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Wednesday, March 09, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32:1-11, Romans 3:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

There are shadowy places in the human psyche, a dark side. We need look no further than the daily headlines to notice. I hesitate to put them in the same sentences, but consider Charlie Sheen and Muammar el-Quaddafi. The dark side, while we hate to admit it, is even closer. All we have to do is take an honest look within.

I’m not suggesting that we are bad people who need to spend many hours a day groveling before a judgmental God, but many psychologists stress the importance of facing our dark side—our shadows. Psychotherapist Carl Jung is perhaps the most well-known for his treatment of the shadowy side of our existence. I’m not going to try to offer a full psychological analysis here. Jung and others observe that the darkness within us is most dangerous when we fail to face it, to acknowledge it. Our humanity cannot be defined by darkness unless we allow it to manipulate behind the scenes.

Lent is a period when we remember the darkness in the Christian story. It is a story that makes us aware that darkness does its utmost to overcome the power of love and good. We live through “Good Friday” as darkness and light meet in fierce conflict before we arrive at Easter morning. Darkness comes full of aggression and violence and meets loving nonviolence which willingly faces whatever darkness throws at it. Jesus meets darkness head on and calls us to do the same—whether the darkness is personal (within us and in our relationships) or national and international. Nations, not just individuals, need to be aware of their dark sides.

Religion, theology, philosophy, ritual, have in every age tried to find satisfactory explanations of and ways to deal with the darkness. Where does it come from? Why do we do what we do? Why do we sometimes behave in ways that are self-destructive? Why do we sometimes hurt one another? If we feel bad when that happens (which I believe most of us do), how do we avoid getting stuck in those bad feelings (which some call “guilt”)?

The lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Lent encourage reflection on such questions.

The reading from Genesis is the primary story used in the Judeo-Christian scriptures to explain the source of the dark side of human existence. The serpent made me do it! Or was it the woman? The epistle reading from Romans picks up on and interprets Jesus in the light of the Genesis story.

Many of us don’t find the story very satisfying. Death and sin for all of us, it says, are here because Adam disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:17—you need to read to the end of the chapter to get the whole story).

We could look at the background and various interpretations of the story. Just as we have four Gospels offering differing perspectives on the same story, there are different storytellers in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Their stories are interwoven rather than in separate books. Without getting into all the details of each perspective, this reading from Genesis, chapters two and three, is part of a narrative which pictures God in very human terms, entering into intimate relationship with human beings, walking in the garden with his creatures. It is as if God is a parent watching the children grow into adulthood.

As in every parent-child relationship, free will is at stake. Some see this story not negatively but as a coming-of-age story. The children need to learn right and wrong but when they do they may exercise their free will to make poor choices. Without freedom there is no morality, but with freedom there is the risk that darkness will be chosen. There’s even the old truth here that outlawing something sometimes makes it seem more attractive. I’m not going to let anyone tell me what to do!

None of this really explains much. It simply says that we make choices and that our choices are not always the wisest. It isn’t so much a consequence of something Adam did; it is that we are all Adam every day through all of time.

The passage from Romans puts it in terms of the affect of one person’s actions on other people, whether it is for good or ill (Romans 5:18-19). Paul was drawing upon a Hebrew understanding of psychology which did not draw sharp lines between the individual and the group. Every person’s act was an expression of the entire community and had an effect on the entire community. Jesus is the representative of the good which influences the whole and Adam is the representative of the sin which influences the whole.

Many of us are troubled if this is taken as a literal and rigid understanding of the dynamics of good and evil. At the same time, it calls us to recognize that our actions have consequences, that what happens in one generation reaches into successive generations unless unhealthy patterns are faced and broken. When we are overcome by the shadows within, those shadows fall upon people around us. We are not the only one’s to pay the price. It is also true that sometimes a good person has to pay a great price to bring healing light to the situation. Jesus was such a person, calling us to be among those who overcome darkness (our own and that of others) with light.

Healing light often comes in the form of forgiveness, one of the themes of Psalm 32. (See verse 1) Confession can be a way of facing the darkness, part of the road to healing light. (vss. 3-5)

Finally, the Gospel lesson focuses upon temptation. In Genesis it is Adam who is tempted; here it is Jesus. Matthew and Luke give similar accounts of Jesus’ temptation; Mark reduces it to two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Much has been written and many sermons preached about the nature of the three temptations (most commonly identified as temptations about the direction of his ministry—healer, miracle worker, powerful political figure). Perhaps Mark is right. All we need to know is that even Jesus was subject to temptation. Just as the God depicted in the Genesis story is very human, the Jesus we see in the Gospel lesson is very human. If we follow him, we will join him in temptations about the directions and priorities of our lives. Temptations require us to focus upon the choices we make and why we make them. Will we choose darkness or light?

Lent reminds us that it is a question that is always before us, and, in the end (or at the very beginning of his Gospel), the writer of John reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) There is darkness in each one of us but we can face it because the power of light is stronger. It is when we try to bury or ignore that darkness that it is most dangerous.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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