Sermon 2-21-21

The Rev. Jen Van Zandt

Matthew 4:1-11 (Version: The Message)

“Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.” 4 Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” 5-6 For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.” 7 Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” 8-9 For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” 10 Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” 11 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.”

“Love of the Most Difficult Kind”

There’s an old expression that says by the time we wake up Satan has already read the paper and had breakfast. This is a reaffirmation of Matthew’s narrative, because Jesus, in the previous chapter, the story right before this one, has just been baptized.  He’s ready to commence his vocation.  He’s anointed and empowered by God to carry out God’s purposes.  He’s ready.  He’s willing. He’s able to begin God’s word of fulfilling all righteousness. While on retreat, (while He’s preparing and prepping heart and soul for His calling), the Devil is alsoready and willing to carry out hismission: to see whether Jesus, in his vulnerable state of starvation, will still remain faithful to His calling, to carrying out God’s will.

In all three temptations, (and they get increasingly grandiose), Jesus does not use his stature, his role or his birthright or even his lineage to battle Satan.  But we do.  The minute that we’re challenged or threatened or feel our agenda is at risk of not getting accomplished, what we want – the way we want it, we pull rank.  We claim our ‘years of expertise’, our education, our pedigree, our perceived wealth or stature.  

I read a cute quip the other day about the Queen, who in her younger years was having a bit of a squabble with the Queen Mother.  Exasperated the Queen Mum finally said to Queen Elizabeth, “Who do you think you are?”  And Elizabeth replied, “The Queen, Mummy,I’m the Queen!”  While we certainly don’t carry that pedigree, we too are very keen on elevating ourselves above the other all too quickly and all too often. 

Imagine if we rework this narrative and Satan tempts Jesus to turn the stone into bread and Jesus replies, “I’m not going to do that, after all I’m Jesus the Christ!” Would that have stopped the debate?  No.  It would have only fueled the power struggle.  Jesus outsmarts Satan instead with scripture in Deuteronomy, which of course, is irrefutable.  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” or in The Message, which is what we read this morning, “It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Here’s my question for all of us in this first week of Lent:  What steady stream of words and thoughts are coming from our mouths?

In the second example, Satan steps up his game by quoting a portion of Psalm 91, claiming that God’s angels will catch Jesus if He just leaps from the pinnacle of the Temple.  You know as mere mortals, when we get pushed, goaded to prove our power, our worthiness, our brilliance, we find ourselves behaving not like tekna theou(children of God). No, we just act like brats. So here’s my second question: Think about the last time that you flexed your muscle to prove your value, your worth that you were right?  Be honest in this time of Lent, it was probably within last 24 hours.  

Satan’s not making progress with Jesus but we’re already in Satan’s grip (not that we ever want to admit that). But now the devil is going to tempt Jesus too, with power and wealth and control just in exchange for worshiping Satan. For Jesus this actually is a no-brainer.  In Peterson’s version, Jesus’ retort is like the tallest, strongest kid on the playground, seeing the bully and sending him away empty-handed.  “Beat it Satan!”  Jesus has got this well in hand.  He knows how to resist Satan, especially when Satan is resisting God’s purposes.  

So here’s my last question: In this first week of Lent, how are we, in thought, word and deed resisting God’s purposes?  How are our egos being sidetracked from living out our baptisms? It’s a hard question and it’s a tall order, I know.  But, again, Peterson’s language gives us a rich insight into how Jesus beats back the bully; beats back Satan.  He says, “Worship the Lord God and serve Him.”  And in Peterson’s language, “With absolute

single heartedness, serve the Lord with absolute single-heartedness.”  If we did nothing else this Lent, even just this day, if we served God with absolute single-heartedness, the angels would be delighted to attend to us as well.  May it be so.  Amen

Weekly Words of Wisdom 2-17-21 – Sermon Ash

Sermon 2-17-21      Rev Jen Van Zandt

Ash Wednesday Meditation 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.  But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;”  Isaiah 46:13-16  

A year ago, this night, more than 60 of us pinned these little “cranes of hope” on a cross that was here on the Chancel, pinning our hopes on Jesus, as we started our Lenten journey.  And then we crammed ourselves in small circles up here in the Chancel and down on the floor.  WOW! Little did we know how much HOPE, (which was our theme last year), would be a theme that we would wrestle with all Lent…all year…and still are.  Tonight, we have a different format, a different service, a different focus, driven in great part because of where we, the country and the whole world still

find ourselves.  It feels, and has felt like, a terrifying, and often boring waiting game… and it still is.  

One of the Elders gave a great devotional at our February Session meeting, inviting us to see the good that has come out of last year and what might be possible as a result.  I want to bounce this point off of us as we commence Lent tonight.   If we look at the past year, no one can say that we were always our best selves.  Our nerves, our energy, our resources and our patience were all put to the test on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  So, this is the perfect time for us to step back and take stock of all the ways in which we did not, and do not,love our neighbors as ourselves, and love God with all of our heart and our soul and our mind. This, in part at least, is because, quite frankly we were going out of our minds, but now is really the time to be honest.

I was talking with someone on Zoom a few weeks ago and I said, “How are you guys doing?  How are you hanging in?  And she said, “Great. We’re doing great.”  “Terrific!”  (As she made a gesture of strangling with her hands).  Jesus commands us to “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind” and then he also adds in “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The first is because he’s trying to ‘school’ the scribes and Pharisees intent on tripping him up and fingering  him as a defiant, unfaithful Jew.  But the problem with Jesus’ commandments is that they’re linked, fully connected and they’re really, really, really hard.  In our secret little worlds where we want to think better of ourselves than we ought, everyone (except for truly evil people) can at least get halfof Jesus’ commandments right.  We all know people who are religiously faithful, but start to gossip the minute they leave the church or the temple. We also all know people who are good humanitarians or who have a heart for social justice, but have no deference, let alone love of God.  The challenge for us as believers is that these two commandments are inseparable.  Failure to honor and obey bothof these commandments makes us duplicitous and fake.  The writer of 1st John actually says this a little more plainly in chapter 4 verse 20.  The writer says, “Those who do not love brothers and sisters who they do see, cannot love God who they cannot see.”  

My friends, the invitation to Lent this year is simple. We need to stop being so stingy with our love; stingy in loving others; stingy in loving God and stingy even in loving ourselves.  Of course, you already may be with Israel who is at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Sometimes we think too wellof ourselves. Sometimes though we are so ridden with guilt that we can barely get out of bed in the morning.  Isaiah is writing about the deep lament that Israel is singing and crying about. That their sinfulness–their disobeying of God which put them into exile–is actually irrevocable. How many of us are either carrying guilt and shame from events that we did long, long ago, or carrying hostility of what happened or was done to us?  

This is the night that can begin a journey of healing, of discovery, of hope and of freedom.  All we have to do is give ourselves over fully, to the love and the forgiveness that we find in Christ Jesus.  I’m not saying that’s easy, but it is the only path to freedom.  It’s the only thing that holds us back from unconditional love that God freely gives to us.  Don’t trust it?  Don’t believe it? You should.  You know why?  Because your name, all of our names are etched in the palm of God’s hand.  

That’s why tonight, we are inviting you to impose ashes in your palm and not on your forehead; to look to see and to acknowledge all about you and me and where we need deep forgiveness, deep restoration and full freedom.  I pray that we all have the courage to take this step and really truly start our Lenten journey. Amen.

Nothing Can Separate Us – Romans 8:38-39

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Daily Reflection

This passage tells me that there is nothing in this life that can be a barrier in-between us, and God’s love.  Everybody’s life has had some tough times (different from mine, I’m sure), but God will always be there.  God’s love is shown in so many different ways, from feeding the hungry to helping the homeless, from teaching underprivileged children, to nursing the sick, but it shines through in so many ways. All you have to do is look around your town and the neighboring towns to see how many ways His love is changing the world.

Just think what this world would be like if we didn’t have God’s love.  Oh, I don’t even want to contemplate it.  We wouldn’t have any teachers, because people wouldn’t care whether other people learned anything, nor any food pantries, because (again) people wouldn’t care if families had nothing to eat.  God’s love brings the caring out in people, and that’s because He loves us unconditionally. There is nothing standing in the way between us and God’s love.

So how do we let God know we need to be shown His love?  We pray.  Yes, we can let Him know by prayers.  He would be more than happy to shower us with all His love if we told Him in prayer.  Because He has more than enough love, but He just needs to know when we need it.

I want to close with a hymn (a song is just a prayer that’s sung, and what else would a choir member choose?!)

Daily Prayer

I will give thanks with my whole heart,

Before You, God, my praise express,

I will bow down before Your throne

And praise Your love and faithfulness.

~Betsey Papp