Rev. Amy Morgan
March 13, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21, John 12:1-8
She sat with him in the darkest hours of the night. As his breathing became more labored, as doctors and nurses checked his vital signs, she kept her hand on his shoulder and talked about sports. She wanted him to know he was not alone.
She had never met the man who lay dying in the hospital bed beside her. She volunteered to relieve family members of those who were dying in the hospital and to sit with those who had no family members to be with them in their last days. Perhaps she did not slather their feet with precious perfume, but she gave them the valuable gift of her time and her presence. She could have prioritized her time differently. She could have volunteered to work with the living – serving food at a homeless shelter or tutoring underprivileged schoolchildren. Why waste her time with people who were dying?
This is the kind of opinionated question posed to Mary as she kneels at the feet of Jesus, her hair an oily mess of perfume mixed with dirt. Now, Judas, we are told, had his own hidden agenda buried in his query. But it’s a legitimate question, nonetheless. Why waste an ointment costing a year’s worth of wages in such an extravagant gesture?
Like Judas, we all have opinions about what others should do with what they have. Whether it is time, money, or talent, one person’s waste is another’s wealth. And, like Judas, these viewpoints we have are shaped by our own motivations and priorities. They are windows into our hearts.
Do we operate out of scarcity or abundance? Are we motivated by greed or compassion? Do we have a big picture mindset, or are we caught up in the minutia? Are we fretting about the future, regretting the past, or living fully in the present?
Most of us are a complicated combination of all of these things, but at any given moment, our views about the allocation of resources comes out of this web of motives. And, like Judas, they can keep us from recognizing the true value of what is right in front of us.
Judas is as complicated a person as ever there was. He felt called to follow Jesus, to learn from him, carry his message out to others. Somewhere along the way, he was given charge of the common purse for the Jesus cause. Perhaps he had been a tax collector and was good with numbers. Or perhaps he talked the group into trusting him with the funds in the hopes that he would someday serve as head of the treasury in the new kingdom Jesus kept talking about.
Somewhere along the way, he began to see how he could profit in the here and now. Skimming a little off the top. Setting aside a portion of the donations for his personal use. It was thrilling at first. And then he came to resent Jesus and the other disciples. How could they be so blind, so trusting? He should have been caught long ago. If they didn’t care to keep an eye on him, he would just go on stealing more, seeing how far he could take this thing.
So when Judas looks down at Jesus’ feet and sees what Mary has done, he doesn’t see an act of love and gratitude. He sees a waste of money, more money probably than he had in the whole common purse. With his deceitful tongue, he argues that they should have sold the perfume…you know, to give it to the poor. His value of money has blinded him to the value of Jesus.
Still, Mary’s way of showing how much she does value Jesus seems rather odd. Jesus comes to her defense with the bizarre insight that Mary had purchased the expensive perfume for his burial. Jesus, who, as far as anyone knows, is not sick nor, at this point, condemned to death. What a strange thing for Mary to do. It would be like spending a million dollars on a grave blanket for an apparently healthy, successful, 33-year-old. Presumably, the flowers will be long gone before they’re needed.
But that is the truly amazing thing about what Mary does. She gives Jesus something so rich, so costly, and it is completely useless, totally impractical. We might teach our children “it’s the thought that counts” when they receive a gift that is not much to their liking. But this goes so far beyond that. In pouring out this perfume on Jesus’ feet, it ceases to be useful to the rest of the world – either as a burial ointment or as a means to care for the poor. It is a lavish gift not only in its price but in its transience – a house filled for a moment with the fragrance of nard and the soft, slick feeling on the skin of Jesus’ feet.
In all it’s wonderful strangeness, Mary’s offering was the perfect gift for Jesus, from one who knew him best. Mary, who sat and listened at the feet of Jesus, had been watching his every move and pondering his words. She knew the Jesus of overflowing abundance who turned water into 180 gallons of the finest wine and fed crowds of thousands with leftovers to spare. The Jesus of reckless healing, who made enemies by casting out demons and forgiving sins and restoring broken people to wholeness and community. The Jesus who is the living water and bread from heaven, offering eternal nourishment. The Jesus who marked himself for execution by raising Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from death.
Mary had also heard the fearmongering among some of the temple leaders, those hoping to keep the status quo, prevent a riot, avoid rocking the boat of the Roman Empire. While Jesus’ disciples were preparing for a rebellion, Mary was the only one who really saw what was going on. She knew he was marching to his death. And she knew better than to try to stop him. She knew, better than most, that death has no power over him.
Like the volunteer in the hospital, Mary occupies the sacred space between life and death. Just days before this dinner, Jesus brought her brother Lazarus back to life as her sister Martha fretted that the oils they had put on his dead body would not be enough to keep down the stench. A few days after this dinner, Jesus will die and be buried in such a hurry that they have no time to anoint the body. But here, in that space between her brother’s resurrection and her Lord’s death, Mary annoints Jesus’ feet, letting the living Jesus enjoy the musky fragrance of the nard and feel the tender caress of her hair. She understands that the cost of the perfume is nothing in comparison to the price Jesus is about to pay for bringing the kingdom of God to earth. Mary knows the price of this treasure, the gift of Jesus, God’s Messiah, and it far exceeds 300 denarii.
In the space between life and death, Mary understands Jesus’ declaration that “you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” “The poor” is a stereotype, a faceless, generic group. “The poor” do not engender true compassion, as is evidenced by the fact that Judas uses them as a way to ultimately put more money in his pocket. “The poor,” along with all the other categories of marginalized people, will always be with us. Because we will always try to group people together and label them so that we can figure out what to do with them.
We will always have “the poor.” But we do not always have Jesus. We do not have Jesus when we act of our self-interest and greed. We do not have Jesus when we label and generalize about people. We do not have Jesus when we de-value other human beings.
We do have Jesus when we see each person as Mary saw Jesus – as an individual, as someone uniquely made in the image of God, as a person with a purpose and a path. We do have Jesus when we, like Mary, show love and gratitude. We do have Jesus when we value him over our own selfish desires.
The truly remarkable thing about that volunteer in the hospital, and the hundreds of other people who do what she does, is that she saw this stranger the way Mary sees Jesus. She took whatever information she had about him, and saw him as a unique, particular person, beloved of God. She realized his temporary nature, and she gave the valuable gift of her time to show love and gratitude to him while he was still living.
If we group people as “the poor” or “the dying” or “the underprivileged,” we will always fail to meet their needs because we will always fail to see their true value. We will do what we want with what we have instead of experiencing the transforming power of radical love and self-giving. We might end up with more money, more leisure, more accolades. But there is so much we will miss.
Judas’ path after this dinner in Bethany leads him to accept a bribe and betray his friend. It leads him to hopelessness and despair. We don’t really know what happens to Mary. This is the end of her story in the gospels. But we might assume that she lives to see the resurrection of Jesus. She likely benefits from her brother’s extended life. Perhaps she even teaches others the things she learned at the feet of Jesus.
What you do with what you have is entirely up to you. People will have opinions, yes. But the choice is ultimately yours. And that choice begins with how we see Jesus, and how we see Christ in each person we meet. When we value the presence of Christ in our lives above all else, and when we experience the presence of Christ in others, our gratitude overflows. There is no limit to the love we can give.
And so that is my challenge for us this week: Can we place greater value on Christ? Can we see Christ in others and value them as well? Can we value them in the particular and not just as generalities?
In doing this, we will not feed “the hungry” or tutor “the uneducated” or care for “the poor.” Instead, we will share a meal with George, read Tamika’s favorite book with her, and help Lorenzo get his driver’s license. No matter the cost, because these people are Christ with us. When we have them in our lives, we have Jesus. And that is something more valuable than we can possibly imagine.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 6, 2016
Isaiah 41:17-20, Luke 15:1-10
Abraham’s life was going nowhere fast. Growing up in a poor Hispanic section of East Los Angeles he had found himself in trouble with the law early and often. He had joined a gang, dropped out of high school and been in and out of Juvenile detention. If anyone had been giving odds, they would have been overwhelmingly in favor of his ending up in prison for most of his adult life. Yet something happened to Abraham. He is now a high school graduate and is attending community college. He has been selected for a special month long learning opportunity at Oxford College in England. He has met the Queen of Sweden. And his goal is now to go to UCLA law school and become an attorney in order to help kids like he was. So what happened? How did this come about? The answer is that someone listened to Jesus. But in order to understand this we have to return to our story.
Our Jesus’ story this morning begins with Jesus teaching, which is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary though are those who are being taught. Jesus was teaching those whom most of us would not invite to a dinner party. He was hanging out with sinners and tax collectors…or as we might think of them…homeboys, or for those of us from South Texas, the cholos. These were the people that respectable people avoided. But there were other people there as well…the religious elite known as Pharisees. They were scandalized by Jesus’ new found friends and began whispering about how inappropriate this was. What I love about Jesus is how he responds to their campaign. He tells stories.
The first story is about a shepherd who has had one of his 100 sheep wander off. The shepherd leaves the other sheep and heads out to find the lost lamb. When he finds it he throws a party. The second story is about a woman who loses a coin and spends a great deal of effort trying to find it. And when she finds it she throws a party as well. Both of these may seem like strange stories. Why would a shepherd care about one sheep? Why would a woman care about one coin? For those listening to Jesus the answers would be obvious. For the shepherd, he would care so much because the sheep are not his. Shepherds worked for other people and were responsible for every, single animal. He had a duty to find it. The woman needed the coin because it probably represented her entire life savings and was perhaps the only thing that might save her family from starvation. The sheep and the coin were of almost incalculable value. The gift of these stories was that they made everyone think, not just about lost sheep and coins, but about God. They made them think about God because everyone knew that Jesus was not just talking about a shepherd and a woman, but he was talking about God; the God with a searching heart. The God of Israel was always the God who came searching for God’s people. God searched for them when they were slaves. God searched for them when they were exiles. God searched for them when they had wandered off again and again and again. And God searched for them because God loved them; because they were of incalculable value. And now God had sent the messiah to bring them home. They got it that God had sent Jesus to gather God’s people and not just the perfect people, but all of the people including the homeboys and the cholos; the sinners and tax collector; you and me; every person on the face of the earth because each of us is of incalculable value to God. It was this God who found Abraham.
This God with a searching heart found Abraham through the work of Father Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Industries. In 1988 Father Boyle and his parishioners knew something had to be done about the rising gang violence around them in inner city LA. So rather than asking for more police and prisons, they started a program to love, cherish, teach and train gang members so that their lives might be turned around. And they did so not simply to help bring peace, but because they believed that each and every one of those young men and women were of incalculable value to God. Over the years Homeboy Industries has become the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program. Each year they help more than 10,000 gang members to turn their lives around. This is how Father Boyle puts it, “If ours is a God who is too busy loving us to be disappointed in us, then imagine what that means for your ministry or being. And imagine, if ours was a God who didn’t want anything from us but only wanted for us, then suddenly, all these walls and doors are opened.” This was what Father Boyle helped Abraham to understand…that God had been searching for him and that the walls that had constrained Abraham were now broken down.
This morning I have two challenges for you. The first is, as you take the bread and the cup, to remember that you are of incalculable value to God; that God has been searching for you and that there is nothing you could have ever said, done or thought, that can change God’s love for you. Second, to ask yourselves, how am I partnering with God’s searching heart to go searching for those who like Abraham, need to be found?
The Heart of the Matter: A Heroic Heart
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 28, 2016
Isaiah 55:6-13, Luke 13:1-9
They needed a hero. The bad guys were out of control. They were oppressing the people. They were stealing from the small and weak. There was mayhem in the streets. The people needed a hero and so they called on….and I will let you finish the sentence. They called on Luke Skywalker. They called on Rambo. They called on Batman, Spiderman, and Superman. They called on Indiana Jones and John McClaine from the Die Hard series. They called on Dirty Harry, Harry Potter and 007. And today they are calling on an anti-hero named Deadpool whose movie is only for adults yet is breaking box-office records. We call on heroes who will blow things up; who will blow up death stars one and two and then a death planet. We call on heroes who will blow up cars, buildings and ultimately the bad guysand will leave havoc in their wake in order to make our world safe again. We call on heroes who will bend and break the rules to protect us. We call on heroes who are not afraid of violence. They needed a hero. We need heroes.
They needed a hero. The bad guys were out of control. They were oppressing the people. They were stealing money given to God in order to fund civic improvements. And so they called on…Jesus. This morning’s story I would argue is one in which the people have had enough of their Roman overlords and are looking for a hero. The tale they tell of Jesus is one of brutality and death. The Roman ruler Pontius Pilot had decided that Jerusalem needed a new water source, an aqueduct. Rather than taxing his supporters he decided that he would steal the money from the Jewish Temple; money give to support the operation of Judaism’s most sacred site. The Jews protested. They stood up to Pilot. In response Pilot let loose his goons, dressed like Jews, who killed dozens of the protestors. For the Jews coming to Jesus this was the final straw. Something had to be done. They needed a hero and Jesus was it. He was the charismatic leader of thousands. He had powers to heal and to drive out the demonic. He was their man. It was his time. The only question was, would Jesus step up, lead them and be the hero? Was Jesus the one with the heroic heart? The answer was no and yes.
The no side of the answer is the easy one. Rather than lead a popular uprising against Rome Jesus jumps all over those who had come to recruit him. He tells them that they needed to repent. Now to make sure that we are all on board with what repent means, the simplest way to describe it would be that we are to turn from doing what is wrong and turn to doing what is right. In this case it meant for the people to turn from a way of violent resistance to Rome; the desire to look for a super-hero who would lead them to freedom and victory, to another way of living as God’s people. The line about how the people in Jerusalem were not more sinful than those around Jesus was his way of saying that those around him could expect the same outcome as those in Jerusalem. Just because they followed Jesus did not make them immune to the violence which would come from Rome. And if they didn’t listen to Jesus, and instead went forward with their plans of rebellion they too would be crushed. In other words this was not just no, I’m not interested but no, this is not at all the way they ought to be acting.
So what about the yes? The yes comes in everything that Jesus had been preaching and teaching throughout his ministry. The yes is that Jesus asked them to abandon their search for a traditional action hero and instead take on a heroic heart like his own; the heart of a hero who believed that love was more powerful than hate; who believed that forgiveness was more powerful than revenge; who believed that serving others was more powerful than destroying others. This was the heroic heart of Jesus. You may be wondering why I call this a heroic heart. The reason I say this is because God’s desire for the world is that it be a place in which people live in loving relationships; in which all persons are affirmed in their identity as children of God; in which there is forgiveness, compassion and mercy rather than violence and revenge. This is the kind of world Jesus came to create; this is that kingdom of God Isaiah referred to when he wrote, “You will go out in joy and return in peace.” Jesus was the hero who would make this possible. He was the one who would stand up to the violence, hatred and animosity of the world, in order to demonstrate what this new creation could look like.
Turning and taking on a hero’s heart like Jesus’ is never easy. It’s never easy for two reasons. First it is never easy because the world has always been in love with power and the violence that is often used to seize it and maintain it. You can see this in the ancient world…the Romans loved victory parades where those they defeated and captured could be humiliated and enslaved. You can see it today. This past week one of the local sports broadcasters was talking about an upcoming “retired players” hockey contest. The sportscaster was excited that the players might drop the gloves and get into a fight. When they didn’t the broadcaster was disappointed. (My thought was these are retired guys playing for fun…why should we want them to hurt each other?)
The second reason it is not easy is that this penchant for violence is baked into us. I can personally attest to this. My former church had a gym and I would go a couple of days a week and play pick-up basketball. One evening I was running down court on a fast break, received a pass and went in for a lay-up. A member of the other team decide he would duck and cut my legs out from under me. If you have never had this happen it is kind of an amazing feeling to be flying through the air knowing you have no way to land. As I hit the floor on my back and then skidded into a wall, I probably should have taken a moment to be grateful that I was not injured. But no, I was up on my feet and in the face of the other player. There was not thinking, there was only reacting…and please picture it that I was about 50 and the other player in his 20’s. Fortunately for me, cooler heads prevailed and we were separated. But that is what Jesus wants us to turn from. He wants us to repent of that instantaneous desire for violence, and turn instead to a different kind of hero heart.
Having that kind of hero heart is not easy, but it is worthwhile, because we become those who make for a better world. We become those who stop the cycle of violence and hate. We become those who bring peace and joy. My challenge to all of us here this morning is to ask ourselves, “How are we cultivating a hero’s heart like Jesus’ had? How are we allowing love to be our aim?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, Luke 13:31-35
She should have given up. She should have quit. By all accounts she had lived a faithful, Christ-like life. She had served her church. She spent hours in prayer. She helped her neighbors. But then she had a heart attack. It took her by surprise and she lost her job. Losing her job meant she lost her house. In some ways she was fortunate that she had a loving finance who invited her to live with him while she recovered. As she got better they planned their wedding. Then her fiancé had a heart attack and died. The shock was overwhelming, but at least she still had a place to live, that was until his children decided that the house was theirs and not hers and put her out on the street. She had no money. She had no place to go. She only hat the clothes on her back. As I listened to her story as she told it to me at the Welcome Inn, a low-barrier day shelter all I could think of was here was a women who had been completely faithful to God and this is what she got. She should have given up on God. She should have quit.
Abraham should have given up. He should have quit. By all rights Abraham should have told God that this covenant thing was over and done with. God had called Abraham several chapters earlier and Abraham had responded. He left the most prosperous part of the known world, the Fertile Crescent, in order to journey to a land that would be named later. He had left because God had promised to bless him with land, children and prosperity. Yet none of that was forth coming. So far he had endured famine, war and threats upon his life. By the time we reach chapter 15 Abraham has nothing except the makings of a great adventure story. So he complains to God and once more God reassures him…saying just wait. But all Abraham got was darkness. He should have given up on God. He should have quit.
Jesus should have given up. Jesus should have quit. He had come into the world, he had taken up his ministry, in order that the Kingdom of God would be inaugurated. And this Kingdom of God was an amazing and wonderful thing. This Kingdom of God was something that all Jews were looking for. The Kingdom of God would be that time and place when God would begin to rule and reign; when God’s justice and righteousness would become the defining characteristic of the world. Jesus demonstrated this by healing, feeding and forgiving. Yet the result was that Herod was out to get him.
Herod wanted to arrest and execute Jesus just as he had done to John the Baptist. In fact, Jesus seemed to understand that his fate would be no different from the prophets who had come before him. He would die for bringing the good. He should have given up on this. He should have quit.
What is fascinating in all three of these stories is that they did not quit. In the face of what would appear to be God’s failure…the woman’s loss of everything in her life, Abraham’s lack of reward and Jesus facing death…they did not give up. They did not quit. They continued to be faithful day in and day out. The woman was a tower of Christian strength. She would take aside young men who were down on their luck, pray for them, encourage them and tell them to trust in God. Abraham continued to believe even when for years there were no children, land or blessings. Jesus continued on to the cross, even when he prayed that perhaps it would pass him by. How could they do this? How could they, seeing the truth around them, not give up? How could they not quit. They did not give up or quit because they had steadfast hearts. I realize that the term, steadfast, might seem a bit antiquated, or out of fashion. Yet it describes their inner commitment and dedication to God in the face of overwhelming adversity. It explains their willingness to continue to follow and believe even when they acknowledge that the outcome of their lives is not sunshine and light.
It would be easy for me to simply say at this point…OK all of you ought to have steadfast hearts as well…and leave it at that. But the reality of creating that kind of inner commitment and dedication of our hearts to God is not easy. It is not easy because we are finite human beings. We are finite human beings who suffer pain, loss and heartache. We are finite human beings who fear the unknown. We are finite human beings who cannot see the future. And so creating a steadfast heart is never easy, but it is possible. It is possible if we connect ourselves to God and exercise our faith.
Creating steadfast hearts comes about by connecting with God. It is a relational endeavor. We learn to trust God not simply by thinking about God but by being present with and involved with God. In some ways this mirrors any other relationship. We learn to trust others not by thinking about them, but by being with them. We build trust by living with them day in and day out and discovering whether or not they can be trusted; whether or not we can invest our hearts in them. Sometimes, we discover that we cannot. Other times we discover that we can. In terms of being in relationship with God this takes prayer, worship and attentiveness. It takes being in conversation with God and discovering that God is present in and around us. It takes orienting our hearts toward God in worship and experiencing God’s presence here in this place. It takes attentiveness as we look into our past and see those times and places where God undergirded us. The deeper our relationship with God becomes the more our hearts are made steadfast.
Creating steadfast hearts comes from exercising our faith. Just as we improve our hearts by exercising on a regular basis, so too do we improve our steadfast heart in the same way. What I mean by exercising our hearts is that we act upon our faith and trust in God. We step out of our ordinary routine and take some risks for God. Maybe we decide to give more of our financial resources to the work of God in the world…and discover that we still have plenty left. Maybe we give more of our time in the service of others…and discover that we still have enough time for ourselves. Maybe we work at forgiving someone who has hurt us…and discover that in so doing we are transformed. Our hearts become more steadfast through offering them opportunities in which we discover that God is present and God can be trusted.
Some of you might ask me, how do I know that this will work? I know because it worked for the woman at the Welcome Inn, and Abraham and Jesus. As we come to know their stories we see that all three spent incredible amounts of time connecting with God in prayer and exercising their faith, even in the face of great obstacles. I also know this because I have witnessed it first hand in many of your lives and in the lives of those you have loved. I have watched people face seemingly impossible choices and keep the faith. I have seen people make choices that would cause others to give up and yet they did so with peace. I have seen steadfast hearts holding fast to God and discovering the joy of so doing.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I developing my own steadfast heart through connecting with God by exercising my faith?
The Heart of the Matter: A Heart Tested
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 14, 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
There’s this great book called “F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers.” The front cover shows the image you see there in your bulletin. A triangle with the length of two sides given and the third side labeled with an x. The test question says, “find x.” One might be expected to go about solving the mathematical equation using the Pythagorean theorem, but the student on this test has circled the x and written, “here it is!”
Totally wrong answer, but also totally true.
This is the kind of test answer Jesus is dealing with in his encounter with the devil in the wilderness.
Now, this word, “devil” in Greek means “slanderer,” someone who takes the truth and twists it, who misuses the truth for nefarious purposes. So from the outset, we know Jesus is being tested by one who will substitute easy truth for hard truth, someone who will circle the x and say “here it is” instead of completing the math equation. We are witnessing a battle between two kinds of truth as Jesus is tested in the wilderness.
The first question on this test is: how does the Son of God satisfy hunger? In his baptism, Jesus is named as the Son of God, and here in the wilderness, he must claim that identity. He shows us what it means to be the Son of God not just in word but in action. Does the Son of God do the hard work to get at the real truth, or does he just circle the x say, “here it is”?
After 40 days of fasting, upon which we base our 40 days of Lent, Jesus is surely hungry. Truly hungry. The temptation to turn stones into bread is not a test to see if Jesus can determine wants from needs. The 40 days of fasting are over. Jesus has shown that he can prioritize God over anything else, including his bodily needs and desires. And what Jesus has learned in this hard work of fasting is that one can be rich in things but poor in spirit. He has learned that he can meet his own needs and desires and never be satisfied, or he can live in reliance on God and be truly satiated.
Now, what the devil is asking, that Jesus feed himself when he is truly in need of nourishment, is not a bad thing. We might choose to fast during Lent not because Jesus refused to turn stones into bread but so we can learn what he learned in the 40 days before this temptation episode. Jesus knows that the body needs food, but the Son of God does not satisfy hunger by relying on his own power and capabilities.
Jesus knows that food brings people together. Twice in the gospel of Luke, large, hungry crowds surround Jesus and, through the miracle of community, a small amount of food, a meager sacrifice, feeds thousands. Jesus uses food to bring his disciples together in an act of remembrance that will nourish the church and all of Christ’s followers forever.
So how does the Son of God satisfy hunger? Not by turning stones into bread. By turning ordinary people into a community of compassion. By turning bread and wine into spiritual nourishment.
The next question on Jesus’ test is: how does the Son of God rule the world? I’m hopeful we can all agree that a world ruled by the love and justice of God is preferable to one ruled by a slanderous devil. (I have no comment on which of the current presidential candidates best fits that description.)
But here again, Jesus shows us that the Son of God does not pass the test by taking the easy way. God’s love and justice are not brought to life through an idolatrous power grab. The gospel of Luke is chock-full of illustrations of the kingdom of God. It belongs to the poor and to children; it is accompanied by healing; it is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree to shelter the birds of the air, like yeast that leavens the bread; it will include all of those who have been excluded.
“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."
You have to do the hard work to experience the kingdom of God, to discover it in our midst. You can’t just circle the x and say, “here it is!”
The final question on Jesus’ test is: how does the Son of God trust God? This is the “double-dog-dare you” test, and at this point it seems almost comical. What does Jesus need to prove? What could possibly entice him to throw himself off the top of the temple to see if God will catch him?
Well, let’s think about this for a minute. Whose idea was it to test Jesus in the first place? The text says that he was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” The devil may be a liar, but this is God putting Jesus to the test. After 40 days of fasting, after turning away from the temptations of self-reliance and idolatrous power, now Jesus is being asked to resist turning the tables on God, putting God in the hot seat, putting God to the test.
This test, while ridiculous, is the most important and most difficult of all. Because God will not ask Jesus to do something as simple or as pointless as jumping off the temple. Oh no. God will send Jesus to the cross. Jesus must trust God to do more than save him from dying. He must trust that God can bring life out of death. And throwing himself senselessly from the temple roof will not accomplish that. Only giving himself up to die on a cross for the love of the world will do that. Only love can bring life out of death. And Jesus trusts in that love with all his heart.
These tests are not designed to see if Jesus will choose the “right” answer. Because these tests are designed to test Jesus’ heart, not his head. Jesus will feed the hungry, but he will give them more than bread. He will give them the ability to be his hands and feet in the world. Jesus will rule the world, but only by inaugurating the reign of God’s righteousness and peace. Jesus will trust God without testing God, going to the cross with full confidence in God’s power and God’s plan.
God is not interested in testing our knowledge of God – who God is or what God wants or how God works. Those answers will not help us form our identity or clarify our mission. To do that, our hearts must be tested. And the test of the heart goes beyond right answers, and it certainly requires more than easy answers. To pass the test of the heart, you cannot circle the x and say, “Here it is.”
Someone said to me this week, “It’s too easy to be a Christian.” And perhaps he is right. But Lent is a time to remember that it is not, in fact, easy to be a Christian. For it means we must follow Christ through that wilderness preparation. We must allow our hearts to be tested. We must do the work that leads to the true answer, not the easy answer.
It is so tempting to just circle the x. Especially when we feel somewhat capable, righteous, and secure.
After the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, they came to the edge of the Promised Land, a land where they imagined they would be prosperous and joyful. After being fed manna in the wilderness by God, they would be able to produce their own food, turn stones into bread. After receiving the law of God and learning to live by it through their journey out of slavery, they felt equipped and possibly entitled to rule the land they were about to enter. After being rescued from the powerful hand of Pharaoh, they felt somewhat invincible.
It is with these attitudes and experiences in mind that Moses instructs the people to give the first fruits of the land to God and to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
This practice of sharing the bounty reminds them that the people of God are always fed by God, whether it is manna from heaven or crops from their own toil. They remember that they do not live by bread alone, but by breaking bread together in community and in remembrance.
The ancestor who was a wandering Aramean reminds them that God is the one who has made them a great people and who will rule the land they are about to enter. God will not rule with the oppression of Pharaoh but with justice and peace. Both the law of Moses and the repeated narrative of exodus from Egypt illustrate the kind of society the Israelites are to establish. A society that cares for the sojourner and the foreigner. A society that looks after the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
The Israelites trust in God’s past faithfulness enough to give up the first fruit of the land. Not the leftovers. Not the surplus. Not a percentage. The first fruit. Without knowing how much more the land will produce. Without data about how much they will need. Without certainty that devastation won’t befall the rest of the crop. The Israelites trust God with their survival. They trust in the one who has brought them up out of slavery and sustained them through their desert wanderings.
Jesus’ 40 days of fasting helped him understand what it means to the Son of God. And the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert helped them understand what it means to be the people of God. Both of these experiences were preparation, study, for the test that came next. Not a test of knowledge, but a test of the heart, a test to see if they really understood their identity and their mission.
Meaninglessness is one of the greatest psychological struggles of our society. We are people without identity and without a mission or purpose. We consider ourselves to be fairly capable, moral, and prosperous. We can feed ourselves and our families. We can make good decisions in leading our families, our church, our companies. We can protect ourselves with security systems and seatbelts, screening processes and military spending.
But what we can’t do is give ourselves an identity and a mission. We can circle the x and say, “here it is,” but we never really take the time to find the definition, the meaning, of x. When the world is coming at you at 140 characters and thousands of images a day, who has the time for the hard work, the time-consuming work, the slow work, of becoming a community of compassion, of paying attention to acts of remembrance, of living in the kingdom of God, of trusting God to bring life out of death? These are not easy tests. Not for us.
Not when you have a devil, a slanderer, who says, “you can make something out of nothing, you can provide for yourself, you don’t need God or others.” A slanderer who will say, “worship power and wealth and fame instead of God.” A slanderer who will say, “if God doesn’t give you what you want when you want it, if God can’t be tested like gravity or photons, then what’s the point?” A slanderer who tempts us to just circle the x and move on to the next text, tweet, photo, or newsfeed.
The gift of this season of Lent is that we are given the opportunity to remember who we are and why we are here. We have the chance to go, in the strength of God’s Spirit, into that wilderness of testing, hearing the slander, the false truths, for what they really are. In our 40 days of preparation, we are invited to slow down, serve others, break bread together, see the kingdom of God in the poor and in children, in those who have been excluded, not here and there but everywhere. We are invited to trust God with our first fruits, our best time of day, the height of our energy and passion, trusting that none of it will be wasted or depleted but will, in fact, lead to new life.
This Lent, we are invited to find x. May we seek out the real answer, and not the easy one.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.