St. Paul’s Congregational Church, March 1, 2020
Lent 1A– Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the Glen Ridge Church there’s a stained glass window that tells the story of the Phoenix, a legendary bird from an ancient Egyptian myth – the bird literally makes an offering of itself: it carefully builds a nest, settles down in it, and bursts into flame. From the ashes left there emerges a magnificent reborn bird, so beautiful that it has been dedicated to the sun in all its glory. Somehow the bird knows it must die to create a new one in its place – it burns until nothing is left of it but ashes. The phoenix is one of the church’s symbols of resurrection – and I’m thinking it’s also a symbol of the journey of Lent – beginning with the observance of Ash Wednesday this week.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy is dark – it reminds us of our humble beginnings and of our common end of life on earth and it asks that we bring to God all those things that hold us back from being all we have been created, called, led to be – if we take this ritual of confession, repentance, ashes seriously, it just might allow us to burn away those things that prevent us from feeling God’s love and from being who we were created to be. Ash Wednesday calls us into Lent to stop and really look at ourselves: how we treat each other, how we care for the earth, how praise and give thanksgiving to our God.
What better imagery is there than the burning of those hurts we bear against one another, the anger we allow to simmer, the rumors we allow to go round and round, the finger pointing and shaming that we participate in, the inability to love ourselves and each other, the inability to forgive each other and ourselves. We so often hold onto these things, we get stuck - and I wonder sometimes if these ways of thinking, of behaving, don’t become too familiar in an otherwise chaotic world. And I wonder if maybe we hold on to them because we’re a little frightened of letting them go. What will fill the hole that’s left?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s the overwhelming grace and joy and peace of God’s love for us. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll come to believe the extraordinary good news of what this season is really about: Christ is with us – now and always.
So we begin our journey through Lent. Out of those ashes comes new life. We are called to face that darkness within – to sit with it a while – in order to really understand in our heads and our hearts what Easter is all about. The somberness, the sorrow of Lent leading up to Good Friday doesn’t make any sense without Easter. And Easter doesn’t make any sense without Lent, our time of preparation, of repentance.
For those who grew up Roman Catholic or the Episcopal church, the Lutheran church or other “high church” traditions, the imposition of ashes is a familiar tradition. But for some of us, it’s new – it wasn’t so long ago that I attended my first Ash Wednesday service – at St. John the Divine in New York. It was profoundly moving, even though I couldn’t bring myself to receive ashes then – but since then, when I let myself be touched with the image of the ashes themselves, and actually receive them, I found myself entering the mystery of Ash Wednesday in a new way.
Ashes – what picture, what image do they bring to your mind? When I was a child, my father was chief of the local volunteer fire department for many years. I vividly remember going with him one summer day to see what was left of a house that had burned to the ground the night before. A heavy smell of smoke hung in the humid air. There were piles of blackened wood, almost unidentifiable remnants of possessions, terrible images of a lifetime of building a home – gone - a devastation almost indescribable.
Then I had another image of ashes – I remembered a visit to Coventry Cathedral in England many years ago – in the midst of the city of Coventry stands the shell of the beautiful, magnificent original 14th century cathedral. It was reduced to ruins during one air raid during the night in November of 1940. The cathedral was destroyed, not by high explosives, but by fire bombs: the outer walls and the tower and spire remained intact, while the wooden roof, the heavy oak ceiling, the pews, the floor, and the screen were completely destroyed.
Two precious relics that grew out of this terrible destruction. A few days after the bombing, two irregular pieces of the oak roof beams – charred but still solid lengths of 12 feet and 8 feet, were tied together by wire and set up at one end of the ruins. This “charred cross of Coventry” was placed behind the stone altar in the sanctuary, directly in front of the original wall where carved were the words, “Father, forgive.” Out of the ash came forgiveness. Out of the ash came new life.
The second relic which became a spark of life is what is called “the cross of nails.” As the roof burned, large 14thcentury hand forged nails which had fastened together the beams littered the floor of the sanctuary. The following morning, someone formed 3 of the nails into a cross – this cross has become the symbol of Coventry Cathedral’s Ministry of International Reconciliation, established to study the meaning of Christian reconciliation in a divided world, and to encourage exchanges of young people of all faiths, of all nationalities, to engage in that study. That work isn’t done yet, is it – our ongoing efforts to find peace and acceptance of the “other” may well be an important third relic of this tragedy. The shell of the cathedral remains in Coventry, next to the very modern rebuilt Cathedral, completed in 1962 – symbols of the hope for reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ in our divided world and society.
Out of the ash comes reconciliation. Out of the ash comes new life. Out of the ash comes a renewed search, a deepened commitment for peace – not just for the embattled world we live in, but for us – a peace that passes all understanding. A peace that comes when we know we are held in the very palms of God’s hands – forever and ever.
That’s message of our journey through Lent, isn’t it – to know that God is always with us – now and forever. Out of the darkness to the everlasting light of God’s love.
Today’s scriptures lead us directly to the question of temptation – certainly something we don’t like much to face, let alone even acknowledge sometimes – in our comfortable lives - but listen for the word of God in these texts and let’s risk moving outside of our comfort zones. And see temptation for what it is.
There are parallels between the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jesus – and parallels to our own stories too.
God had a purpose for the first human beings: to keep the garden of Eden, to name and have dominion over all the rest of God’s creatures. And God empowered them, with the freedom to carry out this purpose - gave them all they needed for that vocation – food for strength and pleasure in their work.
God had a purpose for Jesus too – to save people from their sins – to be Emmanuel – God with us. God empowered Jesus for this vocation – that’s the message of Epiphany: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Adam and Eve and Jesus were set aside by God for a purpose. And they were all empowered for their tasks. And so are we. We too have been set aside to do God’s work as individuals and as church – we too have been empowered for our ministry!
But like Adam and Eve, and like Jesus, we too are all subject to temptation.
For Adam and Eve the temptation was a simple act – eating the forbidden fruit.
Jesus’ temptation was both more subtle and more complex – but it was no less a temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” said the devil, “then act on it. Use your power. Be like God creating bread out of stone. Be like God, orchestrating a miracle by a death-defying jump. Be like God, ruling over the kingdoms of the world.”
To be like God – maybe that’s at the heart of all our temptations as well? To exercise God’s authority by making our own rules or passing our own judgments? To claim God’s wisdom about how our lives, our church, our world ought to be? This story is ours too.
And where there is temptation, there is always a tempter. For Adam and Eve it was the snake – a creature of God. Our tempter often takes the form of a creature of God too – perhaps a voice within ourselves, maybe another person, pressuring us to give in, luring us with dreams and promises we find hard to resist. And sometimes the tempter is the way of the culture – I’ve worked hard for everything I have – why can’t other people do the same? Or, all churches are declining, we’re no different – it’s the way things are. We’re all too familiar with the ways of the world and the temptations they bring, aren’t we. And we’re also all too familiar with the way we are likely to respond. However we experience temptation, whatever name we give to it, the power of evil, the power of sin and death – it is real. Terribly real.
Two temptations in our passages. Two tempters. But the outcome of each was dramatically different, wasn’t it.
Adam and Eve gave in. They ate the forbidden fruit – trusted the tempters word, rejected God’s word.
But Jesus resisted – he countered face to face every word of the tempter with the word of God. He accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed on him – to be God with us Jesus had to be human before God.
Jesus’ victory over temptation gives us hope that we too can resist. Because even though he was Son of God, he was no different in this respect than we are. Temptation was as strong, as real for him, as for any human being. And his power to resist was no greater than ours. But Jesus’ example shows us the power of God’s word. Jesus’ example shows us that we too have that power at our disposal. Adam and Eve had it too – but their downfall was trusting the tempter more than God.
But we must rely – and really only can rely – on the truth, the grace, the faithfulness of the word of God – no matter what in our experience causes us to doubt it. Our task for Lent is to concentrate on recognizing our need to rely solely on God. We like Jesus have a God-given purpose for our lives. St. Paul’s church, like Jesus, has a God given purpose. We, like Jesus, are to place our wholehearted trust in God’s word. We, like Jesus are to worship and serve God alone.
One of the most insidious characteristics of temptation is that it’s often difficult to recognize it for what it is. All of the devil’s temptations to Jesus seem helpful, reasonable: eat because you’re hungry. Maybe our temptation happens more easily when we get tired, discouraged, overwhelmed - when the loud voice of the world drowns out the still, small voice within each of us – when we choose, and we do choose, to get caught up in the prevailing winds of the day. Or we just plain forget or ignore those teachings that most of us know so well from our Sunday School days. Or we live through events that test our faith and lure us away from God and have us serve evil instead – often when we are not even aware of it!
Lent says to us, pay attention to your life. Don’t get carried away by the evil, by the distractions that exist in our daily lives. Get back to the basics. What distractions of the world have taken us over? There are so many!
Lent shows us there is hope in all of this though: no, we can’t undo the past or go back to the past, no matter how much we want to, no matter how hard we try. Lent is the time to open ourselves to a fresh new sense of our purpose, to rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday, to overcome the temptations we all face, and to look ahead into the future lying ahead, knowing that God is with us now and always. Let’s walk together on this journey - we’re empowered too! It’s not always easy – far from it – but we have the promise of God with us always! And on this first Sunday of Lent, it’s especially fitting that we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion where we will receive all the strength and courage and hope that we need on our journey. Out of the ashes and in spite of those human temptations we all have, we can grow new life – we need each other to support each other - let’s journey through Lent together – remember who we are and whose we are. That will sustain us today and all the days to come. So may it be. Amen.