First Sunday in Lent (Year A, 13 March 2011)

I was at a family camp (fab time!!) this weekend. The service at Centenary UC was led by Rev Mary Haire. I thank Mary, and thank her for this copy of her sermon:

 

Readings

Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11

Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’

These words of Jesus in the gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 4, Verse 10, sum up Jesus’ decision when faced with temptations and choices after he fasted for 40 days in the bush.

I don’t need to remind you about the number of choices and dilemmas we all have every day—the little things and the big things in our lives.

We have personal ethical dilemmas and choices; as a child, whether to own up to an accident or misdeed; as an adult whether to earn more money for our family or to devote this time to voluntary work for our neighbour. Whether to enter into the carbon tax debate?

At the times of the recent devastating floods in Queensland and the bushfires in Victoria a couple of years ago,  many made choices which put actions to save others above concerns for personal safety and property. No doubt after the terrible earthquakes and tsunamis which have just happened in Japan we shall see similar choices made both by trained rescuers and by ordinary people. Then there are the complicated ethical debates which cross boundaries of legal stability, national relations and social justice. The Law Report on ABC radio recently described the Vulture funds which buy up debts of desperately poor countries for a pittance and seek to have them enforced in countries around the world, creating ethical dilemmas for legal systems and international business relationships.

There are even life and death choices for individuals. I remember as a member of a committee for organ and tissue donation and transplantation needing to debate the issue of whether a prisoner who had been convicted of a very serious crime should allowed to be put on the waiting list for an organ transplant, when there were many others who were waiting.

In the story of the temptation of Jesus it is definitely not the small personal choices within this world which are the main subject.  It is not even the larger choices and ethical dilemmas—but the whole calling, and vocation of Jesus, the type of mission which God has for him. It is a story about the greatest choice which there has ever been in anyone’s life, whether or not to accept the way of the cross, the one which Jesus made on our behalf. Put in its starkest form: it is a life and death choice for all humankind—for all of us.

Jesus in this passage from the gospel according to Matthew Chapter 4 and verses 1-11, wins the battle against Satan, just as in Mark’s brief account. But the focus here is on Jesus as the Son of God who is obedient to Him—in whom God is well pleased, as announced at his baptism, described just before this passage.

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. Here we find Jesus facing three temptations reminiscent of the temptations which Israel faced in the wilderness.  Jesus’ responses are drawn from Deuteronomy and portray him as the faithful Son of Israel and Son of God, who, contrasted with the Israel of old, was faithful in the wilderness. Need for food does not lead Jesus to forsake what God wills him to do: his fast. Magic feats are not permitted; Jesus will not perform a stunt in the temple, throwing himself down from the pinnacle to demonstrate his abilities and gain followers; he remains obedient. According to Matthew Jesus had such powers, but refused to use them to his own advantage (see his claims at his arrest: Matthew 26:53). Nor would he surrender to the devil in the interests of gaining power as, like Moses, he surveys the world from a great height. Throughout the account, the emphasis is on Jesus the truly obedient Son who submits to the will and word of God and especially to the call of the cross.

Sometimes we may not take this very seriously. We may not think Jesus was really tempted, not the way we are tempted.  But we need to understand that Jesus was truly human and the temptations of Jesus were real.

Jesus resisted the temptations and chose life for us—on our behalf, because we are weak and sinful. Christ’s act of grace (his obedient life, ministry and death) created a new process which frees us from that process of death which was begun by Adam’s disobedience.

In the Old Testament lectionary reading for today, from The book of Genesis, Chapter 2, verses 15-17 we read;

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

We all know the story of Adam’s disobedience and how, instead of walking with God in the cool evening breeze in the garden of Eden, he and his wife were cast out and with that the process of sin, decay and death is begun.

The stories describe the reality of what it is to be human and our human tendencies of continually rebelling against God, resisting the gracious boundaries and limitations that God places around us for our own good, and our desire to be like God rather than grateful creatures of God.

Paul states in our epistle reading in Romans Chapter 5, ‘Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so death spread to all because all have sinned.’ We do not have to think of sin being passed genetically but we know how powerful the inter-relatedness of selfishness, corruption and all manner of inter-generational and organisational destructiveness can be.   Sin spreads because we are inter-connected, because our lives are inter-woven with each other.

Yet Paul wants us to know that through Jesus Christ, God has worked a great reversal of this scenario of sin. We are no longer subject to sin and death, but have been blessed by the outpouring of undeserved and unconditional love in Jesus. Paul states ‘…one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.’

So here we see that there was a lot riding on Jesus’ temptations and the choices he made!  If Jesus was to follow God’s agenda to work this great reversal and bring goodness and life for all of creation, he had to be obedient, and worship God alone, saying no to all man-made gods and agendas. The model and agenda which God has chosen is that of the Servant King, laying down his life for us all.

Richard Foster, in his Celebration of Discipline, emphasises that the most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of society’s notion of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all, and power is discovered in submission, the greatest symbol of this radical servanthood being the cross. Foster describes this servant leadership, during Jesus’ ministry, the overturning of society’s ideas of position and power, and exclusiveness, where the exploited and outcast are received—as Jesus’ following of the “cross-life” (a term already used by other theologians).

This radical call to follow Jesus in his “cross-life” was given to close disciples who before Jesus’ death and resurrection showed little understanding, when they discussed who might be the greatest amongst them, and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah but rebuked him when he spoke of his coming suffering and death.  Jesus said ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ Foster emphasises that this cross-life is the life of freely accepted servanthood. It is also the liberation to serve and love others, with the realisation that the way to self-fulfilment is actually through self-denial.

We can help ourselves towards this liberation by our connection with and understanding of the worlds of others, whether near at home or overseas.  During Lent we are encouraged to take up the Lent Event (www.lentevent.com)—40 days of Action, Reflection and Connection for Life by supporting vital development overseas in the areas of: water and sanitation; economic empowerment and livelihood; education and vocational training; health and nutrition; and peacemaking.  This is both through capacity building and challenging economic systems that perpetuate global poverty and injustice. The urgent need was brought home to me in the first session of the Lent Event studies. 1.4 billion people in the world are living in extreme poverty—and that this equates to the number of people in 14,000 MCGs (the Melbourne Cricket Ground being Australia’s largest stadium) with each stadium packed to capacity.

And at home we might support the “Close the Gap” campaign to improve the health and rights of indigenous people in this country—or help the recovery efforts following the natural disasters. We can choose to be caught up in the passion for freedom, love and hope, in God’s spirit which hungers for righteousness, a theme found in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel.

We are at the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection, repentance and preparation for Holy week, when we celebrate our Lord’s death and resurrection. Now, and in a few weeks time, when we stand with Jesus at the gates of the city of Jerusalem, we have choices, just as Jesus did at the time when he was tempted, at the time when he came to Jerusalem, and when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We can choose to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, that is, to enter the gates of Jerusalem with Jesus, to choose to allow Christ to live in us and affect our behaviour and humbly to go with him to the cross. We can choose to express his love.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says in his homily for Palm Sunday, delivered in Jerusalem in 2003:

At these city gates, we see the possibilities. We can enter with Jesus and walk with him to his garden of new life. Or we can enter and find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with hands both empty and bloodstained. Or we can stay at the gates, unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the garden. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again in the cool of the day?

May our yearnings this Lent be for freedom to follow God’s agenda rather than ours; to be liberated to be connected with and serving others; and above all to be able to accept the gift of Christ’s servanthood to us.  This is an exciting road, one which energises and nourishes, and we are not alone on this journey, as Rowan Williams tells us.  Our faith is that we shall be walking with God in the cool of the evening, in that relationship which was lost by Adam and restored by Christ:

As Rowan William writes:

Jesus does not steer us away from the gates of Jerusalem and send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He keeps us close to him as we stand at the gates, and he tells us that these are also the gates of heaven.  If you recognise your involvement and prepare to walk with Jesus into the city, to the cross and the tomb, there is a joy and a mystery at the end of the path, because it is inexhaustible divine love that walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the city of wrong, the great city where the Lord was crucified, as revelation says, but also at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.

Confident in Jesus’ love, we can be bold to our Adversary, “Away with you Satan, for it is written ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Amen.

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