Temptation

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Watching for the Morning of March 5, 2017

The First Sunday in Lent

Good and evil. Beauty and ugliness. Nobility and degradation. The words have a wide range of meaning in Hebrew. Harmony and disorder. We always envision the serpent entwined in that tree, enticing the first humans to reach out their hands and pluck for themselves rather than trust God’s vision for their life in that garden. All the trees in the garden were open to them. Even the tree of life. But life’s evils and sorrows God did not want us to have to endure. But we did. And God did, beneath the whips and spit of Roman soldiers and the excruciating pain of the nails into the wood that became for us another tree of life.

This wasn’t a test of their obedience; it was a test of their trust in God. Would they trust that this tree meant sorrow and death? Would they trust that God meant for them joy and life? But the serpent’s question sowed doubt. Instead living inside God’s promise they became observers and critics of that promise. “Did God say…?” And suddenly, their hearts are turned inward and their hands stretch outward to pluck that deadly fruit.

Who shall be our hope when we persistently break faith with God? Who shall be our hope when humanity becomes tower builders, empire builders, weapons makers, revenge seekers? Who shall be our hope when humanity becomes masters and slaves, thieves and victims, deceivers and deceived? Who shall be our hope?

And now stands Jesus in the wilderness, weak with hunger but mighty in prayer. And that insidious voice begins to speak. Those round rocks look just like bread. Why should you go hungry, Jesus? One little word and you can fill your belly.

It is not the story of one man; it is a story in which the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance. Is there hope for us? Is there one who will be the faithful son?

Sunday is the first of the Sundays in Lent, a time of spiritual renewal, of fasting and prayer and care of others. A season that begins with the story of the testing of Adam and Eve, and the testing of Jesus. Our first parents fail. We fail. But our elder brother remains true. So this season may be sober sometimes, the shadow of the cross is serious, but it is a season of joy.

“Our Father”

During Lent each year our parish focuses upon one portion of the catechism – this year, the Lord’s Prayer. Over these coming Sundays we will talk about the meaning of that remarkable prayer, beginning this Sunday with the significance of the beginning: “Our Father.” It is worth pondering that we are taught to speak to God as members of a single human family. Our Ash Wednesday sermon began this series talking about the uniqueness of Jesus’ way of prayer. It can be found here at on our blog site that also contains our brief Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 5, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
who guided Israel in the wilderness
and sustained Jesus in the days of his testing,
uphold us in our times of trial.
Strengthen us by your Word
and empower us with your Spirit
that, standing in Christ,
we may share in his perfect faithfulness;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 5, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”’?” – With his question, the serpent disrupts the simple trust Adam and Eve had in God, and they seek to be “like God” knowing what is noble and what is not.

Psalmody: Psalm 32
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” – The poet celebrates the forgiveness of God, describing the corrosive power of unacknowledged sin and the liberating power of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
– Paul contrasts Adam and Christ. Through Adam sin entered the world and with sin death. In Christ, grace now governs and with grace, life.

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” – Having been honored by God’s declaration that he is God’s beloved son, the demonic spirits test that claim, trying to show Jesus unworthy of the acclaim. But Jesus shows himself the faithful son. Where Israel showed themselves faithless in the wilderness, Jesus remains faithful.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eva_tentando_a_Adam.JPG By seraphyn, the olod Latinoamerican´s (de mi autoría.Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tested

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Watching for the Morning of February 14, 2016

Year C

The First Sunday in Lent

We are reading Luke out of order now that we have entered the festal season of Lent, going back and jumping forward (and even adding a Sunday from John) to capture themes for this season that leads us to the three days from the Last Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday through the cross and resurrection. So where we had been reading about Jesus in Nazareth, we jumped forward to the Transfiguration last Sunday (to match the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the previous season) and now, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are looking back to the narrative of Jesus tested in the wilderness.

It’s a little disorienting and leads to the perception that the Gospels are like bags of marbles rather than dramas with a beginning, middle and end that bear a message for a time and a place. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is not a collection of sayings from the time of the Salem Witch Trials; it is a narrative for a nation in the midst of the anticommunist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.  It intends to help us see ourselves and our time.  It intends to change our hearts – and so, too, the Gospels.

So as we hear the Gospel read on Sunday we need to remember where we are in the story: We’ve heard of the wondrous birth of John, the angel’s message to Mary, the promise of a kingdom without end, Mary’s song of the righting of the world, John’s exhortation to begin now to live the life of the coming kingdom, and Jesus, baptized, anointed with the Spirit, with the voice from heaven declaring: “You are my son.” It is a claim that must be tested, and tested it is. The devil comes to urge him to be less than he is – to be like God’s people who clamored for bread, bowed down before the golden calf, and tested God in the wilderness.

But Jesus proves true. He does not break faith. He trusts fully in God’s word.

Created

File:Heavens Above Her.jpgDuring Lent each year our parish focuses upon one portion of the catechism – this year, the Apostles’ Creed. The themes of the coming five Sundays are: Created, Redeemed, Called, Gathered, Enlightened.

“God has created me and all that exists” is the line from Luther’s Small Catechism that guides our first week. The genius in Luther’s brief explanation to the first article of the creed is the word ‘me’. The creed does not set out a doctrine of God; it is proclaims a relationship. God has created me. God has surrounded me with all the bounty of creation. God provides me with all I need for no reason other than God’s goodness. It is all gift – and that proclamation leads to the recognition: “Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him.”

It misses the point to argue creation versus evolution. What the faith confesses is not a theory of origins; the faith confesses a loving presence to whom I belong, to whom I owe fealty, to whom I owe praise and thanksgiving.

The Prayer for February 14, 2016

In the mystery of your love, O God,
you called forth the world
and formed us from the dust of the earth and the breath of your Spirit.
In the wonder of your Son, Jesus,
you show the pattern of true faithfulness.
Make us ever true to your Word
and confident of your mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 14, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” – When Israel enters into the land, they are to bring an offering of the first fruits, recite the story of what God has done for them, and celebrate God’s goodness.

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed: 91:1-2, 9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The psalmist proclaims the protective love of God (a psalm the devil quotes in testing Jesus).

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Paul is arguing that we are restored to a right relationship with God not by outward acts of obedience to the law, but by trusting allegiance to God’s promise.

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
– Following the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon Jesus and the declaration from God “This is my Son”, the devil tests Jesus, seeking to show him unworthy of such a title.

 

Image: Briton Rivière – The Temptation in the Wilderness [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg  By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Life even in death

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Friday

Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.

 

Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Renewal

Watching for the Morning of February 22, 2015

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Ilya Repin, Tempation of Christ.

Our theme for the season of Lent this year is Renewal: renewing faith, renewing friendships, renewing families, renewing the earth. We will still read the texts in our Sunday service; they will still infuse our worship, but our hearing of them will be shaped by the theme of renewal.

It makes me nervous, of course. I don’t like preaching on themes.   I remember reading a little book on preaching my senior year in seminary where Gerhard Von Rad (I think) said that every young preacher has about six sermons in him – and after that, he or she has to start preaching the text. There is nothing eternal in my words. But there is life in the words that come to us as scripture.

Still, every text is shaped by the time and place in which it is read, by the health or weariness of the community, by the cries and joys that surround us. The text is shaped by the day. It speaks to a moment in time. And our moments in this Lenten season will be shaped by our hope for renewal.

The readings this coming Sunday are rich and wonderful, starting with God’s promise to Noah and all the creatures aboard the ark that God will never again war against humanity. God binds himself with a promise, and sets a sign of that promise in the sky.

1 Peter will use the story of those eight saved in the ark as an image for baptism and God’s promise to carry us safely to a world washed and renewed.

And Mark will tell us of Jesus in the wilderness, tested by Satan, and attended by angels. He is the faithful Son. He is the new Adam – dwelling in peace with the “wild animals”.

The psalmist rightly sings of God’s faithfulness. So it will be proper to speak about renewing our trust in God, and praying with the psalm “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

The Prayer for February 22, 2015

In the wilderness, O God, you watched over Jesus
and he kept faith with you.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, rooted in your Spirit and in your Word,
our trust in you may be deepened,
and we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 22, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”

 

Image: By Ilya Repin (Bukowskis) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Praying in the dark

Also for Friday

Mark 1

File:Steens Mountain at Night (9093324885).jpg35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

We think that deserted places are appropriate for prayer. The wilderness is not dangerous to us. A little solitude is a relief rather than a risk. We call praying in the wilderness a spiritual retreat. But leaving the safety of the village is strange behavior in the first century: evil lurks in the wilderness. And praying by yourself is strange behavior: prayer is a ritual activity done as part of a community. This Jesus is unafraid of the wild, unafraid of the spirits that roam there. And this way of prayer is something his followers will ultimately ask Jesus to teach them.

But for now, the question is to go back or to go forward. The city is looking for him, the whole city. Are they hungry to hear more about the reign of God and the life to which we are called? Or are they afraid to lose their local miracle worker?

Jesus could have a comfortable life as a village priest, reading Torah, teaching the way of God, presiding over weddings and funerals, anointing the sick, leading the public prayers of the community. Surely he would marry into a leading family and raise a happy brood. Certainly, Capernaum would have loved to hold onto him.

Perhaps his prayer in a deserted place was like his temptation in the wilderness following his baptism. Which way will you go, Jesus, the way of mission or the way of comfort?

We assume that there was no struggle for Jesus. But we do know that he prayed for the cup to pass by him. He anguished over the path of mission that was before him at Gethsemane.

Maybe here, too, there is anguish. For the life of a mendicant would put him among the deviants, in the category where there are only two choices: either he is a prophet of God or he is demented, possessed.

The life of a village priest must have had an appeal: the temptation to be ordinary, the temptation to be like everyone else, to conform to the pattern of this world.

Fortunately for us, Jesus chose God’s mission.

And how shall we choose?

 

Photo: By Bureau of Land Management (Steens Mountain at Night  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A stunning display

Wednesday

Mark 1

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Salvator Mundi, unknown artist and date

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

Jesus, we know, is a ‘tekton’, a construction worker, a builder – perhaps a carpenter, perhaps a stone mason, perhaps both. There was a city going up near Nazareth, so there was work, but who knows what happened to drive him out to John the Baptist at the Jordan River. Perhaps it was the new city, a Greek city, built on the Greek model, built by and for the ‘Hellenized’, those who had acculturated to the then modern world.

It was happening all over the ancient lands of Israel. Gymnasia and theaters and forums. Arenas. Hippodromes. Places for the games celebrated in the cultured world. A changing world. Changing values. And the people, the peasant class, increasingly left behind. “Galilee of the Gentiles”.

Is this the life to which God called them? John said, “No.” And Jesus went to join him.

The Gospels never mention Sepphoris, the city being built near Nazareth. Jesus’ journeys take him through the villages and towns of Israel. It is, in some ways, a conservative movement, going back to the ancient ways.

But it was not conservative. The ancient ways were radical. A deep and abiding concern for the poor. A passion for justice. A provision for those in need. A provision that land was a gift from God to each family, not to be sold as if mere property.

This is the ancient faith of Israel, says Jesus, not the rituals and marketplace of their new wonder-of-the-world temple. Not the tithing of mint and cumin, not the manipulations of the law that allow you to leave a parent destitute, not the bleeding of widows.

Who knows for sure what happened to him in the waters of baptism. But power came on him. The Spirit descended. And who knows what happened to him out in the wilderness, where he was tested to the core and angels ministered unto him. But when he comes back, when he walks by his fellows by the sea he says “Now’s the time. Follow me.” And when Sabbath comes he lays claim to the teachers chair in the synagogue. Not like the teachers of the law, not by citing rabbi after rabbi, but declaring himself what it is that God commands.

He is a ‘tekton’, a construction guy. What is he doing preaching?! People were supposed to keep within their station in life. But Jesus is far beyond his station. He is speaking with the voice of God. And suddenly a demon cries out in recognition: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

The translation should end with exclamations points.

Jesus has arisen to destroy the demonic. He has arisen to cast out the unclean spirits, the spirits unable and unwilling to serve the God of Israel, the God of exodus, Sinai and the Promised Land, the God who is the defender of widows and orphans, the God who would destroy his own house rather than have it corrupted, sell his own people into slavery rather than bless slavery. He has come to destroy – to destroy what binds and corrupts and devours. To set free a people from lies and illusions. To call the nation back to their lost way.

And the one who teaches with authority commands the demon and with great cries the unclean spirit must obey.

A stunning out-of-station display by a ‘tekton’ of questionable birth, Jesus the son of Mary.

And how will the community respond?

How will we respond?