Fig Leaves

First Sunday in Lent                                                                      Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Year A                                                                                               Romans 5:12-19
March 9, 2014                                                                                 Matthew 4:1-11 

Jesus as the “son of God” is an important theme in Matthew’s gospel – from the very beginning when he applies the words of the prophet Hosea to the infant Jesus, “out of Egypt have I called my son;” to his baptism; to the Transfiguration; to the last words spoken over Jesus on the cross by the Roman centurion, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 

Yet Matthew is also aware that it is an ambivalent term. Every king of ancient Israel was known as “God’s son” as was every emperor of Rome in Matthew’s own time. And so we see Jesus today, fresh from his baptism, with those words, “This is my beloved son” undoubtedly still ringing in his ears, come face-to-face with the tempter, whose opening attack is to challenge this identity, “If you are God’s son, prove it.” That same challenge followed Jesus his whole life, right up to the moment of his death. And it follows us as well. 

“Oh yeah? Prove it!” are often the last words heard before a playground scuffle. Later that familiar and insidious plea, “C’mon, prove that you love me!” And so on into adulthood – Show me you deserve this! Prove to me you’re worthy! Aren’t you a team player? The power of this attack, and the reason we so often let it lead us into places we do not wish to go, is that it goes straight to our self-understanding, our self-identity, and threatens to expose our underlying vulnerability. 

It goes all the way back to the beginning. That is what the story of the Fall tries to tell us. Only it isn’t really a fall from some supposed perfection. Rather, it is a failure. The story represents humanity’s failure to live into the fullness of what it means to be human; and the sheer genius of the story is that it does so by showing us the birth of shame. “They knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” The moment they ate the fruit of the tree, they did not, in fact, gain knowledge of good and evil. What they gained was an awareness of the profound vulnerability that is the human lot. What they gained was an awareness that they had reached too far and fallen short, and that failure was exposed for all to see. That was the nakedness which had to be covered up. That was the shame which continues to breed distrust within the human heart towards God and towards one another. You think you’re so smart? Prove it! 

So this is the attack the tempter uses. By highlighting Jesus’ vulnerabilities – his hunger, his physical frailty, his lack of power – the tempter hopes to lure him into a vain and ruinous attempt to “prove” that which it is not his to prove. By his answers Jesus shows that he knows that it is God who has proven and will prove again and again that Jesus is God’s son. Jesus only has to be faithful to what he already is – a human being, made in the image and likeness of God, God’s beloved child. 

So no, nobody can turn stones into bread; but the children of God receive from God all that they need. And no, the created cannot demand miracles from the Creator; but the children of God trust that God will see them through every twist and turn of life. And no, no one person could rule all of Satan’s kingdom and keep her or his humanity; but the child of God can announce the presence of God’s kingdom, and work for its fulfillment on this earth. 

We are the children of God; and we have nothing, we have done nothing we need to be ashamed of before God. Please understand, I am not saying we have not made mistakes, perhaps serious ones. I’m not saying that we do not have to make changes in our lives, because you know that I think we do. And surely the first change to make is to realize that as the beloved children of God, we do not need to hide behind fig leaves. When we bare our lives, our hearts to the God who created us in love, then healing and renewal begins – whatever is crooked in us can be made straight, whatever is broken can be made whole, whatever hurts can be healed. But if we keep hiding behind fig leaves, ashamed of what we are, we will fall prey to the tempter’s trick every time. 

As a Lenten discipline this year, try giving up some fig leaves. There’s the fig leaf of guilt, the fig leaf of pride, or of self-pity, or of envy. You know as well as I all the disguises we use to prove ourselves and to hide our failure. The discipline of Lent is not meant to punish us, though if we make an honest effort, it is indeed difficult. Rather, Lent is meant to show us the joy and the beauty that are rightfully ours as the daughters and sons of God.