Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Unbearable Cuteness of Being

For Valentine's Day, my sister sent these pics of our new niece, Lauren:

I'd say someone is pretty darn happy today!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Worshiping the Lord God

Worshiping the Lord God
Matthew 4:1-11
February 10, 2008
1st Sunday in Lent

© 2008 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Jesus temptations by the devil are designed to test his spiritual maturity. Whereas Adam and Eve failed the testing of the devil, Jesus Christ prevails, relying on God’s very word to parry the attacks of the tempter.

Sermon Function: To encourage listeners that we should strive to turn away from the idolatries that tempt us to worship someone or something other than God; to encourage listeners to renew their spiritual commitment to Christ; and to remember the great hope we have in Jesus, the one who did withstand all the temptations of life, and who, at the cost of his life, secured our eternal salvation.

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We are now in the season of Lent, a season of introspection and repentance. Starting with Ash Wednesday, the Christian community is reminded of its sinful nature, and of its finitude – its mortality.

Today’s text takes us into the wilderness, a place long associated with isolation, loneliness, and temptation, where Jesus has an encounter similar to the one that beset Adam and Eve at the dawn of creation.

Let’s listen now to God’s word to us.

[Read Scripture - Matthew 4:1-11]

Introductory Comments

The story of Jesus’ temptation by the διάβολος, Satan, is an appropriate text to start off the Lent season. We are in the great forty days preceding Easter, and Jesus was himself taken up, immediately after his baptism, into the wilderness for a period of testing lasting forty days. Moses was in the mountain for 40 days and nights in order to receive the Law, Elijah was tested for 40 days and nights, and the people of Israel wandered in the dessert for 40 years. Wilderness, isolation, and temptation are all elements related to the idea that we are tested by God.

Jesus is presented by Matthew as being in a state of physical duress. He has fasted throughout his time in the wilderness, and is now famished. This is a potential weakness, and sure enough, the temptation comes.

The First Temptation – You’re Hungry, So Eat

Matthew records that the tempter first tests Jesus by suggesting “if” he was the Son of God, why not turn these stones into loaves of bread. Jesus is tested hear to satiate his immediate need, food. Are you hungry, Jesus? All you need to do is get a little bread in you. There are actually two parts in the devil’s first temptation. The first part of the question is meant to induce doubt. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil said. Jesus has just entered the wilderness having heard the divine voice proclaiming him to be the Son, the Beloved, at his baptism. The deceiver first sews doubt, and then moves on to the matter of Jesus’ hunger pains.

Writing in Presbyterians Today, Kenneth Bailey notes that this first temptation can be thought of as the very human need to have things.1

We all have human needs that must be fulfilled for us to survive. And that’s okay. We’re created beings and as such have basic needs that require our attention. But what of other things that we need, or just want? What effect do these things have on our lives of faith?

In fact, our perceived needs can be destructive. Even one of our most basic needs, eating, can be destructive, because it can devolve into gluttony and guilt. And we are all time persuaded that we “need” things that we really don’t need.

Our perceived needs can overwhelm us, in fact. Our needs can become so important to us that we forget the One who already knows what we need – the One who provides food for living creatures. The One who gives us life itself. And when our needs take over and we forget the source of our lives, we have committed one of the most basic, commonplace sins of all – idolotry. We sin when our perceived needs take the place of God.

Jesus responds to the slander’s temptation by quoting scripture, Deuteronomy 8:3 to be exact. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4 NRSV). The temptation was bested by referring to the great repository of truth we have in the Holy Scripture.

The temptation to have is put down by Jesus with the use of a Book. About this fact, Dale Brunner writes:
“If Jesus found his way into ministry and around temptation through the faithful remembering of Scripture and sacrament, the church should not think that she can find better ways.”2
And I think the same can be said of us individually. All to often we neglect the discipline of reading and reflecting on the Word of God. The season of Lent affords us the opportunity once again to reinvigorate this practice.

Temptation Two – Supernatural Displays of Power

In the next temptation, the scene shifts and the devil says to Jesus, “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’” (Matt 4:6 NRSV). Interesting that the devil, having heard Jesus quote Scripture, now quotes Scripture himself, this time from Psalm 91.

A good friend of mind once sought spiritual direction at a silent retreat. A silent retreat is what it sounds like – silence. My friend had reached a point in his life when he felt like he was “stuck” spiritually. He went to a monastery far away, and was placed under the spiritual director of one of the monks. For him, the silence was very awkward. Silence was expected everywhere, including during mealtimes. My friend shared with me that it took him several days to figure out the appropriate way of asking one of the brothers to pass the green beans. You first had to get the attention of the monk closest to the beans, and then through as series of silent nods, winks, and gestures communicate that you wanted him to pass the beans.

The only time talking was allowed occurred during one-on-one discussions with the spiritual director. My friend expressed his frustration at his current spiritual state. The monk looked at him for a moment, and then asked him the question: “What does your heart desire the most? Think about this for the next day, and then let’s meet again.”

My friend went back to his cell and reflected on the question for some time, and then again the next day. When he met with his spiritual director, he answered by saying, “I want to be the most faithful servant of Jesus Christ that I can be.” Again, the monk observed my friend, and then said to him, “Take another day to think about it, and then let’s talk.” My friend was taken aback, initially, but followed his director’s advice and reflected some more on the question about what his heart most desired.

He arrived again at the office of the spiritual director, and was asked the question about what his heart most desired. This time my friend knew the answer. He said this:

“What I most desire is to be famous, to be popular and well-liked, to have people look to me as a leader, and to be respected and admired for who I am. I want to be viewed as a person of high achievement. I want to be known in my community as a success.”

This second temptation is the temptation to do, to be a person of accomplishment, to be spectacular, famous, high-achieving. To have your posse, your entourage around to catch you when you fall, to push those pesky photographers out of the way so that you have unobstructed access to the VIP room at the most popular club in town.

Here’s that sin of idolatry once again. This time, however, it’s more like idolatry of fame rather than of things. And fame become idolatrous when it causes us to take our eyes off what ought to be the true object of our worship, almighty God.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy once again when he corrects the devil’s abusive use of Scripture and replies, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt 4:7 NRSV).

Dale Brunner writes, “Where the first temptation had tried to reach Jesus through his week spot, he now tries to reach Jesus through his strong spot, his faith in God’s Word.”3 We have our own strong spots, areas of expertise and achievement, but these can become idols when they start us down the road of sinful pride. Pride becomes the idol, and we lose sight of God.

Temptation Three – Power

In the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus up to a very high mountain, and promises him all of the kingdoms of the world, in all their glorious splendor and beauty. All that Jesus needs to do is fall down prostrate in front of the slanderer, and to worship him.

First it was idolatry of things, then idolatry of fame, and now it’s an idolatry of power that forms the basis of the test. Brunner calls this “the temptation to make our work God.”4 The risk here is thinking that what we do is an essential component of what God does. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is God who is the source of everything we have in life. Jesus was likely tempted this time around. He knew his mission. Why not take a little short cut, make a small bow, and take everything in early, before God’s purpose has been fulfilled? One of the great risks of the social gospel, which got its start at the beginning of the last century, is that someone we could, through actions of our own will, bring the Kingdom of God to existence hear and now. All we needed to do was get hold of the powers of the world, the governments, schools, and ecumenical organizations. “Our work, however, while important, is not God and must never be treated as God. We must not seek to be successful at any price or else we have made success our God.”5

Concluding Remarks – Lent and Spiritual Discipline

In each of the three temptations, idolatry is a big risk. Idolatry of the self, of fame, and of power and faith in our own works. Idolatry is worshipping something other than God. During this season of Lent, we have a wonderful opportunity to work together to develop ways of trying to forestall these temptations in our lives. We do this by rehearsing practices that have been part of Christian life for over 2,000 years.

An importance practice for many people during Lent is to give something up. I like the idea of giving something up, because it affords the opportunity to take something up that might have been neglected. In this case, it might be a good time to examine some of the historical practices that have guided the church. Together with members of First Presbyterian Church Corpus Christi, you are invited to take part in a five-week Lenten series on Christian Spiritual Disciplines. This year, we’re going to focus on five in particular: Meaningful Worship, our prayer lives, the ancient tradition of meditation, living simply, and acts of service.

The first practice, meaningful worship, is really what this sermon is all about. Whom do we worship? How do we remain focused in worship, so that the temptations have less of a chance to sidetrack us, so that we’re not left worship meaningless idols, or worshipping ourselves? These fives weeks are meant to be a practical examination of what we’ll be preaching each Sunday. The schedule is in your bulletin, and you are invited to come and be a part of this joint experience between our two great churches.

The Good News

The good news in today’s text is this: Jesus saves! This story illustrates that when we fail our testing, as our first parents Adam and Eve failed, Jesus Christ passed them all with flying colors. And that means his perfection covers over our own imperfections. This passage, then, is really a wonderful foreshadowing of the wonder and joy that is Easter.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Bailey, Kenneth. “The Temptation of Jesus.” Presbyterian Outlook. January 16, 2008. .

2Bruner, Frederick. Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1987, p. 106.

3Ibid., p. 108.

4Ibid., p. 112.

1Ibid., p. 112.