First Sunday in Lent, Year C

The Sword of the Spirit

When one embarks on the spiritual life; when gives their heart, mind, and soul to Jesus, he or she will soon encounter challenges to their faith. Will God provide for us and protect us? Is he faithful? Is his Word true? Satan is quite good at engineering circumstances in our lives which cause us to doubt our faith. Satan tests our faith. We are in good company. He tested Jesus.

Jesus, before beginning his earthly ministry, spent forty days of preparation in the wilderness. From the Gospel of Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  (Luke 4:1-4) 

Do we really trust God to take care of us. Jesus was all alone in the wilderness. He had no one to provide for him except God the Father. Satan tempted Jesus to move away from his complete trust in God, suggesting that he should take matters into his own hands.

The Israelites were taught to recite this passage from the Torah:

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 26:8-11)

Let us look back at our own history. Has God proven himself trustworthy in providing for us?

Satan’s temptation was twofold. First, did Jesus trust His Father to provide for him. Secondly, is the Word of God reliable. Are the scriptures true? Satan tells Jesus that he needs to prove that they are, implying that they are not. Notice how Jesus also answers this challenge by his quote from Deuteronomy:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Satan had another test waiting for Jesus.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”    (Luke 4:5-8)

This temptation may seem a strange one at first. Jesus is the Second Person of the Godhead. He is the agent of all creation. The world was made through him. Humankind has fallen and brought sins and death into the world. Satan is now the ruler of this age. Jesus emptied himself of all divinity and power when he came to earth as a babe. What he knew and understood was what he studied from the holy scriptures. He relied upon the Holy Spirit to help him interpret them. His life and ministry were governed by his relationship with God the Father through prayer alone.

Satan was offering Jesus an alternative earthly kingdom that would avoid suffering, humiliation, and pain. What Satan offered he could actually deliver. Many people have sought fame and fortune by selling their soul to the devil.

We must remember that this life is very short compared to an eternity. Jesus said:

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?   (Mark 8:36)

The final test that Satan presented to Jesus is a curious one. Again from Luke:

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”   (Luke 4:9-12)

Satan had a way of twisting the scriptures. He is a legalist. As Christian we need to understand that the Word of God is a living and breathing source of life itself. It is more than just a set of rules. We must learn to apply it appropriately. The psalmist wrote:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
and the Most High your habitation,

There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.   (Psalm 92:9-12)

The key to God’s protection is our relationship with him. We need to cultivate and nurture that relationship with his help.

Things do not always go our way. God may not be responding to our prayers soon enough for us or in the manner that we wish. So Satan tells us that we must prove ourselves because no one else will. Satan tempted Jesus to prove that he was the Messiah. Jesus knew, however, that only that he would show himself to be the Messiah was by the cross. He came with a mission to save humankind.

The wisdom of Solomon tells us:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.   (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Our mission is much more important than our position.

How do we see the Lenten Season? Is it a time to prove our loyalty to God through some self-imposed discipline? Maybe it would be better if we allow God to prove us. God wants to saturate us with his Word. From the Book of Hebrews:

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.   (Hebrews 8:10)

God has given us his Word. Will we use it. From today’s Epistle:

But what does it say?

“The word is near you,
    on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.   (Romans 10:8-10)

If we are to battle Satan we must be prepared. We must be soaked in the Word of God as was Jesus. Then we must speak it out. The Apostle Paul writes:

Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.   (Ephesians 6:13-17)

Our foundation is knowing that God is good and that his Word is true. Satan will try to steer us away from this belief. He will fail when the Word is in our minds and written on our hearts.

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Ash Wednesday

ash-wed-pictureRemember That You Are Dust

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. In many liturgical churches ashes are placed on the foreheads of each participant. Ashes were a sign of penitence in the Ancient Near East, particularly in Judaism.

Recall this example from the Old Testament. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city and the people listened:

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  (Jonah 3:5-8)

Notice that the King of Nineveh decreed that the people must turn from evil. God is never impressed with meaningless rituals.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 6:1)

As a campus minister I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service when a school official who wanted to know at what precise time I would be doing the “imposition of ashes” (making the customary sign of the cross in ashes on a person’s forehead). She did not want to sit through the scripture readings, homily, or prayers. The mere sign of the cross on her forehead would prove that she had done her religious duty.

Let us consider these instructive words of Jesus?

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

We cannot impress God with our rituals or our piety. Why should we try to impress others who must also stand before His throne, as we are required? God is calling us to a holy fast – one in which we come before Him in true repentance.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The Ash Wednesday service serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are. Man was created out of dust by the hand of God. Our lives are sustained by His very breath. One day His breath will be taken away and we will have to give an accounting to Him of how we lived our lives.

Ash Wednesday is a check to the triumphant Christians who have arrived and no longer need to acknowledge their sins before God. It questions the “once saved, always saved” mentality.

Meaningless ritual? It might be for some. The act of fasting and repentance was not meaningless to the King of Nineveh. Jesus did not say that we should not fast. He said that we should not make a show of it. If we do, we may receive approval by some, but not by God. God looks at the heart.

If we say that we do not need any formal type of confession because our sins are washed in the blood of Jesus we may be missing the point of confession. From John First Epistle:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:8-9)

If we say that we have given our heart to Jesus and yet deliberately sin, how should our God judge our act of contrition? The Book of Hebrews has the answer:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.   (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Ash Wednesday offers us an opportunity for fasting and repentance. Perhaps we should take it?

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The Season of Lent

artprint77The Wilderness Experience

The Season of Lent is a time of fasting and prayer for the Church. It corresponds to the time of preparation that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His earthly ministry. Scripture tells us Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit for forty days of fasting and prayer. Thus, Lent begins with the service of Ash Wednesday and runs through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. This time period is actually forty six days, because the six Sundays in between the beginning and end of the Lenten Season are not really part the days of fasting. Sundays are always days of celebrating the resurrection of our Lord.

Historically, in the Easter Church, Lent has provided a time in which new converts were prepared for Holy Baptism. This practice is still observed in many liturgical churches.

Why should we observe this time of preparation and what does it mean to each of us and the Church today? Clearly this observance is not required for salvation. The saving act of Jesus on the cross and our response to His loving sacrifice is required, followed by our endurance in the Faith with His help. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that life does present us with wilderness experiences.

What is false is a church that suggests that Christians should not have them. We do have them. Job stood head and shoulders above his peers as a righteous man in his day, yet he experienced a terrible wilderness experience. The false triumphalism found in some of today’s churches would have us believe that such experiences should not occur, bringing condemnation on those who go through them because they do not have enough faith.

If we have wilderness experiences as a matter of course then why designate an appointed time to go through one within the Church Year? Is not this appointed time artificial? It is my belief that the Season of Lent in the early church was very much influenced by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is better to observe a wilderness experience appointed by the Holy Spirit than the one that is unscheduled and catches us by surprise. We may still endure unscheduled ones but we might be better prepared for them, having benefited from the teachings and disciplines of Lent. Jesus required preparation in the wilderness through the Holy Spirit in order to begin His ministry on earth. He experienced other wildernesses as well, Gethsemane being one of them.

Our purpose for Lent should be the same purpose that Jesus had for entering the wilderness: to prepare for ministry. We all have a ministry if we are Christian believers. Lent should be a time of fasting and prayer, self-examination and repentance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. It should be a time of setting aside the things of this world that so easily creep in and devote ourselves more to God and His Word.

What should Lent not be? It should not be about our attempt to impress God by what we are giving up for Him or ny what spiritual gymnastics we are putting ourselves through. The “giving-up” notion is fundamentally flawed. It makes us dread Lent. We then cannot wait for Lent to be over. That is why Mardi Gras or Carnival has such an appeal for many people.

Too often Lenten promises are like New Years resolutions. We make them but we don’t keep them and then we are under condemnation. Satan has a field day with us. He loves our false humility and piety. God does not want us to prove who we are. He wants to prove who we are, if we will allow him to do so. He is the author and finisher of our faith. We just need to submit ourselves to him.

It is said that we often grow through our struggles and trials. This may be true, but it is not necessarily true. A greater truth is that our struggles do teach us that we cannot get through life on our own strength alone. The struggles often drive us to God. It is God who then changes us and not our struggles. Why should we wait for a crisis to go to God? Why not go to Him early and often?

Perhaps the best observance of Lent would be to approach God with faith in the saving blood of Jesus, asking Him what He would have us discover about ourselves and about Him. Let Lent be a time of intentional fellowship with God in prayer, seeking His will and wisdom for our lives so that we might be better disciples of Jesus Christ and living examples of God’s love for the world.

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Fat Tuesday Teaching

Breaking the Yoke

Let us look at several translations of Isaiah 10:27, which has to do with breaking a burdensome yoke. We will start with the King James Version (KJV):

And it shall come to pass in that day, that his burden shall be taken away from off thy shoulder, and his yoke from off thy neck, and the yoke shall be destroyed because of the anointing.

The KJV a wonderful translation. It has a certain beauty, power, and authority. True, some of the language is archaic. However, the translation on the whole is a fairly accurate one, except for the verse we are exploring.

What does the original Hebrew say? The text reads, “The yoke shall be destroyed because of shamen” (pronounced SHA-MEN). The KJV translators understood shamen to be the equivalent of shemen, oil, which apparently led them to think of oil for anointing.

What is the text actually saying? It’s best to understand shamen here as “fatness” (pronounced SHA-MEYN), which would produce a literal translation of, “The yoke will be destroyed because of the fat.”

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is a very literal translation.

So it will be in that day, that his burden will be removed from your shoulders and his yoke from your neck, and the yoke will be broken because of fatness.

It is accurate, but is not the most readable. What does fatness mean?

The New International Version (NIV) expresses it well:

In that day their burden will be lifted from your shoulders, their yoke from your neck; the yoke will be broken because you have grown so fat.

The NIV is somewhat of a paraphrase, but its meaning is not obscure. It gets right to the point.

What about our “modern” New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)?

On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

The NRSV bypassed the whole discussion of fatness altogether.

Let us look at fatness. We have an ox with a yoke on its neck, enslaving it to the will of its master. But eventually, it gets so healthy and fat that the yoke simply bursts from off its neck. That ox is now free!

Today is Fat Tuesday. It refers to the day when people might fatten themselves up with food and drink in order to prepare for the day of fasting that follows on Ash Wednesday.

Perhaps we need to fatten ourselves up in a different fashion. When we find ourselves bound or oppressed or beaten into submission by the enemy. We simply feed our spirits the living Word day and night, we continue in worship and praise and prayer and communion, and little by little, we get so healthy and strong—so “fat”—that suddenly the yoke of oppression has to burst. The fatness destroys the yoke!

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