On Thin Ice


Lent 1C

Luke 4:1-14


 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

There’s a wonderful Jewish Folk Tale about God and the Devil having a conversation.

The devil says to God, “I am so bored. I go around and around all day, and there isn’t a bit of work for me to do.”

God says to the devil, “Why don’t you go lead some people into sin? After all, that’s your job!”

And the devil replies, “Lead people into sin? Why Lord, before I get a chance to say a blessed word, they’ve already done and sinned on their own!”

You have to admit that there’s quite a bit of wisdom in that story. And more than a little truth.

If we’re being totally honest, all of us might say, “Do not lead us into temptation, dear Lord, because we can find it on our own just fine pretty much every day.” And we do find ways to mess up. All. The. Time.

But it seems to me that we give evil forces outside our own fickle human hearts way too much credit.

We are entirely capable of finding ways of separating ourselves from God’s good and generous intention for our lives all by ourselves. It seems to be hard-wired within us. Perhaps that’s why one of my favorite hymns is “Come thou Font of Every Blessing,” and my favorite line is, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love.”

So if you are anything like me — prone to mess up, wander, and find an infinite number of ways to make Jesus shake his head in frustration – there’s a season just right for all of us wanderers.

It’s the season of Lent.

In fact, today is the first Sunday of Lent, and it might interest you to know that you can read your Bible from cover to cover and you will not find one single reference to Lent. No Fish Frys or Fat Tuesday in the Bible. No mention of anything resembling a Lenten Bible study or giving up meat or swearing off chocolate.

Lent is not in the Bible.

There is a story, however, of how Lent came to be observed in the church. So here’s a little abbreviated church history for you.

We know that early Christians began something like a Lenten practice by fasting for the 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the observance of 40 days of Lent came much later.

Those early Christians were quite zealous in their faith, and serious about fasting and praying while waiting for Jesus to return which they thought would be any minute. In fact, they were so downright strange that the Romans had to keep coming up with new ways of torturing and executing early Christians to dissuade them from their zealous ways.

The problem of course is that Jesus didn’t return as quickly as they thought he would.

After they figured out that Christ wasn’t coming back anytime soon, early Christians lost some of their spiritual zeal and settled back into ordinary routines that didn’t include fasting. After the world didn’t end as Jesus said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or themselves.

Little by little, Christians began to get comfortable. They began to stop standing out so much in a crowd. They blended in. They did not make a fuss about injustice. They did not love boldly. They did not get arrested for standing up for the poor orphans or widows. They were, in fact, model citizens who got along very nicely with the govermental authorities.

The comfortable Christians decided to be nice rather than holy. And yes, there is a difference between being nice and being holy.

Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot that the soul of Christ’s ministry is risk and vulnerability. The Gospel isn’t a story about security and safety and being nice people and getting along.

The theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of skaters on a large frozen lake. There is an enormous treasure resting in the middle of the lake where the ice is most thin. While everyone would like to obtain the treasure, no one is courageous enough to skate out there to the middle.

So instead, the skaters have learned to skate around magnificently on the thick ice near the shore of this lake. Instead of taking the risk of moving toward the treasure, their obsession becomes ever more intricate skating, until all thoughts of that treasure are lost.

This is Kierkegaard’s picture of the church. The church had forsaken the cross in its mission. They had grown rich and comfortable and given up on taking chances. The church had gotten really good at fancy footwork and beautiful figure 8’s. But it had lost the heart of what it is to be the Church and wasn’t brave enough to follow the Jesus out to where the ice is unstable and dangerous.

It had long stopped trusting Jesus and had learned to trust itself

Eventually, someone suggested it was time to bring the church back to its senses and although the Bible does not give specific instructions for Lenten observances, it did offer some clues on how to recapture some of the zeal of early believers.

Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning what it meant to trust YHWH.

Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness until he heard that small still voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God’s giving of the law.

And then, there was Luke’s story about Jesus and the 40 days he spent fasting and praying and being tested in the wilderness by every temptation the devil could think up to throw at him.

So the church began to reclaim the practices of Lent. 40 days.

To remind Christians what it is to open our eyes and see what remains when all we have to depend upon is God.

To encourage us to venture out into thin places.

Onto thin ice. Into the wilderness.

To remember what it is to live by the grace of God alone and not by own cleverness.

Today’s text takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.

Jesus enters into the wilderness with his hair still wet, and with the pronouncement that he is God’s beloved son still ringing in his ears.

And I wonder if Jesus knew exactly what that meant. To be the Son of God. To be Jesus?

That journey of self-discovery for Jesus begins in the wilderness. In the desert. On thin ice. Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the middle of nowhere and, what’s more, it is God who put him there. 40 days in the desert. As the days dragged on and his belly began to growl, Jesus might have begun to wonder whether being God’s son was such a good thing to be.

And the human Jesus is tested by a voice that probably didn’t sound all that evil. Perhaps the voice sounded entirely kind. Sympathetic. Persuasive.

Do you think the devil would sound like (weird growling noise)?

No, I think it would be more the voice of reason. Of kindness. Of concern.

Are you hungry, Jesus? Go ahead…turn the stone into bread and you’ll never be hungry again.

Do you see injustice and suffering in the world, Jesus? Just stick with me. I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms and powers in the world and you can fix everything.

If you are the Son of God, Jesus, the angels will rescue you. It’s going to be okay. Go ahead. Throw yourself off a tower. Then everyone will think you are truly god and they’ll listen to whatever you say.

My best guess is that the voice Jesus hears in the wilderness sounded entirely reasonable. Not demonic. Not evil. I think it was probably a voice that would familiar and comforting to us as well.

After all – the voice is offering Jesus good things, right?

What’s so bad about bread – there are so many hungry people.

What’s so bad about Jesus becoming the Authority – there are so many terrible governments hurting so many people.

Rescue – what’s wrong with trusting angels to protect him? After all…Jesus will go on to walk on water which is only a little less difficult than floating on air. At the end of Luke, Jesus will indeed ascend into heaven. Into the sky. How is what the voice offering him anything so different?

What the voice offers Jesus doesn’t seem so awful, right? In fact, they seem like things that wouldn’t be sinful on their face. It’s not a trip to Vegas or a crime spree.

As I thought about these “temptations,” I realized what is offered to Jesus represents thing that are probably very familiar to all of us. They all the things that tempt us every day of our life to trust anything and anyone but God only.

Just around the corner lies happiness…if only my child would get into this school or my spouse would get that job…

That new boyfriend or girlfriend or lover will provide lasting bliss and I’ll never be lonely again..

If I had what she has, then my life would be complete…

All of these are fantasies, of course. They are illusions. They are not the treasure at the center of the ice.

Lent leads us to a different, more risky place. Out in the wilderness to figure out who we are and what we trust.

It is likely that all of us have already been in the wilderness at some point. Maybe your wilderness looked like a hospital waiting room.

Or a silent house after someone you loved and thought would never leave you up and died on you.

Or maybe it looked like a parking lot where you sat in your car and cried after you lost your job.

Or maybe it was even the kind of wilderness in the middle of the night where you waited for a word from God but all you could hear was your own panicked breathing.

No one wants to go into the wilderness, but sooner or later each one of us will be forced by circumstance to take a turn skating out on thin ice, scared out of our wits, and then we will discover who we really are and what our lives our really about.

Jesus was led out into the wilderness to find out what it meant to be Jesus and what his life was to be about as God’s beloved.

And, if you think about it, Jesus will accomplish each one of these “temptations,” that was offered by the comforting voice, but by taking a different course.

He will change stones into bread: a few loaves of bread and five fish will feed five thousand.

He will “hurl himself from a tower” and be “caught by angels,” by giving up his life on the cross.

He will be worshipped, but only by being willing to humble himself as a servant.

I think the sin that dwells within all of us is not so much the propensity to do what is bad or harmful, but our inability to trust God’s promises to us. The voices we hear every day tell us we cannot or shouldn’t trust God – you may go hungry, you do not have enough, you are not enough. All of us are naturally insecure in so many ways. We want to hang back at the margins where the ice is solid and thick and secure.

But God is out there in the middle of the lake, smack dab on the thin ice. Can you believe that you are loved – so loved by God – that you don’t have to be afraid?

Jesus responded with Scripture to the voice in the wilderness. It is in Scripture that Jesus finds the words to give voice to his absolute trust in God. And it is in Scripture that we learn not to be good, not to be nice, but to be faithful enough to venture out…into…the middle…where the ice is thin

Jesus’ time in the wilderness freed him. And the Lenten wilderness can free us, too, if we let it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


High Places

megans_dirty_glasses-resized-600.jpgTransfiguration Sunday, Year C

Exodus 34:29-35

 29Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

 Luke 9:28-36

 28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

 Once when my son, David, was a little baby, I needed to replace my very old, scratched up pair of glasses.  On the day I came home wearing the new glasses, David was waking up from a nap so I went up to his room to fetch him.  He was sort of gurgling when I walked into his room, but when I lifted him up from his crib, he burst into tears.  I figured he was wet and hungry, so I changed his diaper.  The child was still pitifully sobbing.  So I settled in to nurse him, but he wouldn’t stop crying.  And the crying wasn’t like an ordinary “Feed me now!” kind of crying.  It was more like “Mommy, can’t you see I’m having a nervous breakdown?” kind of crying.

My mother’s intuition finally kicked in.  I put the screaming child back in his crib, went downstairs, got my purse and fished out my old pair of glasses.  I put them on, went back upstairs, and when I picked him up – viola! – the crying stopped as if by magic.  Obviously, it was my new glasses that upset poor Baby David.  He didn’t recognize me as his mom.  At least not at first, particularly just after waking up from a nap.  I am happy to say he deals with changes in eyewear much calmly 15 years later.

Getting used to something unfamiliar or new is sometimes not so easy, right?  Change can scare us silly.  Even when are old enough to handle something as innocuous as a change in a parent’s eyewear, there are other changes that can throw us for a loop.  We can freak out even when facing a change that seems on its surface like a good idea.  A new job.  A new baby.  A new house.  Even good change brings a certain level of anxiety and sleepless nights.

And when changes happen that are not so good, or seem are beyond our control, or cause disruptions we did not anticipate, we become even more anxious.

While we may not wail like a baby very often, we are all, to a certain extent, creatures of habit.  Change is hard.  Change is scary.  Even the most adventurous and open-minded among us like a certain level of certainty and predictability in our daily lives.

Well, if you were looking for familiarity and reassurance, you really picked the wrong day to come to worship.  You are in the wrong place this morning if you’re looking for something predictable and safe, at least according to Luke.  A big change is about to come into the lives of Jesus and his disciples.

Because today is the Sunday that marks the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. It is a Sunday when we turn away from the twinkling lights of Christmas and make the hard turn toward a different kind of light that will lead us into the deep, dark spaces of Lent.  A light that will lead us into 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness and we all know wilderness means.

In scripture, wilderness means change.  Wilderness means wandering into uncharted territory without so much as a map, let alone a GPS.

Here’s two truths about wilderness as it’s portrayed in scripture. People are changed in the wilderness. Nobody emerges from God’s wilderness the same person they were when they went in.  That’s a promise you may hear as good news or bad news, I suppose, depending upon how ready you are for change.

Here’s the other truth about wilderness. Nobody can make you go.  It is entirely possible to skip the whole wilderness journey and stay right where you are.  If that’s you, you can stop paying attention to this sermon. Maybe start thinking about the food at your Super Bowl party. There’s no hard feelings. Transfiguration Sunday is just not your day. You can stick with the scratched up lenses and keep seeing life in exactly the same way and God will still love you, because that’s how God is.

But maybe you are tired of the same old scene and are thinking about putting on a new set of lenses. Maybe you’ve been feeling the need to get serious about your life as a disciple and enter more deeply into a life of faithfulness. Maybe you feel the persistent itch to see clearly where Jesus might lead you.

If so, this is your moment, right here on this mountain.  That’s the first step The Holy Spirit has invited you on this journey to the top of Mt. Tabor with Jesus, Peter, James and John.

The disciples have already received a pretty significant hint about what sorts of changes are on the horizon if they’re going to continue following Jesus.  Right before they go up the mountain, Jesus gives the disciples fair warning that things are about to get real.  Jesus tells the disciples that they are turning toward Jerusalem and things are going to look really awful for a time.  Beyond awful.  The elders and chief priests and scribes are going inflict great suffering upon Jesus and then they are going to kill him.  But Jesus also tells the disciples that the story doesn’t end with his death. Jesus says that humanity will do the worst they can do to him, but three days later, he will be raised from the dead.

Which, of course, sounds to us like awfully good news to us living on the other side of Easter morning. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that the news Jesus gives them absolutely blows the disciples’ minds.

Eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John on a hike to the top of the mountain.  We always imagine that Peter, James and John get to go because they are part of Jesus’ inner circle, his most trusted disciples.

But the opposite could be true.  Maybe Peter, James and John are the least convinced by Jesus’ plan and need this journey to get them prepared for what is to come.  It could be that they need a mountaintop experience to prepare them for what is ahead of them.  Maybe words alone won’t suffice and they need to see for themselves.  Maybe these disciples are the most in need of a holy space to breathe in the presence of God before moving into the messiness of life down below.

When they arrive on the mountain, Jesus takes time for prayer, but the scene doesn’t stay tranquil for very long. God does not comfort the disciples or tell them everything is going to turn out ok.

Instead, God gives them a crazy unfathomable demonstration of Gods power, starring Elijah and Moses.

God demonstrates this glory not to threaten or impress. The glory is to remind us of the relationship between God and God’s son, and invite us into that relationship. It is a glory that does not rebuke or condemn, but points us to a voice we can hear and trust, even when the worst is happening. It is a glory that assures us we can enter into those high places, those deep places, those difficult and fearsome places, and we will not consumed or destroyed.  We do not have to be afraid.

“Just listen to Jesus,” the voice from heaven says. “Keep awake, keep listening. Follow him where he leads. The path he leads you on may feel like death, but is the road to new life.”

The transfiguration is a flashing light to wake us up and get our attention, alerting us to what is going to happen if we’re serious about following Jesus up the mountain, then down that mountain, and up another mountain called Calvary, which is the journey of Lent.  Because the transfiguration story is not about how Jesus is transformed up on the mountain.  Jesus in his glory, his face shining like the sun, is what he always is when not obscured by human flesh.

Transfiguration is, however, OUR encounter with the holy so that WE may be transformed to do the hard, wilderness work of following Jesus all the way to Calvary and beyond.

After this time on the mountain, there’s no turning back.  Not for Jesus.  Not for James, John or Peter.  Not for you and me.  It’s all downhill from here, from now until Good Friday when Jesus will walk up to another hill, this time carrying a cross on his back. This time, he will go alone, abandoned by his friends, forsaken by those who knew him best. Peter might have wanted to build a permanent residence for everyone on Transfiguration Day, but he is nowhere to be found on Good Friday.

A religious scholar has said that on Transfiguration Sunday, we see the Jesus we want, bathed in light, lit up like the 4th of July, making it so easy to believe that this is the Son of God indeed. But on Good Friday, we see not the Jesus we want but the Jesus we get, and probably need most. The Jesus who suffers with us and is always present in our suffering, our loneliness, our fears and foibles.

Human beings know so much, and yet, when you come right down to it, we really don’t know very much at all.  And I think that Lent is the perfect metaphor for where Christ’s church finds itself in 2016.  We find ourselves needing to repent of the ways we have, as an institution and as individuals, made it so hard for so many to know the love of God through Jesus Christ.  Like Peter, we have been busy thinking how to contain the glory of God in our church-shaped box and have been blind to God’s glory that shines in the world all around us.  We are fearful when confronted by change, sleepy when confronted by injustice, and timid in our witness to Christ’s presence in our lives.  We so often choose to shelter in place instead of participating in the work of the Holy Spirit blowing through our communities and our lives.

I was in a meeting last week and we were talking about Camp Crestfield and about how it is, for so many of our young people, the experience of camp and retreats in that beautiful space is transformative in their faith journey. Someone told the story that when his son got his first job after college and received his first paycheck, the son decided to tithe, not to his home church, but to the church camp where he says his faith was most fully formed. The father said that was fine with him and he encouraged his son’s generosity. But as the father said to us, “The local church has outsourced transformative faith experiences to our camps and retreat centers. Nobody expects to be transformed in a local Presbyterian congregation.”

We love the high places, the mountaintop experiences, the Billy Graham crusades, the soaring music, the glory of God’s presence in Technicolor tones. That’s what Peter, James and John wanted to hold onto and build a tabernacle to contain forever. But God’s purposes are not only accomplished in visible glory, but often in the ordinary, the hard, the small moments, the dry and empty spaces of wilderness. Moses had his moments of meeting God face to face and seeing all God’s glory, but Moses also had to come down from that mountain and do the hard work of wandering with God’s people through a frightening and dry wilderness.

Up on the mountaintop, the door between this world and the next has cracked open for a moment, and the light reveals the glory of the Son and the love of the Father for Jesus and for us. The light also reveals who we are…a bunch of tired, dusty pilgrims with blisters on our feet from the long climb.   It is not a light that will keep us always from stumbling when things get messy. But it is a light that will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. The Son. The beloved. Let’s listen to him. Let’s trust him. Let’s follow him and see his glory everywhere.

He meets us here today.  Not on a mountain, but at this table in the bread and the cup.

He lifts us up today.  Into the very presence of God.

He feeds us today.  So we may be strengthened for whatever comes next.

He sends us today.  Into a world that will frighten and delight.


Thanks be to God.