Sunday, October 4, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Jesus: 40 Days"

Luke 4:1-15

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.”

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.”

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.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God." 

13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. 14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week Six

The collection of photographs, many of them twenty or even thirty-some years old now, spread out in front of her.  There are newspaper clippings, too.  Letters, correspondence, all sorts of memories represented across the surface of the simplest and humblest of furniture: a kitchen table.

And she began to recount to the journalist all of these different stories of the people she met and cared for and who were eventually buried right there in that little town of Arkansas.  Only she wasn’t a medical professional of any kind, just a woman with a huge soul.  Ruth Coker Burks began caring for HIV/AIDS patients in her town beginning all the way back in 1984, when the gay men who carried HIV/AIDS lived and died under a tremendous stigma because of that diagnosis.  And she recounted to the Arkansas Times her memory of beginning this work, with one young man whose mother would never visit him, not once:

Her son was a sinner, the (mother) told Burks.  She didn’t know what was wrong with him and didn’t care.  She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned.  She said she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died.

It was a hymn Burks would hear again and again over the next decade: sure judgment and yawning hellfire, abandonment on a platter of scripture.  Burks estimates she worked with more than a thousand people dying of AIDS over the course of the years.  Of those, she said, only a handful of families didn’t turn their backs on their loved ones.  Whether that was because of religious conviction or fear of the virus, Burks still doesn’t know…

“(So) I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath on earth,” she said.  She hasn’t talked much about that day until recently.  People always ask her why she wasn’t afraid.  “I have no idea,” she said.  “The thought of being afraid never occurred to me until after I was already deep into the AIDS crisis.  I just asked God, “If this is what you want me to do, just please don’t let me or my daughter get it.”  And He didn’t.”

Abandonment on a platter of scripture.  And yet, a dying person—hundreds of them, over the years—ends up being ministered to by an angel.  It is, in so very many profound ways, a striking and vivid example of the life we still lead as Jesus did in the wilderness—alone, vulnerable, and weak… waiting, in the face of the devil, for God to arrive to us in the form of divine angels.

This is a no-longer-new sermon series, now that we are six weeks in, and in fact, this will be it—the final week of the series.  Which I suppose is poetically appropriate, as this series has really been about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Five weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we then moved on to Ezekiel in week two before rewinding back to Exodus to discuss Moses in week three.  In week four, we fast forwarded instead of rewinding further, this time all the way into the New Testament with this story about a hitherto unknown paralyzed man named Aeneas, and last week, in week five, we heard from Luke about the 84-year-old prophetess Anna at the dedication of Jesus at the Jerusalem temple.

Now, on week six, the final week of this series, we finally arrive at the story of Jesus Himself, and of the 40 days He spent awaiting God, alone and at risk, deep in the wilderness of Israel.  This is the text that we read every winter for Ash Wednesday, the first day of the church season of Lent, because Lent is meant to be a season of penitence and resistance to temptation—the latter of which Jesus displays at great length in the wilderness.

But that’s for Ash Wednesday.  Today, I want to talk with you about the nature of Jesus’s waiting for not only the arrival of Satan, but the arrival of God’s angels.  It is a waiting that is entirely solitary in nature—or, it would be but for the presence of Satan, compared to which solitude would be downright enviable.

And Satan acts in much the same manner as the parents of these poor persons dying of AIDS back in the 1980s—He ultimately abandons Jesus, presumably leaving Him for dead, but not before tempting Him by distorting different passages of Scripture in an attempt to get Jesus to bend to evil’s will.  That’s what the whole back-and-forth between Jesus and Satan is about: they’re quoting Scripture at each other, Satan included.

The devil knows and can use the Bible.  Perhaps that fact should not so shock and scare us, but it probably does, because we are raised to treat the Bible as *our* inoculation against evil, not the other way around.  And yet, here in this solitude, we hear the Bible quoted to Jesus in the worst way.

That too, is very reminiscent of HIV/AIDS patients—they often hear the Bible quoted at them in the worst ways, to argue that God is punishing them, that God hates them, that God wants them dead.  Think of the people in that era like Anita Bryant and people in our own era like Fred Phelps who have said such things, either explicitly or implicitly, and how many of us followed their leads to no small extent.  For that wasn’t misinterpretation of Scripture that came out of Satan’s mouth, it was (is) misinterpretation of Scripture that has come out of *our* mouths, from our lips and tongues.

And that affects the way another person waits for God’s arrival in their lives, it really does.  Instead of waiting for God with a sense of hope—as Jesus does, as Anna did, we can cause people to await God with a sense of dread, guilt, or even fear.  Put simply—this isn’t just a question of how long one waits for God and God’s word in their lives; it is also a question of what the waiting feels like.

So, what has your waiting on God’s word been like in your life?  What has it felt like, what have you experienced?  And, in turn, what have you caused others who were or are likewise waiting for God to feel or to experience?  How have you strengthened their time in the wilderness?  Or, how have you made it harder for them?

In truth, I suspect, it is always both.  Sometimes we are strengthening others in their journeys through the wilderness, other times we are weakening them.  But when we are faced with which way to choose—the way of strength or the way of weakening—I would be remiss if I did not remark on what has just happened south of us on I-5 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Because in truth, what took place in Roseburg is what we have done to HIV/AIDS patients, what we have done to Syrian refugees, or to the victims of the genocides in Rwanda or Sudan over the past twenty-some years: we have in no small sense abandoned them after saying “We will pray for you,” or, “Never again,” and then it does happen again, despite our prayers, and we still do nothing to try to prevent such atrocities in the future.  We abandon them to the wilderness where they have been confronted by the devil, in human form, and await God’s angels to minister to them, but in sadness and in truth, that ministration does not occur in some of these cases until death.

So how much longer will we consign our fellow mortals to the wilderness, bereft and cast off of any pretense of care or protection from their neighbors who profess to care and love and pray for them?  How much longer will we make them wait?  How much longer until the next mass shooting act of terrorism?

How much longer, O Lord?  How much longer must we wait?  And how must we wait?  Must we wait in weakness and starvation, in exposure and vulnerability, or can we at long last empower and be empowered to await in strength?

The notion of this entire series is that we wait according to God’s timetable, not ours.  But God’s timetable does not negate human action.  Every single person we have talked about here, except maybe Aeneas (and even then, his healing had a profound effect on his entire town), pushed for God’s will and presence in their communities as a direct result of having heard the word of God.

Are we prepared to be as they were now, to the people of Roseburg, to the people of Newtown, to the people of Charleston?

Are we prepared to not just wait on God’s timetable, but to act to press forward on it as well?

My fervent hope and prayer is that we always shall.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 4, 2015

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