Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday in Lent:
Genesis 2:1517; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.

When I was doing ministry in the online chat rooms years ago, I always encouraged the listeners to find a local congregation where they could go and be with other Christians. We all have excuses for not attending church on a Sunday morning. For some, it is that Sunday is the only day they get to sleep in. For others, Sunday is packed with sports activities or family gatherings. Others have to work. Many of those listeners told me that they hang out in Christian chat rooms because that was their congregations. ďI come here to worship with other Christians, and thatís good enough for me.Ē

Some donít want to go to church because they know it is filled with hypocrites, people who say one thing and do another. Yet others refused to get caught up in the politics that inevitably exist in a gathering of people. Others have not found a place where they feel welcome or comfortable. ďThat church is too stuffyĒ or ďThat church is too loose.Ē Some say that the church they want to attend is too far away. Others complain about the parking and traffic. Others are disappointed in the coffee that is served. Ok, so some of these reasons seem ridiculous, but I know you are shaking your head as you think about the non-church-going people who have crossed your path. What was their excuse?

The saddest reason of all, however, comes from the person who thinks themselves humble, but are in a way very arrogant. Thatís the person who says, ďI canít go to church until I get myself right with God. I have to fix a few things first.Ē They think they have to be good enough, or righteous enough, or perfect enough, to meet God. For some, it is a matter of fear. They know God is a just and demanding God and they donít want to face His wrath. They donít want to come to Him with their dirty laundry. ďIíll go when Iím fixed.Ē

Now, we canít deal with all those people in the same way. Some truly want to be part of a Christian community. Theyíve met Jesus and know that He is Lord and Savior. They just donít know how to be a Christian. They need to be encouraged to seek God in every way possible, including in the fellowship of other Christians, who are just like them. They need to see that Christians are all trying and failing to be what God intends, but that we know about forgiveness, too. They need to see that God has provided us the doorway into that place where He can transform us into the people He wants us to be. When they realize that the other Christians are just like them, they find comfort in the fellowship and a home in the community.

However, there are those who believe that they canít go to church unless they fix themselves. They demand perfection and expect perfection from Christians. They define perfection in their own way and if they canít reach it, they will not become part of the community. Unfortunately, their definition of perfection is often beyond any human beings reach, perhaps on purpose. If they canít reach that goal, they donít have to go. This Ďhumilityí is the very root of all sin, the sin of believing that we can be like God.

Ironically, we are like God. God created us in His image and because He did so, we have the will and capability to love and be loved, to create and to reason. We have the ability to make choices and to do what is right. Animals may seem at times to be able to do what is right, but in reality they do what is good for their life. They eat when they are hungry and they sleep when they are tired. They can be trained to do other things, but in the natural course of their existence they will live to meet their physical needs. Human beings are different. We do tend to be self-focused, but we can see outwardly and do something to make a difference.

Birds fly south in the winter, they have no choice. If a bird becomes injured, he is left behind to die as the rest of the flock continues on the journey. The bird might survive, but it will probably find itself the victim of a predator, which is part of the natural world. The predator needs the prey to survive, too. Now, human beings have similar instincts: to travel where they will find food and protection from the weather. Nomadic people, of whom we all have our ancestry, moved their flocks to new meadows. They followed the water, sought out the caves and other protection. When resources were low, they moved on to a new place.

But while animals continue the natural processes of life like migration, human beings have learned creative ways of living. They found a way to move water so they could produce food on farms. They learned how to work with wood and stone to build beautiful homes. They transformed from hunters and gatherers into beings that live not only to survive, but to enjoy life. Art, music, literature, and all things beautiful, science and math and faith became a part of their existence. They no longer focused solely on self, but on the world around them.

Best of all, when one of their own became sick or hurt, they did not leave that person to die, but stopped to offer care. They did not follow the natural instinct to keep moving, but moved by compassion they chose to do something different. They, we, are like God in this way: human beings can choose to be merciful. But Adam and Eve didnít feel much like God, or at least the devil made them feel like they could reach for something bigger and better.

ďYou can be like God,Ē he said. There are two lies in this statement. The first lie is, of course, that we can be like God. We arenít omnipotent, omnipresent, divine. We arenít eternal, the beginning and the end, all powerful. We arenít God. But, the second lie is that there is something to attain. We donít have to attain to be like God because we were created that way. We donít need to eat the fruit of the tree or work to overcome our failures to be like God. We are like God. In trying to attain god-like status, we turn our focus back on ourselves instead of seeing the whole world around us. We also forget that all good things come from God.

Adam and Eve tried to attain something that they already had, but they still wanted more. Sounds pretty familiar, doesnít it? But thatís what temptation is all about. The devil twists our circumstances, and the words, to make it seem like there is something good beyond what is already good. In the Garden, the serpent made Eve feel deprived of something, even though it was something she did not need. She reasoned that the fruit on the tree looked good and therefore must be good, so why should God keep it away? They had plenty of fruit to eat, and Iím sure the fruit on all the other trees must have been good. But temptation, the serpent, made her want the one thing she couldnít have, and since she had the will and ability to do so, she picked the fruit.

Jesus had everything He needed, and He knew what God intended His mission and purpose in this world to be. Temptationóthe serpent, the devil, Satanócame to show Him what He could have, but his offer wasnít real. He twisted the Word of God to make the promises seem good, but he wasnít offering anything Jesus didnít already have. The tempter offered Jesus control over material, spiritual and civil matters, but he didnít have the authority to do so. Only God has that authority, and Jesus turned back the temptation with Godís Word; it was God alone who had the authority to give control to Jesus.

As it turned out, Jesus did have control over material things. We see this in the stories of the feeding miracles, the calming of the storms, walking on water, getting money out of a fish, the great catch of fish, etc. He also had the power to do miraculous healing. He even raised the dead. He also had power over political policies, in that everything that happened to Him was by His will, even His crucifixion. With a word He could have saved His own life, but the cross was Godís will, and He accepted it with courage and peace. And in doing so, He won the kingdom for us all.

In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who fell to the words of the tempter and faced death and Jesus who faced death by not falling for the temptation. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and we are all in need of a Savior; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to the other word and believed it more than Godís Word. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in Godís Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in todayís epistle lesson. ďSo then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.Ē

We join Adam in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. Jesus faced those same temptations but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didnít reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to Godís good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but we have been made in the image of God and we can make the conscious decision to follow God and be like Him even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction.

God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and most especially through Jesus. Last week we were given the command to listen to Jesus, the week before He called us to follow. By His grace we can live free from the burden of sin and walk according to His Word. Grace overcomes and grace transforms, making us to be the image of the Creator He created us to be.

Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We canít confess that which we do not accept to be true, so we must realize that we are sinners. Yet, once we have made that confession, we can rest in the promise of Godís Word that we are forgiven. In todayís Psalm, David writes, ďBlessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.Ē We are blessed because our Lord Jesus did not fall to the tempter in the wilderness. Yet, David also reminds us that when we do not confess our sins, we suffer the burden of guilt and the discipline of God. When we confess our sins, we experience Godís mercy and forgiveness. David writes, ďI acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.Ē Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.

Instead of striving to be god-like, during this Lenten season, perhaps our focus should be on considering how we are like God. How are we creative? How can we be merciful? To whom can we offer forgiveness and grace? Most of us have probably already started pursuing fasts and practices that will help us develop into better Christians, and these are good things to try. We canít be worse for giving up chocolate or online video games. But let us be careful not to get caught up in those same sins that have plagued human existence from the time of Adam and Eve.

Do not strive to control the material, spiritual or civil realms in your life, but trust in God to control them. He will give you the strength and courage and His Word to help you send the tempter away. Do not give up your fast, but consider the attitude with which you approach it. Are you sacrificing something to be more perfect, or are you becoming more like God created you to be? Those who live according to their own ways will see the consequences of self-centeredness; those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. But those who trust in God will overcome the world and know His grace. ďMany sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.Ē

A WORD FOR TODAY
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