Sunday, March 19, 2017

Temptation Two: The Show-Off

Good morning, brothers and sisters. Once again, we're back in the desert with Jesus. These last two Sundays of Lent, we've journeyed alongside him as he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Just like Israel, fresh from baptism in the sea, went to live in the desert and was called God's son (cf. Hosea 11:1), so Jesus, fresh from his own baptism and announced as God's Son, went out into the desert. That's where the Spirit often leads God's children – and, having been adopted into the family, our lives are often no different.

But where Israel went into the desert and failed their test, Jesus went into the desert and prevailed against every temptation the devil could muster up. Last week, you might remember, he tempted Jesus with hunger, suggesting to Jesus that being a child of God entitles you to satisfy your cravings (Matthew 4:2-3). The devil said being a child of God means having it your way. But Jesus pointed back to Deuteronomy and saw that being a real child of God means living on more than bread, more than the stuff we crave to consume; it means submitting to our Father's loving discipline, hanging on his word, and trusting him to provide (Matthew 4:4). Jesus didn't give in to the first temptation.

And so now what happens next? “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (Matthew 4:5). Now, how exactly they got there, or whether it was a vision, I don't exactly know. But a later Jewish tradition, and maybe there was one like it around that time, suggested that when the Messiah came, he would announce himself right there – up on the pinnacle of the temple for everybody to see and marvel at. And that's what the devil wants Jesus to do: announce himself with a big, flashy display. If he's really the Messiah, if he's really the Son of God, everything would have to go smoothly – God wouldn't dare let his grand plan of salvation be derailed, would he? And so, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” and God will send his angels to catch you in mid-air and keep you safe (Matthew 4:6).

The cultural atmosphere in those days was filled with this sort of thing. In the years before and in the years that were coming, other people were showing up and saying they were the Messiah, they were the Prophet Like Moses. And some of them acted like the devil wants Jesus to act. The later Jewish historian Josephus looked back on those days and wrote, “These impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would exhibit manifest signs and wonders that should be performed by the providence of God” (Antiquities 20.167-168).

One of those guys was an Egyptian false prophet – the one Paul got mistaken for by the Roman tribune Claudius Lysias in Acts (Acts 21:38) – and the story was that this Egyptian took thousands of followers out to the Mount of Olives and told them that, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would miraculously collapse, and then they could invade the city (Antiquities 20.169-170). And there was even one false messiah or false prophet who encouraged people to climb with him to the top of the temple and wait for some kind of miracle of deliverance (Wars 6.285). The devil wants Jesus to behave like that, to be like the rest.

And the devil tries to convince Jesus by quoting scripture. If Jesus can quote scripture at him, he must figure, surely two can play that game. And so the devil quotes from the ninety-first psalm, a blessing of protection. The whole thing is an assurance to the righteous that they won't be harmed, that they have nothing to fear, that God won't let anything bad happen to them: “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:10-12).

So, the devil reasons, surely the Son of God would qualify to claim that promise. And that's what Jesus should do: jump off the temple, in the sight of everybody, in the confidence that God would send angels to catch Jesus in mid-air – a miraculous display that would get his ministry off to a rousing start.

See, here's the devil's underlying message: “If you're the Son of God, you're special. You aren't like ordinary people. You're entitled to more. If you're the Son of God, you have a claim on God. He owes you special treatment, he owes you miracles. So use that! If you're the Son of God, you can leverage it to your advantage – you can use him for your advantage. And who doesn't like a show? Be the show! If you're the Son of God, be impressive, be daring, make a big splash! If you're the Son of God, you should have plenty of proof for all to see – God owes you proof, so that nobody could possibly doubt. If you're the Son of God, all eyes should be on you right now. If you're the Son of God, show it off.”

That's the devil's understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. It's the devil's way of thinking about what it would mean to call God 'Father' – that to call God 'Father' means flaunting it and leveraging it, getting him to back up our agendas with proof and support. And if we're really being honest with ourselves here – and we should be, both because that's the Christian way and because that's the spirit of Lent – don't we sometimes take the devil's cue on this one?

I mean, we want to be impressive. We want people to look at us and be impressed, to marvel in awe at how good and spiritual we are, to be amazed at everything we can do. If people start doubting us, we take it almost as an affront. We get our hackles up, and we want to show them they're wrong. We want to prove ourselves, and we want God to prove himself to us. So when we start thinking that way, we imagine that we can force God's hand. We can get ourselves in a position where God would surely act the way we want him to. We take him for granted. We want God to be useful to us – for him to go ahead and rubber-stamp our plans and our agendas, for him to support our self-defined mission in life, for him to back up our projects and make sure they work out. We count on him to do that.

How many times have you ever done something dumb and banked on God to bail you out of any real consequences from it? (For me, it's half the time I get behind the wheel...) And how many times in your life have you ever surrendered to sin, ever done something deep down you know you shouldn't, but rationalized it as okay because you can always count on God's forgiveness? It's a perversion of the gospel of grace, but if we're being honest with ourselves and with each other, probably all of us have gone down that road at some point in our lives. We've done dumb or even sinful things and figured that God will have our backs anyway, because we're God's children, and bailing us out is what a Father is for.

And so, we figure, we can use – maybe a better word would be 'exploit' – that special relationship to our advantage. We count on God wanting us, maybe we even think God needs us, and we figure that our faithfulness to him is a prize we can use as a bargaining chip. And so with that kind of thinking, we get to a point where we might be in a situation and say in our hearts, “God, if you don't do this, if you don't do that, I won't believe in you any more, I won't love you any more. So if you really love me, if you really look on me as your child, you'll give me proof by doing this, doing that, doing the thing I want you to do.”

Sure, we might not say those words out loud. But that's the inner meditation of our heart in those moments. We hold our faith itself hostage to try and force God's hand. “God, if you don't give me a new job so I can pay these bills, I won't believe you love me anymore.” “God, if you don't make people behave the way I want, I'll leave the church, I won't believe you're there anymore.” “God, if you don't save my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my friend, my baby, I won't believe in or love you anymore.” That's the line of thinking the devil is proposing on what it means to be God's child – and it's the same line of thinking that makes us believe that being God's child entitles us to show our relationship off like a fancy accessory.

But when the devil suggests this to him, how does Jesus take it? How does Jesus react? Well, the devil doesn't succeed in tempting him here. The devil doesn't manage to make Jesus defensive, nor does the devil entice him with visions of the admiring awe of the crowds. Jesus may be looking down at the swarming crowds of Jerusalem, but he's still in the wilderness, and still reflecting on the tests Israel flunked in the wilderness over a thousand years before. And Jesus remembers a story of when Israel acted a lot like the devil wants him to act.

It was a time when the Israelites were camped at a place called Rephidim – a place Moses would later nickname 'Massah and Meribah,' “testing and arguing.” And even though the whole point of their time in the desert was for God to test them, Israel got the bright ideas to turn the tables and test their God. See, Rephidim was a dry place. “There was no water for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:1).

Now, the people could have trusted God to give them the water. They could have asked for the water. They could have politely asked Moses to talk with God about the water situation. But instead they tried to bully Moses, and they demanded water. Moses warned them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17:2). But they persisted, accusing God and Moses of wanting them to die of thirst in the desert – of being cruel and not good, unless they ponied up the H2O pronto.

And there, in the shadow of the pillar of cloud that led their journey, they asked, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) – meaning, this pillar of cloud isn't enough proof, because we want catering, and God needs to prove himself, he needs to pass our test, by supplying water here and now. Their attitude is, “Either God gives us water on demand, or there's no God here.” They cannot tolerate the thought of a God who might move in a mysterious way – a God who can't be so easily predicted or pressured.

See, the Israelites had hoped that their questioning, their scarcely veiled threats to hold their faith hostage, would force God's hand – that they could manipulate God into fitting into their agenda. And in doing that, “they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved,” they questioned whether he could really do it so as to incentivize him to prove himself and pass the test (Psalm 78:18-20). And so “they tested the LORD (Exodus 17:7), “they tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41).

Jesus knows that story. And he remembers what's written in Deuteronomy, reflecting back on lessons learned in the desert: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 6:16-18).

Jesus remembers that, and he knows one thing for sure: Trying to 'test' God is not behavior befitting a loving and faithful son. That's not how Israel as the son of God was supposed to treat the Father who led them through the desert, and it's not how Jesus as the Son of God is willing to treat the Father he loves and whom he knows loves him, without any need for stunts. And so Jesus quotes this verse to swat away the devil's temptation: “Jesus said to him, 'Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test''” (Matthew 4:7).

Jesus refuses to try to 'use' God to his advantage. And make no mistake: that's exactly what the devil's abuse of Psalm 91 is aimed at, and Jesus sees right through it. See, Psalm 91 was probably originally a battle hymn, a prayer that the priests would use to bless the armies of Israel as they prepared to go out and fight. It assured them that, if they were going on God's mission, they would fight under God's protection. It's in those circumstances that God would “cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and a buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (Psalm 91:4-7).

That's army talk – and it leads up to the confident assurance of victory over the enemy: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:13), something Israel experienced by conquering the promised land under God's direction. But the psalm was never meant to turn God into a talisman to serve Israel's interests. Israel couldn't use the promises of this psalm to go out picking fights with every little tribe they ran across. They had to let God assign the mission – when the wilderness generation tried picking fights with the Amalekites apart from God's presence, they lost miserably (Numbers 14:44-45).

This psalm doesn't turn God into a talisman; it doesn't make him a lucky charm. Treating God like that, using this psalm as an excuse for it, would be putting God to the test. No, the psalm's hope is based on faith, on an actual relationship, and on living a life under God – what the psalmist calls “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). They're supposed to treat the LORD, not as an excuse, not as a weapon, but as a dwelling place and a refuge (Psalm 91:9). They have to “hold fast to [God] in love” (Psalm 91:14).

In other words, they have to behave like a faithful son. And while the psalm leads up to victory in conquering the land – treading on the lion and the serpent (Psalm 91:13) – Deuteronomy explicitly says that that's only possible once Israel stops trying to put God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:18-19)! The devilish use of Psalm 91 is self-defeating – if you try to use it that way, you're no longer the kind of person it's for.

Jesus doesn't make that mistake. He doesn't get sidetracked by the devil's abuse of scripture. He holds fast to the wisdom of God spoken for just such a situation as he was now in. And so he knows that a faithful child of God won't treat God like a product to be tested or like a force to be manipulated and harnessed for his advantage. That's not how a faithful child of God actually lives. The devil says that a child of God is entitled to show off. But Jesus, the faithful Son of God, lives instead by humble faith – never once trying to hold his faith, or his Father, hostage. The devil suggests that a child of God can set the terms, can use God for his own agenda. But Jesus, the faithful Son of God, refuses anything that doesn't reflect the Father's agenda, the Father's mission.

The devil says that a child of God should get something out of it – more presents, more protection, more death-defying leaps, more popularity with and adoration from the crowds. But Jesus goes around saying and meaning things like, “the Son … came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). He didn't come to turn a profit, nor to extort personal gain; he came to be a blessing. And his purpose isn't to use his Father, but to reveal his Father. He isn't here to entertain the masses. He doesn't come with bread and circuses, but with a cross. He most certainly isn't here to show off.

And so Jesus commits to himself, “I will not put conditions on my Father. I will not exploit my relationship with my Father to suit my own needs. I will live by humble faith. I love my Father, and my Father loves me. And so I will patiently trust my Father to ripen his purposes in his time and to be his own interpreter.”

Jesus does not make the mistake of the Israelites at Massah, or of the phony-baloney messiahs before or after him. Jesus is the real deal, and the real deal doesn't act like that. The real deal is a faithful Son of God. And a faithful child of God loves his Father, not for what he thinks his Father can give him, but for who his Father is. A faithful child of God doesn't use his or her faith as a bargaining chip or a prize. A faithful child of God doesn't force his Father's hand; he holds it. A faithful child of God doesn't use God as an excuse to do dumb or sinful things. A faithful child of God doesn't use God as a tool to further his or her own agenda, and certainly not to impress others or show off.

And so neither will Jesus, the faithful Son of God, faithful to pass all the tests Israel failed in the desert, so faithful that he'll “humble himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And because he was faithful, he did trample on lions and serpents (Psalm 91:13) – on the roaring lion looking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8), and on the serpent who beguiled God's children out of the Garden long ago (Genesis 3:15). Because he was faithful, he did go on to conquer the land with the gospel – and his conquest rages still. Because he was faithful, God answered his call (Hebrews 5:7; cf. Psalm 91:15). And because he was a faithful child of God, he received that last promise of the ninety-first psalm: for God his Father to save him from death and to satisfy him with long life, unending life, in the resurrection (Psalm 91:16). The ninety-first psalm was indeed for Jesus – but not at all in the false way the devil meant.

But now for us – what about us? If you belong to Jesus, he calls you brother, he calls you sister. If you are a Christian, you are an adopted child of God. And so as we go about our journey, we're prone to face the devil and his temptations as well – sometimes quite subtle. So what kind of children of God will you be?

What does that mean to you, to be a child of God? Does it mean getting to show off? Does it mean having God's support for whatever you want to have, whatever you want to do? Does it mean being impressive and mighty? Does it mean acting with impunity and banking on a gracious bailout? Does it mean that God should want to pass your tests? Then you're in hearty agreement with the devil – Lord, have mercy.

Or does it mean a life of humble and unconditional faith – embracing weakness and obedience, but pursuing God's mission to bless your neighbors and your neighborhoods, even at a cost? Then, and only then, are you in hearty agreement with Jesus – the Lord of mercy. “And the God of peace will soon crush Satan,” that roaring lion and deceiving serpent of temptation, “under your feet” (Romans 16:20).

So what does being a child of God mean to you? May all of us find ourselves imitating Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the [faithful] Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” and live accordingly (Hebrews 4:14). Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Temptation One: The Denial of Denial

Good morning once again, brothers and sisters. Glad to see you again as we continue our Lenten journey out into the desert with Jesus. If you were here last week, you'll remember, we reflected back on the days of Moses – on how God brought the people out of Egypt, but his Spirit led them out into the desert. And the desert is no pleasant place to be. And yet, after their baptism through the sea, that's exactly where God took Israel, a band of misfit tribes he collectively called his son (Hosea 11:1).

And so Jesus, too, after being acclaimed the Son of God by a heavenly voice at his baptism, was led by the Spirit out into the desert. While we're prone to think the Spirit will lead us away from the desert and into a garden, the truth is, we learned, that God's Spirit will often lead God's children to places we'd call bitter and evil (Numbers 20:5). That's where he sometimes leads us, and just so, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness,” the desert, “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). By the end of the forty days of fasting, Jesus was starved and famished.

Matthew makes an understatement when he says that “after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Jesus wasn't just peckish. He wasn't just looking for a snack. He wasn't inclined to shrug his shoulders and say, “Eh, I could go for a bite, I guess.” No, no – that would be a gross understatement. You know how, in the old cartoons, characters in hunger start looking at everything and everyone and hallucinate that it's turkey legs or sausage links or big ol' hams? This is the sort of hunger that can make you look at those nice, round stones and start thinking of warm, succulent loaves of bread.

Jesus had never been hungrier than that moment. His body was on the verge of starvation. In many cases, a hunger strike of that length can be fatal. So when Matthew says that Jesus was 'hungry,' hear that he's at the limits of what a human can survive. Hear that his body and flesh are weakened to the brink. Hear that every bodily impulse he has is united in saying one thing: “The only way to live is to get food!”

And so, when Jesus is pushed to the limits of human survival, when he's made weak and vulnerable and exposed, that's when the devil chooses his time to strike. And so the devil approaches, and what he does is, he starts offering Jesus various ideas of what it might mean to be God's son. That's what we have here. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, just say the word, that these stones become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). The devil tempts Jesus with what his body most cries out for: food.

But here's what the devil is really suggesting. “Being a child of God, having the right to call God your Father, means getting your way here and now. Being a child of God means having what you crave, when you crave it. Being a child of God means you don't have to have patience. It means you don't have to be disciplined. Being a child of God entitles you to be comfortable. It entitles you to put your own desires first. Being a child of God means self-satisfaction and self-indulgence. So,” the devil tells him, “don't deny yourself. Just speak, just say the word, and make it happen. Just do it. Satisfy your urges.”

And the devil's picture is an awfully enticing one, isn't it? Because pretty often, it's exactly what we fall for. Here in America, we're enthusiastic for the idolatry of efficiency. We want instant gratification all the time. We don't want to wait. We don't want to have patience. We don't want to be disciplined. We think we're above those things. We just want to consume. We want to satisfy our urges – to have whatever we crave, whenever we crave it.

We are always looking for faster, easier ways to get what we want. We pop little trays in the microwave to get food quick – and we sure keep plenty of food around. We sit and flip through a hundred or more channels of entertainment options. We get bored easily, when we aren't being catered to. We are commercialized, from the oldest to the youngest.

When we're in church, what's the question we always ask ourselves? “What am I getting out of this?” – we evaluate worship like a product, and if it doesn't sufficiently cater to our tastes, we behave like good little consumers and take our business elsewhere. Even worship becomes a consumer good: Does it give us what we crave, when we crave it? Does it amuse and satisfy us? It's why televangelists are so popular – they're so convenient, you don't even have to leave your couch – and why their prosperity gospel sells, since it's basically the devil's own nicely packaged message here: that being a child of God means taking action to get what you want the easy way.

We are drawn to any message that tells us we can have it our way. We long to have things cheap and have things easy. We're addicted to instant gratification. We're allergic to suffering – we've come to think of it as abnormal. We don't want to hear that we have to suffer. We don't want to think about the end of all flesh. Life is long, so there's plenty of time to make a change. But life is short, so make the most of each moment, enjoy yourself. All that matters is feeling good, being happy, being self-fulfilled and self-satisfied. That's the way we're prone to think.

And if we're honest, the way we live our lives from day to day, the thing we usually hold of first importance is bread – the basic stuff of material life, the thing we need to consume to see another day. And if life is all about bread, or whatever it is that can satisfy your cravings in the moment, or whatever it is you expect will make you feel good, then there's only one thing to do: get it for yourself wherever and however you can. And what this message is saying to us is, being God's child means being special; it means being entitled to just that, to satisfying yourself and never denying yourself. You're God's child, the reasoning goes, so you're worth it. Just reach out and take it.

This apparent angel of light comes to Jesus in the desert, and that's the gospel he comes bearing: the gospel of satisfaction guaranteed. The gospel of bread-on-demand. The gospel of the day-to-day. The gospel of having it your way. The gospel of health and wealth, respectability and prosperity. The great and glorious news of the TV dinner. The gospel of the American Dream. That's what it means to be a child of God.

Or so the devil says. And, of course, the devil is trying to tempt Jesus – and us – to adopt a rather wrong-headed view of things. But notice how Jesus reacts to temptation. He could simply snap his fingers and call down fire from heaven to scorch the devil to ash. But it isn't time yet. He could just tell the devil, “Get lost, because I'm God, so you're wasting your time.” That's true – Jesus, as God, could not have sinned. He could not have surrendered to any sinful temptation the devil offered him – just like a skilled tightrope walker over a sturdy net can't hit the ground. What actually stops him from hitting the ground isn't the net; it's the fact that he can walk across the tightrope without falling, and the net doesn't need to come into play. What stops Jesus from sinning here isn't his divine nature; it's his obedience to God as a human, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is determined to face temptation by making use only of what's available to each and every one of us – and so the resource he brings to bear as his shield and sword is nothing less than scripture.

Now, if you remember from last week, when Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert for forty days, Jesus was following in the footsteps of Israel. Israel was called the son of God, but when tested in the desert for forty years, flunked miserably and sinned. And at the close of that wilderness period, Moses summed up the lessons they'd learned in the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus has gone out to the desert for forty days to do what Israel didn't. Like Israel, he's the Son of God, but unlike Israel, he's not going to flunk this test. He's going to resist temptation. And he aims to do it with the very arsenal of scripture handed to Israel in the desert.

Because when Jesus reads the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, he finds in there a whole different notion of what it means to be the Son of God. The devil has one theology of sonship, but Deuteronomy has another one altogether. Deuteronomy presents Israel's time in the wilderness as a test for Israel as the child of God: “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). That's the question here: what's in Israel's heart? What kind of son will he turn out to be? He's heard God's commandments, but will he be obedient? Will he pass the test?

What's more, this whole journey has been hard on purpose. God has been disciplining his son Israel: “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Now, when it says 'discipline' here, Moses doesn't mean 'punish.' Because this passage isn't about punishment. The hardships of the desert weren't a punishment. Israel wasn't being chastised, for the most part. Israel was being disciplined – allowed to go through hardship for the sake of character growth.

That's what a father offers a son: occasional denial and deprivation, under loving guidance, for the sake of growth and preparation for life. And that's what God was giving Israel here. Moses adds that God's intention was to “humble you and test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). It may not have been what they'd have chosen for themselves – it certainly wasn't – but it was meant for their benefit, to build their character and make them a more mature son of God.

After this time of testing, this humble fast where they're forced to rely on God's fatherly provision in God's time, forced to walk by faith and not by sight, eventually they'll obey the commandments and will “live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 8:1). And when they do, their fasting will turn to feasting. “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out of the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing … and you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

But first they have to learn the lesson from their test. And there in this passage is the lesson, the thing God wanted them to learn, wanted to make them know. It's the point of the whole journey. And here it is: “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3).

In other words, God gave them the gift of hunger, put them in a position to depend on him entirely for food, and then gave them a food they found mystifying, so that they would learn one thing: that bread is not enough for real life, and it isn't the most important thing. What really gives life isn't bread; what really gives life to human beings is God's instruction, which alone is primary and alone is sufficient. Because God's word is what sent the manna to sustain them, and God's word showed them the way to go, and God's word was food for their souls.

When God first sent them manna, he sent it with instructions. And God explicitly says that even the manna was a test: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4). They weren't supposed to try to stockpile it, except for the day before the sabbath, when it wouldn't come. On the first day, second day, third, fourth, fifth days of the week, they were supposed to gather only what they could eat that day. “But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank, and Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:20). And then on the sixth day, they were supposed to gather a double portion and not look for it on the sabbath – and yet “on the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, but they found none” (Exodus 16:27).

They tried to stockpile it. They tried to steal it. They wanted to get it any way but God's way. They gave in to the devil's version of sonship. They wanted to get the advantage. They wanted to have their own way. They put their satisfaction and gratification first. They wanted to make their lives easier. They wanted to be more efficient consumers. They wanted to live by bread alone.

But “man” – the word in Hebrew is actually 'the Adam' – “does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3). Adam needs more than bread, Adam needs more than shiny fruit. Adam is more than a machine of meat. Adam is more than a bundle of desires. Adam needs a relationship with God. Adam needs to cultivate his soul. Adam needs to trust God's wisdom, follow in God's ways. Adam needs to keep his hand back and wait for God to send the right food at the right time. Adam only lives because the word of God brings him to life, the word of God sends him food in season, the word of God orders his steps. The word of God, and not food, is what it's all about. And that goes for any Adam, any human – for Israel, for Jesus, for you and me.

What's most important is God's words, the decrees and instruction and counsel that comes from God's mouth. God's word shows us the way to go and sustains us as we go that way: “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him” (Deuteronomy 8:6). God's words give us a life that hunger can't steal. And so God's word is more important than bread. You can't live by bread alone; you need God's word.

And so when Moses went up the mountain to seek God's word, he turned away from bread so that he could focus on the more important thing. Hear what Moses says for yourself: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of fire on the day of the assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10-11). Moses disciplined himself. He went up and patiently fasted, accepting God's discipline, denying his own cravings, because God's word was more important. Moses knew he didn't live by bread alone; he needed every word that came from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3).

So it's this passage that Jesus uses to deflect the devil's temptation, the temptation to deny denial. Jesus just retorts back to him, “It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus has heard the devil's version of what it means to be God's child, but Jesus uses Deuteronomy to show that the truth is much different. The devil says that being a child of God means getting what you want, when you want it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means being grateful for God's fatherly provision in God's wise time.

The devil says that being a child of God means reaching out and taking whatever bread you can get, because you're entitled to it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means humbly accepting a life that has to be lived by faith, not by sight; it doesn't mean reaching out and grabbing for more, but holding up open and empty hands for the Father to fill when the Father chooses.

The devil says that being a child of God means prosperity and instant gratification, a life free from discomfort or hardship. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means refusing to take the shortcut, it means turning away from the easy road. It means patiently letting God shape and mold our character, even when it feels like we're starving – even when it means not grabbing at forbidden fruit or an ill-gotten loaf.

The devil says that being a child of God means living by bread, focusing on bread, whatever it is that satisfies you in the moment, whatever you can consume and control. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means obeying your Father's wise instructions and being sustained by the faith it evokes. Jesus sees that real life is about so much more than bread, and that our sustenance comes on God's demand, not on ours. And so, even when Jesus was at his hungriest, even when Jesus was most tempted to break his fast, Jesus chose to defer to his Father, who would say the word on when Jesus would get bread.

And that's exactly what happened, of course. In the end, Israel left the desert and their sparse manna diet behind, moving into a promised land where they could “eat and be full” (Deuteronomy 8:10), to “eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:9). And in the end, when the devil departed and Jesus' forty days and forty nights were fully concluded, and when Jesus had passed the test that Israel failed, it was God who sent angels to minister to him – and that includes bringing him food (Matthew 4:11). The devil told Jesus not to deny his cravings, but Jesus did exactly that. Jesus chose to trust his Father to provide in the time, place, and way of his Father's choosing. Jesus chose to live by God's word, and not to try to get life from mere bread alone.

So whose vision do we agree with? Because make no mistake: if you're saved, if you're a believer, then you are a son or a daughter of God, for “to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). You gathered here this morning, if you have received him and believed in his name, are God's children. But what does that mean to you? How do you live out being a child of God? Do you live for instant gratification? Do you live to consume? Do you quest after prosperity? Do you take the easy road? Do you reach for bread? Then you live out the devil's vision for being a child of God.

Or will you instead follow Jesus? He says to you, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If that's what you're aiming to do, then learn to accept God's discipline – not as punishment, but as hardship necessary to humble you and test you. Learn to trust your Father God to provide for you, in his time and in his way. Listen to his every word; study and meditate on his word, enough so you'll have it ready to sustain you when the tempter comes your way. Listen to your Father's word, obey his commandments, to walk by faith in his guidance.

Even when it feels like starving, even when it's sweltering, trust and listen to your Father, who will feed and sustain you on things you never could have expected. It may not be what you crave in the moment, it may not meet your “felt needs,” it may not amuse or entertain you, it may even make your body feel empty, but it will fill and grow and stretch your soul in due time. Then, and only then, will we be ready to appreciate God's feast after the fast. That's the life of a child of God. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Where the Spirit Leads

It was so hot in the day. It was so cold in the night. Sand everywhere – nothing but sand for miles. No food. Precious little water. Scorpions and snakes hiding around every corner. Enemies lurking in their path. Is it any wonder Israel grumbled and complained as they made their way through the wilderness? They started, truth be told, before they'd even fully escaped Egypt. As they stood against the sea and saw the Egyptian army dashing in their direction, they were terrified. They cried out to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you've taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). But when they stood on the other side, “the people feared the LORD, and they had faith in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).

That lasted a few days, at least. “They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they couldn't drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter; that's why they called it Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?'” (Exodus 15:22-24). Leaving the Bitter Place once the water was made sweet for them, they camped at an oasis called Elim, but then they left there, too, and came to a new wilderness place (Exodus 16:1). And soon they were hungry, saying to Moses, “If only we'd died by the hand of the LORD in Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). So God began feeding them with manna from heaven.

By the time they came to Rephidim, “there was no water for the people to drink, so the people quarreled with Moses … The people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and out children and our livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:1-3). And so that place was named Testing and Quarreling (Exodus 17:7). Soon after they had water, they had to fight the armies of Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13). All this before they ever made it to Sinai and pledged God their full trust and obedience (Exodus 23:7).

But just as they broke the Law at Sinai (Exodus 32), they didn't do much better after they left it. They continued to suffer; they continued to have hard times. “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes” (Numbers 11:1). They got hungry and nostalgic for slavery (Numbers 11:4), saying things like, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost us nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there's nothing at all but manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6). Soon after they got some meat from the windfall of quail, they tangled with disease (Numbers 11:33).

As they drew near to their destination, they were filled with fear-mongering and backsliding (Numbers 13:32-33), and the people again cried out, “If only we'd died in the land of Egypt! If only we'd died in this wilderness! … Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt? … Let's choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:2-4). They didn't go back, but they got their wish (Numbers 14:21-23).

And soon some were disobedient and picked a fight with locals which they badly lost (Numbers 14:44-45). They kept disobeying (Numbers 15:32), and finally there was a great rebellion by hundreds of leaders (Numbers 16:1-2), people who said that Moses had “brought [them] up out of a land of milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness” (Numbers 16:13). More died in the plague that followed (Numbers 16:49).

In time, they came to a place without water, and so the people “assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron” (Numbers 20:2), and they said, “If only we'd perished when our brothers perished against the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It's no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there's no water to drink” (Numbers 20:3-5). So that place, too, got named Quarreling (Numbers 20:13).

And their trials went on. Opposition from Edomites, Amorites, Moabites, Midianites. It wasn't long before the people got impatient again (Numbers 21:4), and they said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there's no food and no water, and we hate this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5). And then the snakes came, full of venom (Numbers 21:6). And after being tempted by the delights of the Midianite women and surrendering to them (Numbers 25:1-2), there was a greater plague than either of the first two (Numbers 25:9).

And so they lived forty years in the wilderness – a hot place with no food, no water, plenty of opposition, disease, and danger. It was, they said, “an evil place.” But it wasn't Moses who led them there. The whole way, from before they'd even left Egypt, it was the presence of God going before them: “The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). Wherever they went, “the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38). “And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped” (Numbers 9:17). In other words, both into and through the wilderness, it wasn't Moses leading them or dictating their path; it was God. They were being led by the Spirit.

That was the life of Israel in the wilderness. It's where, as Paul said, Israel was “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:2-3). Reflecting on that trip years later, God remarked, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Because that's where God takes his children: to the wilderness. That's where the child of God faces the test, in the desert of temptation. In their case, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5).

More centuries passed, and that's how the Gospels open. Just as Israel was baptized in the sea as God's son, Jesus left Galilee and went to the Jordan River to be baptized (Matthew 3:13). And when Jesus emerged from the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:16-17).

Israel was called the son of God, and so God led them through baptism and into the wilderness. And Jesus was called the Son of God, so where else would he go next? You can guess the next line yourself: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The goal here is pretty obvious, isn't it? I mean, that's what Jesus meant when he said it was “necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus passed from baptism to the wilderness, the desert of temptation, so that he could be what Israel had failed to be there: a faithful Son of God in the face of temptation. That was Israel's job during the days of Moses, and they blew it repeatedly. They fell in the face of temptation, and so they tumbled to destruction. Even Moses never set foot in the Promised Land. But Jesus would be pushed to his limits and yet live according to who he was: God's Child.

And note that he didn't just get up one day and decide he was going out to the wilderness, to a harsh and lonely place. He, as a human being, was not steering this ship. When he went into the wilderness, he was “led up by the Spirit” (Matthew 4:1), just like Israel was led by the Spirit as they followed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.

That might strike you as odd. If you're like most people, it should. Isn't following the Spirit supposed to lead you to a better life? Isn't the Spirit supposed to take you to nice places, where you can be happy and tell everyone you're fine? Isn't the Spirit supposed to steer you away from trouble and keep you safe? Don't things go well when you're following the Spirit?

That's what we're so prone to think – and yet the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. And if following the Spirit will take Jesus to the wilderness, why would it be different for any of God's adopted kids, whom Jesus isn't ashamed to call his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11)?

Because we're on a journey, too, between the waters of baptism and the place God is taking us. And as we wander along on that journey, we might find ourselves in some awfully difficult places – places we're prone to call 'Bitter' or 'Quarreling.' Places where we don't have enough to get by. Places where it seems like whole armies are standing in our path. Places where we're infected by disease, afflicted by hardship, bitten by things that won't let go. Places where death invades our households and steals those we love. Places where our prayers seem to echo and fade in a vast expanse. Places where everything just disgusts us, and we look at our lives and we say, “I don't have any of this, and I don't have any of that, and what I do have, I loathe as worthless.” Places where we're all dried out and feel lost forever. Places where we lose control and say we hate ourselves. Places where our feet quiver like jelly and there are miles left to go. Places where we can't hear anything but the sounds of the brokenness and yearning within. Places where we just don't know how to cope.

And when we get to those places, we feel the question burning on our lips and smoldering in our soul: “Why have you brought us out to this evil place? Why have you taken me to this desert, through this dark valley? What am I doing here?” That's the wilderness – a harsh and lonely place, devoid of all the things we're accustomed to falling back on. And when we get to the harsher spots of the wilderness and find ourselves panting and aching, lost and afraid, we have a lot of questions how and why we got there.

Truth is, sometimes we take ourselves there, to misfortunes we don't need. Sometimes the blame falls squarely on our own mismanagement of our life, when we've ignored wisdom and dug our own ditch. We're good at getting ourselves into trouble. But then sometimes it isn't anything you've done wrong. Sometimes you're living your life, you're trying to follow God, and then you look around and it's just sand for miles, too hot by day, too cold by night. And you wonder how you could possibly have gotten there if you were following God! Isn't he supposed to make you lie down in green pastures and lead you beside still waters (Psalm 23:2)?

Well, sometimes, yes. But then sometimes, the valley of the shadow of death really does enter into the picture (Psalm 23:4). Sometimes, the wilderness is exactly where following God will put you. Just like Israel, just like Jesus, sometimes it's the Spirit himself who leads you there. Sometimes it's the Spirit of God who'll lead you deeper into the desert, far from the cucumbers and leeks of Egypt behind you (Numbers 11:5) but still far from the milk and honey of the Promised Land yet to be seen (Exodus 33:3; Numbers 13:27).

Deeper into the desert – that really is where the Holy Spirit will take you. Let me tell you, if you're following a spirit who never leads you to the wilderness, you may be overestimating that spirit's holiness! “Don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they're from God” (1 John 4:1). Because the Spirit of God will teach you the truth – and sometimes that'll be a comfort, but sometimes that'll be an affliction. Sometimes he'll take you to an oasis and give you what you need, but there are certainly times he'll lead you deeper into the desert, to the desolate wastelands of the wilderness.

Because we need to go there. That's what it means to be a child of God. If you call God 'Father,' expect to camp in the wilderness with him. Don't expect the camping trips to be empty of hardships or even the presence of death and danger. Certainly don't expect them to be free from temptation. We can't grow otherwise: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees...” (Hebrews 12:6-12).

We need that time in the desert. We need to be deprived. We need to be disciplined. We need to be tested. For it's by being tested beyond your limits that you're made pure and strong and healthy on the inside. The desert, the wilderness, is where God always sends his children – whether that child is Israel, or Jesus, or those newest of newcomers to his family, us.

So yes, the wilderness is, perhaps more often than we'd like, where the Spirit of God leads. There's no way around it. Following the Spirit will lead you deeper into the desert. Following the Spirit will take you to harsh places. Following the Spirit may steer you away from the food and water you've known. Following the Spirit may lead you to the midst of death and danger. Following the Spirit may take you somewhere you'd call a bitter and evil place, a place that's no good for what you long for and doesn't have what you most want or crave. Following the Spirit will take you past your limits to a place where you can't cope.

And when that happens, you'll be tempted. You'll be tempted to turn back. You'll be tempted to despair and grieve and lament. You'll be tempted to grasp for any fleeting pleasure within your reach, anything to numb the pain or console yourself, anything to appease the hunger and thirst growing inside you. You'll be tempted to just give up all hope and cry out for all things to meet their final end. You'll be tempted to question God's wisdom, doubt his goodness, raise your fist toward heaven and call him your enemy. You'll be tempted to lash out against the nearest scapegoat, like the Israelites did with Moses.

But remember, Paul writes, that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:9-11). Keep following the Spirit. Follow the Spirit even when that path through life swerves deeper into the desert. Don't be surprised to find yourself there, there in the desert of temptation. But don't give in. In the wilderness, where the Spirit leads, is precisely where God calls us to come and seek him.

Our position isn't so unlike theirs. Like them, we're called children of God. Like them, we've passed through a baptism in the sea. Like them, we have the offering of spiritual food and drink from the Lord – both at the Lord's Table, as we shared on Ash Wednesday just four days ago, and also in the nourishment of his word: “Your words were found, and I ate them,” said the prophet (Jeremiah 15:16). Not just that, but we have spiritual food and drink in the pursuit of the Father's will: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Like them, we're led into the wilderness – sometimes finding an oasis, but sometimes wandering over endless dunes to a cracked and dry place where nothing grows. And like them, there we face tests that will make or break us.

And in that day, there's only one question. As children of God, whom do we resemble more: Israel, who failed their test in the days of Moses, or Jesus, who used the arsenal of God's word to stay true to who he was and who endured his temptations without being caught by them? When the Spirit leads you to the wilderness – and I'm sure he has before, and I'm sure he will again – which example will you follow?

In this season of Lent, for these forty days, we remember the forty days that ensued when Jesus was led into the wilderness to fast and face temptation; and those forty days remembered the forty years when Israel was led into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). During the course of our forty days and for all the times in life when the Spirit takes us deeper into the desert, keep doing what Israel began but stopped short: Having seen the great power that the Lord used in your great deliverance, believe in the Father and in his Son Jesus (cf. Exodus 14:31), and in their Spirit who leads you – one God, world without end.

May we as a church follow the Spirit as Jesus did and endure our trials as Jesus did, without sin. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1), forif we confess our sins” and turn away from them and follow him, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Praying Through the Bible: A Prayer Journal Excerpt

This year, I've been doing some devotional reading through the Bible - I'm using the Read Scripture app, which I really cannot recommend highly enough.  I'm almost a week behind (but catching up!), so today was the day I got to Deuteronomy 10-14 and Psalms 56-57.  And as I've been going, I've been trying my hand at praying through the text - letting it inspire and shape the contours of my prayers.  So I'd like to share a little snippet from my prayer journal today:

O Father, circumcise my heart! There is so much broken in the world – the plight of the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the immigrant, the beleaguered and oppressed in every way – and yet my heart is so cold and stony in the face of their plight. I know the good I ought to do. Sometimes I even do it. But I do it without feeling the true pangs of brokenness in my soul. Soften my heart, God, to feel more keenly!

You are the God of gods. You are the Lord of lords. You are great, mighty, and awesome beyond compare. You can't be bribed. Your justice is perfect. You defend the cause of the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the immigrant, the beleaguered and oppressed in every way. You show your love to those whom sinful society loves least. Class me among the least of these, O Lord, and make me more like you – to love the foreigners and the oppressed, as my forebears were oppressed as foreigners and slaves in the land of Egypt.

Teach me to honor and adore you, O Lord my God. Teach me to serve you and to hold fast to you and your teaching. You are my praise, and you are my God. You have done great, mighty, and awesome things for me – not least in the miracle of atonement on the cross of your Son, and in you resurrection of him (and my life embedded in him) from death to life everlasting.

Bind your commandments and your wisdom on my heart and mind, my hands and feet, and in the depths of my soul. Destroy my inward sin, and mortify my flesh, so that I can live abundant life in you and you alone. Swallow up my temptations, my trials, and my tribulations – but set me apart from them, that I might not descend to the pit of the earth myself, as did Dathan and Abiram! Instead, make me strong, make me bold and courageous, to go in where you precede me, that I might share your victory forever.

Let me dwell in the place of your caretaking, the land you water with blessing. Let your eyes be always upon me. Feed me with no abominable vice or spiritual half-measure, but only with your Bread of Life come down from heaven and with your Cup of Blessing, and with every other thing that pleases you – for all things are clean when received with thanks to you, O God. But make me clean, inside and out, and purify me from the vices of my heart. Organize the chaos of my life according to your life-giving wisdom, and not the frailty and folly of my own feeble mind.

Give me a new heart and new spirit wherewith to love you and serve you with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength – and to love my neighbors no less than I love my very own self. And do not let my heart by deceived by the enchantments and entrapments of this wilderness, lest I should give to another cause or passion the devotion that I owe to you and you alone.

Let me never be a false prophet, nor a false dreamer of dreams, lest I lead your people astray. Even when I see all other things clearly, let me never deviate from extolling the One True God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for you live and reign as one eternal God, now and forever.

Let me never speak a false word in your name, or twist you to my agendas. But bless me with truth and only truth, to speak a good word in season and out of season. And strengthen your church, the flock whom I shepherd in your name, with a double measure of your Spirit, that we may abound in faith, hope, and love, and might fulfill your purposes as you make them known to us and bless us with your incomparable wisdom.

Lead me back to where I belong, to your holy temple, your church, your Christ – there and there alone is my true Zion, the place that you have appointed for your praise in Spirit and in Truth. Tear down every other altar. Dash to pieces every other pillar. Burn with fire every enticing idol from this idol-factory that is my wicked heart. Lead me instead to your precious habitation where you are, where you place your name.

Place your name on me, to be a portion of your living, breathing, roving tabernacle in the world, to carry your praise, your goodness, and your life-giving power forth into a weary and broken land.

Lead me into the promised rest from all foes, and let me live in safety – but above all, let me live in your love, by your love, and for your love, all the days of my life and throughout the endless age to come. There and now may I walk before you in the light of endless and abundant life. 

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge forever!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nor Out Righteousness, But His Great Mercy: A Homily for Ash Wednesday 2017

Good evening, brothers and sisters! Now, I know a great many of you, and you know me. And if you know me, one thing about me you might know is that, up until this past summer, on top of pastoring this wonderful church, I also taught in a Christian daycare. Kindergarten through second grade – that was my class, though I dealt with the older kids some, too. And if there's one thing kids are good at, it's misbehaving. Some more than others, I have to admit!

So during games or free-play time, there would occasionally be one or two kids I had to put in time-out. Just tell them to sit at a table and relax, take a chance to silently regroup their thoughts and reflect on why they were there. But not all those kids managed to reflect silently! So I had a policy for them, and I told them up-front – if they broke their silence or otherwise misbehaved during time-out, the timer would reset – and they'd stay a little while longer in exile.

And when you think about it, that's a lot like the position Daniel was in. When we open up Daniel chapter 9, it tells us that he'd been reading the scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah, and he saw there that the Jews had been consigned to exile in Babylon for seventy years – no less, but no more (Daniel 9:2). The seventy years was drawing to a close, so you'd think that would make Daniel pretty cheery. Hooray, we're going home!

But instead, Daniel responded with “prayer … fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). That doesn't sound so cheery! Daniel was actually pretty worried. He'd been looking around his fellow Jews – some old men like him (after all, he's in his eighties by this point), but most who'd been born and raised in Babylon – and he had to ask himself, “Are we really more righteous now than we were seventy years ago? And if we aren't... will the timer reset?”

So Daniel, in this beautiful and heartfelt prayer of confession, put himself in the place of his people. It wasn't all his personal sin – some was, but not all – but he took it on himself and confessed it anyway. And you could say there are five movements in this prayer of his.

First, Daniel admitted the truth about who God is. He confesses that God is “the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (9:4). He says that God is “righteous in all the works that he has done” (9:14). And this is the God who brought his people out of Egyptian slavery with a mighty hand and made himself famous (9:15). We need to catch a glimpse of the beauty and truth of God – the Creator, the Deliverer, the One who's glorious and righteous and faithful.

Second, Daniel admitted the truth about who he was, who we are – limited creatures rebelling against the very God who made us. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled … We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:5-6). And in spite of everything that had happened, Daniel had to admit, “We have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth” (9:13). We're just dust on its way back down, but we have the gall to spite the One who breathed life into us from the start. That's not just true of Daniel's generation. It's true of us – and unless we admit it, we have no hope at all.

Third, having taken a good hard look at who God is and how we've treated him, Daniel admits what justice will look like if we get what we deserve. “To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you” (9:8). “The curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him” (9:11). We deserve shame. We deserve a curse. We deserve to stay stuck in our mess – forever. And if God gave us what we deserve, what would be fair and just, that's exactly where we'd be – eternal exile.

Fourth, Daniel makes a request: Please give us something besides what we deserve. “Let your anger and your wrath turn away” (9:16). “God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy … make your face to shine upon your desolate sanctuary” (9:17). “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act” (9:19). In other words, even though it's what we deserve, don't punish us any more. Set us free. Make us new. Forgive our sin. Restore a healthy relationship between you and us. Let us come back home – not just to the land, but to your presence. Let us see you smile again, God.

And fifth, Daniel establishes the reason why God might even consider doing something like that. And it has nothing to do with how much we've learned. It has nothing to do with how good we are. It has nothing to do with how much value we can provide. It has nothing to do with how much money we can tithe, or the fancy rituals we can carry out, or the fact that we're nice to our neighbors. It doesn't have the slightest thing to do with anything we can do – not any of our works of any nature. Daniel's brutally, painfully clear in this prayer: “We do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy” (9:18).

And that's all that can be said, in the end. Friends, there is not a thing you can do to earn your way into God's good graces. There is nothing you can do to deserve a second chance. There is no test you can pass to get into paradise. No matter how much you put in the offering plate, no matter how often you're in church, no matter what rituals you go through – none of them earn you a thing. Not a thing at all. If that's what you're leaning on, you will fall.

But if you stretch out an open hand to God and ask for mercy, that's a different story. Because that's when you'll find another hand grabbing yours, when you're dangling from the edge. And you can latch your finger safely in a hole the size of a Roman nail. Because if you want to know if God is merciful to you, if you want to know if God can forgive you, if you want to know if God is patient with you and willing to set you free from exile, from slavery, from all the power of sin and death – just look at Jesus. He's the Mercy of God made flesh.

As we meet here today, as we recite the fifty-first psalm and offer up prayers of confession, we're going to become painfully aware of our sin. If you aren't, you need to listen more carefully and think more sincerely. And we know that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23). Every single one of us here deserves the death penalty. Every single one of us here has sinned and spat in God's face. But God has great mercy in store for us. We don't deserve it. We haven't earned it. If God had decided not to even offer it, he would've been perfectly justified.

But his mercy is greater than our unrighteousness. His grace is greater than our ingratitude. His love is greater than our estrangement. And his salvation is greater than all our sin. That's the God we meet in Jesus Christ, the God to whom Daniel prayed – and Daniel's prayers were answered. So don't give up hope, and don't lean on lesser things. Lean on Jesus in faith. He's the only stable Rock.

Cry out for mercy – and because he is so rich in mercy, he'll hear our prayer. Not because of our righteousness, but because of his mercy – mercy that stretches even to the gift of new life in Christ, who delivers us from our exile, and a new lifestyle in the Spirit, who mightily works in us all the love that the Law could never reach, to the glory of God the Father. All he asks is that we confess, repent, and trust him. Let's open our hearts and call upon our great and awesome God in a psalm.