First Sunday in Lent, Year A
My Farewell Sunday
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
This morning our scripture text is a familiar one for the first Sunday in Lent, a story that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We hear from Matthew today who was writing to a Jewish Christian community intent on knowing who Jesus is as the Human One and the Son of God. And we hear language traditional and colloquial to Matthew’s time, “the devil” or “Satan” who “tempts” Jesus to see if he can trip him up and then “angels” who come to minister to him. I did a particular word study of the New Testament Greek to understand these words better. If we can, let’s put aside our preconceived notions of these words, images of anthropomorphic evil with a red body suit and horns, of little white winged cherubs, of traditional good versus evil, one of these must die notions, to hear this text in a new way. I am reading from the Common English Bible and I have used my word study to amplify our understanding of the text.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the [accuser, the slanderer, known colloquially as the devil] might test him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The [slanderer] came to him and said, "Since you are God's Son, command these stones to become bread." Jesus replied, "It's written, People won't live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God." After that the [slanderer] brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, "Since you are God's Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won't hit your foot on a stone." Jesus replied, "Again it's written, ‘Don't test the Lord your God.’" Then [the slanderer] brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, "I'll give you all these if you bow down and worship me." Jesus responded, "Go away, Satan, [you slandering adversary!], because it's written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God." The [slanderer] left Jesus, and angels, [messengers of the Holy,] came and took care of him. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37952-37964).
In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with a series of songs influenced by his understanding at the time of born-again Christianity. Not traditional praise music as was popular at the time. It was after all Bob Dylan. Though he did not remain a born-again Christian on his faith journey, he wrote some wonderfully pointed lyrics. This one song always comes to me when I hear the story we just read together. It’s titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody...[full lyrics]
Dylan gives us the clue to Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness with the adversary. When you go off seeking on your journey of faith…. which really we are all doing all the time…. who will you listen to? Who will you trust? Who will you serve? Jesus had just been baptized by John and heard a voice from heaven say, "This is my [Child] whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." (Matt. 3:17) So after this affirmation, Jesus does something we see him do many times in the gospels, he goes into the wilderness to pray, to seek the Holy, led by the Spirit. And it at just such times for all of us –and so for Jesus – that doubts arise, questions of trust. “Am I really hearing what I think I am hearing? Should I really be doing what I think the Spirit of God is calling me to do? Who am I to think I can do such things, to answer such a call? To even think that God is “speaking” to me?”
If we are seekers of the Holy in any way shape or form, followers of Jesus, we will have times when we wonder about our listening skills. This is what is happening in the wilderness story that we traditionally hear at the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar year, set aside for intentional seeking of God. So instead of seeing this story as a battle of superheroes, good versus evil, with one of them getting smote in the end, let’s listen to this story this Lent as a story about listening. It echoes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden naively listening to the serpent, the adversary. They learned that naïve listening has consequences. I have learned that lesson several times over in my life. I bet you may have as well.
In the wilderness, Jesus is supported by a long legacy of listening. He is steeped in the traditions of his family faith, in the teachings of Mary and Joseph and the rabbis of his youth. He is steeped in listening to the teachings of scripture as he answers each of the adversary’s challenges with words from Deuteronomy, teachings Moses gave the people as they entered the Promised Land. “God fed the people with manna in the wilderness and did not let them starve…therefore we know that God’s people do not live by bread alone, but by trust in God.” “Yes, I know God will hold me up and support me, but foolishly testing God by intentionally putting myself in harm’s way is not how I want to be in relationship with God…we are already in a relationship of trust.” Then finally, “Get behind me, Slanderer of God! I do not follow the Holy One for wealth and power, but for faithfulness, forgiveness and love.”
So how are our listening skills as we seek the Holy One this Lent? We, too, hear the voices that distract us from seeking faith, voices that mistrust the ways of God. How will we hone our listening skills? Hold that question as I tell you a bit about how I been honing mine.
Many of you have asked what I will be doing after retirement from parish ministry. I have been training over the last two years to be a spiritual director. As of March 18, I will have completed my training and be officially certified. And I must thank all of you for this opportunity because the continuing education money that Plymouth provides its pastors as part of our call agreements has supported the bulk of my training. You all go with me into my next phase of ministry! But what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is someone who listens. She accompanies another holy soul on their spiritual journey by listening to their experiences, their questions, their doubts as well as their deep sense of knowing. The person might be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or another faith, spiritual, but not religious, simply a seeker of the Divine. Through listening and observing, wondering with the directee, a spiritual director is a companion on the journey with some skills to invite deeper contemplation of the journey and deeper listening to the self where the Holy resides. Spiritual directors work one on one with people, in person or now just as commonly on Zoom. And if this process intrigues you, your two pastors after March 1st, Hal and Marta, can help you find a spiritual director. I cannot be that person because of appropriate boundaries. However, being the good listeners that they are, they will help you find the right spiritual director for you!
Now back to our question for today… How will we hone our listening skills this Lent as followers of Jesus? You don’t need two years of intensive training. You – we - have already started! We are here in worship listening to God’s Word in scripture, in music and song, listening to God’s presence in our lives in prayer [and the sacrament of communion], in fellowship with one another, in the call to service through our mission activities. How will we deepen our listening to the Holy this Lent?
Here is what I leave with you as I retire from parish ministry and move into the ministry of spiritual direction: Know that the Holy is immanent, right here and right now, with us, inherent in and permanently pervading and sustaining all that is, from the depths of space to the depths of you. We cannot escape God and God’s loving presence. Doubts may arise. Thoughts and decisions that feel like tests or temptations. When this happens, listen to the Holy within you, for you are each made in God’s image. Listen by steeping yourself in what truly sustains you, not just entertains you. What sustains you, nature, solitude and silence, prayer, reading, conversation with those you trust to listen with you to the Holy. Seeking you will find listening. Listening you will find direction and you will know who you serve. We cannot escape serving someone, as Bob Dylan, reminds us. We cannot escape listening deeply, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We can trust that in all the process of seeking, listening, serving we are held by the immanent, all-pervading love of God. I will be listening with you…even if from a distance. However, we will still be connected by that invisible string that is God’s immanent and loving presence.
Blessings and love and prayers for you, my beloved family of faith at Plymouth. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.