Sunday, March 5, 2017

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Creating Space and Entering In

Lent 1: We hunger
Matthew 4:1-11

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           We might not all like or look forward to the season of LENT.  But I think God knows we need it.  Too often we deal with this season at a surface level only, by identifying something we are going to 'give up' (chocolate, caffeine, Facebook), or something we are going to 'take on', (better eating habits, regular exercise, a prayer discipline).  Some of us pretty much ignore this season, but look forward to Easter!

          These seasons of the church calendar, like Lent, Advent, Epiphany, are important  for they are meant to shape us.  As we enter into these sacred times and rhythms, they guide us into a way of seeing and being in our lives, that we might otherwise overlook or ignore.  If you attended an Ash Wednesday service here or someplace else, you have already entered into this season.  Ruth Haley Barton describes that day as, “the doorway into a space in time that calls us to stop whatever we are doing, no matter how important it might be, and enter more intentionally into the discipline of prayer, self-examination and repentance.”  As you received the ashes on your forehead or hand, and heard the words, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,”  you acknowledged through this symbolic gesture your mortality and sinfulness.  Can you think of any other day in the year that we do that?

  Lent is a time to step back, to create space to:
ReflectRepentRecommitRenewand hopefully to be restored.
Theme for the series:  Restore Us, O God!

          The texts for the first Sunday in Lent always include an account of Jesus in the wilderness from one of the synoptic Gospels.  This year's goes like this:

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.

           Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, titled her sermon on this text as “The Wilderness Exam”.  She states, “This is the story in which everyone finds out what being the son of God really means.  This is the story in which Jesus proves who he is, NOT by seizing power, but by turning it down.” (p. 39, Bread of Angels)
          As we look at the context and the shape of this narrative, there are some fascinating parts.  It comes right after the account of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan river.  It really is a sequel to that story.  If you remember, we read of the baptism of Jesus.  He comes out of the water, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends like a dove and rests on Jesus, and then those words from the heavens, “This is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”
          And now the same spirit leads him from this wonderful event of affirmation and reassuring words from the heavens, possibly with a crowd around to witness, up into the Judean wilderness for a long lonely time, with no voice from God, no dove from heaven, no food.  Just wilderness, a space where the familiar and the comforts, and the things that provide security are stripped away.  Jesus, left there, for forty days and forty nights, to be tempted, to be tested.

          It really plays itself out and reads like a drama. An opening prologue, to set the context(stage), followed by 3 brief scenes that mount with some intensity, and concludes with a very brief epilogue.

Prologue:  Jesus is led by the spirit to the wilderness.  He doesn't just wander there by mistake.  He fasted for forty days and forty nights.  Result: he was hungry!
The exam begins (at the end of the fast)
          It proceeds with 3 short tests.  And it becomes this back and forth between Jesus and the devil, with both of them quoting scripture.  The tempter is proposing ways for Jesus to claim his messianic role and demonstrate his power.  “If you are (or since you are) the Son of God, then do this.....

          But in 3 tests, Jesus does not succumb, give in to the temptation presented.  He is not about to act independently of God and use his power to gratify his own desires, whether it be changing stones into bread to nourish his hungry body, or testing whether God would in fact send his angels to swoop down if he were to jump off the temple and save him from harm, or whether it would be to bow down and worship another just to have all of that land and position and control of all the kingdoms offered to him.
          Jesus passed the test....every time. Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent on God. He didn't need to prove to anyone anything. He didn't need to give public witness to his work by some miracles or magic.  If he had succumbed to those demands, it would have revealed unfaith rather than faith.

          After Jesus passed the 3rd test, there wasn't much left to say.  His response assures us of his undivided loyalty.  He will worship and serve God only!
          Jesus passed the test.  The message: God is the ultimate provider!  Jesus learns this, he lives this and invites us to believe and accept this too.  God provides.  God sustains.  God delivers.  God gives us what we need.  We are tempted in our fears and insecurities not to trust God.  We think we can do it in our own power and because of our own knowledge and capabilities.  Sometimes we are tempted to treat God as less than God!

          When the test was over there wasn't much more to say.  The devil left, angels arrive and they wait and serve Jesus.  They bring comfort and strength to those tested.

          In Matthew's account, he lets the reader know that Jesus had to prove his faithfulness in the midst of testing.  His particular struggle was between the divine and the demonic authority, this cosmic battle, that Jesus will deal with for the rest of his ministry.  How will he act as the Son of God?  The story is about Jesus' identity.
But it is also about our own identity.

          How do we act as children of God?  Where does our loyalty lie?  How is our faithfulness being tested?  As individuals and as a corporate body...the church?  When we are tempted to want more, to be more, to achieve more, how far and how much do we compromise.

As we enter into this season of Lent, as you create space in your life and busy schedule, I have some questions for you to ponder, to work with for this week.  They are included in your bulletin.

1.)  What has been your 'wilderness' or 'desert' experience?  (It may have been a time many years ago.  You may have more than one to reflect on.  You may be in the midst of the wilderness now and it is  hard and painful.  Maybe some of you came through it and you are a survivor, but the memories are still vivid.)
2.)   What are you 'hungering' for?  What are your deepest longings that, if fulfilled, would satisfy your hunger and restore you?  Could be something physical or emotional or spiritual.  Pain free days, physical healing, reconciliation with a loved one, forgiveness from another, financial security, satisfying job.)
3.)   What are the distractions, the temptations, the voices, that pull you or call you away from God?  Bad habits, addictions, pride, need for recognition and success, uncontrolled anger, bitterness, obsessive behavior.)
          (also reflect on  temptation in the life of the church.  How does the church, our congregations, and educational and mission institutions face temptations when it comes to power, authority, decision making, etc.?)
Spend some time with these questions.

As we create some space and enter into this season of Lent and reflection, I offer you the opportunity to participate in a response or ritual.  Baskets are placed in front and at tow other stations with items.. 1.) small stones, gravel, all sizes, rough and smooth.  It can represent what you need it to be...symbol of the landscape of
your life...the wilderness, the desert, the pebble in your shoe that irritates, the smooth stone, that indicates you came thru the wilderness and the rough edges are no longer needed, or a jagged piece of gravel that is still challenging.  Take it with you and keep it with you on the journey of Lent.
2.)  crumbs, not neat cubes from a loaf  of bread, but a crumb.  It is a beginning, it is a foretaste of what will come.  You don't get the whole loaf today.  You see a symbol of nourishment and for today, it is enough.  Take, taste and know that there will be more that will fill and nourish and satisfy.
Come forward as we sing together, 'You are all we have”...

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