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.


References

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>.

 

 

 

Lead Us Not To Temptation

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent; Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13, Psalm 91:12, 9-16

GS’s family has had a very hard time lately. Some three weeks ago, a grandmother had by-pass surgery. The surgery went well; the by-passes are fine; her heart is fine. However, her lungs have almost quit working, she is still incubated, was recently moved to special bed that flips over so the patient is suspended, which may take some stress off the lungs. And this past week ~ an adult child was killed in an ATV accident.

The specifics are unique; however, the circumstances are not. I know families of St. Stephen’s who face significant challenges, sometimes from multiple sources. I expect it may feel as if they have been led into the wilderness. In my experience, I know there is a temptation. In my experience, I know people ask “Why?” I believe that Jesus’ encounter with the devil has something to share with all of us as we find ourselves in the wilderness, or tempted from a time to time. So off we go into the wilderness.

It has been 40 days, and Jesus is famished from fasting. He has already faced the devil twice. From the top of the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, in the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish political and economic life, the devil taunts Jesus (Jones). He says:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you, up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

I’m certain the taunt sounds familiar; after all, we just heard it; the devil is citing Psalm 91 verses 11 and 12. It is possible to get into a debate about using scripture to fight scripture or how important knowing scripture is to face temptation (Rice, Jones). But, I want us to take a look at verse 2 of Psalm 91:

 “You are my refuge and my stronghold,
my God in whom I put my trust.”

How interesting it is to see, that the same Psalm the devil uses to tempt Jesus is one source of Jesus’ defense; which is Jesus’ trust in God. This is one of those places where we ought to be careful. We know Jesus is fully human, and also fully divine. It is tempting to think there is some sort of divine fail-safe that prevents Jesus from human frailty. Historically the church says no. Jesus’ humanity does not influence his divinity, and importantly for our story this morning, his divinity does not influence his humanity. What Jesus has, and so do we, is the presence of the Holy Spirit (Hoezee). What Jesus has, that we can develop, with the help of the Holy Spirit and each other, is trust in God. The Spirit does not give trust to Jesus though she may whisper reminders from time to time. Jesus’ trust grows from his life’s experience, how he witnesses his family’s and community’s worship discipline. Jesus trust is affirmed in his baptism, which comes just before this morning’s story.

We now see Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations because he trusts God. We also know his trust grows from his knowing the story of God, which is nurtured by his family and faith community and the presence of the Holy Spirit. So now let’s take a look at temptation.

We tend to think that temptation is the enticement of something to do, or to have, that is morally offensive, or those things the world loves and values, that the world defines as power, as opposed to a behavior or position that is morally righteous (Lewis). Temptation can be things that are normally good for us but become the singular focus of our lives (Expertly). Richard Rohr writes that temptations are those things that fling us away from the center of ourselves luring us into chasing stuff on the circumference of being (Rohr). And while this is what temptation is often made of, it is not what temptation is. What temptation is, is a diversion of whose we are and what we are. Temptation seeks to tell us:

 we are not God’s,
we are not made in God’s image,
that God does not really love us,
that we can be like God,
and that we can be independent of God (Jones).

Temptation entices us to change our identity. Jesus resist the temptation to give up his identity for an illusion or false promise, by trusting in God’s eternal love, by remembering that he is God’s and God’s alone (Rice, Jones, Rohr).

So, now we have some inkling of what temptation really is. We have some idea that Jesus’ trust enables him to resist temptation. We have a notion of how that trust develops, and we know that everything that Jesus had is available to us. There is one more concern, and it also arises from Psalm 91; verse 10 begins “There shall no evil happen to you.”

What about GS? What about all the tragedy that has befallen families in St. Stephen’s, and around the world? I know, you know that they are people of faith, even if it different from how we express ours, they are people of faith. So WHY? What have they done to bring such wretched calamity into their lives? Matthew writes that Jesus says for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). In John’s story of the man born blind the disciples ask him “Who sinned?” Jesus answers “No one.” (John 9). In Luke Jesus says the folks, who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, were no less righteous than those not killed (Luke 13:4). This reminds us that the events of life are not a measure of righteousness. There are no guarantees in life. When we pray our external reality may not change as we ask (Expertly). Somewhere along the line, Angie and I realized that life happens. The question is: will you let the vagaries of life define who you are, or will you reach back to eternal power to garner the strength to respond to the vagaries of life? In the language of today’s lessons: Will you let the vagaries of life tempt you away from God or will you trust God to help you discern and empower your response to the vagaries of life?

Luke’s wilderness temptation tale ends with the devil waiting for “an opportune time.” So, when the illusions, false promises or the vagaries of life are threating to fling you off into circumferential existence, trust the remembrance that you are created by God, in God’s image, who always has and always will love you. Know that you have everything Jesus had in the wilderness, you are marked as God’s own in your Baptism, and you are full of the Holy Spirit. And when temptation persists, seek out the faithful who will journey with you as you rediscover meaning, wholeness, and the shalom of life God wishes you to live.

 


 

References

Ellingsen, Mark. Lent 1, Cycle C (2016). 14 2 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 2 2016. <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. Lent 1. 14 2 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 4:113. 14 2 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Filled With the Holy Spirit. 14 2 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Rice, Whitney. “Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016.” 14 2 2016. Sermons that Work.

Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York: The Crosssbook Publishing Company, 1999.

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

 

 

 

Temptation, knowledge, wisdom and trust

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32

A workman is killed in an industrial accident; it’s all the more unusual, because the industry breeds dinosaurs. Investors get nervous and demand an independent evaluation. Dr. Ian Malcom, a mathematician who specializes in applying chaos theory to complex issues, is a part of the evaluation team. As he is introduced into the laboratory, he fascinated by the work, impressed by the science, unimpressed by the theories of control, [i] and somewhere along the line he mutters to himself: … just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Jurassic Park, dare devils, breast cancer, fertility, DNA splicing, Genesis and Matthew, are all interrelated.

We know the story in the garden, with Eve, the serpent and an apple. At least we think we do.

Eve gets involved in a conversation with a snake, Adam is in the background. The snake entices Eve into a conversation, the subtle focus is death. The outcome is her and Adam’s relationship with God changes from intimacy to shame. Their shame does not come from their disobedience but from the knowledge they gained in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Now they know they are naked, they know that they are not God, how much more naked can you be. In making loin-cloths they are hiding from themselves, just as they later hide from God.

The snake enticed them by saying they will be like God. That temptation reframes their relationship with God. Until this moment, Adam’s and Eve relationship with God was trust; from this moment on its generic, its about, its theoretical, and boundary laden. Before all this, knowledge arose from their trust in God. Knowledge is no longer automatically rooted in wisdom, the stuff of the tree of life.

There’s a version of the Cyclopes’ story, where they are offered the ability to see the future for the modest cost of one eye. They strike a bargain, and give up an eye. In return they can see the future. However, the only future they can see is their own death. [ii]

The Cyclopes tried to be more than they were, and in the end they were less than they were before. It’s a similar fate that befell Adam and Eve, who tried to be like God. It’s a fate that still befalls humanity, as we make our own attempts to be like God. It is the boundary between divinity and humanity that Dr. Malcom is pointing to: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

This week four articles from the New York Times caught my attention, with respect to the story of Genesis 3:
            The Genetics of Being a Daredevil,
            The Breast Cancer Racial Gap,
            F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That
                        Raises Ethical Questions,
and
            A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA.
All the stories are about some aspect of our understanding of DNA and humanities developing ability to manipulate it.

It turns out high risk athletics may not just be a learned skill. The willingness to engage in very risky behavior, as many Winter Olympic sports are, has an identified genetic component. [iii]  An interesting bit knowledge, perhaps with applications for recruiting, but otherwise innocuous. Right?

The story on breast cancer reports on multiple studies on the difference in mortality rates of black and white women with breast cancer. For some time it was believed there was a genetic factor that explained the difference. Tara Parker-Pope reports:

The research also dispels the notion that black women face a higher risk of breast cancer because of genetic differences. While they are at greater risk for some types of breast cancers, that doesn’t explain the widening mortality gap developing in a relatively short period of just two decades. [iv]

In the article on fertility Sabrina Tavernise reports on a technique that uses parts of three people to create an embryo. It is a treatment to correct a mitochondria defect, by replacing defective mitochondria with mitochondria from a healthy egg, either prior to, or after fertilization. Tavernise reports excitement about the science, and great concern about the implications and ethics. It’s an open question if this is a cure for disease or the beginning of designer babies. [v]

The final article is about a new way to edit DNA using bacteria. The process adapts parts of the immune system that makes vaccines work. Andrew Pollack quotes Emory University’s David Weiss:

The pace of new discoveries and applications is dizzying.  All of this has basically happened in a year … It’s incredible[vi]

And it is incredible, or is it the latest temptation to be like God?

Do not get me wrong, I am not against science, technology or modern medicine. If you’ve heard me talk, you know how excited I can get about science, and technology. And you see every week how much technology I use. However, as the article about breast cancer reveals such knowledge, for varied and vastly complex reasons, is not universally available. In itself that should give us cause to stop and ponder how such knowledge changes our relationships with each other, our relationship with creation, and our relationship with God. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness reveals at least a place to begin pondering.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven in to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days. Every temptation Jesus faces, the Hebrews faced in the wilderness, and early days across the Jordan. They fail every time. Jesus, succeeds where Israel failed. Underneath the temptations, to turn rocks into bread, to test the angelic command to keep him safe, and the lure of worldly power and wealth is the temptation to be like God, but more seditiously to not be who Jesus is ~ the Son of God. Judith Jones writes: Jesus defines “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God. [vii] Jones also notes the temptations are not over:

            After Peter acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of the living God, he rejects the possibility of Jesus’ death.

            On his way to crucifixion religious leaders taunt him, Son of God?  ~ Prove it!

            On the cross: Doesn’t God love you enough to rescue you?

All the temptations go right back to the snake’s twisting of Adam’s and Eve’s relationship with God. They could not obey, could not trust God. Jesus does. Can we?

Lent is a season of penitence, when we are to make concerted efforts to reorient our lives to God. From Genesis and Matthew, we learn that that basically means to trust God. It’s more complex, because ‘we’ is not the numerous ‘I’s in the room, we is the people of God, which is every human-being. So yes, we have our individual work to do, we also have our communal work, as a church, a city, a county, a state, a nation, and a world, in a vast cosmos to do.

Everything begins with: Is this who I am?  who we are? Does this improve relationships between ourselves? Does this improve our stewardship of the earth? Does this reflect the relationship God seeks to have with us? If there is any doubt that one answer is not a resounding YES we should pause, until we receive the wisdom for said knowledge to contribute to everyone living life on earth as it is in heaven.

 


[i] imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0002031/bio, Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park, 1993
[ii] Krull, 1983, imdb, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085811/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Genesis:
New Interpreter’s Bible, TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS,
Interpretation, Genesis, Walter Bruggemann
Scott Hoezee , cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php, This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next sunday is March 09, 2014 (Ordinary Time), This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Juliana Claassens

 [iii]  The New York Times, GRETCHEN REYNOLDS, PHYS ED FEBRUARY 19, 2014, 12:01 AM 37 Comments, The Genetics of Being a Daredevil
[iv] The New York Times, TARA PARKER-POPE, THE WELL COLUMN MARCH 3, 2014, 5:23 PM 68 Comments, The Breast Cancer Racial Gap
[v] New York Times, Sabrina Taverinse,  F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That Raises Ethical Questions, 2/25/2014
[vi] Andrew Pollack, New York Times, A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA, March 3, 2013
[vii] Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11 Judith Jones

Matthew
Hozee, ibid, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 4:1-11
New Interpreter’s Bible, M. EUGENE BORING, THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
Interpretation, Matthew, Douglas R.A. Hare