Matthew 4:1-11

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.’”

There’s a great song on Alanis Morrisette’s 1998 album that has now made its way into the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill.  The song is called “That I Would Be Good.”  We heard a terrific rendition of it at Open Mic Night a couple of weeks ago.[i]

The song, as I hear it, is filled with the longing to be accepted just as we are – in all situations.  It’s about wanting to be whole, to feel like we are good enough even when there are voices around us – or maybe within us – trying to tell us that we are not.

The voices in this song want to be good, want to be OK, want to be loved even if, we hear, even “if I got resentful…if I gained ten pounds…if I act like a child…if my hair stays wild…”  The song cries out for love and acceptance in other difficult circumstances: “Even when I was fuming…even if I was clingy…even if I lost sanity.”

And in the middle of the song a character named Jo sings what I think is the heart of the matter: “I need to know that I would be loved/even when I am my true self.”

All of those “ifs.”  They capture our struggle to be OK…if I gained ten pounds…if I lost sanity.  If…if…if…

We might have different ones, but we all carry those “ifs” around with us: “Will I be loved if….”  Those “ifs” hit like drops of water that erode our confidence and our security bit by bit.  Sometimes the “ifs” try to persuade us that we can be enough if we only do more or do better.

If I just had more money…

If I worked a few more hours…

If I were a better parent…

If I were a better kid…

If I were stronger…

If I could fix it…

If…if…if…

The devil in today’s gospel uses “if” like a weapon.  We find Jesus in the wilderness, hungry after forty days and forty nights of fasting.  Jesus is desperate – for food, for comfort, for rest, for shelter someplace where he could wash the gritty sand off of his body.  Into that vulnerable place enters the devil, ready with temptations designed for just this moment.

Listen again to the three temptations that the devil serves up:

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [off this temple].

If you will fall down and worship me, I will give you all of these kingdoms.

I have to hand it to the devil.  It’s a clever strategy.  Because all three approaches depend on lies that we tell ourselves so easily[ii]:

Approach #1:

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.

What’s the lie?  The lie is that you can depend entirely on yourself.  You have the power to get what you need.  You don’t need anyone else.  You certainly don’t need help from other people.  Just do it all on your own.  Make your own bread.

Approach #2:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [off this temple].

What’s the lie? The lie is that when others are urging you to doubt God – or maybe when you doubt God yourself – it’s definitely a good idea to put God to the test.  Stake your entire faith on one dramatic moment and your expectations of what God should do in that moment.  And if God lets you down in that one moment, then by all means give up.

Approach #3:

If you will fall down and worship me, I will give you all of these kingdoms.

What’s the lie?  The lie is that you can depend entirely on the false promises of evil.  There will always be something or someone that promises to numb your pain, to take away your problems, to give you the power or the freedom or the confidence that you want.  The false promises of evil offer instant, magical solutions to your problems.

If…if…if…lie…lie…lie…

How does Jesus resist these temptations?

First, as I always love to point out, Jesus uses scripture.  Which the devil does too, by the way, often quoting from scripture himself to try to persuade Jesus to do these things.  But each and every time, Jesus has a response that is rooted in God’s holy word.  There’s a reason we read scripture every week – and sing pieces of scripture throughout our worship service.  It helps us to carry reminders of God’s promises with us.  As we sang a few minutes ago: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  We read that verse this past week on Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:13), and we’ll sing it throughout Lent.

The most important defense that Jesus has against the devil’s temptations happens right before Jesus spends those forty days in the wilderness.  The scene just before this one is the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.  The baptism in which the voice of God comes from heaven to say: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

So look at what we have side by side.  God’s voice saying “This is my Son.”  And the voice of the devil: “If you are the Son of God…”[iii]  We go from “This is who you are” to “If you are really this…”  Jesus can resist the voice of the tempter because he has another voice ringing in his ears, the voice of love.

We hear it in our own baptisms.  God says: “This is my beloved child, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  We have that voice of love ringing in our ears too, the voice that says: “You are enough – not because of anything you do, but because of what I have already done for you.”

But, as one of my favorite preachers, Anna Carter Florence, says: “The waters of baptism are so warm and soft, and we don’t get to stay in them very long. The way back from the Jordan leads straight through the wilderness, and we go round and round until we are famished. We start to wonder: Will I survive? Is God really in control? Does God love me anymore? Am I who I thought I was?” [iv]

That’s why we return again and again to those promises of baptism.  You are my beloved child.  That’s why we come again and again to this table to be fed.  It’s what nourishes us when we try to rely on our own power or when we want to test God or when we turn to all those other voices that offer false hope.  It’s what frees us from trying to prove that we are good enough to be loved.

Jesus is the Son of God.  No ifs or maybes or conditions.  Jesus is God’s beloved.

So are we.  We are God’s beloved.  And that gives us all that we need – no ifs necessary.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap-e_pOY4h4

[ii] Today’s sermon is influenced by the conversation at Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1234

[iii] From Anna Carter Florence, “First Sunday in Lent” in Preaching Year A: Reflections on the Gospel Readings

[iv] Ibid.

Matthew 17:1-9

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”  Matthew 17:7

My friend Meta has just published a book called Ordinary Blessings.[i]  As the title suggests, she’s written a series of blessings for aspects of daily life, many of which we wouldn’t typically think of as occasions for blessing.  She has a husband and three young children, and she serves as a pastor at a large Lutheran church in the Twin Cities.  Her days are full. So I love that she’s found a way to see the sacred in ordinary life.  Here, for example, is her blessing for laundry:

For Laundry

I often hurry

and stuff everything in together,

every color and texture.

Then I pray for the delicates

and try to remember

how many should be spared later

from the dryer’s wrath.

It is a luxury

to wash everything on demand –

that bloody-nosed T-shirt,

the bedsheets after a child’s accident,

smelly soccer jerseys,

those pants worn more days than not.

Later I pour the basket onto my bed –

an embarrassment of riches!

My favorite hoodie is still warm

so I slide my body into its fresh scent.

I like to collect quarters

and leave them on the counter

at my old laundromat

where some spend all day waiting,

listening to the hum of garment baptism.

 

I love how Meta points to things we often take for granted, like being fortunate enough to wash our clothes when we need to.  She invites us into gratitude for the most mundane of moments, even the ones that lead to bloody noses and grass stains. Her mention of the laundromat reminds me of the many years I’ve spent saving quarters and hauling my laundry elsewhere.  And then she gives us an image of baptism as the clothes swirl in their machines, being cleansed and made ready to wear again.

Today’s gospel is the opposite of an ordinary scene.  We find ourselves on a mountaintop.  When reading the Bible, always pay attention when things happen on a mountain.  It’s often the place where people have dramatic encounters with God.

Today Jesus is there with Peter and James and John.  What unfolds high on that mountain is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. [ii]  We have the dramatic lighting as Jesus is transfigured – changed, transformed – his face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white.  (It makes me wonder how God does the laundry.)

If that weren’t wild enough, two heroes of the Hebrew scriptures show up, both from earlier centuries.  We have Moses, who had led the people out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and to the edge of the promised land.  Moses, who (as today’s first reading reminded us) once climbed a mountain to receive the law and the commandments from God as a gift to the people.  Elijah also shows up, one of the most important prophets of Jewish tradition, one who, again and again, called the people to turn away from worshipping foreign gods and false idols and listen instead to the one true God.

The gospel doesn’t tell us if there was a soundtrack.  I’ve always imagined a wonderful orchestral score by John Williams – or maybe a good cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  But at just the right moment, the clouds move in, overshadowing our characters as the voice of God sounds forth loud and clear: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  If those words sound familiar, you are right.  We heard them just a few weeks ago when we read the story of Jesus’ baptism.  God said the same thing then: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (see Matthew 3). But notice the addition: “Listen to him!”  Pay attention to Jesus, God says.  He has much to teach you and to show you.  Stay focused on him.

Is it any wonder that the disciples fall on the ground in fear?  Of course they’re overwhelmed.  Of course they’re terrified.  I would be too.

Then, in the middle of all that drama, Jesus touches them.  In the midst of lights and voices and clouds and heroes who are supposed to be dead but have somehow shown up, Jesus touches them. It is a moment to simple and tender that it makes me catch my breath.  He touches them and says, “Do not be afraid.”

This week we enter the season of Lent, a time we often associate with making a sacrifice by giving something up or perhaps taking on a spiritual practice.  Most of us aren’t encountering historical figures and dazzling light on tops of mountains these days.  But we are afraid more often than we would like to admit.  Between our worry for ourselves and our worry for the people we love and our worry for the world, we can be humming with anxiety and not even realize how it’s draining us.

Jesus doesn’t just show up on mountaintops.  He’s with us in our daily life and work too.  Touching us. Reminding us: “Do not be afraid.”

This Lent I hope we can encourage each other to slow down, take a breath, listen and look for what is holy in the ordinary things of daily life.  Because God is there – in the conversations we have in the car, in the projects we do at work and at school, in our getting dressed.  God is there in the signs of nature as the world slowly comes back to life, buds and branches bursting with color.  God is there in our daily chores – the laundry, yes, and others – washing the dishes, taking out the trash, clearing the clutter, making the toast.  These are sacred tasks, part of caring for ourselves and our families.  They are among the places where God meets us and whispers in our ear: “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Our confirmands have been trying what we call one-sentence prayers.  A sentence that we can commit to memory or write on a card and carry with us to use throughout the week.  Some of them are specific to certain situations, like praying in the shower: “Lord, help me remember that I am baptized and beloved.”  Or praying in the grocery store: “Thank you for daily bread.”  Or in the car: “Guide and guard me, O God.”

Sometimes a one-sentence prayer can be a Bible verse that we carry with us:

“Lord Jesus, open the eyes of my heart that I may see you clearly”  (Ephesians 1:17-18).  Or this one from Jeremiah: “I will not be afraid…God, you are with me to deliver me” (Jeremiah 1:8).  I have a page with other suggestions if you’re interested – just ask for a copy. I know you could also come up with some great one-sentence prayers of your own.

Today I leave you with another of Meta’s Ordinary Blessings, this one based on something most of us have done at one time or another:

 

For Shopping at a Superstore

God, grant me the strength

to resist the aisles that have nothing to do with

   my list.

Not that I brought a list.

Well, I sort of made one up in my mind

on the way here.

It’s incomplete because I can’t know

I need an eight-pound bag of pistachios

until I see they’re on sale

or an ergonomic pillow

until I’ve touched the memory foam.

I pray for every person in this store

looking for a deal and thinking in bulk,

help us build a world of parties, not bomb

    shelters.

May we find the items we’re looking for,

but seek our worth elsewhere.

May our decisions challenge that more is better,

always pausing to consider what is necessary.

May we be responsible for using and sharing

whatever goes home with us, today and always.

To which I can only say: Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life by Meta Herrick Carlson

[ii] I am indebted this week, as I so often am, to Debie Thomas for her reflection on the Transfiguration story: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2535

 

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