March 17, 2019 Sermon
“In _____ We Trust”
Old Testament Scripture: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."
But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir."
But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."
And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."
But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon."
He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."
New Testament Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
Sermon: “In _____ We Trust”
A week or so ago, we, as a church, entered the season of Lent. We mark this time with purple candles and paraments and small changes in our worship service to include Lenten Prayers and Intercessions. We observe this season with an overall feeling of sober thought, meditation, confession, and self-reflection. This is a time to examine our lives as they are lived in the shadow of the cross, the symbol of our savior’s care for us, the way he loved us all the way to Calvary.
Traditionally, the scripture texts for Lent include stories about the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness for forty days, and exhortations from the Old Testament and the New Testament to live a life that follows a pattern of discipline, worship, and dedication to God.
Some churches really go for it in Lent. They go so far as to have a little funeral ceremony, where they ‘bury’ the word ‘alleluia’, and do not use that word again until Easter. We actually did this, not too long ago, with the youth during the Children’s message. I think it was Ben and Parker who helped me put the ‘Alleluia” in one of Heath’s reconstructions of the Ark of the Covenant, and we put it under the cross. We brought it out again for Easter.
It wasn’t something that I’d want to do every year, but it was an interesting symbolic gesture, a serious gesture, about the season.
Because Lent is serious business. Lent is a time when we take a look behind the walls that we’ve built, and ask, “Who are we, really? What are my priorities in life? Upon what fears or assurances do I make my most important decisions?”
Lent is the time during which we consider the ways in which our desires for enjoyment and satisfaction can overwhelm our generosity, and we are reminded that the material success and resources with which we are entrusted is to be used for the benefit of us all, not just for our own fulfillment.
Lent also helps us to temper our ambition, to remember that winning isn’t the only goal, that being the best, or first, or most important isn’t the only the thing, that striving for recognition and power is not the only worthwhile use of our time.
During the forty days of Lent, we are encouraged to explore spiritual disciplines, perhaps give up a bad habit, or take on a good one. It’s a time of evaluating our goals, and our gods. To what end do we direct our efforts? In what things do we place our immediate and ultimate trust? What things in our life are spiritual clutter, and get in the way of our worship of God, or our love for our neighbor?
And when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, he was faced with these same questions about power, distilled into three temptations offered by Satan.
The first temptation was food. Satan reminded Jesus that he could turn the stones into bread if he was hungry. Well, why not? Was Jesus willing to use his power, his influence, his energy, to satisfy his own desires? To put it into modern day terms, what’s stopping him? He’s got the ability to do it, why not do it? It’s his power, to use as he sees fit. It belongs to him, and there’s nothing wrong with using it help himself, just a little bit. After all, a man’s got to live, right? It belongs to Jesus. Let him use his resources in whatever way he sees fit. That’s the way the world works.
But Jesus doesn’t do it. Not because he can’t. Jesus could have turned those rocks into a 72 oz. Big Texan steak if he’d wanted. But he doesn’t. Not because he shouldn’t. There is no prohibition against transfiguration in the Torah. Not one that I can find, any way. If Jesus was hungry it would have been totally kosher for him to turn those rocks into a Tiramisu, if he’d wanted. The point is, Jesus doesn’t use his abilities to help himself. All the way to the cross, he reserves his miraculous abilities to heal, and feed, and restore, and raise up other people. Not for his own benefit.
The second temptation was about political power. Satan reminded him that he had the ability to make people follow him. He could force people to bow to him, to claim him as Lord, to confess him to be the King of all creation. After all, he would have had all the hosts of heaven on his side, the sword of God almighty. There would be no-one to stand against him.
But Jesus declines. For Jesus, power is not seized, it is offered. Power is a result of self-giving, not a matter of pride, or stature, or strength, or victory. Power comes from humility, from pouring your own self out for the world. For Jesus, to be a King, one must be a servant. A servant willing to wear a cross and a crown of thorns. And it’s when we consider the cross that we know what power looks like. It’s when we imagine the weight of it on our own shoulders that we know what power feels like.
These first two temptations are pretty clear. But the third temptation is more obscure. Why shouldn’t Jesus fling himself from the parapet, and fly on the wings of angels? Satan suggests to Jesus that surely God will always save us, especially if we put ourselves deliberately into some impossible situation that only God can figure out. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait.
“No,” he says, flat out. “God is not a safety net.”
You see, Satan is twisting the idea of trusting God into the guarantee that God will always act a certain way in certain situations. “Throw yourself off the cliff,” he says. “God will save you.” But the belief that one can predict the actions of God, or even worse, force the hand of God in certain situations is not Christianity. It’s idolatry. It’s creating a god that can shaped by our own desires, by our own needs and wants.
But we can’t manipulate God into intervening on our behalf. And Jesus warns us against putting ourselves in situations where the only way out is God. Yes, trust in God, he says, but also be prudent, be careful. Take care of yourself, your health, your finances, your emotional needs. Don’t throw yourself off every cliff of every crisis you encounter, trusting God to catch you as you fall.
In this life, we do bear responsibility for our actions. God is not going to bail us out of every dilemma we throw ourselves into. If we walk out into traffic, we might get hit by a car. To expect something else, to base our lives on something else, is to misunderstand the nature of God and our relationship with him.
Now, up to this point, it sounds like I’ve been preaching a sermon on the temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. And I guess that I have. I haven’t mentioned our Philippians text at all. But the point of all this is that the Apostle Paul is doing exactly the same thing. Paul is reminding the Philippians that it’s not their heritage that sets them apart. It’ not their Roman citizenship. It’s not their own power. It’s not their zeal, it’s not their works, and it’s certainly not their own strength and abilities.
Paul is telling his church that it is only the cross that stands in the way between them and the temptation to lead a life of self-absorption, a life of self-destruction. And it is only the way of the cross that leads to transformation. It is in living a life patterned after Jesus Christ that we find true glory.
And Paul knows this way is difficult. We all know this way is difficult.
It seems like all of our lives are spent in proving our worth, in a race for some sort of recognition, for even a small taste of glory. In school, we work for high grades, so that we might get into a college. In college we work to beat our classmates, hoping to stand out and be chosen for that chance to grab at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. And when we start climbing that ladder, our jobs demand that we prove ourselves every day, and we live in a constant state of either dread or competitive frenzy, working non-stop to prove our worth.
And you know, it’s even that way in seminary. Even though we were in the business of learning as much as we could about a God who doesn’t care about GPA’s and advanced degrees and summa cum laudes, most of us were still in academic mode, and we were unbelievably anxious about grades. High stakes accompanied every paper, every exam, every midterm test. At least, we though they did.
And our professors knew we were anxious. And so, they did an interesting thing to get us to think about it. I think I may have told some of you this story.
You see, when it would come time for mid-terms or final exams, we would meet as a class on Monday, and we would receive the exam. We then had the rest of the week to take the exam at any time we wanted, in any place that we wanted. It simply had to be turned in by Friday, at 3:00.
There were two instruction: 1) Once we started the test, we had three hours to finish it. Of course, since we decided ourselves when to start, it was up to us to stop at the correct time. 3 hours later. The other instruction was that we couldn’t use any of our books, papers, notes, or any other resources from the library or internet or anybody else for help. We had to take the test on our own, closed book, in 3 hours, in the privacy of our own room, completely on the honor system.
The professors knew exactly what they were doing. They were giving us the opportunity to cheat. To think about those things in which we actually trusted. Do we trust in God, or do we trust in our own ability? Do we trust that other folks aren’t going to follow the rules, and thereby skew the curve, or do we assume the best of them?
At first I thought they were testing our morality. But then I realized that they were giving us an opportunity to to live into the theology that we were getting ready to preach from the pulpit.
“Here is the test,” they said. “It will count for a third of your grade. Your scholarships and class standing is depending on a good result. Please take this piece of paper into the privacy of your own room, and we trust you to begin and end the test in three hours, without the use of any other materials. Turn it in by Friday. We trust you not to cheat. Oh, and: God be with you.”
I can’t tell you how tempting it was to cheat. After all, there was no guarantee that other people weren’t cheating. I mean, why not? They were just as dependent on scholarships as I was. They’ve got families to think of, they’ve got reputations, hopes for the right ministry. They’ve got every reason to cheat, you know they’re going to do it.
So why shouldn’t I cheat? They’re going to hand in tests that are beautifully organized, with correct spellings even, and detailed references to scripture and the confessions of the church, as well as obscure quotations from the great theologians and philosophers.
And all I’ve got is what I vaguely remember from Veggie Tales.
There’s no way that I can pass this test. I’m going to look like an idiot. I’m going to get an F. I’m going to look stupid, simply because I’m going to do the right thing.
But you know, I learned something in that process. Maybe others cheated. I don’t know. But after a couple of semesters, I began to realize that if I couldn’t even take a stupid test without fearing for my life and for my future, or worrying about how other people were behaving, then I had no ground upon which to stand and preach the Gospel.
You see, the point wasn’t about doing the right thing, although that’s what it felt like at the time. It wasn’t about being righteous or earning points with God. The exercise wasn’t a moral test. It was a pointed reminder that in life and death, we belong to God, and that our trust is in him, and only in him, and all the rest of it , success, failure, money, glory, fame, disappointment, are all smoke in the wind. God is what it’s all about.
And whether we realize it or not, all of us are given these pointed reminders in our lives, everyday opportunities to evaluate whether or not we really trust in God. All of us face decisions about how we go about achieving our goals. And these decisions have real consequences.
If had failed my exams, it would have meant that I was not meant for the ministry, that I had in fact, uprooted my family for nothing, moved two thousand miles across the country, made my son change schools 5 times in the space of four years, found myself with no job and no prospects, a defeated, bitter, ex-choir director with an angry wife, and one very messed up teenager.
But you know what? That would have been rough, but we would have survived. And, if it had gone that way, I would have learned something about myself that I needed to know.
But, on the flip side, if I had given in to the temptation to peek inside my books for some extra help, I would have also learned something about myself that I needed to know.
Something dark. Something that I’m not sure that I would be comfortable with.
Lent is that period of time in which we can take a moment and think about how we go about facing the tests of our life. When we are given the opportunity to help someone in need, how do we respond? Not because we are righteous, but be because it is the right thing to do. When we hear a racist joke, how do we react? Not because we are righteous, but because we know what is right. When we see or hear of someone taking advantage of their position to injure another, what do we do? What steps are we will to take in order to restore justice?
After all, nobody’s really watching, are they? And besides, everybody does it. Everybody cheats. Everybody cuts corners. Why should I do the right thing? It’s not going to help me in any way. In fact, it may even hurt me. It may hurt my job, my reputation, my relationships. Maybe it’s better to take the easier way.
Now, having said all this, I want to make sure I say something else. At the beginning of my sermon, I said that Lent is patterned after the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. And those of you who are really quick with math, or those who read by article in the newsletter, may have calculated that there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
And that’s true. Because in the calculation of the days of Lent, we don’t count the Sundays. You see, during this long dismal season of reflection and penitence, Sundays are little islands of Easter Promise. On Sunday, we are reminded that we are forgiven if we fail at the exams of life, that regardless of our limitations, we are still heirs with Christ of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We remember that Jesus Christ did not live a life of a somber, joyless, puritan. He laughed, he loved, he drank wine, he liked to eat. Jesus was a real person, and his appetites and his attitude caused the religious pietists of his day to accuse him of gluttony and drunkenness. Well, there’s just no pleasing some folks, is there?
So, this Lent season, I do encourage us all to examine our lives, as Paul suggests in view of the cross. Let’s look for ways in our day-to-day interactions to trust humility, to live our lives under the assumption that God does desire good for us.
But above all, don’t let the season get you down. Don’t be too serious. Remember that we all stumble occasionally. So, if we stand, all we can do is stand in the Lord. Trust in his goodness, not our own. Keep your eyes up, expecting the return of a savior. It is in him that we can do all things. And it is in him that all things are done.
Thanks be to God. Amen.