Looking Lectionary: Lent 1A

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Wilderness? A street in Aleppo. Source.

Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV)

Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

It’s been raining in my town for the last few days, a rare phenomenon in the highveld where our rain is usually loosed in abrupt, fierce storms. From a mist to a persistent drizzle to a sagging downpour, the rainy weather has me longing to hibernate the grey skies away with books and warm socks and lots of coffee, responsibilities be damned.

I must admit, this particular season of Lent is having a similarly soporific effect on me: I want to hibernate through this season of waiting and busyness and preparation, and get to Easter Sunday. That’s the biggest temptation I’m facing this Lent: to let it wash over me rather than consciously submerge myself in it. You see, I’m hungry for the cross – for its power, its redemption and ultimately its victory. But the hard work of getting there? The hard work of waiting, trusting, hoping?

The international political meltdown has revealed an underbelly of ugliness in the world. Headlines are fresh with widespread anger, hatred, frustration, intolerance and ignorance. The political right is finding and building support in nations that were once beacons of tolerance and democracy. Globally we’re hardly facing a rosy future this Lent. In moments like these, who wants to do the work of waiting, trusting and hoping? Not me! I want the cross, stat. The world needs the cross, stat.

But if it’s true today it was as true back when Jesus followed the Spirit into the wilderness.

One wonders if he was impatient. Did the wilderness feel like a waste of time, time that could be better spent healing, teaching, reaching out to people? Jesus waited thirty years to start his ministry – yet still he had to spend more than a month away from the people he’d come for! Did he question the wisdom of the experience at the time? Or was he grateful for the opportunity to face down temptation, to obey God where humanity had failed to do so and gotten itself into a whole mess of trouble?

Well, knowing Jesus…

Are we grateful for the opportunity to face temptation, waiting, preparation, anxiety and longing this Lent? Are we grateful for an opportunity to be obedient, or do we resent it, resent having to wait for the cross? (Hooboy!) Are we grateful that we get to live in a time of danger, confusion and fear – a world in which the presence of the cross is needed all the more acutely?

Lent presents us with an incredible opportunity: to wait for the cross in the full assurance that it will come. Let’s be encouraged, and encourage the people around us, to wait with a longing and expectant heart for Easter morning in a world that seems darkest before dawn.

Blessings,

L

#CoffeeTimePrayer: Finding life

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Reading: Luke 24:1-5 (NRSV)

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Quite a few years ago there was a fatal motor car accident on one of our town’s bridges. Next to it, between the bridge and its intersection now sits a small patch of well-maintained grass, decorated with a white wooden cross, flowers and other mementos. Looking at this memorial when driving past is a sad reminder of the way we try to remember life where it has passed, and how painful it can be to revisit the tombs of our grief.

It couldn’t have been easy for the women to visit Jesus’ tomb that morning. They had spent the Sabbath in shock, grief and mourning, having lost their friend, their leader and the man they thought their Messiah to a painful, humiliating death. Their emotional pain would probably have been augmented by fear: fear of the political climate in Jerusalem, anxiety about whether they or their friends or relatives would face the same fate as Jesus had, worry about whether they would be ostracised, disappointed that things had not turned out differently. No indeed, visiting Jesus’ tomb as the twelve hid was an act of devotion, bravery and duty that gets far too little attention in male-driven narratives!

But imagine their confusion (elation, bewilderment, disbelief, shock) when they find only a vision of angels and an empty tomb instead of Jesus’ body. Imagine the beginning of hope in the pits of their stomachs as they began to wonder – could it be true? What if Jesus had risen again? What if his terrible death had been redeemed? What if their longing for their Messiah wasn’t hopeless after all?

The words of the angel chided them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” These words asked so many other questions: Why did you not believe? Why did you mourn? Why did you lose hope? Did you truly not realise that the tomb was empty all along?

Well, friends? Why do we – resurrected to new lives in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) – continue to look for the living among the dead? What do we hope to find among the tombs of our former, sin-dead lives, other than graves? And yet – if only we would take the trouble to roll away the stones covering them – we would see that these tombs are empty. Not because we never died, but because we have already risen in the Spirit.

Lent starts in a few weeks. In the northern hemisphere Christians can look to the beginnings of spring around them to remember their new life. In the southern hemisphere, however, we can look to the discolouring leaves, the longer nights, the crisper air to remind us that yes, we have descended into the grave just like our Lord. But the grave couldn’t contain him and it can’t contain us, just like winter cannot constantly contain the world.

What was buried will rise again.

Instead of seeking our lives among the dead, let us seek Life, eternal and abundant (John 10:10) with its source, Jesus Christ.


Prayer: Dearest Lord, I seek and find my life in You today. Amen.

Looking Lectionary: Epiphany 8A

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“No one can serve two masters…”

Reading: Matthew 6:24-34 NRSV

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I find it telling that Jesus’ personification of wealth as an evil master is retained by using the Aramaic word “Mammon” in the Greek text of Matthew. This part of Jesus’ discourse presents wealth and its attendant worries as a unified issue. Jesus thus draws an interesting parallel between worldly worry (over self-centred, earthly concerns) and idolatry.

Worry does share many characteristics with “pagan” or law-based idolatry: we pay worry nervous attention, we fearfully structure our thoughts and lives around it, we worship it with spillover emotions like anger, frustration and fear, we seek to appease it with constant mental and emotional fidgeting, we become agitated when we cannot indulge it.

This provides an interesting contrast to the Kingdom life Jesus has been expounding from the start of Matthew chapter five: a life marked with peace amid persecution, blessing amid difficulties, care and attention in an indifferent world, personal and communal responsibility as opposed to “the done thing” and skew societal norms.

In presenting these two masters, Jesus is obliquely and gently showing us which one it would be better to be devoted to to the hatred of the other. If serving Mammon with worry, fear and anxiety is so terrible – and it is, for neither worry not idolatry changes anything or threatens the Truth – then surely it’s better to serve your Father and be in service of his kingdom?

That’s the challenge to tackle in our Epiphany 8A sermons, blog posts, devotionals and ruminations: how fundamentally different God’s Kingdom is from the world, and how desperately the world needs God’s Kingdom reality.

Blessings for your sermons,

L

Looking Lectionary: Epiphany 7A

Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Last year I read an article about a potential earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault line that runs from the coast of the US Pacific Northwest all the way to Vancouver Island in Canada. The article was called “The really big one”, a reference to the more well-known earthquake expected along the San Andreas Fault, “The big one”. But whereas “the big one” would cap at about 8.2 on the Richter scale, the one along the Cascade Range has an upper limit of between 8.7 and 9.2.

With only a few weeks to go until Lent in a very interesting and tumultuous time in our world’s history, Epiphany 7A is in many ways “the really big one” when it comes to Christian faith. In Matthew 5:38-48 Jesus continues to walk us through the responsibilities of Kingdom living. His antithetical statements (“You have heard it said… But I say…”) continue. He tears down the “accepted” practices of the culture around him that are really clever corruptions of the law.

But now his attention shifts to our greatest test: how we deal with those who oppose us. One of the biggest challenges for twenty-first century Christians is how we treat those we consider an “enemy” to our way of life. The most profound difference between the context Jesus addresses in this discourse and our own context is that, in most countries, Christianity has “power over”. In Jesus’ time, however, Jews were living under the double oppression of the ruling Romans and their own ruling class.

Dr Hannah Adams Ingram makes an interesting observation on Jesus’ apparent suggestion not to fight back. She writes that Jesus saying to “turn the other cheek” is an act of defiance:

Scholars suggest that for someone to slap another on the right cheek, it would have likely been a backhanded slap reserved for people considered to be of lower status. So when Jesus challenges his audience to turn the other cheek, he is encouraging a subversive act that equalizes the status of the two people.[1]

Culturally most of us are in a position where we would be striking the right cheek, so to speak. Our responsibility, then, our “cheek turning” is to embody our positions of “power over” in such a way that they become “power with”. We are to love our “enemies” in such a way that they become neighbours: that is the Kingdom way.

Our world has become very partisan. It can be hard to tolerate someone from “the other side” of politics or religion on our Facebook feeds, let alone real life. Yet loving our enemies is “the really big one”, the event that ruptures and reforms the landscape of our daily life. Whether it becomes the bedrock of a Kingdom life or serves merely to tear down the idols we’ve built is up to us.

Blessings,

L


[1] https://modernmetanoia.org/2017/02/06/7th-sunday-after-epiphany-wwjd/

#CoffeeTimePrayer: The guest of sinners

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Some days you read something in the Bible that makes your heart skip a beat.

This week Luke 19:7 was that for me. Tucked away in the familiar story about short Zacchaeus is this observation: “All who saw it [Jesus visiting with Zacchaeus] began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” What a wonderful reality this is! In his incarnation, our Lord and Saviour came to be the guest of sinners – of our fallen world – all to the purpose of reconciling us to God and letting us into the Kingdom.

Most of us are lucky (?) enough that we get to forget the sin we’ve been forgiven for. We’re so used to grace, so used to the overpowering and victorious love of God that we forget just what a big deal it is. But it wasn’t always that way, and I think that’s why people like Paul were so transported by the utter mercy of God – having been under the broad axe of the law, they understood perfectly just what they had been redeemed from. But two thousand years after his sacrificing, atoning death, many of us have had the cultural luxury of easy access to knowledge of Jesus and grace, and easy participation in his Body and his blood. While many more people today can say that they’re saved than in the years after Jesus’ Crucifixion (and that’s a good thing!), I think we sometimes forget exactly what it is we’ve been saved from – death!

My prayer this week is that I’ll be reminded of the sheer volume of God’s grace. If I am – if I remember what a sinner I am, and that I’m a sinner saved – then I should also be able to remember that others are sinners, saved too, or that some are sinners in need of salvation. In recognising my own sinful nature, who then am I to judge others for theirs?

If grace is to be appreciated and fully embraced, it follows that even while we recognise that we’ve been made new in Christ, we cannot forget the old nature. Our condemned nature is the soil in which the seed of our metanoia, our conversion, takes root. We don’t become new people in Christ because we forget the old; on the contrary, remembering who we were before is essential to our lives in Christ! I’m convinced that Christianity as a religion and as a moral bulwark is in decline exactly because we’ve become so used to our salvation that we’ve forgotten how much we needed it – and still do – in the first place!

If I ever get a tattoo, it’ll be two words on my wrist: sinner, saved. To me that encapsulates “grace” in a way that the word “grace” can’t. It’s the old nature, death, sin defeated; and the grace of a new morning, a second chance, a love indescribable. It’s the very reality of Jesus Christ.

As we head into February, let’s not suffer from amnesia. Yes, we were sinners – terrible sinners, with mistakes as tall as buildings. We don’t have to dwell on this, but we have to make peace with it if we’re to properly understand and experience just what it means to be saved, what it means to be alive, what it means to be free and loved.

Prayer: Jesus, you’re mighty to save! Thank you for your grace, your love! Thank you for our redemption! Holy Spirit, help me to remember the awesome reality of being a “sinner, saved”. Help me to remember that I too am a sinner in need of a Saviour, as much, if not more than other people!