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Bishop Michael Rinehart

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Lent

March 26, 2017 is Lent 4A

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.

Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.

Ephesians 5:8-14 – Live as children of the light. Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

John 9:1-41 – Healing of the Man Born Blind

Music

  • Amazing Grace (I was blind, but now I see…)
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Psalm 23: Shepherd Me O God, The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Spiritually Blind

This story comes off as a kind of comedy. It’s long. Consider having a group rehearse it and read it: Shared Reading of John 9.

For another angle on this text, read this article I wrote back in 2011 after the Japanese earthquake: “Is the Earthquake God’s Judgment on Japan?

There seem to be a great many points made in this multidimensional text. I’ll suggest five scenes. Any one of them could be a sermon.

1.It’s dangerous always drawing a direct connection between suffering and sin.

Scene 1: Who sinned?

It’s a quandary. If he’s blind from birth, and if the people in Jesus’ day considered disabilities are the result of sin, then who did the sinning? Did he sin before he was born? Or did his parents sin, and he’s paying for it? In short, what caused his blindness?

Before you laugh, consider the number of children born HIV positive. People always wonder: who sinned that this child was born HIV positive? Before you judge the mother, consider the woman who is HIV positive not because of their promiscuity but because of her spouse’s indiscretions. Still, someone sinned, right? Some disasters are the result of sin. It’s not an unreasonable question. But what about the person with cancer? Must have been something they ate. The person hit by a car? Must have been walking in the wrong place. We can’t seem to get past the idea of karma: If something bad happened to you, it must be something that you did.

Also consider the Final Solution in WWII. The Nazis felt they could develop a Master Race by exterminating all those with handicaps, diseases, homosexual orientation, and, of course, the Jewish people. There is an insidious view of sickness here that makes some clean and some unclean. Who sinned?

Jesus seems to discount this explanation. Blaming the victim won’t wash. Suffering is to be met with compassion not judgment.

Spit and mud. Jesus uses spit in Mark 7:32 and 8:23 as well. We may be seeing through a window into Jesus’ healing style. Using spit was not uncommon among ancient healers. The mud conjures for me God making Adam out of the dust in Genesis. John’s Jesus is one with the author of life in Genesis.

There are also themes of sin and baptism. We too are sinners from our birth. We too are called to wash in the pool of Siloam, the waters of baptism.

2.Compassion and the law

Scene 2: In verses 13-17, we are informed that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. So, the religious leaders, more concerned with dogged adherence to the law than compassion for the blind man, bring the man in for interrogation. Their legalism blinds them to the Gospel: the beautiful thing that God is doing in the world.

What happened?
He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.
This man is not from God. He doesn’t observe the Sabbath.
But if he’s not from God, how can he perform such signs?
What do you say about him?
He is a prophet. 

This is an unauthorized healing. Jesus does not have the permission or authority to heal. No one should break the law in such a flagrant way. Luke’s Jesus says, “If one of you has a child or a donkey that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the sabbath day?” (Luke 4:5) Compassion is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14)

3.Triangulation and exclusion

Scene 3. Enter mommy and daddy. In verses 18-23, the Pharisees, who suspect the whole thing is a hoax, bring in the parents.

Is this your son, who was born blind?
Yep.
How does he now see?
Dunno. Ask him. He is of age. He can speak for himself. (Snark) 

They said this because they were afraid: Anyone who confessed Jesus as messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

Kicked out of the synagogue.

This is not like getting kicked out of a club. This is getting kicked out of one’s most central community.

See also 12:42, “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”

And 16:2, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

There seems to be a theme here. Some suggest that this was something that John’s church was experiencing: the exclusion of Christian Jews from the Synagogue. These 2nd century Christians resonated with Jesus’ sayings about exclusion.

The list of those who are not welcome in the Temple or Synagogue was staggering: gentiles, women, blind, lame, deaf, mute, lepers, anyone unclean. Exclusion became a way to cut people off from community. The law gave the privileged power over others. It is precisely toward these outcasts and sinners that Jesus directs his ministry.

To whom is your ministry directed? Who are the objects of your compassion? Your judgment?

4.Who is this Jesus?

Scene 4. In verses 24-34, the investigation continues, preparing us for the punch of the text. The man is grilled again.

This Jesus is a sinner.
I don’t know about that. I just know he healed me. I was blind, but now I see. (Seems like an obvious cue to sing “Amazing Grace”)
What did he do to you?
I already told you. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples? (More snark/sarcasm)
You are his disciple. We are Moses’ disciples. We don’t know who this upstart is or where he comes from.
This is an amazing thing. You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. You say God doesn’t listen to sinners, so…
You were born in sin, and you would educate us? And they drove him out.

Of course they did.

The blind man’s witness may be the most effective. Rather than a creedal formula and a doctrinal response, we can say: “I don’t really know about all of that, all I know is that he healed me.”

How has God healed you? Where have you seen Christ’s healing presence in your community?

5.Beware of spiritual blindness

Two weeks ago Jesus began talking with Nicodemus about being reborn. Nicodemus thought he was talking about a physical rebirth, but Jesus was actually talking about a spiritual rebirth.

Last week Jesus spoke with the woman at the well about quenching her thirst. She thought he was talking about physical thirst, but Jesus was actually talking about spiritual thirst.

This week our story is about blindness. Lest we think the story is about physical blindness, Jesus is probably talking about spiritual blindness.

Scene 5. Verses 35-41 deliver the punch.

Jesus heard that they drove out the man born blind. In character, Jesus seeks him out.

Do you believe in the Son of Man?
Who is he?
C’est moi.
I believe.
I came so that the blind might see, and those who see become blind.
Pharisees: Are you calling us blind?
Jesus: Well, if the shoe fits…
If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say, “We see” your sin remains.

The Pharisees believe the man’s blindness is an indictment – proof he is a sinner. His blindness is God’s judgment. Jesus does not view the man’s blindness as judgment but rather a malady for which we should have compassion. Jesus tells the Pharisees, in essence, if you were actually blind, you would have no sin. But because you think you see, your hypocrisy indicts you.

The Pharisees think the man is blind. But for Jesus, it is the Pharisees who are blind – spiritually blind.

The real sin, the ultimate blindness, is self-righteousness. Hypocrisy blinds us to the spiritual life. The Pharisees believe that the blind man is a sinner or perhaps his parents. The blind/outcast/unwelcome man is not the sinner in Jesus’ eyes, but those who judge. This mirrors Matthew 7. Self-righteousness becomes the plank in our eyes, blinding us.

The irony is, the more we try to be good (not a bad thing) the greater the danger of feeling morally superior, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. A smarter person could come up with an equation for this.

I’m not sure what the solution to the equation is. I can only turn to mercy, grace, forgiveness, hope, and compassion. This defines us as Lutherans. While many religions, and various other denominations, define Christianity as a kind of moral contest, the gospel is about God’s love for us in spite of our brokenness.

In practical terms, it comes down to doing the opposite of the world. The world says, mercy for me, judgment for you. The opposite of that is to have very, very high standards for me and radical grace and compassion for you and others. This is what Jesus does throughout the gospels. Don’t worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye. Work on the log in your own.

March 19, 2017 is Lent 3A

Exodus 17:1-7 – Moses brings water out of a rock at Massah and Meribah.

Psalm 95 – The Venite: O Come, let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the God of our salvation.

Romans 5:1-11 – Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ… We boast in our sufferings, for suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character… While we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly.

John 4:5-42 – The Woman at the Well. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Woman at the Well: The Soul-Quenching Waters of Grace

David Lose published an excellent article in the Huffington Post a few years ago that is worth a read when considering this text.

Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in public is certainly scandalous, as evidenced by his disciples’ own reaction: astonishment [Thaumadzo]. It’s the same word that Paul used in a letter he wrote 60 years earlier, Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called through grace…” Paul is astonished that the Galatians would abandon a religion of the Spirit and of grace for a low-ceilinged religion of law. Jesus will reference the Spirit as well. The disciples are astonished that Jesus would be talking to a woman in public, and a Samaritan woman at that, who has had several husbands and is not married to the man she is not living with.

Still, we must not assume that she is a scandalous woman. A bad girl. There’s nothing in the text to suggest this. She’s had five husbands, yes. She could be widowed. If so, she deserves Jesus’ compassion. Even if she is five times divorced, this was likely not her choice. Men divorced women (for the flimsiest of reasons), not vice-versa. Being barren is grounds for divorce. Perhaps she is unable to bear children. We simply do not know.

It’s interesting how we respond when we don’t know. Do we assume the worst? Even if the worst is true, whatever that may be, should we not even still respond with compassion as did Jesus to the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8)?

Jesus points out the truth of her situation, which surprises even her. Lose suggests that this is not judgment but compassion. His bridge of compassion sparks her to point out their religious differences. We worship on different mountains. We are different. Jesus responds suggesting that mountains are becoming irrelevant. We worship God in spirit.

Another excellent read is Bad Girls of the Bible. This book not only delves into some of the interesting characters of the Bible, but also exposes society’s need to have a bad girl, as a counterpoint to self-righteous moralism. Painting easy, vulnerable targets as bad makes me look and feel good about myself. But while men hate the bad girl, deep down they want her. “I’m a bad girl.” *wink* “A very, very bad girl.” Male society wants the bad girl, but also wants to hold her in contempt.

There is nothing in this text to suggest the woman at the well is a bad girl, though some interpreters have wanted to make her a prostitute. If she is widowed or if she had been divorced five times, she was in a very vulnerable place, a situation of powerlessness, which Jesus “sees,” showing his prophetic vision. He goes to her not because she is bad. (He does not ask her to repent and sin is never mentioned). He goes to her because she has been victimized.

Do you “see” the vulnerable? Or do you “see” the powerful who look down upon the vulnerable, powerless, and stigmatized, yearning for God’s mercy?

There are simply too many barrier-breaking preaching opportunities this week. In one text, Jesus crosses barriers of race, creed, and gender.

This text is an awesome text to consider interfaith dialog. How does Jesus engage this woman of a differing religious background? He sits with her. He is honest with her. He listens to her. He does not critique her faith. He does not try to proselytize her. He builds a bridge. “You worship on this mountain, and we worship on that one. The days are coming when we will all worship God in spirit and in truth…” What could we possibly have in common? Let’s talk about the Spirit. He does not emphasize their differences. She does: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman, a Samaritan?” (John 4:9)

“For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly… God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us… we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

God in Christ is about reconciliation. God in Christ is about redemption of all of us, even the broken, even the ungodly. Christ died for people like you and me, and the folks that we know. And this woman. This is enough for a week of preaching.

And then there’s this passage from this epistle reading…

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

God’s love has been poured into our hearts…

What a deep, soulful passage. Paul’s formula is borne of his experience murdering Christians, his mystical encounter with Christ, his out-of-body experience, his conversion, his own subsequent persecution:

suffering > endurance > character > hope

It is a very Christian formula, the E=MC2 of early Christian theology – law and gospel, suffering and hope. This is a perspective easily lost by the U.S. American church. We live in such abundance, the concept of going without, denying ourselves, making sacrifices for others, except, ironically, in the military, where people put their lives on the line for the safety of others.

Jesus’ willingness to suffer for his beliefs, for his misguided Jerusalem, is at the heart of the foolish message of the cross. The disciples’ willingness to give their lives for their faith fueled the powerful Christian movement of slaves and women. Martyria of the second and third generation Christians shows a 100% whole-life commitment to a new kind of society. What would they think about a church two millennia later, that is wealthy and comfortably in bed with the empire? We can only guess.

Have we become too comfortable to risk speaking up with those who are outcast? Are we too comfortable to become despised and persecuted for standing with the poor, the stranger, the diseased? Are we too comfortable to name racism, sexism, and classism? Are we too comfortable to preach a sermon that asks hard questions?

Jesus offers living waters, so that we will never thirst again. Like last week’s Nicodemus story, in which Jesus moves from physical rebirth to spiritual rebirth, in this story Jesus moves from physical thirst to spiritual thirst. Next week Jesus will move from the physical blindness of the man born blind to the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees in the blink of an eye. This movement from the physical to the spiritual, in wine, water, and bread, is a modus operandi for John’s Jesus.

The preacher could spend an entire sermon on signs of spiritual thirst that only the Spirit can quench. We are desperate for love, joy, peace, justice, generosity, kindness, and other spiritual fruits. This thirst is the gentlest way to preach law, judgment. We can talk about how our desperate and feeble attempts to quench our spiritual thirst in all the wrong ways leads to the world we live in. We try to fill the spiritual void with money, sex, entertainment, success, and a pantheon of gods, Luther would say. A great sermon title based on an old country song would play well in rural Texas congregations: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.

Paul says that God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The only source of lasting love that quenches the deep spiritual thirst in our lives is the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And with that we’re back to grace. It is grace that redeems, renews, justifies, and absolves.

Anything that is not that, is suspect.

March 12, 2017 is Lent 2A

Genesis 12:1-4a – God calls Abram at 75 to leave his country and kindred. “I will bless you to be a blessing.”

Psalm 121 – I lift my eyes to the hills. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Lord will be your shade. The sun will not strike you. The Lord will keep your going out and coming in forevermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 – The promise rests not only on the adherents to the law, but to those who share the faith of Abraham.

John 3:1-17 – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Born again.

Lent at-a-glance

Historically, in some places, enrollment for baptism at Easter Vigil began on the first Sunday of Lent. Today this is called the catechumenate. If you do this, consider enrolling all who are joining the church, even if they’re not being baptized but undergoing affirmation of baptism. These candidates should be prayed for weekly during Lent in the prayers of the church.

The Gospel readings for Lent in Cycle A of the lectionary are the traditional texts that catechumenates studied in preparation for baptism:

  • Lent 1: Matthew 4 (The Temptation in the Wilderness)
  • Lent 2: John 3 (Nicodemus) or Matthew 17
  • Lent 3: John 4 (Woman at the Well)
  • Lent 4: John 9 (Healing of the Man Born Blind)
  • Lent 5: John 11 (The Raising of Lazarus)

This week, Lent 2A, in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The text ends with the familiar John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” This is the perfect text for the preparation of baptismal candidates because it proclaims salvation in Christ, with the sacramental sign of baptism.

Next week, Lent 3A, in John 4, Jesus will tell the woman at the well, “The water I give will become a spring welling up to eternal life.” The woman responds, “Sir, give me this water always.”

The following week, Lent 4A, in John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind by telling him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. Again we have a baptismal theme. It is in the waters of baptism that we see the world clearly, for Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”

Finally, on Lent 5A, our Lent texts climax with the raising of Lazarus. The waters of baptism lead us through death and the grave into the resurrection of the dead.

I have written previously on these texts.

A few years ago I approached this text from a border-crossing perspective. Here is the text of that sermon:

A Border-Crossing Church 

We follow a border-crossing Jesus, who calls us to be a border-crossing church.

A border-crossing church is a church that does what Jesus did: breaking through barriers in order to reach out in love to the neighbor across the artificial human borders that we set up to keep others apart – boundaries of race, class, and gender identity, for example. Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Barriers of race, class, and gender identity are irrelevant because of Jesus.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What do you think?” Jesus replies. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “Correct,” Jesus says.

But wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, the lawyer asks Jesus, “Ah, but who is my neighbor?” Who, precisely now, is it that I must love? Who is in this circle called neighbor?

It’s a great question. Is someone of a different race my neighbor? Is my someone of a different religion my neighbor? Is my neighbor someone who lives next door? How about three houses down? How about in the next neighborhood or across the world?

In true rabbinic fashion, Jesus answers the question with a story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho where he is beaten and robbed and left for dead. In time a priest goes by and does nothing, as well as a Levite. All the people who should respond don’t. And then along comes a Samaritan.

Samaritans were Jews in Samaria who had long ago married with other races, clans, and religions. Today some would call them mestizos: half breeds. Jews despised them. They called them dogs. It was forbidden to talk to them, touch them, shake hands, and make eye contact. They were untouchable.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus uses a Samaritan in this story? Jesus intentionally chooses someone he intuitively knows will make his listeners flinch. He knows that for them the term “Good Samaritan” is an oxymoron.

Christian spirituality is not ethereal. It is earthy. God is not found in rising above humanity, but in encountering humanity grounded in human suffering. In Jesus’ spirituality, God is encountered through the least of these.

For Jesus, it is impossible to love God without loving neighbor. They are simply two sides of one and the same coin. John says, “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone that is loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. (I John 4:7-8)

The Lenten Journey

In these 40 days of Lent we hear stories of a border-crossing Jesus.

Lent I: The Temptation of Jesus
After Jesus’ baptism, we are told the Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. This is a border-crossing, from the relative comfort of home into the discomfort of the wilderness, from mommy to Satan, from the known into the unknown.

In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to be derailed from his ministry. Not by bad things. Satan does not tempt Jesus to give up good for evil. Jesus is not tempted to commit adultery or genocide. Instead he is tempted with good things, like bread, safety, and authority. We too are tempted every day to be derailed from our ministry, by things that might not be bad, but will distract us from the ministry to which God has called us. We too are tempted every day to choose the comfortable place rather than cross the border into the uncomfortable place into which God is calling us.

Lent II: Nicodemus
Then we hear the story of Nicodemus (John 3), who is told that he must be “born again” or perhaps “reborn from above” in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The birth canal is another border from womb to world. Being born again is a border crossing we must take every day. As usual Jesus moves from the physical to the spiritual. This is not a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.

Nicodemus, you and I – we are called to leave the womb of his self-centered life and to cross the border into an other-centered, God-centered life. We are called to die to ourselves and rise again in Christ. This too is a border-crossing.

Lent III: Woman at the Well
Next we hear the story of the woman at the well, from John 4. This is a major border-crossing. Jesus sits down next to someone who has three strikes against her: She is a woman, and men are not to speak to women in public in Semitic societies. Jesus is breaking the rules. Second, she is a Samaritan woman. We’ve already talked about the fact that an orthodox Jew is not to speak to a Samaritan. Finally, this woman is a divorcee. A five-time divorcee who is living with her boyfriend. This Jesus who eats with tax collectors, prostitutes, outcasts, and sinners teaches us the church’s calling. Teaches us that the scum of the earth are the salt of the earth. And he calls us to be a border-crossing church! “I will give you water so that you will never thirst again,” Jesus says. But of course he is not speaking of our physical thirst, but our spiritual thirst. This is a thirst that can only be addressed by being “in Christ,” by making Christ’s faith our faith, by following Christ’s way of being in the world.

Lent IV: Healing of the Man Born Blind
In March, we hear the story of the man born blind. In this story, Jesus crosses borders of shame, disease, and disability. In the process he challenges the blindness of the religious leaders of his day to the truth of their own spiritual blindness. This Jesus walks into the face of leprosy and a host of other unnamed diseases, making him unclean. He crosses borders that the world call unsafe, unreasonable, unwise, and invites us to do the same. Many say the early church’s willingness to care for the sick and the poor made Christianity preferable to its pagan counterparts. The Emperor Julian complained to the high priest of Galatia in 362 A.D. that Christian virtues overshadowed pagan virtues. “They care for their own poor, and our as well.” There is great risk in encountering disease. But when the church chooses safety and comfort, it’s message is powerless. When we become a border-crossing church, the power of the gospel changes lives.

Lent V: Raising of Lazarus
Finally, we will hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Is not death the final border? Jesus, the Word of God becomes flesh for our sake, crossing the border from divinity into our humanity. Entering into our world, he lived a border-crossing life, showing us the way of justice and peace. Then he took upon himself the full weight of human sin, hatred, violence, and suffering on the cross. Rising again, he crossed the border from this world into eternity. Jesus became Christ. And he promised to come again. On the day when we take our final breath, he promises to come back and carry us across that final border. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also.”

Conclusion

This Lenten season, as we make the journey of the cross with Jesus, heed Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow him. Let us be Christ’s body, his hands and feet in this world. Trusting in the promises of baptism, let us be the church that bursts through barriers of race, class, gender identity, creed, stigma, shame, disease, and disability. Believing in the resurrection of the dead, let us have the courage to walk into the darkness of this world and bring the love of God, the light of Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

March 5, 2017 is Lent 1A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “On the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”

Psalm 32 – Happy are those whose transgression is covered, whose sin is forgiven.

Romans 5:12-19 – Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses. 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.

Matthew 4:1-11 – Jesus’ 40-day fast and the Temptation in the Wilderness

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lead us not into temptation…
– Jesus

God cannot fill what is already full.
– Mother Teresa

By means of a diversion, we can avoid our own company twenty-four hours a day.
— Pascal

Wilderness

Let me begin by saying that the texts appointed for Lent, in this first year of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle, are the ancient texts that were used for the catechumenate. These were the texts that the first centuries of Christians felt were important for newcomers to the faith to study: Nicodemus and being born again, the woman at the well and the water of life, the man born blind and spiritual blindness, and so on. What if every new member class studying and reflected on these texts?

The first Sunday in Lent is always devoted to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness of the beginning of his ministry. Matthew’s account is the most… organized, perhaps. Temptation is the theme that ties together all of the texts.

We begin with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. This text reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw the other day that said, “Eve was framed.” A sentiment that appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1971.

That might make a great sermon starter. A sermon on this text will likely pick up the funny bone and possibly irk those who wrestle with patriarchy. Temptation leads to the blame game: God questions Adam, who blames Eve. “The woman that Thou gavest me, she gave me the Apple!” And when Eve is questioned, she blames the serpent. Who is to blame when we succumb to temptation? How quick we are to point the finger.

eve-was-framed

The Adam and Eve story is deeply complex, and widely misunderstood. Adam and Eve are punished for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though they don’t yet know the difference between good and evil. The serpent tells them when they eat of the tree, they will know the difference, like God. It turns out to be true. God says the day you eat of it, you will die; the serpent says otherwise. Again, the serpent is right. God is portrayed as jealous. Adam and Eve break out of the innocence of childhood into the dawning adult reality of good and evil and knowledge… Knowing is a word that is loaded in Genesis. “And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain…” Preach this text only with a lot of prep work.

The Romans text picks up on the temptation in the garden of Eden. In his letter to the Romans, call marvels in chapter 7 at his propensity to do the very thing which she hates the most. Sin then, is doing what he hates. Paul claims that all people sin. And this goes back to the very first time sin entered into the world, with the first sinner, Adam. As in Adam, all become sinners. In Christ all are made righteous, apart from works of the law. A sermon on Christ’s revelation of the righteousness of God in Romans would no doubt be a heady sermon.

In the gospel text for this Sunday, we see the humanity of Jesus. Even the Son of God is subject to temptation. We also see him resist temptation, quoting Scripture. Satan quotes scripture as well, of course, so we are not offered any magic pill here. Jesus faces temptation to abandon his God-given earthly mission. The bait is enticing. What is your earthly mission? What temptation stands to derail you from the greater good for which God has called you in your baptism?

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
— Matthew 4:1-2

In the gospels, Jesus constantly takes time to get away. This is a good model for anyone in ministry. In his book The Power of Pause, Terry Hershey tells a story about the son of a rabbi who goes out into the woods every day after school. The worried rabbi asks his son about it. “No need to worry, dad. I go to the woods to talk with God.” Relieved, the rabbi replies, “As a rabbi’s son you should know that God is the same everywhere.” “Yes,” the son replies, “God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”

satan-tempting-christ
Satan tempting Christ to change stones into bread Artist: REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn Date: C. 1632-33

We need the wilderness, the place of quiet. Without it we are lost. Yes, we need the place of productivity, the place of reflection makes the place of productivity possible. Without the place of reflection, we are doomed to become ceaseless automatons lost in a flurry of unfocused activity.

After his baptism, Jesus began his ministry with 40 days of prayer and fasting. There is no other way to start a new ministry. How else does one know where to begin? What must be done? We must first discern the voice of God, which means turning off the noise of the world, the noise in our heads. It means learning to listen, as Ann Weems puts it, for the rustle of angels’ wings. Still, the wings we hear may sometimes be those of temptation.

Lenten repose is a challenge for church leaders. Lent is busier than ever. There is less time for reflection, not more. We add on a midweek service with all the planning, recruiting, and sermon prep. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday require a lot of work. Some have baptismal preparation, catechumenate, new member sessions, and First Communion classes.

temptation-of-christ
The Temptation of Christ (detail) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310

Somehow in the midst of this we must still find time. Where will the extra sermons come from if not from listening to God? How can we model a balanced spiritually-centered life if we become children of hell driven by overzealous schedules? This takes tremendous discipline. We must intentionally thin out our schedules of many things in order to make time for additional worship, preparation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and acts of mercy.

Having kids has helped somewhat. Spring Break inevitably falls in the middle of Lent. The kids are off from school. We have to take advantage of this. So, in the midst of the busiest season of the year, I learned to drop everything and just walk away. We go to the beach or visit family – a trip to the zoo, a day in the woods. We just… have to. Or we will lose our center.

The second challenge is timeless, universal. In the wilderness we will most certainly, nearly always, encounter God. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. God is faithful. God shows up. But to be honest, we have to admit: We will most certainly, nearly always, also encounter Satan. “So I find it to be a general rule,” Paul says, paraphrased, “that when I’m wanting to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

temptation
The 12th Century New Roman Mosaics of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in Monreale in Sicily » The Temptation of Christ. Duomo di Monreale

At every turn it seems we are tempted to set aside God’s agenda for our own. Many minds greater than mine have parsed the Temptation texts over the millennia. Jesus seems to be tempted three times, by three things that are not at all in themselves bad. He’s not tempted to commit murder or genocide. He’s tempted with three things: wealth, safety, and power.

Wealth
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Nothing wrong with bread right? Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is necessary for life. Luther says bread is, “Everything that nourishes our body and meets its needs, such as: food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, fields, cattle, money, possessions, a devout spouse, devout children, devout employees, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and other things like these.”

kingdoms-of-this-world
“The kingdoms of this world…” James B. Janknegt, 1990

So what’s wrong with Jesus wanting these things? Absolutely nothing, unless their support supplants his primary mission. The temptation is to make our life about the constant pursuit of more. If you follow Jesus, there will come a time when you are tempted to forget your God-given mission to follow the god of the belly. Jesus teaches, “Don’t worry about your life: what you will eat, drink, or what you will wear. Trust God, who clothes the fields and feeds the birds. Seek first God’s kingdom, and let everything else work itself out.”

Safety
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, after all, doesn’t the Bible say, God’s angels will take care of you?” Safety is not a bad thing. But if staying safe becomes the highest good, we will never risk anything. There would be no cross. We may think ships are safest in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for. Life is dangerous. None of us are going to get out of it alive. Don’t trade in your mission to cling to safety.

Power
“All the kingdoms of this world I will give to you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus has been called to a ministry among the people that will eventually require him to lay down his life. The devil tempts Jesus to trade his calling, his destiny, his integrity for POWER.

power-of-temptation

Like bread and safety, good things, there’s nothing wrong with power. Think of what you could do with political power. You could feed people, make a difference. But if the pursuit of power becomes a greater goal in the ministry to which we are called, we have missed our calling. Jesus accomplishes his mission without holding political office. If we chase power, political or ecclesiastical, we will miss what God can do with our powerlessness. God says, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” It was not in Jesus’ political or military power that made a difference. It was his love and serving and dying for us. Let us be a servant church.

The wilderness is necessary. It is a place of reflection and healing. But it is also a place of temptation and testing. Expect to have your calling and mission questioned. “Why give your life to this silly religious business? The church is just a petulant club of judgmental moralists. Leave this behind. Go make some bread. Live the high life. Eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Forget your cross. Are you some kind of masochist? Why sacrifice for others? Why be a servant? Why servitude at all? Go for the gusto. Don’t worry about the poor. Didn’t Jesus say the poor will always be with you? You can’t save the world. Live your life.”

Perhaps one of the reasons we fear the wilderness experience is because we know that we will encounter voices of doubt, fear, and temptation, as well as the voices of faith, hope, and love. So Lent and the desert are not without risks. The wilderness is wild. But the alternative is closing our hearts to the spiritual, being left to go on our own strength.

So, welcome to Lent. Pray: empty me, in whatever ways you can. Change my routine. Help me listen. Help me to fast, pray, give, and trust. Help me know that fasting doesn’t make me a better person, right before God, of special merit, but rather it simply clears away the clutter so that we can see and hear God more clearly.

 

An additional story about a different kind of temptation.

March 8, 2015 is Lent 3B

Exodus 20:1-17 – Moses’ covenant (age 80?). Ten Commandments. I brought you out of the land of Israel.

Psalm 19 – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You…

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – The gospel is foolishness to those perishing, but to us the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. God chose what was weak and despised in the world…

John 2:13-22 – Cleansing of the Temple. Early in John’s gospel. Then resurrection prediction. Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.

The Covenant on Stone

Just a reminder that our Hebrew Bible readings are focused on the covenants during Lent. The first Sunday of Lent we had God’s covenant with Noah, who we are told is 600 years old. The epistle text from I Peter references Noah. Last week we read about God’s covenant with Abraham who we are told is 99. The epistle text from Romans references Abraham. This week and next week we will cover God’s covenant with Moses who is apparently 80. Lent 5 culminates with God’s promise in the prophet Jeremiah, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”

Paul picks up this thread in his second letter to the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians). The new covenant is not written on stone like Moses’ Ten Commandments, but on hearts: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.“ He goes on to say God has made us:

ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!

Exodus: The Mosaic Covenant. The Ten Commandments form the center of the Mosaic Covenant. In all there are 613 commandments in the Torah, a contract between God and the Israelites. “I brought you out of the land of Israel.” Moses was purportedly 80 years old when he ascended Mount Sinai. The Covenant consisted of laws, holiness codes, cleanliness codes, and dietary codes to protect the people and maintain their holiness before God. It also had punishments for those who broke those codes. This is a conditional covenant. Follow my laws and statutes, and I will go before you and be your rear guard.

1 Corinthians: Gospel foolishness. The message of the cross is utter folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. The idea that we find our lives by losing them, that we save them by giving them away, must seem idiotic to those with a zero-sum view of life. “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die!” “Life is short. Grab all the gusto you can get.” Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach this unexpected message of Christ crucified. The weakness of God is greater than the strength of humans. The epistle for Lent 3 does not reference the Mosaic covenant as the epistle from Lent 1 mentioned Noah and the epistle from Lent 2 mentioned Abraham, but there is a clear proclamation of the gospel that transcends all human forms of religion.

John 2: The Cleansing of the Temple. This is one of the few stories that appears in all four canonical gospels. In John’s gospel, the Cleansing of the Temple happens early in Jesus’ ministry, rather than at its culmination, after his arrival in Jerusalem. Rather than being the catalyst for his crucifixion, in John the Cleansing sets the tone for his ministry from the outset. It also sets up tension in the plot.

John’s gospel is a challenge topographically. Jesus is baptized in Jordan (down near Jerusalem). Then he chooses his disciples (up in Galilee, probably at Capernaum where we are told Peter’s house is). He turns water into wine at Cana. No one really is sure where Cana is, but John says it’s in Galilee. There’s a town about 10 miles WSW of Tiberias called Kafr Kanna. That might be it (See the red pin on the map). Jesus then makes a brief stop in Capernaum before heading to Jerusalem for Passover.

Capernaum can’t be seen on this map. It’s at the top of the Sea of Galilee. Permit me a brief excursus.

CanaLocate Tiberius, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. There is a nice Sheraton Inn in this town of 40,000. Tiberius is mentioned only once in the Bible, in John 6. Drive north out of Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Sea of Tiberius or Lake Gennesaret), and you will come to Migdal, the home of Mary of Migdal, the Magdalene. From Midgal it is only six miles further north to Capernaum.

On the north side of Capernaum you will see the Mount of Beatitudes. Our guide tells us Mount Sinai gave us the “Don’ts.” On the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus gave us the “Do’s.” Christianity is a religion of do’s. Mussolini built an octagonal church at the top of this hill. Further down towards the lake is the Bread and Fish Church. You can guess what they think happened there. Capernaum is about the same latitude as Dallas, but it has a bit warmer climate. Save your continuing educations dollars. At some point in your career it is worth a visit.

So, in John, Jesus goes like this: Jerusalem > Capernaum > Cana > Capernaum > Jerusalem > Samaria > Galilee, and so on. This is, of course, quite possible, but it would be grueling (many several-day trips on foot), and it is a bit different than the itineraries of the other gospels.

In John, Jesus goes into the Temple and uses a whip to drive out the moneychangers, giving this event more force. In the synoptics Jesus says it’s written, “My house shall be a house of prayer [for all nations, Mark adds], but you have made it a den of robbers.” In John, Jesus doesn’t mention the “house of prayer,” but simply says, “Stop making my Father’s house a house of trade.” The word here is οἶκον ἐμπορίου, oikon emporiou. You can see the word “emporium.” One might translate this, “Stop making my Father’s house an emporium.” The NRSV chooses, “marketplace.”

“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will rebuild it.” In a play on words, Jesus substitutes himself for the Temple, and predicts the resurrection for those with ears to hear.

Last week we had a crucifixion prediction; this week we have a resurrection prediction.

Some see Jesus calling for an end to the temple system. Perhaps so, but don’t miss the economic reforms implied here. John wants us to see Jesus as a reformer, like Nehemiah who drove out Eliashib’s grandson and turned over Tobiah’s furniture for leasing out the Temple storeroom in Nehemiah 13. Jesus is unhappy with what the Temple has become, an emporium. His anger is righteous indignation. Luther’s anger at the sale of indulgences comes to mind. It bothered him that Rome was being built on the backs of the poor, by the sale of forgiveness. The temptation to coopt religion for financial gain is great.

As an ecclesiam semper reformandum (a church always in reformation) we are called to evaluate and critique our religious systems, which can easily become so mired in the economic realities of resourcing organizations that they lose their primary purpose. This is as true of congregations as it is of denominations. We may want to look at others and reform them, but more in the spirit of Jesus is looking at the log in our own eyes. How do we need to change, reform?

There is a deeper meta-message here. For the early church, Temple worship eventually became House worship, Church worship. A building as God’s dwelling place was replaced by Jesus as God’s dwelling place. God’s locus shifted from a building to a person. Animal sacrifice as a central act of worship (in many religions) was replaced by Jesus as the final sacrifice.

There is a danger of preaching supercessionism here. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that for Paul, faith brings life and salvation that the law cannot. Jesus transforms the water of all our human religious systems to the wine of faith, which is trusting in God’s promises. For the gospel writers, Jesus is the new Moses, ushering in a new covenant not written on stone tablets, but on hearts.

This new covenant finds its strength not in the supremacy of Israel, but in the supremacy of humility and sacrifice. This all is nonsense, of course, by the world’s standards of power and privilege, but for those who have discovered in it a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, it is the very power of God.

How might our congregations encounter God through the humility of the cross? Might we not encounter Christ by seeking out those who are suffering most in our world?

Prayer

Those who are studying prayer this Lent, reading one chapter a day in Learning to Pray Again, are likely around chapters 15-21. After a short chapter on making time for prayer, which we discussed earlier, we cover walking, music, journaling, confession, table prayer, and praying for the world.

Walking has become my favorite ways to prayer in this season of life. It amazes me how different forms of prayer work in the various stages of life. For most of my life, journaling didn’t work at all. Then, at some point in my early 40’s I was stuck in my prayer life, and I began writing. As I mention in the book, I simply began each day by writing, “Yesterday…” I committed to only writing one sentence, but most days I poured out a page. The journal became the place I collected thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams, and confessions. Many sermon ideas found their way onto those pages. I processed conflicts. The best thing was I could return to these pages and recall quite poignantly the feelings and issues at stake.

In a journal you can hand write a memory verse or prayer you are trying to memorize. Sometimes I would spend a week on a passage and memorize it in several languages. In my journal I would write my prayer concerns and those given to me by others. This became for me a treasure and ushered in a period of time where my prayer life was the most rich it had ever been in my life. I commend it to you. If you do nothing else, purchase a blank book. If journaling isn’t your way of praying this year, it might be next year.

One note about table prayer. If “Come Lord Jesus” is your only prayer time during the day, your family is missing out on a lot. But table prayer is sacred time. This chapter encourages the use of table prayers and offers options. I encourage reclaiming the table as a place of faith, scripture, and caring conversation. Turn off the television and make this time sacred.

Praying for the world is a holy enterprise. The world is in many ways smaller than ever. In this day of global telecommunications, what happens on the other side of the globe is known to us instantly and can affect life here in dramatic ways. It is easier than ever to be in relationship with people of other countries. Our companion synods in Peru and the Central African Republic feel closer than they did even 16 years ago when I made my first trek to Lima. Consider putting up a map of the world in your home or setting out a globe. When a country comes up at school, at work, or in the news, pray for it visually and tacitly.

As you experiment with these very different forms of prayer during Lent, I hope you’ll gather people for discussion. Listen to the stories. Share them. I would covet knowing that the time I spent writing this helped in some small way to bear fruit in someone’s spiritual life. Hearing these stories might encourage others to experiment in prayer.

May your continued observance of Lent be prayerful.

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