Monday, March 21, 2011

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
March 13, 2011

When I was in seminary and taking a course in Homiletics, which is the study of preaching, my instructor used a box, divided into four quadrants to judge and assess our sermons. She was looking at them critically so that with work and practice we might be able to craft an effective message week after week, and allow us to answer some fundamental questions about the message we are given to deliver.

The first quadrant was the actual exegesis of the text itself. Exegesis is simply a word that means what do you read from the text itself, what are the words actually saying. This is the plain and simple meaning of the particular passage with all of its nuances pertaining to language, grammar, syntax, etc. If you ever examine a detailed commentary there is always a section that gives this type of information, and is quite useful in examining a section of Scripture in more depth and detail.

The second quadrant is what she called “the human condition then.” This was an exercise of trying to put one’s self into the context of a first century hearer of the story. How would someone have heard what Jesus was saying if he were a Pharisee, or an ordinary Jew, or a Roman centurion, or simply a passer-by who might overhear what was happening? It’s much like what we talked about in our study of the Parable of the Prodigal Son; the human condition then exposes the scandal right at the beginning, but if we don’t read and hear that parable with first century eyes we will miss it. The first and second quadrants go hand-in-hand with one another.

The third and fourth quadrants also work in tandem with the third called the “human condition now,” which is an exegesis of you, the hearer of the sermon, and the fourth being the “proclamation.” These two quadrants help to answer the questions “so what” or “now what.” If the sermon never touches on these final quadrants in a real and palpable way, then what was just delivered wasn’t really a sermon, but was a teaching. If each of you walk away from a sermon and the first thoughts that come to mind were, “that sure was some nice information about that passage,” or worst of all, “I wonder what was in there for me,” then I’m afraid that I’ve failed in my duty to convey the Word of God in a meaningful and practical way, I’ve shirked my duties as a priest and pastor, and worst of all, I’ve not helped convey the practical nature of the Gospel to impact our lives as Christians and disciples of Jesus Christ.

This morning’s Gospel lesson is perhaps one of the most practical passages in Scripture because it conveys one of the central tenets of life as a human being and Christian disciple – we are constantly tempted to do things that we know are contrary to what we should do. Except in those rare circumstances of encountering someone who is somehow disposed to showing no remorse, no grief, no sense of right and wrong, almost everyone regardless of their belief system knows deep down inside when they are doing something that is wrong.

For the Christian, we must go one step further and actually begin to answer the question why something is wrong, and why we must confront it.

On this first Sunday in Lent we begin our journey with the familiar words of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan. In this text I believe that we can find great comfort in the words of this Gospel lesson and we really must look no further than the first verse of Matthew’s fourth chapter for the reason why. It says that, “Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” Jesus was actually led into the wilderness for the very purpose of being tempted. It didn’t just happen that he went into the wilderness and the devil happened to catch him there and began to tempt him. He was driven into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted.

I think we need to look very carefully at what the text says, and not make inferences based upon what it doesn’t say. This temptation narrative does not talk about hurting Jesus, or punishing him, or the imposition of an impassable situation. The author of Ecclesiastes says that “[God] doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”

One of the great tenets of Anglicanism and most specifically our belief in Holy Scripture is that it must be read in total to be totally understood. Article XX of the Articles of Religion when speaking of the Authority of the Church makes the following declaration, “…it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Basically what this is saying is that if we believe Ecclesiastes to be true and the temptation story from Matthew as true, they cannot be in opposition to one another. Jesus was being tempted of Satan in the wilderness and his temptation was for the express purpose of him experiencing the full measure of his humanity. He was not being afflicted or grieved, but he was allowed to experience everything that we face each and every day. In a like manner the Apostle James declares, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, and God does not tempt anyone.”

We also must take note when this temptation occurs. The Gospels make it quite clear that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Why is this so important?

When Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin John, he was accepting the plight of all humanity by fulfilling all righteousness as he declared. He was receiving an anointing if you will to be the bearer of the sins of whole world. At Jesus’ baptism, he was taking mankind’s sin onto himself, which He would take all the way to the cross and dispense with them once and for all. He was baptized to take our sin onto himself, so that when we are baptized we might have that stain removed, and be reborn and regenerated into a new creature.

One of the two dogmas of the Christian faith is that we believe that Jesus was both completely human and completely divine. It seems to me that it’s somewhat easier to believe in Jesus’ divinity than it is his humanity. We want to try and soften things a bit and think that Jesus was able to use his divinity in a superhuman way to ward off evil and suffering. That He would have been able to tap into something that was unique to Him that we don’t have, and thus, begs the question, how is Jesus like me, and how can He relate to my suffering, my temptation, my trials and tribulations? I want to believe He can, but it’s rather difficult.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul makes it quite clear that we do indeed have a Saviour who has in fact walked along the same path as we have. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” and “for because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

We begin our Lenten journey of fasting, prayer, and alms giving with these traditional words of Jesus’ temptation because we are going to face those same things in our lives. We will be tempted to place creation over the Creator in the things that we worship other than Almighty God. We will be tempted to try and use God in a utilitarian way as something like a genie in a bottle where we want him when things go wrong, but then keep him neatly tucked away on a shelf when we don’t. We will be tempted to seek nourishment from the things of this world, and not from the true source of nourishment that comes from our Lord Himself.

These were the temptations that Jesus faced, and he faced them so that He might show us a more excellent way of coming through those temptations on the other side. Jesus endured these temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil so that we might receive assurance that our trials and testing is not for our downfall, but for our uplifting. For those who die with Christ will also be raised with Christ. If we deign to call ourselves Christians, and yet think that we’ve somehow moved beyond the assaults of the devil, we’ve missed something crucial along the way.

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”

We worship a Saviour who has fulfilled both roles, that of priest who stands before His Father and offers the sacrifices for the people, and that of victim who became the sacrifice. The only that happened was through his baptism, his fasting and temptation, his betrayal, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, as we await his return in power and glory.

On Ash Wednesday in the Great Litany, we prayed that God might deliver us from all these things. The only way that we might be delivered from them is resting in the fact that Jesus went through those very same things himself.

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

The journey of Lent leads us to the cross and our dying to sin, and then to the empty tomb where death is conquered and where new life is restored.

May we embrace this road that will include temptations and trials along the way in order that they might work in us the perfection that is completed in the work of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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