Torah is the law of God and is recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament or the Pentateuch as our Jewish friends would call it. Torah consists of 613 commandments passed down by Moses. Of the 613 commandments there are 365 negative commandments or “thou shall not” commandments and 248 positive commandments or “thou shall” commandments. The commandments can be further divided into laws, testimonies, and decrees. Laws being somewhat self-evident like don’t murder or steal. Testimonies being the way in which something is to be observed like holy days. Decrees being those things with no known rationale and thought to be of divine will. All of the commandments could not be kept by everyone—some are specific to men or women, some are specific to geographic location like when in Jerusalem—but the understanding was that you were to keep the commandments, at least whichever ones pertained to you.
The keeping of Torah was meant to be a way in which people lived together in unity and maintained health. The circumstances of life in the ancient world of Moses’ time were nomadic: tribes and herdsmen who dealt with the constant threat of disease and war and famine. We read those stories over and over again in the story of the Hebrew people. The rules that get established is how to keep the community—people and animals—safe. They are religious in context and perspective because the twelve tribes of Abraham understand their sole purpose as being YHWH”s people. As the people grow and change, experience successes and failures, the rules don’t change with them—they become a rigid understanding of how the people are to relate to God and the God that they understand becomes much more rigid, limiting their life with 365 thou shall nots rather than broadening their lives with only 248 thou shalls.
We don’t follow Torah, but I think we still fall into that trap. We get focused on what we shouldn’t do—especially when someone else is doing it—rather than on what we should do. We live in a part of the world that defines salvation according to a negative judgment. Instead of our starting point being that we are beloved children of God, for many of our friends and neighbors that starting point is that we are sinners in need of redemption. It is difficult to find common ground with two such extreme viewpoints.
Yes, Adam and Eve fell in the Garden. Yes, the Twelve Tribes of Israel forsook God and did what was evil in his sight over and over and over again. Yes, we, the people of God known as Christians continue to fall victim and slave to temptation disappointing God and denying God even to the present day. But if our starting point is a hole we have to climb out of, I’m not sure we ever can.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. It is not a do-over period for failed New Year’s resolutions nor is it a forced period of conscription for giving things up. It is also not the hole we have to climb out of each year in order to find Jesus’ saving grace at the foot of the cross. Lent is not the time we spend beating ourselves up for what we shouldn’t do. Lent is the opportunity to reestablish right relationship with God and with one another. It is the opportunity for us to remember our belovedness.
Lent is a season of preparation. In the early church it was a time in which all were invited to observe through periods of fasting, penitence, the giving of alms, and prayer but it was also that time in which new converts to the faith were prepared for baptism through instruction of the catechism. That baptism happened at the Easter Vigil—the most ancient of our liturgies. In baptism we die to self and are born again into the risen Christ—we are brought back into our beloved state of which we were first created.
Adam and Eve were the first of the beloved children of God. They were given Eden—a perfect garden home. In that place all their needs were cared for but apparently not all of their wants. They were easily tempted and succumbed to the delights of a forbidden fruit which promised so much more than what they knew—it promised them the wisdom of God. That wisdom will come with a price—mortality and banishment from Paradise—but it will also offer distraction. They will forget their belovedness and fall into despair and time and time again their children and their children’s children will move further and further from the knowledge that they are beloved children of God.
But the truth is that we are still beloved. Jesus came to remind us of that. He told us over and over again about God our Father. He healed us, fed us, washed us of our sins, gave us new life, stood up for us in the face of darkness and evil and yet we still doubted—we still could not accept our belovedness. He fought the powers of evil, of the devil, of Satan. He gave the ultimate sacrifice, himself, dying on a cross that we might have everlasting life. And yet, we still doubted, we still wondered, we still allowed the adversary to lead us into temptation, into distraction.
This is our weakness—the distractions that Satan places before us. The ones Jesus could so easily defeat, even in his state of hunger and weakness. Jesus is not distracted by a desire for food, or power, or authority. He will not turn stones into bread or test God or worship the devil. But we will. Time and time again, we will forget our very belovedness and turn to the easy way, the short cuts, the opportunities to indulge the self. We will wear the title of sinner in need of redemption and champion the cause of our eternal judgment simply because we have forgotten. We have forgotten what happened that cold, starry night so long ago in a stable in Nazareth. We have forgotten what happened on that place called Golgotha. We have forgotten that when the stone was rolled away the tomb was empty.
You and I, we are the children of a God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Yes, we will eat of forbidden fruit. We will shout the words “crucify him!” We will deny our God in every conceivable way we can throughout our lives. But God, who has already redeemed us, will look upon us as his beloved children because that is who we are—the beloved children of God.
In whatever way you observe this holy season of Lent, I pray that it reminds you of your belovedness. Amen.
Lent 1A: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Church of the Ascension – Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 1, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer