Tag Archives: Jesus’ baptism & temptation

Lenten Reminders

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.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.’”  Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 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.


© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)



A Sermon for 7 February 2016 – First Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday during the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, then perhaps you remember his Narnia Chronicles. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are the siblings who step through the wardrobe door to discover the wonder-filled world of Narnia. The whole series is an adventure in that magical place where the siblings come to know their true selves. They live in the real world – and similarly at first in Narnia – unaware of who they really are and what their lives have been destined for from the start. It is as if the circumstances of life in the real world left them with a sort of amnesia. A film of forget-fullness regarding their true identity. Through a series of fanciful events in Narnia, the siblings finally see that they are royalty. Heroic kings and queens of the land – there to ensure the forces of evil are battled. Aslan, the great talking lion, guides them in their quest that is as much about them discovering who they are and what their lives have been destined for from the start, as it is about fighting against the malevolent forces trying to capture Narnia. . . . It’s the classic hero’s tale. The unsuspecting under-dog who rises to the challenge of their life to impact the world for good. To claim the fullness of who they are – the hidden powers within that are needed to battle inner and outer demons on the path that twists and turns until at last the hero stands triumphant. If only the hero can remember their true identity, then for sure all else shall be well.

If only . . .

Naturally the gospel of Luke is going to start the adventure with such a struggle. If only the hero can claim his true identity. If only the one of royalty can remember his deepest self. If only the one freshly baptized in the Jordan River by John and driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness place of testing. If only Jesus can remember who he really is and what his life has been destined for from the start; then, for sure, he will stand triumphant in the end. . . . Each Lent we’re given this story on the Sunday at the start of the season. Too often it’s been presented as some sort of super-human ability to best the devil at his own game. You know – withstand with the strongest will-power the deepest temptations of our lives; so that somehow people end up making empty vows during the season of Lent to overcome the temptations of certain vices – like chocolate cake or swearing or beer. As if that’s what the season of Lent is all about: shoring up our own will-power in order to beat some devil at his own game. . . . If only. If only. . . . If only we realized the testing in the wilderness is the hero’s training ground. It’s not so much about temptations as it is about amnesia – a forgetfulness of his true identity and the God-given destiny about which his life is to be.

A close reading of the text shows us that Jesus just has been baptized. He’s just heard the Voice declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The very next voice he hears echos: “If . . .” Really? “If you are God’s son . . .” To the best of our knowledge no one was there but Jesus and the Tester – and the Spirit. Which goes to show that if is a powerful, little universal word that pops up in the voices in all of our heads. Forty days fasting in the wilderness left Jesus vulnerable. Would he remember The Voice? Would he remember the Way of the Voice: the self-emptying path of the Voice that is love – the greatest force for good the world ever has seen? Would he overcome any doubt the Tester sought to provoke? Would Jesus remember his true identity and that for which he had been destined from the start? . . . That’s what’s at stake out there in the wilderness. If only this one can remember.

If only we can. Because how easy is it for us to forget who we really are and what our lives have been destined for from the start? Lent is about that remembering. It’s our annual forty day testing ground to see if we can remember our true identity and that for which we have been destined. In years when snow doesn’t prevent it, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – or today as we’ll do in a few minutes – with the self-emptying sign of love traced in ash. Right there on the same spot where we received our mark of baptism, we begin our Lenten journey with an ashen cross that calls us to deeper dedication in following the path of Christ. We are reminded that we too are royalty: sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe! Children of the LORD God Almighty! Heroes on the winding way of life here to wrestle inner and outer demons until at last we stand triumphant. If only . . . If only we remember our true identity, then we too can empty ourselves of our own wills to pray in deepest trust with Christ in Gethsemane: “Thy will be done through me, O God. Thy will be done through me.”

Life out there in the real world can make us forget, or leave us wondering if it ever was true in the first place. The pains we experience, the losses, the other voices that shout. Before you know it, we succumb. If wins the day. The memory of the Voice grows dim. We take the path that’s easier than the way of self-emptying love. . . . The sun sets and the sun rises, and we are given a new opportunity to re-claim our true identity. To ground ourselves in God, so that we can face whatever challenge that comes. If God were afar watching, I’m sure there would be cheers of encouragement. Messages to get back up and give it another try. . . . The good news is that God isn’t afar at all, but within and all around. When we feel like we’re in the throes of the hardest battle, God is right there with us willing us to remember our true identity – pleading for us to rise to live out our destiny as sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe – ones who follow the path in every encounter we have. If only . . . If only . . . We’ve got the rest of this special church season to remind us – and one another to encourage us along the path as well. For we’re needed in this world. We are in this world to live the alternative way of Christ – so that others will remember, or discover for the very first time, their true identity too. Until at last every other force is redeemed and for sure all else is forever well. . . . If only, brothers and sisters of Christ. If only we daily remember . . .

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)