First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one at the center of the story. Amen
The season of Lent is a time of storytelling.
During this 40 day period
we tell the stories of Jesus’ last days
leading up to the greatest story of Easter morning.
We tell these stories every year during this season,
we tell them because they are important to us,
we tell them so that new people might hear them,
we tell them to remember who we are and whose we are
because stories form our identities.
We start with our reading from Deuteronomy,
I love this passage because it combines the power of storytelling with worship.
In this passage
Moses is instructing the Israelites
before they enter the promised land
on how to worship God who is giving them the land.
It is clear that Moses is concerned
that once the people settle in
and start working the land
and providing for themselves through farming
that they will forget God.
Moses says some variation
of “the land that the Lord your God is giving you”
six times in this short passage,
he has a right to be worried
it’s a very human temptation
to forget God
when it appears that we can take care of ourselves through our own work
even though God made it possible for us to work in the first place.
So Moses prescribes a ritual for worship
designed to both praise God
and remind the worshipper of God.
When the land,
a gift from God,
starts to produce
the Israelites are to take the first harvest,
put it in a basket,
bring it to the temple and give it to the priest
who will put it before the altar of God.
Seems simple enough,
but there is more,
in addition to bringing the first fruits
the worshiper is to retell the story of the people and God
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." Deuteronomy 26:5-10
The story puts the act of offering in context,
the ability to offer these first fruits
is only possible because of God’s saving actions and gracious gifts.
Telling the story this way
makes sure that God stays at the center of the story.
Worship is designed to keep God as the main character
in the story of life,
and let’s be honest
we need all the help we can get
we humans love to think that it is all about us,
and when we start to make ourselves the center of the universe
we get into trouble very quickly.
It is this human inclination
that the Devil plays on as he tempts Jesus in our gospel for today
and Jesus resists
by keeping God at the center of the story
In his first attempt
the Devil plays on Jesus’ pride and hunger
by saying “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Now imagine if Jesus were living with the perspective
that he was the center of the universe-
he would be insulted at the Devil’s questioning of his identity
and authority as Son of God,
and being hungry it would make sense to prove the devil wrong
by creating some bread,
seems like killing two birds with one stone.
But keeping God at the center
Jesus, even though he is the Son of God and is very hungry answers:
“It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil tries another common weak spot for humans,
he offers power,
all the kingdoms of the world.
In exchange for allegiance that is.
We only have to look through history
at the various dictators
to know how this temptation might have played out.
But again Jesus keeping God at the center
answers: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And now the Devil knows he’s working with a really tough case
and so in his last attempt
he combines a question of Jesus’ identity
with quoting scripture,
playing Jesus’ own game saying “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.’
there you have it,
the word of God straight out of Psalm 91,
how can you argue with that? The Devil implies
this tactic has worked really well for the Devil over the years
playing on the pride of people
who then pressure other people
saying: “If you are a Christian, you will go and do____ something very un Christ like”
and by backing up their claim with scripture
people fall prey to the desire
to prove that they are Christian
rather than to act like Christ.
but yet again Jesus sees through the devil’s ploy
and keeping God at the center of the story
responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
At this the devil departs-
but not for good, just until another time when Jesus is ripe for temptation,
a time like this one where his defenses are down.
That’s when the devil likes to tempt us,
not when we’re at our strongest,
but when we’re at our weakest,
those times of struggle
where we desperately desire a certain outcome
because we are so overcome with the events in our lives
that we’ve started telling our story with ourselves at the center
we are so focused on ourselves
that we give into temptation
and start testing God saying things like:
“God, if you’re really there I’ll know because you’ll make the one I love all better.”
or “God, if you’re really compassionate make all this pain go away, right now.”
Of course that way lies madness,
because God doesn’t work like that,
God is not a cosmic vending machine
where if we insert our prayers like dollars
our desired outcome will be dispensed.
And how do we know God doesn’t work like that?
Through all the stories of how God has acted in the past,
the stories where again and again
God chose to work through death to bring new life.
So how do we make it through the tough times and resist temptation?
the stories of how God has acted in the past
and promised to act in the future.
In worship we hear the stories,
and we give to God in recognition that in the great story of life
God is the main character to our supporting role,
and we celebrate the life God has given us.
And fortified by the story,
gratitude and communal celebration
God sends us back out into the world,
to live through death into new life. Amen
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In a few moments
we will each hear those words
as ash, the dust of a once living plant,
is smeared on our foreheads.
As we enter into the season of Lent
where we journey with Jesus to the cross and the grave
we take time to consider our mortality
Generally when we think of THE END,
that is death,
we tend to lean more in the direction of Joel:
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.”
THE END is scary,
and while Joel ultimately offers hope
in the form of the mercy of God
we’ve gotten stuck on the scary part,
and we’ve become so scared as a culture
we’ve taken to denying death,
we hide it,
we try to pretend it won’t happen to us,
we try to make it look less like death,
and the result is
that we’ve become so afraid of death
that it gets in the way of life
we’ve forgotten the fundamental truth
that out of death comes new life.
We see this truth in nature
after a wildfire when flowers cover a newly opened meadow,
as a bear catches a fish and feeds it to her young,
we’ve experienced this
when the death of one relationship
has paved the way for one more life giving
and most of all we have Easter morning
and the empty tomb,
a miracle because the tomb was full on Good Friday.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In a few moments
we will each hear those words
as ash is smeared on our foreheads
in the sign of the cross.
A symbol of death turned into a symbol of salvation.
Where Joel calls for repentance saying who knows, God in mercy might relent?
Paul says we know how it will go for us
because: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God knew that no matter how much we repented,
or offered sacrifices
or did any of the other things that humans do
to try to get right with God
that we would never be able to get there,
we would never be able to make ourselves right with God.
So God took care of it,
and joined to Christ in baptism
God counts us as righteous
we don’t have to wait until THE END
to find out what is going to happen,
the scary unknown of Joel is resolved
we know where we stand with God,
we have been saved
past tense continuing action.
Salvation in now
and stretches into the future
God says “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! “
Now is the day of salvation.
We don’t have to wait.
In fact God is working through us
as ambassadors for Christ
so that others may be relieved of fear
and the unknown
by the salvation available now,
no waiting required.
But in this world where there is always a catch
it sounds too good to be true
and there are times when we doubt
even as we call ourselves Christian,
the Corinthians doubted
so Paul wrote to them saying “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
And that brings us right back to Ash Wednesday
because accepting the grace of God in vain
looks like saying we have the grace of God
but not living like we have the grace of God.
It looks like a fear of death so great
that it gets in the way of life,
it looks like storing up treasures on earth,
placing trust in ourselves
in our own hands
rather than entrusting our lives to God
who has already saved us by grace.
The repentance of Ash Wednesday and Lent
is about living into the grace of God that is ours, now.
Any fasting we do
or spiritual practices we may add in this time
are about quieting the distractions
that call us away from living in the present grace of God.
And yes this is difficult,
we live in a world that profits from fear
and seeks to quiet those who say otherwise
and so we start this season
by marking our opposition on our foreheads,
embracing without fear
that which the world fears most,
and in doing so
turning as best we are able
to live in the grace of God
that is ours, now. Amen
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who speaks to us. Amen
Speaking and listening
These two actions lie at the heart of the transfiguration story.
Speaking and listening are the transfiguration story.
Jesus has been teaching
he’s been speaking to crowds,
and now he needs some time with God.
So he takes with him three disciples,
Peter, John and James and goes up a mountain to pray.
Jesus likes to go to deserted places to pray,
less distraction that way
but going up a mountain signals that this is a special occasion,
God is often met on mountain tops,
And sure enough while Jesus is praying something happens,
Jesus’ face changes
and his clothes become dazzling white
and suddenly he is joined by Moses and Elijah
they’re having a conversation about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross
and Peter, John and James witnessing the glory of God
want to hold on to the moment
Peter offers to build permanent structures
so the moment never has to end
and at this God overshadows them
and speaks to them,
telling them to listen to Jesus
and terrified they keep silent.
Speaking and listening
That’s where it all starts
with Jesus going up the mountain to pray,
prayer is a combination of speaking and listening,
we’re more familiar with the speaking side of prayer
but prayer also happens in listening,
listening for what God is saying to us.
Jesus goes up the mountain to pray
and is visibly transformed by encountering God.
This is keeping with tradition,
we heard how Moses’ face was transformed
as he spoke to God.
Being in the presence of God changes us.
Listening to God visibly changes us.
And that frightens us.
Moses took to wearing a veil around the people
because when they could see the glory of the Lord shining in his face,
they were afraid to come near him.
Yet they still listened to Moses speak,
when others are transformed by being in the presence of God
we are afraid yes,
but we’re also intrigued,
part of us wants to see more,
but we can only take so much.
We’re like little kids experiencing something new,
at first it startles us and we run and hide our face in our parents leg,
but soon enough we’re ready to take another peak,
and a peak turns into a longer look
and eventually, step by step we move toward a full encounter.
It’s a different story when we’re the ones who are changed.
Peter, dear impulsive, enthusiastic Peter
witnesses Jesus’ transformation along with Moses and Elijah
and determines that this is a good place,
he wants to see more
so he suggests building houses for the trio.
He wants to make this brief moment permanent
even though that is impossible,
we are told that Peter didn’t know what he was saying,
that this was a moment for just a moment.
To be fair to Peter it’s a very human thing
to suggest what he did.
We humans love to embark on building projects
around sites of significance.
In seminary I got to go to Israel and Palestine
as part of a class on the Holy Land
which included visiting sites of significance to Jesus’ ministry.
To be fair we were a bit skeptical
that we were visiting the exact place where Jesus appeared to the disciples
after the resurrection and made them a breakfast of fish,
or the exact place where Jesus was baptized
but our tour guide
a wonderfully faithful Palestinian Catholic named Johnny
had an explanation,
‘we know this is the place because the early Christians built a church here’
and there were a lot of churches dedicated to specific events in Jesus’ life.
It’s what we humans do,
we try to capture significant moments in permanent buildings.
But back on the mountain
God has other things in mind,
the moment is too significant to get caught up in a building project
and so even as Peter is offering his suggestion
a cloud comes and overshadows the disciples,
this is the presence of God,
when God appears to people in the Bible
it is often in the form of a cloud,
For example God led the people of Israel out of Egypt
appearing as a pillar of cloud by day.
And the disciples are terrified as they enter the cloud.
Then God speaks “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
And when the cloud lifts,
all that’s left is Jesus.
And this time,
their reaction is to keep silent,
and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
They obviously eventually told someone
otherwise we wouldn’t know the story
but it took them awhile to be able to tell the story,
my guess is that it was only after the resurrection
did they feel comfortable enough to tells others of their encounter with God
and what God said to them.
And this too is a perfectly human response.
Because as much as we long for God
to work in us and in our community
- we pray for that every Sunday,
when the time comes,
like the disciples
we are terrified to enter the cloud of God.
Covered in clouds we can’t see where we’re going,
even on top of a mountain
and we don’t like that feeling,
we like to be able to look out and see where we’re going
anticipate what’s coming next,
it’s less scary that way,
God most often speaks when we’re covered in clouds.
Those times in life
when we can’t see what the future holds,
we can barely see our hand in front of our face.
a broken relationship,
a job loss,
any kind of loss,
we don’t know what the future will bring
and it terrifies us
and that is when God speaks,
and when the clouds lift,
in that first moment of clarity
what do we see?
who was there all along.
“Listen to him” God says,
so we do,
as we move forward we listen to Jesus,
we save the speaking for later.
The Church, with a capital C
is in a time of clouds,
things that worked for decades are no longer effective
and frankly, we’re afraid,
this comes out in all kinds of anxieties,
I’m not going to list them
but I’m sure you can think of something
that worries you about the Church,
we’re afraid because we can’t see the path in front of us
and yet, when we pause,
take a deep breath, and a moment to collect ourselves,
we find that we do know what to do.
Listen to God who speaks in the midst of clouds,
who tells us to listen to Jesus.
I’ve been listening for awhile now,
And you know what?
I’m not afraid of the clouds surrounding the Church anymore.
Because I know that when the clouds lift
what we’ll find is Jesus,
who has been there all along
and who will lead us down off the mountain
who will show us the way.
Realizing this has made Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians
so much more meaningful,
listen to them again:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
In Christ we have freedom,
freedom from fear,
in Christ we see the glory of the Lord,
In Christ we are being transformed,
In Christ we are engaged in ministry.
In Christ we do not lose heart.
“This is my son, My chosen; listen to him!” Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.