My best friend is a Hebrew School teacher in Brooklyn – one of the main responsibilities she has in this role is to prepare middle-schoolers for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. As a performer and a poet, she undertakes this endeavor with endless creativity, always coming up with new ways to engage young people in the richness of the Jewish tradition, and to help them locate their own unique place within it. The young people embroider prayer shawls, they create raps and rhymes in order to learn Hebrew letters and words, and they engage their Torah portions with awe and wonder, as if the text were alive, always being encouraged to make connections between the world we live in, and the world they encounter in these ancient stories.
There is one activity that she does with her students that I have become really fond of –the prompt is simple and goes as follows: the young people are instructed to identify ways that God is depicted and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. For example, some familiar images include God as a teacher, a father, a king or a ruler. In Exodus, God is called a “man of war” and Moses calls God an unchanging rock. The student’s attention is also drawn to more ambiguous terms that are used in the Hebrew Bible to talk about God, such as the word makom, which literally means “the place.” Rather than signifying a precise location, makom is a way of gesturing toward God’s revelation in time and space, and how God manifests in particular communities and is revealed in particular places. For instance, when Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac at Mount Moriah, makom is used to signify both the place where God has instructed Abraham to go, but also God’s closeness to Abraham there. As Jewish scholar Barbara Mann writes, makom, in this instance “indicates the biblical topography – in this case the heights – as well as the presence… of divinity.” Makom is any place where we meet God intimately in our lives, and in the Bible is variously depicted as a desert, a mountaintop, a wilderness, a winding road – not places on a map, per se, but times in our lives when we are disoriented and must pay close attention to where God is leading us.
Next, the students are asked to think about how each of these images of God help to shape our understanding of ourselves – and by that I mean: if God is _____ than we are ______. So, using some of the examples that I just named:
· if God is a judge, than we are people who have erred and are in need of mercy.
· If God is a teacher, than we ought to listen, learn and observe.
Those analogies come pretty easily – but what about if God is makom, the place? I encourage you to think about this for a moment. (Silence).
As I think about it, if God is the place, than perhaps we are pilgrims or travelers, seeking rootedness, disoriented, but always wandering on the terrain of God’s loving-kindness, whether we know it or not.
On Wednesday when I had ashes imposed on my forehead, I was thinking of this image as I heard the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If we are dust, than it seems God is the place from which we came to which we are always coming back to. I think of it as a blessing that our scriptures give us so many images for who and what God is, and how what it means to be in relationship to God. I am especially grateful that starting with the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season when we are reminded that although our lives are fragile, God’s love for us is unfathomably strong, and whether we are wandering through the temptations of the wilderness or walking on the road to Jerusalem, following Jesus to the Cross, God is the solid ground under our feet – the context in which our whole lives take place.
Today we hear the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – the wilderness, I think, is makom: it is a place that represents Jesus’ trusting relationship with God, and it is a potent reminder of human vulnerability, on one hand, and divine strength on the other. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan, who desires to outsmart him and cause him to disobey God. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a test of sorts: how bad are his hunger pangs that he would be tempted to turn a stone into a loaf of bread in order to eat? How compelling is his desire for power that he would follow Satan in order to have all of the kingdoms of the world handed over to him?
There Jesus is, famished and weak, vulnerable to temptation – a very human moment in the narrative of his life. But he also trusts in the strength of God’s promise to him, and knows that he will not be abandoned there. This temptation seems to foreshadow what we know will happen on the Cross: the jeers and taunting and humiliation that Jesus will endure, his body hanging in a posture of ultimate weakness, nailed to a cross, tempted to believe that God has forsaken him, but trusting in God’s strength nonetheless.
Human weakness and the strength of God. These are the realities that we encounter and move between in these forty days: we encounter our own weakness as we reflect on the ways that we sometimes sin and miss the mark, so to speak, failing to treat our neighbors as ourselves. We hold grudges, we don’t ask for help when we need it, we judge others and the world through our limited perspectives, failing to see how each person encounters God in a unique place, in a unique way. We encounter our own vulnerability as we are reminded that life is fleeting, and that our bodies will not last forever.
The poet Christian Wiman grapples with this in his lyrical autobiography, My Bright Abyss, which was written shortly after he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. He writes, about his own frailty, saying -- “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ's weakness equals… strength.”
What Wiman seems to be saying here is that in Christ, strength and weakness are altogether bound up in one another, and more, that our own weakness – our own tendency to give into temptations of power or ease or material stability – is reconciled through Christ’s total trust in the strength of God.
Thinking back to the concept of makom – the place or places where we encounter God – I want to leave you with a few questions to ponder today, and throughout these next forty days:
In the terrain of your life, where are you feeling closeness (or distance) from God?
Where is the place where the wounds of Christ are touching your wounds?
Where is the place where God’s strength is yearning to meet your human weakness?
I want to close in the words of our collect for the day, which I think is so powerful as to bear repeating: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” Amen.