sermon

So that we might declare His praise.

The book of Isaiah is a microcosm of the Bible as a whole.  There are 66 books in the Bible, and there are 66 chapters in Isaiah.

That’s kind of cool.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah can be compared to the 39 books of the OT, with their emphasis on the holiness and justice of God.

The last 27 chapters correspond to the 27 books of the NT.  They portray God’s glory, compassion and favor.

For 35 long, agonizing chapters, Isaiah prophesied condemnation and future captivity.  And then, after a 3 chapter parentheses (in which he told the story of King Hezekiah’s sin, sickness and stay of execution), Isaiah began to speak prophesies of comfort and hope.

Our reading this morning, is among the prophesies of hope.

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

These two verses are usually taught as one event – when God parted the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army.  But the Septuagint reads differently:

For thus says the Lord, the one making a way in the sea
and a path in strong water;
The one leading chariots and horse and a mighty multitude.
They were gone to sleep, but they shall rise up;
They were extinguished as flax being extinguished.

According to the Septuagint, the Lord is the one leading the chariots and horse and a mighty multitude, they don’t belong to Pharaoh. And in the future they will rise again. So perhaps Isaiah is referring to separate events – giving  separate examples of how God has acted on their behalf in the past.

When Israel and Syria were at war back in Elisha’s day, the King of Syria endeavored to capture Elisha by sending his armies to Elisha’s hometown.  The armies surrounded the city by night.  Elisha’s servant awoke the next morning terrified and exclaimed, “On no! What should we do?”

Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

There are many stories in the OT of God winning battles for the Israelites with his mighty multitude.

But in the gloom of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, God was no longer fighting their battles.  It was as if his armies had gone to sleep.

Now came the Lord’s assurance that He would once again arise and fight for them.

Not only would He deliver them from future captivity and protect them in battle…

“Behold I am about to do a new thing.”

Since this last 27 chapters of Isaiah are full of Messianic prophesies, that “new thing” on one level, is Jesus – a spiritual stream in the desert.

But the new thing would also be life lush with His presence.  He would once again be their God. Where they once languished in the consequences of their rebellion, they would now thrive.

Have you felt the winds of change blowing?  Have you ever perceived in your spirit that God was about to do a new thing in your life?  About to set your feet in a spacious place? Water the parched places and cause you to flourish?

Why does He do that?

The answer is in the final line of our passage: 

So that we might declare His praise.

That’s the line that jumped out at me as I prepared to preach.

It’s all about declaring His praise.

He acts on our behalf for His fame, not ours.

We bloom to show the skill of the Gardner, not to show off ourselves.

I used to ride my bike around Kensington Park regularly with Mr. Wright.

Not Mr. Right, Mr. W-r-i-g-h-t.

He was a biking buddy whom I barely knew.  But I liked riding with him because he pushed me to ride faster than I would on my own.

After one exhilarating ride, we caught our breath at a picnic table beside the lake.  He pulled snacks out of his bike bag and told me that right after he was baptized as a young man, someone prophesied all kinds of greatness over him.  And it kind of messed him up. Sent him chasing after fame. And now there he sat,15 years later, a math teacher at a prep school, eating apple wedges and cheese slices and telling his story.

“I kept waiting for greatness to happen,” he said, “discontented with ordinary life.  But now I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always just be a math teacher.”

Just a math teacher? I thought, Isn’t there greatness in impacting the lives of students?

I read a social media post written by a young woman.  She wondered, “Why don’t they ever prophesy that you’ll be a great wife and mother? Why isn’t that enough?”

Beware prophesies of greatness.  They tickle itching ears. They reel us in and get us hooked.

They remind me of when Satan tempted Jesus by taking him to the peak of a very high mountain. He showed Jesus the nations of the world and all their glory. “I’ll give it all to you,” he said, “if you will only kneel and worship me.”

But Jesus wasn’t seeking personal glory, His mission was to glorify His Father.

Though the prospect of personal greatness is intoxicating, if it is your personal greatness that is being prophesied, and not God’s greatness, then the prophesy is false.

Our mission is to glory God.

He makes a way for us in the desert, He causes us to flourish for His praise.

Paul said, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: to mind your own business and work with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

Lead a quiet life teaching math, rearing children, doing small things with great love.

Small things with great love brings us to our gospel reading.

It was six days before the Passover.  Since the raising of Lazarus, Jesus had been living quietly at Ephraim with His disciples. Now it was time for His public entry into Jerusalem. He would enter as both king and lamb, fulfilling both the prophecy of God’s promised King and the promised redemption pictured in the Passover celebration.

The crowds in Jerusalem for Passover were so great it was impossible to book enough rooms for Jesus and His entourage.  Bethany was close enough to Jerusalem to be appropriate for pilgrims’ lodging, so they headed there.

When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Bethany, His friends held a dinner for them.  After raising Lazarus from the dead the way He did,  Jesus was a celebrity, a local hero.  So of course they held a dinner in His honor.

Back when Lazarus died, in those moments before Jesus raised him, it was Martha who demonstrated unwavering trust in Jesus.

Now it was her sister Mary’s turn.  Mary had been the quiet, meditative sister, preferring to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him.  But now she dropped her reserve and unabashedly poured out her love.

Perhaps she felt the winds of change blowing, perhaps she realized His end was near, perhaps she sensed His grief.  The political tide was turning against Him and she wanted Him to know He had her support.

So she poured pure nard over His feet.

Matthew and Mark said she poured it first over His head, from an alabaster jar.  Then she let down her long hair that, in Jewish custom, would have always been bound in public.

She poured on his feet the most precious ointment possible as a token of honor and worship and then she lovingly and intimately dried His feet with her hair.

This vulnerable expression of love surely touched Jesus deeply.

This small thing done with great love.

The men around the table may have been uncomfortable as Mary knelt before Jesus and loosened her hair.  They may have been speechless. But as the fragrance filled the house,  Judas broke the silence.

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He demanded.

As if he cared about the poor.

Jesus didn’t call Judas out for embezzlement, as John did parenthetically, He called him out for harassment.

In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus said, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

It’s the only time Jesus ever used the word beautiful.  And He used it to describe an action.  Beautiful had nothing to do with how Mary looked, it had everything to do with how she loved.

According to John,  Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It’s wonderful to care about global poverty and injustice, but don’t overlook the need right in front of you.

Jesus’s grief – His impending blood, sweat and tears – was the need right in front of them that day, and Mary seems to be the only one who perceived it.

We always have the poor with us.

When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah way back at the beginning of His ministry, when He proclaimed His mission, He didn’t say anything about alleviating poverty.  

He said He came to set prisoners and the oppressed free.  He came to restore the sight of the blind.  He came to proclaim good news to the poor – the good news that they have a Savior.

But He didn’t wave a wand and make everyone rich.  Even though His Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

Jesus was concerned with spiritual poverty.  That has always been the greatest need standing in front of Him.

Perhaps He isn’t concerned with physical poverty because it has purpose.

It keeps us reliant on God.     

I met a woman who suffered horrific things at the hands of her father.  So horrific that they left her emotionally disabled.  Her physician father was a member of a satanic cult. Horrific things were done.  Her mother finally left him and now they were living on a small disability check.  Money was very tight.  

The woman came to Bible study one morning rejoicing.  She and her mother had gone to buy groceries the day before.  They stood in the checkout line with a dilemma: If they bought the toilet paper they needed, they wouldn’t have enough to buy all the essential groceries they needed.  They put the toilet paper back. 

On the way home the woman spotted something laying on the shoulder of the road in front of them.  It was toilet paper!  They pulled over and scooped up their gift from God.

She came into Bible study rejoicing the next day as though she had received a million dollars.  Of course she did – it’s the same thrill whether God gifts you with a 4 pack of toilet paper or with a million bucks because the thrill isn’t in the value of the gift, it’s in the fact that God sees you. And cares.

When was the last time you had the thrill of knowing that God sees you?

Take a second and say thanks.

Gotthold Lessing said, “A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”

Poverty also gives those who have been gifted an opportunity to express compassion and generosity.  A privilege that we will only have here on earth.

And the beauty of it is, everyone – no matter how physically poor – has been gifted with something to share.  We all have compassion to give, love to lavish. 

So what are we waiting for? Are we waiting until we get to heaven to exercise compassion and generosity?  By then it will be too late.  There’s no need for generosity and compassion there.

Now is our chance to do small and beautiful things with great love.

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,

but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,

for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 9:23-24

Amen.

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Jesus

Temptation

I awoke at 5:30 am with a heavy heart. An excruciatingly heavy heart. Little Dixie has not had a proper bowel movement – not any kind of a bowel movement at all, really, since her surgery Monday.  She practically (and literally) busts a gut straining to go and produces only a drop or two.

And I’ve been worried.

Worried that all that straining is going to tear the sutures holding the the two ends of her intestines together.

Worried that she has a blockage.

Worried that she’ll never have a normal poop again.

Worried that the starchy sweet potatoes I fed her the other day are stuck like a blob of paste in her bowels, holding up traffic. What was I thinking?

I woke up crying and praying and confessing.

I’ve always been strong, smart, competent.  But this morning I was vividly aware of my weakness, my ignorance, my inability to get her bowels moving.

I curled into a fetal position in heartbroken fear that I may have harmed her. I pulled the covers over my head. I said I was sorry.

I confessed that I should have consulted God before feeding her this week.

I thought of all the mistakes – sometimes fatal – that parents make with their children and pets, that doctors and vets make with their patients.

How do they live with it?

How do any of us endure life in such a state of powerlessness, weakness, ignorance?

These are questions that have never been asked, felt, or even been on my radar in all my 57 years.

But early this morning I felt the weight of every one of them.

“That’s always been the human condition,” the Spirit answered. “Welcome to the human race.”

I lay there another half hour trying to go back to sleep because I’ve had a killer sore throat and I was going to need my voice today.

I went downstairs to make breakfast for the friends and found Dixie curled up on the family room floor with the hub. I sat with them a minute and pet her lethargic little body and then I got up and said, “I’m going to make breakfast.” And with that Dixie jumped up and followed me into the kitchen.  Thank you Jesus.

While I was cooking, the hub took her into the yard and she pooped a tiny little poop.

Oh happy day!

Maybe she’ll survive my ignorance after all.

Here’s my subtle sin: I’ve been googling bowel surgery recovery all week. I’ve been calling the animal hospital looking for guidance – which I haven’t really gotten.  I’ve been seeking answers and help from every source except the One who created her little digestive system, the One who has the know-how and power to heal her. Oh sure, I’ve prayed for her, but I didn’t ASK what to do for her. I just leaned on my heretofore competent understanding.

I went to church and gave the sermon.

The Lessons Appointed for Use on the First Sunday of Lent:

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

The Collect

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Sermon

I saw God mighty to save when I was working as a messenger in a law office. I worked there for a year while I took the LSATs and applied to law schools – just to make sure law was what I wanted to do.

One of my many duties was to occasionally sit in for the receptionist while she was at lunch. The phones were quiet one day and I had a verse to learn.- 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted He will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”

I memorize best by writing things out so I wrote the verse on a sheet of paper. I wrote it again and again until it filled both sides of the page. Halfway through the hour the phone lines started ringing and by the time Kathy returned from lunch my paper was buried under a pile of messages.

Kathy took her seat behind the desk and I rushed out to file a motion.

When I returned to the office a few hours later Kathy called me over to the reception desk.

“I assume this is yours,” she said, holding up the page.

Before I could apologize for leaving it behind she continued, “Thank you. It saved my life.”

One of our clients had been flirting shamelessly with Kathy. She was a lovely, Christian, married woman who politely declined his indecent proposals time after time.  But it’s hard to resist a wealthy, powerful, charming, persistent man who makes you feel desirable, so that day at lunch she decided that when he came in that afternoon she was going to say yes.

And then 1 Corinthians 10:13 emerged from under all those messages.

Help is always on the way.

This morning help is right here in the lessons in our bulletins.

Genesis 3 helps us recognize the tempter when we see him.

The Old Testament

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.

The Hebrew word translated serpent here is nachash.  It is from the root word meaning “divination, enchantment, sorcery”.

The Hebrew word translated “wild animal” means “to live, have life, remain alive, live forever.”

That’s why, contrary to all the artist’s depictions, I don’t picture Eve talking to an actual snake. What intelligent woman is going to listen to a snake?

A more accurate translation would have her talking to an enchanter.

Scripture says the devil masquerades as an angel of light. Ezekiel said he was, “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.”

The Hebrew word translated beauty is from the root word yaphah (yaw-faw), which means “to be bright, beautiful, handsome, fair”.  So instead of a snake, picture someone shiny. (I picture a young Robert Redford.  He was shiny.)

“Now shiny boy was the slyest, most hypnotically charming being which the LORD God had made.”  (Genesis 3:1 JHV – Julie Hintz Version)

Is your mind set on the picture here?  Eve has just encountered a bright, shiny, hypnotically charming replica of the One she conversed with each evening in the garden.  Sin has not yet entered the picture.  She knows nothing of evil.  Distrust has not even entered her perfect mind because distrust has not yet entered her perfect world.  Shiny boy knows he’s golden, so he makes his move.

Tempters always look good in the coming; they don’t look like a snake until the going.

You know what I mean.  You’ve met someone who looked shiny in the coming. It wasn’t until after he/she betrayed you, deceived you, broke your heart, that you said to your friends, “He/she is such a snake!”

Remember, he wasn’t condemned to crawl on his belly until the end of the chapter.

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.’”
Look back at the first paragraph (Genesis 2).  Did God say they couldn’t even touch it? He commanded the man – because the woman had not yet been fashioned – and in relaying the command to the woman, the man embellished.  “Don’t even touch it, Eve, don’t even think about touching it.”  Actually, he hadn’t named Eve yet. “Don’t even touch it, woman, don’t even think about touching it.”

It’s important in this temptation avoiding life to see for yourself what God actually said; go directly to the source.

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.

See how crafty he is? He even uses noble desires. Wisdom is a good thing, so how can desiring it be sinful? It isn’t. The sin wasn’t in the desire for knowledge, the sin was in the grabbiness.

Shiny boy portrayed himself as being more generous than God.  I see this temptation everywhere these days. The subtle temptation to believe that we humans are kinder, more compassionate than God. We’re not.

(Note to self: When someone wants me to do something that contradicts what God said, no matter how much that someone may look or sound like God, say to that shiny person, “Hold up, let me run that past God and get back to you.”)

Further down in the chapter we’re told Adam and Eve were afraid when they heard God coming, so they hid.  Do you think they had known fear before? This knowledge of good and evil that was supposed to be so great didn’t turn out to be so great.

And so it always goes with that snake.

I wonder if God would have invited them to eat from the tree the second they passed the test.  Once they showed they would trust Him, obey Him. (You can read Boot Camp for more on that.)

The OT helped us see that the tempter is shiny and sly. Eve said “the deceiver tricked me and I ate.”  If he can trick Eve, he can trick us. Smart as we are, Eve was smarter. She was an original, we’re copies of a copy of a copy…

So let’s learn from the Master.

Right out of the gate, the devil tried to wreck  Jesus’ ministry.

The Gospel

Matthew 4:1-11
(Right after He was baptized) 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.”

Just a casual, harmless, sly little suggestion.  You’re hungry, make yourself something to eat. No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong. If he had turned those stones into bread His whole mission would have been aborted.

He had to be one of us in order to take our place on the cross.  Can you turn stones into bread? I can’t either.

So if He did something we can’t do He would no longer be fully man.

“But wait,” I hear you thinking, “Jesus did miracles all the time.”

Yes, He did. But He only did what he saw His Father doing and He only said what He heard His Father saying.

And His Father wasn’t making bread that day.

As a human, He was completely dependent on His father to do anything of spiritual, miraculous value. Just as we are.

We can’t take matters into our own hands – if we could, Dixie would be happily pooping by now – so neither could He.

That’s why He said, “One does not live by bread alone, 
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

There are more important things in life than our physical appetites.

We’re going to be hungry for all kinds of things and the tempter will exploit every one of our physical weaknesses.

Let’s not get grabby, let’s not take matters into our own hands, let’s take only from the Father’s hand.

If you scroll down to the last sentence of the Matthew passage it says this: “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

I imagine they brought something a whole lot more satisfying than some crusty bread.

Then the devil took Jesus 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, “Are you kidding me?  ‘If you are the Son of God’? Please. What did He  just say at my baptism, right before I was led out to this place?  This is my Son.

Okay that’s my paraphrase. He actually said, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”   But they’re kinda’ the same. Either way when God clearly says something, it’s an insult to doubt it.

Temptation comes on strong when we think we have something to prove.  This one probably hits teenagers the hardest. Do I have what it takes? Am I desirable?

Tell them they do.  Tell them they are.  Tell them they have nothing to prove. Every day during Lent tell them in big and small and subtle and true ways that they have what it takes. Leave no doubt.

Again, the devil took Jesus 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.”

All the kingdoms of the world were not his to give but he’s a liar so who cares.  He has no problem promising what he knows he can’t deliver.

The temptation here was to bypass the cross; to take the easy way.

“You don’t have to suffer,” the devil hissed, “you don’t have to die for these people.  Just worship me and I’ll give you an earthly kingdom.”

This last attempt must have been tempting.  Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross. He said so Himself. If there had been any other way He would have taken it.

But Jesus didn’t come to gain an earthly kingdom.

He knew that eventually every knee would bow to Him and every tongue in heaven and on earth would confess that He is Lord.  He knew that in order to draw all men to Himself He would have to be “lifted up” on a cross before being lifted back unto His heavenly throne.

He wasn’t going to settle for a cheap imitation of the heavenly kingdom He already possessed.

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, 
and serve only him.’”

In other words, “I’ll take what’s behind door number God.”

Let’s not settle for the cheap imitations that the tempter offers and then doesn’t deliver.

Let’s give up cheap imitations for Lent.

The devil, who had the audacity to tempt Jesus, uses these same tactics on us.

He exploits our physical appetites and weaknesses.

He exploits our pride.

He exploits our fears and dreads.

How was Jesus able to cut through these tough temptations like a hot knife through butter?

He trusted in His Father’s provision,
He was confident in His Father’s love and
He kept His eye on the better prize. Us.

May we be like Him.

P.S. I didn’t say this in the sermon, but here’s why I think was translated as snake:

The Hebrew word translated serpent here is nachash (pronounced naw-khawsh’). It is from the root word nachash (pronounced naw-khawsh’), which means “divination, enchantment, omen, sorcery”. The root word and the derivative are identical in spelling and almost identical in pronunciation. Here’s what the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) says:

“Because of the similarity of [the two words], some make a connection to snakecharming. More contend that there is a similarity of hissing sounds between enchanters and serpents and hence the similarity of words.”

Just a little bonus for my fellow word nerds.

#vivid

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