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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

40 Days of Temptation

I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed this before, but some how, in my rush to figure out what the three temptations of Jesus might mean, I’ve failed to notice that, in fact, Jesus has been tempted constantly for 40 straight days.  Don’t believe me?  It says so, right there in Luke’s Gospel:

After his baptism, 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.

Luke gives us a sampling of what Jesus had to endure: temptations of bread, power, and safety; but what really strikes me is how 2/3rds of the sample temptations start with a question of trust.

“If you are the Son of God…”

As we begin the 40 day season of Lent, temptation will be nipping at your heels.  At least I know it will be for me.  You see, every time I find myself getting closer to God’s dream for me, I realize that the devil is hard at work tempting me to give it all up and follow my own dreams.

“If you really are a beloved child of God…”

The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s love.  He’s always there to make you question God’s dream.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  If you’ve decided to take on a prayer practice, be ready for your life to get busier than ever.  If you’ve given up chocolate, wine, or potato chips, be prepared to have them offered to you again and again.  If you’re seeking a closer relationship with God this Lent, be prepared to wonder if God is a target moving ever farther away.  That’s the job of the Deceiver.

Lent-2014

Withstanding 40 days of temptation isn’t going to be easy.  There are bound to be days when you fall short of whatever ideal you’re striving for this Lent.  When that happens, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and for goodness sake, try again.  Lent is a marathon, 40 days of temptation were almost too much for Jesus, but with God’s help, even when we fail, we won’t lose our status as a beloved child of God, no matter what the Devil says to the contrary.

God acts, we respond, und wiederholen

One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace.  Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness.  Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.

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God’s grace is sparkly

Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work?  And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded?  Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it?  I have my doubts about that.  How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire?  I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:

God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)

After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”  God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.”  Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession.  It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition.  That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness.  Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives.  In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power.  God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again.  This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace?  Of course not.  It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us?  It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent?  It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart?  Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.

Offertory Sentences

I wasn’t born under the stark regime of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, so I don’t have that nagging desire to keep odd things from it like the falsely named “Installation of a Rector” which is really called “An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches.”  I’m not overly fond of the latent sexism in Rite I language, though I do think that the penitential tone of Cranmer’s Eucharistic rites are worth hearing from time to time.  I do, however, have one bit of the “old Prayer Book” that I wish the church would have held on to.  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer removed my favorite offertory sentence from its suggested list.  In the 1928 Book, after this great rubric: “Then followeth the Sermon.  After which, the Priest, when there is a Communion, shall return to the Holy Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one of these Sentences following as he thinketh most convenient” comes a list of no less than 16 choices.  Second on that list, having survived since Cranmer’s first Book in 1549, comes words from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5, “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.”

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I love that Offertory Sentence, and have used it all through Epiphany season, but as the calendar moves to Lent, it is time to pick another one, and I’m thinking about going beyond the suggestions of the Prayer Book again, this time from Deuteronomy.  In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear what sort of Offertory Sentences the Lord requires of those who are entering the Promised Land.  Ignoring the potential for a killer stewardship sermon for the time being, what we hear is the rehearsing of salvation history, and a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.  It might be a bit long to memorize, and tough to turn into a second person directive, but these words are so very important as we enter the Season of Lent and take stock of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s dream for us.

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

Let us with gladness bring before the Lord the first of the fruit of the everything that God has given us.

Resist the Temptation

As I started research for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, one of the members of the Thesis Committee suggested that I read a book called The American Jeremiad.  The suggestion was that perhaps America isn’t changing in such a dramatic way as I was suggesting, but rather the words of William Reed Huntington, Brian McLaren, and others were merely a rehashing of the old fashioned jeremiad, the prophetic voice of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella that the American enterprise was God’s Kingdom come, and that any moral failing on the part of the Puritans that were making their way to New England, would bring about not just the failure of the nation, but the failure of God’s dream.  I ultimately disagreed with this argument, but in reading Sacvan Bercovitch’s dense prose, I came to realize where much of the prudish, moralistic bent that makes up vast sections of American society comes from.

As Americans, moralistic thought has been in our DNA since before the Arbella landed at Salem, Massachusetts in 1630.  As such, there remains a temptation to read stories like the Temptation of Jesus that we hear read on the First Sunday in Lent as a moralistic text.  We hear how Jesus withstood temptation at the hand of the devil for 40 days and say, “Just as Jesus withstood temptation, you should too.”  Here’s the thing, none of us is Jesus.  Jesus is a special case, and while I believe it is important that we emulate his life’s witness of loving God and neighbor, I don’t think we can use him as the measuring stick for successful discipleship.

The Temptation of Jesus

Do not try this at home. This sort of thing only works for Jesus.

Instead of lifting Jesus up (no pun intended) as the exemplar of faith that we should all just try to follow, I wonder if we might look at what makes Jesus the example which we should all try to follow.  This may be splitting hairs, but bear with me, as this seems to be the difference between asking our congregations to do the impossible, i.e. be like Jesus, and asking our congregations to be disciples, i.e. the very real struggle of everyday life.   So how is it that Jesus is able to resist temptation?

First, he is filled up with the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the guide.  Jesus is just off his his profound spiritual encounter in the waters of the Jordan River, with the Spirit hovering over him as a dove and a voice coming from heaven, when that same Spirit propels him into he wilderness.  Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, it require the help of the Spirit to resist temptation.  Second, he relies on his knowledge of the Law, or as we might call it, the Scriptures.  Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation.  Even when the deceiver tries to use the Bible against, him, Jesus is able to discern good interpretation from false.  Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for us and what is not, and that requires coming to know as God has been manifested in the Scriptures.  Finally, Jesus prayed.  While Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer.  As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least thrice daily, and would have followed the customs of his tradition.  Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because they were in regular conversation with one another.  We too should rely on prayer, and by that I mean being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives, which will ultimately keep us from being led into temptation.

Jesus’ Exodus

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration has several details that aren’t included in Mark’s version.  This makes sense for a couple of reasons: first, Mark is in a hurry and details, unless absolutely necessary, are superfluous; second, Mark is the first gospel written, so the story is logically going to grow as time passes.  One of the details that Mark and Matthew both gloss over, but Luke decides to include is the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

jesus_moses_elijah

 

“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

If it weren’t for the second half of that sentence, having this come on the heels of Jesus being rejected at Nazareth, one could think that Moses and Elijah were giving Jesus a hard time for his almost being thrown off a cliff in his hometown.  There, Jesus walked to safety “through the midst of them,” not unlike Moses and the people of Israel walking to safety from Pharaoh’s army between the Red Sea’s walls of water on their left and right. Alas, that isn’t the exodus they were talking about.

Instead, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking about the new Exodus, God’s saving work for the whole world, which Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.  This Exodus wouldn’t involve blood on the door posts of those who would be saved, but instead, the blood on the cross would serve as the saving mark for all of creation.  The people wouldn’t flee from the evils of one place for the promise of another, but instead, the promise of God’s kingdom would find a way to overcome the evils of this world.  The Exodus of Jesus will bring us to a promised land that doesn’t inhabit time and space, but rather is available not matter who we are, where we live, or when we accept God’s grace.

The conversation about the Exodus is good news, but the disciples are unable to hear it that way.  They’re weighed down with sleep: simultaneously confused and amazed by what they are seeing.  It’ll take Jesus dying on a cross, rising to life again, ascending into heaven, and ten days after that before the Spirit will come and begin to make sense of it all.  In the meantime, like the people of Israel in the desert, the disciples follow Jesus, unsure of where they are going.

Moses’ Transfiguration

Moses is a very special character in the Bible.  His unique birth story came during a period when all Hebrew boys were to be killed.  As a young adult, he went into a fit of rage, killing an Egyptian, and causing him to flee from his comfortable life in the palace family. He encountered God for the first time in a burning bush, and from then on had a unique, personal relationship with the LORD, unlike anyone who would follow him.  Moses is the arch-typical prophet, and it was thought that each generation would have a Moses-type character to lead it.

In many ways, the story of Jesus sets out to lift him up as a prophet in the line of Moses.  His also a unique birth narrative, complete with the slaughter of innocents.  He and his family had their own Exodus experience from Egypt.  Jesus has a special, personal relationship with God the Father, and is the bringer of a new sort of Law.  Even the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to be following in the pattern of Moses.

In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear the story of Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai.  Moses saw the holiness of God, and was not destroyed by it, but he was most certainly changed.  The author of Exodus tells us that as Moses came down the mountain, his face shone bright, but he didn’t know it.  The translation is a bit murky as to what really happened to Moses face.  The Hebrew word translated as “shone” seems to be something even more vibrant than that.  The same word for “to grow horns,” it seems that Moses’ face was transfigured such that beams of light were bursting forth from it.  Like headlights on a dirty wind shied, the light was refracted with resplendent glory.

mosesfacemountain-632

I’m not sure why it looks like a profile shadow of Jesus’ crucifixion is on his robe.

If this is anything like how Moses’ face looked, it is no wonder that the people were afraid to come near him.  If this is the same sort of Transfiguration that Jesus underwent, the babbling nonsense of Peter seems perfectly normal.  The Transfiguration experience of these two are not the norm, but they aren’t the only people to be changed by an encounter with the living God.  Every disciple of Jesus will have moments of transfiguration in their lives.  Some might be cataclysmic moments of healing or restoration, but more often than not, these are moments of what seem like subtle changes, but are really mountains being moved.  By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly being transfigured more and more into the image of God.  We are being made more and more loving, more and more compassionate, and more and more kingdom oriented.  We are, as the collect says, being changed from glory to glory, until one day, we will find the light of Christ radiating forth like Moses coming down the Mountain.

The Most Excellent Way – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Every Sunday [at the 10 o’clock service] we sing this song as the children leave for Follow the Word.  For years, I haven’t given this little ditty much thought.  I just enjoy singing it.  It is a cute song that reminds me of the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth, but as I spent this week immersed in the lessons, I found myself reflecting on this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  These are words of comfort and hope.  That the Son of God loves me means that I’m included in those who are his brothers and sisters.  It means that I’m an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.  It means that I’m a part of the people who Jesus was anointed to save.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of last Sunday’s in which we heard Jesus read words of comfort and hope the from the Prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The crowd that was gathered in the synagogue was excited at these words.  They heard the promise that God loves them, that God cares for them in their hardship, and that one day, God will restore everything and make the world right side up again.  They stared at Jesus with eager expectation, hoping for a clearer picture of what this could possibly mean for them.  And so Jesus sat down, as preachers did in those days, and uttered his first public words in Luke’s Gospel.  His first sermon is only nine words long, but it would forever change the course of human history. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today?  As in, right now?  As in, no more boot of Rome on our throats, no more heavy taxes, no more fear?  Today!?!  Luke tells us that the crowd moved beyond excitement to wonder and amazement.  They were thrilled at these words from Jesus and began to murmur among themselves, “Can it be?  Could this really come from Joseph’s son? Can he really be the anointed one who has come to save us?”

But Jesus didn’t stop there either.  He kept talking, opening up their imaginations to a more excellent way.  He invited the crowd to see a world where God’s love isn’t confined to the Sinai Peninsula and the people of Israel, but is available for everyone, everywhere.  Remember the Widow at Zarephath?  She lived in Gentile country, but Elijah ministered to her and her alone in the midst of a famine.  She lived in the wrong town and worshiped the wrong way, but, Jesus says, she is included in the year of the Lord’s favor.  Namaan the Syrian, was an ungrateful leper.  He talked harshly about the waters of Israel, even as he had come to Elisha to be healed.  He was a Gentile and not a very nice one, and Jesus says, he’s included too.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We love that song.  “Jesus loves you, this I know…” is less popular.  That other person might be nice and pleasant, but what if they aren’t?  What if they’re a jerk?  Jesus loves jerks.  I know because I can be one sometimes.  What if they’re Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are a banker on Wall Street or a drug dealer in Aaronville?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are my ex-husband or my emotionally distant mother or my annoying neighbor?  Jesus loves them, too.  For the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach, that was just too much to handle, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably too much for us as well.  So what do we do?  How do we come to grips with the reality that God’s favor rest upon many who we consider to be undesirable?

We follow Paul’s more excellent way.  The Christians in Corinth were singing a different version of this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know because I have the gift of tongues, but I’m not so sure he loves you because you only have the gift of prophecy.”  That pretty awful song threatened to tear the young church apart, and so, in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul took a pause to teach them how to love one another.  From verse four to the first half of verse eight, Paul uses 45 words to describe love.  Sixteen of them are verbs.  Love is something that requires work.  Love is busy.  Love is active.  Love is always finding ways to lift up and care for the other.[1]  Remember that this is being written to a church that was on the verge of divorce.  The Corinthian church was being torn apart by envy and bitterness and to them Paul says:

Love is patient, but it isn’t passively patient.  Love means being slow to avenge when someone does you wrong.  Love isn’t just kind in the polite “hi, how are you” kind of way.  Love is kind even to those who have hurt you.  Love is not being envious of the gifts that someone else has.  Love is not being boastful about the gifts that you have.  Love is not being rude or puffed up with an overinflated sense of self.  Love is the most excellent way because love is the ultimate dream of God for all flesh.  “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will never fail.”[2]

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the bishop talk about how heaven isn’t some place that is far from here in time and space.  Instead, he says, heaven exists somewhere right here (waves hand at side of face).  When we love one another in the way that Paul suggests the Corinthians should love each other, heaven comes right here.  God is love, and so when we love one another, God is right here.  Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way of love; the way of self-sacrifice; the way of God’s holy restoration of all creation, and when we follow his example of love, Jesus is right here.  It doesn’t matter what else we might do, if we don’t have love, heaven stays out of view, God remains absent, Jesus is not among us.  But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we usher in nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.”  These are words of comfort and hope, but if that is all they are, then they are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Because of God’s love for us, we are called to show that love to the rest of the world.  By showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us. With some practice, who knows, one day we might even be comfortable enough to turn to our neighbor and sing, “Jesus loves you, this I know.”  That kind of love will change the world.  Love really is the most excellent way.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

[2] Ibid.