Seek a Right Relationship With God: March 1, 2020
Year A: Genesis: 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
At the time of this posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear one of the gospel stories of the temptations faced by Jesus Christ. In the Gospel story, Jesus is engaging the powers of the world – the powers of this world are characterized by domination and violence, relentlessly seeking to have their own way regardless of the costs.
Jesus is being tempted by the devil to take charge of it all. “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” All the power in the world can belong to Jesus: all he has to do is worship the devil. The devil seems to forget that Jesus already has all the power that is needed; or, the devil knows exactly that and wants to Jesus to give up heavenly power for worldly power. Jesus is resisting the temptation of worldly powers. It’s the powers of dominion and violence, the powers of the religious and ruling elite, that will eventually kill him, that he is resisting. Jesus says no. “Away with you, Satan!”
How did we get here? Back in January, we observed the baptism of Jesus. Then the lectionary skipped us forward in Matthew’s text to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the Sermon on the Mount. Our lectionary timeline has the baptism, Jesus hearing about John’s arrest, withdrawing to Galilee, heading to Capernaum. In all that he proclaims the need for repentance, calls his first disciples and begins ministries of teaching and healing. Then we move into the Beatitudes. There’s the context of what’s happening in Jesus’ world.
But this Sunday we take a step back the story of Jesus’ temptations, a story that is bracketed between the baptism and all the rest.
What is our context of all that is happening?
We just marked Ash Wednesday and we have begun our Lenten journey. Ask yourself: where are your deserts? Where is your wilderness? What strengths of spirit and heart and body do you need to develop during this Lent? What do you need to pay attention to? What are the temptations?
These are questions each of us has to answer for ourselves. There is no shortage of them in our culture: the risk of defining ourselves and others by the standard of how much stuff we own and what brand it is; the risk of buying into a narrative about people who are different from us because of where they come from or what language they speak or what gender identity they are or what religion they practice; the risk of not loving others; the risk of not loving ourselves, of buying into the dominant culture’s narrative about us because we are not thin enough or not young enough or not old enough or not rich enough or not conventional enough in our minds or our bodies; the risk of thinking we can live by bread alone.
The dangers are real, but that’s also where the grace is. I would argue that’s how we might read this story. Jesus is baptized and soon to begin his ministry, but before he does that, he goes out into the wilderness. He faces dangers, yet I believe in this also where he finds his grounding in grace. That’s not spelled out for us in this story, but I think if we listen closely, we can hear it.
Because otherwise what’s the point? We have this seminal event – Jesus is baptized – and we have this extraordinary act of discipline and courage and commitment – staring into the most carefully orchestrated temptations of evil incarnate – for carnal, earthly power, for the immediate satisfaction of human greed and manipulation. What is the point of his 40-day exile and preparation if while facing his fears and demons, he doesn’t find the grace and courage he needs to launch into his ministry?
Where do we find our grace among our temptations and fears?
Yesterday, I waded into a Facebook fight between my nephew and his cousin. First thing I should remember in Lent – no Facebook fights. Words were spoken and then apologies offered. That’s the good news.
What was the fight about – who is responsible for the murder rate in Chicago. How about we all agree that murder is an offense against God? Because that’s what Lent calls us to remember. Lent calls us to repent and return to the Lord.
We have this time when we are called to pay attention – to sit in our own wilderness and listen and learn and grow – where we are called to pay attention to the temptations and to the grace that saves us from them; where we are called to develop our courage and strengthen our spirits. This is a moment of opportunity, but only if we allow ourselves to see it and only if we choose to use this time wisely.
I have a mentor and friend, a retired priest, who I call every couple of weeks to check in. Sometimes I call with a question or when I’m when I am not sure what to do, or when life or the priesthood gets really hard. I’ll describe to her what’s going and at some point, she always asks me the same two questions: 1) “Kathy, where is God in all this?”, and; 2) “How are you responding to God?”
What if we let these two questions accompany us through the wilderness of Lent? Where is God in all this and how are [we] responding to God? And while we’re in the wilderness, let’s think about who we really are. Think about what really matters, what values we hold, what kind of life would really make God proud.
What makes God proud? It’s certainly alright to give up something for Lent just as it’s alright to take on practices like setting aside time for prayer each day or doing an act of kindness. On Ash Wednesday, I spoke about a church that has challenged its members to 40 Days – 40 Items. Parishioners are being encouraged to remove one item from their closets on each day of Lent that they don’t use or wear anymore and place it in a bag. Some might put a dollar a day away to give to a worthwhile cause. Whatever they choose to do in Lent, whatever we choose to do in Lent, we should always be seeking to put ourselves in right relationship with God.
In our everyday lives, people should be able to see what we believe by the way we live. They should see our right relationship with God by the way we give ourselves to the service of others – not necessarily through formal “service projects,” but even just by the way we respond to people around us.
It puts me in mind of a person in my life, a dear friend who lives in one of those very wealthy retirement communities outside Philadelphia. She grew up in a working-class family in Southwest Philadelphia. She and her husband worked hard, had enough to move to this place which has phenomenal care. He now requires 24-hour skilled nursing care and she lives in an apartment on the grounds. Her neighbors are retired CEOs and sports team owners, and other people with lots of money.
Who always gets immediate attention when packages are delivered? Who gets birthday presents from the staff on her birthday? Eleanor. Why? Because she treats every one of the staff who works there as the beloved children of God they are. She’s not too important for anyone.
She’s not too important for anyone. Jesus remembered that to worship God was what was important. That’s what right relationship with God is about. And seeking right relationship with God is the start a holy Lent – a Lent that leads us to new life, a fuller life, a life in which we discover that we are God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased.
 Matthew 4:9, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)
 Matthew 4:10, NRSV
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