Sermon Seeds: Choices to Live By

First Sunday in Lent Year A

Lectionary citations
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 4:1-11
Reflection on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Additional reflection on Psalm 32 by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla
Additional materials for reflection and discussion on our Facebook page.

Weekly Theme:
Choices to Live By

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

In “Lenten Discipline,” her sermon on Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Barbara Brown Taylor gives a wonderful description of how Lent came to be. After all, Lent’s not in the Bible – it’s really more of a “church thing.” Many years after Jesus had not returned as quickly as expected, Taylor explains, the followers of Jesus had learned to accommodate their own lives to the surrounding culture, finding “no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian.” So much for martyrdom, bold witness and challenging the powers that be, speaking out or standing up for the poor and the marginalized. Instead, Taylor says, our ancestors in faith “decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud” (Home by Another Way).

So the church dug deep into its faith story, recalling the time (always with the number forty involved) that Israel, Elijah, and Jesus each spent in the desert, wandering and suffering, longing and learning: hungry. In response to this hunger, this emptiness, this longing, the church, Taylor says, created Lent as “a springtime of the soul.” (In fact, the English word “Lent” comes from the word for “spring.”) Like our own urge to clean house in the spring, the church recognized the need for a spiritual spring cleaning as well and offered “[f]orty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone…to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply ourselves.” Then as now, folks had their “pacifiers,” Taylor calls them, all the things and ways that we keep ourselves from feeling what it means to be human, even if that means being in pain or being afraid. Our pacifiers can convince us that we don’t really need God. In fact, Taylor believes that just about all of us struggle with an addiction to what we need “to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone,” a space that we can’t possibly fill on our own, by our own efforts and wits. Alas, we seem unable to recognize that deep hunger for what it is, “the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered room of the Lord our God” (Home by Another Way).

So here we are, at the beginning of another season of Lent: it sometimes feels like “Lent Again,” but Taylor’s words are fresh and strangely inviting, if one can find the desert inviting. In another sermon, on this Matthew text, Taylor recalls her own time spent in the desert, a place “so big, so quiet, so empty that you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is” (Bread of Angels). This lonely struggle in the barren wilderness follows immediately, the very next verse, after the amazing incident down at the river when Jesus was baptized and the sky opened up, and the Spirit descended, and the voice of God pronounced him God’s Beloved Son. It’s striking, if you read everything that leads up to this desert time, that the dramatic moment at the river is the only indication that Jesus has received so far in the Gospel that he is someone special. He actually accepts baptism, humbly, from John, in fact, he insists on it “to fulfill all righteousness.” So we might wonder if Jesus was so affected by that dramatic revelation that he felt driven by a need to be alone and figure out what all of that exactly meant, what God was calling him to be and to do. That’s one way of reading that “the Spirit” drove him into the desert. Taylor says that out there, Jesus may “have wondered if he had imagined the whole thing.”    

The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who tempted Jesus and continues to tempt his followers even today with the belief that being Christian should somehow make life easier and better (Bread of Angels). Seriously, we really should pause and wonder whether easier and better is really what “blessed” means. It’s a huge challenge to reconcile the spirit of this kind of Lenten reflection with the spirit of many of today’s theologies that seem to skip over the part of our spiritual journey that demands sacrifice, taking a detour around Calvary to enjoy the sweet, comforting time in the garden, alone, with the risen and glorified Jesus. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Just as the time in the wilderness recalls the wanderings of the people of Israel during the Exodus, Matthew’s Gospel will “echo” these three temptations later on, in the feeding stories (both bread and the Word feed us), in the taunts at his crucifixion, and in the authority he has after the resurrection, “the authority of his presence” (David Bartlett, New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). When Jesus does claim the power that is his, it’s exercised on behalf of others, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and give glory to God. And as he exercises that power, it begins to dawn on those who are watching that the words of that heavenly voice at the river were true.

Richard Swanson always gives an interesting perspective on the text: This “examination” of Jesus “begins with a ritual weakening of the candidate” caused by forty days of fasting. Swanson sees hunger as something that’s not just a physical condition but a measure of “what it means to be a human being.” He remembers that God breathed into Adam and made him “a desiring being” subject to everything that “(hunger) brings to life” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart” – in other words, at his core. Lueking suggests then that we focus not on the sins and weaknesses of others but on our own “inner places of the soul, where the real and daily struggle becomes absolutely personal” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 

Perhaps that is a good way for us to approach Lent: as “a reflective examining of the inner places of the soul.” According to Thomas Long, Jesus, like Israel, is tempted in ways that “symbolize all of the possibilities for doubt, misdirection, faithless choices, and unholy distractions” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Like those earlier Christians who settled into a comfortable faith, we’re tempted today to turn away from the suffering of the world, tempted to build our own defenses against doubt and risk, tempted to concentrate not only on our own needs but also our wants, before thinking of others. In doing so, we forget who we are, too, and fall prey to the tempter.

It’s not unusual for our focus to be limited, and perhaps it’s understandable when the world holds so much possibility for pain on the other side of our defenses. We’ll take care of ourselves, and our family, and maybe our church, and perhaps the neighborhood around it, but we really don’t have time or energy or ability to reach beyond those narrow lines drawn protectively around us and our loved ones, the people we “know.” Thomas Long sees the first temptation that way, when the devil suggests that Jesus keep his own vision “too small – satisfying hunger – and the recipients of his work too few – only one, himself.” Of course, we know that Jesus’ mission was anything but small, and that God’s love was reaching out to the whole world through him, as it continues to do today. Long connects this to the situation of the church today in a powerful way, for we are often tempted to focus narrowly on our own needs, our own beliefs, our own plans. “Jesus is hungry, very hungry,” Long says, “but he will not allow the devil to restrict his diet, or ours…Jesus resisted the temptation to make the gospel too small” (Matthew, Westminister Bible Companion).

The devil is all talk, empty talk. Perhaps we need to spend some time in those empty places within us that belong to God alone, listening instead to a gospel larger than we had ever considered, and opening ourselves for what is yet to come.

 Additional reflection on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7:

Two stories of temptation, two stories with very different responses, are told in today’s readings. One is a story of surrender, and the other tells of resistance and triumph. We live in a world that emphasizes freedom, options, choices, and “no limits.” And yet, this freedom and this boundary-less existence comes at a great cost, whether we are conscious of it or not. What was the cost to Adam and Eve when they refused to honor the limits set by God? The narrative draws a foundational picture of God for us, a God who puts humans in a beautiful place, with a role, and provides expectations along with abundance. Even today, we experience God’s provision for us, and God’s expectations as well. And yet there are other voices as well, voices that draw our attention to things that have the power to seduce but not to bring life, and bring it more abundantly, as God does. What does this text tell us about the foundational relationship of God and humankind? What does it invite us to consider about our relationship with the earth?

There are, of course, “serpents” that slither into our lives, voicing discontent, cynicism, doubt, and death. Out of that doubt and discontent are born many fears, and we are tempted to weaken as well. How easy it is to give ourselves over to voices of despair rather than turning toward the voice of the still-speaking God, the God who provides not only a beautiful earth but a role for us within it. What is that proper role, and how does our faith inform it?

In the Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus’ own role is twisted and distorted by another voice of death and cynicism. Jesus stands firm, and Satan is driven away. When have you been shaken by doubt, and uncertain because of the voices that compete for your attention? Have there been times when you didn’t even realize that you were being tempted, but rather that you slipped quietly off center, away from the proper role and place, the promise that God has given you? When have you allowed yourself to be not just distracted but diminished by such temptation?

What are the roles of shame and innocence, weakness and trust, in these stories, and in your own, as individuals and as a community of faith? When has the church as a whole succumbed to temptation in claiming power and place, or even worse, safety and security, by accommodating the powers that be in society? When has the church listened to the voices of doubt, cynicism, and despair? When has the church listened to voices of pride, power, and place? At what moments has it found its way back to its proper place and its proper role? When and how has it listened for God’s voice, still speaking today? 

In what ways do you find the character of the serpent “creepy” in the story of Adam and Eve? Do you think that Adam and Eve found him creepy, or marvelously attractive? Are the voices that try to tempt us obviously repelling, or do they come to us in much more attractive packages? The snake doesn’t do anything but talk – and how often do we find ourselves drawn to the non-productive, slick-talking agents of nothingness? Worse – the agents of shame and fear. This foundational story, here at the beginning of Lent, turns our attention to our most basic story, to our most basic realities. What are our worst fears, our worst shame, and our greatest hope? Where is God’s place in our lives, from the very beginning? What is the word of hope in this ancient story?

For further reflection:

Winston Churchill, 20th century
“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”

Oswald Chambers, 20th century
“God never gives strength for tomorrow or for the next hour, but only for the strain of the minute.”

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“How little people know who think that holiness is dull….When one meets the real thing, it’s irresistible.”

Christopher Morley, 20th century
“The enemies of the truth are always awfully nice.”

Billy Graham, 20th century
“It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.”

Bill Watterson, 21st century
“Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man? Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help.”

Additional reflection on Psalm 32
by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla
Theme: Abundant Grace

This is the First Sunday of Lent, the first for right now and for the Abundant Grace that we bring into our midst — to be explored and reencountered in a new light, a new way to live out by oneself and with those with whom we share this world of ours as well.

The focus text for this First Sunday in Lent, Psalm 32, is described by James L. Mays as “the second of the seven psalms designated as penitential psalms in Christian tradition. The psalm may have been an instruction at the Temple, composed by an individual whose spiritual and physical life changed as a result of a confession of sin. Once the psalmist stopped dissimulating and covering up, God extended a cover of forgiveness over the sins” (The HarperCollins Bible Commentary).

On this Sunday, take the time for a unique opportunity to read this lectionary text. Start the rewarding yet challenging journey to interpret and apply its wisdom within at a time when judgmental ways are found right and left, with little to no room for grace and/or dialogue. Be the best you can be, regardless of what the world around us tells you not to be. Peter C. Craigie calls Psalm 32 “a fundamental psalm, illustrating powerfully the prerequisite of spiritual health, namely a self-conscious awareness of one’s sinful life and of the necessity of acting upon that awareness in confession before God” (Word Biblical Commentary).

The world’s intolerance presents to us the vestiges of ways passed down from generation to generation, ways of comfort that were taught by reading and interpreting Bible passages in a specific context, those which have brought positive or negative reactions into people’s realms. All of this is a sample of various religious experiences — tumultuous and joyous, past and present — those experienced today and yesterday with religion, with God. “Cada pueblo o comunidad lee la Biblia en su context,” Alicia Vargas writes: “Each society or community reads the Bible in their context” (Como leer la Biblia – How to Read the Bible).

“Happy are those…while I kept in silence my acknowledgment…at a time of distress, you surround me…the torments…I shout for joy.” Psalm 32 is like that song that sings to you and evokes the memories of both past and present situations, life happenings that may have made you stronger, may have challenged you, may have gone right or wrong, or may simply be new to your experience.

Decisive moments in life mark the ways we experience joy, frustration, slavery within or by others, silence from pursuing one’s own truth, and then they lead us to hopefully reaching spiritual health and peace within ourselves and the desire to move forward. All of the many journeys, feelings, realities, and challenges have taken us on varied trips of the soul while keeping alive the song of relief and hope within our beings. So, how is there life after all? Life continues because one keeps stubbornly struggling, falling, and trying, succeeding and learning along the way. “Psalm 32 is a prayer of thanksgiving,” Fred Craddock writes, “offered by individuals after the forgiveness of sin and the experience of healing” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Holidays are opportunities of commemorations, times of remembrance, times of healing, of challenge, of change in the making. Consider the holidays and political events that have already occurred in the first weeks of this year: they include Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Women’s Week, Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Black History Month, President’s Day, Mardi Gras, First Sunday of Lent, and Ash Wednesday (with St. Patrick’s Day coming up soon), just to name a few. These events present many shades of meaning for words, events year after year, commemorations that mark our lives through happenings that hurt, challenge, and help us move forward from within. Some events cause literal pain of the heart, body, and/or mind; other events cause pain by association with the world.

Days of celebration and remembrance are important in our midst and the world around us. How many times have we encountered life, messy with its challenges and conquests that take us away from our true selves and bring out our most challenging characteristics from within, rather than experiencing life as we believe it should be? Fred Craddock observes that the psalmist understood our need to recognize and take responsibility for our sins, even as part of the process of coming to understand who we are (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

This year, like every year, Lent is a time for introspective discernment and challenge to oneself rather than selfish, individualistic, or communal liturgical, repetitive rituals of the season. As Christians who put their faith into action, this is the chance, the time to observe and practice the traditional Lenten practices such as prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need. Especially important is to perform these practices with the intent to seek justice for oneself and one’s neighbors. In my work for justice, facing ministry in the world “as is” instead of as one hopes it should be, the journey helps me see the bigger picture, and I try to understand how to convey to others the many “messy-yet-hopeful” real human experiences we all endure.

Psalm 32 presents the pain, the baggage and the potential from within that enables us to identify, define, and to warn each other about what it really means to miss the mark. To also empower us beyond our misses, and to commit ourselves in the ways to confront, assess, learn, and come closer to coping with our actions or lack thereof.

Just last week I reunited with two of my dearest friends to celebrate one another! Three women — from two countries, two languages, two continents — shared our unique yet universal life stories of individuals in the 21st century. Our stories reminded me that the world, whatever one’s personal context may be, presents itself “as it is.” This is where we find the brokenness and wholeness of relationships, the challenges of location, and the differences in speech and languages.

My friends — mis amigas — gathered around food, stories, and laughter as well as tears. Some tears were visible, and others hid inside as constant reminders of the ways of the world. Tales of our lives are stories of joy mixed with struggle and survival. These are the verses of the most interesting Latin-American, North American, and worldly tales — of real people with real life issues. The only difference is that these women — my friends with their bones, flesh, brains, and actions — have learned to straddle the expectations of society and its ways that have been established of what should matter most, and not necessarily what is right.

In our particular case, sharing with one another frees us from holding it all within. We are no longer held captive or enslaved because of our circumstances. By making it known to the universe, calling evil for what it really is, we no longer keep it to ourselves. Instead, we serve as one another’s witness to choose to hope rather than to curse the darkness, and from there we move on to calmer and more redeeming hopes for ourselves and those around us.

When we gather together to share our joys, laughter, jokes, sorrows, and truth-telling stories, we continue creating a never-ending tale, woven by the threads of our experiences of love and hate, stories from within ourselves and from the outside world. We free ourselves with the exchange of such stories, exposing evil for what it is and not necessarily what society considers it should be. We are no longer prisoners of what is not ours…and we live free.

My dear compañeras en la lucha (partners in the struggle) help me see the light we share along the journey of our many years of unconditional love, of unconditional dedication to what matters in our lives as mothers and daughters, sisters and spouses, lovers and friends, sisters by location, and other special relationships. As Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has observed, “Hispanic women’s experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate, and use the Bible” (Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction).

In his well-known work, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a fine preacher and biblical scholar, offered these words of caution and challenge about the book we often look to for rules and comfort: “The Bible alone is the most dangerous thing I can think of. You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest. Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement.”

From silence to truth-telling, our journeys are opportunities to rediscover one’s true self, even after encountering evil or making poor choices along the way. From we to I, from I to me, to you and to all others, we create circles amongst us. Circles drawn of self-centered individuals to the communal and community-centered folk, from those who think locally and act globally, as well as people at the other end of the spectrum. It will be hard at times to live up to all the ideals we are called upon to fulfill in Psalm 32, and at times God’s presence will seem far removed from us. Sometimes we will feel that our only companion is our own pain, isolation, and struggle.

Many times life will come toward us in full force, with its circumstances — its messiness and stabs in the back — bringing us to our knees, knocking us off our feet, or lifting us up as high as the heavens in mind, spirit, and body. Then we gather around, and share our innermost experiences of pain, success, joys, and challenges, and open up a well of opportunity to truth-telling. It is only until then that one can start moving forward to let healing, compassion, and true self-love come in.

The Reverend William C. Green writes about community, emptiness, and grace in the UCC Daily Devotional:

“It’s the support of others that begins to get me on my feet and make me able to move again, a step at a time. That’s God enough for me, because it can be hard to pray alone and experience God’s support. I’ve come to believe that God is not known primarily in terms of my own feelings. My faith comes alive in the give-and-take of the feelings, concerns, and prayers of others, including those at church. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.’ I don’t believe God ever wants us to be broken and running on empty. I also believe, as one writer put it, that God’s power can only enter where there is a void to receive it – and we no longer try to fill it by ourselves.”

So here is the task ahead of us, to be and to let be. Be open to God working through you, for the journey welcomes us ahead, calling us from our present and inspiring for the days ahead. For Abundant Grace for ALL, we give thanks. Amen!

The Reverend Lizette Merchán-Pinilla serves as a Justice LED (Justice Leaders Engaging and Developing [Justice]) organizer with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.



Lectionary texts

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
   whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom God imputes no iniquity,
   and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
   my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
   and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to God,”
   and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
   offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
   the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;
   you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you
   the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule,
   without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
  else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
   but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in God.

Be glad in God and rejoice, O righteous,
   and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Romans 5:12-19

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned — sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass.

For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 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.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading