Wednesday, February 18, 2015

This Year's Ash Wednesday Sermon: "Scripture's Power"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a] 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b] 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2015

The British Royal Marine veteran died at only 70 years of age, but he was already in poor enough health that he had had to live in a care home, and because he no longer had any close family, it looked like at first that the only mourners at his graveside funeral would be the care home staff who had taken care of him all that time.

So the pastor performing the funeral put out a plea on Facebook, writing, in part:

In this day and age it is tragic enough that anyone has to leave this world with no one to mourn their passing, but this man was family and I am sure you will agree deserves a better send off.  If you can make it to the graveside for that time to pay your respects to a former brother in arms then please try to be there.

After getting in touch with the Royal Marines Association, when James McConnell’s graveside funeral was scheduled to begin in Hampshire, England, over 200 people—almost all of them strangers—had arrived to mourn the passing of a man whom they had never met.

Far from being inauthentic, though, it was, and it looked, incredibly authentic, the genuine article, and it was a remarkable use of social media—the same social media that is used to bully as well as to connect, to threaten as well as to comfort, it is a double-edged sword, as are most things in life.  What something will be often depends on the hands it is in…and the same holds true for Scripture, even if we may not want to admit that this is so about God’s Word.

I use this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermon every year here (at least, so far—four Ash Wednesdays and counting).  Because it is such a good story for setting the right balance in mood and in tenor for this type of service, I simply cannot ever pass up a repeating telling of it.  The Reverend Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the United Church of Christ denomination, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she coauthored, this vignette about her experience as a pastoral intern at a particular parish during her seminary education.  She writes, in part:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from God that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

Now, you lot have no seminary intern here to deliver unto us our annual scoldings—you are stuck with me!  (Oh dear.)  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding, but it would be exactly that: easy.  Far too easy.

Ash Wednesday isn’t really about me scolding you so much as it is about taking on a sort of renewed baptism: just as we hold baptism to be an outward sign of the inward reality of a redeemed soul, so too do we hold ashes as an outward sign of the inward reality of a repentant soul.  Today is about taking a day—not even a day, really, just this one hour of the day—of our time to acknowledge our repentance before God.

We don’t necessarily enjoy doing that, though.  Repentance is hard, just think of all the times in your life you have probably said sorry to someone and not meant it (beginning all the way back in preschool or kindergarten when your teachers made you apologize for stuff that you clearly were unashamed for, like stealing play-doh and throwing crackers at Archibald, the class doofus).

But sincerity is an absolute must when it comes to all things spiritual, because God has no appetite for fakery, no patience with facades, and no need to trifle with insincerity.  Far from it, our season of repentance on the church calendar—Lent—commemorates a profoundly authentic and genuine duel between Christ and the Tempter.

Jesus and the devil do not bother with trying to hide their agendas, both know exactly what the other is there to do.  Jesus, to fast, pray, and endure trial on God’s behalf, and Satan, to negate all of what I just said.

How Satan does this, though, is what should scare us: he uses Scripture.  He quotes verses out of the Hebrew Bible to tempt Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, quotes Scripture back to him in rebuttal.  It is like when you argue with your kooky relative who believes some real tin-foil hat sort of things about're each citing the same book, with the same authority, but for completely different purposes.

That's what is going on here.  It is basically impossible to find a pair of beings with more diametrically opposed natures and aims, which ought to tell you that Scripture can be as good or as bad as the person interpreting it.  Which might be our biggest problem today as Christians, our biggest sin.  We don’t follow the Word, we follow our interpretation of the Word.  We put our interpretation of it—the interpretation that conveniently ignores all the stuff we don’t like, such as, say, selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor—ahead of the actual Word itself.

In that way, we are, in essence, breaking the first of the Ten Commandments; we are putting another God—the God of our interpretation of the Bible—ahead of God Himself.  And our having done so is responsible for so much wrong and evil in the world: violence over religious differences, prejudice towards people we have never met, and a misplacement of spiritual priorities in our own personal lives, where we value trivial crap like gossip and jealousy over the weightier matters, Jesus calls them, of justice, mercy, and faith.

That is what some 200-odd strangers in England chose, that day, when they convened together to say farewell to a complete cipher, a man they wouldn’t have known from Adam.  They chose the weightier matters.  They chose mercy and faith.

So what we choose, every day, to use Scripture as matters.  We can use it as a means to tempt with, as the devil does here, or as a hammer to destroy with, or as a tool to build with…which is what Jesus strives for here, to build the kingdom as He always is.  Which is, of course, what we are meant to do as well, always.

But we tend to lean more towards Satan’s line of reasoning, to use Scripture for our ends rather than God’s ends, to use it to hit people over the head with than to save their lives with.

Ash Wednesday is a day…for us, the day, of repentance.  And repentance always begins in God’s presence.  Let us take this moment in time to begin our own repentance for wronging both God and his children in all the ways we  have, in all the ways we know how, by using His Word to justify our wrongdoings.

And in so doing, may that very same Word restore is into life and light everlasting, into the salvations that we were always meant to inherit, and into a world in which the devil, just as it is here in Luke 4, does not get the final word.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

Ash Wednesday 2015

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