Scriptures for the Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
An older Italian man lived alone in New Jersey. He wanted to plant his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work, as the ground was hard. His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:
I am feeling pretty sad, because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I'm just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. I know if you were here my troubles would be over. I know you would be happy to dig up the ground for me, like in the old days.
A few days later the father received a letter from his son:
Don't dig up that garden. That's where the bodies are buried.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived at the old man's house and dug up the entire area. However, they didn't find any bodies, so they apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.
How many of you are gardeners? Gardening is one of those things that I think you either love or hate! I grew up in a family of gardeners. My grandparents on both sides had acres of corn, beans and peas, along with rows and rows of squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. And there were plum and apple orchards, and flower beds, and I spent most of my summers helping in some way with the gardening. Planting, weeding, watering, harvesting. So when I grew up, it was really no surprise that I have felt a need to garden everywhere I’ve lived. I loved gardening! But gardening is hard work. It takes time, dedication, and physical labor – all things that I find myself having less capacity for as I get older. Even houseplants are starting to be neglected in my house these days. So the parable that Jesus tells in our gospel lesson today is one that I can appreciate.
I’ve heard someone say that gardening is ruthless work. You have to be willing to yank out the growing weeds along with weak or diseases plants; to kill insects and rodents; to prune and chop and deadhead and divide. So in that respect, it’s not that hard to understand why the owner of the vineyard would look at a tree that seems to be weak or sick and say, “yank it out. It’s taking up good dirt and space that could go to a healthier plant.” But we gardeners sometimes get attached to the things we’ve planted, don’t we? And the gardener intercedes, and advocates for giving it a little more time with focused attention. ‘I’ll aerate, I’ll give it better fertilizer; don’t give up on it quite yet.’
My dad is a huge fan of Miracle Grow. Anytime I have something growing, he reminds me to make sure I have a regular schedule of fertilizing it. Sure, whatever I plant will do okay with decent soil, water and sunlight – but add in a regular routine of fertilizing, and you suddenly become a master gardener! The leaves are greener, the stalks are hardier, and the blooms are double or triple what they would have been, which, of course, yield two to three times more produce.
Jesus tells a story here that has a good lesson for us in and of itself – as followers of Jesus, there’s certainly an expectation to bear spiritual fruit. In one of Paul’s letters to the early church he explains that allowing Christ’s Spirit to live in us produces fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) But as it goes with Jesus and his stories, there’s more here for us. Jesus tells this story right after a group of people have come to him with a story of what amounts to a horrible act of state-sponsored terrorism – Pilate having a group of Galileans killed in the temple, and mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifice! The agenda here was to test Jesus, to see if he would be just as outraged as they were, to find out if this Messiah was ready to take up their cause to overthrow the Roman empire. That’s what they were hoping and waiting for – a militaristic savior who would lead the Jewish revolt against the occupation and take back their land once and for all. The people were also very much ruled at the time by the idea that any sort of pain or affliction was divine retribution from God for a person’s sins – either their own or someone in their family. That’s why people with diseases or other physical ailments were considered ‘unclean.’ They must have done something that has cause God to curse them so.
Jesus sees through their agenda here. He is neither going to play their game of inciting fear and violence against the Roman government, or going to cast judgement on the Galileans. He asks them point blank if they think those Galileans who were murdered in the temple were worse sinners than a crowd of people who died the other day when a building fell on them. He’s trying to lead them to think deeper about these long-held assumptions about God. God who led our people out of slavery in Egypt; God who fed them in the desert with bread from heaven that was new every morning, and quenched their thirst with fresh streams of water that flowed from a rock! God, who has the best wine and the best milk and tables overflowing with the best foods – at no cost – free! Free, free, free! God, who made an everlasting covenant with Abraham and David. God, whose plans are no our plans, and whose ways are not our ways. Jesus is trying to help them remember that God is faithful, and just and full of mercy! God doesn’t go around striking people dead. Everything does not happen for a reason! Your status in life, your physical health, even your mental health – these are not divine punishment! Please hear that from Jesus. Our God is merciful and tender, like a gardener who sees something that others might flippantly cast off as just taking up space, not producing fruit, something that seems to be weak, and says, “let me add some fertilizer, let me nourish it and feed it.” God’s mercy is like that!
Over these past two weeks of Lent, we’ve also been called to remember – to remember God’s faithfulness to God’s people in the wilderness; to learn from Jesus’ own example of wilderness and temptation and to remember that God is always with us, providing for our every need, even in our wandering. We’ve been reminded that we can trust God to shelter us from those things that threaten to harm our spirits, and our faith. And that God, like a mother hen, will ultimately sacrifice herself to save her chicks. Today, we’re invited to think of God as an attentive gardener, tenderly nourishing our spirits back to health. But…
Jesus ends his parable with a warning. “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die” just like those Galileans, or those people in Jerusalem who were crushed by a collapsing building. Unless you start producing fruit, you’ll be cut down just like that fig tree. These may seem like harsh words from Jesus, especially now that we’re feeling all warm and fuzzy from such pleasant thoughts about God’s care and nurture. N. T. Wright, whose reflections we’ve been reading on the gospel of Luke in our Daily GPS Guides compares these words of Jesus to those of a fireman who bursts into a building to find people sleeping on the top floors while the building is burning below them. The merciful thing is to tell them to Wake up! Get out of here, or you’ll die! These words of Jesus are not meant to be a scare-tactic. He’s not joining in with the fear-mongering of those who presented this story to Jesus to begin with; he’s trying to wake them up. Don’t you see – these stories of divine punishment, they’re distracting you from noticing that I’m here to show you what God is really like. God sent me to build God’s kingdom on earth like it is in heaven – NOT like it is in Rome, or even in the old days when David ruled. God’s new kingdom will not depend on a government to rule justly – God rules justly over all kings, all governments, all powers. Don’t put your hopes in some nationalism, hoping to “Make Jerusalem Great Again.” Turn around! Repent! Notice what I’ve been about for these three years – restoring sight to the blind; healing the sick and the broken; feeding the hungry; befriending the sinners and tax collectors and the outcasts.
The Greek word used here for ‘repent’ is ‘metanoia’ – ‘meta,’ meaning change, and ‘noia,’ meaning mind. So it literally means a change of mind. Lent gives us an opportunity to repent – to turn around and notice Jesus more. To spend time reading and reflecting on God’s word, to increase the time we spend in prayer by giving up those things that crowd out our faith, and by responding in some way – producing fruit – living our lives in such a way that others see Christ in our actions and reactions; in the way we serve, in the way we love our neighbors, in the way we exude joy, or practice patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. In the way we die to our selfish wants and desires, and allow God to give some fertilizer to that faith inside us, so that God’s Holy Spirit produces a harvest of spiritual fruits in us.
We can think of Lent at that period of time when Jesus the gardener says, let me add some fertilizer – let me see what can happen when one of my followers turns around and notices me, and adds scripture reading, and prayer and service to their daily lives. Let’s see if following me, and growing closer to me produces fruit in them that turns their grief to joy, that turns their bitterness and resentment to gentleness, that turns their apathy and laziness to love and service, that turns their worries and fears and anxieties to peace. That’s the kind of harvest God wants.
The question for us is, will we repent? Will we have a change of mind, a change of heart, that allows us to turn around and notice that instead of shopping over there where everything’s marked up, and nothing is quality, and nothing lasts, God has the best wine and the best milk right over here – and it’s free! Free, free, free! Will we stay barren like the fig tree, just taking up space, not caring about anything but ourselves, our comfort, our self-righteousness, or will we decide that my dad really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to scheduling a regular feeding of Miracle Grow! Will we accept the nourishment of spiritual disciples so that God’s Spirit can grow in us.
Our reading from Isaiah 55 stops after verse 9, but listen to verses 10 & 11:
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Jesus is on his way to the cross. But on the way, he’s warning us – Wake up! Notice me while I’m here. God’s ways are not your ways – God is merciful and tender, longing to feed us, to nourish us… so repent! Change your mind about what you think you need. Let me break up that hard, arid dirt. Let me add some fertilizer. Then see what God’s Spirit can grow in you!
Prayer: Rejoicing yet thirsting (based on Psalm 63 by Christine Jerrett)
We do rejoice in you, God our God
We rejoice in your steadfast love and faithfulness
— a rich feast for our souls.
We rejoice that you shelter us in the shadow of your wings
— strong protection against the storms.
We rejoice that you are more powerful than
the troubles that trouble us.
We rejoice that, when we wander far from You,
losing our way,
you do not leave us on our own.
You come to us in Jesus, your Word made flesh.
dwelling among us,
full of your grace and your truth.
O God who has drawn near, you know us as we are:
the songs of praise
tell only part of the story.
We have wandered down many paths,
seeking happiness or glory,
we have trusted in lesser gods,
looking for safe haven from the dangers that threaten.
But the deep hungers are not satisfied;
the fears and anxieties still haunt us.
And now we know:
our souls thirst for you, the living God.
Show us your power and your glory.
Take our weariness
and send your Holy Spirit to renew our hope.
Take our fears
and grow new courage in us.
Take our resignation to the way things are
and pull us into your passionate love.
you meet us in the wilderness of our days,
and fill us with the bread of life.
You meet us in the desert of our loneliness
and streams of living water start to flow.
We drink deeply of the gift of your presence,
and we rejoice,
for you have made us glad. Amen.
~ posted on Christine Jerrett. https://christinejerrett.wordpress.com/
Scripture Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17–4:1; Luke 13:31-35
When I was 21 years old, my mom gave me a copy of the children’s book, Mama, If You Had a Wish by Jeanne Modesitt. The book is full of vibrantly colored illustrations by Robin Spowart that depict Little Bunny asking her mama a series of questions about what her mama might wish to be different about her. “Would you wish I never cried? Would you wish I was always brave and never scared? Would you wish I never got mad at you, or made mistakes? Would you wish that I looked different? Each time the Mama answers, "no," and reaffirms that she would never wish to change those things about Little Bunny, because she knows that we all get scared or mad, and we all make mistakes - sometimes even big, giant mistakes. Finally, Little Bunny asks her mother outright: “Mama, if you could make one wish about me, what would it be?” and Mama answers, “I would wish for you to be yourself, because I love you just the way you are.”
My mom gave me that book as a gift one year after I had failed out of classes, ended an abusive relationship and was finally getting back on a path to wholeness. It was a way of letting me know that no matter what mistakes I had made, no matter what I had not been brave enough to do, no matter how broken I felt on the inside or outside, that she loved me just the way I was. She showed me as much a year earlier when on a Sunday morning I called her out of worship and asked her to make the one and half hour drive to come help take care of me for a few days, after having been pushed through a wall the night before. I had been living a life full of big, giant mistakes – ultimately, I was the one who was hurt most by the way I had been living. But my mom came immediately, no questions asked. She took me to the doctor, she helped me move my things, she helped me find people who could help me, and she even talked to some of my professors and helped me work out a plan to stay in school. She loved me with a fierce kind of love that was ready to do whatever it took to rescue her little bunny.
That’s what mothers do, though, right? Some of you are mothers, and all of us have been mothered. Even if it wasn’t our biological mother, there was likely someone in our lives who loved us with that fierce kind of love. Instead of thinking of my mom as a Mama Bunny, she was more like a Mama Bear. You may have even heard that expression – “don’t mess with a Mama Bear.” Especially around Mother’s Day, I start seeing this expression all over t-shirts and mugs. Because it’s a universal feeling, I think, that mothers do feel intensely protective of their children. Most mothers, anyway.
There are some mothers, and fathers, and other relatives, though, who have not always been so accepting and protective of their loved ones. We know that some people are just not ready, or not capable, of becoming mothers and fathers, so they may choose to have their children adopted… or the department of human services chooses for them. But there are others who become mothers, become parents, and then discover something about their child which compels them to turn their children out of their homes, out of their families. Something that, if they had a wish, they would definitely change: their gender identity; their sexual orientation. Youth who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender make up over 40% of the youth homeless population, even though they make up only about 5-7% of the total American youth population; and they have a 120% higher risk than straight, or hetero-normative youth, of becoming homeless at some point over a 12-month period. But homelessness is not the only harm that comes from parents and family members rejecting their LGBTQ loved ones; research has confirmed that attempted suicide rates and suicidal ideation among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth is already significantly higher than among the general population. Those rates then increase again another 8.4% if the youth is in a highly-rejecting family.
In 2011, A mom named Sara Cunningham in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma found out that her worst fears had come true when her son turned 21 and came out to her as being gay. She says she had always suspected that to be true, but for years tried to “pray the gay away.” Sara and her entire family, including her son, were actively involved in a conservative Baptist church at the time. And so this secretary and mother of two says she fell into a deep depression after he came out. And she began to pray, fast, and burn incense, and even shamed her son into burning all of his journals. Her son recalls not knowing how to feel himself about his sexual orientation. In an interview with the Washington Post he recalls, “Not only was I living in constant fear as a gay kid in conservative Oklahoma, we were fighting a spiritual battle inside the walls of a non-affirming church,” Parker Cunningham said. “My mother and I were both struggling with what we thought was a literal ‘life or death’ situation when it came to my soul and how I’d spend eternity.” Sara and her husband both began to research everything they could learn about homosexuality and tried to examine everything they believed in light of their love for their son. She says that she began to feel like she was being forced by her church to choose – her faith or her son. That was not a choice she was willing to make. Instead, her prayers and her faith led her to a more generous love for her son and the entire LGBT community.
In an interview with CBS news, Sara recalls the first LGBT Pride Parade that she and her husband chose to attend as a show of support and acceptance for their son. She said, "It was my first interaction with the community that I was so alienated from by my own ignorance and my own fear ... And I realized this was a beautiful community." The next year, she decided to go back to the parade wearing a button she made that said, “Free Mom Hugs.” Because of her button, and the hugs from an accepting mom that she gave freely that day, she said she heard horror stories about the rejection these individuals experienced in their families – stories that haunted her. Moved by her experiences, Sara has written a book to help educate other parents of LGBT youth and has even started a movement which includes over 3,000 people called “Free Mom Hugs” which consists of other moms and even some dads who are on a mission to let LGBT youth know that if their own families reject them, there are other parents out there who still love them.
What does all of this have to do with our scripture readings and our own Lenten journeys?
Today, we are reminded that God is faithful to God’s promises. God made a covenant, or promise, to Abraham that he – an old man with no children – would become the father of a great nation, whose descendants would number the stars. And that God would give them a new land, flowing with milk and honey. Many generations later, God leads those descendants out of slavery in Egypt, forms them as a spiritual people, gives them God’s divine law, and leads them to the promised land. Generations after that, after failed earthly judges and kings, after God’s people have been exiled from their land, and brought back to live under occupation of foreign powers, God sends His own son, Jesus as The Messiah – to set up God’s new reign. To “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
In today’s gospel reading, we have fast forwarded three years from Jesus’ experience in the wilderness which we read last week. If you’ve been reading the daily scripture readings in our weekly GPS guide from the gospel of Luke, then you’ve started to see the ministry that Jesus is engaged in for those three years. Jesus goes about from village to village opening blind eyes, healing diseases, feeding the hungry, seeking the lost, and restoring the outcasts’ place in community. Jesus is showing us what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like a great banquet where not only the important people, or highly religious people are invited, but the poor, the dirty, the servants & slaves, the sick, the unclean – they all are welcome. Jesus has been preaching, by word and by example, what it means to love God by loving your neighbors. And in doing all of this, we see time and again that Jesus isn’t afraid to touch the dead or unclean, Jesus isn’t bound by religious laws that would prohibit him from healing on the sabbath, Jesus doesn’t align himself with the religious elite or with social codes that exclude ‘certain people.’ Jesus is on a mission to make sure that every person he encounters knows that even if the church would tell them they are unclean, or unworthy, or a sinner that they are loved by God.
So in today’s reading, we hear Jesus describe himself with a metaphor that rings a strange tone with us. Jesus as a Mom. A mother hen. Not a Mama Bear, not a soaring Mother Eagle but a vulnerable mother hen. Offering free Mom Hugs! Offering to gather in each one of God’s beloved little chicks. But… not all of us want to be gathered up by a vulnerable chicken. We want the bear! We want someone with claws or fangs or brute strength. We want a God with muscle! We want a God who affirms the laws and the structures and the systems that give us the moral high ground, or the social power. We don’t want a wimpy chicken God. Because what happens to the mama hen when the fox comes?
Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite Christian authors. Her writings are so poetic and always get to the heart of spirituality. In one of her reflections about our scripture today, she writes:
“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter.
“She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, Feb 25, 1986)
This is our Savior – a mama who stands with her arms open wide, inviting all of us – all of us – to find our place under her wings; a mother who grieves for all of her children who will wander off, looking for strength and power in ourselves, or in others. The question for us on our Lenten journey, then is, will we who have wandered off return? Will we give up our self-reliance, our trust in other systems and powers, in order to surrender to our vulnerable God of love? Will we accept our free mom hug from Jesus, and then be willing to offer that same kind of love to our neighbor, to the strangers and even to our enemies?
Around the world right now, many followers of Jesus are reaching out with free mom hugs to the LGBT youth, to the immigrants fleeing from wars and genocide, to the Muslim community enduring religious persecution, to the hungry and needy in our own neighborhoods. The love of Jesus requires more than our worship – it requires us to take up our cross and follow the way of love, each and every day.
PRAYER: God of Embracing love, gather us under the wings of you love, even as Jesus longed to gather Jerusalem into the arms of his love. Send your Holy Spirit into our worship this day, that we may be strengthened for the time ahead, as we seek to walk faithfully with Christ all the way to the cross. Be our light and our salvation, that we may live in your presence and walk in your ways all the days of our lives. Amen.
Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 (NRSV)
“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. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 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; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Romans 10:9-13 (NRSV)
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
God of signs and wonders, who speaks the world into being, speak again your words of life and death. May your word be ever near us, on our lips, and in our heart. Transform us as we hear your word this day, that we may respond with faithful praise. Amen.
As we come to the first Sunday in Lent, we are called into a spiritual journey that begins with Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the period of 40 days, not including Sundays, that lead up to Easter. So the number 40 and the wilderness both have significance for us as we begin our journey.
First, the number 40 was a key number in the story of God’s people. Noah spent 40 days and nights inside the ark as the earth was being flooded, Moses spent 40 days and nights fasting on Mt. Sinai in preparation for receiving God’s Law, Elijah spent 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness before hearing God’s whisper, and of course, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt as God formed them spiritually before bringing them into the Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy chapter 1, verse 3, we read that “it was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses spoke to the Israelites precisely what the Lord had commanded him for them.” If you were to read the entire book of Deuteronomy from beginning to end, it reads like one long sermon – even longer than one of mine! As Moses gives them God’s divine law, he explains that instead of being merely a list of Do’s and Don’ts, it is a gift meant to help order and sustain human life, “so that you may live and increase” (Deut. 8:1). He goes on to tell them that the 40 years of manna in the wilderness was designed to prepare them to receive the law, by humbling them and highlighting God’s ordering, sustaining presence in their lives (Deut. 8:2-3). In other words, the daily manna, or bread from heaven, was a way of forming them into a people who could trust and depend on God for everything needed to sustain them. So after 40 years, when they finally entered the land of “milk and honey” they were able to recognize that it was God’s gift, instead of being tempted to say “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17)
In fact, they are told that even after they have lived for a long time in houses they did not build and harvested from trees they did not plant, that they are bring their first-fruits to the temple to be consecrated and to recall their story, which begins with, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Rehearsing their story in this way is a reminder that even when they have inhabited the land for such a long time that they come to the Temple with their arms laden with the fruit of their harvest, they never forget to whom the land truly belongs and the story of how they came to be. Their story grounds them in a tale of survival and struggle, even when (perhaps especially when) they begin to get comfortable and are tempted to forget that it is God from whom all blessings flow.
With this in mind, now, let’s consider Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Luke tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. Remember that John the Baptist also spent time living in the wilderness when he began preaching his message of repentance. And so Jesus seems to be going into the wilderness for an intentional time of spiritual formation; he goes full of the spirit and led by the spirit in order to have his heart humbled, strengthened and transformed by God before he began his public ministry. He observed a fast, during which time he did not eat. And it was at the end of this fast, at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was as his most vulnerable, that the Tempter began whispering in his ear.
Several of the commentaries I read in preparing for this sermon warned that we should not try to make light of Jesus’ fast by comparing it to the Lenten fasts in which we tend to partake, such as giving up chocolate or meat. In fact, they cautioned against making comparisons to ourselves at all, because the temptations that Jesus faced were aimed precisely at Jesus as the Son of God. So let’s consider them from that point of view.
The Greek verb translated “to tempt” in verse 2 (peirazō) implies hostile intent. Repeatedly Jesus is approached by the devil with temptations to become other than the Son of God he is created to be. The first temptation, to turn a stone into bread, is on one level a temptation to satisfy his physical hunger. But when Jesus quotes Moses in Deuteronomy 8 by saying, “One does not live by bread alone,” (Deut. 8:3) we see that Jesus is recalling the story of God’s people who were humbled by their dependence on God. Jesus seems to be thinking, I’ve learned the ancient lesson of the manna: God is the true source of my sustenance, physical and otherwise. Bread certainly has its place, but every good thing - including bread! - comes from God’s graceful decrees. Jesus overcomes this temptation to supply his own needs “with the power and might of my own hand” and surrenders himself to God’s graceful provisions.
The second temptation was to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. One of my commentaries noted, “Whereas Matthew describes the kingdoms of the kosmos (“world”), Luke uses the politically laden noun oikoumenē. For Luke, kosmos typically refers to creation (9:25; 12:30), while oikoumenē generally refers to the political order (as in 2:1; 21:26; Acts 17:6). Luke conceives of a struggle between two kingdoms. The social-political order previously presented as under the charge of Rome (2:1; 3:1) is here revealed as a counter-kingdom ruled by the devil, whose authority now dangles before Jesus.” (Alan P. Sherouse. Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press.) Jesus could have become the ruler of the social-political world; he could have overturned the Roman empire and set up a new government. But instead, he knew that God’s reign could not be contained by human laws – that loving God and loving others could not be legislated. Jesus responds again with words from God’s divine law, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” (Deut. 6:13) – Jesus chose not to elevate himself in a political power grab, ruling as an earthly governor or king, but embraced his call to minister to the poor, the sick, the broken and the brokenhearted, as the One who would bring God’s spiritual kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Finally, Jesus is tempted to put God to the test – to throw himself off the Temple to see whether God loves him enough to save him. What a temptation! Perhaps Jesus was already struggling with the human fear of the end, or questioning God’s presence with him. To make it worse, the devil himself quotes scripture from Psalm 91 in order to make it even more enticing. That’s right, sometimes those who are quoting scriptures may have evil or selfish intentions. But Jesus recalls again the story of his ancestors, when out of their thirst, they tested God in the wilderness, crying out, “Is the Lord even among us?” Surely Jesus must have wondered that himself at times; but recalling the story of his people strengthens him even further, and he resists again with the words of Moses, saying, “Don’t test the Lord your God.” (Deut. 6:16)
Ultimately, the devil tempted Jesus with opportunities for self-reliance, self-power, and self-gratification. But Jesus shows the devil who he really is, God’s beloved Son whose relationship is built on his communion with God and his “insufficiency” apart from God, who is the “fount of every blessing” at the center of his life. And so the Gospel message for all of us is this: God longs to be at the center of our lives, as well. God loves each one of us as God’s beloved child, and every good gift in our life is God’s mana from heaven – our daily bread – for which we give thanks, and pray for it to be new every morning, expecting nothing as we come to God with open hands and humble hearts. As God forms us into grateful, loving and serving people, we are also called into ministry to spread the news of God’s salvation for all, and to build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
As we will continue to read throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ journey out of the wilderness will take him to the cross. As we are called to follow Jesus today, we are called to a similar journey of self-awareness, realizing that the power we are tempted to worship in our world today is the power that Jesus resisted. That the kingdom Jesus brought forth and calls us to help build is a counter-cultural kingdom of humility, vulnerability and self-denial. The journey of Lent can be a test for us to see where we are on our discipleship journey… are we really willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? Are we really willing to let our hunger and thirst mold us into a dependence on God, instead of on money, power, status, popularity, self-righteousness, physical comfort, entertainment, etc. to meet our needs? What kind of Lent are you being challenged to practice? What are the temptations that risk pulling you away from your relationship with God?
Throughout these 40 days, as we begin, or recommit to, our own spiritual journey of growing closer to God, our scripture readings from today can help us to remember who God is, and whose we are, especially in those times when we feel like we are wandering in the wilderness of our own hearts. We will need to be reminded over and over again, just as the Israelites were, that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
O God, you have spoken to us today through this word of faith. Embolden our spirits by your Spirit, that your words may be made manifest in all that we say and in all that we do to bring your kingdom on earth. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson: Luke 9:28-43 (CEB)28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.
35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.
37 The next day, when Jesus, Peter, John, and James had come down from the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus. 38 A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child.39 Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. 40 I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”
41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon threw him down and shook him violently. Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father. 43 Everyone was overwhelmed by God’s greatness.
Well, if the weather had cooperated we would be finishing a three-week series today on the General Rules that John Wesley gave to the early Methodist societies at the time this new religious movement was being formed in the early 1700’s in England. I know that some of you have been keeping up with the sermons and weekly scripture readings and devotions that I’ve been sharing in my emails and on our website. So I want to be faithful to complete this series. So let me give a brief recap of what I’ve shared so far.
John Wesley, son of an Anglican priest grew up in and followed a call to be ordained himself within a church that he had come to realize was formed around high worship practices on Sunday mornings, in ornate buildings with well-to-do parishioners who seemed to be living a Sunday-morning kind of faith. He envied the faith of a group of Moravians he had met on his mission to the American colonies, who seemed to have a kind of faith assurance that gave them a deep sense of peace and joy, even in the face of life-threatening challenges. Wesley’s own faith experiences had been based on trying to be “good enough.” But after his encounter with the Moravians, he began searching the scriptures, searching his soul and opening his heart to the work of God’s Spirit within him, which culminated in what we Methodists call his “Aldersgate” moment – a meeting of a Moravian religious society in which his heart became “strangely warm” in response to the realization that he did trust in God and God alone for his salvation, which led to a rekindling of his faith in response to God’s amazing grace.
You see, early in his life, Wesley was depending on doing and believing all the right things in order to earn his salvation, instead of understanding that God’s grace comes first – there is nothing we can do to earn it. And once Wesley understood that, and accepted this grace as a freely given gift, it changed everything. Wesley had finally fallen in love with God!
His faith was on fire for preaching this new understanding of God’s love for all of us that he took his message out to the countryside and other places where people had been left out of the Church’s high and holy and well-to-do Sunday services. He preached in fields and streets corners and even on top of his father’s grave so that everyone had a chance to hear about God’s love. And hundreds of people, many of whom were part of England’s working-class poor, dedicated their lives to following Jesus. So Wesley formed them into faith communities, called Methodist Societies and gave them these three rules for helping them live out their faith in the real world:
I love you, Lord. And I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul, rejoice.
Take joy, my King, in what you hear; may it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.
In our scripture lesson today, Jesus and his three closest disciples – Peter, James and John – have gone up on a mountain so that Jesus can pray. In the gospels, especially in Luke, there are pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry when he goes of by himself, or in the company of his closest disciples, to pray. In fact, on Wednesday, we’ll be entering the season of Lent – those 40 days leading up to Easter when we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness in an extended time of prayer before he began his public ministry. So we see that prayer was always the first thing Jesus did before taking whatever next step was ahead of him in his ministry.
John Wesley also found that prayer was an essential part of his relationship with God and his ability to follow God’s call in his life. He would begin his day around 4:30 or 5:00 every morning with prayer so that his first thoughts for the day were of God. He would offer himself to God anew every morning, praying for God to direct his steps throughout the day, and he would pray for others. Then, he would use the chiming of the hour throughout the day to reconnect with God, offering another longer prayer to God at noon, and again in the evening. When he prayed before bed, he would recount his day with God, making confessions for the times when he had failed, making plans to make amends with anyone he had harmed, and entrusting himself to God’s care for the night.
We’ve talked before about how prayer is simply our way of being in communication with God. God loves each one of us so much that God longs to be in relationship with us. John Wesley didn't understand this in his early life. I didn’t understand this early in my life, either. I want to ask you to think about the person you talk with the most. Is that your spouse or other significant person, your best friend, a sibling, or parent or other family member? And would you say your relationship with that person is stronger when you make time to talk with them? What happens to our relationship with others when we get too busy to sit and talk, when we go through our days getting all the things on our “to-do” list accomplished, but not making time for the significant people in our lives? Do we get grouchy? Do they? Do we feel lonely, or anxious or frustrated? Early in our marriage, Thomas and I read a book with our small group at church about the importance of communication in relationships. And it encouraged couples to carve out time in their calendars every week for “couch time” – for time just to sit and talk. And it warned couples to schedule this first and to make it a priority, not letting other events or activities, or even children, take this time away. We found that when we did this, our whole week together was better for it. We also found that if we did intentionally work at guarding this time, it would certainly get overtaken with other things. So how is your relationship with God these days? Are you making couch time for God? Are you spending time talking with God, your friend, your comforter? Are you telling God about the problems in your life and asking for God’s advice? Are you confessing your secrets to God, or asking for help in overcoming something that is robbing you of time, energy or joy? God is here for you. God wants to be in relationship with YOU. So what do you need to change in order to make prayer a priority in your life?
Wesley also believed that “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the searching of scripture.” He called himself homo unis libri – a man of One book. And he believed that scripture, the Living Word of God, had a unique way of bringing people to encounter the Living God. Our scripture lesson today is a perfect example of the way that what we have in scripture is a way of discovering God’s overarching story of love, rescue, mercy, and fulfilling God’s promises to restore the world to its intended wholeness.
Verses 29-30: “29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.” Remember that Moses also ascended a mountain and came face to face with God’s glory – an experience that left his face glowing! And the encounter in which God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, helping to form them in their relationship with God after having been freed from slavery in Egypt. And Elijah, the Prophet, also had an encounter with God on a mountain, the same Mount Horeb where Moses received the Law. Only this time, God spoke in a still, small voice. And here, Jesus has his own encounter with the full glory of God, along with these two central figures from God’s ongoing story in the life of God’s people – the Law-Giver and the Prophet. There is so much to appreciate and try to understand in this passage. Here, God is bringing together the long-held memories, expectations and hopes of God’s people. And in a voice from the cloud, God confirms that, “This is my Son. Listen to Him!” Wow! Can you imagine being Peter, James or John in that moment? Seeing these two Heroes of your faith standing there with God’s own Son?? Reading scripture allows us to learn God’s whole story – the story that is still being written through the people God is still calling to help God’s kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven.”
How much of God’s story do you know? How long has it been since you opened the pages of your bible and dared to have your own encounter with the Living God through God’s Living Word? Today, so much of scripture is taken out of context and hurled around as little darts meant to shape God into our own image, or fit God into our own agendas. I am convinced that this is the reason our denomination has come to such a deep divide over the issue of human sexuality. When I try to consider God’s whole story, I consider it all – even the scriptures of the Old Testament – through the lens of Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to misrepresent God’s love in our world, and in our communities. John Wesley spent nearly half his life working very hard for a faith that was not bearing fruit in his life – he was finding no joy, no peace, no assurance of God’s love in his life. Once his heart melted, though, he fell in love not only with God with all of God’s people. His heart was moved with compassion for those he saw that had been excluded from Church, for those who were living on the margins of society and those who were considered less than fully human and openly sold as property in the slave trade.
It has been said that scripture is God’s love letter to God’s world. And we should read it that way – as one whole letter, as one whole story – from creation to re-creation, and the always-working grace of God to bring all of God’s beloved back into its intended wholeness, in a relationship of mutual love for God and neighbor.
Finally, John Wesley believed that Worship and the Lord’s Supper were vital means of staying strong in our relationship with God. He had no patience with people who thought they could live as Christians without being in community. He wrote, "holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The holy gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness." When we come together as the gathered body of Christ, we experience Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus said, where two or three are gathered, I am there.” Worship is a way for us to praise God, to give thanks for all that God has done, and to be held up and encouraged by one another as we look around and see that we are not alone! We are not trying to live our life in a vacuum; we have friends in Christ, who loves what we love, who cares about the things that we care for, and who has the same kingdom goals we have of doing kindness, loving justice, and walking humbly with God. And we have the presence of Christ in the gathered body of Christ to hear our prayers, to pour out God’s Spirit on us for another week of trying to do life as God calls us, and to comfort and cheer us. Yes, worship and prayer can and should be done as individuals – but how sweet it is when we come together as the body of Christ to love and support one another as we experience Christ in our midst.
Let me say a word here about what worship is NOT: it is not about a building, it is not about the style of music, it is not about the paraments or the candles or whether or not we have stained glass or a cross hanging on the wall. When Peter, James and John saw the transfiguration of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to build shrines and stay and worship, and just escape all that was waiting for them in the valley. Luke adds this aside, “but [Peter] didn’t understand what he was saying.” Peter got caught up in the dazzle of it all, and forgot that the dazzle wasn’t the point! The Church is us. And Church can happen anywhere two or three are gathered. When we take our eyes off Jesus, we can get distracted trying to build shrines to Jesus instead of remembering the purpose for which Jesus came. Jesus came to restore sight to the blind, to set the captives free, to heal the sick and the broken, and to call disciples to join him in doing these same works of mercy that demonstrate God’s amazing love, God’s amazing grace… so that the whole world will know that they are God’s beloved, and God is their God.
We remember this through the sacrament of holy communion, when we remember the night that Jesus broke the bread of life and shared the cup of forgiveness with his disciples, with his friends. When we remember that Jesus knelt in that room as a servant to wash his disciple’s feet and explain to them that we are all called to serve as Christ served. When he gave them a new commandment to love one another as Christ loves us. We remember that even though Jesus stood on a mountain top and brilliant light like lightening burst through every pore in his body, in a dazzling display of God’s full glory within him, that days later he was stripped, beaten and put to death by a religious system that could not see the whole picture of God’s amazing love. Love that laid down its own life so that every single person would know their sacred worth. Love that gave its own Son so that every single person would know that they are also God’s beloved Daughter. God’s beloved Son.
Love does no harm. Love always seeks to do good. God is Love – so let’s make a commitment today to attend to the ordinances of God, to commit to way of life that helps us to stay in love with God by being in prayer, reading scripture, and gathering as the body of Christ to worship and remember the mighty acts of God, in order to be filled up with the grace of God to go out to serve – to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to visit the sick and those in prison, and to share the love of God with all.
May it be so.