From Point A to Point B

(sermon 3/5/17)

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First Reading:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” 

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

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Second Reading:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11)

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Starting this past Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – and running up until Easter, we’re in the church season known as Lent. You know that – we all know that. But what’s this season all about? How did it get started? And for that matter, why do we even call it “Lent,” anyway?

Well, the answer to that last question is simple. Lent is an Old English word; it isn’t really a religious word at all. It’s still a part of modern-day English; it’s survived as our word “length,” and this season was first called Lent because it’s the time of year when we’re moving out of winter and the days are getting longer.

But the observance of this season in the church year goes a lot further back than that Old English word. In fact, other than Easter itself, Lent might be the oldest of Christian observances. In the early days of the church, new members were baptized and brought into membership once a year, on Easter, after a year’s worth of education and nurturing in the faith. Lent was the last stage of this process, and it was meant to be a time for both the incoming and existing members alike to take time to refocus themselves on the true meaning of their faith and their commitment to follow Christ. It was kind of like pulling out your old Confirmation workbook and reviewing all the things you learned during that process, and thinking and praying about its ongoing significance in your life now.

Over time, though, the church started to baptize new members throughout the year instead of just Easter, and the importance and symbolism of Lent was diminished, or at least changed a bit. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the observance of Lent began to focus much more on the aspect of penitence. It became a 47-day meditation of how sinful and unworthy we were in God’s eyes, and spending this time in prayer and fasting while seeking God’s forgiveness.

Well, penitence is certainly a good thing, and I’m sure it will always be a part of Lent. But I think that Lent would be more meaningful and beneficial to us if we tried to reclaim a bit more of its original intent. If we saw it as a time for a summary review of our faith – examining what we say we believe, and refocusing ourselves on those things. Refocusing on God’s faithfulness to us shown throughout history, and on our faith in God. Recommitting ourselves to these things, these beliefs, being the guiding force in the way we live. That would definitely include penitence, but as only one piece of a larger, and frankly more hopeful, spiritual practice.

The Old and New Testament Lectionary texts throughout Lent are designed to help us do that – to get from Point A in Lent – Ash Wednesday – to Point B, Jesus’ crucifixion. They’ll do this by recounting for us two related and important overarching stories. The Old Testament passages will summarize the entire arc of the history of the Hebrew people, beginning with God’s faithfulness to Adam and Eve, and their giving in to temptation and sin that we heard today; and going all the way to the time of the later prophets, and God’s promise that renewal, rebirth, resurrection was coming. And the New Testament readings will be a summary of the entire message of the gospel – starting with Jesus’ faithfulness to God and his successfully resisting temptation and sin that we heard today, and going up to the point of the first profession, in John’s gospel at least, that Jesus was Lord.

As we go through these readings in the coming weeks, try to remember what you’ve heard. Try to keep building those stories together in your mind. Think about how the two stories being told are related, and how they speak to each other. Also, in the midst of a lot of these passages, you’re going to hear references to water. When you hear them, think about what the significance of the water is, especially in a place and culture where water was often scarce.

We’re beginning a journey together, you and me, a forty-day journey similar to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness that we heard about this morning. As we go through our own forty days, as we hear these stories unfold, let’s consider what application they have for us in our own lives. Let’s take this time seriously as we travel from Point A to Point B, just as they did in the early days of the church. Together, let’s pray, and reflect, and repent, and reconnect.

Thanks be to God.

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The First Temptation of Christ – Sermon March 9, 2014 (Lent 1A)

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Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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I was a little disappointed when Mack started last Sunday’s sermon talking about movies, because I knew I was going to mention a movie this week, too, and I don’t want you to get “movied-out.” But instead of a Harold Ramis comedy, this week I was thinking of the Martin Scorcese film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” It popped up on my Netflix account as a recommended movie for me a while back. It was a very controversial film when it came out in 1988; a lot of religious groups were upset, saying they thought the plot was scandalous, blasphemous, and I didn’t see the movie back then because I thought that was what a good Christian was supposed to do – at least, that’s what all the preachers on TV seemed to be saying. But now, all these years later, when Netflix recommended it to me, I decided to give it a shot. And it turns out that it’s actually a really good, very thought-provoking film.

It isn’t a simple retelling of the story of Jesus’ life that we have in the gospels. It’s a fictionalized account – a story – focusing on Jesus’ very human nature – how he felt, what he was thinking; a hypothetical filling in of the gaps of the story as we know it in the gospels. It’s intended to make people think, to wonder, to look at things from a different vantage point than they’re accustomed to.

Near the end of the movie, we see Jesus nailed to the cross, being ridiculed and insulted by some of the bystanders – if you’re really the Son of God, save yourself. Come down off the cross and live. And it’s at this point, in a way that’s unclear whether it’s really happening or if it’s just a pain-induced hallucination, Jesus sees what looks like a young girl, who tells him that she’s his guardian angel, and that this is all a mistake. God doesn’t want him to die. God wants him to live, and to enjoy all the love, the beauty, the comforts that God wants human beings to experience. If Jesus is willing, she can help get him down off the cross. The next thing we know, we see her removing the nails and helping Jesus down off the cross. He doesn’t die. Then we watch Jesus go on to live a normal, respectable, average life. He gets married, has a family, enjoys his trade. We see him eventually become an old man. But it’s only when he’s on his death-bed, and with the help of Judas Iscariot of all people, that he realizes this is all wrong. That the young girl isn’t his guardian angel at all, but Satan, the great tempter. That to give in to the temptation of a long, normal life results in no salvation for humanity, no ushering in of the rule of God on earth. Finally, Jesus realizes and accepts this truth, and immediately we find him back on Golgotha, back at the cross he was bound for, and bound to. And then, having resisted this – this “Last Temptation of Christ” – he painfully, but willingly, dies.

If that was the last temptation of Christ, the gospel passage we heard today could be called “The First Temptation of Christ” – the story of Jesus having just been baptized, and beginning the journey of his earthly ministry by going out into the Wilderness and being tempted by Satan. At least, it’s the first temptation we learn about in the gospels, although I suppose there had to be earlier ones in his life, too.

Did you ever think about that – what it must have been like, growing up Jesus? Have you wondered if he was ever tempted to use his super-Jesus powers to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win the ball game for his team? Or if he was ever tempted to tap into the divine omniscience that he’d set aside when he became human, to get a little extra help on his science mid-term? I don’t know; maybe there’s a reason we don’t know anything about Jesus’ teenage years.

Well in any case, this passage from Matthew details Jesus’ more serious temptation, and his resistance to it. Resistance – that’s the theme we’re asked to think about, to meditate on, this first Sunday in Lent as part of our “Cross-bound” Lenten devotional series. And whenever we think about resistance, at least in terms of our lives of faith, we usually think of it in terms of trying to resist against things that are bad – bad in God’s eyes, bad for us. Whether it’s greed, or pride, or vengefulness; drug or alcohol abuse, sexual immorality, whatever sort of sins we’re particularly tempted by, we struggle with resistance against them.

That is an important kind of resistance that we need to consider as we go through this Lenten season. We do need to recommit ourselves to resisting those bad things, with God’s help. But there are other kinds of resistance that we should think about, too. One of them is resistance against the challenge we find in hearing God’s word to us. A lot of times, there isn’t any real discernment problem about what direction God is pointing us; it can be pretty obvious. The resistance in this case is that we know full well that that direction is going to have consequences. Following where God is leading is going to come at a cost. A cost in money. A cost in lifestyle. Maybe a cost in career. A cost in time commitments, in adjusting our priorities. Sometimes, we know perfectly well what God wants of us, and we try to run in the opposite direction, like Jonah in the Old Testament, because of the cost we know we’ll pay. At the beginning of “The Last Temptation of Christ, before the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he’s resisting God’s call to him. He doesn’t want to do it. He wants to lead a normal, respectable life in the eyes of the people around him. He feels hounded by God’s call, and because of the cost he knows he’d have to pay if he follows God, he takes on commissions in his carpentry shop to make crucifixion crosses for the Roman occupiers. He figures this would be such an appalling thing in God’s eyes that God would get upset at him and leave him alone. And sometimes, we try to do things just as silly, and maybe just as destructive, in an attempt to run away from the cost that comes along with listening to God. There really isn’t any question about it, sometimes – often times – following God can have serious claims, serious consequences on how we live our lives. Sometimes, following God can be absolutely, downright ugly. 

There’s another kind of resistance we need to think about, too: the resistance, as crazy as it might sound on the surface, to all the good, the love, the acceptance that God offers us. Sometimes, we’ve messed things up so badly, we’ve done such stupid or harmful things, that we start to think God wouldn’t want anything to do with us. We’re just too flawed for God. We can get so worn down by day-after-day problems and sadness, whether from things outside our control or of our own doing, that life just becomes a constant grey fog bank of emotional numbness, and we can think we don’t even deserve to know God’s goodness and joy. 

But that’s the whole reason Jesus made his whole cross-bound journey, from birth to baptism to crucifixion to resurrection: to show that no matter what, God loves us and has accepted us, long before we ever messed up, long before we could do anything to accept God. God has chosen to break the rules of conventional wisdom, logic, and supposed fairness that tells us we’re unworthy of God’s love, and to treat us as completely worthy of love, and joy, and good anyway. That’s God’s good news. That’s the gospel: to not deceive ourselves, to not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the great lie that tells us God couldn’t possibly love the likes of us. Jesus’ message – the message of the gospel – is to not resist the good that God offers us. 

So this Lenten season, when we think about our own faith journey, our own cross-bound lives of faith, let’s consider the different ways that resistance plays into things. I guess in a way – and not in the particular order I just mentioned them – we need to think about resistance in three ways: resistance to the good, the bad, and the ugly. But that’s another day’s movie. 

Thanks be to God.