Monthly Archives: March 2014

Putting Down Your Jar (Living Water) – Sermon on John 4:5-42

March 15, 2020 (also March 23, 2014 and March 26, 2017, with some variations)

Note: This is a first person narrative, told from the perspective of the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well in John 4. While most messages can be given by either a man or a woman, this one needs to be heard in a woman’s voice.

[Wear a scarf that covers all hair, carry a ‘water jar’ containing about a cup of water. Have the baptismal font placed in the center of the chancel, and have two large stone jars on the altar or a table near the font, one empty and one with some sand/pebbles in it.]

I live in Sychar – you also probably know it as the city of Shechem, in Samaria. I don’t really live in Sychar, but just outside of town. Jacob’s well is about a mile from Sychar, and I probably live closer to the well than the town square. You can actually see the well from my doorway.

One day, about lunchtime, I saw a group of men walking toward the well. I could tell they were Jews, even at a distance. They looked like they had come a long way, probably taking the shortcut back to Galilee from Jerusalem.

Most Jews crossed the Jordan and traveled around Samaria, so Sychar wasn’t really “on the way” between Jerusalem and Galilee, unless you were trying to avoid the crowds on the roads.

I could tell that they didn’t have anything with them to draw water. They probably had no idea how deep the well was. Anyway, I picked up a water jar and headed toward the well. If I hurried, I could get there first, leave the jar for them, and be out of the way before they got there.

But I wasn’t fast enough. Continue reading

Out of the Dark … Again? – Sermon on John 3:1-17

It had been a hectic week – people coming into town from all over, the crowds noisy and smelly in the streets. Everyone was eager to get the best piece of meat, the freshest karpas, the bitterest moror for the Passover meal. Then there had been that scene in the temple, with tables being thrown over and birds squawking and money rolling all over the place – no one knew what was happening. And all the yelling.  Oy vey.

There had been something about that scene that troubled Rabbi Nic in a way he couldn’t quite describe. Yes it was a mess, but there had been a sense of rightness about it all – no, that wasn’t the word. Righteousness was more like it. In the process of turning things upside down and making a huge mess, somehow, things seemed more right-side-up, even in the middle of all the flying feathers and scattered goods. Amid all the chaos, there was a fresh wind sweeping through the temple, blowing out the cobwebs. Rabbi Nic kept trying to make sense of the afternoon’s nonsense as he hurried home. He wanted to have a moment to collect his thoughts before the Passover meal began.

No matter how hard he tried, Rabbi Nic couldn’t keep his mind on the ceremony, with its questions and stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt. Twice, he lost his place, and his dear wife had to remind him to cover the unleavened bread before pouring the wine.

There was great comfort in reciting the familiar words, in hearing his youngest son ask the important question, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

Then, it hit him. As they pronounced the blessing, he figured it out. “Baruch Adonai Elohim,” they chanted together. But this time, they added the words of Psalm 72, and everything became clear at once. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who alone does wondrous things. (Ps 72:18)

Rabbi Nic’s wife was surprised when he got up from the table and headed to the door. “Where are you going?” she asked. “It’s already dark outside! Where are you going in the middle of the night?” Rabbi Nic glanced over his shoulder and mumbled something about needing to answer a question, as he headed out into the night. His wife shook her head. “That’s what you get for marrying Israel’s greatest teacher,” she thought to herself. “Not even the Passover meal itself could keep him from studying Torah.”

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Throughout the Gospel of John, we find an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. In the opening prologue, which we read during the season of Christmas, John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1:5) and a few verses later, “The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.” (1:10).  These images of light and darkness serve as metaphors for kingdom reality.

In this case, it seems that light represents belief, while darkness represents unbelief. It’s pretty clear that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in a state of confusion and spiritual blindness, unable to grasp what Jesus is trying to teach him. Whether he’s being stubborn or simply misguided in his lack of understanding, Nicodemus is completely in the dark when it comes to comprehending how God actually works.

It’s also clear that Nicodemus has been keeping an eye on Jesus. He has seen him teaching in the synagogues, and he recognizes that Jesus teaches with an authority he himself would never dare to claim. Nicodemus has also seen the many miracles that Jesus has performed, some of them right in the temple itself. And that scene back in chapter two with the temple moneychangers must have been a pretty dramatic display of holy indignation.

Some theologians think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in order to hold his conversation in secret. They see Nicodemus as unwilling to admit publicly that he is in contact with Jesus. Others claim that he may have only been trying to speak with Jesus when he had a better chance to actually spend some time talking with him, after the crowds have left for the day. Whatever motivation caused Nicodemus to wait until darkness had fallen, his appearance at night is unusual enough that later, when Nicodemus re-enters the story, he is referred to as “the one who came to Jesus at night.”

When Nicodemus arrives, he doesn’t waste time with pleasantries. He cuts right to the thing that’s been bothering him. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” and this title tells us that Nicodemus thinks of himself and Jesus as equals when it comes to teaching and learning. Nicodemus does not treat Jesus as a subordinate, even though he is introduced as a great leader among the Jews. There is no irony in his use of this title of respect.

“You must come from God, because no one could do all the miraculous signs you do unless God is with him.” This doesn’t sound like a question, really, but it is. Nicodemus is asking Jesus to confirm what Nicodemus suspects, but can’t quite believe. He doesn’t come right out and ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?” the way John the Baptist did, but the message is the same.

Nicodemus comes with his own set of convictions about what is real and true. He has tried to fit his experience of Jesus into his own idea of how the world works, and how God works in it. He has put two and two together, and the only answer he can find is that Jesus must come from God. But he apparently doesn’t like that answer very much. It doesn’t fit with his assumptions, his tradition, his belief system.

Maybe Nicodemus had tried to keep his faith separate from the rest of his life. He followed the rules, he knew the Torah inside and out, but by compartmentalizing his faith, he had never let it change the way he lived his life.

Maybe we are more like Nicodemus than we want to admit. How often do we get stuck in our own assumptions about God? How often does our own limited understanding prevent us from seeing God’s reality? Have you ever felt frustrated, like you just couldn’t figure out what God was trying to tell you? That’s where our friend Nicodemus found himself.

Jesus answers a question Nicodemus doesn’t ask, but it’s the real question that needs answering: “How can I believe you are from God, when nothing you do matches what I think the Messiah is supposed to do and be?”

Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.” Now, we need to pause here for a moment and do a little Greek work. The word we see translated in the NRSV as “from above” can mean more than that, and other translations may read “born anew” or “born again” – they are all correct.  The Greek word, “anothen” carries all three meanings. The confusion arises because Jesus may have meant one thing, while Nicodemus heard another. More likely, Jesus meant all three things, but Nicodemus limited himself to hearing only “born again,” and he took it quite literally.

I’ve always wondered if Nicodemus is being deliberately dense at this point. Maybe he was a bit insulted. Maybe he understands that Jesus could have said, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – and that means you don’t stand a chance, pal.” All of the learning and studying of Torah that Nicodemus had done up to this point was – pointless. What he really needed to do was be born from above, born again, born anew.

So Jesus spells it out for him. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. You’re doing okay on the flesh part – you just need to get going on the spirit part.”

When the Confirmation Class meets this afternoon, we will explore John Wesley’s Quadrilateral approach to seeking God’s will. In case you’re a bit rusty on your Wesleyan Theology, let me give you the short refresher course.

Wesley explained that there are four ways we can hear and identify God’s will for us. First and most important, we seek to know God’s will through his Word. Nicodemus had this one down. He had memorized the entire first five books of the Bible as a very young boy. By the time he was a teenager, Nicodemus had also memorized all the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. If knowing God’s Word had been enough to please God, Nicodemus would have been in great shape.

Wesley’s second focus was Tradition. By this, he did not mean habits that had lost their meaning through repetition, but the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, the understandings and practices that had stood the test of time. Here again, Nicodemus was steeped in tradition. He knew his rituals, and he knew what they meant. But Word and Tradition are not enough, according to Wesley, if we are to truly know God’s desire for us.

The third corner of Wesley’s Quadrilateral is Reason. Human beings are thinking creatures, and we must apply our reason to the process of discerning God’s will for us. Nicodemus was a scholar and a great thinker of his day. So far, he’s three for three.

But then we come to Wesley’s fourth quadrant: Experience. For John Wesley, the assurance of his own salvation had only come after years as an Anglican priest, and many sermons of his own preached to others. As he heard another preacher speak one day, his heart was strangely warmed, and he suddenly knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he belonged to God, and his salvation was secure.

This is where our friend Nicodemus gets stuck. “How can these things be?” he asks Jesus, and then he disappears from the story until the end of chapter seven.

Last week, I mentioned that the season of Lent developed as a time to prepare for baptism on Easter. We heard the first two questions of the Baptismal Covenant, as we considered the temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. 

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Renounce, reject, repent, and accept … this brings us to the third question of the Baptismal Covenant:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

Nicodemus had to decide if he was willing to confess Jesus as his Savior and Lord, putting his whole trust in Christ’s grace. Nicodemus had to be born from above, born anew in the spirit.

Jesus says, you have to be born of water and spirit. Next week, we will encounter a woman at a well, and Jesus will offer her living water. This week, the focus is on spiritual birth. The wind blows where it will … that’s the way it is with people who have been born of the spirit: you can’t see the spirit, but you can see its effect in their lives. Whatever is born of the flesh will eventually die and decay. Whatever is born of the spirit is spirit, and can never decay.

An interesting thing happens at this point. Jesus starts talking in plural terms. Jesus turns to us, and says, “If I tell you all of earthly things, like wind and water, and you don’t get it, how will you be able to grasp heavenly things, like spirit and rebirth? Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe on him may have eternal life.

For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

How are we like Rabbi Nic? What keeps us in the dark, preventing us from renouncing, rejecting, repenting of our own way, in order to accept Jesus as Lord and be born anew of the Spirit? What assumptions do we hold onto, that prevent us from experiencing the heart-warming peace that comes with confessing Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and trusting in his grace alone? How do we try to keep our faith hidden, or separated from the other parts of our lives?

Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful because he had many possessions? We never know the end of his story, because the gospels never mention him again. But we do hear from Nicodemus again – twice. The first time, he defends Jesus to the other Pharisees and priests, asking the other leaders to give Jesus a fair trial. The last time we see him, he is at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking down Jesus’ broken body and preparing it for burial with an unusually large amount of spices.

Did he finally come into the light?
Did he eventually experience a spiritual birth?

I think so. I think Nicodemus shows us that sometimes we don’t get an Aldersgate experience. Sometimes, the process of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior takes a while. Some of us can’t identify a single moment when we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our salvation is secure, but we can claim Christ’s grace just as certainly as John Wesley did, and we confess Jesus as our Lord.

So, what is your response? Is Jesus calling you out of the darkness of your own limitations, into the light of his saving grace? Are you ready to make him Lord of your entire life, not just the part that you think of as “belonging to church”? Are you ready to step out of the darkness, and into the light of God’s love for you? For God loved you in this way: he gave his only Son, that if you believe in him, you will not perish but you will have eternal life.

It’s time to change the title of this sermon. Instead of “In the dark … again?” my prayer is that each of us would follow Jesus “Out of the dark, anew.” May it be so.  Amen.

Fish Tacos!

I used to have these in Eugene, Oregon on the Fourth of July, but we’ve tweaked the recipe (plain slaw, fried fish, grated cheese on a flour tortilla) quite a bit, and tonight, I think we found the perfect combination of ingredients.

Start with the slaw. Make this at least four hours before dinner, so the flavors have a chance to meld. Stir it a couple of times. Bruce got the original recipe from “Obscure Topics Television” – aka public TV – and you can find it on ChristineCooks.com. The only thing we’ve done differently is use half red and half green cabbage, and taken a short cut on the roasted red peppers. Here goes:

Spicy Cole Slaw

1/2 small head red cabbage, finely shredded
1/2 small head green cabbage, finely shredded
2 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels
3-4 Tbsp. bottled chopped, roasted red peppers
3/4 c. coarsely chopped cilantro
1 c. red wine vinegar
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 fresh jalepeno, finely chopped (leave the seeds in for more heat)
sea salt

Combine the cabbage, corn, peppers, and cilantro in a mixing bowl. Whisk together vinegar, oil, cumin, chili, and salt to taste. Toss with vegetables to coat. Chill completely, tossing again just before serving.

Honestly, this stuff is divine and I will never make a mayonnaise-dressed slaw again.

Now for the tacos:

Grate some cheddar into a bowl and set aside.

Make a sauce of half Ranch dressing and half sour cream, and set aside.

Warm some corn tortillas. You can use flour tortillas if you want to, since they hold together better when soft, but the flavor of the corn is better, I think. Warm the tortillas over a gas flame, or wrapped in waxed paper in the microwave, or wrapped in a damp towel in a 200-degree oven – or some combination of the three methods.

Cut about a pound of tilapia (or cod) into 1-inch wide strips.

In a pie plate, make a batter of:
1 c. flour
1 c. amber ale
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 tsp. lemon pepper

Combine 1/2 c. flour with 1/2. plain bread crumbs in another pie plate.

Heat an inch of oil in a heavy skillet. Coat each fish strip in the batter, then dredge in the flour mixture, and fry in small batches for about a minute and a half. Turn with tongs and fry another minute or so, until golden brown. Remove to a baking sheet covered in several layers of paper towels, and keep warm in a 200-degree oven. Then repeat with remaining fish. My skillet holds about four strips at a time, leaving plenty of room to turn easily.

To assemble the tacos, pass elements around the table in this order:
tortillas
slaw (use a slotted spoon – this stuff is juicy)
fish
Ranch sauce
cheese

Makes about 8 tacos.
Have damp towels ready – good food, like life, gets messy sometimes.
Enjoy your favorite micro-brew with your tacos!

Cocido or Caldo (depending on your Iberian origins)

Now I have to tell you that, when I was posting these notes on Facebook back in 2009, I had no idea if anyone was actually reading them.  I was just trying to see if I could come up with enough recipes to fill a whole month.  Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.  Especially when my friends started chiming in.  So this next recipe isn’t mine. You have been warned.

Getting into the spirit of sharing food ideas, here’s something from Andrew Peterson of Kansas City. Andy is the one who got the Kansas City Chorale connected to Nimbus Records back in the 1990s, and I am pleased to share his recipe with you here (but I take no responsibility for his editorial comments).

“Here’s something to spring on your friends. An old family heirloom handed down from my great great aunt Dona Singularo Edwarda Mephisto Caracas Meyer Petersen. (A quiet and gentle servant of the Lord.):

Cocido or Caldo (depending on your Iberian origins)

“This recipe can have as many variants as you decide, though in Spain the important and consistent ingredient is Garbanzos.

2-3 lbs of pork (boned) Loin, Butt – it does not matter. (A bit of fat on.)
1 Cup Breadcrumbs
2 Large Onions (any color) – it does not matter – sliced thin.
1 Cup Jalepeno Salsa or fresh Jalepenos or Anaheim Chiles or Serrano peppers – it does not matter.
1/4 Cup Olive Oil – it does not matter – so don’t listen to that freak Rachel Rae. Sin verguenza!
1tbs Garlic powder
1tbs Spanish (smoked) Paprika) – it does indeed matter.
11/2tbs Kosher Salt
1tsp Cumin
1tbs Oregano
1tbs Basil
1tbs Cracked Black Pepper
1Bay Leaf
1/2tsp Ground Cloves
2-3 (12oz) Cans of Garbanzo beans
2-3 (12oz) Cans of Diced Tomatoes
(1 Cup of Red Wine)
1 ½ Cup of Green Olives (pimento stuffed)

“Okay, here we go. In a bowl, add the Breadcrumbs and half the Salt and Pepper. On the stove Heat a large (3-4 quart) Dutch Oven or pot. Turn heat to low. Add ¼ cup of olive oil. Dredge the meat in the breadcrumb mixture and turn into pot…browning on all sides.

“When the meat has browned, add the Garbanzos, Tomatoes, half the Onions, Jalepeno Salsa, Bay Leaf, Cumin, Oregano, Basil, and remaining Salt and Pepper. Turn the meat one time in this mixture and cover.

“Heat oven to 350 and cook the stew for 1 hour.

“When 1 Hour is up, remove the meat and cut into cubes. Add the meat back to the stew, and add the Wine, Olives, Paprika and cloves. At this time, depending on the consistency, add more wine or water to thin it, or more of the breadcrumbs to thicken it. Or, leave it alone. Cover, turn oven down to 300 and cook 2 hrs.

“Remove from oven. Allow to set for 30 minutes before serving. Bring to table with a rustic bread and a hearty red wine. You are now a genius!

“Listen, this recipe can be varied any number of ways. Use Lamb Shanks or Ox Tail, Duck or Turkey. The cooking time will be less for fowl. Vary the spices. You might want to substitute Thyme, or Coriander, or even Sage. What should remain stable is the Garbanzo. It is the signature to all good Spanish stews. Have fun, enjoy the recipe, and for god’s sake…if it turns out bad, it really is your fault … Don’t call me. Hope you like it, Andrew”

Pumpkin Dip

This works as an appetizer, a dessert, or a snack with a cup of afternoon coffee.

1 15 oz can pumpkin
8 oz cream cheese
1 lb powdered sugar
1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
(or 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp nutmeg & 1/4 tsp cloves)

Cream the cheese and sugar together. Add the pumpkin and spices. Blend well. Refrigerate. Serve with ginger snaps (we get the Hostess brand from the bread store… buy 2-3 bags).

Bonus recipe:

Make a pumpkin pie out of the leftovers. Add 3 eggs and 1 c. Half & Half to 2 c. pumpkin dip. Add some more pumpkin pie spice. Pour into a prepared pie crust and bake at 350 for an hour, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. (You could even make a crust from crushed leftover ginger snaps and melted butter – but if you had any ginger snaps left, you’d be dipping them instead of making pie, right?)

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

This is, hands down, my all-time favorite dessert. I suppose most people consider anything with pumpkin in it to be a Fall dish, but why wait? If you have a can of pumpkin in your pantry, left over from last Thanksgiving, this is a great excuse to rinse off the dust and open it up.

6 c. French bread cubes, toasted (I use the unseasoned stuffing cubes you can buy at the day-old bread store)
2 c. Half & Half or evaporated milk
1 1/2 c sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin
1/2 c raisins
1/2 c chopped toasted pecans
3 T. butter, melted
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (OR 1/2 tsp each of ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, with 1 tsp cinnamon & 1/4 tsp cloves)
1 tsp grated orange rind (zest)

Lightly butter an 11 x 7 baking dish, and put the bread cubes in it. Pour the Half & Half over the cubes, and stir to moisten. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl, and gently fold into the bread cubes. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, or until set (the top will no longer be shiny). Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Zippy Aspic

Kinda old-fashioned – who serves aspic anymore? – but when someone brought this to a church supper, I went back for seconds. This isn’t the original recipe, but I like it better.

2 c. Caliente V-8 juice (or Snappy Tom)
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 small pkg. lemon Jello
3/4 c. chopped celery
1/2 c. sliced green olives (stuffed with pimiento)

Bring 1 c. of the V-8 juice to a boil. Stir in the Jello until it dissolves completely, then add 1 c. chilled V-8 juice and the vinegar (if you use plain tomato juice, add another T. of vinegar and some ground pepper). Pour over the celery and olives in a pretty bowl, stir a bit. The olives will float to the top and this is fine. Chill until firm. If you make this in an oblong Pyrex dish, it’s easy to cut into squares to serve. You can spread softened cream cheese (beaten with a little milk to keep it soft) over the top – or dollop some sour cream or plain yogurt on each serving if you want to, but I never do.

Unsubscribed

On the first Sunday of Lent, I sat down after lunch to tackle my daily e-mail chore.  Usually, this consists of reading a couple of messages from my family, then deleting a long string of unread messages. Every time I delete one without reading it, I feel a little twinge of guilt, but I delete it anyway. Some of these messages come from companies that have sold me items in the past.  The subject lines indicate that they have something new to offer me, at a price I can’t refuse. Some of the messages are from blogs to which I subscribed a long time ago. Let me be clear: none of these messages are really “spam.” I subscribed to them all at some point in time. I just don’t read them anymore.

On the first Sunday of Lent, I discovered a new Lenten discipline: I decided to repent of my e-mail sin. One by one, I opened each message, scrolled down to find the “Unsubscribe” button, and clicked it. One by one, my inbox filled up again with confirmation messages that I had successfully unsubscribed.  One even said, “We’re sorry to see you go, but it’s your e-mail. We respect that.”

On the first Monday of Lent, I checked my morning e-mail to find three messages from websites I had missed the day before. Three. Scroll, click, click, they were gone. Screenshot 2014-03-10 17.06.52

This isn’t exactly 40 bags in 40 days, but it has the same effect as de-cluttering a corner of my house: I am free from the nagging guilt I feel every time I delete a message I haven’t read.  I am free from using my time to scan messages I don’t want to read. I am free to focus on what really matters, as I try to be a little more like Jesus each day of this Lenten season.  I’m giving up junk e-mail for Lent, so I can take on the discipline of spending more time with God. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Resistance Training – Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 March 9, 2014

Did you ever play the “Who Am I?” riddle game when you were a kid?  Let’s try it. I will read you three statements about someone I’m pretending to be, and you try to guess who I am. Ready?

First I lived in a garden, but now I work on a farm.
I don’t have a belly button.
I really like to eat fruit.
Who am I?

I hid my baby brother in a basket in the river.
When Pharaoh’s daughter found him, I helped her get someone to take care of him – that someone happened to be our mother!
When he grew up, I helped my brother lead our people out of Egypt.
Who am I?

I have killed lions and bears and at least one giant.
I like to sing.
I started out as a shepherd, but grew up to be a king.
Who am I?

I know the scriptures really well.
When I was baptized, my father was very happy with me.
Lots of people follow me around, but I only have a few really close friends.
Who am I?

How did you do? Could you guess them all? Did you recognize Adam or Eve, Miriam, David and Jesus? At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had to figure out the answer to that question, “Who am I?” Last week, as we read the story about the Transfiguration, we heard a voice come out of the dark cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ This same voice out of heaven had said the same thing after John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan.

But what does it mean to be God’s beloved Son?  Before Jesus could begin to heal the blind and the lame, cleanse lepers and make the deaf to hear, before he could raise the dead or preach good news to the poor[1], Jesus had to figure out just who he was, and how his identity was connected to the identity of God, the Great I AM.

Not only did Jesus need to figure out his identity as the Son of God, he needed to prepare for the ministry he was about to undertake. He had spent thirty years getting ready for this moment, studying scripture, praying constantly, living an obedient life – but he was still new to the actual work of ministry. And before he could begin, he had to be tested. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1 through 11:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’  Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Jesus needed to be strong for the work he was about to begin, and he needed an identity for completing that work. So the Spirit of God led him out into the wilderness, where he could get in shape for what was to come.

In the fitness world, there is a form of exercise called “resistance training.” The premise is simple: muscle strength and endurance develop by pulling or pushing against an elastic band or hydraulic system. As muscles get stronger, increasing the level of resistance encourages even greater strength and muscle tone. This process pushes the muscles to their limit, without pushing them to the point of damage, so, unlike bodybuilding that increases muscle size, resistance training builds strength without building bulk.

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days and nights of preparation before Satan came to tempt him. For forty days and forty nights, Jesus was building spiritual strength, and toning his spiritual muscles through the disciplines of fasting and prayer. For 40 days and nights, Jesus was engaging in “resistance training” that would help him get through the temptations Satan presented to him.

Our 40 days of Lent are meant to correspond to this time of spiritual training that Jesus experienced. But that number “40” has significance throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. When we hear the phrase “forty days and forty nights” in this passage, we may think immediately of Noah, but Matthew probably had Moses more in mind. Moses met God after he had fasted 40 days and nights on a high mountain, and it was only then that he could receive God’s commandments for his people.

The wilderness is significant, too. The wilderness is where we are most vulnerable. There are no resources to sustain life. It was in the wilderness that Moses met God, and it was in the wilderness that the Israelites wandered, and learned to depend completely on God for food and water. The wilderness is nearly always a place of struggle in the Bible.

It’s lonely in the wilderness. And loneliness is one of the devil’s favorite tools for working his way into our lives. When we are lonely, we are more likely to feel sorry for ourselves, to look for pleasure and human connection in places we shouldn’t go, to feel that God has abandoned us. When we feel isolated and unloved, Satan steps in at just that moment, to take advantage of our vulnerability, to prey on our weakness.

Notice that Satan waited until Jesus was hungry, at the end of his 40-day fast, before he made a move. But Satan apparently didn’t realize that the very thing he’d counted on to make Jesus weak had actually made Jesus strong. Jesus had spent forty days and nights in resistance training, and Satan didn’t stand a chance. Jesus had spent forty days and nights figuring out what it meant to be the beloved Son of God, and he was ready. Hungry, but ready.

First, Satan appealed to the very human condition of hunger. Satisfy yourself, he told Jesus. Make these stones into bread. C’mon, you can do it, if you are the Son of God! This is the same taunt Jesus will hear as he hangs on the cross. Prove that you are from God by doing something no one else can do. But Jesus answered from Deuteronomy, “We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”

Then, Satan appealed to the desire for fame. It would have been pretty spectacular to jump off the tallest building around, in front of crowds of people, and not even sprain an ankle. But Jesus had his resistance training on full alert. Satan sought to undermine Christ’s identity by tempting Jesus with power and glory for himself, but Jesus resisted by relying on God’s power and glory. “Don’t test God,” Jesus said, remembering the way the Israelites had tested God in the wilderness when they had begged for water, after receiving manna and quail.

Finally, Satan strips off any pretense of offering Jesus fame and fortune. He goes for what he really wants. “Worship me,” Satan says, “and I’ll give you the whole world.” I wonder if Jesus laughed at Satan at this point. He could have quoted Psalm 50 to him:

“For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” (Ps 50:10-12)

What business did Satan have, promising the world to Jesus, when the world already belonged to Jesus, through whom it was created? Just as before, Jesus resisted temptation with words from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Now, get lost, Satan. Three times, Satan tried to appeal to the very human tendency to grab power. Three times, Satan offered the same thing to Jesus that had tripped up Adam and Eve back in the garden – the promise of being the one in control, being “like God.”

In each case, Jesus answered Satan with scripture, pointing to God alone as the source of power and sustenance. In each case, Jesus affirmed his identity as the beloved Son of God. In each case, Jesus relied on his resistance training to withstand Satan’s attempts to distract him from his purpose and ministry.

So Satan gave up, and left.

In the letter from James to the early church, we read, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8a) This is exactly what happened out there in the wilderness. Jesus submitted himself to God, recognizing that his own identity was dependent on his relationship with the Father. He resisted the devil, and the devil fled.

Not only did Jesus know who he was in order to resist Satan, resisting Satan’s temptations shaped Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Adam and Eve failed the test. Every one of us fails the test. But Jesus didn’t. Only the Son of God could effectively pass the test of being the Son of God, able to resist every temptation.

Our identity is spelled out in the Baptismal Covenant. The very first question asks,
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Renounce, reject, and repent. That’s how we know who we are, beloved children of God who call upon God’s grace to renounce wickedness, reject evil, and repent of our sin.

Resisting Satan’s temptations strengthened Jesus’ focus and dependence on God alone. His resistance training continued through the temptations, and made him even stronger and more able to resist further attack, as he depended fully on God the Father. We, too, are strengthened through our continued spiritual development, through our discipleship.
Again, the Baptismal Covenant asks us:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Resistance training prepares us to rely on God when we face temptation, to find our strength and identity in God alone. Lent is all about resistance training. This season in the church year was originally designed to be a time of preparation for Easter. This was a time to prepare new believers for baptism, to grow deeper and richer in faith, to develop spiritual disciplines that would reinforce each Christian’s identity as a beloved child of God.

Maybe you aren’t ready to fast for forty days and forty nights, as Jesus did in the wilderness. But I encourage you this week, to attempt a fast of some kind. Make it intentional. This isn’t a diet plan, so don’t go into it expecting to lose weight by eating less. Maybe your health requires that you eat regular meals, so skipping one isn’t a good idea for you. In that case, try eliminating a bad habit for one week. Or, maybe, you could participate in the “40 bags in 40 days” effort to simplify your life by de-cluttering one area of your home every day for the next 40 days. Maybe you can think of another way you can “fast” that doesn’t include food.

If you have never fasted, and you decide to fast from food this week, you may want to skip dinner one night, breakfast and lunch the next day, and then eat dinner the second night. This way, you will have fasted a full day, but you will also eat something each day. If you fast from food, be sure to drink plenty of water. I also suggest that you break your fast with a piece of fruit, instead of a cheeseburger and fries. Believe me, your intestines will thank you.

Several years ago, I decided to fast one day a week for a year, to pray for a friend who suffered from depression. At the end of that year, I told my friend what I had done, and I confessed that I wasn’t sure it had done him as much good as it had done me. I discovered in that year that I only got so hungry, and then I was just hungry. Feeling hungry became my signal to pray, so my prayer life improved immensely. The time I would have spent preparing and eating food became time to focus on God’s Word, so my Bible study life improved immensely.

But mostly, I discovered that the days I fasted in my own strength were disasters, and the days I depended completely on God to get me through my fast were the days I grew in faith.

That is what I would hope for you, if you choose to observe a day of fasting and prayer this week: that you might grow in faith. Then you will have begun your own resistance training, and you will be one step closer to finding the strength you need to resist the devil, so he will flee from you. You will be one step closer to finding your true identity as a beloved child of God. Amen.


[1] Matthew 11:5; Isaiah 61:1

A Messy Business

The confirmands looked serious as they read scripture, imposed ashes, and offered bread and cup to the congregation,

And there were babies crying and toddlers talking loudly,

And the ashes got all over everywhere, and the bowls were slippery with the glycerine we smeared on our fingertips to keep the ashes from sticking to our hands;

And the gluten-free bread crumbled into the chalice as we dipped big chunks of it, then handed them to congregants who seemed surprised to receive so much;

And the children came with their parents, eager eyes shining, and hands outstretched to receive the bread, dipped in grape juice just for them;

And the people had to hold hymnbooks and follow the printed order of worship, because there was no slide show projecting the words of each song on the wall;

And they didn’t seem to mind.

And we confessed our sin,

And we were pardoned.

With ashes everywhere, and bread crumbs on the floor,
And grape juice dripping down our fingers,
We accepted Christ’s body and blood, broken and shed for us.

And we remembered that following Jesus is messy business.