word for breath is not “ruach,” which communicates that God’s Spirit is breathing, blowing over all creation. Instead, this word is naphach (nawfakh). It is not ever used to speak of God breathing into or upon other creatures: only humans. When Ezekiel is told to prophecy over the dry bones, to prophecy the breath, the word nawfakh is used. It carries that image of God breathing upon His dead nation and bringing them back to life. This same word appears in Isaiah 42:5,

“Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.”

In the John 20:22, we see a corresponding image when Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Here is a pattern of God blowing life into man and into all humans in way that is distinct from all creation. It reveals a special relation between humans and God. It even reinforces the idea of humans as images of God. In some ancient cultures, the ruling class or the priesthood were created in the image of God while the rest of society was created as slaves. But in this picture, all humanity is created equally as God’s image. The icon in today’s bulletin pictures this event. Notice that the images of God breathing and man receiving both look like our image of Jesus.

As the story continues, God puts man in the Garden of Eden. God plants trees: pleasant to the eyes and delightful to the taste. Man cares for the plants. He cultivates them. In some sense, he is already imaging God. God is revealed as a gardener; Man is revealed as a gardener.

Everywhere you look in this story of Eden, you see abundance. Beautiful and delicious trees. Great rivers flowing out from the Garden to all the world, and at the base of the rivers, great treasures: gold and precious stones. Adam names all the varied creatures: birds of the heavens and beasts of the field. There is no lack in Eden.

Except one. Man has no helped, no mate, no partner. God creates woman. This image of creating woman reminds us that God is attentive to human needs and overwhelms with blessings. If we start to list simply the abundant blessings in this story, we might list fertile land, rich supply of water, beautiful and delightful trees, a wide ranges of creatures and birds, gold and precious stones, a communion of love between man and woman and God.

There is one restriction. Do not eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There are various meanings we can tease from Scripture and church history to think about this tree, but for now I’ll simply suggest that this tree offers a pattern of restraint. In a world of abundance, man and woman are learning a way of gratefulness for abundance and restraint from untamed desires.

In chapter 3, humans end up rejecting the restraint from the Lord and following in the way of the Serpent. Immediately they suffer a sense of isolation. There are all sorts of ways people have talked about this act, this failure like pride, rebellion, fear of missing out, and other behaviors the flow out from this sin, this turning away from the Word of the Lord.

In turning away, humans must leave the Garden, learn a new way of following the Lord. The stories of the Old Testament are filled with images of God’s abundant provisions in the midst of human sin and brokenness. God does not forsake his people. His gifts of grace and mercy overwhelm. But humans are still separated by the gulf of sin.

Then we read the story of Jesus coming with God’s generous blessings for humanity. He comes to restore the breach, to enter into the places of human sin and brokenness and to restore us to God. In our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus returning to the Garden but now it is a wilderness, void of water, stripped of luscious trees, absent of wealth, and a haunt of wild animals and demons. This places images the human soul ravaged by sin and death.

Jesus enters into this wilderness and faces that old serpent again. The enemy will use hunger, power, and glory to sow seeds of fear and doubt into Jesus. In other words, the enemy will use the same threatening attacks he uses with all humans to cause us to back off or follow vain pursuits instead of trusting in the Lord. Jesus will remain faithful, and on behalf of all humans he will overcome the evil one by the word of the Lord.

Now He will walk through the land of His people and announce the kingdom of God is hand. The restoration of all things in Christ has begun. There is no lack in Jesus love, gifts of healing, words of truth, and acts of service. He will bring this same generosity of God we see into Eden into the land of Israel and into this world. He will bless, restore, befriend, heal, and pour out His life in love.

Jesus will become the very image of the hospitality of God with hands open and outstretch to a world in need. He will teach His disciples in the way of God, the abundance of God’s love, the mercy that keeps extending forgiveness long after the world has given up on the weak and the weary.

Jesus will raise up disciples who become living images of His kindness, His grace, His presence, and His abundance. They will be sent out to image Christ and to raise up other disciples who will look and act like Jesus.

There are various images we might discuss when talking about how we become images of God, but one picture that has stood out to me in this time leading up to Lent it the overwhelming generosity of God. As we think about Rowan Williams’ questions, “What is the ‘human face’ that is being uncovered in the practices of faith?” “What sort of humanity is being educated, nourished, developed, in this context, by this language?”, I would hope that we might spend this Lenten journey meditating on how God has already showered us with an abundance of blessings and ask how are we becoming images of His abundance in a world fixated of scarcity of loss.

Our penitential disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving might be one place to start. In prayer, we might pay attention to the genuine abundance we enjoy in this world and our tendency to always strive for more. It might be helpful to daily name a variety of ways each of us enjoy the abundance of God’s blessing. It might also be helpful to be aware of our tendency to always strive for more and to never feel content with His many riches.

It might be helpful to fast those things which control us. Food has always been the primary form of fasting in the church. Primarily, fasting meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, but there are multiple ways people fast. Fasting is a way of letting go of control, letting go of lusts, letting go f fears. The Desert Fathers saw fasting food as a way of weakening the power of bodily desires. In this age of anger and arguments and fear and never-ending distractions, we might consider what little things we fast on a daily basis. What are some baby steps we might take to move away from never-ending self-indulgence to awareness of the needs around us?

This brings me to almsgiving. Specifically focused on giving to the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the refugee, almsgiving is a discipline of sharing our abundance with those in need. No matter how much or how little we make, there are ways we can practice almsgiving. We can image the generosity of God to the world around us.

You’ve probably heard of some of the extravagant acts of abundance by some churches our country, but they are worth rehearsing again. Consider Sadio Mane, successful Soccer player from Liverpool who earns millions every year. He was spotted using an old cracked iPhone. When a reporter asked him about this, Mane replied, “Why would I want ten Ferraris, 20 diamond watches and two jet planes? What would that do for the world? I starved, I worked in the fields, I played barefoot and I didn’t go to school. Now I can help people. I prefer to build schools and give poor people food or clothing.”[2]

A historic black church in Virginia gave $100,000 to Howard University to help pay off debts of 34 students, and then gave another $50,000 to help support a Bennett College, a historically black women’s college.[3]A church in Cincinnati worked with a non-profit to raise 46.5 million dollars to help pay off debts for over 41,233 households in their area.[4]

These stories inspire and convict me. In addition to meditating upon the generosity of God during this Lenten season, I want to meditate upon people who took seriously the call to discipleship and generosity, and whose lives touched many others. Now truth be told, we’ll never know the gracious and generous lives of so many people across the ages, and that is also appropriate.

I pray that the goodness and hospitality of God will so capture our hearts that we will be humans shine forth with the light and love of Jesus Christ in all we say and do.

Endnotes


[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Human (p. 84). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. (Richard Sennett quotes is from Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1998).)

[2] “Millionaire Soccer Player Snapped Using Beat-Up iPhone 7, Shuts Down Shamers When He Shares Why,” https://www.lightworkers.com/sadio-mane-old-iphone/

[3] “Historic black church pays off loans of Howard University students,” https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/429731-historic-black-church-pays-off-loans-of-howard-university.

[4] “$46.5 million in medical debt wiped out by Tri-State church, nonprofit.” https://www.fox19.com/2020/02/24/tri-state-families-among-thousands-who-had-millions-medical-debt-wiped-out/

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