Sermon planned for Sunday, March 9th, 2014.
Text: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Please join me in a word of prayer:
Loving Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks and praise. You search us out, day and night. We are never far from you. We are never at the back of your thoughts. We never slip your mind. In your Word, we are amazed at how you persistently seek after your people, after their restoration, for their redemption, for a full embrace in your love. Whether weary, worn, battered, and bruised by the trials and temptations – no matter the state we are in, victorious or devastated by sin – you confront us with your holiness, with your transforming grace, and your tender mercy. Confront us again, Lord. Do not leave us to our own ways. Do not leave us to our wandering, our wearying, our wasting-away. Instead, in this time of worship, encounter us, meet us, and by Your Word, lift us up, and place us once again at the side of Jesus, our brother, our Savior & Lord. Amen.
I've watched a whole variety of post-apocalyptic thrillers in my day - as they are one of my favourite genres of film - and inevitably there's this scene where someone's TV program is stopped; and an urgent voice says: "We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this important announcement!" The normal everyday comes to an abrupt halt because something has changed - an apocalyptic event! - and attention must be given.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent; and so we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this important season of worship! We are taking a break from the regular narrative lectionary, to focus on a very special theme in worship - in the coming weeks leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, we will be hearing familiar stories from scripture, and exploring the question: How are we encountering God in our journey as disciples? What have we witnessed? What have we been witnesses of? What kind of witness have we given, to the God who encounters us?
Historically, the season of Lent was a time when the church would walk in preparation with those desiring baptism, and it was a time of renewal for those already committed to Christ. It was a season of discernment, of prayer, and fasting. What is God doing in my life? Where is God leading me? The kinds of questions that ought to interrogate us all year long - yet the questions we drown out in the humdrum of our busyness. Lent is about slowing down; it is about pairing down; trimming off the fat. Getting to a spiritual leanness.
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians all over the world are marked with a cross of ashes; to symbolize a repentant heart. Just as, at Christmas time, we as a whole Christian community get excited as we recall the good news of the Incarnation; Lent is a time when we, as a whole Christian community, remember that we who follow Jesus, the One who came preaching repentance, for the Kingdom of God is at hand - we remember that we who follow this Jesus begin thejourney in confession & repentance. Those are the first steps ofour journey - steps that we find ourselves needing to return-to again and again. We who have acknowledge Jesus' Lordship, and accepted him as our Savior - we are a people on-the-way, running the race. Lent is a time when we focus again on the basics of this race; and zero-in on the things that have us lagging behind, the things that trip us up, or distract us from our goal.
For the next 40 days, find spaces in your week, find time in your day, to take an inventory of your heart, your mind, your actions.Use a journal if it helps you. If you process better through conversation, discuss it with a close friend, or your partner. Take an inventory, and name the parts of your life that still resist the grace of God; the thoughts that continue to cling to the lies of our enemy; the actions that still remain shaped by the kingdom of this world. And bring your discoveries to God in prayer. Confess your sins. Confess your weariness. Confess your confusion. Confess your addictions. Confess - shine the light of truth on your life, before God. The grip of sin, of brokenness, the pit of weariness - these things have no power over us when they are bathed in light before Jesus. Confess! And let the Spirit lead you into the journey of repentance. This is the journey of Lent - a preparation, clearing a space in your heart, in your life, to grow deeper and closer with your Creator - the Word made Flesh.
We've heard two passages this morning that aid us in our journey of confession and repentance; they speak to us about how God meets us in our times of trial and temptation. If I were to ask you privately what are some of your struggles on your journey as a disciple, some of your trials or temptations, I'm sure you'd be able to give me a decent sized list. Most of us know our pitfalls. Most of us can name some of the lies we have come to believe from time to time. The Spirit's living inside of us and makes us aware of these things. But what if I asked you a different question: where is God when you're undergoing temptation? What is God doing when your being tested? How have you encountered God in your wrestling match with sin?How would you answer these kinds of questions? It would be easier to list your struggles, wouldn't it? I think we sometimes have a hard time thinking about the fact that even in our most profound struggles with temptation and sin, God is still present to us; God is not absent in our struggles. It's difficult for us to name how God is present with us in our temptations. I'm not sure exactly why. Why do you think? Is it, perhaps, because we feel so terribly alone in our struggle? In our temptation?
One thing's for sure; to be human is to be tempted. That's what it means to be a people with Genesis chapter three as part of our Origin. To be a people whose early parents chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil; is to be a people who are fundamentally tempted! That's who we are. We are tempted - under trial & testing. We had everything! In the Garden, we hadeverything we needed for the good life. But the serpent posed a problem for us; a problem that would have hit us eventually anyways - what if we figure this out on our own? What if we become our own bosses? What if we go on our way as though we needed nothing from anyone? What if we could just get ourselves out of any mess by just pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and getting it done? The prophet Isaiah was perfectly accurate in his description of humanity: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way... (53:6) I can't help but hum that tune from Handel's Messiah.
Like sheep. Straying. It's not even that we're always intentionally going out and doing bad things. So many of the things that distract us are actually pretty good things, in some way; but they distract us from the better thing that God has in mind for us. Like Sheep, we see some green grass over on the other side of the road, and so we go wandering into traffic; not realizing that our Shepherd's bringing us to the greatest of pastures - to paradise itself!
All we like sheep have gone astray - turning to our own way. Like Adam and Eve, we see something that looks like good fruit - since when is it wrong to know the difference between what is good and what is evil? I paid good money to take a Christian ethics course where we spent our time learning about these things. Parents spend time teaching their children the difference between good and evil. This is a good thing - it's some green grass. But for Adam and Eve, this green grass didn't compare to the pasture they were already on. The knowledge of good and evil couldn't compare to the Garden, where everything they needed was provided.
When you live in the Garden of God's Paradise, you don't need to know what is good and evil; all you need do is draw near to the Creator. In Paradise, only loving God remains - Paul even tells us, in his letter to the Corinthians: Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end (1Co 13:8 NRS) In Paradise, only loving God remains. In the Garden of Eden, all Adam and Eve needed was the love of God. But they exchanged the very best thing and traded it in for something mediocre. Our best things in this fleshly life are all mediocre in comparison to knowing God, and drawing near to Him.
That's what we're doing in Lent - making space, trimming all other stuff back - so we can focus-in on drawing near to our Creator. We trim back even the good things in life - some give up chocolate, some give up television, some facebook, some give up something they hold dear. I even heard of a young teenwho said he was going to give up being awesome for Lent. Give up being awesome, so you can draw near to our Awesome God.We trim back even the good things in life so that we can grab hold of the very best of things - an ever growing closeness with our heavenly Father.
If Genesis chapter three tells us that to be human means to be tempted, distracted, and torn from the Garden of innocent trust in God; then the rest of Genesis tells us that even in this state of constant distraction and wandering, we are always faced by a God who persistently and passionately pursues us. The rest of Genesis - the rest of scripture in fact - tells us that to be human means to be faced with a God who never backs down from His agenda; his agenda to save us, to rescue us, to Shepherd us and lead us back to the Garden of His Paradise.
Earlier I asked you some questions: where is God when you're undergoing temptation? What is God doing when your being tested? How have you encountered God in your wrestling match with sin? This morning, I hope to convince you that in all of these moments of struggle, of temptation, of victories and losses, of restraint and failure - in all of these moments, you are confronted by the God who is passionately pursuing you; whose topmost agenda it is to lead you back to the Garden of His paradise; to redeem you and buy you back from the slavery of your sins; to dispel the lies whispered to you by our Adversary.
If you have your bibles with you, please join me in reading a passage that has helped me throughout my struggles with sin, with moral failure, with temptation. Psalms 32:1-5.
How is God meeting you in your temptations? In your struggle with sin? The psalmist writes that the Lord's hand was heavy upon him day and night. At first, it seems like this contradicts the picture of God I mentioned earlier. Why would the God who is passionately seeking our redemption place his hand heavy upon us? What does this mean?
When we were in Ethiopia, we saw plenty of sheep, goats, and shepherds. Nearly every highway and dirt road was littered with these animals being led either to pasture or to market. When the sheep would stray, you'd see and hear these young men crack their long whips like experts. Or, in Kenya, the bushmen from the Mosai tribe would move their cattle from one spot to another; and sometimes they'd need to use a bit of force to keep them from running off. The Mosai warriors carried a club like this (show the club), made from Ebony wood, and it basically keeps the cattle line. I think it's pretty convincing. These sheep, goats, and cattle need some prodding so that they move towards the pasture or watering hole; because without food and water, they won't survive. They need a bit of a clubbing once in a while; the crack of a whip.
The psalmist writes, "day and night your hand was heavy upon me". Sometimes, in our rebellion, in our refusal to be God's people set-apart, we feel the sting, the firm prodding of our conscience. The Spirit of our Living God dwells in us - it's the very thing that sustains our breath - and this Spirit is leading us to the Garden of God's Paradise. The crack of our conscience, the club of our conscience, may feel like God has abandoned us; it may feel like God has judged us to the pit of hell; it may feel like God has let us wander off forever. It's not true! Don't believe that lie! If you still feel the crack of your conscience, the clubbing of your conscience - consider it nothing but pure joy! Because it means that there's a Shepherd behind you, brothers and sisters! If you feel the hand of the Lord heavy upon you - shout for joy! Because it means that the Spirit of God is living inside you. The Lord's heavy hand against you - your heavy conscience - is your best friend along this journey. Remember that! This isn't shame I'm talking about - but the warning of the Spirit to turn back to Jesus.
The psalmist admits that when he kept silent about his sins, even his body wasted away. Everything about us - our whole being - is dependent on God; when we start journeying to other watering holes, it's going to affect everything about us. Our distractions, our wanderings, our addictions - they change us physiologically, emotionally - in every way. Our whole being will waste away if we run from the pasture of God's paradise. If we keep silent, if we don't confess our sins - we'll waste away.
That's why I urge you to begin the journey of Lent today! Don't keep silent! Join me. Join the psalmist. Verse five: "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the guilt of my sin." Let the light shine on your broken, distracted, enslaved, tempted life - confess your sins to the Lord, and he will forgive you your sins! Let the light of acknowledgment, of confession, shine! Let it bathe your life with truth - the Truth that you need God!
And that's a good thing - He's the right kind of God to need! Why? Because, like I said earlier, my goal this morning is to convince you that the God we worship is perhaps most profoundly present to you when you struggle with temptation, with sin. It's then that his passion to redeem you is most real and active! When he prods you - when you feel the Spirit working - when you feel the sting of your conscience, don't silence that nudging; rejoice instead! God is still prodding you to the best pasture! This is a good God to need! He's the God who says NO! to your sin most profoundly in the person of Jesus Christ. In becoming flesh, our God has spoken the loudest NO! to our broken and fallen nature - by becoming the One who would, on our behalf, refuse sin, and refuse temptation. In the wilderness, Jesus refuses to rely on anything other than the power of God. Unlike Adam and Eve, and every sinner that has walked the earth, Jesus remembered the God who blessed him at his baptism. Jesus opened his life to this God in every moment. And in this Jesus, God has spoken his "NO" to our sin, and in this way God has spoken his final YES!!! to us, his children.
All we like sheep have gone astray, all of us have gone our own way - which is why the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. That's why Jesus, God-in-flesh, took our guilt upon his own shoulders at Calvary. In Jesus we meet the same God that met Adam & Eve in the Garden; the same God that met them after the Garden; the same God that didn't give up on Cain, after he sinned; the same God that didn't give up on Abraham after he was gray and his life spent; the same that didn't give up on sinners like David & Paul. The God we meet in the Old Testament meets us with full force in the person of Jesus, who refused disobedience on our behalf, so that we could be counted as saints - adopted children, chosen children, in the household of God.
I love the way Paul writes about this in Philippians chapter two (Phil 2:5-11).
Jesus emptied himself of all power and prestige and lived the truly human life - just as tempted as we are - the difference is that he refused. Jesus chose a life of complete dependence on God - the thing we have not chosen, since Genesis chapter three. And in his obedience, Jesus found a path to a cross; and on that cross he bore the weight of our sin - past, present, and future - and he has covered our sin; and his resurrection has overcome the grip that death has had on us. Death is no longer the last word spoken about us. Even in the depths of Sheol, God finds us! Our sin, our wandering, our weariness, our addiction - these things cannot draw us to a place where the Shepherd can't find us. The Father is right behind us, prodding us towards the pasture of His paradise. Jesus is right beside us, showing us a new way of living; calling us to a new kind of community that lives as a foretaste of God's coming Kingdom. And the Spirit leads us, to avoid the pitfalls, and into the rich soils upon which grow the fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
These wonderful fruit provide us nourishment for this journey in Lent. As you trim-down the distractions, cultivate these beautiful fruit. As you put aside some good things in order to focus on the very best thing - our relationship with God - may you take joy in the sharp prodding of your conscience - It's a sign that the Shepherd is right behind you, aiming you towards Paradise. So join me, on this journey of Lent. The first steps involve confession and repentance - throwing open the curtains and allowing the light to shine upon our lives.