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A Gift of Peace

(a sermon for May 26, 2019, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)

I was 35 years old before I had ever been on an airplane.

I realize that’s not all that surprising or unusual thing to say; but trust me, at the time this represented a truly momentous occasion in my life!  I mean, I’d never really traveled very all that much when I was growing up; and even as an adult where I did go usually involved a road trip across the highways and byways of the northeast corridor!  So now, at age 35, to be asked to not only attend a week-long caregiving seminar in Orlando, Florida (and in the dead of winter, no less!) but also to fly there was a welcome and exciting opportunity!

However, I must confess that having never flown before I was a tad nervous about the prospect; in fact, if I’m being honest, the closer I got to the day of departure the more anxious about it I’d become!  To be fair, it did seem like practically every other day I’d read something in the news about a plane crashing somewhere in the world; nor was it particularly helpful that friends, family and even fellow clergy had regaled me with their own nightmare stories of air travel gone bad! And the true “icing” on the cake was that on the morning I was to leave, overnight there’d been snow, sleet and freezing rain (!) which required the plane to be de-iced before takeoff!

But the flight actually went very well; just before takeoff I’d decided that a silent prayer was in order (and not just for me, mind you, but also for the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendants and every other person on that airplane, with a side order request for good weather the entire way; hey, it never hurts to ask!), and my journey was as smooth and uneventful as one could hope.  And so by the time I’d landed in Philadelphia to make a connecting flight to Orlando, I already felt like an experienced frequent flyer!

Which lasted until just about the time my second flight was on the tarmac…

But on the last leg of my journey I was seated next to this young woman who, once she’d heard I was a minister, immediately and nervously asked if I ever got nervous about flying and I said, lying through my teeth, “Oh, no, not really!”  And she said, “Wow, that’s good, pastor, because I hate flying!   I don’t even want to be on this flight, but I’m going to visit my sister in Florida because she’s in trouble and to tell the truth, I’m pretty nervous about that!”  And for pretty much the remainder of the flight (!) she told me all about it.  Now, all these years later, I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do remember what she said to me as we were landing:  “But you know what?  I guess I’m not all that worried because I’ve got God with me.  I’m not much of a churchgoer,” she went on to say, “and I’m – no offense (they always tell me, “no offense…”) – I’m not even all that religious.  But at times like this, I just know that God is there, because there’s this peace that I can feel all over.  It’s like… a gift. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, I did… and I do.

In our text for this morning, we continue in what’s referred to in John’s gospel as Jesus’ “farewell discourses” on the night of his betrayal and arrest.  So again, what we have here is Jesus essentially saying good-bye to those closest to him while preparing them for what’s to come; reminding them one last time of the importance of love and how that love is forever linked to “keeping [his] words,” words that are not in fact his, but “from the Father who sent [him].”  But more than merely words of farewell, these are also words of promise with Jesus offering up the assurance of an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” that would teach his disciples, both then and now, everything they would need to know and would “remind [them] of all that I have said to you.”  And it all culminates with Jesus offering up what perhaps the most deeply touching assurances we’re given in the gospels:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”

That in and of itself is an amazing promise, isn’t it!  I mean, think of it; the same Jesus who is now facing the certainty of a violent death has not only already promised to go on ahead and “prepare a place” for his disciples in his “Father’s house,” (John 14:1) now gives them his assurance that, because of God’s sure and certain promises of life, everything will be alright and that they will know the same kind of peace that he himself possesses. It’s no wonder that these words are so often read at graveside services; because if there’s one thing of which we need to be reminded in times of loss it’s that this – the here and now – is not all that there is, but that there’s another place for us when this life is done; a home in heaven that Jesus has already gone to prepare for us by his death on the cross.  It is an atoning act of redemptive love, and it is Jesus’ gift of true peace for today, tomorrow, for all of life and beyond life: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

And as I said earlier, that in and of itself is amazing; but you’ll notice that that’s not all that Jesus promises here; he goes on to say, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Just a little addition to the promise, a few added words that at first read almost come off as a bit of a qualifier to the promise itself; and yet, friends, I have to tell you that for me it’s that second phrase that not only makes the promise amazing, but also life changing.  It’s the assurance that what Jesus is giving us is not what the world gives that makes all the difference!

And what does the world give?  Lindsay Popper, UCC pastor and writer in Massachusetts, addresses this question quite honestly: she says, “The world gives us simple beauties: the full moon on an early morning, the feeling of a sweetheart’s hand in ours, a strong cup of coffee before a day of work. But so often, the world gives trouble. The world gives disappointment.”  The world, Popper goes on to say, creates famine and war and leaves “shattering trauma” in its wake; it brings forth broken relationships that “leave us feeling bitter and alone… [so often] this world with all its fragile beauty leaves us feeling like the floor has fallen out from under us, feeling utterly alone, numb and helpless.”

And to this, Jesus says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.”  Or maybe more to the point, as this verse is translated in The Message, “I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left – feeling abandoned, bereft.” It’s my peace that I’m giving you, says Jesus, so “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Two bits of translation here that need to be addressed:  first, the Greek word for “peace” that’s used here is eirene, which is pretty much the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word shalom; meaning peace not just in the sense of the cessation of war and conflict, but a whole peace that includes security, safety and prosperity as well as a sense of an inner rest, well-being and harmony, and above all, a state of reconciliation with God now and eternally.  As a matter of fact, this word eirene has its roots in the word eiro, which means “to join or bind together that which has been separated;” it’s actually where we get the expression of someone who “has it all together!”  What this all means is that the peace that Jesus offers does not in fact guarantee an end to the struggle and hardship that exists in the world; how could it when even as Jesus spoke the words he was about to be sentenced to a brutal death on the cross at the hands of those whose hated him!  No, this peace is not the faltering peace of a hurting and sinful world, but it is a true peace that gives comfort in the face of all that world brings forth!

David Lose of Lutheran Seminary says it this way: “The peace Jesus offers is more than the absence of something negative. Indeed… it has its own presence and gravity… [it] testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being. It’s a sense of harmony with those persons and things around us. Peace connotes a sense of contentment, but even more fulfillment, a sense that in this moment one is basking in God’s pleasure. And that,” Lose concludes, “can come even amid hardship, struggle, conflict, and disruption.”

In other words, it is the knowledge that even in all the difficulties the world brings forth and in whatever troubles beset us, God is with us; and when we let God take on the burden of the troubles that we cannot change or control, when we “place ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands,” that is peace… true peace, and it’s a gift; not as the world gives, but as only Jesus can provide.

So… “do not let you hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid;” which brings us to the other matter of translation:  the Greek word that’s used in this verse: tharseo, which is probably better translated as “take heart,” or even better, to “have courage.”   In Jesus, you see, in no matter what the world and life is throwing at us, we can take heart and have courage and not be afraid!  That’s how my seatmate on the airplane that day could take a flight she was terrified to make to face a family situation she felt utterly ill equipped and unprepared to handle.  That’s how those of us who have had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one can find hope for life, now and eternally.  That’s how you and I can manage to face down the times and situations of heartache and struggle and oppression and darkness and fear that sooner or later will come our way; and that’s how we “keep the faith,” even when the world around us  (and within us!) seems to be spinning helplessly out of control.  The peace that Jesus offers us gives us open and courageous hearts; the ability to live fully and boldly as his disciples; truly being “in” the world but not “of” the world, living with strength, joy and ever and always keeping his command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It’s true and lasting peace, girded in saving love… and it’s a gift.

At a funeral recently, an older gentleman came up to me after the service and asked where he might find the verse I’d read about Jesus going to his Father’s house “where there are many dwelling places… to prepare a place” for us, because, he said, he’d not ever really heard that before and it was something he felt he really needed to think about.  I explained, of course, that these were verses from John’s Gospel; shared with him all about how these were Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” and also how those particular verses have always been helpful to me in knowing what happens to us when we die.  And to this he simply smiled and said, “I just feel like this is something I should really know about!”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since… and it seems to me that while what Jesus said to his disciples and us on that fateful night has everything to do with our Lord’s “sure and certain promises” of life eternal and how he is “the way, and the truth and the life;” (14:6) but it also expresses the truth of our Lord’s presence and power in the here and now of our lives!  It reminds us that there is nothing we face in this life that God in the person of Jesus Christ hasn’t also experienced.  Jesus knows how we’ve been hurt in the life; he knows our disappointments, our struggles and all the ways in which our hopes and expectations for our lives have fallen far short of what we wanted.  Jesus knows how easy it is to become discouraged by life and the world and how swiftly weakness gives way to temptation and losing our best selves along the way.  Jesus knows us all too well… because he lived as one of us.

Before you and I ever began to live, Jesus already knew what life is all about… but he also knew what it can be… what it should be… and that’s how he can continue to offer us the gift of his peace; how in whatever happens, whatever trials and sorrows and temptations there might be – even in death itself – he can offer us the peace that passes our human understanding… because he’s already been there.  Our Jesus can and does provide a peace that the world can neither give nor ever, ever take away!

In whatever comes this week, beloved, I pray you will know that kind of peace as your own.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Easter, Faith, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon

 

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Changing Your Mind

(a sermon for March 24, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

“Pastor, I would like to have a talk with you about your sermon.”

Friends, let me just say from personal experience that there’s hardly ever anything good that follows a statement like that!  And so it was on this particular morning when a parishioner from the church I was serving at the time came to confront me – in Christian love, of course (!) – as to her great displeasure with my message from the Sunday before. I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she began; and I don’t appreciate your intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner!   Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right!  I want to leave worship on a Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and as though in the midst of everything in this life I’ve done pretty well, and maybe even doing just a bit better than everybody else! I don’t want, nor do I really need you to tell me to repent!

Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her how much I appreciated her honesty and that I was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could prayerfully reflect on it all a bit longer; and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be, well… warmer, and fuzzier.

Honest; that’s what I actually said to her!  Of course, if I am being honest, how I really wanted to respond to that – gently and yes, with all Christian love – was to say, have you read the bible?   Do you even know Jesus?  I mean, talk about the need for having ears to hear the gospel; it ain’t all about “the warm and fuzzy,” you know!  There is more to our Christian faith, after all, than simply manger scenes and Easter eggs and sheep safely grazing in green pastures!  There’s also the matter of redemption, about the fallen nature of humanity and of sin; you can’t just ignore that!

Well, at least that’s what I wanted to say (and thank you for letting me get that out!), and yet… I also have to confess, all these years later, that I do kind of understand where she was coming from! A lot of it comes from the nature of the word itself: repent!  For a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church, this word repent immediately brings forth the image of some sharp-tongued preacher standing in a pulpit or from the television screen, shaking a judgmental finger and threatening that unless “unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!” (KJV) Never mind that this is not the tone by which we usually proclaim that portion of the gospel, at least not in our tradition of faith; but truth be told that’s the image of church and Christianity that a whole lot of folks carry with them!  And I’ll grant you, the words do sound harsh, it feels utterly judgmental and in all honesty, that parishioner was correct in pointing out that it’s not what we want to hear when we come to worship on a Sunday morning (at least not when we feel like it’s been directed at us!).

But here’s the problem:  biblically speaking and in terms of the meaning of our Christian faith, it’s not inaccurate.

Consider our gospel text for this morning, in which Jesus is asked about a recent event involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we don’t know the exact set of circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor. Moreover, at about the same time, there had been a structural collapse – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this “tower of Siloam” fell and killed eighteen people.  And so now, in the aftermath of all this and in the midst of their grief there’s people coming to Jesus and asking a perfectly legitimate question:  why?  Why would such a bad thing happen to good people; or rather, Jesus, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Did this happen, God forbid, because they… well, deserved it?

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting way:  “Do [I] think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” [The Message]  But, says Jesus, “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.”  Oh, and those eighteen people who died in the tower accident?  They weren’t any better or worse than than your average Jerusalemite; but “I tell you… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And there it is, not once but twice in five verses:  Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!

I love how Matthew Skinner at Lutheran Seminary reacts to these verses in Luke:  “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling?  Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.”  Suddenly it’s not about why bad things happen, nor about how “the godless will be struck by an asteroid,” and definitely not about how the fact that we haven’t yet been struck down is evidence of a special blessing.  No, what Jesus is talking about here is the need for us to repent of our sins and to do it now… before it’s too late.

No wonder that woman was upset with me – or with Jesus, actually – because no matter how you hear it, there’s an admonition that cannot help but hit us right between the eyes. I mean, Jesus, is that really true?  Am I really all that bad of a person that I am quite literally one misdeed away from a major catastrophe?  What about forgiveness, Jesus?  What about the love you have for all the little children, of which I am one?  Surely, when you say that “unless you repent, you’ll die,” you’re not talking about… me?

Apparently, yes… and therein lies the challenge of this text, and indeed, of our very faith.  But let me suggest to you, friends, that it’s also our good news.

You see, as Jesus often does, he follows this call to repentance with a parable: the story of a man, his vineyard and an utterly barren fig tree.  In biblical times, and even to this day, fig trees were often planted in the midst of vineyard gardens for the sake of its always delicious and usually very abundant fruit.  However, as Jesus tells the story, this particular fig tree had yet to produce any kind of fruit for three years now, and it’s not seeming likely that this is going to change anytime soon. All this tree is really doing is taking up space in the soil and sucking up valuable water in the vineyard!  And so, as any wise gardener would suggest, the time had come to cut this barren fig down; to tear down its roots and perhaps start afresh with a new seedling, one that might actually grow to bear fruit.  This tree’s done nothing, so hack it down!

But no… as Jesus tells the story, the vinedresser says otherwise:  “’Sir,’” he says, “’let it alone for one more year, until I did around it and’” put…. [fertilizer!]… on it, and “’if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.’”

A reprieve!  And, might I add, an opportunity.

Turns out that Jesus’ story isn’t as much about judgment and punishment as it is mercy! That useless, withered fig tree could have easily and legitimately been destroyed, and yet it isn’t; it’s given another chance to grow and to become fruitful.  Turns out that this is a story all about expectation, “the expectation,” writes James Lemler, an Episcopal priest and writer from Connecticut, “of a radical change and turning about of things.” Because make no mistake, it’s not simply that the barren fig tree is saved from destruction, it’s that now there’s an expectation that next year things will be different. “The tree must change.  It must produce fruit by this time next year – or else.”

Same with you, says Jesus.  You’ve got the opportunity here; you’ve been given that second, third, and fourth chance to grow and to finally bear the fruit of life and faith, but now what matters is what you do with that: and unless you repent, change, turn around and do what needs to be done to bear that fruit, just like any other barren, lifeless fig tree that’s taking up space in the garden, you’ll perish!

What’s interesting, you know, is that most often when we in the church talk about repentance, we’re kind of thinking apology!  You know, referring to the deep regret we feel over our transgressions, about moving from egregious sin to moral uprightness, about making that 180-degree turn from where we’ve been to where we’re headed; which, actually, in some places in scripture is an accurate definition: it’s the Greek word metanoia, which translates as turning around completely.  But here when Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not merely speaking of changing your direction but also, and primarily, changing your mind, and your heart, and your soul, and your life.  James Lemler again:  Jesus’ call to repentance was a plea “to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people.  He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them.  And he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God’s love – the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.”

Friends, it’s about being on the journey of life and living, doing things the way you’ve always done them regardless of the consequence or even of its futility; but then, all at once, changing your mind and going another way that you know is going to be the better pathway.  Repentance is simply, and not so simply, changing your mind; or, as Frederick Beuchner has beautifully said, it is “to come to your senses.  It is not,” he writes, “so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repent, says Jesus, or else you’ll perish. Change your mind, because if you don’t, very soon you’ll be headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Turn around, and take a different pathway, because right now you’re going nowhere fast. Come to your senses, otherwise you might well lose yourself, and you’ll miss everything that is to come and what, by God’s grace and infinite love, has been promised and is even now being set before you.

“Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!”

So… here’s Jesus, simply sitting there, quietly and patiently, waiting for us to respond to what’s he said to us.  That’s the thing about Jesus, you know – and by extension, that’s the thing about preaching his gospel – he’s waiting for us to give an answer to what he’s said.  Sometimes it’s not about the “warm and fuzzy,” with everything all tied up in a nice purple bow for Lent; sometimes  Jesus’ words just hang in the air before us and we end up leaving this place today wondering… how we’re supposed to respond and what happens next.

I wonder as we’re sitting here this morning about the ways our minds and hearts need to change; I wonder about the fruit that we haven’t borne.  Have we failed to acknowledge the reality of the living God even when we’ve known just how much we’ve yearned and hungered  for that presence and power in our lives?  Are there mistakes or transgressions – no, let’s call them exactly what they are – is there sin in our lives that has gone unconfessed?   And by the same token, is there forgiveness that we’ve refused to accept… or to give?  Is our behavior – our attitudes, our language, our treatment of others, our priorities, our practice of everyday life – is it less than it should be as one who has been named and claimed as a child of God? Has what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been living proven to unite those around us or is it divisive; does it make for peace or does it create injustice; is it about love or something else; but most importantly, does it honor God and model his son Jesus, and does it further the work of his kingdom?

If not, I would say that the time has come to consider changing our mind, and our hearts, and our lives;  because, hard as it may be for us to hear, the time for that kind of change won’t last forever.

And besides, why wouldn’t you want to? In the words of Isaiah: “Why do you send your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy… incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

The time and the opportunity for repentance is now, beloved. May it be for each of us time well spent and…

…may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

 

 

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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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