Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 30, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

1 Samuel 16:1-13
God’s conversation and calling for Samuel functions on many levels; in the context of today’s readings, it is most likely about “seeing what God sees” and not what we are prone to focus on with our own eyes. It might be fruitful to discuss a bit about how God’s perspective differs from our own. What can God “see” from God’s vantage point over life that we might not be able to? How do things look “down here” on the ground as compared to the view “up there” from on high?

Of course, the real place that God looks is “on the heart.”  What does this evocative phrase mean, do you think? When God looks “on” or in to any of our hearts, what does God see?

Psalm 23
There are very few texts in the Bible that are as well-known (and, one might say, well-worn) as Psalm 23. Yet, like so much else of scripture, there is always something new to be seen. Personally, I had never thought about the depth of the darkness in v.4 — traditionally translated as “the valley of death.” Here, it is the darkest valley. Either way, not much light!

Combine that with the previous statement in v. 3 — “God leads me in right paths…” I may not be able to see a thing because of the darkness that surrounds me (literally or figuratively.) But, I don’t have to find my way alone, anyhow; God (who has excellent night vision, one must assume) is choosing the path. My feet will not slip!

Do you have any personal experience with trying to find your way in the dark? Have you ever slipped and fallen because you couldn’t see where you were going? How helpful would it have been to have a guiding, steadying hand to lead you along?

Ephesians 5:8-14
Another great text about dark and light — and about seeing and not seeing. I love the emphasis in v. 10: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” In other words, don’t feel bad that being a Christian (and acting like one) doesn’t come with an instruction manual — at least not one that is readily digested in Seven Secret Steps to Spiritual Success or Ten Tremendous Truths to Help You Triumph or some other contrived-sounding sermon title you may have heard!

The spiritual life takes work, discipline, effort — and time! Paul was famous for comparing growth in the Christian life to that of a newborn baby. Babies have to find out what is good for them — and, when they do, they’ll let you know about it! If you’ve had some setbacks in your spiritual walk, join the crowd! Believe it or not, even your pastor has not gotten it right all the time. Pastors are, in fact, sometimes a sorry lot of sinners who stand as much or more in need of redemption as their church members!

In the meantime, with the light the Lord has given us, we try to help one another “find out what is pleasing to the Lord” — and then we do that. It’s a good plan.

How have you been helped along the way by another Christian to do something that made your spiritual life stronger — and, perhaps, more pleasing to the Lord?

John 9:1-41
Man, oh, man…is there lots to talk about in this story!

It’s so long that one of the best approaches I know is simply to read it — I like having members of the study group “read around the table,” taking a few verses at a time, or having different people read the “parts” of different characters — and then to comment on what you’ve heard.

What do you think the blind man learned from his experience with Jesus during this story? What about the parents of the blind man; what did they think, feel, and/or learn from this encounter? What is going on in the minds of the Jewish rulers, who are obviously getting more and more upset with Jesus? And, finally, what additional comment do you think Jesus himself would offer if you could have talked to him right after all of this happened?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“The disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?Jesus answered them, “Neither this man this man nor his parents sinned . . . “ John 9:2-3a

Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who talked to her pastor about her sin of pride. She says, “Pastor Jill, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” Pastor Jill looked at her and said, “No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples come to Jesus to talk, not about their own sins, but the sins of others. Wondering whose sin caused the young man to be born blind. Jesus tells the disciples that they are horribly mistaken.  We all understand their question.  All pastors have gone to visit the hospital after someone has had a heart attack or a terrible auto accident or a diagnosis of cancer and the question comes, “What did I do to deserve this?”

A few weeks ago my mother called me with what she calls “a preacher question.”  She has a pastor, but since he’s a part-time at their church she doesn’t want to bother him, so she calls me, assuming I have more free time, I suppose. She said, “Help me know what to tell Bill Smith’s grandsons. He was 61, died this week.  They’re 6 and 9 and always sit with me in church.  They want to know why God killed Grandpa. What do I tell them?”

My son, told me over dinner a few years ago that God was punishing him for going off his Lenten discipline. He had given up fast food for Lent but had dinner in a Burger King on the way to a basketball game and got food poisoning. I really couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not, but told him his worst sin in this case was blaming God for fast food.

In the wake of the earthquakes and tornados and tsunamis and other natural disasters, some TV preachers always decide they have to figure out what sins the people had committed that caused God to punish them.

And to all of this Jesus says, “You are horribly mistaken.”

The most important theme of Lent is “turning to and fro with God;” turning from fear to faith, from sin to grace, from the world to God, from the dark to the light. And focusing on the sinfulness or saintliness of others distracts us from paying attention to our own relationship with God; our own turning to and fro.

In the early Twentieth Century, The Times of London, a newspaper read all over England,indeed all over the world; invited famous writers to answer the question:

What is wrong with the world? In response, they got many long essays spelling out the problems and also, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame.

God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Moslems, and the Americans. It was women, men, “The Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.”

Christian writer GK Chesterton wrote:

Dear Sirs, 
What is wrong with the world?  I am.
Sincerely, 
GK Chesterton

We all sometimes need this reminder, because all of us are sometimes “horribly mistaken”about the sins of others and the sins of ourselves. We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our sins are easily forgiven, but those of others, well, “…not so much.”

In the series of novels about the small town of Harmony, Indiana, Phillip Gulley’s Quaker preacher often reminds his parishioners that, “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”    Although those of us who are Lutherans remember Luther’s words about being “saint and sinner at the same time;” we often act as though our saintliness is better than that of others and our sinfulness not as bad. We appear to believe that, if it were only our sins that mattered, then Jesus would not have had to die on the cross; just a good, stern talking to would have taken care of it. It was the sins of others that caused Christ to die. But we are “horribly mistaken.”

And the Good News is – God knows who we are, God knows what we have done, And God loves us anyway. And there is no mistaking that.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent (March 23, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 17:1-7
The opening line of the Exodus text is as ironic as it is true to life — “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages….” Though Sin in this verse is simply a place name and not a description of our lives apart from God, there is something to the notion that we do fall into the trap of “sin” by stages. None of us ever sets out on any particular day to do something bad or horrific; we often move into dangerous and hurtful behaviors one step at a time. (Okay, that little free sermon is done for!)

The issue here is really one of trust in God — again! One would think that, since the Israelites had fairly recently been delivered from Pharoah by fairly dramatic action (see Exodus 14) and had been fed when they were hungry by the miraculous provisions of manna and quail (see Exodus 16) — that they could have been expected to exert a modicum of faith in God when the time came for them to be thirsty. Alas, we humans seem to have very short memories and/or attention spans when it comes to having our needs met by others (including God!)

God’s proposal for slaking their thirst is unique, to say the least; God will stand in front of them and provide water from a rock. Just another, everyday miraculous occurrence. How many miracles does it before one is able to trust wholeheartedly in the care and provision of God, do you think?

Psalm 95
The psalm reflects the experience of the Hebrew people in the wilderness; God was, indeed, a “rock” of salvation when God brought the water into their midst. God’s care is compared to that of a shepherd for his sheep — an image that occurs frequently in scripture (the word shepherd is  used well over 100 times.)

What motivates a shepherd to care for the sheep? What motivates God to care for God’s people?

Romans 5:1-11
It’s something of an old preacher’s joke: anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, you should find out what it’s there for! That’s actually pretty good advice. A brief glance back into chapter 4 of Romans tells you that Paul just finished speaking about placing our faith in the promise of God — a promise made to Abraham, carried through the long line of Jewish successors, and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore — because of all that has gone before — we have peace with God. The passage goes on to list a number of other “benefits” of the faith that we place in Jesus. What are some of the other things listed here that follow this important therefore?

John 4:5-42
We have a very long story here — in fact, this is the longest recorded encounter that Jesus has with one individual in any of the gospels. There are lots of ways to look at the story:

  • It is an illustration of the lengths to which Jesus will go to reach out to just one person
  • It is an example of a very conversational way to “witness,” or share our faith with another person
  • It is a model for breaking down cultural, religious, and social barriers
  • It is a reminder that “nobody’s perfect,” and that we can all get a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance at life
  • It is a demonstration of the power of a positive example in the midst of a community

What is the most interesting thing that you notice when you read or hear this story?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg.  An old college friend drove several hours to be there.  After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day.  Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs.  We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep.  I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt.  Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green.  I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”

He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?”  I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is hanging out with one of the wrong people; actually a woman who is wrong in multiple ways:  she’s a Samaritan, she’s a woman, and she’s a woman with a past.  Three strikes and you’re out; except, not when the umpire is Jesus.

Today, Samaritan is a good word – mostly because of Jesus’ story about the “Good Samaritan.”

I found out recently there’s a club among people who do a lot of vacationing using RVs:  it’s called the “Good Sam” Club.  But in Jesus’ day there was a great deal of well; plain out hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.  It’s a family thing.  Somewhere along the way – they got split off into two groups, both claiming to be continuing the “true religion of Abraham.”  The details don’t matter for this sermon, it’s enough to know that Jews didn’t usually travel in Samaria, and certainly didn’t sit around chatting pleasantly with Samaritans in the middle of the street in the middle of the day.

Add to that the woman thing. In that day and in that culture, no holy man would dare to be seen alone with a woman.  We understand; then as now, people can get the wrong idea.

No, a man didn’t sit around talking to a woman, particularly if the woman, like this one, had a questionable moral character.  The text doesn’t say why she had had five husbands, but the line –   “and the one you have now is not your husband” hints that she is a person with somewhat loose morals.

So she had three strikes against her – and Jesus ignored all three strikes.  He is sitting alone at the well, hot and thirsty and the woman approaches with the means to get water from the well, and so, Jesus asks her for a drink.  And the woman could not have been more shocked if he had asked her to fly him to the moon.  She was just as aware as he of the things that stood between them, and she could not believe that he had chosen to ignore all those social barriers in order to speak to her.

She says, naming two of her three strikes, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  And just so we don’t miss the point, the writer chips in with an editorial comment – Jews do not share things with Samaritans.

After some confused conversation about water and living water and her personal life comes up and Jesus still doesn’t blink, doesn’t reconsider or clam up; he just keeps talking to her – about religion and true worship and the Messiah and just then the disciples show up, and to drive the point home even more, the writer tells us they were “astonished” to see him talking to her.

The Greek word translated astonished here carries with it the implication or the hint of fear; it is used when something has happened that no only surprises but also frightens.  What are the disciples afraid of?  The Samaritans?  The Authorities?  The future?  Change?  What?

There are more than a few questions in this story for us.  We need to ask ourselves if there are any social barriers we are afraid to cross in answering God’s call to spread good news about Jesus into all the world?

If there are, we need to ask ourselves further – What are we afraid of?  What might happen?  What might change?  What might we lose?  What might we gain?

The end of this story shows the woman going back to her village to talk to her friends and relatives about what has happened to her; about the man who ignored all the reasons to say no in order to say yes to talking to her.  She doesn’t try to convert them or convince them.  Indeed she witness with a question.  “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Just as Jesus talked with the woman as an equal and as a friend; that is all we are called to do as we share with the world our encounters with the holy.  It is not required that we either explain or expound – all we are asked to do is tell and invite.

I have often wondered in the last 35 plus years; what might have happened had I – instead of sitting silently in that Jeep, in my black suit and clerical collar, Bible and Prayer Book clutched tightly in my hands – what might have happened  had I smiled and turned to those women and said “Hello, my name is Delmer. Would you like to talk?”  Maybe nothing; maybe for one of them, everything.  We’ll never know – because I was too astonished and afraid to try.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent (March 16, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 12:1-4a
Sometimes, it’s helpful to realize when the scripture is telling us a “story within a story.” There are two great examples of this today, with the reading in Genesis and the gospel account from John.

On the one hand, this brief passage in Genesis is about the straightforward calling by God of a man named Abram. God wants Abram to do some big things — beginning with leaving behind his comfortable, familiar life and departing for a place that he has never lived before. God assures Abram that he will be shown all that he is to do, and that there will be a “blessing” in it for him. (The word here in Hebrew, barach, is the same word used for the way we are to worship — literally, “kneel before” — God.) God intends to something very weighty and important in the life of Abraham.

Abraham’s response is obedience — hence, in v. 4, “So Abraham went….” Good story, good lesson.

But there is a deeper intent on God’s part here, one that may go right by us if we don’t pay attention. True, God desires to “bless” Abraham for his faith and obedience — but the deeper purpose of God is to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham. The blessing of God is not a thing for Abraham to hold on to too tightly; it is bigger than just his own life.

Do you think that there is any connection from Abraham’s call to obey God, and to receive a blessing, and the call of God in our own lives? If so, what about the issue of “being a blessing” to others in turn? What purposes might God have for your life — so that others might receive the blessing of God through you?

Psalm 121
Due to the extremely popular translation appearing in the King James Version of the Bible, verse 1 in this psalm has often been interpreted as encouraging us to “lift our eyes to the hills” in order to look for help in the difficult moments of our lives. I love the hills and mountains as much as anybody, but the translators of that beautiful text missed the point (literally — the punctuation in the text is misplaced!)

“I lift my eyes to the hills” is something of an act of wonder and questioning — one might even say, exasperation. In the midst of a difficult moment, the psalmist asks, “Where does my help come from?” Will I ever get any help here? Am I on my own in trying to sort out this sometimes messy event known as life?

Then, after the question, comes the answer. “No, I’m not alone — because my help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!”

Notice that the rest of the psalm is an indication of the ways that the psalm writer gives testimony of God’s presence all around. Day and night (sun and moon,) waking and sleeping, going in and coming out — in all of these places, God is present. God helps!

As you reflect over the circumstances of your own life, can you see times and ways that God was present with you, a “very present help in trouble?” (cf. Psalm 46)

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul references the story of Abram (who was later called Abraham) as he continues a discussion of what makes a person “right” with God. At issue is the idea of earning a payment, versus receiving a gift. The apostle feels that God’s grace to Abraham — and to each of us — is the latter. We have received the gift of God in the form of righteousness in the same way that Abraham received it: by faith.

What does it take to “believe” that God loves us and offers us the gift of salvation? What does your own faith look like and feel like?

John 3:1-17
Now, for a classic conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee (basically, a member of a particular “denomination” of Judaism) and that he is a “leader” among his people. He wants to understand more about the kind of “signs of the kingdom” that Jesus has been performing in and around Jerusalem (see the previous chapter 2 in John’s gospel.)

Jesus moves the conversation to the ultimate sign of God’s presence — a “new birth” that comes from above. Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks that Jesus is speaking of a “second birth” according to the physical nature. Jesus responds that having a new life from God is much more like feeling the wind blow than it is being “born again.” It is a bit unpredictable — and certainly uncontrollable — but you definitely know it when it happens.

Again, we see that there is something of a “story within a story” unfolding as these two men talk; Nicodemus begins the conversation in the dark (literally.) As Jesus reminds and encourages him to take a look around at the working of God all around him, the light dawns on Nicodemus. Just in case we might miss it, Jesus sums it all up in the famous words of John 3:16-17. God has always loved the world, and has always wanted to see the world saved from perishing. Hence, the opportunity for a “second birth” — a second chance — a new life!

What does it mean to you to be born of the Spirit? How does the coming of Jesus into the world affect the (evidently) long-held plan of God to bring redemption for all creation? To put it another way, how is it that Jesus accomplishes the salvation of the world — as best you can understand it?

Matthew 17:1-9

This text was discussed for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (available here.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In his book, Following Jesus without Embarrassing God, Tony Campolo tells a story about Randy Johnson, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s nephew.  Randy was a mediocre quarterback on a mediocre Oklahoma State football team.  Nobody would have noticed him except for the fact that he was LBJ’s nephew.

It was 1966 and Oklahoma State was close to finishing another bad year, except for their final game against arch-rival Oklahoma, a top ten team on their way to a bowl game. State should have been beaten easily, but you know how it is with big rivalries; it was a close game right down to the very last.  But with 8 seconds left Oklahoma State was behind by 6 points, it was raining hard, and they were 80 yards away from the goal line.

The coach called time-out and sent in all the seniors so they could finish the game on the field.

He said to third-string quarterback Randy Johnson, “Call any play you want.  It’s over.”  When they came out of the huddle, the coach couldn’t believe his eyes.  They were lining up for play 13.  Play 13 was a trick play they never used in a game for one simple reason – it had never worked in practice.  But, they ran play 13.  And it worked.  They went 80 yards on that one play and kicked the extra point and won the game.  While fans stormed the field and players jumped up and down, the coach just stood there in shocked disbelief.

In the locker room, the coach asked Randy, “Why?  Why did you call play 13?  And Randy said, “Well Coach, we got in the huddle and I looked at old bill and there he was injured for two years and never getting to play much and now it was all over.  He had tears running down his face and I looked and saw his number was 8.  Then I looked around and there was George and he had come to practice and worked hard for four straight years and only gat to play one or two times and now it was over and there were tears running down his face and I looked and his number was 7.  So I added 8 and 7 and got 13; so I called play 13.”

The coach just stared at Randy a minute and said, “But Randy. 8=7 isn’t 13 – it’s 15.”  Randy thought a minute and said, “Well coach, if I was as smart as you, we would have lost the game!”

Campolo concluded, “Sometimes the ‘correct’ answer is not the ‘right’ answer.”

When I read in John about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, I sometimes feel like I listening to Randy Johnson and his coach discuss Play 13. Nicodemus is looking for the correct answer, Jesus is trying to give him the right answer, and poor old Nick can’t seem to make “the math work.”

He, like many others, is looking for correct answers to life’s many questions.  I’m guessing he would prefer something along the lines of “10 things you can do to guarantee your place in God’s Kingdom,” or “Get closer to God the Rabbi way – Four weeks to a holier you.”

Instead he gets riddles along the lines of 8+7=13.  “You must be born again” or was that, “you must be born from above?”  Either way, it doesn’t make much sense.   How can one crawl back in the womb after one has grown old?  I don’t get this.

Like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer isn’t the right answer.”

Just like Nicodemus – we look for correct answers, proper answers, appropriate and sensible answers to life’s many questions.  We want things to be logical, to be sensible, to be grounded in good research and proper documentation.  And then we read the Bible and hear Jesus talking about being “born from above,” and the “Son of Man,” being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and then we have to look up that strange story about the Exodus and Israelites being rebellious and bitten by snakes and getting sick and dying and then Moses makes a bronze serpent and puts it on a pole and carries it through the camp and people look at it and get healed and this is like Jesus; oh, I see that’s like Jesus on the cross and, and, and . . .it’s enough to make your head spin.

But like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer is not the right answer.”

Because the Son of Man being lifted up is the right answer, and it’s not an answer any of our human logic or philosophy or science would have come up with.  It is the moral equivalent of 8+7=13.  Though God in Christ going to a cross to die for us makes no sense in human terms – by divine calculus it is the right answer every time.  Because it is most certainly true that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Amen and amen.

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent (March 9, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Every detail has a purpose when it comes to reading scripture. One might well wonder what the purpose of the serpent is here. There has been lots of ink spilt over this passage, but for today, I’m going to go with the idea that somebody had to introduce temptation — choice between what’s right and wrong — into the idyllic scene in Eden. If you never know that you have a choice, it’s hard to say that you have free will.

And so, the serpent — in this account, a creature of God like everything else in the garden — is given the task of inserting the skillful question, “Did God really say…?” Over the years, interpreters have placed the image of Satan and the devil on this moment in Bible history, and it certainly relates to the gospel passage for today in which Jesus must face his own temptations. But try for a moment to let the story be what it is — a simple story about what it’s like to face a choice between something that looks good, seems delightful, appears to be desirable (not to mention something that will make you more desirable!) — and what you’ve always been told is a sure path to pain, suffering, heartache, and the death of openness, honesty, and trust.

Which of us really thinks that we might have avoided the first taste of the fruit?  (The text doesn’t say that it was an apple, though that is most likely what’s in your mind.) As creatures of free will, the power to choose is ours; but, the cost for such power and freedom is the “right” to live with the consequences of our choices. In the moment that we choose, we often discover that we are naked (not that there was ever anything wrong with that!)

Why do you think the first response of the man and the woman was shame? Why did they feel the need to cover themselves?

Psalm 32
The psalm opens with a happy discussion about regaining the clarity of spirit, soul, and mind that comes with the acknowledgment and forgiveness of sin. Whew, it feels good when you know you’ve been caught — or after a time of carrying the heavy weight of secret sin — to get it all out in the open and have it dealt with, doesn’t it? Even if it costs you and there’s restitution to be made, it’s all worth it just to feel “right” again.

Notice in vv.2-4 that the body is very much affected by what happens in the mind and the spirit. Have you ever experienced this? Why would the body “waste” and our spirits “groan” as long as we have a problem with sin in our lives?

Notice also the remedy for such malady, given in vv. 5-7; what does the text say is the key to gaining relief from the pain and suffering of hiding our wrongdoing?

Romans 5:12-19
The Apostle Paul, writer of the book of Romans, loved to go on and on when he was captivated by a theological idea. This series of verses is a great example of a kind of theological run-on sentence — which most of us were taught to avoid when we learned our grammar and composition! But, it is a sublime statement if you boil it down to its most basic thought.

Begin reading in v. 12, then skip over all the other stuff (good stuff, but not necessary on first reading in order to get at what Paul wants to say) and go to the last phrase of v. 19. Doing so shows you the original sentence Paul had in mind before he was struck with his biblical flight of fancy:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned– so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Now, with that idea firmly fixed in your mind, go back and read all the in-between stuff that Paul wrote. It’s a fabulous passage and wonderful statement of how, though we all are prone to follow the way of our ancient ancestor, Adam, who chose the way of disobedience to God, we are now able to choose the way of forgiveness, peace, and life through the obedience of Jesus Christ.

Ooh, I almost felt like taking off on a little flight of fancy myself!

Matthew 4:1-11
This passage serves as the scriptural basis for our practice and observance of Lent for the next 40 days (Sundays excluded.) Jesus spent this intense time in the wilderness facing questions about his identity as the Son of God. The temptation — or “testing,” as the word may be translated — was to demonstrate just how strong was his resolve to choose, time and again, to follow the will of God.

We might say that Jesus spent these 6 weeks seeking to understand just exactly who he was and what God wanted him to do. That is our purpose in Lent, as well; we seek to take the extra time to focus internally on our spiritual state, and externally on the will of God as revealed to us in scripture (notice that Jesus repeatedly used the resource of scripture in his encounter with the devil) and in the life of our Savior.

An excellent Lenten discipline, as you study scripture with others for the next 6 weeks, would be to keep a notebook (or laptop) with your thoughts and answers to these same two questions: what do I understand about who God wants me to be? What am I learning about what God wants me to do?

If you undertake this effort, you may be very powerfully surprised at what you will learn when you flip back to read your notes some time after Easter.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was with a group of clergy the other day and heard about an acolyte who caught her hair on fire during communion.  I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it had to do with a relatively small chancel, lots of candles including torches in floor-stands, and longish hair.  At some point she got too close to a candle and her hair caught on fire.  At first people just smelled it, then she turned to one side and the choir saw it, then the assisting minister saw it and started beating it out with his hands while family members got up from their pews and headed for the front.  After it was all over, someone commented to her about how calm she had been and she drew herself up and said, “I AM an acolyte and acolytes DO NOT panic!”

It is good to know who you are and how it is you are expected to behave. Our Gospel Reading from Matthew turns on those very questions of identity.  While Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting and praying, he wrestled with bedeviling questions of identity; of what it meant to be “the beloved Son of God.”

In last the verse of Matthew, chapter 3 – following Jesus’ baptism, we hear God’s voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then today’s reading starts, with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where the devil begins to work on him.  The devil does not question whether or not Jesus is the Son of God – that’s not what “if you are the Son of God” means in this text.  It’s more like, “If you are the Son of God, (and I know that you are).”  Perhaps something like “since you are the Son of God,” gets at the meaning better.  The devil is attempting to lead Jesus away from the true path into an almost true path.

First, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his powers to satisfy his own needs. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t turn these stones into loaves of bread. Jesus was fasting, so it is reasonable to assume that he was hungry.

Then, the devil tried to get him take an easy way to calling attention for his message.  “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t you throw yourself off the temple?  God won’t let you die and people will know who you are and listen to you.

Finally, the evil one put aside all pretense and said it plainly, “Worship me, and I will let you rule the world.”

All of these temptations have an almost rightness about them.  Stones into loaves; feed a hungry world.  When you throw yourself off the temple and the angels catch you, everybody will know you are the Son of God; they will really listen to and obey you. Rule the world; wow, you can legislate morality, create peace with justice, usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But, but.  These temptations also have an air of desperation about them.  “Okay, I’m the Son of God.  What do I do now?  My father expects a lot from me, and I’m not totally sure about what it is I’m supposed to do.”

While Jesus is fasting and praying and thinking these things, the devil comes and offers his “suggestions.”  And Jesus responds, “I am the Son of God, and the Son of God does not panic.”

The Son of God trusts the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit to lead him to a clear awareness of who he is and what it is he is called to do.

Lent is a time for us to fast and pray and think about questions of identity and mission; of who we are and what it is we are to do.  And like the acolyte with her hair on fire, we must not panic.

We must firmly say “I am a beloved child of God, and children of God do not panic!”

Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit also came upon us.  Just as the voice from heaven claimed Jesus as God’s beloved Son; at our baptism words were spoken that made it clear that we too are claimed and loved by God.  And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, we too have been led into a time of prayer and fasting.

Both as individuals and in our congregation, it is important for us to take this time to look at our lives, to reflect on the gifts God has given us, the abilities God has blessed us with, the opportunities and relationships God has laid before us, and ask ourselves, “Am I, are we, using these things for ourselves only, or are we using these gifts to reach out to and serve the world in God’s name and with God’s love?”

As a congregation, are we anxious about our future, anxious enough to attempt desperate measures to make the world notice us again?  As a Christian people in an increasingly secular nation and world, are we so concerned about pushing our agenda that we will engage in political strong-arming to get our way in the public square?

Or, are we sufficiently confident in our identity as children of God, trusting enough in God’s love and guidance; to step out into God’s future full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever mission and ministry God has in store for us.

I close with a prayer that is found in the service for Evening Prayer in both the Lutheran Book of Worship (p. 153) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (p.317)

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen and amen.