Princeton University Religious Life

From the Garden to the Wilderness

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11

This past Wednesday we began the journey together through the holy season of Lent.  These next forty days are not a dreary obligation but a wonderful opportunity to live as we want to live.  I don’t mean that we are to indulge our every desire – I’m not talking about the “wants” in our life that conform to the world – our real yearnings for status, “success” (whatever that means), things, money.  We are human and so we want these things.  I’m talking about living as we want to live – not our worldly wants but their flipside – our faithful wants, the way we want to live as Christians.   Lent is our wonderful prompt to investigate how we are truly living, to let go of the ways that our living does not match our faith, to augment the ways that our living conforms to our faith, and to add elements to our lives that expand and deepen the spiritual integrity of our days. 

            For some of us, when we examine our lives, we realize that the uncharitable thoughts that we nurture are inconsistent with our faith.  They contradict it.  They are toxic not just because of their inherent meanness towards others but because just thinking them poisons our own minds and spirits.  Often it is jealousy that prompts such thoughts, or vanity, or entitlement.  All toxic.  Lent is a forty-day opportunity to live without the uncharitable thoughts, and sometimes words and deeds, with which we seek not to be honest, but to put down, and to promote ourselves.

            For some of us, when we examine our lives, we realize that we have been graced by our Creator with real empathy for others – with compassion, with care, with sisterly and brotherly love.  And we understand that the way we want to live involves significantly more of this spiritual work.  Lent is our opportunity to build upon it – to be proactive in noticing new moments to live compassionately.  Maybe that means seeing new people in our midst – ones we’ve overlooked – and asking ourselves what it would mean to extend care to them.  Maybe this means seeing people who are far away, total strangers, but whose lives have caught the notice of ours, and towards whom we can show compassion.

            For some of us, when we examine our lives, we will see that something is missing from the intention we have of living as we truly want to live.  Perhaps that thing will be generosity – a Christian generosity of spirit – of spiritual availability to others.  Or it might be generosity with our time, generosity with our abilities, generosity with our money, homes, or other resources.  Perhaps we will discern that we have interpreted living as we want to live as a very self-contained thing, and that while our practices of prayer and reflection and personal ethics are on the right track, we have to look outward with a goal of Christian service – generosity with all that we have.

            I’ve made up these examples simply to prompt our thinking – to initiate more reflection upon how we want to live, and hopefully not constraining that thinking with examples that don’t speak to you personally!  My goal is to encourage you to think about what your life would look like if lived in even closer proximity to God, molded upon the example of Christ, answering the Holy Spirit in every moment.  How do you want to live?  Let’s each spend these forty days giving it a try!

            Our biblical texts for this first Sunday in Lent take us to the Garden of Eden and to the wilderness, each a scene of temptations with universal consequences.  The Garden is the place in Christian history where we locate our loss of innocence, and the beginning of the human challenge to now live as we truly want to live.  The Garden – a place of perfection and complete peaceableness – right relations amongst the whole created order.  A place of seduction, of loss of innocence, of expulsion.  A place of erosion of trust, a place of disobedience, and a place of new estrangement between people and God, and between humans themselves.  The Garden of Eden (“eden” means “delight” or “luxury”) is a place of perfection in which things happen that negatively alter human and spiritual history – even the history of salvation, with the introduction of sin.

            The wilderness, on the other hand, is not a delight.  It holds dangers from animals, and from death by thirst or hunger.  And yet it is a place where triumphs not sinfulness but faithfulness, despite every challenge and temptation.  The wilderness is a place where discovery happens, and transition, and waiting, and hearing, and learning.  It is a place of profoundest challenge but also of triumph, lasting forty days.  In the drowned wilderness Noah and his family held out forty days during the deluge on board the ark, and in the end God vowed never again to destroy the earth with flooding.  For forty days Moses went without food on Mt. Sinai as he recorded the covenant delivered by God for the people to live by.  For forty days Elijah fasted in the wilderness, waiting, waiting for God to commission him and show him his next steps.  For forty formative years the people wandered in the wilderness on their journey to the promised land, learning, learning about how to live righteously with God and one another.  For forty days Christ sojourned in the wilderness, clarifying and strengthening his ability to resist every temptation to deviate from God’s plan for our salvation.  Lots of good things happen in the wilderness.  Not everything went well in the Garden.

            We live in the wilderness!  And the wilderness is a place of beautiful promise.  None of us were born into perfection (the Garden), but into a complicated mess of challenge, temptation, and coercion without the understanding of holy perfection.  We’re out there, encountering all the things that happen to us.  But like each of the biblical examples I’ve shared of wilderness experiences we too have the presence of God among us and the guidance that God has provided us.  Our challenge is to remember that guidance, no matter what “alternative” guidance we receive!  The serpent in the garden (who is not Satan, but one of the created animal residents of the garden), the serpent tries to make God’s rule regarding the trees and their fruit seem arbitrary and unreasonable and in the end unfair.  “Has God told you that if you eat that fruit you will die?” asks the serpent.  “That’s not true,” it says.  (In fact it’s not true, but only because God is merciful.)  The serpent makes it sound truly arbitrary and unfair that God should single out one tree and try to scare the humans away from it with idle threats of death.  “You can eat it, go ahead!”  And they do.  How often have we talked ourselves into doing things that we knew were wrong but really wanted to do, even decided that they were actually blessings, or deserved, something even God would want us to have – the passion of a new relationship, albeit adulterous, money for bills that, through no fault of our own, we really can’t pay, although the money is pilfered from our work place.  Who needs a serpent when we have our own thoughts to tempt us!  That serpent said to Eve and Adam, “Come on – you guys can think for yourselves!”  We all can, but we frequently get our thinking wrong when we justify bad actions as one-time, deserved exemptions to a rule.

            Christ was sorely tempted in the wilderness by someone who knew just where to get him – his love of God’s people and his mission for the salvation of all.  “Go ahead, turn stones into bread!”  Go ahead – end hunger for everyone, everywhere, for history.  Christ can do it.  How tempting!  “Go ahead – let everyone see that you’re the messiah!”  Christ wants all to be saved, but though the proof of faith, not observation.  Both the serpent and Satan set up their targets for a confrontation with God.  It is Christ who, for our sake, won’t let that happen.

            So here we are, in the wilderness of our good lives, a place where great challenges happen, and some really bad decisions, but also discovery, learning, and transition into more of who we were meant to be.  Let’s embrace these days of Lent as our opportunity to deepen our ability to live as we really want to live, to use the wilderness as our place of growth, of resistance to all that we know is wrong, and for strengthening our resolve to shape our lives for Christ.




Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2, D.L. Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 26-31, 44-49.


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