Tag Archives: wilderness

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Loving God with All Your Heart

The Christian faith draws us into a whole new world if we are willing to let go of the one we have been living in. The Apostle Paul alluded to these two world views in today’s Epistle. He wrote about moving from one to the other. He made it clear that he had not yet fully succeeded, but that he was committed to the process of fully participating in this new world. He wrote:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,   (Philippians 3:10-14)

God was doing a new thing. He was building a new understanding for those who would listen. This was prophesied by Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.  (Isaiah 43:18-19)

God was replacing the old covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants with a new covenant that was far superior. It was not so much that the old covenant was defective. What was defective was the Jewish understanding of that covenant. It had become merely a set of rules to follow. What was lost was an understanding of what was behind the rules. What did the rules actually convey?

In today’s Gospel reading we have two people with entirely different understanding of how to interpret the law of God.. One of these persons is Mary of Bethany and the other is Judas Iscariot. From the Gospel of John:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.   (John 12:1-8)

Judas must have understood Judaism as a set of rules to obey. He questing why Mary did not spend her money on the poor rather than on costly perfume. Does not the law require us to look after those who are less fortunate than ourselves? It does, but there was something deeper going on here with Mary’s costly gift.

Mary was pouring out her love for Jesus. She understood that he needed her love and she wanted to make it very clear just how much she loved him. We have to remember how Jesus summarized the law:

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”   (Mark 12:29-31)

Mary loved God with all her heart. She understood the foundation of the law. If we are not careful, a rules based Christian faith can distract us from what is really important. Judas was locked into his limited understanding of the law. He was sitting under the teachings of Jesus daily, but he did not comprehend what Jesus was offering. He did not know who Jesus really was and is. He did not understand the ministry of Jesus. Satan had tricked him. If we are ruled based in our faith then Satan is better able to manipulate our thinking and reasoning.

Judas was painting by the numbers, making sure not to go outside the lines. Mary saw the law of God for the work of art that it is. Who are we today, Judas or Mary of Bethany? We might easily protest that we would never betray our Lord like Judas. But we do betray him if we refuse to grow in our faith. Otherwise, we tend to judge others by our rule based understand of the faith. We become a stumbling block to others. Our Christian walk and witness becomes parched and dry.

God is doing a new thing. Do we not perceive it? Again, from the Prophet Isaiah:

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.   (Isaiah 43:19-21)

We are part of God’s chosen people. He has formed us for himself. Are we able to declare his praise? Are we able to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? We are if we open ourselves us to his refreshing Spirit who is ready to teach un new things and give us greater understanding.

The psalmist writes:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed.   (Psalm 126:1-4)

God has done great things for us. He has given us his only begotten Son. His Spirit has been poured out upon. Let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Eucharist, homily, Jesus, lectionary, Lent, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Eucharist, homily, Jesus, lectionary, Lent, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Ash Wednesday, Jesus, lectionary, Lent, liturgical preaching, liturgy

Second Sunday of Advent: Year C

A Highway for Our God

John the Baptizer was special. He was spoken about in the Book of Isaiah:

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.   (Isaiah 40:3-4)

His father, the priest  Zechariah, prophesied over him when he was born:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.   (Luke 1: 76-79)

John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the coming Messiah promised of old. Israel had not heard the voice of a prophet of God for four hundred years. There was a longing to hear from God. There was a longing for a savior that would save the nation from its enemies. But were they ready for John the Baptizer?

The Lord spoke through the Prophet Malachi concerning John:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.   (Malachi 3:1-3)

John the Baptizer was like a refiner’s fire. Israel needed purification. They were looking for someone to subdue their enemies, but like many of us, their real enemy was themselves. Are we ready to receive the Christ into our hearts today? Israel was not. They were living in a wilderness apart from God, though they were careful to observe their traditional religious practices. These practices were not necessarily wrong, but they were often empty.

God wants to build a highway in the wilderness which leads directly to him. Whether people consciously realize it or not, they are looking for God. God is offering them a highway on which to travel. What is that highway? Or who is that highway? The children of Israel were that highway. And today we are that highway.

The modern way of road building is to smooth out the terrain underneath. That was not always the case for Virginia before the interstates. I was once driving up and down the many hills from Richmond to Charlottesville, Virginia. My young daughter, who was riding in the back, got very sick. I won’t go into all the details. The highway we were riding was faithfully tracing out the contour of the land and it was very hilly.

What does it take to build a highway? A lot of heavy earth moving equipment. God is building his highway and we are the earth he is moving around.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain. e level,
    and the rough places a plain.”

God is refining us. He is reshaping us. If we will allow him to have his way the world around us will see a different terrain. Through us God will “shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide them into the way of peace.” We are living in a terrible darkness today. People need to see the light of Christ.

The Apostle Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.   (Philippians 1:9-11)

God is preparing his Church for the final harvest. He needs us to help produce that harvest. We must be pure and blameless. We must be the light of the world. That can only happen when we abide in our Lord Jesus Christ. This Advent season, will we allow God to use us as part of his highway. There may be some pain as God rearranges the earth. But if we bask in the love of Jesus all the while, not losing his peace, we will pave the way for a great harvest, both within the Church and the world around us. Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent, homily, Jesus, lectionary, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C