A Sermon for 5 March 2017 – First Sunday during Lent
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 4:1-11. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
What do you do for reminders? Do you mark anniversaries on your calendar? Make lists of tasks you need to get done. Maybe you create little songs to remember names when first you meet a person. I’ve been told that singing engages at least three different parts of our brains. It’s not just a fun way to remember; it’s incredibly effective and long-lasting too. When I was in high school, some kids would write reminders right on their hands. Perhaps it was a precursor to the tattoos so many have today – symbols permanently inked directly on skin to remember what really, really matters. I heard once that some people tie red ribbons around their fingers; but I can’t recall now how that’s supposed to help us remember. . . . It’s not easy today to remember things – no matter our age! A blog post on tech21Century explains that the average human brain daily is bombed “with such a large volume of information which could overload even a powerful computer” (www.tech21century.com/the-human-brain-is-loaded-daily-with-34-gb-of-information/). The study sited, “believes that people are every day inundated with the equivalent amount of 34 GB (gigabytes) of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week. . . . (We) receive every day about 105,000 words or 23 words per second” during our waking hours (Ibid.). Add in all the pictures, games, and whatnot; and before we know it, our human processing system is hampered – especially affecting our focus and hindering our ability to reflectively, deeply think. One psychiatrist comments that “never in human history, (have) our brains had to work so much information as today . . . (people) are so busy processing the information received from all directions, so they lose the ability to think and to feel” (Ibid.).
If you’re familiar with a contemplative approach to spirituality, then you already may know about a similar phenomenon called monkey mind. The information age did not event it. For centuries those teaching centering prayer have been addressing what happens as soon as we start to get ourselves quiet – something we desperately need each day. Say we decide to give it a try. We sit down for a few minutes of silence. When suddenly we’re trying to figure out what to have for dinner. How we’re going to pay that unexpected bill. What the doctor’s going to say at our annual visit next week. . . . The aim of Christian contemplative meditation is to get quiet. To empty ourselves – including our monkey minds – for God to have a chance to get in. Who knows: it might even recover our ability to think and to feel. Teachers as far back as the first centuries have cautioned to keep at it. To train our monkey to calm using a word or two to bring ourselves back whenever we notice things other than the quiet creeping in. We’re not to chastise ourselves, the contemplatives teach, for such lack of focus. Just notice and bring ourselves back to the silence with words like: “Have mercy.” Or “Yah-weh,” the name of God. Or my current favorite that summarizes our lives with God in this amazing universe: on the in-breath: “receive.” On the out-breath: “return.” . . . Even when we try to get ourselves quiet, some sort of reminder is needed.
In the wilderness, Jesus had his reminders. Forty days he was out there – getting himself ready to launch his great, God-given mission. It was a type of initiation. An intentional testing; for, according to the gospels, it was the Spirit of God in him that drove him into the wilderness. . . . The gospel of Matthew portrays it most clearly. Right before he took off, he ascended from the Jordan waters. It’s recorded that the heavens were open and he saw the Spirit of God alighting on him (Matthew 3:16). His eyes still stinging, his lungs re-filling, his whole body soaking wet; a voice from on high proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). It was the same message they’d hear again at his transfiguration; though we’re not entirely sure who all had ears to hear at Jesus’ big baptism day. . . . If we were reading the gospels as just an interesting novel; then we’d find ourselves pulling for this heroic leading man. For no sooner do the syllables hit his ear drums, than the Spirit drives him far from everything known. At this point in the film, the background music would intensify. The hint of those eerie notes underscore. Wilderness always has been a place of testing for the people of God. We know of Moses and the Israelites who underwent every temptation. Hunger. Thirst. Fatigue. This One’s about to run full-force into them all. At the end of his rope from forty days and forty nights of wilderness fasting, it is then that another voice speaks.
What will he use for reminders? What will keep him centered in the truth that his sonship is not conditional, as the other voice keeps challenging? . . . What keeps you?
It’s part of why we start the season of Lent each year with Jesus’ temptation. In the wilderness, we see in him ourselves. Children of the kingdom too. Sons and daughters of the Voice that proclaims each one of us beloved as well. Jesus is the heroic lead character with all the right words of scripture. He knows the reminders needed to combat against tricky tests of instant self-gratification, reliance upon a swoop-in-to-fix-it God, and lives aimed first towards personal gain. Jesus passes the test because he remembers. From the inside out he knows whose he is and how he is to be in this world. . . .
Lent asks: do we?
Too often the church has forgotten. We’ve gathered to keep each other company and re-inforce what we already think. We’ve a long, bloody history regarding the stranger. And too much apathy in the face of great need. We’re reaping what we’ve sown; but it’s never too late to re-plant. Remembering whose we are and how we are to be in this world, the seeds of our efforts can grow. We can find new, creative ways to make a difference in the lives of people. We can follow our Christ afresh. . . .
If you’ve never heard of One Thousand and One new worshipping communities, then I hope you’ll go home to google it. It’s the PCUSA’s effort this decade to find ways to connect. This week I’ve been trying to figure out how best to share the stories with you – the inspiring clips of churches that have started anew. The incredible ways some Presbyterians in this nation have taken risks to share the love of God with strangers in their communities. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who remember whose they are – and how they are to be in this world. In Kentucky an existing church opened a volunteer-staffed coffee shop to be a place of welcome. Locals started to gather. A community began to form. Young people especially love it – a respite from the daily grind. It’s become the Friday night place to be. . . . A ruling elder in an inner city decided she wasn’t going to judge anymore those hanging around on the nearby streets. She organized her church friends to make sandwiches, then head out to feed the drug addicts and prostitutes of their block. As they hand out lunches, they stop for one-on-one conversation and prayer. The curious they’ve met have come to the sanctuary on Sundays. And they all are finding their lives uplifted as they listen and care for one another. . . . I think it’s Arizona where one woman moved into a trailer park. She invited folks to come sit a spell under her canopy to share the concerns of their lives. Soon a small group gathered. Songs got sung. Prayers were raised. The woman ended up in seminary to become the Trailer Park Pastor. She’s teaching and living the stories of Christ. . . . There’s a group for Sunday morning runners that’s become a powerhouse service ministry in their community. An elderly congregation that’s finding ways to house an elementary string symphony and their parents. And just because I love to sit in rocking chairs, I absolutely love the story of the church in West Virginia. On the way to nowhere, attendance dramatically dwindled. About the time the doors were going to be closed, someone had an idea. Why not get back to their roots? Bluegrass surged through their veins. So, and this is my favorite: every pew was removed from the sanctuary – just the cross left up on the front wall. They moved in those wonderful wooden rockers side-by-side in one big circle. Settling on Tuesday nights, they found a few fiddlers and invited folks far and wide. They’re no longer open on Sundays, but pack-out the place every Tuesday for an hour of those old time favorites as folks rock in those chairs and share their lives with each other. The potluck out back after solidifies the experience. . . . These all are Presbyterians. Individuals and churches of our denomination who are finding new ways to reach neighbors for Christ. Remembering. Remembering whose they are – and how they are to be in this world.
Whatever we use as reminders, we too must remember. We follow the One who overcame the tests to serve himself that he would complete his great, God-given mission. Sons and daughters of the kingdom, we too must remember our call.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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