Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Wilderness Way

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent on Matthew 4:1-11
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on March 13, 2011

Jesus didn’t set out seeking the wilderness, but that’s where he ended up. John the Baptist, his cousin, was known for dragging people out into the wilderness, where he called them to repent and be baptized, and Jesus too began his ministry as the Spirit led him too out into the wilderness. This wasn’t just any old Boy Scout weekend camping trip – this was an intense forty-day journey filled with fasting and prayer as the final preparation for his ministry. It had to be a pretty intense experience for Jesus out in the wilderness, with daily worries about finding water to sustain his life, nightly fears of attacks by wild animals, and the constant perils of the extremes of rain and heat and cold.

After those forty days and forty nights, though, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ journey in the wilderness had actually only just begun. The temptations of the wilderness for Jesus came to a head at the end of these forty days, just when Jesus’ hunger was at its greatest and his resolve was at its lowest. The tempter came at him three times, each time seeking to break Jesus’ resolve and faith from a different angle. First the devil suggested that he turn stones to bread and ease his hunger pains, but Jesus would have nothing of it, remembering that he needed no bread to live but rather could be sustained by the faithful word of God. Then the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, encouraging him to jump down and test the psalmist’s promise of God’s salvation, but Jesus instead chose to follow another scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Finally the tempter showed Jesus all the splendor of the nations from the top of a mountain, promising that all this would be his if he only chose to worship the devil, but Jesus insisted that he would worship only God the Lord. After all this, Jesus’ wilderness way came to an end as angels came to care for him and meet his needs after his long sojourn in the wilderness.

The wilderness way that Jesus himself faced is the inspiration for our season of Lent. The length of these days, the penitential focus of these days, and even the long-standing practice of fasting or giving up something for Lent is rooted in Jesus’ own time in the wilderness. Our journey of Lent too is rooted in a season and attitude of self-examination and self-discovery that were certainly a central part of Jesus’ own journey in the wilderness. And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and stayed with him through those forty days, the Spirit also guides us into these days and goes with us along the way so that we do not walk this road alone. But as important as this season is, the wilderness is not somehow magically over for us on Easter morning. The journey of Lent does not bring us immediately out of wilderness and may even leave us in a darker and more uncertain place than we were before. The resurrection dawn on Easter morning does not bring us automatic and immediate relief from all our pain and struggle even though it is the decisive victory over the power of sin and death. And the self-examination and self-discovery we undertake in these days invariably will force us to confront issues in our lives well beyond the things we can sort in these forty days.

Even so, Jesus’ wilderness way that we walk for ourselves in these Lenten days gives us some deeper insights into our own journey through the wilderness that we walk each and every day. The wilderness of our changing world is before us constantly, and the wildernesses of each of our lives confound and confuse us. Things in our world are startlingly different from what we have known in the past, and we face the challenge and difficulty of sorting out how to live in a seemingly new and different time. Obstacles and uncertainties appear in the road before us, and we are forced to sort out how to live amidst these difficulties. Options and possibilities for us abound in this wilderness, and it so often becomes difficult to sort out the temptations from the opportunities.

And so as we wander in the wilderness, we see that Jesus’ journey is the model for our own. Jesus persevered through the uncertainty and difficulty to emerge to a new day, and he came forth from the wilderness strengthened to live very differently than he had ever done before. Jesus looked at the various options that the wilderness offered him and sought a faithful response to temptation, and he emerged from the twists and turns with confidence and hope not in his own ability but in God’s transforming presence. And just as the Spirit had guided him into the wilderness, Jesus trusted the Spirit’s presence throughout his journey there and so was able to walk in new paths of life.

The wilderness of Lent is before us. Turns and twists and curves will inevitably come on our road. Uncertainty will seem to reign, and we will be confused and turned around time and time again. Yet the Spirit still goes with us, standing by our side as we walk the road of penitence and passion, journeying with us no matter what our struggle or joy, facing our sorrow and pain with us, and always embodying the presence of God each and every day. And most of all, even amidst all the twists and turns of our pain and suffering, even in a dark and uncertain path through sorrow and sighing, we know where this road ends – with the deep suffering of Jesus transformed into the glory of the resurrection, with even death no longer having the final word for Jesus and for us. The wilderness way has been conquered already, and we simply must seek his signposts to guide us as we seek to follow his path.

Because Jesus walks this road before us, we can approach this wilderness way without fear, walking whatever road we face in these days with faithfulness and hope, accompanied by that same Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness and led him out with confidence and hope. So as we journey through these forty days together, may we know the presence of the Spirit in this wilderness and prepare anew for the passion and resurrection of our Lord so that our faith might be strengthened and our life renewed. Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: Glimpses of Glory

a sermon for Transfiguration of the Lord on Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 7:24-27, and Matthew 17:1-9, the last in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on on March 6, 2011

It’s time to come down from the mountain. We’ve spent much of the last two months – nearly every Sunday since Christmas! – up on the mountain with Jesus, hearing his vision of the kingdom of heaven from the Sermon on the Mount and exploring how it gets lived out in our world today. Today our time on the mountain comes to an end, but not without a pretty spectacular ending, for as we prepare to walk the road of Lent over the next six weeks, we find other mountaintops before us as well that also take things to a different level.

In our readings from Exodus and later in Matthew, we have more than just a glimpse of something new or instructions on how to be a part of the kingdom of God. Here we finally glimpse the fullness of the glory of God, the way things would be if we were actually able to live out all those instructions that Jesus gave in his teaching up on the mountain. In our reading from Exodus, Moses received the law and commandment from God atop the mountain, standing very, very close to the fullness of the glory of God as God shone so bright with glory on top of the mountain that the people down in the valley could see it. Then in the second of our two readings from Matthew, Jesus too went up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, where he suddenly began to shine with light as he joined in a strange conversation with Moses and Elijah and a voice called out from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

In these glimpses of glory, the view from the mountaintop is transformed once again as the glory of God shines brightly in the world and we see how we can live in this new way, too. We don’t always understand what is going on here – the devouring fire of the presence of the Lord in Exodus is incredible, especially since it somehow does not claim Moses’ life, and the transfiguration of Jesus is one of those stories that truly defies explanation, understanding, and even sometimes application, to the point that I know colleagues who find a way to avoid preaching it each and every year! But somehow, these mountaintop moments must translate into our world.

We can’t leave the transformative glory of God on the mountaintop – Jesus himself made that clear in his own parable that concludes the Sermon on the Mount, where a wise man builds his house on rock but a foolish man builds his house on sand and watches it wash away. For this vision of the kingdom of heaven or this glimpse of the fullness of God’s glory to have any real meaning, it has to go beyond Sunday, beyond the days when we have a visual reminder of the mountain here around the pulpit, beyond the mountaintop moments where our faith is strengthened and our eyes glimpse God’s glory. We must bring these words and these experiences down from the mountain and make their glory real in the world.

This glory can’t just reside up on the mountain, waiting for us to return there and fill up again from its endless store of grace and hope when we need a dose of spiritual energy. We can’t leave this glory someplace where we won’t see it and think about it every day. We are reasonably tempted to pull a Vegas moment and let what we have seen up on the mountain stay on the mountain – but what we have seen on the mountain demands to be shared and most of all lived. And sadly, we also can’t live up on the mountain, either – but what we see and hear and experience there must transform life down on the plain and in the valley.

When we start to live in the way we’ve seen up on the mountain, we build on a solid foundation and find the beginning of God’s new way taking hold in our lives and our world. Or, to put it another way, if we live down in the valley or on the plain in the same way we have seen up on the mountaintop, God is not only revealed to us but through us as the transfiguration becomes real in us who have been transformed by God and made citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Living in the valley or on the plain in the way of God’s glory as we have seen up on the mountain is not easy, but it is truly our greatest privilege and call to live in this way. We can’t just be happy experiencing these things from time to time when we find ourselves atop one mountain or another but instead must make them real in our lives as we join in the work God is doing in our world. Later in worship today, we have two opportunities to follow in this way. First, we ordain and install our church officers, setting a few among us apart for particular service in our midst and recognizing that they have a special role in leading us to translate our glimpses of glory on the mountaintop into the everyday life of this community. Then, we celebrate communion, the eucharist, the joyful feast of the people of God, where we get yet another little glimpse of God’s glory and of what God is up to all around us as we share a simple feast with the great company of all the faithful and look for God to do something more in our lives and our world.

As we walk this road together today and come down from this mountaintop one last time, may God show us how we can be a part of making what we have seen from this mountain real in the world, and may God use us to reflect the incredible glory we see here beyond ourselves and beyond these walls into all the world.

Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.

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