Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday in Lent - February 17, 2013

What are bookends?  They are two solid, heavy objects that belong together.  Often they are the very same object, with the simple and only difference that one is turned in one direction, and the other in the opposite.  Others are not the same objects, but are like a single object that has been cut in two.  For instance, one book end would be the head of a fish, while the other would be its tail.

What do bookends do?  Their purpose is to hold up the books which are held between them.  To give definition. : The books in between will be vertical.  They will be pushed together.  The bookends give the sense that the books which are found in between belong together.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a bookend.  Jesus is led to a particular place where he  will endure a trial.  It is the wilderness.  Jesus is making himself vulnerable at this time by fasting.  Fasting produces physical weakness.  He consents to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and to become vulnerable in order that he might rely on God to bring him through and prepare him for something important which is to come.  In this instance, the thing for which he is being prepared is his ministry.

So what happens?  In the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, at which time he was surely very weak, the devil comes to him.  I’d better nip something in the bud.  The devil is surely not some kind of ridiculous cartoon figure with horns and a tail.  This would be to defeat his aims, which are to seem reasonable and even likeable so as to tempt a person into doing that which they should not do.  So the devil comes to a weakened Jesus and begins to tempt him. 

First, he tempts him with pride, “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  A prideful man would reply, “You’d better believe I can do it; just you watch.”  But Jesus is not a prideful man who needs to justify himself before others.  He declines the temptation.

Next, the devil tempts Jesus with glory, showing him the kingdoms of the world and saying, “To you will I give their glory......”  A man interested in his image would say, “That’s mighty enticing.  I think I’d like that.”  But Jesus is not interested in his image.  He declines the temptation.

Finally, the devil tempts Jesus with false piety, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here......”  A man interested in his religiosity might fall into the trap, thinking, “If I’m really a spiritual man, I had better show my faith.”  But Jesus is not interested in his own religiosity.  He declines the temptation.  The devil then departs.

These temptations are an attack meant to destroy God’s son before he can do his work.  These attacks are designed to appeal to a man’s self-regard.  What the devil did not seem to realize is that Jesus came to the wilderness absolutely vulnerable; he was in his father’s hands.  In his father’s hands he had no reason to justify himself or to seek glory or to prove his faith.  He already had all of those things.  And so instead of destroying Jesus, the devil provides him with a defining experience that will launch him into his ministry.

Now for the second bookend.  If we look to the end of Jesus’ ministry we will see it.  He is led to a particular place where he  will endure a trial.  This time the place is not the wilderness, but Jerusalem.  Jesus is making himself vulnerable by going to the very location where his enemies are most powerful.  This time the enemies are the Scribes and Priests.  Jesus knows full well that they are going to kill him. 

So what happens this time?  His accusers come to him and have him arrested and he is put on trial.  But instead of mere temptation, this time he is put to death. 

The first attack was intended to destroy Jesus before his ministry started.  This attack against Jesus is intended to destroy him before his work can be completed.  But they make the same mistake.  Jesus arrived at Jerusalem in a state of absolute vulnerability, trusting completely in his Father.  By killing a willing victim of perfect innocence the Scribes and Priests actually further the work of Jesus instead of destroying it.  For it is by such a death and then his resurrection, that his life became available to us.  This is the second bookend.

So then, the two bookends share the following characteristics:
  • Jesus becomes willingly vulnerable; that is, he entrusts himself completely to his father.
  • He endures suffering from powerful forces who seek to destroy him.
  • This experience of vulnerability and suffering further his mission.

What I would like to suggest to you today is that these two bookends which stand on either side of Jesus’ ministry are the defining characteristics of his whole ministry.  They give his ministry its meaning and its form.  Certainly Jesus performs many miracles, he heals people, casts out demons and teaches.  But these things all lie in service to a single ideal.  The Son of God becomes vulnerable and suffers for the sake of others.  This is the heart of the story, the heart of the gospel. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

At a certain age, it was 15 when I was growing up, you young people get it in your heads that you want to learn to drive motor vehicles – and not just the gator or scooter or snowmobile variety, but you want to go the whole hog and drive the full size variety.  You want to drive cars;  you want to drive trucks; you want to drive very large and expensive tractors.  Now you realize, for many of your parents this is a frightening prospect.  They love you, of course.  But full sized vehicles are deadly pieces of machinery and are not to be taken lightly.  And so instead of just handing you the keys and letting you have at it, they insist that you learn about and then practice the ins and outs of driving a vehicle. 

It is particularly this latter that matters: practice.  To drive a vehicle isn’t something that you can read about in a book and then do well.  No, you need to get into the driver’s seat, put the keys in the ignition, start up the engine, and then go.  And for just about anybody, it’s going to be a bit herky-jerky, a little uncomfortable, maybe even somewhat embarrassing. 

For my part, I learned to drive in a 1993 Mazda 323, a little hatchback.  It was a stick shift.  I killed the motor, I revved the motor.  I crawled along.  I leaped forward like an over-eager frog.......  And then we left the driveway.  To learn to drive I needed practice, lots of it.  And so I practiced.  I needed to learn how to drive in order to become an adult.  And so I practiced.

As we begin Lent, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a lesson about the importance of practice.  Now it’s a message that we might easily miss.  We might miss it because he delivers it wrapped up in a warning.  The warning is this: “Beware of practicing your piety (that means doing good things for God) before others in order to be seen by them.”  Is this warning the message?  No, it is not.  If this were the message, then we could most easily obey Jesus by making sure that we never did any good things at all for God.  Because if we never did these pious things, we wouldn’t run the risk of doing them in front of other people.  Problem solved.  No, the message is not: Don’t do good in front of other people!  No, the message is this: Practice doing good.  Practice doing good. 

Why would we need to practice doing good?  I can think of two reasons:
  • Because doing good, being pious, is worthwhile.  It is a worthwhile goal to try to do the good things that God wants us to do.  And because it’s a worthwhile goal, we should practice it, so that we can do it well.  That’s one reason.
  • Another reason is this: doing the good that God wants us to do isn’t easy.  In fact, doing good can be awfully difficult.  Sometimes we try to do good and just make a mess or even hurt people.  I can remember on one occasion making breakfast in bed for my parents.  I think it might have been my mother’s birthday.  We had every intention of doing good.  But let me assure you that we did not provide a good breakfast.  It was terrible, if not entirely inedible.  Doing good takes practice.  And so we are to practice our piety so that we can do it well.
Lent is traditionally a time for practicing.  Over the centuries, people have taken this church season as an opportunity to try to go beyond what they normally do.  In Lent, the church has traditionally asked more of its members.  The most obvious example of this is that we have extra worship services on Wednesday nights. 

As we start Lent, I would like to ask something of you.  Instead of “giving something up,” try doing something good for God; try practicing your piety.  Try doing something that is really worthwhile.  Perhaps you might make a change that is too overwhelming to make if you had to think about it as a permanent change.  But what if you just had to do it for 40 days.  What if you just made a commitment to practicing it for awhile?

Here are some suggestions: 
  • Do you tithe?  If you don’t, it might seem overwhelming to give away ten percent of your income.  That’s understandable.  So why don’t you practice doing it for Lent this year?
  • Do you take time to pray for other people, especially the people you don’t like?  Why not get up fifteen minutes early and do that?  Fifteen minutes isn’t too overwhelming.  And practicing it for forty days, you could make that work.  And if prayer is hard for you, then practicing it would be a great idea.

Doing these things, or others that you think of yourself, they provide an opportunity for God to work in us and change us.  And we might find that by practicing our piety, we will get better at it.  So choose to do something good this Lent.  And practice it.  Never mind if it’s uncomfortable at first or if you aren’t any good at it.  Just keep practicing.  And may God bless you richly for it.