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Pressing On

(a sermon for March 17, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

It was Mark Twain who said it:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, I recognize that that’s an odd and somewhat counterproductive way to start a sermon (!), so allow me, please, to rephrase Twain’s words in a bit more of a theological fashion:  that it can be aptly stated that true faith and trust in God comes in understanding that God’s word is firm and secure, and that his promises are true, even when all appearances might suggest otherwise!

I mean, it’s one thing to believe in the providence of a loving, giving God when everything in your life is going well and the future looks bright with promise; quite another when the days are dark and grey and everything all around you just seems to be hurdling out of control. Difficult to find “good news” in the midst of bad situations; hard to find wholeness when there’s so much in this world that’s broken; seemingly impossible, at times, to hold on to a heavenly vision of peace and love when here on earth there are continually those who insist on acting out of hate, terror and pure evil: I ask you, how does anyone “keep the faith” in times such as these?

And yet, we do.

We’re here, after all; we’re gathered together in this sanctuary once again to lift up the holy name of God, to give God our thanks and praise, and to embrace his sure and certain promises of life and of unending hope.  We’ve come with our prayers and petitions, seeking wisdom and courage for the living of these days – indeed, for the facing of this very hour (!) – so that we might go forth from this place today after the manner of Paul in our text for this morning, “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  And then, a cup of coffee or two later, we’re right back out there: back to the world and all the messiness and utter uncertainties of daily life, “pressing on” with faith and trust, all because somewhere deep within ourselves we have reckoned that what God has said and what he has promised is so, and that God should be counted as righteous.

Granted, that might sound a bit audacious, shall we say – I mean, who are we to decide whether or not God Almighty, the Creator and Heaven and Earth and the God of the Ages is in fact a righteous God – but I’m here to tell you this morning that maybe this is how we keep believing in times like these.  After all, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Sara Koenig, who is professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, “Belief is hard enough when there’s a delay between God’s promises and their fulfillment.  It would be nigh impossible if the God in who we believe is not trustworthy, is not [by our reckoning] righteous.”

Now, lest you think that what I’m saying here is another example of our garden variety post-modern skepticism, we need to understand that there’s actually great biblical precedent for this kind of discernment.  Consider the response of Abram to God’s call in our reading from Genesis this morning: “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  But how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For remember, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.

However, as we pick up the story today. a fair amount of time had passed by (about 10 years, in fact), and frankly, not much had progressed on that front – there’d been famine, a conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, a few inter-family struggles with his nephew Lot, and a whole lot of wandering around – but as of yet there was no sign of that “great nation” that God had promised.  And Abram… well, he’s starting to lose patience; after all, it’s not like either he or his wife Sarai were of child-bearing years to begin with when all this started, and now… well, it had gotten to the point where Abram’s thinking that the only chance he’s got for any heir at all is to adopt one of his servants for that purpose!  The truth is that right about now, Abram’s faith in God and in God’s promises was stretched to the limit; because, as we’ve said before, it’s hard to believe in what, but all outward appearances, just “ain’t so.”

Of course, the great part of this story is that God doubles-down on the promise! Immediately God takes Abram outside, points him to the sky, and challenges him to start counting stars “if you’re able to count them;” because Abram, my friend, that’s how many children you’re going to have!  Incredible; ten years out on this journey, not a single child yet, Abram and Sarai are getting older with every passing day, but still here’s God promising that “with the passing of generations the descendants of Abram and Sarai would number in the thousands or even the millions!”  Clearly, God was taking the long view here; but nonetheless, to quote Ralph Klein this time: “How like God,” he writes. “When the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.”

And the best part?  Abram believed!  He believed; and in fact, this account from Genesis makes a point of saying that not only that he “believed the LORD, [but] that [he] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And that’s where this story gets really interesting: you see, there’s always been some question on exactly how this verse ought to be translated.  On the one hand, it can be rightly assumed that because Abram believed the LORD, thus the LORD reckoned that belief of Abram as righteousness, in that he trusted God with everything in his life and because of faith was worthy of the promises made.  However, the original Hebrew in this verse really only translates this as to how Abram believed and how he reckoned it as righteousness, suggesting that it might well be that Abram was reckoning God as being righteous; in other words, because God was intent on making his promise unto Abram even greater than before, Abram knew that God was worthy of faith and trust, and thus could believe, and press on to where God was leading him.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity in that admittedly very small piece of translation, but the point is very clear and unalloyed:  that God is righteous and that his promises, however delayed or unfulfilled they might seem to us at times, are sure and certain.  It was because of the certainty that God would make good on his promises that Abram could believe, and so it is for you and for me today; ours is the God who is worthy of our trust, and thus we press on… no matter what.

Though I can in no way relate to it personally (!), I’ve always been drawn to the rather athletic imagery that Paul uses in the reading we’ve shared this morning from Philippians; that idea of “press[ing] on toward the goal,” that is, the heavenly call of God, being something akin to a race; as The Message translates it, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  It’s an apt comparison, to be sure; a life of faith, as in the running of a race, is marked by a sense of movement toward something more, and the urgency to get there; to reach the goal, to win the prize.  And yet, is it not also true that the race is not merely to the swift; it also matters how you run the race.  As Paul himself points out, it means “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead;” it requires a certain maturity of mind, body and spirit, as well as the ability to “stay on the right track,” as it were.  And perhaps above all, it takes staying wholly focused on where you’re headed; and yes, as the saying goes, it means keeping “your eyes on the prize!”

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to understand that! In fact, I remember as a young man spending time out in the Maine woods with my father, and how he used to tell that if I ever found myself “turned around” out there in the woods – which was the term we used for getting lost in the woods (!) – the key was never to panic and certainly never to just start wandering aimlessly; but rather to take out your compass, calmly figure out what direction you should be heading and then take a bead in that direction on some very nearby landmark: a rock or a fallen tree; any location that’s clear and attainable.  And then you walk over to that tree or rock, you stop and you take out your compass once again, and take another bead toward another nearby landmark; repeating this process again and again until eventually you find yourself back on the familiar pathway that leads homeward.  It might take you awhile; and for a time along that journey the way will almost certainly seem unfamiliar at best.  But if you stay true to the point of the compass, pressing on in the right direction as opposed to backtracking or going around in circles, you will eventually, if slowly, reach your true destination.

I’ll ask again:  how does one keep the faith in times such as these?  How are you and I to be pressing on toward the goal of living our lives with faith and integrity when it seems like everything around us and often within us would seek to tear us away from what we believe?  Well, it certainly begins with believing God and believing in his righteousness; understanding, in every good and lasting sense, that there is more to our lives than the here and now, and that the troubles of this world, of our lives and of this age are not the end of the story, and that God’s promises will come to pass in fullness in God’s good time.  Like “Father Abraham” before us, we need to remember that even if at times we have trouble believing a promise, God is ever and always at work making the promise even better.

But as much as we are to believe in God’s great providence in leading us to the promised land of our life and living; it is also crucial that we stay focused on the journey itself.  For life is indeed filled with all manner of “bad situations” that can easily get us “turned around” along the way and away from where God would have us go.  It might be the stuff of sin and guilt, of unresolved conflict and old hurts that have never healed.  It could be the kind of worldly ways and means that do weigh heavily in keeping us on track:  money troubles, health issues, broken relationships; and this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of anger and hatred that would daily challenge our belief in a perfect love that casts out all fear. There is so much in this world and in our lives that would seek to tear us away from God’s righteousness and our heavenly call in Christ Jesus; and that is why it is so crucial not only in these moments of prayer and worship, but even more so in all the moments yet to come, to stop… figure out where we are and then, slowly, deliberately and above all, prayerfully take a bead as where we go next; preparing ourselves to press on with love, and peace, and the otherworldly joy that comes from true righteousness; all the while standing firm in the Lord along every part of the journey.

The journey continues, beloved… may it truly be a blessing as we go; and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 17, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Lent, Life, Old Testament, Paul, Sermon

 

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Tempted

(a sermon for  March 10, 2019, the First Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 4:1-13

It is very interesting to me that one of the key words in our text for this morning is also one of the smallest:  “IF,” as in “IF you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” “IF you will worship me, it will all be yours,” and “IF you are the Son of God, thrown yourself down from here,” for the angels will protect you.  It’s very relevant, this word “if,” for you see, not only did the devil tempt Jesus to material satisfaction, great power and popular glory during those 40 days in the wilderness, he also tempted Jesus to question his very identity, and that’s arguably the worst temptation of all; for how horrible is it for any of us to have doubt cast upon who we really are?

Many years ago now back when I was in seminary, I was actually assigned to write and present a sermon on this very text, about the temptation of Jesus, for a preaching class I was taking.  It was an assignment I will never forget, because being both a beginning preacher and a fairly young person at the time, I really struggled to find a way in that sermon to convey something of the biblical understanding of temptation in such a way that was relevant for people of today (and, yes, so I could impress the professor and get a good grade in the process!).  Eventually, I ended up falling back on a few of the typical little temptations we all face in life: you know, the bag of cookies in the kitchen cupboard that seems to be calling our name; the chocolate bars we’ve stashed in the desk drawer “in case of emergency;” the midnight run to any fast-food joint for so-called “comfort food.” And if you noticed a pattern there, you’re right:  this sermon could easily have been titled, “Temptation, Thy Name is Food!”  But it seemed to work, at least for me; and besides, it connected – however peripherally – to Christ’s confession that “One does not live by bread alone!”

Now as I recall, when I preached this sermon for my professor and fellow students; well, let’s just say they were… kind. And I learned a lot from the critique; but the lesson I remember to this day came from a comment made by a classmate, who was not particularly impressed with my homiletical eloquence.  He said to me, not unkindly, but nonetheless quite firmly, “Don’t you realize, Lowry, that what for you is a minor annoyance is for some of us a lifelong battle?”  He then went on to describe for all of us in that classroom how for many years he’d struggled with a food addiction; how at one point he’d had almost died from overeating; and about how now, though he was healthy and moving on with his life (which included answering a call to pastoral ministry), nonetheless the temptation to go back to that was still a day-to-day, moment to moment thing in his life. This was, he said, like an ongoing assault on his very identity:  in the end the decision to resist that temptation, or for that matter, succumbing to it had everything to do with what kind of person he knew he really was and felt called to be in his life; not unlike, he added, how Jesus wrestled with the devil in the wilderness, and affirming his own identity in the process.   Likewise, my classmate explained, in enduring and resisting the temptation that food and eating held for him his own true identity was affirmed.

Suffice to say I learned a lot that day…

Ultimately, you see, temptation is less about the lure of life’s so-called riches (fattening or otherwise), than it is about a challenge to one’s true identity and all that that implies.  David Lose writes that though the devil tempted Jesus with “bread, power, and safety,” for us it could just as well be “youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security.”  The truth is that the temptations we experience are usually pretty specific and very concrete, and yet it can also be said that all temptations are pretty much the same, in that they seek to draw us away from ourselves and who we truly are.  It is, in the truest sense of the term, an attempt on “identity theft,” most especially “in our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship,” that of being a true child of God!

I don’t think I have to tell you just how pervasive a thing is temptation in our lives: I mean, from the time we’re teenagers grappling with “peer pressure” to engage of all manner of reckless behavior all for the sake of fitting in; to the all-too adult crises of morality, ethics and faith that accompany so-called “opportunities” for personal advancement, financial gain, social acceptance or… something else.  But whatever the temptation happens to be, the common denominator here is about abandoning one’s identity to embrace another that seems to us at least in that one moment to be easier, more advantageous and pleasure-filled.

The Rev. James Lawrence, one of the Deans at Pacific School of Religion in California, refers to this as the “ferocious and… constant” temptation to serve the “lower ego” rather than “that which the kingdom of heaven is all about.”  Now, lest you think I’m overstating this, friends, consider this:  some years ago there was a best-selling book entitled Success!  which was essentially a self-help manual on how to make it in the business world; it remains infamous to this day in large part because of the moral parameters the author, a man by the name of Michael Korda, set forth in the very first chapter:  “”It’s OK to be greedy,” he wrote. “It’s OK to look out for Number One. It’s OK to be Machiavellian if you can get away with it. It’s OK to recognize that honesty is not always the best policy.” Success, Korda writes, means getting over worrying about the moral content of what you do, because “morality has very little to do with success.” Success, according to this book, is getting to the top of the ladder without caring much what that ladder is leaning against, or who you are in climbing up there!

That in a nutshell, friends, is the very nature of temptation!   And, I might add, it’s an attitude diametrically opposed to the gospel!  Because it does matter what our ladder is leaning against; what is that Jesus said?  “What does it profit them if them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”  (Mark 8:36) You see, that’s the primary danger of being “led into temptation;” for the sake of that which might at that moment seem like everything (but also inevitably passes in the next moment!)you risk losing yourself, that wonderful, irreplaceable one of a kind person that God has created and intends for you to be!  And to lose that… well, that is everything!

But as we said before, in this world such assaults on our identity and ongoing, and temptation is always going to be a part of our lives;  the question is how we’re going to resist it!  I’m reminded here of the story of the little boy who’d been misbehaving mightily all day; and finally, his mother, exasperated at the depths of his naughtiness in that particular moment, asked her son (lovingly, mind you!), “Why do you act this way?”  And the little boy says, “Momma, sometimes I feel like I’ve got two great big dogs fighting inside of me;  one’s good, but the other one is really, really bad!”  And the mother asks, “Well, which dog is winning?”  To which the boy respond, “It depends on which one I feed!”

Well, I would suggest to you this morning, friends, that for you and I who have to regularly face the temptations of this life we would do well to feed on the example of Jesus.

Each year at the beginning of the Lenten season we in the church are scripturally reminded that before beginning his public ministry and eventually “turning his face toward Jerusalem” and the cross that awaited him there, Jesus spent forty days facing and resisting temptation; learning, as Frederick Beuchner has aptly put it, “what it meant to be Jesus.”  And ultimately, that’s our journey as well: spending these moments with Jesus in the wilderness, we also have a place for us to re-learn what it means to be who we are in the face of all these temptations that come as an assault on our identity as God’s children.   Just as our Savior came to grip with his “human nature” in the wilderness, his temptation before the devil can help us to stay true to who we are before God even when we are sorely tempted to abandon that precious identity for another, lesser, personage.

And how does this happen?  Well, to begin with, remember that each time when Jesus resisted the evil one’s temptations, he did so with his mind set on the Word of God: command a stone to become a loaf of bread?  “One does not live by bread alone.”  All the kingdoms of the world?  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  Protection of the angels so that “you will not dash your foot against a stone” (notice that by this time, the devil was even starting to quote scripture (Psalm 91:12, to be exact!)?  “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Understand, Jesus did not flip through his handy list of anti-temptation texts; he’d enveloped God’s Word for his life and knew it as his own.  And so it should be for us, responding to the challenges of temptation first by being “attentive” to God’s Word and its application to real life!

Granted, there are many grey areas in this life, times when it’s not altogether clear which way we should go, not to mention those times when we’re mired in moments of utter weakness (did you notice, by the way, that just prior to the devil coming on the scene, we’re told that Jesus “ate nothing at all… and… he was famished?”); it’s in times just like these that the line between goodness and evil can easily blur, and we need God’s Word as the pivot point for how God wants us and our lives to be.

What’s more, friends, remember that when Jesus was in the wilderness, he also kept God close as well. Jesus, Luke tells us, went there filled and led there by the Holy Spirit and moreover, in at least one other version of this story (from Matthew), God’s angels ministered unto him in his isolation and hunger.  Simply put, our lives need to be lived within the shelter of God’s love and protection; which means we need to pray, which means we need to sufficiently quiet ourselves so that we can truly listen… listen to how God answers so that we can know and trust how God is leading us.

How many of us, I wonder, make our choices in life without benefit of prayer?  More than once over the years, I’ve spoken with people who, long after the fact, found themselves deeply regretting some choice they had made in the past.  And more often than not, in recalling that temptation, they’ll say, “I should have known… I should have known because it didn’t feel right from the start.”   Call that instinct if you want, or 20-20 hindsight, or else confess to not actually paying attention to what the Lord was trying to say to you in that moment; but the fact is, we can’t make use of God’s spiritual armor if we’re going to make ourselves absent from God!  As it says elsewhere in scripture, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:7-8).

The bottom line, friends, is just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness, so that Spirit leads us; and the good news in these times of temptation that come to us all is that we do not have to be in this thing alone. I’m reminded here of a the story about a man who applied for a position with the New York City Police Department, and who in the application process, was interviewed by a panel of officers who tested this candidate’s ability to react in a variety of situations.  The man had done extremely well, however, and finally came the last question of the day:  “What would you do,” one of the officers asked, “if you had to arrest your mother?”  There was a long silence, but then the man replied, “I’d call for backup!”

To know who you really are, to affirm your unique God-given identity amongst all the temptations of this life, does sometimes require calling for backup!  But the good news is that as children of God, we always have back up.  After all, isn’t that why we pray every Sunday to God our Father in heaven, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…?”

Thanks be to God, to stands with us in times of trial and temptation; and to whom is the power and the glory forever.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2019 in Jesus, Lent, Ministry, Sermon

 

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The Snows of Lent

(Pastor’s Note: Not only does the calendar claim that in just two weeks winter will pass into spring but this year the Lenten season has begun in March, thus fueling some anticipation in this part of the world of a warm[er] Easter Sunday coming in April. And yet, as I write these words, the “real-feel” temperature here in New Hampshire is 4 degrees and the ground is still covered with ice and snow. Thus this post from 2014 which was the basis of my meditation at our Ash Wednesday Devotional Luncheon at East Church earlier today… )

Pastoral Ponderings

spring snows woodstock nh On the Pemigewasset River, near Woodstook, New Hampshire

As I write these words, tomorrow’s weather forecast is for yet another winter storm to hit New Hampshire; an “event” that if the predictions prove to be correct will include a potent mixture of snow, ice and rain.

Oy! It’s now official, friends; I am sick and tired of winter and everything that goes along with it!

Don’t get me wrong: I have always greatly enjoyed winter, especially as it unfolds here in New England; in fact, even the prospect of a good old fashioned nor’easter (and resulting snow day!) tends to usher forth my inner eight-year-old! It’s just that every year about this time, I cross that threshold where I’m more than ready for a change of seasons and the coming of spring.  Suddenly, I’m weary of snow and ice and cold, and my heart begins to yearn for the sight…

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Posted by on March 6, 2019 in Sermon

 
 
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