Our Journey Begins

A Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent; Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

 

Last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Wednesday we started our Lenten count down, a forty-day journey that brings us to Good Friday. This morning the journey follows Jesus’ Baptism, where his identity as the God’s Beloved Son is revealed. Following a short history of his ancestry, we hear how Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, is lead into the wilderness. The wilderness is unstructured space and time a chaotic primal state of waste and void, the very antithesis, exact opposite, of the divinely created cosmic order. On the ground, it is the haunt of wild predatory animals, a place of demons and angels. In our souls, it is a place of existential limits, a journey to knowing our deepest, innermost selves; a time of transformation (Sakenfeld).

In this wilderness, Jesus is tempted by the devil. This temptation is difficult for us, not because we are not capable of resisting temptation, we are; however, we live in a time when many people reject the notion of the devil (Tew). I have my concerns that belief in such a being, as the personification of evil, allows us to escape responsibility for our own decisions and actions, both as individuals and collectively, as businesses or governments or other organizations. I also have concerns, that the rejection of any notion of the devil or tempter, or some sort of divine tester leads us to reject the notion of evil. In the last 8 weeks or so we have seen that evil exists, what is it 7 killings, including one over a hamburger. That a human life is less valuable than a hamburger is a sign that evil is present, somewhere, somehow. Evil exists and is the source of Jesus’ temptation, and ours as well.

The word ‘devil’ here is a cognate word, or a similar word to ‘Satan’ in Hebrew; think of the Satan in Job, who is the accuser, the tester, and a member of God’s court. This can help us to slightly shift the emphasis of Jesus’ wilderness experience from a contest between Jesus and Satan, to a time of experiential learning, in which Jesus, fully human, fully susceptible, fully at risk to all the faults we are, as Job did, discerns something not only about God but about himself.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo and Sam are wondering if Strider is a friend or evil? Sam notices his dirty, scrubby looks, and abrupt behavior. Fordo replies something like If he were evil, I suspect he would look fairer and smell worse. In short evil, and or temptation present themselves cleverly. We are seldom tempted by evil things, much more often we are tempted by good things that divert us from our relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit (Epperly). The devil doesn’t challenge Jesus’ identity as the Son of God; in fact, the devil uses his identity; the temptation challenges how Jesus lives into his identity (Jacobsen). Will Jesus choose to fully embrace his mission, and fulfill his divine mission (Harrelson), or will he use his divine gifts for his own self-interest (Gaventa and Petersen)? Yes, we witness Jesus resist this round of testing. Because we know the rest of the journey to come, we also know Jesus continually resists similar temptations throughout his ministry, even the final opportune time (Culpepper).

I mentioned that Jesus is fully human, fully susceptible, fully at risk to temptation as we are. This excludes any notion that Jesus’ equally full divinity, is some sort of failsafe that keeps Jesus from falling to the temptations he faces in the wilderness, and throughout his ministry (Hoezee). Given this truth, what is the source of Jesus power to resist? This morning’s story begins with Jesus full of the Holy Spirit. Throughout his ministry, we witness the power of the Spirit in Jesus’ life. He frequently prays, often retreating to a quiet place to pray, and most always before any big decision. The presence of the Spirit is revealed in the company Jesus keeps, a compassionate presence to outcasts, lepers, sinners, those who are sick, blind, dying, those who are marginalized: sinners, tax collectors, women and children (Culpepper). Allan Culpepper notes that Jesus’ life and ministry follows the Shema, Israel’s confession of faith:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Culpepper).

We are more familiar with it as the first and second law (Luke 10:27). In the temptations and his life and ministry, Jesus follows the Psalmist’s advice, keeps his focus on God, discovering and drawing on God/Spirit’s loving presence and power (Psalm 91) (Epperly).

For the next five weeks, we will follow Jesus’ journey to Good Friday. While we explore his journey, we have the opportunity to explore our own journey. Jesus has a vocation revealed in his baptism; we also have a baptismal vocation. Jesus time in the wilderness is not limited to these forty days, elements of the wilderness are present throughout his life and ministry. Life today, with all its distractions, social media gathering likeminded people, rejecting any thought that differs, the lure of beauty, wealth and prosperity as the singular signs of success, the rush to judge of people who are different than we are (Romans 10:8-13), the willful failure to till and tend the land, given us as a divine responsibility (Genesis 2:15) are all signs of the wilderness in which we live, move, and have our being; are all sources temptation. For the next five weeks, indeed for the rest of our lives we will face the decision to be who we are, beloved children of God, made in the image of God, to follow our calling to love God and to love each other, or to reject our baptismal vows and act in our self-interest. For the next five weeks and more we have the chance to trust the divine promise revealed in the Psalmist’s verse:

Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him,
because he knows my Name (Psalm 91:14).

For the next five weeks and more we have the opportunity, to begin our journey, to stop, pray and seek the presence of the Spirit, we have the opportunity to trust that the Spirit, present for Jesus, through his wilderness and ministry journey, is present for us right here, right now. Our journey will be long, it will be challenging, it will be dark, and through it, we can, as Jesus did, discern something of God’s love, and something about ourselves as God’s beloved.


References

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – The First Sunday in Lent. 10 3 2019. <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 Luke 4:1-13. 10 3 2019.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13. 10 3 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

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

Tew, Anna. “Jesus, Daniel, and Johnny, Lent 1 (C).” 10 3 2019. Sermons that Work.

 

 

 

Avoidance

A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent; Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

Ash Wednesday, we explored the story of Esau selling his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of “red stuff” or lentil stew. We asked how lentil stew is present in our lives? We asked what have we sold our Christian birth-right for? We will continue exploring these questions throughout Lent, by looking at three things in each gospel reading: What is Jesus doing in the Gospel? How do the disciples, the people, and/or the authorities react? How do we ~ you react?

This morning we go back to the verses the follow Jesus baptism. We heard Mark’s version of Jesus being driven into the wilderness. There is none of the familiar back and forth between Satan and Jesus, there is just Jesus, 40 days of temptation, the wild animals, and the angels. After that Jesus comes to Galilee preaching ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.’ Mark 1:15 (Olive Tree).

Beyond his words, it doesn’t appear that Jesus has or is doing anything. However, Jesus’ ministry is closely connected to John’s ministry. And John was very good at his job of pointing to Jesus. People were coming from all over the place to hear him. And John is always clear he is not the messiah. And then Jesus shows up (Johnson). And anyone could see, everyone could see, that Jesus is different, Jesus ~ is the one John has been talking about.

John’s arrest is not caused by Jesus’ appearance. However, from a story telling standpoint, it is an effective way for John to leave the stage to Jesus.

There are also the details of Jesus’ language. The word for time is not clock time, it means the right time, i.e. now is the right time. It references the Hebrew prophecies of God’s kingdom. The word ‘kingdom’ means ‘reign’ (Keener and Walton). Jesus is announcing the arrival of God as the undisputed King over all people and all creation (Harrelson). Another clue is that the verbs indicate that his action is continuing in Mark’s time and into the present time (Harrelson). There is no doubt Jesus is intruding, bringing God’s judgement into the present both then and now (Black). To prepare for such judgement, people are called to make a radical turn and trust only in God, and no longer rely on worldly insurance policies of social, political or religious institutions (Perkins). All together it is a challenge to both existing ruling parties in Israel, the Jewish Temple, and religious authorities and the Roman Empire.

Now we have a glimpse of what Jesus is doing. What about the responses? Although the timing is before Jesus wilderness adventure and preaching, John’s arrest reveals the response of the authorities. If John is arrested simply for pointing out the messiah, we can imagine their response to the one who is the messiah. At least Herod Antipas, the local representative of Roman authorities, is a threat to Jesus.

So far, we have explored how Jesus preaching the Gospel of the presence of the Kingdom of God and we see how that attracts the active ire of the Roman authorities in John’s arrest. What about our response to the intrusive presence of God.

Last Monday David Brook’s column explored the world of the early 90s. Then it was all very good news. There was the reunification of Germany, the liberation of Central Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Oslo peace process. It was a time of abundance. But, there was outlier event, the breakup of Yugoslavia along simmering nationalist loyalties. Brooks see this as an indicator of our times in which we experience the financial crisis, a shrinking middle class, the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – spreading to Syria, Yemen, and beyond and how limited resources lead to conflict (Brooks). The shooting in Florida on Wednesday brings the violent nature of American society once again into the lime light. The Senate’s failure to pass any of the 4 immigration bills on Thursday indicates our political and social inability to make hard decisions. Both are a response of a culture of scarcity, whatever it is, there isn’t enough of it, so I/we will do whatever it takes to keep what is mine, and deny whoever, whatever is in the way.

And the lentil soup? Well, I am wondering if there are two bowls of lentil soup. In the 90s we came to believe we could overcome evil on our own (Lewis). Bruce Epperly wrote

Mysticism alone cannot guide our vocational path. Jesus needs to ground his mystical encounters in prayer, meditation, and fasting (Epperly).

Even though the world was moving in a direction we, the US, and the western world, favored, the powers at be still wanted to stay in the reality they knew and (believed they) controlled. The 90s form of lentil soup was the illusion of earthly power and control. We neglected the necessity of the Gospel of the reign of God. The current form of lentil soup is whatever the current the populist talisman against sacristy happens to be, nationalism, white power, gun control, universal healthcare, election maps, and the power of wealth. In all these movements, if you will, we continue to neglect the necessity for the Gospel of the reign of God.

Upon deeper reflection I began to see how these are simply different servings of the same bowl of lentil soup. We have a deep seeded fear of the wilderness, so we rely on the soup of avoidance, we just refuse to go there. And that is understandable, the fear is rational, the wilderness is a sign, if not a place of grave spiritual danger; and we avoid it because we do not trust anyone, not even God to be there with us.

We are wrong.

In Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus is forced, ~ driven by the Spirit ~ into the wilderness. But she does not abandon him. The Spirit is present in the wild animals. She is present in the angels who serve Jesus, as Simon’s mother in law will serve Jesus. This is a story that calls us to trust that the Spirit will be there ~ no ~ already is, with us, as we dally around on the edge of the wilderness, that feels a whole lot like the shadowed valley of death. The story also shows us that where ever Jesus goes, even into the depths of places of spiritual danger and evil shalom, the divine wholeness of life, follows (Hoezee).

In our time of deep divisions driven by deceptions of scarcity I pray we turn to our birthright that divine love which endures all the approval driven, silly, wrongheaded, selfishness, hateful, violent, evil, that has ever resided in our hearts, or the hearts of others.

I pray we walk on by the illusion of lentil soup and trust the strength the peace of God that pass all understanding.

 


References

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Mark 1:9-15. 18 2 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Brooks, David. “The End of the Two-Party System.” 12 2 2018. nytimes.com. <nytimes.com/2018/02/12/opinion/trump-republicans-scarcity.html>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 2 2018. <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 B Mark 1:9-15 . 18 2 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Johnson, Deon. “Wilderness, Lent 1.” 18 2 2018. Sermons that Work.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. A Tempting Silence. 18 2 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 1 B: Lenten Courage. 18 2 2018.

Olive Tree. NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Olive Tree Bible Software, 22014.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

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

Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

 

Comfort God’s people

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

We all know that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. We may not know that the word ‘gospel’ in a Greek world context can mean good news “from the battlefield.” For Mark’s audience, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is good news in the midst of the struggles of life (Jacobsen). After his opening declaration Mark combines material from Isaiah (40:3), Exodus (23:20) and Malaki (3:1) revealing that John is preparing the way for the Messiah, the Son of God. (Gaventa and Petersen). John and Jesus are literally in the wilderness, at the river Jordan at the very edge of Israel. Mark’s people are in the wilderness of chaotic life. We are also in the wilderness, perhaps not geography, we are not at the very edge of Arkansas, but we are close, but we are certainly amidst the disordered, dis-shoveled state of our lives. Both John and Jesus are in the proclaiming business, a sign that we should be listening, following, and also proclaiming (Jacobsen).

Mark’s Gospel story begins about 26 CE and clearly invokes the beginning of 2nd Isaiah (Bible-Hub). The part of Isaiah, we know as 2nd Isaiah, is in the time of the Persian expansion under Cyrus the Great, about 711 BCE (Bible-Hub). It has been more than 150 years since the Assyrian defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem, which lead to the exile in Babylonian (Carvalho). The Lord addresses the angles, who comprise the heavenly host, who are gathered in council (Harrelson). This heavenly council responds to God’s command to comfort “my people” by ordering that a wilderness highway be prepared (Harrelson). The recipient of this order is a prophet, who is to cry out to all of Israel God’s consoling words (Harrelson). Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is commanded to proclaim God’s message of good tidings alongside the prophet, which indicates that the people of God have an active role to play in the divine plan (Harrelson). This proclamation stands over everything else that happens in 2nd Isaiah and specifies the terms of how God is going to treat a people once deaf and blind (6:10) and how God is going to treat a city that was once unfaithful (1:21) (Seitz). The proclamation comes following a time when a prophecy was believed to be long gone. So, it shows us that prophecy has not died out; it is being transformed in ways that make it forever reliable and forever alive (Seitz).

In a grand reversal, the great Babylonian processional highway for gods and kings, prepared for triumphal entry into the city of Babylon, which Israel walked lo those many years ago as chattel, will become the way for the exiles to travel from Babylon to their home, Jerusalem (Seitz). I read an article this past week about the AR Dept. Transportation’s plan to fund AR Highways for next ten years. It makes it clear that Arkansas is responsible for her highways. There is help, but only if we first accept our local responsibility. It was curious to learn that in the days of ancient Persia, highways, which were generally unpaved, intended for wheeled transport, thus often called “wagon roads” were the responsibility of the local populations (Keener and Walton). Some things never change. That got me thinking about who is responsible for today’s wilderness highway?

Roughly 740 years after Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the divine call, Mark presents John as the prophet who receives, anew, the same call to make a way in the wilderness, a highway for the Son of God. 200o years after that, people are still in darkness. Some are oppressed, some are abused, some are marginalized in other ways. Some are in the darkness because of their own, our own, blindness and/or unfaithfulness. There are hearts, nearby and far away, that need to hear the prophetic words of divine promise, and hope. God’s people still need to hear divine words of comfort.

Advent, when it is not centered on Christmas, is often centered on Christ coming at the end of time, and every now and again on learning to see divine presence here and now (The Living Church). Advent is a time of old and new prophetic voices. Br. Jim Woodrum writes

We will come to know God’s presence with us … by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us (Woodrum).

It doesn’t take much awareness of the world, or our community, to realize the continuing need for comfort. One sign of the continuing need for comfort is the unending creation of winners and losers in all our social systems, especially in the ordering of our economics (Cross). In all the tax cut debates the largest disappointment has been the frequent remarks about the deserving rich versus the undeserving poor who suffer because of their own failure to make investments, without any consideration of their ability or wherewithal to make financial investments. These statements are simply demeaning to the least of God’s people. It is true, 2nd Isaiah never promises that all the suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. But ~ it does suggest the continuing need for messengers and that, as these messengers, we may be called to speak the truth that others will find hard to hear (Jacobsen)

Prophecies, especially apocalyptic, end of time, seconding coming prophecies tend to come with visions of cosmic disturbances, or perhaps grand social, political, or economic triumph or disaster. The language is futuristic. However, we don’t need to wait, we should not wait for God’s coming, because God is already coming, and to some extent already here, we need to be speaking comfort to God’s people right now (Epperly). The kingdom’s presence or arrival will not necessarily be this great big cosmic, the ends all things event. The Kingdom is coming into its fullness through the triumph of many small things, many small chance interactions (Brown).

The emphasis on apocalyptic, end of time return of the king tends to make time in the future more valuable to us, that is when the King will get here. In truth, all time is a treasure, because each unique moment ends. Each moment of every day is an exclusive opportunity to share the grace given comfort of God. Each opportunity seeks a deeply personal response that can occur in no other life and can occur in no other time (The Living Church).

2nd Isaiah’s Prophecy, and John the Baptist speak of the wilderness. The wilderness is where God’ s people are. Some are crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination seek to strip them of their divine image. Some are lost in the confusion. Some are heartsick. Some are just plain tired. The Wilderness, whatever yours, or your neighbor’s, across the street, or across the world, looks like, is where God continually shows up (Lewis). The wilderness is where priest, preachers, prophets, and pedestrians belong. Thus, we are a wilderness, people.

A colleague of mine blogged this week that [John the Baptist’s] task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.” He did his job … faithfully (Pankey). This is Advent.

  • A time when we seek the comfort of the divine light in our darkness.
  • A time when we are called to speak comfort to the hearts of God’s people.
  • A time to remember 2nd Isaiah and Cyrus the Great, John and Jesus through whom the unexpected happened.
  • A time to remember that God still asks us to speak comfort into the frail lives of our neighbors.
  • A time to remember that the unexpected still happens, that God still sends comfort into our frail lives. (Carvalho).

It is Advent, the time of comfort revealed by voices that never fail.

 


References

Bible-Hub. New Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#nt&gt;.

—. Old Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot&gt;.

Brown, SSJE, Mark. “Start Small.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 7 12 2017. email.

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11. 10 12 2017. OliveTree App. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Cross, Casey. “The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2.” 10 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 12 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.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 1:1-8. 10 12 2017. OliveTree app. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Wilderness Preaching. 10 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pankey, Steve. “Here is your God.” 6 12 2017. Draughting Theology.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

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

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. OliveTree App.

The Living Church. 11/10: The End. n.d. <livingchurch.org/2017/12/04/11-10-the-end/>.

Woodrum, Jim. Imitate Jesus. 6 12 2017. Society of St. John the Evangelist. <http://ssje.org/word/&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.


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>.

 

 

 

Advent Sacrament

A sermon for Advent 2: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:17, 18-19

I grew up in metro Atlanta GA which, a score and more years ago, as I started seminary, was some 200 times the size of Blytheville. I have served churches in communities of 28,000, 15,000, 7,100, 2,400 and 743. In all these communities, people would ask the same question: “Where are you from?” What they really wanted to know is “Who are your people?” If anyone actually asks you who your people are, you are either in a lot of trouble or standing on the verge of being accepted wholeheartedly into their community family.

In this week’s commentary Karoline Lewis suggest that we are way too quick to skip past the opening phrase of the Gospel, especially the last half “appeared in the wilderness.” Her point is well made. To do so is to skip knowing where a prophet is from; and who a prophet’s people are (Lewis). Prophets are not soothsayers who by various means can see into the future. No ~ prophets are relentless truth tellers; pulling back the carefully woven curtain of our view of the present exposing deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others; exposing the clever forms of evasion we use to deny pollution, climate change, food insecurity, the lack of clean water, burgeoning prisons, a failing cultural understanding of marriage, the plethora of single parent homes, that a quarter of our kids are living in poverty, acts of violence, our fragile access to healthcare, and exposing the illusions, we use to hide injustice and just plain ole meanness (Lewis; Lose). It is their clear vision of the truth of today that allows prophets to see the ill fortunes of the future that we do not want to hear. Prophets know where they are, they know the people they speak to. Prophets know where we are from; they know our people.

We all know that Advent is a season to cast aside the distractions of this world to make room for divinely inspired imagination. It is a season to imagine a Festival of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus, but a mystical divine fusion of God with all humanity. It is a season also to imagine Christ’s arrival – 2 (Lose). Only we allow ourselves to be distracted by illusions of a Christmas that are as false as the illusions of grandeur of the Kings of Israel. And we know this because John the Baptist is nowhere to be found in Advent unless you happen to be in a church that reads one the gospel stories like we heard this morning. I have never heard a Christmas Carol that features John the Baptist (Allen). It is a small wonder; can you begin to imagine caroling “You brood of vipers!”

Lewis’ insight leads us to examine John’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy:

 The voice of one crying in the wilderness: [pause] ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Only in the original books there is no punctuation so it can also read

The voice of one crying: [pause] ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Allen).

The first way tells of someone crying in the wilderness and it is certainly John the Baptist. The second way tells of someone crying “go into the wilderness;” and this, I believe, is the subtle call to a fruitful Advent imagination. And it is all comes from our understanding of wilderness.

When we hear wilderness, I expect we see a wild, unsettled, inhospitable place. If it is in a bible setting it is vast dry landscape, with barren hills, some with scrub brushes and the occasional lost sheep. It is a dangerous, chaotic place to be. The wilderness is likely inhabited by equally inhospitable, dangerous people. But, when we think carefully about the story the bible tells us we may remember that the wilderness is a thin place; a place where we discover the edges of space and time. It is in the wilderness that God forms Abraham’s people. It is in the wilderness where the Hebrew people are tested and further formed. The wilderness is a place of chaos, but it is also a place of formation, a place of testing, and a place of purification (Sakenfeld). It is only in the heartfelt wilderness of our existence or our imagination that we experience the sacrament of Advent.

And yes, I know there is no such sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer. But, as you know, a sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward grace. And here both the visible and the invisible are repentance, which you remember, is about changing the orientation of your life.

Your Advent sacrament is invisible because you recognize and accept that you have a problem that is bigger you are (Benoit). It is invisible as you daydream about God’s vision for you as you face your problem, or your life, as a whole. It is invisible as you commit to start making one change. It is invisible as you commit to how that change is becoming a part of your relationships in your community (Lose).

Your Advent sacrament is visible as your commitments are witnessed in how you live life (Benoit). It is visible as people witness your continual discernment gradually transforming your spirit, your emotional well-being, your physical wellbeing, and your social wellbeing. It is visible as others witness you turn from “I” toward “us” and towards God. It is visible as your transformation mystically inspires all of us to turn towards each other and towards God.

It is Advent. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to confront our inner viper, the quiet hissing voice that whispers “You too can be like God.” It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to see and be the prophet. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to speak and hear the truth that pulls back our carefully woven curtain exposing the reality we would just as soon ignore. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to trust the God, who came to us, lo those centuries ago as a mother’s child, will walk with us through this transforming wilderness, and will come again welcoming all into God’s eternal grace.


 

References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 3:112. 4 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Beck, Norman. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 4 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette. “Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance Advent 2(A).” 4 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 1 A | Matthew. 4 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 12 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. In the Wilderness. 4 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 2 A: Reclaiming Repentance. 4 12 2016.

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

 

 

 

Turn around, look into the wilderness, and discern God’s sovereign presence.

A sermon for Proper 20: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21- 30, Matthew 20:1-16

15 weeks ago we started at the beginning. We heard anew the creation story, ending with Adam and Eve wanting more, perhaps an expression of doubt, which God meets with consequences ~ but also grace. We followed Abram and Sarah into the wilderness, to an undisclosed location of unknown security, waiting for God’s promised heir. We heard of their efforts to hurry things along, surely an expression of misplaced doubt; for their divine heir by Sara arrives ~ in God’s time. We followed Isaac and Jacob with their own doubts about God’s calling, and how each was met with divine fidelity. We heard again the story of Joseph and the sons of Israel arrival in Egypt, where they grow and prosper. We heard how good times are followed by a crisis with a change in Pharaoh administrations the subsequent fall from grace resulting in harsh oppressive treatment. Israel cries out, and God answers with Moses leading Israel, out of bondage in repressive economic captivity toward freedom in a promised land. This time the destination is known, its security is assured, though ~ the route is a bit obscure. Last week, as Israel complains to Moses how he’s lead them to certain death, we witnessed how the latest in military technology designed and used to evoke fear and destroy Egypt’s enemies, is mired in mud, and swallowed up in divinely controlled watery chaos. In every story along the way, there is a divine promise, God’s people lose sight of and express their doubt and or fear, and God responds with signs of power and mercy.

Between last week’s tale, and this morning’s adventure, are Miriam’s and Moses’ songs celebrating God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army. Three days later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of water, Israel once again complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die of thirst?” God provides sweet water at the springs of Marah. Two and a half months later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of food, Israel, yet again, complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the dessert to starve? At least in Egypt we had plenty of bread and meat to eat!” God responds, ~ this time with sweet sticky stuff – manna for breakfast, and quail for dinner. We don’t read this far, but there are also rules to follow; simple ones really: gather only what you need to eat, no less – no more, and the day before Sabbath, gather enough for two days, because Sabbath is a day of rest.

As with most, if not all, scriptures stories, there is more here than meets the eye. Part of it involves the miraculous, here it’s the appearance of manna and quail. Both are natural occurrences.  The fruit of the Tamarisk tree is punctured by plant lice; the sap forms yellow-white flakes that congeals in the cool of the night, and disintegrates in the heat of the day. Quail and other migratory birds, blown in from the Mediterranean Sea, can be so tired, they are easily caught by hand. (Fretheim) Neither of these negate God’s hand at work; both are examples of how God works in the ordinary and natural. (Brueggemann) (Fretheim) The significant bit is that God acts to take care of God’s people.

I mentioned earlier God’s actions in today’s story also includes a test, involving rules that involve Sabbath. And yes, you are correct, the Ten Commandments have not yet been given to Israel through Moses, we’ll read about that in a few weeks from now. But, if you recall, the creation story that begins in Genesis chapter 1 ends:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Gen, 2:2-3)

This morning’s reference to Sabbath (which is in verses just beyond what we read this morning) is a reference to the creation itself. The test is will Israel trust their creator God, will they honor the Sabbath?  (Portier-Young) (Brueggemann) Will Israel give up the old ways where bread comes only from work, fear and anxiety and fully accept the bread of life trusting only in God’s faithfulness? (Brueggemann) Will Israel see how Sabbath stands in opposition to Pharaoh’s oppressive economics and live accordingly? (Fretheim) Of course none of this would be necessary were it not for Israel’s tendency for revisionist history. (Hoezee)

In the first verse we read this morning Israel is longing for the meat and bread of Egypt. There is no mention of Pharaoh’s oppressive ways: (Hoezee) throwing baby boys in to the Nile, taking away means of quality brick production and threatening to withhold food if production drops. Perhaps their crisis of faith, brought on by suffering, (Fretheim) is a natural human response. Walter Brueggmann mentions how anxiety distorts memory of the recent past. (Brueggemann) And that, as Terence Fretheim notes, results in a lack of discernment which leads to: an inability to see, or denial of, God’s active presence. (Fretheim) Nevertheless Israel does what Israel does, fear and doubt prevail; but a significant point is God responds; but not simply to calm their complaining or satisfy their hunger. God provides manna and quail for them to eat so they will know, as Pharaoh’s drowned army pronounced, Yahweh is their God. (Hoezee) (Fretheim) Like the plagues thirst and hunger are intended to reveal that God is the singular source of freedom and life. (Harrelson) And there’s no better setting to get to know and to trust God (Portier-Young) than the wilderness, a place of death. (Hoezee)

The pivot in this story is verse 10. Prior to it, in distorted memory, “Israel associates glory (and the power to give life) with the splendor, wealth, prestige and extravagance of Egypt.” (Brueggemann)  At verse 10 the Spirit turns Israel around where: against all odds against all expectations (Hoezee) they do not see emptiness and death but a place of God’s sovereign splendor. (Brueggemann)

I don’t normally recommend evaluating reality by TV news, which makes its money by accentuating disaster and crises. However, the truth is that all of us, at some point in time, face a crisis, either individually, or as a community, or as a church. And although we might say we want God, or God’s representative, to fix it, we don’t completely act that way. We, as Israel did, complain, and often hedge our bets; remember Abraham, Sarah and Ishmael. And it really doesn’t matter if we believe God hardened hearts or otherwise brought the crisis, it’s here. What does matter ~ is our response. Do we allow the crisis to define us? Or do we learn from Israel’s experience and look to the natural and the ordinary to discern God’s actions and presence. Will we turn around, change our perspective, look into the places we’ve perceived to be wilderness, places of darkness, loneliness and death; and risk discovering the sovereign splendor of God?

Is it really all that important how we respond to crises, great or small? Is it really all that important to trust our creator God, and honor the Sabbath? God is all powerful, so we don’t really have to listen, ~ do we? Yes ~ we do; because not listening not trusting not honoring and not following the divine calling threatens … all God has done, (Fretheim) and is doing.

Life is life, and how we respond matters; it matters:
to us
to our family and friends,
to those who see us:
as leaders
as the Egypt, or Pharaoh of their lives.
It also matters to God, not simply because of a divine plan of universal redemption; it matters to God, because God loves us, love you.  And that will endure forever.


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 16. 21 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15.” 21 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.