Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Sense of Self

Matthew 4:1-17
My how time flies! Rev. Kent Siladi* last week in his sermon was quick to point out that in the Gospel of Matthew, the narrative of Jesus’ early years is scant with detail.  He’s born in sleepy Bethlehem, he fled with his parents as an infant and lived in Egypt as refugees, he returns and grows up in Nazareth, comes to the Jordan River about thirty years later to be baptized by his cousin John That’s a whole lot of living in just three short weeks.  It’s like fast-forwarding a DVD 8 or 10 Xs on your DVD player to get to the good part.  But we need to rewind just a minute. 

Last week was an important one for Jesus as far as the Biblical narrative in Matthew goes.  His baptism is critical because it is here that God reveals Jesus’ true identity.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)  Now Jesus and every one around him know who he is.  They may not know the complexities and responsibilities of what being the Son of God means, but there is no mistake in this theophany that Jesus is the son of God, beloved and loved, set apart from all the rest to proclaim God’s kingdom here on earth. 

But all to soon the waters of his baptism dry and he was whisked away into the wilderness.  Doesn’t appear that he was able to bask in that glory for long. Today’s story reveals even more about the character and identity of Jesus as Son of God.  Today we find Jesus in the wasteland, the hot and dry forbidden wilderness just east of the Jordan.
Stanley Spencer
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

WOW!  Sounds like a Scripture Bee, a competition doesn’t it?  Who can quote the most accurate scripture? The devil quotes scripture and Jesus one ups him.  It almost sound like a comedic riff from the old BBC series ‘Monty Python and the Flying Circus’.  We might be lead to think this story is about resisting temptation and apply it to our lives.  But I believe that it is more about Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the way in which he embodies resistance.
HaSatan, the Satan arrives in the wilderness too, alongside of Jesus.  How convenient of him!  And the testing begins.  If you are the son of God, or maybe since you are the son of God, how about turning these hard rocks into some delicious and warm bread?  You know you’re hungry.  You see the devil is challenging Jesus identity.  He tries to instill doubt into Jesus head.  He comes across as Jesus’ friend, so offering a bite to eat to a famished Jesus was the most natural and first thing that a friend, I mean, the Devil could conjure up.

Why Jesus you could turn all of these stones into plenty of loaves and alleviate hunger throughout the world!  Think about it.  Knowing Jesus’ heart and his penchant toward social and economic justice this would have pleased him and his God.  But Jesus’ character remains strong.  He does not give in to this rascal and become resolute in proclaiming that the word of God is what you need to sustain your life.

Then, from the wilderness Jesus was whisked to Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple.  Hundreds of people would have been milling around the temple, the temple is a large place and it was THE place to be.  Standing on the pinnacle Jesus would have been in sight of thousands of Jerusalemites and the devil says to Jesus, ‘If you really are the Son of God, or since you are the son of God like you claim to be, go ahead, jump, throw yourself to the wind!  There’s nothing to worry about, angels will come to your rescue and ever so gently catch you.’ 

But the devil was no publicity agent and Jesus didn’t need a life defying, dare devil stunt to prove anything.  Jesus said, ‘Don’t test God’. ’  Jesus is now leaning way deep into his identity as the son of God.  The second quick fix that Satan offered was halted, but he had one more up his devilish sleeve.

The final test was concerning his power and authority.  ‘Jesus,’ the devil calls out, ‘you can have it all; all the kingdoms of the world will be yours, all you have to do is to worship me.’  Now honestly, this was a good offer.  I’m sure there were plenty of people, Jesus too, who wished the end and destruction of the Roman occupation of first century Palestine.  To live as an oppressed people only breeds despair and anger; a sense of helplessness that perpetuates itself from one generation to the next. 

Jesus had a chance to change all that just by dropping to his knees and worshipping HaSatan.  But NO!  Jesus states, ‘I worship God and serve only God.   The testing is over and Jesus sense of self, as the Son of God the most high is solidified.  Now he is ready for his ministry.

We don’t know to what depth that the human Jesus had been tempted; there were no witnesses in Matthew’s Gospel account.  We do know that he was tested mightily and that he chose God.  He placed complete obedience and dependence on God at a time when he could have taken the path of least resistance and gotten so much more.  This was a test of his character and indeed he passed.  He truly was the Son of God.

I wonder how we would have faired if we were in Jesus position.  I mean in one sense Jesus had it easy.  He knew exactly what he was dealing with.  The Devil!  There was no guesswork involved.  Evil stood up against him and it was recognizable.  And we know that during his lifetime his character was tested over and over again which brought him to the cross and ultimately his resurrection.  He embodied resistance.  He did not waiver.  His heart and eyes were always on God bringing justice and compassion, the kingdom to earth.

Being face to face with the devil is a test of our character too although I would venture to say that our temptations, our devils, the tests of our character are not so obvious.  They are ambiguous which is why it is difficult for us.  At every turning point these tests can twist us away from God and weaken our own Christian identity and character.  We can lose our sense of self, a sense of who we are fundamentally as a child of God. 

But the good news is that we don’t have to bear these tests alone.  We are all in the same boat.  The person sitting next to you faces similar trials each day like you.  Not one of us here will live a life that doesn’t come face to face with temptation.  That’s a given.  And sometimes you will be strong and sometimes your character will falter and your sense of self will get lost. I know…it’s the same for me.  That’s the nature of our humanity. 

But the even better news is that our sense of self as a child of God cannot ever get lost.

And what does that mean?  It means that always and forever you are a child of God in whatever actions you take or decisions you make.  Named and claimed in the womb God pointed to you and said, you are mine! Understand that your sense of self will never be lost no matter what happens to you because of that.  It means that Jesus identity revealed as the Son of God has resisted the powers of evil and has redeemed you forever. 


*Rev. Kent Siladi is the Conference Minister for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Like it or Not

Matthew 2:13-23
After the Scripture is read in higher liturgical churches the liturgist will often say, “The Word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God”.  It seems a bit rote to me but it works for many.  Today the better response for after Scripture would be, “Like it or Not”.  “The Word of the Lord”, “Like it or Not” because today’s scripture is anything but pleasant to think about much less reflect upon and talk about together.  Without the feminist take on it this scripture is what Phyllis Trible, Old Testament scholar, would call a ‘Text of Terror’. 

·      Like it or not the Bible doesn’t comment on human behavior by putting on rose-colored glasses, rather it talks about what is true of human behavior.

·      Like it or not the Bible shows us the destructive potential of human nature. 

·      Like it or not the Bible illustrates for us that sometimes there are no easy answers, or any answers at all that are adequate enough to satisfy our longing and understanding of the meaning of this life.

·      Like it or not the Bible might disappoint us sometimes, but God however does not.

Our reading today is of the flight of the holy family into Egypt aka the slaughter of the innocents and it has three elements: the escape; the massacre of infants; and the return from Egypt, each one worthy of a sermon on its own.  But we need to look at these three elements in context with one another to understand just where God is and how we might make some sort of meaning of this story.
So hear now today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

The Escape to Egypt
Now after they (the magi) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

“The Word of the Lord”  “Like it or Not!”

Three dreams later and a lot of picking up stakes Mary, Joseph and little Jesus finally find themselves in Nazareth where he would spend a large portion of his childhood.  But their journey from sleepy Bethlehem to Nazareth was circuitously dangerous and long.  Not by any means a straight route.

And those dreams!  Oh these dreams!  I can only imagine that Joseph would have developed a sleep phobia or some sort of sleep disorder.  I’d be awfully afraid to put my head down at night for fear of yet another angel appearing and what he would say to me.  Yet it was through these vivid dreams that the holy family was saved each and every time.

I find it curious also that here they are, in the land of promise, the land of milk and honey that their ancestors searched and settled in and then they are told to go back to a place where their ancestors were once slaves.  They were told to leave a place of comfort and safety and go to Egypt, a place that historically was not a safe haven for their forebears.  Yet it was in this land that the holy family found refuge and a hiding place from a very fearful Herod and his maniacal decree.

And then, once back in the Jerusalem district they still weren’t safe because we know that hatred begets hatred and Archelaus, one of Herod’s three sons, was now the king in charge of Judea.  Joseph lies down for some sleep and again is warned to head northeast, to the region of Galilee where another one of Herod’s sons who must have gotten a better gene from his mother and didn’t seek to kill Jesus ruled.  And so they did.  Jesus’ infant years were anything but peaceful and the Bible is anything but consistent.

In September we began the narrative lectionary year with the story of Noah and that terrible flood. We continued with the calling of Abraham and Sarah out of their comfort zone and off into parts unknown.  She laughed at the thought of children and yet she gave birth to Isaac.  We’ve examined Esau’s stolen birthright by Jacob and Joseph being sold into slavery and being thrown into prison.  We’ve studied together the giving of the commandments, David and Bathsheba, and Solomon’s wisdom. 

If you remember, all of these narratives had aspects of them that were gnarly but yet showed us God’s reliable presence.  Now we are spending time in the Gospel of Matthew and we begin with another gnarly and highly dangerous story.

Herod was a mean and nasty man.  He was power hungry and corrupt.  As Lord Acton has famously said, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  We can see throughout his life that Herod was fearful and ruthless.  He was also an assassin who killed two of his own sons, a couple of his 14 wives, and many other innocents along the way. Is it no wonder that he would want someone, anyone dead who threatened his kingship, his messiah-ship with a small ‘m’.

But if you think that the killing of the innocents is some long ago story, think again. Not much has changed in the human behavior department.  We still hunger for power and are filled with fear.  We still live with isolation and injustice in our lives.  We still live according to our own desires and not the divine desire of God.

We only have think as far back as December 2014 and remember the storming of a Pakistani school where innocent children were killed, or back to May when we heard of the abduction of 200 school girls in Nigeria, and further back to December of 2012 in Newtown, our own backyard where this ‘killings of the innocents’ played itself out once again.  We could have written this Biblical narrative ourselves.  While we may or may not know the motives of the perpetrators there are really no words that can explain by any intelligent reason why these things happen.  But they do and like Rachel in Ramah all we can do is weep tears of sorrow.

Jesus’ birth didn’t quite eradicate sin as we like to think. He was born in deplorable conditions.  Sought after to be killed.  Traveled by camel to a former unsafe place and lived there as a refugee.  And then, was executed at the hands of the Romans.  I think that the promise of the incarnation is not that our difficulties will cease to exist; that we will live charmed lives if we follow Jesus.

The promise of the incarnation is that God is in the middle of it all doing something different if we choose to see it.  We see God as a protector when the angels whisper to Joseph to flee the dangers in Israel for Egypt.  We see God as deliverer when we see that the holy family has safely arrived in Nazareth.  We see God as creator because a new beginning has been given to Mary and Joseph.  This text allows me to see a God who is involved in every way in the lives of God’s beloved, our lives.  And isn’t that what we all year for?

There is despair around us but the light of God show us different roads to travel and alternative ways to live and to cast a vision for the future.  And this is the word of God!
Like it or not!