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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/01/2020

At the conference I attended a few weeks ago, the speaker, Lois Malcolm a theology professor from Luther Seminary (who worshiped with us the Sunday she was here) said that she regularly attended Torah study at the synagogue in the neighborhood where she lives in Minnesota. I happened to mention that to Dr. Grossman at a funeral we both attended the next week and he said, “We do Torah study here too, not every week but the weekends the student rabbi is here; you could come. I’ll call you.” I figured he’d forget, but he called me, so I went not yesterday but a week ago.

There were about 15 people there, very welcoming, and I found that what they did was quite similar to our Bible studies. For one thing, they didn’t just study the Torah which is the first five books of the Old Testament, but like us, they digressed and other things come up. When they did study the Torah though, they too have a lectionary and that week it was some verses from Exodus. Led by the student rabbi, they looked at particular words or phrases from those verses in agonizing detail, looking at the Hebrew, as well as looking at what various rabbis have had to say about it over the centuries, the rabbis being their equivalent of what we would call church fathers as well as people like Luther and other reformers.

One of the verses was Exodus 23:4 which is about the need to return the ox or donkey of your enemy if you find it wandering. I’m quite sure it’s a verse that never shows up in our lectionary and you might think there’s not much to say about it, but guess what? They went at it not so much looking for answers or agreement because, for one thing, the rabbis of history haven’t agreed. Instead, rather than looking for closure, they wrestled with the questions the verses raised, thinking about what it might mean for our time.

As you have perhaps noticed, raising questions and wrestling with them is pretty much what I do too, so while I didn’t find the verses they were studying terribly compelling, I felt quite at home with the process. I also found out that there is more than one might have thought to verses having to do with wandering farm animals, verses that most of us wouldn’t give a second thought to except to chuckle at.

I couldn’t help but have all that in mind as I looked at our Torah reading for today, our first reading from Genesis, chapters 2 and 3, which is part of the familiar Adam and Eve story, this part about them being tempted by the serpent. The gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. With that connection, the temptation for us then, is to see the Adam and Eve story as only being about temptation and sin and “the fall” as it’s called, the fall into sin.

A closer, Torah study kind of look at the text though, opens up other possibilities for interpretation as one notices for example, that in these verses the word sin never appears nor are there any synonyms for sin here or anywhere in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. There’s also no talk of punishment or of “the fall.” There are consequences, but not punishment. Still, without question, this part of the Adam and Eve story is about temptation and that has been the traditional interpretation, but a closer look might change how we think about temptation and the nature of sin.

The way the lectionary is set up, you seldom get a whole story and today you don’t get the whole Adam and Eve story. Today’s reading omits the first 14 verses and starts with “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” In my Torah study like approach to the text, I wound up thinking about the last phrase, “to till it and keep it.” Knowing the story is about temptation, “to till it and keep it” is a phrase one might not pay much attention to, wanting to get to the temptation part of things, the serpent and the forbidden fruit, the rest of the story.

What “to till it and keep it” does though, is it gives the man a vocation, it gives him something to do, something that we assume will be pleasing to him and to God. Is it just an incidental detail, or does it have something to do with the temptation that follows? Whether Jew or Christian, what one learns is that when it come to the Bible, seldom are there incidental details.

So…what does it mean to till and keep the garden? For Adam and Eve and for us, an obvious connection is stewardship, specifically, stewardship of creation, taking care of God’s creation, an aspect of stewardship with which we haven’t always done very well. As people of faith who see the created world as a gift of God, thinking about our role in the stewardship of creation is important for all of us.

For me though, in the larger context of Lent, poking around at and thinking about tilling and keeping the garden in a story whose overarching theme is temptation, made me think that for us the intent of this phrase goes beyond stewardship of creation, as noble a vocation as that is. Admittedly, I might be pushing beyond the text here but I blame it on those Jewish rabbis because that’s what they do, but I can see this tilling and keeping also having to do with our broader identity and vocation as human beings in relationship with God and with each other.

Part of the Invitation to Lent that I read on Ash Wednesday said that, “We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation.” It would not be a stretch to say that that is our vocation. For us, tilling and keeping the garden means being in communion with God, loving one another and being in harmony with creation. Note that all of that is focused outward, not on ourselves.

Temptation and sin then have to do with straying from that vocation, with turning inward and thinking that we don’t need God, that our neighbors aren’t our problem and that we are not stewards of creation but masters of it, able to do whatever we want with it. The Hebrew supports this outward looking interpretation of our vocation as the verb translated as “to till” can also mean to serve or even to be a slave of; the verb translated as “to keep” means to preserve or protect, so again the focus is outward, on the other and on the created world. Temptations come though, in the form of distractions that lead toward me first self-centeredness. As we strive to fulfill our vocation of tilling and keeping the garden, the distractions are many.

Without question it is important to take care of ourselves too; a degree of self-centeredness is necessary. As is sometimes said, if you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be able to take care of anyone else either. From a Christian perspective though, taking care of yourself is still for the sake of the neighbor.

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness can also be looked at through this lens of vocation. His vocation was a little different than ours in that he was called to be the Son of God, the Savior of the world; I guess that’s more than a little different actually. Jesus vocation was similar to ours though, in that it too was outward looking, lived out on behalf of others, in his case not just on behalf of the neighbor but on behalf of all of humanity. Like us, the temptation for Jesus was to stray from that identity and in the temptation story, what the devil knew was that if just once he could get Jesus to use his divine power to serve himself, he’d have him.

The devil was crafty, like the serpent in the garden. He played to Jesus’ ego saying, “If you are the Son of God…” He used scripture saying, “It is written…” Unlike us though, Jesus saw through the temptation; he stayed true to his vocation and the devil was sent on his way. It’s just one story, symbolic of the temptation Jesus faced all along the way, but for our sake he fulfilled his vocation, even though it meant death on the cross.

That is good news for us as we consider our vocation of being in communion with God, loving one another and being in harmony with creation. Unlike Jesus, the distractions do get to us. We do give in to temptations that cause us to neglect our relationship with God, our relationships with one another and our relationship with the created world. We don’t always do well at tilling and keeping the garden.

Maybe though, in the resurrection account from John when Mary Magdalene thinks the Risen Christ is the gardener, maybe she wasn’t all wrong. When we get distracted and stray from our vocation in the garden, Jesus as the master gardener is there, there to meet us with forgiveness; he’s there to bring us back to till and keep his garden.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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