Here is the text of the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church Nebraska City on February 17, 2013. The scripture is Luke 4:1-13.
So here we are, we have begun the season of Lent, the season of penitence, of fasting, and prayer; the season of repentance. Last Wednesday we were reminded that we come from the earth and to the earth we will return. We took ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that there is work to do, that we are in need of grace, and cleansing so that we may be able to see God more clearly in our lives.
Growing up in the south, I often saw those preachers, heard those preachers, “REPENT, REPENT THE END IS NEAR!!! YOU BETTER GET RIGHT WITH GOD, BOY!!!! TURN FROM YOUR EVIL WAYS!!!! REPENT, REPENT!!!!!”
Those guys always terrified me; I mean really, I was scared they were going to physically assault me, they seemed so angry, so sure, so convinced that I was evil. I didn’t think I was evil, I still don’t. Sure, I’m not perfect, but evil no way. I think there is a long way between “snotty kid” to “evil”. So because I related that term “REPENT” to fear and anger I rejected it out of hand. I don’t need to repent I’m fine.
I know that for many the idea of giving up something is important to them during Lent. A lot of people give up chocolate, or sweets, or soda, or alcohol, etc. etc. That was not part of my tradition growing up. I never saw the point, the people I knew that gave up stuff weren’t changed, they couldn’t wait for Easter Sunday so they could have candy or a chocolate bar or a soda or a glass of wine or whatever it was. A pastor friend of mine talks about a man who smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day. Every Ash Wednesday, he would give up cold turkey and Easter Sunday, he would pick it up again. I’ve done it, given up something on Ash Wednesday only to have it reappear on Easter Sunday!
There has been a push recently for adding something to your life, adding community service or volunteer work, adding a devotional reading or prayer time. I’ve done that too, added something on Ash Wednesday and put it back down again on Easter Sunday, if I made it that far. These are nice gestures, they come from a good place, but I’m not sure they ultimately get us closer to God or empower us to do the work of God.
I told you that I completely shunned the word or even the idea of repentance or the need for it growing up. When I went to seminary I changed my opinion, I was enlightened you might say. The word that we translate as repentance in the Bible is a Hebrew word, shuv, it literally means “to turn”. IT LITERALLY MEANS TURN.
It doesn’t mean give up all that you’ve known or throw away all your loved ones. When we get out of whack it is because we have turned away from God, to repent means to turn towards God. It may require a 180° turn, it may only be a light twist. In this season of Lent we are called to turn from the thing that tempts us away from God and do our best to turn towards God, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. If eating chocolate, or candy, or drinking a soda keeps you from focusing on God, then by all means turn from it and turn towards God. I pray that turning lasts longer than six weeks.
We normally think of this need for repentance, the need to turn from our temptations, to master them before we start our journey with God. I’ve heard it a thousand times, “I need to get my life right, and then I can get back into church.” Or “I just need to get some things figured out then I can start praying” These are nice sentiments but they just aren’t biblically accurate.
In our scripture lesson today, we find Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Do you know what happens in the life of Jesus, right before this passage? He is baptized! That’s right, he got baptized, THEN, went into the wilderness and was tempted. In our churches, in our society, we often get it backwards, we think we need to face the temptation first, then we can be good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough to be baptized or to do God’s work. The truth is YOU ARE ENOUGH, God has made you that way, God who knitted you in your mother’s womb, God who rejoiced at your birth, God who smiles upon you everyday has been, is, and will always be with you and until you recognize that you are a child of God, wholly, completely, warts and all you won’t have the strength to turn from those temptations and turn to God.
It was only because Christ had the sure and certain knowledge of the love God felt for him that he was able to turn away from the temptations of the Devil and keep his eyes focused on God.
When we embrace the fact that God loves us, just as we are no strings attached, AND God loves us enough not to let us stay that way that we will embrace the need for turning to God.
Often times at the beginning of Lent we start strong, we have resolve to keep up or discipline but as the weeks move on, our will power erodes we find it easier to give in, then before Easter we give up, or we’re so focused on eating that chocolate bunny on Easter Sunday that we forget why we started the process in the first place. We forget that the goal, at the beginning, was to take something away, or add something so that we may be more centered on God, instead we become centered on the thing that we’ve given up or taken on and not God. It has the opposite of its intended affect.
Often in our lives, our temptations are larger than chocolate and candy; they are less obvious than need to abstain from alcohol. Our temptations are subtle behaviors, they are not always bad, and they always are something that we want.
Let’s look again at the temptations of Jesus. Jesus was first tempted by bread. Jesus was fasting, I’m sure he was hungry; if he can turn a stone into a loaf of bread he could feed all the hungry. Eating bread, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but for Christ in this instance it is not sufficient to define his ministry.
The second temptation is to rule the world. It would seem that Jesus desired power, if Jesus ruled the world; he could do it more justly, more lovingly, certainly more compassionately than the Romans that ruled the known world at that time if he just worshipped the Devil. Jesus reminds the Devil that we are called to worship God alone.
The third temptation, to cast himself from the top of the temple, because God would protect the righteous and Jesus was certainly righteous. I’m sure Jesus would have loved some help, to be taken up by angels and carried off. Don’t we all. But Jesus reminds us that God is not to be tested.
Food, control, comfort these aren’t bad things. Much like our own desires to control others, or situations it’s not a bad thing to want things to go well but when the need for that control turns us away from God, it’s a bad thing.
If you’re like me, I am tempted to respond every time someone misspeaks or says something I don’t agree with, this happens a lot on social media and sometimes in coffee shops. It was causing me to no longer see good in people that I have known and loved for years. It was deteriorating our relationship and we weren’t going anywhere. There was no need for me to respond and I told myself that I wouldn’t but every time one of my friend would post something, I couldn’t help myself I responded. Because I was unable to resist the temptation to correct these people, I simply hid their posts from my wall. It helped me get past my temptation.
Often times, we try so hard to resist temptation, we pray about it, we stop cold turkey, we think we have it licked and then slowly it creeps back into our life and we’re back to square one.
I read a comic strip online called Coffee with Jesus. It’s great, 3 or 4 frames that get right to the point. This week’s comic entitled “Get Past It” Kevin asks Jesus, “You know that thing I struggle with?” and Jesus responds, “I do.” Kevin says, “I keep asking you to help me get past it, but it’s still there always a temptation.” Jesus sips his coffee and replies, “It’s still there because you flirt with it endlessly, love it so much, and actively pursue it Kevin. Put it behind you, not in front of you.”
Do you do that? Do you flirt with, love, and pursue the things that we know are not good for us, that keep us from seeing and hearing God in our lives? I encourage you to put your temptations behind you. If that means not eating chocolate, or candy, or praying daily, or taking pictures, or whatever you need to do to turn away from your temptation and towards God then do it.
I know that’s easier said that done, but with the sure knowledge that you are loved by God regardless of what tempts you. I know without a shadow of a doubt that you will be able to move, ever so slightly, one step at a time, little by little, to a closer walk with God.
May it be so.