Trying to Fill a God-Shaped Hole
We always begin Lent with Jesus’ forty-day journey into the wilderness before he begins his public ministry. Lent, itself, is modeled on this story: Jesus fasted and prayed in order to learn what God was calling him to do, and who God was calling him to be. We’re told he was led by the Spirit to be tested; to build the spiritual strength and integrity to accomplish the work ahead of him. In the same way, we now begin a period of reflection and prayer so that we can learn what it means for us to be Christ’s followers.
The first verse in the Matthew passage tells us, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Before you’re distracted by who this devil is and whether people really believe this stuff, Matthew just doesn’t tell us. The Bible doesn’t have anything like a consistent understanding of some being called the devil, or even a consistent understanding that such a being exists. Just know that the meaning and value of this story doesn’t turn on whether you think this “devil” is a literal being or a symbolic one – symbolic of the voices both within and outside of us that try to get us to do what we really don’t want to do, at least in our better moments.
But devils aside, if we start at verse one of Chapter 4 without looking back at why Matthew says, “Then,” “THEN Jesus was led,” we miss a crucial point of this story. It would be like starting to watch “The Lion King” when Simba is running away from the pride, without having seen the part where his father dies. Or watching “The Wizard of Oz” after Dorothy has landed in Munchkin Land, but never having seen the farm hands, Miss Gulch and the traveling fortuneteller who are transformed into the characters she meets in Oz.
What we miss if we start with Jesus in the wilderness, without looking back at Chapter 3 of Matthew, is that Jesus has just been baptized. Jesus stepped out of the Jordan River and heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is crucial to understanding this story, because each of the devil’s temptations begins with the provocative, even goading challenge, “If you are the Son of God….” In other words, “How do you know you are God’s Son? Can you prove it?” That’s the temptation. The devil is saying, “Wouldn’t it be better to know for certain? All you have to do is prove it. Turn stone to bread, jump from the Temple, worship me … and you will never know doubt again.”
But the devil’s questions raise in Jesus another, bigger question: What does it mean to be God’s beloved son? Has Jesus been given some kind of royal privilege? Some sort of imperious authority? Some kind of supernatural power over the natural elements in order to make himself safe and comfortable? Or has Jesus been called to reveal what it means to be a human being, created and loved by God, and choosing to live in the Kingdom of God – to live as though God is the ruler of our hearts and minds?
What does it mean to be God’s beloved son? Or – God’s beloved children? Poet Moyra Caldecott suggests an answer:
Our being is the expression of God’s Thought.
We contain the love of God and God contains us
and as we unfold on the earth
bird, and mammal –
and ape –
we are learning
step by step
what containment means.
The circles are still widening –
still evolving the mighty concept –
the magnificent Idea.
a million years,
a thousand million …
the count is nothing,
the Being – All.
Praise be to our great God
and the Word that resonates
in our heart still.
May we not separate ourselves in arrogance
from the Great Work
for we know the sound of the Word
but not its full meaning.[i]
We contain the love of God and God contains us. May we not separate ourselves in arrogance from God’s Great Work.
The devil is asking Jesus, tempting Jesus, to separate himself from God, from God’s work. To trust himself, rather than God. The devil is trying to bait Jesus into thinking that the human life God has given him is not enough – that he needs more, something stupendous, showy, powerful.
David Lose asks, “Might it be that a part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition? To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill.”[ii] In the story of Adam and Eve, “they behold the fruit and conclude in a heartbeat that their hole is shaped just like that fruit. Yet after they eat, the emptiness remains.”[iii]
Someone said every back shed and garage is full of tools and toys someone imagined would fill the emptiness in his or her life; it’s that same longing for some kind of completion.[iv] That’s what the devil is suggesting to Jesus: “Jesus, you’re not complete. You’re not enough. But you could be. You can fill this lack for yourself! You don’t need to wait for God, who, by the way, may or may not be there. You can be safe, happy, and fulfilled on your own terms.”
We really are right back in the Genesis 2 story. Jesus is being tempted in the same way that Adam and Eve were. If you go back and read the verses before those Scott read today, you’ll see they lacked nothing. Why did they think something was missing? Why do we? On the other hand, Jesus could say, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them… and the lilies … even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But strive first for the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”[v] So why do people work so hard to buy more stuff, bigger stuff, better and more impressive stuff? Why do people sell their integrity for power, prestige and status; why do they shade the truth or outright lie to keep their seats in Congress or to win a cabinet nomination? Why do people ruin the lives of others and even the planet we share in order to be “winners” rather than “losers”? Why do people struggle and even sacrifice for something so much less satisfying than the Kingdom of God?
Why do we think we can fill this lack ourselves? Because after working and scheming and spending and finally getting the stuff, the power, the fame, or the glory – the degrees, the corner office, the trophy wife or husband, the cool car, the latest basketball shoes, the latest iPhone – the emptiness remains. That’s the truth that the market exploits. We won’t be satisfied with any of these things. We need the next thing, the next conquest, the next win. But this relentless pursuit is destroying God’s planet, which means it’s also destroying us, and our children’s future. And yet, we are not satisfied.
Blaise Pascal once described this essential condition of humanity as having a “God-shaped hole.” The devil tempts Jesus to fill that hole himself, with things, with power, with glory. He even tempts Jesus with being a hero because if Jesus turns stones into bread, couldn’t he solve world hunger? If Jesus takes over the world, wouldn’t he run it better that Caesar or any president, past or present? That’s the temptation. But even for good purposes, Jesus knows there is no filling of that gap, no permanent erasing that hole, except in and through our relationship with God. Or, as Augustine said, we humans are always restless until we rest in God.
Still, we have to be honest that being a Christian or a person of faith doesn’t mean that hole, that need, that awareness of our limits and finitude are erased once and for all. Even with regular church attendance, lots of good Presbyterian committee work, and an active prayer life, that sense of incompleteness is still there, isn’t it? Perhaps, to be human is to accept that we are, finally, created for ongoing relationship with God and with each other, and with all of God’s creation. Perhaps the goal of the life of faith isn’t to overcome that hole but to discover God there in the middle of it. Perhaps faith doesn’t do away with the hardships that are part and parcel of life, but rather gives us the courage to stand, as Floyd Thompkins said to us last week, quoting Jesus, to “Stand up, and be not afraid.”[vi] Or, at least, to stand up and be less afraid, knowing Jesus was tempted as we are and knows our struggles first hand. This same Jesus now invites us to find both hope and courage in the God who named not only him, but all of us, beloved children so that we, also, might discover who we are by recalling whose we are.
So we begin Lent, in the wilderness but together. Here at First Presbyterian Church, for the next six weeks, we’ll help each other remember who we are by recalling whose we are: God’s beloved children, part of God’s beloved and precious creation. You can sign up on our website for a daily email that gives you a carbon-reducing hint. Every week in worship, you’ll find a strip of scrap paper in your bulletin. We invite you to write on that strip a commitment you’re willing to make to care for God’s creation, or an action you’ve taken to care for God’s creation. Or – just a prayer, in one or a few words, for any part of God’s creation, which is everything, because, as the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”[vii] We’re using scrap paper intentionally; we’re repurposing it. Then leave the strips in the beautiful purple baskets, which Virginia Thibeaux wove out of the strips of fabric we used for a prayer net during Lent a few years ago. Also – re-purposed. At the end of Lent, these repurposed paper strips with your commitments and prayers will be repurposed once again to create a piece of art, which you’ll get to see on Easter.
We contain the love of God and God contains us. May we not separate ourselves in arrogance from God’s Great Work. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights re
[i] Moyra Caldecott, in Sam Hamilton-Poore, Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2008), p. 140.
[ii] David Lose, March 13, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=902
[iii] Lose, ibid.
[iv] Andrew Prior, “The Costly Choice of Freedom,” 2017, https://onemansweb.org/the-costly-choice-of-freedom-matthew-41-17.html.
[vi] The Rev. Floyd Thompkins, February 26, 2017, quoting Matthew 17:7.