These messages are provided for those preparing to preach on upcoming Sundays. All of the sermons on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for the coming month are below. For more sermons in this year of the cycle, Year A, go to that page in the menu. Sermons are listed in ascending order, with Advent I at the bottom of the page.
From Jesus, on Being Salt and Light
Matthew 5:13-20….Epiphany 5A
When is the last time you heard from me? I know you go to church, you read the Scriptures. You talk to me often, and I appreciate that. But so often you keep things at the surface level. You think about me from time to time. You try your best to follow me. I know you love me, or at least want to. So today I want to reach deeper into you, into your heart, if that’s OK with you.
You are the salt of the earth. Salt is a gift I gave to the world, for many purposes. It makes food taste better. It is used as a preservative, a bleach, and in many of the products you use every day. In fact I just Googled it, and it has over 14,000 uses so far. It’s genius, I know! Salt makes the world a better place.
Let’s put it another way: You are the light of the world. Does that surprise you? I know I said that I am the light of the world, but so are you. Yes, you! That’s because my light shines into you as love, and that love light shines through you for the sake of the world.
Light comes in pretty handy too. Another great idea the Father and I enjoyed creating! The world would be much worse off without salt and light.
So, I ask you, is the world a better place because you are in it?
How about your family? Is it better because you are among them? As my disciple, I expect you to act and talk and think like me. But don’t feel too uptight about that. I like to keep it simple. Just make your life all about trusting the Father who loves you, and loving those around you.
That’s it. It really is that simple.
So, is it better because of you? Is your family more loving, more happy, more charitable because of your influence? Do the people in your family regularly experience your forgiveness and your care? Does your daily life reflect my life and the flavor of my goodness?
You are salt and light for your family.
What about your work place? Is my love felt among your co-workers because you labor alongside them? Do you listen to their stories and tell them you pray for them? Do you help them out, even going beyond your job description to relieve their burden? Are you honest in your dealings with customers and show them you want the best for them? Is your workplace a blessing to the world because of you?
You are salt and light in your work place.
How is it working in your church? Is it a better place because you are there? Do you live up to the promises you made in confirmation, and those you make to support the newly baptized? Do you smile and welcome everyone who enters? Do you go out of your way to encourage and pray for people you don’t usually associate with? Do you look for ways to use your gifts and ideas along with others, to minister to the needs of your neighbors? Or do you expect everyone else to carry the load? Do you participate in worship with your whole heart? Do you identify people who have always rubbed you’re the wrong way and make the effort to speak with them with love?
You are salt and light in your church.
And what about your community? Is it a better place because you live there? Do your neighbors experience your care? Do you talk with them and know their stories? Do you participate in community events to help everyone feel hopeful and happy about living in this place? Do you give of your time and money to support your community when it counts, and even when it seems like a small thing?
You are the salt and light of your community.
If this sounds like a tall order, relax. I have given you myself so that you can wake up each day and just partner with me in this. I give you my power and creativity and love in order to do it. That is what it means to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you. You don’t have to buy new tools or travel far. You can just be yourself and walk across the street, or the aisle, or the living room. Let my love live in you and through you. You will be amazed at what happens when you live into your identity of the salty and light-filled one.
Don’t worry about doing it right. I did not come to give you a whole new set of laws. The original Ten are pretty good! Instead, I came to embody those laws, to show you that the ways of the kingdom of God are wonderful. I made it my business to show how loving God with all our hearts manifests beautifully in everything we do, and it enables us to live together in joy and peace.
For example, I showed you how to make the Sabbath holy, by caring for people first and foremost. It isn’t about not working at all; it’s about appreciating God’s gifts of life and love and community, regularly taking the time to do that.
I showed you how to treat everyone with deep respect, so killing and stealing and lying would be the furthest thing from your mind.
See how that works? The law isn’t about a set of ideas. It is meant to be lived, shown forth in you. I died and rose again so you could get past the idea of rewards and punishment. Now you are free to receive the overflowing, unending, unstoppable love I have for you, and let it shine into the lives of others. Let it flavor the world you live in.
Because you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
You are God’s Field
Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Cor. 3:1-9…Epiphany 6A
I grew up in rural Kossuth County, Iowa. Although my father was a minister, we were surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans in a parsonage five miles north of Titonka, a very small town. I became familiar with a few aspects of farming and even got to do chores like gathering eggs and walking beans. I became aware of the farmers’ habit of checking out each other’s fields as the growing season wore on. We called that “rubber-necking” from the driver’s seat. Weedy fields were regarded with disgust. Plants flattened by storm damage evoked pity. A farmer’s competency was judged by the condition of his or her fields.
I thought of this when I read the gospel text and the epistle lesson for today. “You are God’s field,” Paul says. (1 Cor 3.9)
Our part of the country is a center of agriculture. It is interesting that the word agriculture is related to other words, like culture, and cult. When I was in Mali, I talked with my Christian friends about their culte, which refers to their act of worship. We think of a cult as a negative thing, but it is actually a more neutral word about groups that worship together, and its root is also about tilling the soil.
Culture is also in this word family. The definition of culture I am interested in today is this: “the sum total of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” (www.dictionary.com) So we talk about the culture of Japan, or of Mexico, or of the United States. When two teenage friends from Mali lived with us for six weeks, we felt the drastic differences between the cultures of the U.S. and their country. Ways of managing a household, eating, social contacts, language, and so on are all functions of our different cultures. We don’t often think about our culture, but it affects us every day. It forms our commonly held assumptions for living together.
The ideals of our American culture are hotly debated. The ideal of individualism—a very western notion not shared by many other global cultures—is showing its dark side. For some time we have been wrestling with personal rights vs. the good of the society, and we have different ideas about how that affects our life together in this country, and among the peoples of our world. We are blessed to enjoy freedom of speech, but recent elections had us debating our ideas to the point of viciousness and even violence. Many of us feel beat up by public discourse that is uncivil at best and shameful at worst.
Depending on your point of view, you might even be despairing about the condition of American culture right now. I read this comment about the U.S. last week:
“…we are doing something to ourselves and to our culture which undercuts the value of all our idealism. We are fostering the hypocrisy which says that if all our principles are high our practice is irrelevant. We nurture the deceit that if we know the good it doesn’t matter if we do evil. We feed the falsehood that those who have heard the gospel of a great society can forget the law of all previous covenants.”
Now here is what is interesting. The sermon from which that is taken was delivered on June 9, 1968, three days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our nation was fraught with anxiety and troubled by upheaval, not unlike the situation we find ourselves in today. Isn’t it remarkable how timely that sounds more than fifty years later?
One person who has emerged as a commentator on matters of faith these days is Krista Tippett, who interviews theologians, artists, scientists, and social activists about what matters to them and how they understand God’s interaction with humanity. Having picked the brains of such people for many years now, she makes an interesting observation herself.
“We chose too small a word in the [sixties]—tolerance—to make the world we want to live in now…But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges…It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.”
We settled for too small an ideal, and now many are realizing that what we need is love. Yes, even in the public square, where the word has been overused, abused, and rendered virtually meaningless. In our efforts to be tolerant, we didn’t do the hard work of listening to and even entering one another’s stories, to sit with each other’s wounds, to let compassion be cultivated within us out of our mutual brokenness. What we really need is love.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and today’s gospel from Matthew 5? We are members of our culture. Individualism and superficial tolerance have been cultivated in us from without, and we gather for worship today with all of that virtually running in our veins. Our cultural ideals influence the culture of a congregation. We know that the values of the kingdom of God are different from those of our society, but we don’t realize how deeply those anti-kingdom ideals are embedded within us.
And so, when we find ourselves interpreting the Bible in different ways about say, sexuality or the environment or pro-life/pro-choice debates, we find ourselves copying the behaviors of our politicians and talk show hosts. When we are troubled by the attitudes and actions of our presidential candidates, we find ourselves empty-handed, lacking the tools for civil conversations.
But, “You are God’s field.”
What have we cultivated within the church? What is the culture that people observe when they visit this particular congregation? What is valued among God’s people, here?
Jesus began his ministry with preaching, probably because nothing less than prophecy was needed to counter the religious values that had evolved through the Temple system. Temple taxes were crippling the poor. Rigid Sabbath laws and purity laws could be paralyzing.
Jesus had to re-interpret the Law as God’s love ideal. He had to turn the people’s gaze—our gaze—away from the indicators of success in both religion and society, toward the purest examples of trust and love that he could find: the poor, the meek, those who mourned or who suffered persecution or felt desperate to know God.
We call his blessing on such people the Beatitudes. Then Jesus went into detail about how those blessed people behave. How do they embody the values of the kingdom of God? How do God’s beloved people show forth God’s values to the world God loves?
We are God’s beloved, so this is supposed to be a description of us. What do God’s people do? For one thing, Matthew 5 says we don’t let our anger get the best of us. We won’t even call anybody a fool, because we have learned that how you regard people makes a big difference. If you see someone only as a threat, you will probably want to do them harm. Anger is the seed of murder. About adultery: If you see a woman only as an object of lust, you will not treat her with dignity. Regarding divorce: If you treat your wife as a commodity to suit your needs, to be discarded on a whim, you reveal that you have no compassion, no love for her.
How we treat each other matters, whether it is your co-workers at the office, your fellow church members, or your family. Because with each word, each action, you are planting a seed of love or of resentment. You are either cultivating life or hastening some kind of death, whether it is actual murder or the death of a relationship, or the death of someone’s hope.
“Choose life!” Moses told the people. (Deut 30.19) The blessings and curses are laid out for you. What will you decide? It is a choice we make every day, whether to see one another with compassion as God sees us, or with our defenses at the ready, and thus cultivate hearts that are at war with one another.
Jesus pointed out one of the symptoms of a sick society, a depraved culture. Anti-kingdom-of-God, we could say. It is one where yes can be twisted into no, and no can be perceived as yes. A place and time when you have to add oaths to your promises, because people are so accustomed to having them broken.
Let’s take this one step further. Your faith as an individual affects the faith of this church community. Every step you take toward God or away from God affects the person sitting next to you in the pew. Your trust in God or lack of it will contribute or take away from the corporate faith of this body, because we are all connected, or should be as God’s people.
And to be connected takes time. It takes a second look. Jesus said that how we see each other and behave toward one another matters! Whether we see each other as Republicans vs. Democrats, public school vs. private school, gay or straight, rich or poor, in other words, simply labeling each other and not going to the trouble of hearing each other’s stories.
Friends, our world is fractured. Our society is overcome by tension and bewilderment. If we as God’s people do not show them what it is to love, to speak and listen to one another graciously, where else will they get their examples? They need to see what love, what real community looks like. Especially the children. Especially the children.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not alone. We are together in this great laboratory called the church, which God created to plant and cultivate the seeds of love in our world. We are on mission together to plant these seeds near and far, wherever hope is missing, wherever love can heal and make life flourish.
Every word, every action matters. You are either salty, or you’re not, Jesus said. You are my field, my city set on a hill. You can’t hide from the world or take a day off from cultivating the love I pour into you and expect you to spread freely.
It isn’t too hard for you, Moses said. God’s mandate to love is spelled out in the Law, which is not that hard, folks. It is not encoded on some mysterious stone to be pursued like Indiana Jones seeking the lost ark. It is not across a wide sea. I put it right there in your heart, God says. It’s right there.
And your neighbor is right there too. Right beside you in church, in your car, in your classroom, at your table. See them as I see them, says Jesus, and let love be the operative force in each moment. You are God’s field, after all. People are watching. Thanks be to God.
 Thor Hall, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Sermons from Duke Chapel, 2005. William H. Willimon, ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press), p. 100.
 Tippett, Krista, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016. (New York: Penguin Press), p. 15-16.
“We Need the Ashes”
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21….Ash Wednesday
I once heard an interview with Kate Bowler, a religious scholar at Duke Divinity School. Kate was diagnosed with incurable stage four colon cancer at the age of 35, when her son was two years old. Her cancer is chronic at this point, and she lives from scan to scan, three months at a time.
Kate has to face the inevitability of her death constantly. She has no choice but to walk head on into the darkness and to recognize the ways she has pushed aside any pain or fear in the past. Now she is facing her frailty by observing and identifying with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. In the process, she recognizes much more clearly the frailty of every person, empathizing with the frazzled mother in the grocery store and anyone else who seems to be struggling.
She came to the point where she was able to face her death not with anger or fear, but with love. She can teach us something. The truth of our own death, the fact that it is coming to us sooner or later, does not have to lead to despair or dread.
Sometimes we avoid thinking of death, because we fear that just acknowledging it will make us terrified or worse, somehow hasten it. But during Lent, we let Jesus lead us along the way to his death, and he shows us that it will be painful, but we can face it. We can look at it long enough to accept it, and then we can see that there is life on the way to it.
Kate talks about going to a theme park in Florida where they attempt to help you experience the passion of Jesus up close. At 1:30 every day you can watch Jesus’ grisly death on the cross, and then at 3:00 daily, like clockwork, he rises from the dead.
It is always tempting to rush to Easter like that—heaven knows you can buy Easter candy already—but then we miss the reality that gives it meaning and joy. Lent helps us take our time in Jesus’ experience of human life, the kind of life we have here with our sickness and disappointments and tragedy. With Jesus’ help, we will get to the Easter that is not about denial, but about the persistence and immortality of God’s love.
Jesus will be present with us along this road to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and that assures us that he will be present on the next road too, the one that leads us beyond this life that we love so much. As Kate Bowler realized, facing death in Jesus’ presence gave her the assurance that he will never leave her alone, in this life or the next.
The ashes will mark our commitment to this process, this time with Jesus. We are opening ourselves not only to comfort, but also to whatever Jesus wants to show us.
Sara Miles, a lay Episcopal minister, writes about going out into the Mission district of San Francisco on Ash Wednesday, offering the ashes to everyone who wanted them. She and her assistants were surprised to find that many people were eager to participate in the ritual:
“The sidewalk was teeming: moms with babies in strollers, girls in tight jeans talking on their phones as they bounced along, shopkeepers darting out to steady their teetering displays of yucca and oranges. People flowed past like the river in Psalm 46 that ‘delights the city of God.’ A Middle Eastern man scooped up his toddler and gave the boy a noisy kiss, and another line from a Psalm popped into my mind: ‘Blessed be God, who has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city.’
“ ‘He’d like some ashes, please,’ said the man, lifting the boy high as he squirmed and giggled. ‘Hold still, it’s not going to hurt.’
“I crossed the boy’s forehead and then the father’s, then turned to the short, silent older Mexican woman who was standing patiently behind them, as if waiting in line. ‘Would you like ashes?’ I asked. She nodded, and I dipped a thumb again in the jar. I didn’t tell her it wouldn’t hurt.
“ ‘Amen,’ she said.
“ ‘Hey! Over here!’ A tall, exceptionally animated guy in a blue jacket spotted us and was waving excitedly. ‘Hey,’ he said in rapid-fire Spanish, grabbing my arm, ‘come with me! Around the corner! I’ve got these friends! In the beauty salon! Two beauty salons!’
“I followed as he loped ahead, nearly running. ‘They work so much!’ he shouted. ‘Guatemalans, just like me! We work hard! Nine, ten, twelve hours, and by the time you’re done the church is closed! But you still need ashes! Come on!’
“…The man flung the door open and proudly waved me in. ‘Look what I brought you!’ he exclaimed to the hairdressers and their clients as everyone looked up, slightly surprised, mid-coif. ‘I brought you the cross!’
“ ‘Oh, okay,’ said one hairdresser, a heavy woman laced into a flowered smock. ‘Oh, it must be Ash Wednesday!’ She put down her scissors and came over to me. ‘Please,’ she said.
“All the women nodded. ‘I brought you the Church!’ the man said to them, happily.
“ ‘Thanks,’ said another hairdresser. ‘Amen.’ She lifted her client’s foil-wrapped bangs off her forehead and motioned to me. One at a time, I gave ashes to all the women seated in the chairs, while the receptionist dialed a friend on her cell phone. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘it’s Ash Wednesday, do you want the sister to come to your shop?’
“Then we were at McDonald’s, our last stop before we finished up, and we pushed open the smudged glass doors to the noisy, crowded dining room. I gave ashes to families eating French fries, to a woman who never stopped talking on her cell phone, to the antsy security guard, and to some gangbangers eyeing the security guard.
“…We were on our way out when a small, serious Mayan woman, sitting alone at a greasy table, unwrapped her tiny baby from an acrylic blanket and held him up to me . ‘He’s one and one half weeks old,’ she said proudly. I crossed his forehead with ashes, took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die.
“And then his mother, like everyone else we’d met that afternoon, said thank you. “Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that you’re going to die? “Because the truth is a blessing.”
We create rituals—need rituals—to remember what matters to us. Rituals of faith help us recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God. The ashes of our mortality help us face our death.
We need rituals to keep our faith alive, sacraments of Eucharist and baptism, practices like going to God in prayer, reading the Scriptures, returning to God daily in various ways. Lent is a good time to try new practices. Those individual practices help us to live our intention and to trust God even when our faith falters. Our community as God’s people is fortified when we do the practices together.
You might have noticed that Jesus blessed our practices in the teaching we read from Matthew 6. He said, “when you give alms…when you pray…when you fast.” He did not say “If you give alms or pray or fast,” but “when.” So he assumed that his listeners were doing them, and he wanted to make sure those practices had their full effect.
Tonight’s ritual is one of our most sobering. As we begin our Lenten observance, we stop for a moment to remember that not only will we watch Jesus die at the end of the six weeks. We will die too, at some point. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We know the end of our story includes real death.
When I was in Hawaii with my daughter in 2018, when we heard an alarm on our phones about an impending missile strike, the words that gripped us were, “This is not a drill.” Thank God it was a mistake, but it got our attention!
During Lent we face the fact that this is not a drill. Real death is around the corner, and we don’t know how close it is. We have to face it if we do not want to be paralyzed by fear. So we walk straight into our fear, a smudged “X” marking the spot on our foreheads, knowing that it is both a cross and a target for incoming mortality.
These ashes will be washed off tonight, but the cross will still be etched on our hearts, because it is the most fundamental part of our story. We will spend six weeks again this year following Jesus to the cross, letting this terrible image serve as the key to unlock our stories. Jesus will show us how to face our sin, our disappointments, and our death with love instead of fear. It would be impossible to do on our own. We will do it together, and Jesus will lead the way. Thanks be to God.
 Miles, Sara. City of God. 2014. (New York: Jericho Books)
Carrying Glory with Us
Matthew 17:1-9…Transfiguration A
If I ask you to name, say, the three most significant events in your life, how do you sort through your memories? Do you picture a series of scenes in your mind’s eye? Perhaps your bride coming down the church aisle in her wedding dress, or the doctor handing you your firstborn child after giving birth to her. These experiences are burned into our memories. Maybe you recall what you were wearing or what color the walls were on the first day of your first full time job.
Peter, James, and John had an image etched in their minds, the image of Jesus glowing brightly one day after they hiked up a mountain together. It’s funny that most of the depictions of this moment called the Transfiguration have Jesus standing between two other figures—Moses and Elijah—as though they are making some kind of presentation or posing for a picture. I doubt if they struck such a formal posture. Maybe Jesus was kneeling in prayer, or just sitting on a rock, with his friends sitting on rocks nearby. Who knows?
Try to put yourself in the disciples’ place. You’re resting after the effort of the climb. You look over at Jesus, and you notice he is starting to glow, and the light grows brighter. You rub your eyes and shake your head to look again. The glow is still there. And then, at the edges of the light some other shapes begin to form. You can’t tell what they are, but they look like people, like men. They seem to be talking with Jesus, so you lean in to hear what they are saying. From their conversation, you realize that they are Moses and Elijah. Impossible!
As if that were not strange enough, a mist appears and settles over all of you. It dims the image of Jesus and his companions, and creates a hush. No more birds singing or leaves rustling in the wind. Out of the mist—you can’t tell which direction it is coming from; it seems to be all around you—there comes a voice unlike any other. It is deep and authoritative, yet gentle and almost imperceptible. It sounds familiar, but you cannot access any memory of it. The voice intones, “This is my son the beloved. Listen to him!”
And then the mist, the voice, the men, the glow all fade away. The rocks, the weeds, the dusty path are all just as they were a few moments ago. Once again Jesus is simply there, but this time he is smiling and peaceful, looking at you quizzically as if to say, “Well, what do you think?” You look at the other disciples with wide eyes, speechless.
Jesus says quietly, “Don’t be afraid, now. It’s time to get up and get going.” You follow him down the mountain, but before you get to the bottom, he beckons for you all to stop. He turns and instructs you, “I know that was a lot to take in. Please keep it to yourselves until after I rise from the dead.”
Rise from the dead? You look at each other again, confused. You remember some of the old prophecies, but never imagined anything like this.
Those three men kept this secret to themselves. Sometimes they would pull away from the others and talk about what it might mean. It was a puzzle, that was certain, and Jesus’ prediction about rising from the dead was the strangest part.
What was it like for them to have that image burned into their minds, especially after Jesus was arrested and their world was turned upside down? Was it pushed aside, overtaken by the image of his torture, his bleeding form carrying his cross? Did James and Peter remember that image while they saw Jesus’ dying form on the hillside in the distance? Was it on John’s mind when we saw the blood dripping on the ground in front of him as he was holding Mary up the foot of the cross?
When chaos and suffering overtake us, it is hard to imagine anything beautiful or hopeful. But for some reason, three of Jesus’ disciples were given the image of Jesus’ glory before he made his way to Jerusalem and his cross. He planted that image in their minds before his suffering and death. Nobody else could detect the image, the memory inside the minds of Peter, James, and John.
The memory they carried was bigger than anything they had ever experienced. It was strange and beautiful, reassuring and terrifying at the same time. Peter wanted to keep it going and camp on the mountain. But Jesus came back down, and he carried on as if nothing had happened, healing and casting out demons, telling everyone who would listen about the reality of God’s reign that was very different from the prevailing teaching about it.
We cannot translate or interpret the Transfiguration in any way that doesn’t render it smaller than it is. We can only behold and marvel. Like the resurrection, the veil of our world is parted for a moment, and we get a glimpse of what is beyond our normal vision. We get a sense that God has a bigger purpose, and the life God has placed in humans is not necessarily overtaken by death. There is something more, something much more vast and real at work.
Maybe that memory enabled Peter, James, and John to believe that Jesus’ resurrection was possible when it happened. That it matched a kind of déjà vu experience Jesus granted them on the mountain.
Maybe it helped them look back on Jesus’ suffering with a broader perspective than disappointment and grief, because it seemed that Jesus might have been preparing for it with the ancient fathers before it happened.
What we do know, and have, are the images we have as God’s people through the Scriptures. We have the whole story, at least through the beginnings of the church. We can read the whole Bible, and see that God is always up to something. When people in the Scriptures have mysterious experiences of God, they somehow know that it is God and not indigestion, or wishful thinking. They are inspired, and empowered. Moses gets the courage to lead his people out from under Pharaoh’s grasp. Mary understands that she will bear the son of God to the world. The disciples are transformed from cowardly traitors to bold preachers.
But all of these people also went through suffering. Jesus’ greatest glory is not the kind they try to manufacture at the Olympic opening ceremonies. His glory is just as operative when he is feeling every lash of the whip, every step on the Via Dolorosa, every ragged breath on the cross. As Lutherans we believe that Jesus’ glory is made perfect in his sacrifice. His love is demonstrated in his great suffering and death. It is a glory that can even be seen among us, when we train ourselves to look closely and detect that great love in our acts of servanthood for one another.
As we begin the season of Lent this week, the image we will hold before us is not the transfigured Jesus nor the resurrected Jesus. The image we have etched in our minds will be smudged on our foreheads, the cross of Jesus Christ. This image is God’s glory painted in earth tones and in Jesus’ human blood.
Other people may or may not detect this image we carry inside of us. I hope they do. As Jesus’ disciples we are granted this image to show us the way to life. It is the way of human struggle, the way of brokenness for the sake of others who are as desperate as we are for the hope we carry within. It is the way that opens up our hearts to create a compassionate space for the other, as we will practice during the season of Lent. We will celebrate the resurrection only after we understand its meaning from the days leading up to it, when Jesus taught us to love by enduring the deepest pain and leading us through our greatest fear to life with God.
Encounters with Jesus: Saying Yes to Us
Matthew 4:1-11…Lent 1A
Do you like living in Iowa? Some people look down on us because we might not be staying abreast with the latest urban trends. So what? We keep up with things that matter. And one reason I am grateful to live here is because we are a little sheltered. We don’t have to deal with the kind of crime that happens in larger urban areas. Right?
Not so fast. Our rural towns are not as heavily populated, but we can be sure that we are not immune to the bad things that happen. You don’t have to search far to find stories of small towns with terrible tragedies that occur without warning. Evil does not seem to discriminate on the basis of location or wishful thinking. Nor is it limited to certain kinds of people. Our faith teaches us that every one of us is capable of straying from godly values.
Today we consider Jesus’ own mighty struggle with evil. He went out to the desert where he was exposed to the elements. I’m told there is no hiding in the desert in that part of Palestine, unless you can find temporary shade under a cliff. It was just him alone, out there, contemplating what he might do next.
See, he had just come from being baptized by John in the Jordan River. Matthew tells us that the Spirit of God directed Jesus that his next stop was the wilderness. He fasted and prayed for forty days.
Wow. I wonder what was so important that Jesus had to spend that much time at it. Was he pondering his next steps? Was he figuring out whom to call as his disciples? Why would God make him be alone and go without eating that long?
Jesus kept almost everything that happened in the desert to himself, except for the temptations he endured. First, Jesus was told to turn stones into bread. “Provide for yourself, Jesus,” the tempter said. “You have the power to do it. I know you’re hungry.”
Provide for yourself. Isn’t that how the tempter comes to us? Make sure you are secure in every way possible. Don’t let yourself get hungry, or cold, or sick, or anxious about your 401K. And don’t let your kids be uncomfortable either. Don’t let them feel any pain, whether it’s from someone else or from their own bad choices. Keep everything safe and sealed up.
But Jesus replied that these things are not the source of real life. The Scriptures say that God—not bread or anything else we can acquire or consume—is the source of the life that is truly life. He said it a while later in his Sermon on the Mount: “ ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6.25-26)
And “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6.19-21)
Trust God, Jesus tells us. He couldn’t tell us to do that if he didn’t do it himself. “No,” he told the devil. “I say yes to trusting God completely, so I say no to you.”
Jesus was taken to the temple, to prove to everyone that he was the Chosen One, whom God would save with a spectacular rescue if he stepped off the edge. “Huh,” the tempter seemed to be saying. “You trust God? Let’s see you trust God, Beloved Son. If you’re so special, what the Scripture says about angels means they should appear the minute you take that step.”
Jesus had never been admired. In fact, as a child he became accustomed to the whispers behind his back about his strange birth. His mother didn’t know how many times he deflected taunts about him and about her. No, he had never felt accepted or valued among the people of Nazareth. It would feel so good to have everybody finally know who he really was.
But what would that accomplish? It would set him apart, and he didn’t want that. He wanted to keep his humble reputation so he could befriend everyone, get close to anyone who needed him to listen and to heal. Besides, he had seen many times how people who were admired could lose their status when only one person started a rumor or cast a suspicious eye. It wasn’t worth it.
We all want to be seen, to be valued. We were born to be loved. When we get some sense of not being loved enough, we seek ways to earn it. We try to impress with our knowledge, our appearance, our money, our swagger. We seek love from potential partners, our children, our spouses of many years, even. But it is never enough, is it? Not if that is your particular temptation.
Jesus knew that only God’s love is enough to fill the void. He was confident in God’s love and didn’t need to play games to get God to show it. “No,” he told the devil. “God is for loving and giving life, not for playing games.”
OK, the final test. “Here you go, Jesus. My last offer: all the pleasures and power the world has to offer. All you have to do is hand over the keys.”
Sometimes the schemes of the enemy are laughable, and this is one of them. He claimed to have the rights to everything in the world, which he didn’t. He virtually admitted that Jesus had all the power, because he wanted Jesus’ power under his own thumb.
Regardless of the stakes here, regardless of who owned what, Jesus saw through it. “Go back where you belong, you rascal! God is the only one worthy of worship, not you.” Jesus said yes to God’s authority and goodness, so he said no to flimsy offers of power.
Power is tempting, isn’t it? Most of us don’t want political power, and financial power is great when we can manage it. But we do like to control things. We think it will solve everything. “If I could just get him to stop spending money we don’t have.” “If I could just get her to apply for a better job.” “If I could just get them to do what I think is best for our school/church/co-op/community.”
But the bad news is, even if you have a universal remote for your TV, it doesn’t give you power over the universe. Not even power over your family. My goodness, most of us can’t even change ourselves for the better; how do we think we can change anybody else?
But making sure we’re better, or even good, is not the point of this gospel text. No. Please don’t let this beautiful, layered story land on your ear as just, “Jesus wants us to be good and he showed us how.” It’s much more than that.
What I want to point out today is that Jesus said no to the temptations so he could say yes to something else. He was saying yes to God for sure, but he was also saying yes to us. Because he always, always, always wants us to know the life that is real life. He went through anguish not just on the cross, but in forty days of fasting and then a showdown with Evil itself.
He grieves to see us settling for so much less: bustling here and there to make things as safe and comfortable as possible, anguishing over who loves us and who doesn’t and how much, doing whatever it takes and even degrades us just so we can have a little more control.
The next few weeks, we will be watching as Jesus encounters some very different people. One thing we know from this story, from this great trial that Jesus went through before his ministry even got started, is that we can trust what he says. He loves us, and he knows what it takes to get through this life not just with wishful thinking about God but with a trust that doesn’t quit.
Jesus shows us that the way to life is love. I know I say that a lot. It’s not my agenda; it’s Jesus’ agenda. He says it over and over again. Love, just love.
The only way to feel secure, truly safe, is to be loved by the only One who can satisfy your deepest longings. The only admiration we truly need is the love of the God who knows us and forgives us. The only power that matters is the unstoppable, unrelenting, healing power of God’s love.