Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 22:1-18
Psalm 25:1-10
James 1:12-18
Mark 1:9-15

To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.

A friend of mine who is a pastor was asked, “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” She answered, “I get to remind everyone of their inevitable deaths.” The reference, of course, is to the fact that Valentine’s Day landed on the same day as Ash Wednesday this year, so we are celebrating life with loved ones while we are remembering that we are ashes. That is probably more poignant than we might think. After all, despite the love and romance, it would do us well to remember in the midst of those relationships that life is short. Do we love them with a sacrificial love, remembering that we do not know what tomorrow holds?

Today’s Old Testament lesson is shocking to us. God made incredible promises to Abraham, and they all rested on the boy Isaac. How odd it must have been to hear God’s command to sacrifice that boy. What would we do if we heard the same request? We would question our sanity, or wonder if some other voice was trying to destroy what God had given to us. We would probably argue with God about the ridiculous nature of the request. We would cling on to the child to protect him from such danger. But Abraham believed and obeyed the word of God.

Abraham believed that God would be faithful to His promises. Abraham knew that God would do something; he told Isaac, “God will provide.” This isn’t to say that Abraham expected a ram to show up out of nowhere; he knew that Isaac was a gift of God, and as such belonged to Him. Abraham willingly gave the most important thing in his life to the LORD because that boy was God’s.

We all have people or things that are very dear to us, so important that we run the risk of letting them get in the way of our relationship with God. I wonder how many people will not find their way to church today because they think a romantic meal with their lover is far more important. Are any of us willing to sacrifice even that relationship for God’s sake? We are asked, just like Abraham, to sacrifice those things on the altars of our hearts so that there is nothing more important to us than God. That’s what Lent is all about. It is about discovering those things that mean more to us than our relationship to God. It is about repentance, about sacrifice, about trusting that God will keep His promises.

Like Abraham, we can trust that God will provide the sacrifice, but we need to be obedient to the call. We need to be willing to give up those things we love more than Him so that we can be more greatly blessed. See, we think the blessing is in the relationship with our significant other, but we are even more blessed when God is in the midst of that relationship. Marriage, family, and friendships are better when God blesses it. Would God ask us to sacrifice our beloved child as a burnt offering? I don’t believe so. But He does want us to consider how we are putting our loved ones ahead of Him.

He put us ahead of His own Son.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing of that which would happen at the end of our Lenten journey. On Good Friday, God took His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, and put Him on the altar of sacrifice. But on that day He did not send a ram instead. Jesus died as the final sacrifice, the only one that is lasting. God is not asking us today to lay our loved ones on the altar of sacrifice; but He is encouraging us to search our hearts for that which stands in the way of our relationship with Him. Is fondue at a romantic restaurant more important than an hour of worship and the reminder of our own mortality?

We will choose different types of Lenten practices, but are we really choosing the things that matter? I sat down to play my games on my tablet this morning and an hour later I realized I should have spent that hour reading scriptures. It might be a struggle to give up chocolate, but will that type of fast change me in any way? None of us really think our love of chocolate or coffee stands in the way of our relationship with God, so the fasting is a test of our will power rather than our repentance. We don’t lay on the altar the things that matter and trust God to bless us, we give him the things we can live without and hope He won’t notice the idols we are hiding behind our backs.

See, here’s the thing: God can see the hidden things of our hearts. He knows what we are withholding and that we are trying to fool Him into thinking we are being faithful. He knows that we will gorge ourselves with chocolate on Easter Sunday or go back to playing those video games we gave up for seven weeks.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with God. They walked together and talked. They had a personal, intimate relationship with one another and with their Creator. They were naked and it did not matter. When the serpent deceived them and they ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, things changed dramatically. The Bible tells us that their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked so they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. They were afraid to be seen by God.

They were indeed physically naked since God had not given them clothing to wear and their response showed that they were ashamed of their physical nakedness. Yet, that was just a symptom of the greater problem that they faced. When their eyes were opened, they could see that their disobedient actions were disrespectful to their Creator and that they were not worthy to be in His presence. Their shame was not only about their naked bodies, but also about their fear to be in the presence of God. What would He do in response to their disobedience? He had warned them that eating the tree would mean death and they did not believe His words. No wonder they were afraid and hid from His presence.

It is easy to say that we will give up something for forty days as long as we know that we can go back to the way things were before Lent, but how has that honored God? Where is the repentance? Where is the trust? Easter Sunday is forty-five days away, but are we truly ready to meet our risen and glorious Lord? Isn’t Lent meant to prepare us for that day, to make us ready to meet our Lord? What good is it to give up something that we plan to take back? We must, like Abraham, be willing to give it up for good and trust that God will be true to His promises. Isaac was the child of promise, but Abraham knew that God would be faithful no matter what happened to Isaac. He willingly laid everything, including the promise of God, on that altar.

Are we willing to be so faithful? Lent is a time for us to face our sinful, selfish hearts, repent of our sin, ask forgiveness and trust that God will be faithful to His promises. Are we really willing to give up the things that truly matter? To repent of that which keeps us from being the people God has created, chosen and redeemed us to be? When we give up the things that are dearest to our hearts and make God first in our lives, we live in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel lesson gives us a picture of Jesus going through the process of self discovery, an example for us to follow during this Lenten season. First Jesus learned His identity. During His baptism, God said, “You are my son.” He was immediately sent into the wilderness to reflect upon this identity. For forty days He was tempted. Though Mark does not give us the details, we know from the other gospel writers that Jesus was faced with the possibilities of where to take His ministry. Satan offered Him a different path, but Jesus knew who He was and what He had to do. Finally, Jesus left the wilderness and went into action. He recognized His identity, reflected on His purpose and put it to work.

Mark writes, “Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. He was there in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals; and the angels were serving him.” It is interesting that the word used here describing how Jesus ended up in the wilderness is the same word that is used when Jesus drives out the demons. This is not something Jesus chooses to do. He is forced into the wilderness. This was a time of testing for Jesus, a time of isolation from all human contact.

Was it a test of faith? Was it a test of obedience? It seems impossible that Jesus might have failed. Yet, the test does more than prove one’s faith or obedience. Testing brings strength, courage, knowledge and the promise of hope for something better beyond the suffering. In this case, the wilderness also provides Satan his greatest challenge.

This reminds me of a joke. Satan was wandering around, bored out of his gills. The LORD said to Satan, “Go, do your job! Tempt people and make them sin.” Satan answered, “But that’s why I’m so bored. They sin without me and there’s nothing left for me to do!” We don’t need to be tempted from the outside. Our human flesh is quite capable of failing without having things of this earth or Satan throw temptations our way. Yet, we are faced by those outside temptations on a daily basis.

Satan’s temptations for Jesus were not the everyday type of things we face. He might tempt us with a chance to have a romantic dinner or chocolate, but the temptations for Jesus were more difficult. Satan reached into Jesus’ heart and tempted Him to take His ministry in a different direction. He offered Jesus the chance to feed the world, to be known by the whole world and to rule the world. These were noble goals to seek, but to do them would have meant rejecting the reason He was sent into the world. Jesus answered with the Word. “Man does not live by bread alone.” “Do not tempt the Lord your God.” “Worship only God.”

Jesus wasn’t given a choice; He was isolated and tempted as a necessary part of His journey. Satan was given free rein to over Jesus, and according to the other versions of this story, Satan did try to get Jesus to turn from God. Jesus, like us, had free will and could have said yes to any of the temptations, but He stood firm. When Satan tempted Him, He remained true to God.

We are tempted daily, and Lent is a time for us to recognize this reality. Lent is a time for us to journey through our own wilderness. What does that look like for you? We think we have to choose today something to fast for the next forty days, but along with those disciplines we should take this time to discover and reflect upon our identity. We tend to jump into action without really knowing who we are or what we are meant to do. How much easier it would be if we followed this process, like Jesus, listening for God’s voice and taking time to face the temptations that keep us from being all that we can be. Then we can go out and do the work we have been called to do.

We are tempted daily, and Lenten fasting can be of great value as we come to recognize the things that tempt us. By standing up to the temptations, as Jesus stood against the devil, we learn to rely on the strength that God gives us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The things we fast might be unimportant, we might fail and we might splurge on them in a few weeks, but the lessons learned from leaning on God can help us overcome the bigger temptations of this world. James writes, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him.” As we stand against the temptations that come our way, we are transformed into people ready to receive the Risen Lord.

We won’t be perfect. It doesn’t matter how many Lents we journey through; we’ll never be perfect in this world. We will continue to fall for the temptations that are thrust our way by the world and the devil. It doesn’t matter how many things we lay on the altar of sacrifice before our God, we will continue to fail. We will probably fail at keeping our Lent disciplines, no matter how simple and easy they might seem. The big ones will be even more difficult to accomplish. The goal, as in all our journeys of faith, is not to be perfect, but to draw ever closer to the God who is with us with through it all. He’s waiting at the end, not to judge us for our failures but to embrace us for trying.

This is the first week of Lent, a season modeled after Jesus’ wilderness experience. Mark writes, “The time is fulfilled, and God’s Kingdom is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.” The Lenten journey we begin today and continue for the next few weeks is a time for us to repent and to believe in God’s promises.

We must approach this period, use any and all practices with grace. We can even let our fasts and devotions become more important than our Lord. Let us remember that we can fail because our success will never earn us a place in heaven. Our eternal salvation rests only on the work of Jesus Christ, the only one able to stand against the temptations of this world. As much as we want to join with Jesus in every way of that journey, we need to remember that we do not have to do it alone. The One who went before us will join us on this journey. Whatever we choose to lay on the altar of sacrifice, we can trust that God will always be faithful to His promises. He will give us the strength to try to be the people God has created, chosen and redeemed us to be.

It is hard for us to believe that the God we love would ever test a person so harshly. Why would He demand such a harsh sacrifice? Why should the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness for forty days? Why do any of us experience a time of wilderness? Why do we suffer? Sometimes it is just a consequence of living in an imperfect world. Satan’s job is to tempt us and lead us into sin and he often does this in very subtle ways. He makes it appear as though we are choosing good while we are choosing that which turns us from God. Treating those we love with a special Valentine’s Day is good, but not at the expense of our relationship with God.

Sometimes we are driven by God’s Spirit to be tested. God does not test us to make us fail or suffer punishment. We don’t face times of temptation just so God can see if we will be faithful or obedient. Testing is like tempering. It makes us stronger, gives us courage, and causes us to look to the One who is our salvation and our refuge. When there is testing there is always hope. Hope is seeing beyond the moment into the promises.

Abraham was righteous in the eyes of God; he walked with God and was obedient even to the point of willingly given up his beloved son. As children of Abraham we share in his faith, but even more so we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ we have the promise of salvation, of forgiveness, of wholeness and eternal life. It is a life that is lived in faith and obedience to God in response to that which Christ has done on the cross. We are reminded, however, that this life is temporary. We will die. Dwelling in that reality will keep our eyes on the One who has made the greatest promise. With our focus on God and our willingness to obedient to Him, everything else in our life will be incredibly blessed. Are we willing to sacrifice the most beloved things and people of our life to trust that God will fulfill His promises with even greater blessings?

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