Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016

[RCL] Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

It is the first Sunday in Lent and it seems as if Advent was just a few days ago. During Advent and Christmas we were confronted with the scandal of the incarnation: the wondrous and terrifying news that God entered our humanity in a specific place, at a designated time, in the form of a particular man – Jesus of Nazareth. We hardly had time to catch our breath when Epiphany arrived and we watched with wonder as the reality of Incarnation was acknowledged by the wise of this world, the magi, and by the unorthodox within the religious community, John of the wilderness, John the baptizer. We stood in awe as Jesus emerged from the waters of the river to hear the words that would set him apart while at the same time plunging him into the sufferings and joys of daily living: the words uttered at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

How can one hear these words and not feel frightened or ready to run away? The evangelists tell us that Jesus decides to withdraw for a while. He goes to the wilderness to think upon these words and their meaning, as they would affect the rest of his life. We know almost nothing of his previous years, but it is obvious at his baptism that he had spent them obeying and acting upon the will of God. Otherwise, those crucial words would not have been uttered: “with you I am well pleased.” So we come to the great temptations in the wilderness, the beginning of both his ministry and the start of the road that would lead to crucifixion. Matthew and Luke tell us that the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. Mark, who in his usual laconic manner uses only two verses to describe the experience, says: “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Now, we enter Lent with a strong awareness of the incarnation, of the full humanity of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are. The vivid metaphors of those days in the wilderness show that he was tempted in the most intense manner possible. “He emptied himself,” St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “taking the form of the slave.” Jesus responds to the most powerful temptations that can be aimed at a human being by taking the form of a slave.

We don’t know exactly what span of time forty days actually means because this number is so common in the writings of the times and so imbedded in the Hebrew stories. Obviously, it was a considerable span of fasting and of profound thinking and wrestling. The evangelist tells us that at the end of the fasting period he was “famished.” In that weakened state he is offered the temptation of using his exceptional powers for magic and for his own benefit. “Turn this stone into bread, come on. It’s easy for you. You are not like everybody else. You can use your remarkable powers to help yourself.”

A person who is starving will do anything to relieve the pangs of hunger. Those who have more than enough to eat find it very difficult to understand the urgency of this need. Starvation is overwhelming because it is life threatening. Jesus turns temptation on its head by using the scriptures he must have memorized during the years of his preparation for ministry. “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” What good does it do us to take care only of the body and to forget to feed on God’s words? The second part of the verse quoted is often neglected; it is important for us to remember that Jesus never neglected it.

How useful it is to be immersed in the words that sustained Jesus. How much would we be helped if we memorized enough of the Bible to sustain us in times of trouble and temptation? The pattern of his ministry emerges: in each instance he rejects the easy way, the magic, if you will, by feeding on the words of the holy scriptures that he understood so fully.

The second temptation is one that every politician today would fail miserably: the chance to be given authority and power in exchange for worshipping power, greed, human pride and arrogance. The culture of the developed world worships money and guns. It is a culture passionately adopted by those who long for similar power. Someone once suggested that the money spent on one airplane intended for war would educate every college student in America for years to come. If this isn’t idolatry, it’s hard to figure out what this temptation means. We see people selling their souls for power while children are shot, starved, made sick by contaminated water, or drowned in the seas while their families try to escape bombing and destruction. The list of offenses is unending but the answer that Jesus provides takes us back to the original commandment to worship the one God, the Creator. Imagine a world where the leaders prayed constantly, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Following the wilderness, Jesus would spend the rest of his short life turning aside from all temptations to put his self first. Even when someone calls him good he says, “No one is good but the Father.” At every instance of living he was connected to his father by prayer, and because of that he did not falter. People marvel at Jesus’ authority, but he knew that he acted on God’s authority.

The third temptation is even more intriguing because the Tempter, Satan, the Devil, whichever name you prefer for the power that opposes God, this tempter uses Scripture to accomplish his purpose. Listen to the pundits and the false prophets, to those who make money by taking advantage of the poor, listen to them and hear how they too use Scripture to accomplish their dark purposes. “Take a chance with your life,” the tempter says to Jesus. “No matter what chances you take, God is supposed to take care of you. You are a favorite of God’s, aren’t you?” There is in all of us a tendency to bargain with God and a great temptation to misuse scripture for our own purposes. Out of such misuse wars have arisen. Jesus is adamant on this: You shall not put your God to the test.

Both Matthew and Luke agree that when, finally, the terrible temptations were finished and the tempter left him alone he did so only for a while. “Until an opportune time,” Luke writes. Because of the incarnation, Jesus would be tempted again. There is that heart-breaking time when Peter tries to dissuade him from following the road that would lead to his death. After all, the tradition did not say anything about Messiah suffering and dying! But Jesus hears in Peter’s rebuke, the echo of Satan’s temptation: “I have the authority, I will give it to you.” Once again Jesus turns away from the temptation, and from his good friend, knowing that his own way of obedience to God would lead to his early death.

This is how the season of Lent begins, with the victory of Jesus over temptation. The knowledge that he belongs to God and to God alone keeps him from succumbing to any thought that he might rely on his own powers alone. The knowledge of Scriptures, of the words of the Lord, as Jesus describes them, becomes a shield to protect him from the meddling of the tempter. Jesus’ connection is never torn because, in prayer, he always turns to God. May it be so with us.

Download the sermon for Lent 1C.

Written by Katerina Whitley

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Katerina Katsarka emigrated at 16 years of age to the United States to study music and literature. After her English degree she spent years studying theology and teaching children of all ages. In the 1980s she edited Cross Current for the Diocese of East Carolina. In the nineties, she worked for the then Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief in New York as a church journalist. She wrote and created all the public relations material for the Fund and traveled to 26 countries to witness and report on the Fund’s grants. She free-lanced as essayist for two decades and then started writing books. She has six books in circulation, five biblically based books published by Morehouse and one, her cookbook, published by Globe-Pequot/Lyons Press. Her latest books, two novels, are waiting publication. She lives in Louisville and is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Contact Katerina: katsarkakk@gmail.com

Sin, like ashes in our eyes, 1 Lent (C) – 2013

February 17, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

The ashes are gone – washed off our foreheads – but their darkness still stains our thoughts and spirits as we begin Lent once again. Tiny grains of ash, like the darkness of sin, may have fallen in our eyes or down our faces. Annoyed, we may have rubbed our eyes or brushed our cheeks. Maybe the ash was wet – a big stain on our heads, right between our eyes. How can we get it off, without looking insincere, before we get in our cars and go to work out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday, where most people no longer remember the word “Lent” or what it means?

Sin is like that most days, a bit of an annoyance, a speck in our eyes that must be rubbed away. For heaven’s sake, we don’t want to talk about it – it’s annoying – oh my, that word again. Being reminded that sin still exists in each one of us can be just plain annoying, not earth-shattering, nothing really to worry about, it’s just there hovering around the edges, picking at us, especially during Lent.

We have 40 long days to think about it, though. Forty long days when we’re reminded to repent and be saved. Our hymns are melancholy. In many churches, they hide a banner with the word “Alleluia” on it until Easter Day.

Is that what Lent is all about? A surface look at it, a few memories from Sunday school in our youth, a desire to get it over with and get back to the real world, might make it so. But look at our readings today. If we really pay attention to what we’re hearing, there is a whole lot more light than darkness – a whole lot more graciousness poured on us by our God, than punishment. Yes, we’re reminded about the temptations of sin, but we’re offered the unstopping gift of forgiveness and a chance to model Jesus. Lent can help us go deep into ourselves.

Moses’ story today is full of light. God has given the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. All they have to do is show gratitude through their offerings. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty. The people acknowledged their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction.

Today’s psalm says, “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” This is another image that should remind us that God continues to hear our cries, even when they’re moaned from the depths of our sinfulness. At the beginning of Lent, we’re reminded that we are not alone. God not only has not abandoned us, God is “so bound to us in love” the psalm says, that even when we are focused only on ourselves to the point of sin, God is with us, ready to bring us back to the light. God is ready to brush the ash from our faces.

Paul says the same thing to the Romans. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” That is not only the word of faith, but the capital W “Word” of God. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that?

Paul does put in front of us, however, one type of sin we may need to think about during Lent – because after all, this good news of salvation is reliant on the fact that we actually want to repent and return to the Lord. Paul drops in a very salient fact: There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions. We might need to examine ourselves to determine how much we really want to include all others.

Is that part of the ash that has fallen in our eyes? We might need help getting that out. We might need to read over and over again Jesus’ words all through the gospels that call us to love even our enemies. “Our enemies?” we might want to ask. It’s hard enough to love our own families sometimes.

But if that ash is left in our eye, it could fester and make us blind – blind to our responsibility to share God’s love with everyone. This is a good time to remember that for the Jews, “love” doesn’t mean the Valentine’s-Day-card emotional kind of love. Love, when Jesus talks about it, also means “loyalty.” We don’t have to agree with everyone to love them. We don’t have to have emotional love for the person or group doing evil. “Loyalty” means we acknowledge that these too are children of God and need our prayers. They need us to want them to see the light, not for us to judge them as worthy only for hell.

Even Jesus didn’t send his tempter immediately to hell in our gospel story. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus only responds to the temptations by reminding his tempter that God alone is worthy of our worship and service? There was no argument, no discussion: God alone is our refuge and our stronghold in times of trial.

The three temptations are interesting in themselves. Would it have been so wrong if Jesus just turned a few stones to bread? Certainly, there’s no sin in that. What is Luke really telling us? Perhaps, that we might be tempted to want to manipulate the world to our liking. That can grow into the serious sin, for example, of not caring where our food comes from, or the environment from which it grew. Do we care enough about those who grow the food we eventually buy in our stores to make deliberate choices about where we shop?

Jesus’ second temptation might make us think about what we feel we must own. What in our lifestyles comes before our consideration of God? If we’re honest, many things can draw our eyes away from God – things that, in and of themselves, are not bad, but things, such as that annoying speck of ash that fell in our eyes, that might fester in us until we can see nothing else.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus, too, was faced with temptations. He was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine. He knows what we face. He knows the power that tries to turn our hearts from God. Our ashes remind us of the same thing, but today we hear about God’s great love for us. We’re reminded even more about the fact that we abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We, too, have been promised a land flowing with milk and honey.

There is a lot to be joyful about in Lent. After all, Paul tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

‘The word is near you’, 1 Lent (C) – 2010

February 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

This past Wednesday we struck out into the desert spaces alongside Jesus, receiving a cross of ashes on our forehead or on our heart to begin the Lenten season.

Ash Wednesday calls upon our humanity. It reminds us that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. It reminds us of our own fragility. Today’s scriptures call to mind that same tenuous grasp we hold on life. They lay out the many ways we are called to respond to and from our humanity this Lenten season.

In the reading from Deuteronomy we are called to live with thankfulness. Though our hands have toiled the earth to bring forth fruits, it is the Lord who owns the land and has blessed us to inhabit it. We are called to be good stewards and to give back out of what we have been given.

In the psalm, we are called to trust in God’s mercy, to take refuge in the Lord. The fragility that we experience in our lives does not need to stir up fear and anxiety in us. We are freed by faith to take refuge, to trust, to be held safe in the arms of grace.

And finally Paul calls us to an incredible, empowering humility. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” all who confess faith in Jesus Christ are opened to the possibility of life redeemed and reconciled to God. We are not saved by works or by merit, but simply and wholly by that grace that comes from orienting our lives toward Christ.

What will this Lenten season be for you, where you are, on your Christian journey toward Jerusalem? What of thankfulness, trust, and humility will you seek to help you as you progress toward new life in Christ Jesus?

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

Jesus didn’t strike out into the wilderness with a stack of scriptural commentaries, a pack of Nicorette, and an elliptical machine. “Driven out” by the Spirit, we might assume he left in a bit of a hurry: his wallet, cell phone, and keys still on the nightstand. His journey into the wilderness was a test in a way. And like most tests, he couldn’t use his notes.

He was naked, stripped down to simply his self. Faced with the incredible temptations of his human frailty, he was offered the easiest defense against that frailty: the ability to control – to create food where there is none, to rule with power, to defy his physical nature. But instead, Jesus stood firm in his humanity, clothed only with thankfulness, trust, and humility. Thankful for the nourishment that is not food, trusting in the God that does not need testing, and humble enough to obey the law given him by his ancestors and inspired by God, Jesus resisted temptation and in doing that prepared himself to begin his ministry.

For many people in our society, there is no greater fear than being naked in front of others. We are confronted by so many unrealistic and unnatural bodies in the media that the realness of our own bodies becomes frightening and shaming. Our lack of control, of youth, of power become reasons for hiding. And not just literally. We hide behind work, behind family, behind productivity and profitability. We hide behind our fears, and we hide behind our scars. It is natural in a world that is struggling to accommodate so many people that each of us as individuals can quickly become invisible. And when we become invisible, it’s easy to run into us, like furniture in a darkened room. So we hide.

This Lent challenge yourself, not to be more of who you feel the world is calling you to be: the easy and unrealistic thinner, fitter, smarter, and faster. Perhaps not even who your community or your family are calling you to be. I challenge you to be naked, to confront yourself with whom your God is calling you to be: frail, insignificant, humble, thankful, trusting, human.

What does human look like? It can be hard to see ourselves in a natural, liberating light. But this Lent, look. As Jesus looked upon himself and found in his frailty the strength and will to trust, thank, and bow. Perhaps that is as far as you will get this Lent, to look upon yourself. Perhaps that is as far as you need to get. Seeing ourselves, we begin to see those around us.

There is a triumphant entry, a table full of friends, a cross and a tomb waiting for every one of us. But for now, in the meantime, in this Lent time, simply look, and know that the Word is so very near to you, “on your lips and in your heart,” each one of us carrying Christ to each other.

 

— Jason Sierra is the Associate for Young Adult and Campus Ministries at the Seattle Office of the Episcopal Church Center. He holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University and is a visual artist.

A roadmap for our Lenten journey, 1 Lent (C) – 2007

February 25, 2007

Deuteronomy 26:1-11Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16Romans 10:8b-13Luke 4:1-13

The lessons for the first Sunday in Lent can be viewed as a roadmap for our Lenten journey. They embody the theme of journeying: travel, protection, and longing for a destination. If we look at each of them as Lenten guides, they will richly serve us through this season.

Deuteronomy talks about our heritage as spiritual children of a “wandering Aramean.” People today throughout the world are on the move. We know that historically we are living through one of the largest migrations of human beings ever witnessed. Our own tendency as Americans is to be uncomfortable with new races and cultures, yet our heritage was just that kind of migration to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Our spiritual ancestors were wanderers, strangers, who found their Creator in the midst of the wilderness. So, is it not right that on this day, at the beginning of our own Lenten journey, we should remember that we were once strangers, immigrants, and wanderers?

The other theme in Deuteronomy is that of offering and celebration. It is perhaps odd that Lent would begin with that emphasis, but on this Sunday we are also asked to make an offering (ourselves) and celebrate (make Eucharist) as a way of remembering how we can do both wherever we are. And, we are to make this offering and celebration fully aware of “the aliens who reside among us.” Today, as we mark the beginning of Lent, let us reach out to the stranger, the one we don’t know in Church, the people who have moved into the rental house across from us, and remember that God welcomes them, as he does us. Lent starts with an expanded community, not a select faithful few.

Psalm 91 is a favorite of many – even the devil, who quotes part of it to Jesus during the forty days in the wilderness. It is important to note that Hebrew thought didn’t make much of distinction between body and soul. The promises of protection in this Psalm are not physical amulets to keep us safe. They are, rather, promises based on a relationship with God that will always be there, regardless of what happens to us. “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him because he knows my name.”

Because of our relationship with God, strengthened by our Baptism, we are safe to venture forth.

In our Lenten journey we approach others with the stance that everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved. Our Lenten journey will be a generous one, extending graciousness and forgiveness. This is truly a time to put away differences and distinctions, whether they are religious, political, or personal. Spiritual travel to a new place has to start with some new premises, and one is surely that the truth is not just found in one church or one point of view. God has always found ways to mix us up with one another so we can be shaped and formed in God’s image – not our own.

The gospel reading from Luke (4:1-13) depicts Jesus’ physical and spiritual journey in the wilderness. Those who have visited the Holy Land know there are, even today, vast areas of wilderness in which one could easily get lost and die from thirst or hunger. Most of us have not experienced that kind of deprivation in our lives. Our “wilderness” today might be the Internet, or the Mall of America! Strange to think of places of plenty as wildernesses, but what they promise and offer never truly fill our longing and craving.

The three temptations are ours as well. Commanding stones to become bread is the temptation to make something into what it was never intended to be. Stones are stones, and bread is bread. Making sexual objects out of people comes to mind as a modern example. People are not objects, but when we make them into idols and objects they become less than human.

Offering power over the things we don’t control is the second temptation. There are moments when we would all like to run the world, but this temptation is more subtle than that. Much of modern success and motivation is based on how to get others to do our bidding. We can look better, feel better, and learn to think better all with the object of getting what we want. Jesus’ reply to that is to expose the humbug in it and remind us to worship the Lord, and serve only him. Anything else is a waste of time, his and ours.

We’ve already spoken about the third temptation, of being protected from suffering and harm. It is not for nothing that Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and faces the worst evils we know: betrayal, beating, and crucifixion. Jesus’ journey stands as a stark reminder that our Lenten journey is not soft or quiet. We are always faced with contradiction and suffering. But in the recesses of our minds, in the time of our faithful prayer, we know that because Jesus did do these things for us we are never far from his gracious help and goodness.

So our Lenten journey begins. May it be one of honesty for each one of us. May it be one that expands our horizons and connects with others unlike ourselves. May it be a journey grounded in our Baptismal relationship with Jesus, one that builds up our dignity and that of others. May it be one that helps us to learn that in Jesus we are never powerless, but that in walking the road to Calvary with him, each one will find him mighty to save.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is currently serving as an interim priest in the Diocese of West Missouri. He and his wife will be traveling to Guam to serve a longer interim with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia, beginning June 2007.