COLLIDING WITH THE QUESTIONS: LENT 2014
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, March 9, 2014, the first Sunday of Lent.
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
The nasally sound of Bob Dylan’s voice is part of the soundtrack of my childhood. And as I sat down to write these reflections, the refrain that began to reverberate on continual loop is this one: “The times, they are a-changin’”… As we enter this Lenten season, “change” is the word on our collective heart and mind. The season of Lent is, itself, about change—about a change of heart, a change of direction, a turning from sin and death toward forgiveness and new life. And for us here at St. Matthew’s, we are facing a change in pastoral leadership as I will be entering a new mission field as pastor of Foundry UMC, and Rev. Daniel Mejia will become your new pastor; this change is upon us as we have only a few short months to prepare.
When things are rolling along in a way that feels predictable, interrupted by only the normal challenges of life, it is easy to avoid dealing with the deeper issues and questions of what it means to be human. But when unexpected changes happen—whether the change is at work, in our family, in a relationship, a death of a loved one, or reappointment of a pastor—we find ourselves running headlong into the questions…big questions. In the midst of change, questions arise like: How will this change affect my life? What will be my purpose or place or identity in the new situation? Will I be able to feel a part of the new things that may emerge? Will I be valued once the dust of the change has settled? What if it’s all a disaster or things fall apart or I fall apart? And, when the change is an unwelcome one, our favorite question is simply WHY?
In the midst of change, we collide with questions. We become vulnerable in this state. Collisions of any kind often leave us battered and bruised, stunned, off-kilter, and confused; colliding with the questions of life in the midst of change is no different.
Why? How? When? What? In our uncertainty and vulnerability, we look for answers, we want someone to tell us what will happen, that it will be OK, that we will have a place, that we will be happy and secure, that we will be able to make the people we love happy and secure. This whole scenario gives temptation a very juicy opening to make a move. After all, regardless of how you think about the agents or power of temptation, I would guess we might agree that when we are in a vulnerable state, our judgment isn’t always the best. Whatever our weakness—whether it’s shopping or alcohol or sex or self-isolation or cynicism or controlling behaviors or over-activity and busy-ness—these often kick into high gear as we try to gain some sense of equilibrium. When we’re struggling, we seem to be convinced by some invisible power that smoking an entire pack of cigarettes or downing several bottles of wine in two hours will somehow help…
Once upon a time, Jesus of Nazareth found himself colliding with the questions of what it meant for him to be the Beloved, the Son of God. At his baptism in the Jordan, he crossed over from one life and wandered into the next one. His life was changing. No longer was he an unknown. Now he was to take up the fullness of his calling and purpose. What does it mean to be Jesus? What does it mean to be the Messiah? How is one to fulfill such a calling? In the midst of his questioning, Jesus was tempted, just like we are. Jesus wasn’t alone in the wilderness; both the Spirit (who led him there) and the devil are there, too. And in the midst of all the questions seeking for an answer, the temptation for Jesus was to listen to the voice of the tempter instead of the voice of the Holy Spirit. The problem, of course, is that it’s not always easy to distinguish the voices. Temptation—the real kind—is often so subtle that we might mistake the voice of the tempter for the voice of God. Or if not quite that subtle, at least the tempter’s voice sounds pretty darn reasonable—half-truths and appeals to our most vulnerable “buttons” are, I believe, common tactics of the tempting spirit. Why not manipulate nature in order to feed ourselves and others? Why not engage in self-destructive behavior in order to show how much we believe God loves us and so will save us? Why not use questionable means and serve questionable masters in order to achieve potentially positive ends? Why stay in the place of confusion and hunger when you can go for the “quick fix” instead? The tempter wants Jesus—and us—to think we can save ourselves and the world by short-term acts that show off our own talents; the tempter wants Jesus—and us—to test and bargain with God in order to prove something to ourselves or to others; the tempter wants Jesus—and us—to believe and act as if the world belongs to us, that we are in control, that we are more powerful than God.
And that tempter’s voice is the only one we hear in the story—it is loud and clear and does sound pretty reasonable according to the ways of the world. But Jesus doesn’t listen to that voice. Jesus rejects all the half-truths and tempting options offered by the devil. Jesus turns to God and trusts God again and again.
In the midst of loss, change, grief, and the uncertainties these things engender, Jesus shows us what to do if we would be his followers. First, Jesus allows himself to be led into the wilderness. He doesn’t try to avoid the questions and the struggle of this transition from one life to the next. In moments of change in our own lives, our impulse might be to try to avoid dealing with the change in any intentional way. The thinking goes: if we just pretend it’s not happening or that it doesn’t matter to us, then it will be easier to get through it; maybe it would be better just to “check out” until the whole thing is over. As the familiar saying goes, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Change is loss and loss brings the need to let go and the need to let go often brings grief or confusion. These things are true, and trying to avoid them or deny them will not make the change easier. If anything it can create even more pain and challenge since feelings and reactions get buried and can fester and then seep out in ways that are destructive to our own lives and to the lives of others. Jesus shows us that even when it’s hard, we can trust the Spirit to lead us where we need to go in order to have the opportunity for new life.
Second, Jesus stays in the wilderness. He doesn’t let the devil teleport him out of the wilderness to relieve him of the discomfort of the questions and changes he is facing. Jesus just stays there as long as he needs to stay there so that when he emerges, he will be ready to move forward, knowing that the Holy Spirit has been with him and has given him strength and guidance to resist temptation. It is hard to just stay in a place of pain or confusion without trying to escape it in some form or fashion (hello addictions!). But as Jesus shows us here (and again at Easter), the path to new life is through the wilderness; the path to resurrection is through the tomb. It may be forty days or three of the darkest ones ever, but to get to the new place that God’s prepared, you’ve got to both go and stay in the place of questions and confusion and pain, trusting that the Spirit is with you and that you won’t have to stay in that place forever.
Third, Jesus doesn’t allow the struggles and questions of change to make him turn in on himself as the center of the universe. Jesus keeps his eyes and his heart focused on God. Jesus knows that he is part of the larger work of God’s loving and saving purpose in the world. God has new life in store, and Jesus trusts that promise. In the midst of change, it is not at all unusual for a human being to make a power grab. We cast about for something to hold onto, and, once we find it, we clutch it with a white-knuckle grip. The tempter makes an opening for Jesus to be in control of everything. But Jesus recognizes this for what it is: idolatry. In our panic to find solid ground, we can forget that God’s got “the whole world in Her hand.” We are held just as securely and lovingly as everyone else. And so it is not only unnecessary, but potentially sinful—insofar as sin means activity that separates us from God—for us to anxiously try to control situations or other people or outcomes. We are all invited to let go and to do just our part as we share in the larger work of God’s love. And that larger work promises that even when we are feeling very insecure and anxious, new life is coming not only for us but for the whole community. Jesus’ focus on God’s Word, God’s care, and God’s trust-worthiness allowed him to resist the tempter and to live into his calling which meant not only life for him but new life and hope for the whole world.
In the midst of these days of change and transition, I invite you to follow Jesus into the wilderness place to collide with the questions that come; I invite you to allow the questions to bring you to a place of pain or confusion or temptation and to stay there with the help of the Holy Spirit to learn what you need to learn, to let go of what you need to let go, to discover the strength that is within you by God’s grace; I invite you to remember that all our lives and this time of transition are part of the larger work of God in your life, in St. Matthew’s, in the larger Church and in the world. I invite you to be honest about what you’re feeling, thinking, experiencing. Be honest with God and be honest with yourselves, and be honest with trusted sisters and brothers in this community of faith.
Throughout the season of Lent, we will have opportunities in worship called “Kaleidoscope Moments.” A kaleidoscope takes broken, often jagged pieces and, in a play of light and darkness and turning movement, creates new and ever-changing visions. We will be using the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the ways that the light of God helps us to see something new and beautiful even in the midst of brokenness and change. Today, for our Kaleidoscope Moment, as we sing the chant, “Lord Jesus Christ, Your Light,” I invite you to ponder the question: In the midst of change, what is your greatest temptation? Ask for the Holy Spirit to be your strength and your guide…