Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil.
2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
3 The tempter came and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."
4 But he answered, "It is written,
'One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city
and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;
for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,'
and 'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written,
'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you,
if you will fall down and worship me."
10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
11 Then the devil left him,
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
About a month ago your three pastors made the preaching schedule through May and chose scriptures for each Sunday. I came up with this Sunday and with this text. At first I resisted....it seemed too hard and too harsh to deal with...you know, vanquishing the devil and temptation, blah, blah, blah! And the world is hard and harsh enough right now. Then I remembered that I really like the wilderness....the physical one that is...I have hiked the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, the bogs and meadows and hills of Scotland and Ireland where standing stone circles and the ruins of ancient worshiping communities can be found. I love to walk on a beach, particularly when I can find a stretch not inhabited by vacation homes. I have hiked in our Rocky Mountain foothills and occasionally in our mountains. I like being alone in the wilderness with time to contemplate and even pray.
I remembered my journal from a retreat center in Tucson that paraphrases Hosea 2:14 on its cover, “The desert will lead you to your heart...where I will speak.” Hosea was an 8th century BCE prophet whom Yahweh called to bring the straying Hebrew people back to their covenant with Yahweh. His name actually means “Yahweh helps.” In the book of Hosea, the prophet uses his own failing marriage to a woman named Gomer who has been unfaithful to him as the metaphor for the covenant relationship of Yahweh with the chosen people. The Holy One speaks through the prophet saying, “I will bring the unfaithful one to the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.” Or as paraphrased for a 21st century retreat participant, “The desert will lead you to your heart....where I, the Holy One, will speak - tenderly.”
Jesus had been schooled in the law and the prophets when he came to John for baptism and was then led by the Spirit into deeper wilderness for solitude and prayer. Perhaps as the joy and responsibility of his baptism filled him while following the Spirit, he remembered Hosea and his words. Perhaps he went to the wilderness so the Holy One could speak to his heart, so that he can discover in prayer his identity as God’s beloved child. This is infinitely more interesting than going to the wilderness to be bludgeoned with provocative words so he can vanquish Satan.
In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, the devil was an accuser or adversary, a questioner. The Hebrew word satan, could be used for any accuser. Ha-satan was the name of the accuser that comes to question Job and tempt Jesus. The devil is not the personification of evil or the great horned beast of the frozen ninth level of Dante’s Inferno who governs hell, punishes the wicked and chews on those who betray others. The satan or the devil tests and tempts with questions.
Notice when tempter comes. Not during the 40 days and night of prayer, but after. Forty days and nights is a length of time that is not a literal time, but it’s meant to remind us of Noah in the wilderness of the flood, of Moses on the far mountain receiving the 10 commandments from Yahweh and of the Hebrew people wandering 40 years in the wilderness. 40 days and nights means “a substantially long time.”
The tempter comes when Jesus is famished, physically weak, perhaps a little hangry, to test Jesus’ identity, the naming by the Spirit at his baptism as the beloved Son of God. The Hebrew translated in passage as “If” might be better translated “since to emphasize Jesus’ identity. The tempter says, since you are the Son of God” Son of God, the Divine and Human Son of the Holy One, what do you think of these three things? Number one, will you choose scarcity thinking over abundance... exploit your God-given gifts to make your own bread instead of waiting on the Spirit to provide sustenance at the right time? Number 2, will you pridefully exploit your divinity over your humanity by jumping from the temple and commanding angels to save you? Will you make a spectacle of yourself as the Son of God to gain notoriety? Number 3, will you exploit your God-given power to have power OVER others, to rule the world, to play by the rules of empire rather than authentic relationship and compassion?
And Jesus answers with scripture each time, quoting the ways of God set forth for all the Hebrew people in the laws and the prophets. “Human beings live by the Spirit of God within them, not just by bread alone. Human beings do not test the Holy One who sustains us. And finally in a burst of passion, “Away with you, Satan. Leave me, you accuser. It is written that the people of God worship the Holy One alone.”
And then we are told that angels – messengers of God – come and minister to Jesus, serve and take care of him. Are they tall, stately beings with large white wings? I think they are more likely, friends coming to find Jesus at the end of his retreat with bread and wine. Or maybe the voices of a people in a caravan that lead him to an oasis with water and fruit. And maybe the message is a sense of deep peace coming from within his heart. However the messengers and messages from God show up they tell him with help for his mind, body and soul, “You are beloved!”
So what about us? For we too are God’s beloveds. We are made in God’s image and we are invited into the spiritual wilderness of the Lenten season. What will our wildernesses contain? That is the risk...the danger... isn’t it? The physical wildernesses I have been in are full of beauty, often full of prayer and a sense of the Spirit’s presence. Yet you have to watch your step when you are hiking in a wilderness. They have also been for me places of loneliness and sadness. As for Jesus, they are often full of tough questions. Besides physical wildernesses, I have experienced the wildernesses of deep grief, divorce, unemployment. I have to say I felt rather rudely thrust into those....not gently led by the Spirit. Yet I can tell you that the Spirit never left me, even in the darkness of despair and doubt, the Holy One was/is still with me. Our God is not an accusing God....our God is a companioning God.
So, my friends, go forth into the wilderness of Lent today for there the Holy One, the Spirit of God will speak to your heart. Tenderly and with compassion. In tough love and with questions. You will be tempted at times to give up the spiritual practice you have chosen or to cheat on whatever life habit you are including to challenge you. You will be tempted to do things an easier way. You may be called by the Spirit to an action of love and justice that you never expected. You may go deeper into prayer in ways that surprise you. As Jesus was tempted, you may have to wrestle with an attitude of scarcity instead of claiming God’s abundance. You may come up against false pride and be confronted with God’s ways of humility in relationships. You may be given a vision of power – will you use your personal power over someone, some group, some situation? Or will you choose Jesus’ empowering, life-giving way of power with people? The power of compassion and cooperation in God’s love.
The gospel writers do not elaborate on Jesus’ inner struggle during the 40 days of prayer, his wrestling in the wilderness. We do not see the times he might have felt failure and despair, only to be visited by the loving Spirit of God speaking to his heart. A presence that turned him around, brought him hope. Perhaps those angels are named Hope. In the wilderness of Lent we will stumble and fall. Because God is a companioning God, we will also begin again.
“Begin again,” life whispered in my ear;
For some days are beginning days.
Some days are designed to be the day we try again,
And on those days—the sun rises for you.
On those days, the birds sing for you.
On those days, God is cheering for you.
That’s just the way God and beginnings work.
For when your heart is broken and your life is in pieces,
Or when the addiction or the depression have found their way back
into your bones,
Or when you lose sight of the person that you were called to be,
The wilderness will sing to you, “Begin again.”
“Begin again” with the person you want to be.
“Begin again” with the person you want to love.
“Begin again” with the knowledge of your faith.
The sun is rising for you.
May it be so. Amen.
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Rev. Carla Cain has just begun her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years). Learn more about Carla here.
Micah 6.1–8 & Matthew 5.1–12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, CO
Today’s New Testament reading — the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel — is paired in the Lectionary with a brief, important segment of Micah’s prophecy: “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
If you know nothing else about the Christian tradition, you probably know the Beatitudes. And if you can quote only one line from the Old Testament, you ought to know Micah 6.8, especially if you’re a member of a UCC congregation. These might even be considered the two dominant, formative texts for progressive Christians. In fact, I would use both texts if I were doing a very quick summary of the gospel message…sort of Good News 101.
When I was a young person growing up in the UCC, we didn’t learn a whole lot about the Bible…not a good thing. But, I do remember memorizing Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. What Jesus does with these rejoinders of blessings is to set out a social agenda – an agenda that turns the conventional wisdom of his day on its head. I mean, really, who wants to be poor in spirit or grief-stricken or meek or hungry for justice or persecuted for the sake of righteousness or to be despised because of what you believe? Not to many of us, I’m sure. Yet, Jesus says that we are blessed to be in these dire straits. And sometimes it’s not easy to be compassionate or pure in heart, especially when our country is up to its neck in political turmoil. Yet, Jesus claims we are supposed to rejoice and be glad. Now, that’s countercultural!
* * *
Have you ever noticed how some Christians erroneously perceive a dramatic discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament? You know the stereotype: The God of wrath versus the God of love. Wrong! The prophet Micah ends his prophecy this way: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” [Micah 7.18–19].
So much for the Old Testament God of wrath! (Of course, we can find references to horrendous actions people attribute to God in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s not a uniform account of an avenging God of war.) Likewise, in the New Testament, we have a really hideous account of a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, who withheld some of their wealth from the apostle Peter and the community which was committed to sharing all property in common. The Reader’s Digest version is that both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their greed and deception. So, the God of the New Testament isn’t always the God of forgiveness and agape.
The biblical concept that is translated as “justice” or “righteousness” points to something different than either our familiar concepts of “criminal justice” or “self-righteousness.” God’s justice (which is often distributive or restorative justice, and not so typically vengeance) provides a dramatic point of continuity between the Hebrew social prophets and Jesus. It’s also what made them tremendously unpopular, and it’s one of the reasons many prophets didn’t (and still don’t) lead long, relaxed lives that extend well into old age. This is probably a good week for all of us to remember what Cornel West said, that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
* * *
One of the concepts that Micah and Jesus lift up is something we are not so likely to address: humility.
For a lot of us, especially women, being humble in our culture meant or means being “less than,” or being lower on the totem pole, that you’re not quite as worthy as someone else. Let’s just eliminate that connotation of humility right now. Neither Micah nor Jesus is talking about that kind of oppressive force. Humility does not mean being a doormat.
Nor is being humble anything like Charles Dickens’ awful character, Uriah Heep, who feigns humility. If you remember that oily character from David Copperfield, you might remember that he is a snakelike creature who is the very embodiment of obsequiousness – the very opposite of true humility. Humility is not a show we put on for others; it’s got to be a deep, inner attitude. Humility is not what others think of us, it’s a way we can think of ourselves. And perhaps it is seeing ourselves as God sees us, warts and all.
So, perhaps humility is about seeing ourselves in perspective. It’s about seeing ourselves in relation to other people, in relation to the earth, and in relation to God.
At the end of February, we will observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent, and one of the things your ministers say as we apply a bit of ash on your forehead is “from dust you come, to dust you shall return.” Acknowledging our mortality is one of the things that church tradition does to help give us correct perspective. We may be “a little lower than angels,” but one of the things that unites everyone in this room is that at some point, each of us will die. Now, that doesn’t play well in the mainstream media. Advertisers want to us delude ourselves to believe that we can stay (or look) young forever (if we just take Geritol or drive a Lexus SUV or get a couple of strategically placed Botox injections). In doing so, they’ve lulled us into a national state of denial about our finitude and our humanity.
Both the words “human” and “humility” derive from the Latin humus, which means earth. So, when I say “from dust you come; to dust you shall return,” it’s reinforcing not just our humility but also our humanity.
Being humble is acknowledging that none of us is the center of the universe, and that neither are we collectively – as Christians or Americans or even as human beings – the center of the universe. Sometimes we even begin to think of ourselves as being ultimately in charge. The retirement information I get from Fidelity Investments tries to convince me that I’m in control of my retirement. But the reality is that I may never live to see my 401(k) payout; in the final analysis, I’m not in control. So, part of humility is letting go of the pretense that we can control what will be, and instead turning some of that control and worry over to the Holy Spirit.
In Greek tragedy, hubris is the distinctive sense of being anything but humble, and it usually results some form of disaster, often for a king. Hubris is the opposite of humility, and it implies both excessive pride and impiety…playing the role of a god. So, where do you see hubris in your own life? Are there times in your life when you think “it’s all about me,” and you lose track of what’s going on with those around you? Are there times in public life in this country when we see the same sort of thing? Did you see any hubris emanating from Washington, DC, this week? And like any Greek tragedy, hubris will be the downfall of petty tyrants in our own time.
We need to see ourselves in accurate perspective within God’s universe. True humility is neither self-abasement nor self-aggrandizement, but rather knowing our true place among others, in the cosmos, and in relation to God.
Which gets us back to the Jewish tradition of Micah: How do we walk humbly with God? We should see ourselves not as we wish to be seen by others, but rather we ought to see ourselves as God sees us: as God’s children; as imperfect; as one significant, small part of humanity; as part of creation; as God’s beloved. When we have a true sense of ourselves – the sense that God has about us – it will enable us to be in closer communion with the divine with others and with ourselves. An attitude of humility will also help us engender an attitude of thankfulness to God. And as we live with both humility and with gratitude, the fruits of our hands and our hearts will be justice and peace.
May we walk humbly with God, knowing our true place in the world. May we be inheritors of the earth. And may we be live in the knowledge that we are connected to self, to others, to the cosmos, and most intimately to God.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.