God Only Knows: Discerning Good and Evil
The season of Lent has begun. We often refer to it as a journey – Melanie used that language when she was talking with the children. I heard someone say recently, “Can we just stop calling Lent a journey?” and I realized a couple things: first that yes! we do love to think of it as a journey, don’t we? That is a common theme in our own worship practice – think of those feet on the wall in September! I think more than once we’ve used the journey metaphor as we’ve ‘traveled’ through Lent. Second, I realized that we’ve been on a wild enough ride these past months and I’m really to plunk myself down and stay there for awhile. I suspect that I’m not the only one feeling ready to stop journeying for awhile.
Melanie helped us notice some of the images from the Gospel of Matthew. The children helped ‘set the table’ (below) with some of these images. This story – also appearing in Luke – is where we begin Lent every year. It’s Jesus’ 40 day period in the wilderness that gives shape to this liturgical season – 40 days in the wilderness and 40 days of Lent. And yet Jesus didn’t journey in the wilderness. He was led there by the Spirit and then he was. Physically, at least we don’t hear of him moving from one place to another. Now I don’t know about you, but I am really ready to make some space for being still. What seems like constant transition has created a longing for stillness in me. And truly, how else other than creating space to listen and wait can I – or we – see and understand the dreams and hopes of God for humanity – you and me and our community together. God only knows.
The text that we hear from the Old Testament is a story about knowing and knowledge. This story from Genesis of the first humans is a story about God knowing and humans wanting knowledge. Last Sunday, with the Junior Youth and again when I was offering ashes on Wednesday, I said the words, “Beloved child of God, from dust you came and to dust you will return.” We, like Jesus, are God’s beloved children. And though we are children of God we are also children of the ground – of dust – of the earth. We are adam (the Hebrew word for the first human, literally meaning earth creature) which is why I think our experience of reality may resonate and be reflected in their story.
The story of the serpent and the woman (and man) has something to say about who we humans are and how we encounter the world. In fact, I like the way Ralph Milton introduces the story in the book from which Melanie read: “This is a story told many years ago. The story helped [the people who first heard it] understand why people wear clothes, why some things hurt, and why people have to work.” This is a story that describes why we humans experience temptation and longing and struggle and God only knows how we can live our way into (and out of) that humanness.
We begin in chapter 2 with a little background: the abundant gift that God offered to the earth-creature/the human (there was only one at this point): eat freely of every tree in the garden! All of this is yours! But there is a limit: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That knowledge that is unique to God’s own self – the knowledge of how to discern one way from another way. The word for knowledge being used here is used elsewhere in scripture in reference to knowing what is in one’s own or another’s best interest. God puts a limit on eating of a tree of discerning. This limit takes the form of a command, that is ‘thou shalt not…’ but it is a limit that asks for trust. Will you, earth creature, trust that I, God, know you and know what is in your best interests?
In the text that we skip, God creates a partner companion for the first human and they become the first man and woman. And in the Bible’s first conversation – the one between the woman and the serpent – we hear a theological dialogue about whether God really is to be trusted with this unique knowledge. The serpent plants the first seed of mistrust which will grow into separation between God and humanity. “Did God really say you can’t eat of any of the trees of the garden?” This is a gross misrepresentation of the abundant gift that God created for the human. The woman, who – remember – was not yet present at the time of the gift and the command also misrepresents God by saying, ‘Everything but the tree in the middle. Don’t eat it or touch it’ or you will die.’ Neither of them accurately represents God’s gift and intentional But then the serpent, that clever animal, that truth-teller, says: You will not die!
When the woman looked at the fruit and saw that it was good to eat and she saw that it was to be desired for getting knowledge, and when she took some and then the man too took some and they ate, they did not die – but they did change. They took on themselves the responsibility for discernment. They took on themselves the need to know one way for another, to decide for themselves what is in their own best interests. They saw clearly now that these bodies that God had made good have also the potential for doing evil and violence, the mouths which smile and speak words of kindness, have also the potential to speak cruel words that do harm. Hands that nurture the garden can also kill. Now the weight of this knowing both good and evil rested on them.
That knowing and that responsibility rest also on us – and on all humans. In that way the story is indeed descriptive and true to our experience. In that moment, rather than trusting God to know what is good and what is evil, the people took that on themselves. And part of the work of what it means to be human – our reality – is working our way back to an understanding of what God’s hope and intention is for us – both individually and in our relationships and communities. That is, spiritual discernment – seeking what God only knows and grow into trust that though we may know good from evil we are not like God.
Years ago already, this congregation named spiritual discernment as something to be sought. It’s right up there on our website for the world to see. The division between ourselves and God means we do need to actively seek God’s will and look attentively for God’s activity. Spiritual Leadership Team seeks to be formed more and more as discerning persons, living with eyes opened to good and to evil and to where God’s Spirit is moving in creation. Members of SLT were recently participants at an event with author and speaker, Ruth Haley Barton, who says about discernment:
“Discernment literally means to separate, to discriminate, to determine, to decide, or to distinguish between two things. Spiritual discernment is the ability to distinguish or discriminate between good (that which is of God and draws us closer to God) and evil (that which is not of God and draws us away from God)”
Although God only knows and will only always truly know what is best for us, there are postures and practices that can lead to greater closeness to and alignment with God’s Spirit work in the world. It is there that we can learn from the Gospel story that Melanie illuminated so well by setting the table and noticing with us and the children. You may notice about this passage that we hear in some form every year that it is about a very specific kind of preparation. Jesus is preparing to engage what it means to be The Son of God – The Messiah. Having just been acknowledge as “My son, the beloved,” in his baptism, Jesus is led to the wilderness and we hear the phrase echoed by the tempter: “Since you are the Son of God…” with challenges to prove or claim his rightful power. He is led out to be tested and it is a test of his identity as Messiah.
Our preparation is not for this kind of cosmic agenda but for our very life as God’s dusty creatures. These open eyes of ours see so much and so often and are so surrounded by images. Our open ears so surrounded by noise that one of the essential practices of spiritual discernment is intentionally creating space for solitude and silence. Haley Barton comments that some pastors are better at preaching it than practicing it and I take her point: I am a work in progress as well. But I also understand that the space offered by the “wilderness” – and we each have our own ways of creating solitude and silence – gives the eyes and ears and our other senses a greater capacity to focus on God’s presence – which has never departed from us but which can be hard to sense when ‘temptations’ surround us.
Because God only knows truly what is truly good, solitude and silence offer the opportunity and space to engage in scripture, to explore prayer, and to look inward in self-examination. These practices prepare us to being discerning. Ignatius of Loyola is a model for many of spiritual disciplines. He says of discernment:
“It is the characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. It is the characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolation, tears, inspirations, and peace.”
What better time than Lent to embrace or recommit to a spiritual practice. The openness of wilderness can allow what is good and what is evil to become clearer in our sight. As we seek to become more and more a body of believers which discerns in community what God’s will is for the congregation, we must first become individuals practiced in discernment of God’s will for ourselves.
In only weeks we will begin the first conversations about inviting a new lead pastor, we will be solidifying our form of congregational decision making, we will further engage with Gordon in defining who we are and how we want to be in ministry together. I long for us to do this in a spirit of deep and trusting discernment. May the God who knows us be with us in this place.
*the serpent is described as arum which is a form of the word for ‘naked’ – only just used to describe the pair of human creatures. It literally means ‘smooth’ – describing the smoothness of unclothed skin. The serpent is both smooth to touch as is also a ‘smooth operator’. The Inclusive version translates verse 3:1 this way: “Now the snake was even more naked”
Questions for Reflection:
What resonate for you in these scriptures or the sermon above? What will you take with you into the week?
What made you uncomfortable? Does the discomfort push you further toward exploring that thing or cause you to push it away?