Disrupted Expectations

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41


I am 64, and Angie is just a few years younger. We understand why our children are the right age to raise children. Towards the end of last year’s Razorback football season, Michelle and Russell got tickets to a Hogs game. They asked if we’d keep LG. Of course, we would; what a silly question. Our answer was an exuberant yes. And we had a good time. At 2 LG kept us going. She got to us about 10 that morning and didn’t stop till she dropped asleep just about 9 that night. I slipped out to come here for Sunday morning about 7:30. LG was still asleep, and I am not sure when she got Angie up except that I’m sure it was earlier than Angie’s expectation. I got home, and they were off on some 2-years-old adventure. We packed her up and took her home. I’m not sure who was happier to see Michelle and Russel more, LG or Angie and me. We had a good time. But we were done. LG is all toddler disrupting every expectation, we had. We were glad to get back to our usual expectations.

About a month ago, we picked up Angie’s service dog in training, Burt. He is a mastiff shepherd mix. You have heard me say he is like having a 120-lb. toddler in the house. Just his size and exuberance has disrupted our expectations. On top of that, his arrival introduced a new player into the pack. Little rivalry has shown up. If Nugget comes to see one of us, both show up. If Nugget wants his head scratched, so does Burt. If Burt wants his tummy rubbed, so, does Nugget. Together 200-lbs of canine disturbance has been injected into our carefully choreographed daily expectations. Progress is being made. Not every canine move is now matched with a competing move. However, I have noticed it is a lot harder for Angie and me to see the disruptions than we thought it would be. And it is even harder for us to figure out how we should respond; where do we make adjustments? where do we enforce existing rules? What is really hard is to for us, is to change our expectations of what is right and our related behaviors. I feel just a touch, no more than that, I feel real empathy for the Pharisees and authorities in this morning’s, Gospel story because Jesus has arrived on the scene and has completely disrupted all their expectations.

The story begins with one of my favorite bible verses Jesus’ disciples asked him,

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

 Jesus answers:

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. (John 9:2-3)

A quick side note. We can all understand how the man’s parents might have sinned, at least we think we do, but that will come in a bit. But how in the world does a fetus sin? Well, it turns out it is a bit of Jewish Midrash speculation, think bible commentary on Gen 25:19 the story of Esau’s and Jacob’s fetal growth and birth, which was difficult enough to cause their mother, Rebekah, to plead to God (Sakenfeld). Why this is one of my favorite verses is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question. It is the thinking of the day that any kind of suffering is the results of some sin or another (Ellingsen). Jesus rejects that idea completely saying: (and this is a little bit of a different translation)

Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me (Vena).

Sin was not the cause of the man being born blind, neither was some mysterious divine need. He was just born blind. Now ~ now it is necessary for us, for Jesus and his disciples, to work the work God has given Jesus. Rejecting the notion of a connection between life’s suffering and sin, is the first disruption Jesus brings.

The Pharisees and authorities proclaim that Jesus is a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath (John 9:16). Jesus has previously argued, that if you can circumcise on the Sabbath, you can heal on the Sabbath (John 7:23). This is a rather broad argument. But here the sin is not just general healing but physical kneading, making the mud, and kneading is explicitly forbidden (O’Day). This accusation is very specific, and Jesus rejects it too.

Now the Pharisees, the leaders, some of the people and the, as of yet, uncertain, disciples seem to be thinking both the man and Jesus are sinners. The evidence against the man is that he is blindness. The evidence against Jesus is a violation of Sabbath rules. If you think there seems to be more than an incidental disagreement about the nature of sin here; you are correct, there is. In 1st century Israel, everyone understands sin is defined by moral behavior revealed by one’s actions. Jesus disrupts the world’s expectations by defining sin as a theological behavior, one’s relationship with God, specifically, accepting Jesus as a revelation of God  (Harrelson) (O’Day). It is a far bigger disruption, affecting many more expectations than healing or keeping Sabbath.

We see how the man’s neighbors, some Pharisees, and even his parents step away from him when the controversy arises. However, they have actually stepped away from him much sooner. Anyone could have helped him by giving him some meaningful thing to do, some purpose for life well before Jesus ever showed up. No one ever did (Kubicek). Karen Lewis drags this disruption right into the middle of our lives. She notes the questions we might ask:

  • Why should we help those when it hasn’t proven to help their performance?
  • What will the blind man now truly contribute to society?
  • What kind of results will he actually be able to produce anyway?
  • Isn’t he just a drain on our society?
  • Wouldn’t he then use up funds meant for hard-working folks like me?
  • Shouldn’t we dole out monies to people who can prove their worth?
  • Shouldn’t we make sure to take care of the ones who demonstrate that they can give back (Lewis)?

It sounds like an argument in many legislative chambers whenever supporting the marginalized is the subject of debate.

Everyone in Jesus’ day thought, and many people today think, sin is a moral behavior defect. We may argue about a specific moral action, say some sexual expression or another, or some financial scheme, but we rarely, if ever, debate the nature of sin. So, if sin is not a moral behavior defect, what is it? Jesus teaches that sin is all about our relationship with God; specifically, our accepting him, Jesus, as the one sent by God. This means that Jesus takes away the sin of the world simply by being here, and his being here means that through Jesus we can change our relationship with God. It is an invitation for us to allow ourselves to be transformed by the divine love that comes to us in the incarnate Jesus (O’Day). It is an invitation to see how Jesus’ world, how our world, marginalizes people, who are different than we expect, by legal and cultural subtlety that deny them the opportunity to support themselves or to be the image of God they are, with dignity (Vena).

In a blog this week Steve Pankey wrote:

The authorities’ unwillingness to see their stubbornness is most dangerous, it is easy to see only what we want to and this means we miss the good and the bad in our midst and also that the way of God is out of [our] sight (Pankey).

My Lenten questions for us are:

  • what are we, what are you, unwilling to see that obscures the good and the evil that surrounds us, that surrounds you?
  • What are you so unwilling to see, you accept that the way of God is out your of sight?

The Lenten challenge is:

  • are you willing for these expectations to be disrupted by the arrival of light of Christ?



Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 26 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 3 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kubicek, Kirk. “Light! Lent 4(A).” 26 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher On Being Found. 26 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Pankey, Steve. On being blind. 26 3 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1312346053>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 9:1-41. 26 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.






Unexpected Guides, Surprising Directions

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

The Jewish-Samaritan rivalry dates all the way back to the 7th century under Assyrian occupation. Temple was built at Gerazim and became the center of worship in the 4th century under Persian occupation. The Samaritans worship at this Temple, but the Jews believed that worship must be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although Gerazim was destroyed in 128 BCE, the schism continued at least to Jesus’ day. (Ellingsen, O’Day, Sakenfeld). It is part of the reason that the Jews avoided Samaria. When Jesus leaves Judea and heads back to Galilee, the typical route would be to go around Samaria. Jesus goes through Samaria. It has long been held it was simply a short cut. But if we listen closely we hear that John writes “[Jesus] had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). In truth, it becomes Jesus’ first venture into the rest of the world (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

I hope you have heard the contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as you listened to the John’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well. They are many, and they are interesting.

We have been so well (pardon the pun) taught all about the social dynamics between the woman, men, and Jews we overlook the scandal of the well. In the Old Testament, a well is an archetype for marriage  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian (Exodus 2:21). And Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at this very well (Genesis 29:1) (O’Day). We all know Jesus does not marry. However, the marital implication hints at the depth of intimacy in the story to come.

The encounter begins with Jesus’ polite request for water. The woman asks him Why are you asking me for water? Jesus answers If you knew me, you would ask me and I would give you living water. The term ‘living water’ has two meanings; it can be flowing water like a stream, or it can mean life-giving water. The woman misunderstands what Jesus is saying; sound familiar.

After their convoluted conversation and she asks for the water, that Jesus is really offering, Jesus, asks her about her husband. She says she doesn’t have one, and Jesus goes on to tell her all about her history with men. But note; there is not a single word of judgment; there is not a single word of forgiveness; because there is no need for one. The woman is likely barren, and her husbands have simply divorced and abandoned her. Jesus reveals that he knows all about the tragic story of her life, which she confesses is true. Jesus also knows she has been abandoned, again, and again and again and again. He knows she is lonely. And perhaps in the greatest gift of all, Jesus sees her; a beloved child of God made from the dust of the earth. Jesus values her (Lewis, O’Day, Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Thus, far their story has progressed from protest to misunderstanding to confession to divine recognition and love (Harrelson).

Now knowing that Jesus is a prophet, the woman risks asking him if the proper place to worship is Gerazim or the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “Gods is seeking those who worship him in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) Revealing more of her theological knowledge and understanding, the woman goes on to say I know the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies I am he. (John 4:26).

“I am” is an intentional referral to the revelation of God’s name to Moses (Exod. 3:14) (O’Day).This is Jesus’ first “I am” statement, the first full revelation of who he is, is to a rejected, abandoned woman, in a foreign land (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And in doing so, Jesus encourages her role as a witnessing disciple ~ before she even begins to act. As for the rest of the world, in doing so, Jesus crosses boundaries of gender, and race, and religious traditions (Vena).

This morning’s Gospel story opened with a lonely rejected woman coming to the village well to get water at high noon, hoping to meet no one; and she runs into a Jewish rabbi. She leaves the well having abandoned her water jar, her source of life, to go share her story (Hoezee). In her absence, the disciples arrive.

Jesus’ discussion with the disciples is quite cryptic. The language is all agricultural; you plant, and you wait for the harvest. The Messianic implications are that you wait for the Messiah. Jesus message to the disciples is that the waiting is over. Jesus is prompting his disciples to open their eyes and to see who the harvest is, that is already being gathered; in part, this is a reference to the woman who is in the village sharing her story at that very moment. Here we learn from John, the mission to the rest of the world is not after Jesus’ death or any other marker, the mission for the rest of the world beings right now (O’Day).

As this conversation is going on the woman has gone to town and is telling the villagers everything. She invites them to come and see, which is my favorite evangelical invitation. I suspect to everyone’s surprise they believe her, at least enough to follow her back to the well of life. When they get there, the villagers’ experience with Jesus expands their faith and believe because of their own experience (Vena). They invite him to stay, and that invitation has implications that they are seeking a relationship with Jesus (O’Day). What more could a witness ask for?

The story of Jesus meeting a woman at the well is the story of the making of a disciple. It begins with both the witness’ and the audience’s mutual vulnerability. Jesus risks talking to the woman. The woman risks accepting Jesus’ invitation. It grows as the audience lets go of their or our most precious traditions as we realize they do not nurture our relationship with God (Lewis). Discipleship grows as we as we are released from our fear of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us (Vena). We see traits of being an effective witness. The woman offers her experiences as they are. When she is, tentative or isn’t certain of the answer, she shares them as that; for example, she asks “Jesus really the Messiah?”; she shares that as it is. Curiously enough, it adds to her credibility. The woman brings the villagers to Jesus, and her job is now done, and her witness decreases, as did John the Baptist’s, as the villagers’ have their own personal experience with Jesus. If we can have our personal experience with Jesus, which we share with others, certainly these villagers can. A witness cannot replace an immediate experience with Jesus; a witness leads others to it. An effective witness knows salvation is offered on God’s terms and often is not in the terms a witness may have preconceived (O’Day).

It is a reasonable Lenten discipline to examine our witness of Jesus. It does not matter what our life’s experience is, whether we have been planted in the best soil or on the rocky path, either way, Jesus will nurture us. It does not matter the depth or certainty of our theological knowledge, and if you are here you have some theological knowledge; even if you don’t know what you know, Jesus will lead you into bearing fruit, which is continuing to do the work of God given to Jesus. It does not matter how long it takes, different fruit and crops mature at different rates. It does not matter how magnificent our story is; it only matters that we know our story, in Jesus’ story, well enough to share it.

Last week I invited us to consider Nicodemus, a leader with rank, education, and influence, to be our Lenten guide. Today I invite us to invite a woman, of unknown birth, without rank and without status, to join our team (Gaventa and Petersen). It seems our Lenten journey seems to be led by unexpected guides, showing us surprising directions to living waters.


Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 19 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 3 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 4:5-42. 19 3 2017.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 3 2017.

Kesselus, Ken. “Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A).” 19 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Holy Conversations. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 3 A: Living Water, Living Faith. 15 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 4:542. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.



I am Nicodemus

A sermon for Lent 2; Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Wednesday a week ago, we had a long power outage. Most it was a big inconvenience; especially at night. It was dark; really dark; scary dark. Then again, if you were outside and if you looked up, as we did, you saw a sight we rarely ever see, the stars; all of the stars. Stars you can only see if you are in the dark. The dark enables you to see the night sky in an entirely new way; it is an inspiring experience; all because it is dark; really dark; enabling dark. Wednesday, it was dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark.

Some Wednesday night some 2000 years ago, a leader of the Jews is walking through the dark. He is seeking the leader of a new and growing group of followers. The leader is a rabbi, known for signs, perhaps a miracle worker, Nicodemus may simply be curious about this Jesus. On the other hand, he goes to see him in the dark and nighttime is the traditional time to study Torah, so perhaps he is seeking an in-depth conversation (Vena). Then again, night time and darkness are metaphors for separation from the presence of God (O’Day; Harrelson) so perhaps this devoted community leader has his doubts, his questions about all their ways of life. Perhaps it more than curiosity, perhaps Nicodemus wants to see the Kingdom as Jesus, and his followers do. Whatever his reason Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and life is never the same.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born from ‘above.’ Nicodemus asks him How can one be born ‘again’? The confusion come from a word with two meanings; it means both ‘above’ and ‘again.’ Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking literally. And that causes him trouble mostly because,

to be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering [his] … honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status (Vena).

 Perhaps Nicodemus just simply misunderstood (Gaventa and Petersen). But, Gail O’Day writes

that Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous and intends Nicodemus to hear both meanings inviting him to explore below the surface seeking deeper revelations. But his imagination is not flexible enough (O’Day).

Next, Jesus using Nicodemus’ confusion about live birth says no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Paralleling the double meaning of ‘again’ and ’above’ Jesus connects entrance into the Kingdom with both live birth, and spiritual birth; birth in the flesh, and birth in the spirit; thus, connecting flesh and spirit, which is very much against the thought of his day (Harrelson; O’Day). He compares this to the wind which blows where it will. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘spirit,’ so Jesus connects new birth to the mysteries of free moving wind/spirit that is, quite simply, beyond our control (O’Day).

Comparing the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness also makes use of a double meaning word. ‘Lift up’ also means ‘exalt.’ Jesus exaltation is how we, by belief, have eternal life (Harrelson).

 For John, eternal life is defined by God, not as future immortality in heaven, but as a spiritual reality that can only be seen by those born of water and spirit as living in God’s unending presence right here, right now (Harrelson; O’Day; Vena). All this is too much for Nicodemus. And that is the intention. Nicodemus is intended to struggle with this trifecta of double meanings as he discerns what eternal new life, born from above, in water and spirit given by the raised up/exalted Son of Man really is. And so are we. The discerning struggle calls us into deeper and deeper listening to all Jesus shares that John recounts (O’Day).

This is not an easy trip for Nicodemus. He appears twice more; once saying that law requires that the Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52) (Sakenfeld). His last appearance is when Pilate give Jesus’ body to him and Joseph of Arimathea for burial (John 19:38-42) (Sakenfeld). Nicodemus is not alone in a long perhaps wandering journey to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who died so we could have life in God’s presence. It took all the disciples a long time, a good three years, to understand.

So, if you have questions or doubts; if you don’t quite get all the nuances of how Jesus’ death brings you life you are in good company. If you aren’t quite ready to toss off whatever honor and status you have in life and commit to being vaccinated against death by a dead, resurrected, ascended Jesus, neither was Nicodemus (Hoezee; Harrelson).

I know, we all know,

that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16).

We know it so well, it is trite. We believe it so strongly, it divides us. We know it so well, believe it so strongly that I doubt its Lenten value because it is too common, or too divisive to help us see ourselves and change our lives.

On the other hand, Nicodemus is a good Lenten model. He comes to Jesus full of expectations, ready to learn and misunderstands from the very beginning. He doesn’t understand life in God’s presence. He doesn’t understand water/flesh and the spirit as one, in the presence of God. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Moses, and the healing snake lifted up over Israel that saves them from death. He is bound to social customs of honor, prestige, and power he finds hard to give up. And so am I.

I hold miss expectations of Jesus and misunderstand his call if not daily, most certainly regularly. I look at the world and just don’t get life in God’s presence, especially in the here and now. There are too many people who are oppressed for arbitrary human divisions of race, gender, sex, skin color, national origin, faith, illness and lack of success. I believe; I have faith that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension makes a difference in this world. But the failure of corrupt justice that crucified Jesus is still far too prevalent, and so I doubt. And I ponder my own subtle complicity in all this corruption. I find it as hard to give up social customs of honor, prestige, and power that I benefit from as Nicodemus did. So I am drawn to confess; I am Nicodemus.

So, in so much as you find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing Nicodemus looking back, I invite you to invite Nicodemus to guide your Lenten repentance. However, beware, it is a journey that is dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark. It is a journey from misunderstanding born of darkness, to darkness born of burying the one who loves you.


Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. 12. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Jolly, Marshall A. “Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A).” 12 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. John 3:16. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse! 12 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 3:117. 12 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.




Desert Remembrances

A sermon for The 1st Sunday in Lent 1; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32,
Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

 I first met George a couple of decades ago. On several occasions, we had been a part of energetic conversations with several priests. We had also had many one on one conversations that ranged from trivial to spirited debate. One day we got to sharing more personal stories. He asked me “Where are you from?” I told him just what you would expect, suburban DeKalb, County outside Atlanta Ga. Our chatter continued. A bit later he asked me, “Where are your people from?” And I shared some of my parents’ ancestral stories. George shared some of his ancestral stories. That evening our relationship grew, and a deeper bond trust formed.

When people ask “Where are you from?” they are not always interested in your geographic history. When they ask you “Where are your people from?” they are not always interested in your ancestral pedigree. What they may well be most interested in is what kind of person you are. And a way of learning who you are is to listen to you share the stories of your origins, and the stories of your roots. It works because who we are is shaped by our communities, and is deeply formed by the community of our origins (Johnson).

On Ash Wednesday, we explored the meanings of dust and ash the two principle images of the day. We heard from the creation story:

 [that] the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7)

We also learned that dust is associated with the desert wilderness, its chaos and its danger (Gaventa and Petersen). In a very profound way an answer to “Where are you from?” and “Who are your people?” is “The wilderness.”

Just before this morning’s Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ baptism. It ends: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17) God’s words are heard by Jesus, and no one else. Jesus’ hears the affirmation of who he is. The very next verse tells us that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, which has an implication of to search (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament). I believe Jesus being lead into the wilderness right after he is told he is God’s son, is all about Jesus being in the place of his origins, the origins of all human life, the wilderness, so that he can reconnect to his origins, reconnect to his roots, and come to know who he is, and whose he is. David Lose writes that we cannot know who we are until we remember whose we are, and all of us are God’s because we are created by God. The temptation in Eden, has its origins in the snake, coaxing Adam and Eve into forgetting whose they are (Lose). The same principle is underneath all the temptations Satan challenges Jesus with.

Satan tempts Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. Notice that ‘stones’ is plural, there will be bread for many people. To do so, Jesus would put himself in God’s place reacting the story of manna in the wilderness (Boring). Jesus, remember he is God’s beloved son, and God will continue to care for him.

From the Temple pinnacle, Satan taunts Jesus to prove who he is by throwing himself off the because quoting psalms 91:11,

God 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’ (Matthew 4:6).

Jesus recognizes of Satan’s attempt to twist scripture to his purposes and away from God’s purposes. Jesus rebuffs the temptation, saying “you should not test God,” a reference to Israel’s testing God at Massah, when they were thirsty (Deuteronomy 6:16) (Olive Tree).

Next Satan takes Jesus to a mountaintop, a place where gods live, and a place where Moses meets God and offers him dominion over all the Kingdoms of the world. The temptation is for him to step into the role of The Emperor of Rome, rejecting his identity as the Son of God, and thus take on a rebellious role. Jesus remembers who he is; he remembers whose he is, he rejects worshiping anything, or anyone else other than God, his loving Father (Boring).

To hear all this as Jesus simply defeating Satan is to miss a larger picture. Audrey West writes:

  • Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38),
  • [Jesus] refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others (Matt 27:38- 44) while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross (Matt 27:46).
  • [And Jesus] turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness (West).

Jesus doesn’t merely resist or defeat Satan. Jesus is connecting to who he is and whose he is so that he is prepared to go into the world and follow the ministry God has given him to do.

On Ash Wednesday I invited you to choose a Lenten discipline. And an aspect of that discipline might include a kind of wilderness experience. It is a time and place that leads you back to your origins; Where are you from? Who are your people? Whose, are you? All of us have different origins. We are all from different parents and different places. Even if these are the same, we are born at different times, with different physical makeups, and we have developed different friends. No matter the similarities or differences of where we are from, or who our people are we all share two common traits. We are all made from the dust of the earth (Gen 2); and we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). We are God’s, more than that; we are beloved by God. May your Lenten journey renew your identity of who you are and whose you are. And in coming to know yourself may you come to know the ministry God/Jesus/Spirt is calling you to live.


Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 5 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 5 3 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Matthew 4:1-11 . 5 3 2017.

Johnson, Edwin. “Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A).” 5 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Choice Temptations. 5 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 1 A: Identity as Gift and Promise. 5 3 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

West, Audrey. Commentary on Matthew 4:111. 5 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.




Ashes, Dust, Life, and repentance

A sermon for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21



We have heard the readings for today. In just a minute I will recite the invitation to participate in the ancient rite of repentance and restoration to the life in the Church. The structure of the service comes from the fist BPC in 1549, with several revisions (Hatchett). Ove the years I have preached on the readings. I have used the time to teach about repentance which is more than giving up, some semi-desired good for 6 weeks; or taking on some temporary good. One thing I have never thought about is the central image of this evening – ashes: The prayer over the ashes includes the phrase you have created us out of the dust of the earth: The imposition of ashes includes the words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. So, what are the biblical images of dust and ash that might help us in the observance of a holy Lent?

Well the first is obvious, Genesis 2:7

 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

God formed us from the dust of the ground. In this creation, story dust is associated with the desert wilderness, and its chaos and danger (Gaventa and Petersen) A bit later we read that all living creatures are created from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:19). As often as dust is associated with life or abundance, we never seem to be rid of the dust in our house, dust is also frequently used to represent judgment, humiliation, grief, or mourning (Sakenfeld). The writer of Ecclesiastes notes (Cross References Gen 2:7):

 all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:5-8)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians  (Cross References Gen 2:7)

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)

You can hear the long complex use of ‘dust’ as it related to our lives, created, lived, and, died.

A similar word for dust is ‘ash’ In the bible ash is commonly associated with a personal or national crisis that provokes some ritual of fasting, indicating penitence. ‘Ashes’ designates a person or thing worthless, and symbolizes our mortality (Sakenfeld).

Some of the powerful uses of ‘dust’ and ‘ash’ in the church setting are at burials. In the Commendation, we hear:

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (BCP 499)

And a bit later, by the grave we hear:

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our [beloved] N; and we commit [their] body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. (BCP 501)


In all this, we hear the deeply complex relationship between ourselves, made in the image of God, our lives, for better or for worse, and our dying.

So, let’s see if we can connect all this. Out of the chaos of barren wilderness, God brings life out of dust, and not just human life, all living animals. Throughout scripture when God’s people get themselves in a mess, which is a common story, dust and or ashes is a symbol of repentance, or the intention to change their lives. As we heard in Joel, whenever there is a prophetic voice pronouncing doom and calling for repentance, there also a voice that announces God’s desire for divine restoration. In the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we hear the teacher proclaim all is vanity because in the end everything and everyone returns to the dust from whence it came. However, woven into the emphasis on vanity is the belief that really good can come from engaging in routines of life, for they are a gift from God (Sakenfeld). Paul tell the Corinthians

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).

The burial rite acknowledges that at death we all return to the earth, dust, and ashes. However, the rite is grounded in Easter, which is why we proclaim

yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.


In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ

The linkage of dust and ashes to life is, from dust and ash to life; in dust and ash we repent of broken bonds with the assurance of divine grace; at death, we return to dust and ashes trusting that we will know eternal life in God’s glorious presence. It is this circle of dust and ashes and life to life that gives Lent a purpose and our faith meaning.

Charles Hoffacker’s thoughts on Ash Wednesday focused on giving alms. He writes:

… alms releases us from a poisonous focus on ourselves, … [as we] recognize the need of our sisters and brothers, people made in God’s image, … we are humbled because we realize that what we can do is but little. [But in doing what we can] … we recognize how, in the face of human need, we are poor yet privileged (Hoffacker) (emphasis mine).

So, I’m not going to worry about doing Lent right. I can’t. Nobody can. Therefore, I invite you to join me to choose a discipline because as Hoffacker notes doing what we can will be valuable. And then let’s do our best to do justice; love kindness and mercy, trusting that as we fall short God continues to walk along side by side in our humble journey.



Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. book.

Hoffacker, Charles. “Give Alms! Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017.” 1 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.