A Test For Today's Church



Inspired by Matthew 4:1-17

Well, things get really real really fast for Jesus after his baptism! Matthew makes it sound like he went straight out of the Jordan river and went walking into the desert to be tempted by Satan with water still dripping from his chin! Whether it happened quite that fast or not, I don’t know, but I think it’s clear that Matthew wants us to feel the connection between his baptism and his time in the wilderness. Especially because it’s easy for us to miss this element in our own baptisms?

We come to church and see babies baptized and think, awwww, how cute! Some babies cry, some squeal, some sleep, some allow for other bodily functions to take place, point is, we all leave a baptism feeling good about what just happened! And we should! But I think because we baptize babies in this church, who don’t really have much to worry about in this world while they’re babies, it lulls us into a false sense of security.

But if we think about it, we know that our baptisms don’t make our lives any easier. What I mean by that is, our baptisms don’t promise us a better life, or a life without pain, or a life without trials and tribulations. And this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, right after his baptism, is a good reminder of that. Without even allowing Jesus take a breath, to process what had just been done in his baptism, he is rushed into the wilderness to have a showdown with the devil himself. Now, most Bible translations, including the one I read from, use the word temptation. However, scholars have pointed out that a more accurate word would be test, rather than to tempt. What’s the difference you might ask? Well, one commentator put it this way, the difference is in the motive of the one doing the tempting or testing.

A tempter doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and is hoping for you to succumb to the temptation. However, a tester may very well have the best of intentions for you. In fact, the point of a test is to make you better than you were before! Even when the test is failed, something is learned, growth occurs, and we are better for it. Now, why is this important? Well, I’m not sure if you caught this but our story today began by pointing out that it was the Spirit, God’s very own self, that led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.

And we all know that God doesn’t tempt people or lead people into temptation, but test people, hmmm, I think I’m ok with that. But again, not in a vindictive or callous way, but for the betterment of God’s people, to make God’s people stronger, wiser, more trusting than they were before. Thankfully, we don’t send our baptized babies out into the wilderness to be tested! We’d never get any new members that way!

Now, I know, I’m treading on shaky ground right now. Because there’s a fine line between saying that God tests us and believing that God is behind all the horrible things that happen in our lives. You should know me by now, I am not in any way saying that.  But, we get tested all the time don’t we? Whether it’s by God or each other or just by life itself!

The point here is not to put blame on anyone when we are tested, but to pay attention to how we come out on the other side of that testing, keeping in mind, that the whole purpose of our baptisms is to be continually transformed into something new over the course of our lifetimes. So, when we are tested, the question is not, who’s responsible, but, did it make us stronger? Did it make us more trusting in God? Did it make us wiser? Did it makes us more loving? Or whatever you think was being tested.

Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ tempting by the devil. The first thing to notice is that the Devil waits for Jesus to be at a weak point. When he starts tempting him, Jesus is already extremely hungry. And isn’t that always the way. How many times has life tested you when you are already in a tough spot? I don’t know about you but it happens to me quite often. I’ve learned to not ask, what next?, because life can show real fast that things could always get worse. Sometimes the real test is how we handle stress when we are already in a vulnerable position. For Jesus, it was battling the stress of hunger and probably thirst and fatigue if he was just out in the elements. But this first temptation was about more than just physical hunger.

What was really being tested here was Jesus’ perseverance, and how self-serving he was. How long was Jesus going to last through these temptations? Because once he fell to one, that was it. If he had turned those stones to bread and taken a bite, there would have been no temptation number two or three. The game would have been over. And the Spirit would have then known just how long he could last. But more than that, the Spirit would have known if Jesus was in this for himself or not.

You see, Jesus must have known that this was more than just a test of his resolve, but that there were bigger plans at work here, that his life was somehow intertwined with others. And so, if he quit then, after one temptation, to serve himself some bread, then the Spirit would have known that if he couldn’t handle this, how could he handle what was to come?

As you think of the many ways that you have been tested over the years, the trials and tribulations that you have had to endure, which ones tested your perseverance? Which ones tested just how self-serving you were going to be? Those of us who are parents are faced with this test all the time aren’t we? Will I buy those jeans that I really need this pay or will I pay for that softball clinic that my kid wants to go to? And those tests are the easy ones.

What about something like, do I go to Starbucks or increase my giving to my favorite non-profit once a week by five bucks. Oooh, for some of us that hits us right where it hurts! But the big question is, how did you do with that test? How did you come out on the other side of that test? And I don’t mean, did you pass or fail it. I mean, did you learn anything about yourself? Did you grow, stretch, and thereby, become a better human being for it?

Jesus’ next test was all about his ego. The devil asks him to throw himself down from the temple roof and let the angels catch him. Now, Jesus rightly tells him that we shouldn’t test God like that. But Jesus was also tested with the question of, just how important do you think you are Jesus? Do you think so highly of yourself that you’d risk your life to see if God will come to your rescue? Just how big is your head Jesus? Fortunately for us, Jesus was a humble human being. He realized, again, that this wasn’t all about him. But it was about God’s world that he was called to serve. This wasn’t about the fame he would receive if he would survive a very public fall from the temple rooftop. This wasn’t about using his divine influence. The Spirit wanted to see if Jesus’ ego needed to be checked, and thankfully, it didn’t.

Which leads us to inquire about our own egos. When are those times when we are tested to see how big of an ego we have? How do we do with those tests? This question gets really interesting when we think of this in a communal sense, rather than individually. Which, as we learned last week, is what this baptismal life is all about right? Community! So, think of the ways that we as a congregation might get hung up on our own ego?

Are there times when we are tested to see just how highly we think of ourselves over others? Are there times when we are urged to rethink our ministries based on how much they are serving our own interests versus the interests of others? Or maybe in our relations with others that are different than us, that believe differently than us, or worship differently, we are tested to see how high and mighty we think we are over them, or how our way is the right way or the best way!

Finally, the devil asks him to worship him instead of God, and the reward will be power over all the nations of the world, earthly power. In this temptation, Jesus’ loyalty is tested. And again, Jesus comes out on the other end of that test, proving that his loyalty is to God, and not to anyone else, not even himself. Are you hearing a common thread throughout all these temptations? Even though each test is about something different, perseverance, selfishness, ego, loyalty, Jesus always seems to come back to that same place—that this is not all about him. And this is Jesus we are talking about, the savior of the world, the ruler of the cosmos! Even he needed to acknowledge that this wasn’t all about him!

I won’t bore you with a lesson on the history of the church but for many centuries, the church had fallen to these same temptations that Jesus faced. For too many centuries the church had thought too highly of ourselves, thought we knew better than everyone else, thought we had all the answers, and then used that pride to lord it over others who we thought were less than. Now, you may be thinking, well we didn’t have any part of that pastor, Bethlehem is only 75 years old! Well, that may be true, but isn’t our job to clean up that mess, whether we like it or not? Maybe that is our big test of the ages. Maybe we are being tested, right now, to see if we can clean up that mess. To make sure that the world knows that the church is here to serve, not to be served.

That the church is here to sacrifice in order to make the world a better place, not here to consume. That the church is here for the worlds benefit, and not our own. And that we don’t have all the answers, nor is our way of thinking or doing the right or best way. We are living in an age where the church is not thought of in the same way people did in the past. People are not attending like they used to. And if we wonder why that is, maybe it’s time to read up on some church history, and ask ourselves if there are any wrongs that need to be righted.

Could that be our wilderness that we are being called into? Could the Spirit be calling us from our baptismal waters, with water still dripping from our chins, into a wilderness where the church is no longer number one, no longer the best game in town, no longer the one in power? Could that be our test? That in spite of all that, we are still called to persevere in the same mission that the church has always been called to—to love as we have been loved. If so, may we be ever reminded of God’s faithfulness to us, to never leave our side, and love us unconditionally, no matter how we come out on the other side of our tests. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Odd Couple



Inspired by Matthew 3:1-17

Even though we haven’t skipped any of Matthew’s Gospel between last week’s reading and today’s, Matthew skips about 30 years of Jesus’ life. At the end of chapter two Jesus was a toddler and was being visited by the Magi, and then at the beginning of chapter three, he’s an adult and ready to start his ministry. Matthew doesn’t bother telling us that he’s skipping thirty years, we have to estimate that from events that Luke mentions in his Gospel. On top of that, unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t even tell us anything about those thirty years. At least Luke gives us a story from when Jesus was 12 years old.

For Matthew, these years just don’t seem important enough to even reference. It was enough to tell us he was born, his lineage can be traced back to Abraham, he was visited by some magi, and then had to move twice to escape some psychotic kings that wanted him dead. That’s it. It’s more information that Mark gives us about these early years, as we will read next year; less information that Luke gives us, as we will read the year after that, but you still get the sense that Matthew wants to get to more important stuff than mangers and magi and family trees.

And so, we get today’s story about John the Baptizer and Jesus. And aren’t these two a pair! Talk about an odd couple! I mean, if you were writing a book about this new master of the universe, you would not start it with a pair like these two! Take John for instance. Here he is, living out in the boonies, wearing weird clothes, eating bugs and honey, and calling people names! Oh yeah, I want to go to his church!

And then there’s Jesus, who comes out of nowhere, no job, poor, a commoner, a resume that leaves a lot to be desired, and he just expects to take over John’s ministry that he’s worked hard to build up, and everyone’s just supposed to go along with that! I mean, if we didn’t know better, we’d think these two just traveled here from Mars and just don’t know how things work here on Earth! These guys seriously need a PR specialist right? But no, these two just keep forging ahead like all of this normal. But this is not how you start a ministry, or a movement, or a following, or heck, even a book club!

And I think that’s probably the first place where we can find some good news in this story. You see, none of the traditional social conventions mattered to them, traditional theology didn’t matter to them, long-held doctrines didn’t matter to them, politics didn’t matter to them, you might even say that religion didn’t matter to them, but that might be something we can talk about in the Bible study!

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about from the story itself. John was out in the wilderness, offering baptism to people, allowing people to confess their sins to him, and what was he requiring of them? To change their hearts and lives, to produce good fruit. That’s not the way this works John! You’re supposed to ask them for money! You’re supposed to tell them to go to a priest! You’re supposed to direct them to the temple in Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice! You’re doing it all wrong John!

And don’t get me started on this Jesus fella! He walks in doing everything backwards too! John sees him and expects to be baptized by Jesus but instead Jesus says, “Allow me to be baptized.” And I want you to note here that these are the first words from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. These are the first words from Jesus that Matthew chose to share with his readers. And since Jesus is kind of a big deal in this book, that’s got to be significant. As a writer, you just don’t give a throw away first line to your main character! But back to his backwards ways. You would think, that since Jesus is the new leader of this new minsitry, not to mention the savior of the world, that he’d be doing the baptizing here, not John! But no, Jesus asks to be baptized instead. And we’ll get to why in a second.

The beauty in this odd couple of sorts is that they are not interested in just doing what has always been done. They are not interested in making friends in high places. They are not interested in making themselves look good or to impress anyone. They are not interested in playing the rules that everyone else is and has been for centuries. They were interested in tearing down the wall that humans had built between themselves and God. That’s why they weren’t interested in playing nice with everyone! And what kinds of walls?

For one, religious laws that were more about keeping outsiders out and insiders in. Politics that allowed certain groups of people to be taken advantage of. Social constructs that had developed to treat women, the poor, people of other races unfairly. Yes, those will all be addressed in the Gospel of Matthew. These two cousins, John and Jesus, were making a new community that would be like nothing else the world had seen. And it was going to go against the grain of society, and make more than a few enemies along the way.

Which brings us to why Jesus insisted on being baptized by John? I believe there is a lot more in common between Jesus’ baptism and ours that we have traditionally thought. Did Jesus need his sins cleansed by his baptism? No. But do we? Is that really what we believe about baptism, that without it we are doomed to Hell? Of course not! Here’s another question. Did Jesus need to be baptized to be loved by God? No. Do we? Is that really what we believe about baptism, that God somehow loves us because of our baptism, or maybe loves us more after our baptism?

Of course not! God has loved you since the beginning of time and God could not love you more than God already does! So then why did Jesus want to get baptized by John? Well, people have written volumes on this subject but I only have time to point out my top two reasons. One, because Jesus wanted his followers to be baptized, and so he was baptized as a model for us to follow. But two, and the most important reason, is what he was baptized into…

Community. Community with God and with one another. Not be loved. Not to be forgiven. Not to be better than others. But to be in communion with God and God’s people. Why? Because we need each other. We need a community for support when the road gets rough. And if anyone knew about a rough road it was Jesus! We need a community to serve side by side with. We need a community to share the load with. We need a community because we can accomplish more together than we can individually.

We need a community when God asks us, like John does in today’s story, to change our hearts and lives, especially when we don’t think we need to change anything about ourselves and we like things just the way they are! Jesus knew he would need a community to see him through the days ahead. And Jesus knows that we do too. Thank God for this community, that we have been baptized into. Amen.

Home Is Where You're Blessed



Inspired by Matthew 2

Today is the Epiphany of Our Lord, that’s the fancy title that we give the day that we remember the visit of the magi to Jesus and his family. It also marks the end of the Christmas season, as the twelfth day was yesterday. Today is a wee bit more special though because it only falls on a Sunday every six to eleven years, so it is rare for us to gather on this date to celebrate it. Here’s some more churchy trivia for ya, today is also the first day of Mardi Gras, which culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

It may sound strange to be talking about Ash Wednesday already. I mean, it is just around the corner, but we just celebrated Christmas! Well, if you think about it, it really isn’t that strange, because all these holidays and their associated stories, are all connected together. We can’t have Easter without Lent, and we can’t have Lent without Christmas. Something we should keep in mind as we read through the Gospel of Matthew between now and Easter.

But we’re not there yet, and today we have the crazy stories that surround the birth of Christ, complete with genocidal kings, astrologers from the east, angels, more dreams, a new star, and a lot of traveling for a new Middle-Eastern family of refugees. However, in spite of all the craziness that surrounded the birth of Christ, we have this very peaceful scene of the visit of the magi. Now, their visit is profound for a variety of reasons. For one, they’re the first gentiles, meaning non-Jews, who worshiped Jesus.

So, in a sense, they represent us Christians who don’t come from Jewish lineage. They were our forerunners so to speak. Secondly, these magi were probably astrologers, and more than that, scholars believe that they were probably Zoroastrian priests, a monotheistic religion that predates Islam, Christianity and even Judaism. You’re getting all kinds of trivia today. So, not only were they not Jewish, they were priests of another religion!

So, why am I sharing all this with you about the magi? Well, because I think we can learn a lot from them, two things in particular. Firstly, in spite of their differences, cultural differences, ethnic differences, religious differences, they were still able to honor Jesus, who was not royalty, was not of their religion, was not rich, was not even an adult for crying out loud! Yet, they went out of their way, traveled far, only to find a poor Jewish child of a carpenter and his young wife.

And upon arrival, they did not debate whether this trip was worth it or not, they did not express any surprise or disappointment, they didn’t even double-check their GPS! No, they bowed, and blessed this new family with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, very expensive gifts mind you. But I don’t think these expensive gifts are the real blessing here. For me, the real blessing in this story, is their ability to see the divine in this family, particularly in their child, Jesus.

What did they believe about him? I don’t know. What was their theology? I don’t know. What sort of doctrines did they have? I don’t know! You see, none of that mattered to them. Those were not questions that needed to be answered, in order for them to go to him, to acknowledge him, and to bless him. Now y’all are smart, I’m sure you’ve already guessed where I’m going with this part. I mean, imagine if we practiced this in our everyday lives.

What if we approached people, all people, no matter how different they were from us, no matter what they believed or didn’t believe, no matter who they love or don’t love, no matter their social class or gender or skin color, no matter their behavior or the way they talk differently, no matter how surprised you are by their presence, no matter how disappointed you may be in them, and could still see the divine in them? And as such, go to them, acknowledge them, and bless them?

So that’s the first thing we can learn from the magi, the other thing has to do with where this blessing took place. In Jesus’ first couple years of his life, the poor little guy was moved around a lot, from one temporary location after another, always fleeing from danger. I’m sure no place felt like home during those first few years. First they had to go to Bethlehem, then they had to flee to Egypt, then they were supposed to go back to Bethlehem but went to Nazareth instead.

And it wasn’t until then that little Jesus was able to plant some roots, and call a place home. Or was it? What do we consider home? There are lots of cute little catchphrases regarding this: Home is where you hang your hat. Home is where the heart is. Home is wherever I’m with you. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of ‘em. So, here’s one more! What if, home is where you’re blessed?

The magi come to this temporary residence of this new little king, they don’t wait for them to get settled in, they don’t wait for him to rise to power. Just the opposite in fact! Here are Joseph and Mary, starting their new family, with the life of their child at constant risk, there are powerful people who want him dead, they’re living their lives looking over their shoulder, sleeping with one eye open—this is not the new life that either of them had planned! And nothing about this situation probably felt like home! And then in walks in these Zoroastrian priests from some far off land and blesses them! And in so doing, they help put things in perspective for them, a gentle reality check so to speak. And maybe for the first time in a long time, even if for a fleeting moment, all was right in their little corner of the world, and it felt like home.

We have the opportunity, my friends, to not only see and acknowledge the divine in others, but to bless them because of it and make them feel at home, wherever we may encounter them, whatever they may be going through. And it doesn’t have to be done extravagantly like the magi’s gifts, although it could be, I mean, we will be passing the offering plates in a minute! I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Not really.

But if we could acknowledge the divine, dwelling in everyone we encounter, and then bless them in whatever way we may feel called, in big or little ways, we can bring home to wherever we are. And I bet we’ll feel at home as a result too. It could be as big as helping out a poor family out of a rough patch. Or as small as a compliment or smile to someone who is noticeably having a bad day. Or anything in between! Sky’s the limit! Be creative! Just remember, home is where you’re blessed. And that can be anywhere, with anyone, no matter how different from you. Home is where you’re blessed. Home is where we bless. Thanks be to God. Amen.