Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

Drafting Sermons and trusting the Spirit

The second draft of my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent is below. It’s been a difficult sermon. I felt there was something for my congregation and I in the Exodus traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel of Luke plainly draws upon these as it retells the story of Jesus temptations in the wilderness.

I had a hard time clarifying just what that connection is.

I will have about 10 – 15 minutes to talk with people. I need to be aware of their hurts and hopes. I need to respond to their reactions; especially as I encourage feedback and questions during the sermon. I need to steer us away from the inherited traditions which invite us to ‘put ourselves down’ in unhealthy ways, while challenging us to be sober in our judgment about where we are going as a congregation.

If you read on, you will see a huge change between the two drafts. For a while I was tempted to give up on the whole thing; it gets depressing when you spend hours and get nowhere! Trusting my instinct seems to have borne some fruit.  I have clarified what I want to say, so things are much more focused.

The second semon draft for Luke 4:1-13, Lent 1

Numbers 20:1-13
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.
2 Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. 3The people quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had died when our kindred died before the LORD! 4Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? 5Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.’ 6Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. 7The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
9 So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. 10Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ 11Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 12But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’ 13These are the waters of Meribah,* where the people of Israel quarrelled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness.

Gospel:  Luke 4:1-13
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.” ’

5 Then 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.” ’

9 Then 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.

I've been reading the old stories of the Exodus and thinking about this notion of  putting God to the test. It seems to mean forcing God’s hand.  It seems to mean not waiting for God to act, but pushing God into it.  We heard how  Moses went  to God, and said, “You have to help me.”  The story is told a number of times, and each time, as it says in Psalm 106, "They angered the LORD  at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account.

The same thing happened to all the people, not just Moses.

“None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs I did in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors." (Numbers 14:22) None of them got to see the Promised Land, says the story.

"How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" (14:11)

Now we need to be careful here.  Lots of the Old Testament stories have ideas about God which the stories of Jesus show were not accurate. God is not the capricious, vengeful God that is sometimes shown in the Old Testament.

And a wider view of the Old Testament’s wisdom, especially the Psalms, indicates it’s not complaining that is a problem. It’s not like the people of Israel were saying, “God, this is hard, how long will it go on? Help us keep going.”

Even though everyone had enough manna to eat, even though they had Ark of the Lord with them, and the pillar of cloud or fire, they still complained. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

There is a very different quality of complaint when we talk about testing God. It is a mistrust of God. It is an implication that what God has given is not good enough. My friend Janet reckons test God says "the grass is always greener elsewhere."

So we come to Jesus temptations in the wilderness, which are in today’s gospel reading.

It’s clear Luke is using the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the wilderness.  We’re meant to remember those stories. When Jesus says do not put the Lord your God to the test, it’s these stories he’s thinking of.

We know about the dangers of craving after bread, of looking for salvation in material things. We do not live by bread alone.

We know about not putting things before God; worship the Lord your God and serve only him.  We try and resist those temptations, even though we know we are imperfect at it.

But what is testing God… this thing Jesus is so adamant that we should avoid?

What is this thing that the Israelites had such a horror about?  And what does it mean in our time, hear in Australia?

Let me parody what we might hear in a sermon somewhere:

Trust God! Jump off the temple! He’ll save you!
Have faith! Pray for healing! Show your trust in God, and come to the front for prayer. It will happen.
Believe God will make us grow! Do the Lord’s work, and his blessings will follow!. Begin the building project without the money...  Have faith! Step out in faith and the blessings of the Lord will follow you. You will be rewarded.

Now we might associate that kind of language with other churches we know, and be scornful.  But let’s be careful.  Let’s ask what’s going on when people use that language?

I had to struggle with this as a young minister.  I always felt like I was not dynamic enough.  I always felt like I wasn’t really proclaiming the gospel with enough confidence. People wanted to be encouraged, and lifted up, and made to feel safe. They wanted to feel like back in the glory days when there were four hundred kids in the Sunday School, and everyone believed in God, and the world was a safe place.

So the great temptation was to give in to them. The temptation was that I should use more pious language, and sound more holy.  I should talk about the promises, and the faithfulness of God… so I sounded like the Pentecostal pastor down the street. And then we could all relax because God was still with us.

The problem is that whatever it was like when the great Baptist and Methodist preachers thundered from our grandparents’ pulpits, the world is different now.

God is working in different ways. In this congregation, God has helped us assist refugee families one or two at a time.  God has helped us be a place for children to grow up; some are still here, and some are not.

It does not seem to have been very spectacular. We are a tiny group of people…. rather ordinary really!

Yet could we deny the presence of God? People have come from Sudan as refugees, and are successfully making a life for themselves here!  Their faith and courage has been an inspiration to us.  Joyce and Margaret and Katrina have helped a succession of little kids learn how to live in Australia.  We’ve helped and encouraged people get into good schools, and into University. Each Friday there is bread for people; real solid bread. And for some people, Friday is church. They come, not just to buy from the Op Shop, but to be with friends for a little while.  And on Sunday there is friendship… tentative, imperfect, a bit muddied around by our personal struggles… but it’s there.

God has been faithful!  Seeking to live how Jesus lives, we have made a huge difference in each other’s lives. Look at the friendships some of us have with each other… friendships that are decades long.  Is that not of God?!

For all our faults, this church has been like a little bubble of the Promised Land pushing in our world.  Even if we shut down tomorrow, what has been done here is good, and lasting, and significant, and Godly.

There’s plenty we could complain about. Lots of things have not turned out the way we hoped or planned.  Some of you know that much better than I do; you’ve been here a lot longer, and given a huge amount of yourselves. But God has been faithful.

---

It’s Lent.  Even though we are not having an organised Lenten program, the readings for Lent will be reflective.  We will be paying attention to our journey. We will be asking how faithful we are being.

After reading about Jesus temptations today, I want to say, “Keep the faith. Remember what God has done among us.  Keep the faith. Keep on loving and caring. Don’t put God to the test. Be real about who we are, and our small size, and our ordinary church. Let’s not fancy it up with pious language and extravagant claims. Let’s just do what we can, and be who we are, and love each other. And love the people who come to us. And then we will find that little bubble of Promised Land grows around us.” Amen


The first semon draft for Luke 4:1-13, Lent 1 which I won't preach.

Hebrew Scripture: Numbers 14:20-24

Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked; 21nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— 22none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. 24But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.

Gospel:  Luke 4:1-13

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.” ’

5 Then 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.” ’

9 Then 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.

Remember how Prime Minister John Howard was a cricket tragic? Because of that enthusiasm, Cricket Australia recently nominated him for the International Cricket Council. There was an outcry.” Cricket Australia's decision to nominate John Howard as its candidate for the top job at the International Cricket Council is as pitiful as it is disrespectful,” thundered Peter Roebuck. John Howard is not qualified. “Cant’ bat, can’t bowl,” some would say.

What if they’d nominated Alan Border?  Captain Courageous, who renewed the team.  Huge run scorer with 11,174 test runs, and 39 test wickets!  Now there’s a man qualified for the job. He’s got the credentials.

We  can read the first three chapters of Luke as establishing Jesus’ credentials. Then we get the final example of his credentials for Messiah, in today’s reading, just before his public ministry begins.

Jesus does not wander forty years in the wilderness as a punishment for his disobedience, (Numbers 14:30) before finally reaching the Jordan. Jesus begins in the waters of the Jordan ,and is then sent into the wilderness to be tested by God.  He passes with flying colours. He is the Man.

You could make bread! says the devil.    Man does not live by bread alone, says Jesus.

You can be like God, if you worship me.    No, worship only the Lord your God, says Jesus.

If you are the Son of God... comes the temptation.     No, go only where God calls you, says Jesus. Ironically, people will later call out, “If you are the King of Israel, save yourself.”(23:37)

---

So is this just historical interest stuff? Does it have anything to do with how we live our lives today?

Well, if Jesus is worthy to be the Messiah- if he has the credentials- are we worthy to be his disciples? Or will someone say of us, if we nominate ourselves as Christian, that the nomination is “is as pitiful as it is disrespectful?”  When we are in the wilderness of life, how will we bear up?

Jesus said we do not live by bread alone. In our society, the Tempter says, we need more and more... and more bread. Don’t trust God. Get more bread. We even use the word ‘bread’ as slang for money.

In the wilderness, bread (manna) came down from heaven for the people. Take only what you need, said Moses. Complaining Israel tried to hoard.  The left over manna bred worms and became foul. Even with enough food the people still complained, and when God sent them more quail than they could eat, many people died. They called that place Kibroth-hattaavah which means the graves of craving. (Numbers 11:33) The craving for more has to be resisted if we are to be a worthy disciple.

Somehow, I don’t think the Tempter will offer me control of the world! That might be reserved for Barak Obama, or maybe Bill Gates. And maybe that makes it all the worse when I trade serving God for control of the Fellowship crockery cupboard...  or if I bad-mouth someone to make sure I get elected to a Synod committee.

We trade such little things to trade for life in the Promised Land!

---

There’s a sense in which both the first two temptations are an invitation not to trust God.
Don’t trust God- save yourself by getting more money, more bread!
Don’t trust God to ensure the work of the Kingdom-  take control yourself. Get the power to do it properly!

At first glance, the third temptation is to trust God!

Trust God! Jump off the temple! He’ll save you!
Have faith! Pray for healing!
Believe God will make us grow! Do the Lord’s work, and his blessings will follow!
Show you trust in God, and come to the front for prayer.
Begin the building project without the money...

And perhaps imperceptibly... perhaps not even realizing it...
we drift into the horror of cheap grace and shallow miracles.
And one day find that not only do we not have the money for the building project...
but we are spiritually bankrupt as well.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, said Jesus.  Putting God to the test is the great temptation for the church of our age! Yetit was judged the worst sin of the people in the wilderness.

None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs I did in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors. (Numbers 14:22)

None of them got to see the Promised Land, says the story.

Think about what Promised Land means for us. Wouldn’t reaching the Promised Land have something to do with leaving here feeling like Greenacres was doing good...
feeling like it had a future and was a healing place, and a safe place, which we were leaving with great regret.

And more personally, at the end of life, wouldn’t we want to look back and feel this was all worth it? And feel what we had been and done was not turning foul, and to worms in our mouth?

If we don’t trust in God, but save ourselves by getting more and more bread..
if we don’t trust in God, but grab the power for ourselves, and don’t’ serve...
if we don’t trust in God, and go down the easy path of cheap grace and shallow, made up miracles...

then the Promised Land will be dust and ashes in our mouth. We will not see it. We will be living somewhere else.

Trust God by doing the hard yards, and not trying to manipulate God into cheap miracles.
Trust God and worship God.
Resist the  temptations and go on totrust God by living like Jesus did, and being compassionate.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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