A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent. 03.01.2020

Matthew 4:1-11 • March 1, 2020 • 1st Sunday in Lent

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I want to be very clear right at the start of this sermon, maybe a bit of a confession. I am not designed by God for the wilderness. My idea of enjoying the outdoors is a careful selection of which golf course I play next. And camping for me involves deciding if I’m going to stay at a Marriott or Hilton that night.

However, just like you, I’ve experienced many times of wilderness in my life. And probably even far more times of temptation. And so, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are invited to spend time reflecting about both – our times of wilderness and times of temptation. And we get to do this reflection knowing that we are Easter people. People of the resurrection.

Yes, we are in the season of Lent, but note that I said today is the first Sunday in Lent. I didn’t say that this is the first Sunday of Lent. The Sundays that happen during the season of Lent are not considered part of Lent. They are not included in the 40-days that make up Lent each year.

Many historians believe the practice of Lent began in the early fourth century. And since the very earliest days of the Christian church, Sundays have always been set apart during Lent. Because Sundays are always meant to be celebrations of the resurrection. After all, we are people of the resurrection. Easter people, living out our faith on this side of the resurrection.

As Easter people living out our faith journey through this holy place known as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we believe that God calls us “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.” This is what we call our mission or purpose statement. It is the center of everything we do together. It is the answer to our question about why God bothered creating our congregation in the first place.

In many ways, I see our gospel reading today as a story of Jesus discovering his mission. Today’s gospel is a story of Jesus learning more deeply what his purpose in God’s creation is all about. Today’s gospel is a story of Jesus uncovering the why he was sent as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

Throughout each Sunday in Lent, you and I are going to be invited to dig a bit deeper into God’s purpose for our congregation. And hopefully, by the time we get to Easter, we’ll have a better understanding of why God wants Good Shepherd to exist and continue to thrive as part of God’s kingdom. We are calling this worship series “The Building Blocks of Good Shepherd’s mission.”

One of those building blocks for us is “forming faith.” As stated in our core value about what we believe this to mean, we hear…“Called by our Savior Jesus the Christ, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that is founded in adult and youth ministry education; we build on that foundation by working to facilitate the faith formation of parishioners and community members across generations and support one another in our faith journeys.”

At this point, you might be asking, ‘what does Jesus’ time in the wilderness with the devil and Good Shepherd’s core value of forming faith have to do with one another? One of these things doesn’t look like the other.” To which I will respond and say that I think they do. Let me show you how.

First, a definition of faith might be helpful. According to the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, faith has to do with “trust in, or reliance on, God who is himself trustworthy.”

According to theologian Rolf Jacobson, faith is “part trust, part knowledge, part following – faith can’t be reduced to a few steps; it is a way of life, the walk of a lifetime, one day at a time.” [Crazy Talk, pg. 66]

Or as was so beautifully stated 500 years ago by Martin Luther – “Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.” [https://www.christianforums.com/threads/martin-luthers-definition-of-faith.1171971]

A dear colleague and friend of mine, Luther Seminary professor Terri Elton just released a new book a few weeks ago called “Journeying in the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century.

It was a book that I thought was going to sit on my shelf for a while before I’d have a chance to open it up. Evidently, the Holy Spirit had a different plan as this week’s sermon unfolded. And I’m glad it did. Elton’s book is sure to be a blessing to the church for years to come. And some of her thoughts speak perfectly to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as it relates to Good Shepherd’s core value of forming faith.

Elton writes, “Wilderness journeys disrupt and stretch; they also open and refine. Times in the wilderness change us. Sometimes we are led by God into unknown territory to prepare us for God-sized missions; sometimes, life circumstances place us there. Either way, God promises to be present, and formation will occur. Embracing our relationship with God while in the wilderness makes such times fruitful for our becoming journey.” [pg. 56]

“What can Jesus’s experience teach us?” Elton asks.

“First, wilderness environments are unruly. They are remote and uncivilized. Alongside their natural beauty looms danger and uncertainty. A life of faith will include time in the wilderness.

Second, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Wilderness periods can be of our own making or the result of brokenness in society, but this text notes God led Jesus into the wilderness. Reframing wilderness experiences as initiated by God widens our imagination about God’s activity during such times. God uses time in the wilderness for God’s purposes.

Third, wilderness periods are formative. God used the wilderness to prepare…Jesus for the mission ahead. For Jesus, formation centered on deepening his identity as the Son of God. Tending our relationship with God and developing practices of daily living are critical to formation.

Jesus learned to be patient and wait for God’s timing. Testing and prayer made it possible for Jesus to know who and whose he was. Jesus’s identity was strengthened and internalized in the wilderness, reminding us formation includes identity work.

Finally,” Elton believes, “wilderness times create opportunities to look backward and forward. Jesus’s wilderness experience connected to the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness; our wilderness experiences may not feel connected to God’s people in the past, but reflecting on how God has been present throughout history can help us understand God’s presence today. This story connects with the past and points to what is to come. Wilderness experiences can help us see God’s actions in the past and foreshadow the future.”

I believe that the two most valuable things the Holy Spirit wants us to take away today are this –

first, always focus your attention on what God is doing through you, not on the temptations the world wants you to focus on and do. Often times we are too distracted by other things and completely miss God’s presence in our life.

And, second, forming faith, brothers and sisters, is a life-long journey. Faith formation is not something we graduate from once we finish confirmation. I believe the truth that we no longer believe faith formation is a life-long journey is one of the greatest sins of the Christian movement today.

Give or take, there are about 3,000 Christian adults who call Good Shepherd Lutheran Church their faith home. I can only begin to imagine what our congregation, our community, our synod, our world would look like if every one of us intentionally engaged in at least one faith formation practice during Lent this year.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we never stop growing along our faith journey.
I know for certain that the intentional time you spend growing as a follower of Jesus will be a blessing to you. And I also believe it will be a blessing to God’s kingdom. And, just like they did at the end of our gospel story today after Jesus defeated the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, I can’t help but think that angels rejoice whenever we make growing in our faith the most important part of our journey in this world.

Where might the Spirit be leading you next in this good work? Don’t be afraid to go there. It’s the Spirit leading you. And God promises to be with you every step of the way. Amen.


Ash Wednesday 2020 Sermon

Ash Wednesday • February 26, 2020

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In Baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; through water and the Holy Spirit, we are reborn children of God and made members of the church, the Body of Christ. Living with Christ, and in the communion of the saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.

Those words are offered at the beginning of every celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We come to or are carried, to a baptismal font, or similar place of water. Words of promise are offered between families, individuals, a gathered faith community and God. Water flows freely and the breath of the Holy Spirit is felt as we hear “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

And in our Lutheran Christian faith tradition, our foreheads are marked with the cross of Christ as the words “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever” are spoken.

Forever.

Not just on the good days of our life. Not just on the days that we have everything figured out. Not just on the days when we actually take 30 seconds to pay attention to God’s presence in our life. Not just in the darkest, most difficult days of our life.

Forever.

In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, God claims us as God’s own child…forever.

Hopefully, by now, you know that today is Ash Wednesday. This day is one of the holiest and most important days of the year for those who claim to be followers of Jesus. It marks the beginning of a 40-day journey known as Lent which ultimately leads us into Holy Week and Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, and death. And in the end, Lent concludes as we once again experience great worship celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.

So today, on this Ash Wednesday, you and I join hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world and begin one of the most sacred journeys our Christian faith knows.

May we not enter into this journey lightly.

And may the mark of the cross upon our foreheads, given to us as a gift in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, guide us along the way. Along the way, even as a cross of ash is placed on our foreheads today.

Each year in Lent, we are invited into more intentional and frequent times of worship as a faith community. Yes…we will continue to gather for weekly worship on Saturdays and Sundays. However, in addition to those times of worship, we are also invited into special times of worship that only happen during Lent. At Good Shepherd, Wednesday is the day we gather. Lent can be an intentional part of our faith journey. Let’s be honest, in order to fully live into the season of Lent, it requires us to be intentional about it. And to be intentional with our Lenten journey, God actually asks for more of our time to be dedicated to prayer and worship.

Our Lenten journey on Wednesdays this year will be wrapped around the theme “Our Journey to the Promised Land.” The core story of the Bible is the Exodus story. It’s a story of God’s people on a journey. It’s a story that has been, and continues to be, repeated as God’s children, people just like you and me, continue to walk through our life along this journey called faith.

Over the next six weeks, you and I will journey together through the Exodus story. It will help us see and hopefully discover in new ways, how this ancient story in an ancient collection of books called the Bible, still speaks to our own faith journey today.

A faith journey with times when we feel stuck and struggle to get anything accomplished. As we will discover, Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story experienced the same thing along the way.

At other times we are simply confused, not sure what is happening or why it’s happening or what any of it means for our journey. Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story had the same experiences along the way.

At times we long for things to be the way things used to be. The good old days as some of us like to call them. We long for things to be the way they used to be, when our journey made more sense and was far less chaotic and confusing. Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story, even without social media and the internet, experienced this same longing along their way too.

And still, at other times in our journey, we celebrate the possibilities and opportunities God is placing before us. Our journey into the future looks bright and we are excited to get things started. Moses and the Israelite people also experienced times of great potential as their journey ultimately led them to the Promised Land.

Our own journey to the Promised Land is our focus this year in Lent as a faith community. I believe it will be a blessing – in large part because we get to take this journey together through these additional and intentional times of worship every Wednesday during this holy season. It’s a journey that may only last for six weeks during a season we called Lent, but as we know from the promises God made to us in our baptism, this journey is far longer than six weeks. It’s forever.

As we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion on this Ash Wednesday our foreheads will be marked with the cross of Christ. Instead of water and oil as was used in our baptism, today our foreheads will be marked with black ash. And instead of hearing the words, “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit”, today we will hear the words, “Child of God, remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the materials used and the words shared may sound and feel differently, but they actually aren’t all that different. And both of them remind us that we are God’s children…not just on the day of our baptism, not just on a holy day called Ash Wednesday during a crazy church season called Lent…but forever.

Blessings to you in your Lenten journey this year. And may God continue to richly bless your journey in faith. A journey that has no end. Thanks be to God. Amen.