March 10, 2019

Lent 1    March 10, 2019   Psalm 91, Deuteronomy 26;1-11, Romans 10:8-13, Luke 4:1-13            The Spirit Leads…

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Lead us not into temptation – we pray every day…

Yet here’s Jesus, who taught us that prayer – led into the wilderness… to be tempted… by the devil…

Not led by anyone demonic. But – led by God’s Holy Spirit. What’s going on?

Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. When He’s baptized, God’s Spirit descends on him like a dove. But now here’s Jesus, filled with the Spirit – Led by the Spirit – into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. What is going on?

Well – Location is a clue. In the Wilderness is the Hebrew name for what we call the book of Numbers (fourth book of the bible)… And our gospel story makes more sense as we remember – the wilderness is where Israel put God to the test for forty years… on the way to the promised land…after God led them out from slavery in Egypt…

The wilderness is where God also tests Israel… to see if any will be faithful… And almost a whole generation flunks the test…

And just before today’s reading, Luke the gospel writer gives a long genealogy of the ancestry of Jesus, naming Jesus as (quote) “son (as it was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat…” going back, back, backwards all the way to “son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God…” Helping us remember Adam, son of God, who famously flunks the whole family of humankind out of the garden… And making a thematic connection with the devil’s refrain – “if you are the Son of God…”

And yes – God the Father sends God the Holy Spirit to lead Jesus, Son of God… into the wilderness… to begin revealing the mission of the Son of God… As Jesus submits to testing on behalf of all humankind…  So that we who fail so often in withstanding temptation and testing (the same Greek word means both) may look to Jesus with confidence – Jesus who has met every test – and overcome every temptation… to show us his way of salvation… as we go with him… through the wilderness… of this world…

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The testing Jesus undergoes reveals only a little of who Jesus is. But his testing can teach us a lot… about what kind of Savior… He is not

In his refusal to work miracles on demand – or accept power and glory from anyone except God the Father – Jesus lets us know – He’s not willing to play the role of Superman…Nor any comic book super-hero…He’s not a Savior who will cater to our every desire… But in his refusal of all the devil’s offers, Jesus lets us know – He is a Son who always does the will of God the Father… As he  goes to the word of God… in every test…

In our recent United Methodist Special Session on The Way Forward for a divided church, Scripture was frequently interpreted in contrasting ways. I’ve been remembering a preaching commentary I read on vacation called The Great Texts: Grace…by Stephen Farris – who preaches to preachers – to look for grace in all parts of the bible. In the Law, Prophets, Psalms, Gospels, Letters alike – look for grace everywhere… Good counsel. Not always easy to remember…

Last week in bible study someone asked me for a definition of grace. And I  fumbled around for a minute, before remembering clergy colleague Rick McKinley, who whenever you ask him “how’s it going?” always says: “Better than I deserve.” As good a definition of grace as I can think of. Grace is receiving better than we deserve. Which I’m thinking about all the more as I think on…

Jesus quoting Deuteronomy, a book not always considered a book of grace – all three times he replies to the devil. Saying – “we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of the Lord,” when the devil challenges him to turn a stone into bread. The longer passage in Deuteronomy 8 Jesus that quotes from says– God let us hunger in the wilderness, then fed us with manna/bread, to teach us – we don’t live by bread alone – but by every word from God… whose grace feeds us, body and soul…

When the devil offers all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship, Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6, replies – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” The grace of God is far greater than all the world’s kingdoms, power and authority…

And when the devil challenges Jesus to jump off the temple roof – (notice the devil knows scripture too, as he quotes Psalm 91) – Jesus quotes yet again from Deuteronomy 6: “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test…” Our Savior has no need to look spectacular. God’s grace is more than sufficient…

Having received much grace in my life… And having been reminded lately to always be looking for grace…While preparing for this morning – studying Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 8 that Jesus quotes from – I notice Jesus sticks close to the meaning of the words God gave Moses way back when, as he replies to the devil. But I couldn’t help noticing – Deuteronomy chapter 7 sandwiched in between the texts Jesus goes to– where Israel is told to eliminate all the previous inhabitants of the land of Canaan – who because of their wickedness, are to be considered your mortal enemies and eliminated. And I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Plain, where we were reading two weeks ago (in Luke 6) – where Jesus tells us to love our enemies, pray for them, and seek their good. Which I’m hearing as a serious shift of tone and content, compared with Deuteronomy’s words about dealing with enemies – even allowing for a very non-literal interpretation of Deuteronomy… (With help from bible scholars Walter Moberly and John Goldingay, I’m hearing Deuteronomy’s command to wipe out the Canaanites  as a very serious instruction– but not to be taken literally. Partly because Deuteronomy also says in almost the same breath, not to inter-marry with the people we’re supposed to wipe out. Partly because we take Jesus seriously but, most of us, not literally – when he says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out.”)

Learning to better discern when the bible is speaking literally – and when the word of God is speaking seriously but not literally – is a project for Lent. Like unto this is learning to better discern when words of the bible are meant to be heard one way in a particular time and place – and different ways in other times and places. I’m thinking now of the bible’s acceptance of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments, and most of the church’s strong rejection of slavery, now. Thinking also of portions of the New Testament letters that prohibit women from speaking in church or teaching men. Portions I hear as written for very different contexts that no longer apply for the church today….

I’m thinking about interpretation all the more in the aftermath of our United Methodist Church’s Special Session on The Way Forward for dealing with disagreements on human sexuality.

Last Thursday evening a car load of us went to Lincoln, Rhode Island for a District conversation on what might come next for the global church. About 120 people showed up. Additional tables had to be found. We shared conversation in small groups of six or seven gathered around each table. It was soon evident that a majority in our District and our Conference supports the so-called One Church Plan that was narrowly defeated at the Special Session. Yet I also saw friends that night who are strong supporters of the so-called Traditional Plan. Who kept silent last Thursday…And…

I’m remembering Jesus tells us – to make friends (and stay friends) with our opponents. And… Do unto others as we’d like them do unto us. So I’m trying to listen well to the arguments of those in the global majority now in the Methodist Church who voted one way… And the majority in the USA who voted the other way… Remembering, as Bonnie Marden, head of our New England Conference delegation told us, “God still needs all of us, on all sides of every issue… And we all still need each other too….”

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There’s nothing wrong with giving things up for Lent… It’s always good to give up anything that separates us even a little from the love of God… (Which we should of course give up always – not just for Lent…) The season of Lent is a time for repentance… But most of all Lent is a time for nurturing and growing in our relationship with God…

Repentance means literally turning. Turning from sin. Turning to God. Turning from whatever separates us from God or damages right relationship with God and people made in the image of God.

In the opening chapters of the bible we’re told – we are dust – and to dust we shall return. Our mortal bodies are made of earth, and must return to earth. The ashes we put on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday last week remind us of our mortality…

The first chapters of the bible also tell us – we are all made in the image and likeness of God. An image bent and broken by human behavior – but an image and likeness restored in Christ – made visible anytime we live in faith, hope and love…

In Lent we’re invited to recognize ourselves as simultaneously frail human creatures of dust and ashes – and at the same time, beloved children of God, made in the image of God, endowed with God’s Spirit…

And as scripture tells us– from those to whom much has been given – from us – much will be expected… As people dearly loved by God, whom God is heavily invested in… We’re called to repent not only of obvious personal wrong-doings – but also of ways in which we don’t live up to our callings as children of God.

Our Methodist ancestors John and Charles Wesley insisted we should be repenting every hour of every day. Repenting of anything short of living entirely in the love of God and neighbor. Striving to make our repentance useful for God and neighbor, by making the reconciling love of Jesus Christ evident…in all our lives, all the time, for all the world to see…

For together we are the body of Christ, called to embody the life of Christ in the world. And following the example of Jesus, who, though sinless, submitted to forty days of fasting and prayer on behalf of the whole world – so we too are called to pray, intercede, and make sacrifices on behalf of this world… that still so desperately needs to see Jesus… at work in this world… today…

My record in giving up things in Lent has been iffy… But I will be trying again to give up thinking I know more than I really do… And cut down on wasting time…dawdling distractedly on-line or elsewhere.

Not at all meaning giving up any of the often elusive joy of Sabbath time. If anything, I will be trying to spend more time listening to good music, walking and praying and reading good books – especially The Good Book. (And I’m grateful to Sylvia Gardner for telling me this week “Don’t give up fishing, it’s good for you…” God bless her!)

Most of all in Lent I mean to do more of whatever helps me stay focused on Jesus… and the kingdom of God… More of whatever helps me recognize God’s gracious presence…

Because turning from sin and problem behaviors is important. But the main point of Lent is always turning to God

So I’m asking God early and often, every day. What do you want me to do today, Lord? – in what order? Asking God’s help with discerning between competing thoughts and voices… Resolving to discern, believe, and heed only thoughts that help my relationship with God… and my family… and God’s church… and God’s neighborhood…

Praying we all take more time with God – asking God to help us grow in healthy ways in our relationship with God and neighbor…

Remembering how the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.

Expecting God’s Holy Spirit will take us into some uncomfortable wilderness places too…

But… As we consider God’s call to love ever more deeply…

Remember  – God’s Spirit leads us through the wilderness…

to God’s gracious Easter without end…

Thanks be to God. Amen.