First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019
Epistle Lesson: Romans 10:8b-13
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Gospel Lesson: Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
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, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Some twenty years ago, when my Daddy asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said, “Stories. I want you to write down some of your stories.” That year when I unwrapped my present, it was a three-ring binder with four typed stories in it. Now, my Daddy had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from the age of 29, and by the time I made this request his hands were severely crippled. So this gift was precious to me not only because of the stories but because I knew how hard it had been for him to type them. I want to share one of them with you:
Daddy was a quiet man. He did not talk much around the house about his life or his daily experience or his memories. I was 40 and Daddy was nearly 70 when he wrote this story for me. So that last line—“I know that it was God’s Hand (capital G, capital H) that saved us”—was like shining a light on my whole experience of him growing up. My Daddy was one of the most optimistic, confident, invincible men I ever met—sometimes too optimistic for his own or anyone else’s good! But even though he lived the majority of his life under the crippling burden of RA, there was nothing he thought he couldn’t do. He went about his life with the kind of assurance few people carry. And when I read that last line of this story—“I know that it was God’s Hand that saved us.”—I suddenly understood that childhood experience at Thornburg Shoals was one of the formative stories of his childhood. The confidence that God’s Hand was with him and upon him and underneath him to bear him up through anything would permeate the rest of his life. God’s power to save was a real, lived knowledge that was written deep in his heart. And I wonder if it was a story that he turned to again and again throughout his life.
Where do you turn when all hell breaks loose? How do you cope when the devil breaks in and starts whispering in your ear? Where do you find refuge when the sky begins to fall, the earth shakes under your feet, and the flood waters rise? When we feel threatened or unsafe, or even when we are merely anxious, faced with a challenge, or placed outside our comfort zone, we tend to take shelter in the things we know best, the things that are most accessible to us because we have turned to them so often. Sometimes they are things that are good for us—the strong shoulder of a friend, for example—but sometimes they are the worst things we can turn to: comfort food or a stiff drink, going on the attack, retreating into defensiveness or self-preservation.
There is a common thread running through all of the Bible lessons in today’s lectionary readings: the importance of writing the words of scripture in our heart and confessing our faith from the heart:
Moses instructs the Israelites to recite the story of God’s salvation when they make their offering of first fruits from the land God gave them:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
The Psalmist declares:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Paul writes to the church in Rome:
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” . . . because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
And Jesus in his wilderness retreat answers each temptation of Satan with the scriptures he has written on his heart:
One does not live by bread alone. . . . Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. . . . Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
In all of these passages, we are taught to go back to the stories of our faith that have formed us, and I gather four important lessons from these passages:
Know your story.
Trust that story.
Share the story.
Return to that story in times of temptation or suffering.
This is exactly what Jesus does when he is faced with temptation and suffering in the wilderness. He goes back to the scripture written in his heart to answer each of Satan’s challenges with the knowledge that God alone is his sustainer, that God alone is worthy of worship, and that God alone is his ultimate reality. God is the measure of our experience, not the other way around. Jesus knows and trusts and shares the story of God’s salvation. And the very act of turning and returning to the story is what gives meaning to his experience in the wilderness when all hell broke loose, when the devil broke in and started whispering in Jesus’ ear.
To know our story in a way that makes it accessible to us when all hell breaks loose is to have more than book knowledge. It means having that deep-in-your-bones kind of knowledge that makes the stories of God’s salvation the template for the rest of our lived experience. There came a time when there was no one left who had experienced the plagues in Egypt, or traveled on dry ground through the walls of the Red sea, or watched them come crashing back down on Pharaoh’s army, or eaten the manna and quail in the wilderness, or seen the face of Moses shining with God’s glory as he came down the mountain. Telling and retelling the story to subsequent generations—like Jesus and his disciples or like my Daddy and you and me—is not only a way of drawing us into the story of God’s salvation and reassuring us that it is our story, too. It is also a way of helping us make sense out of our own lived experience.
How many of us, when we read the Bible, think to ourselves “Could this really have happened?” I know I do. I read stories like the multiplication of loaves and fishes or Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and I think “What really happened? Was it simply that everyone on that hillside began sharing what food they had? Was it a starvation-induced hallucination?” But to read the Bible like that, I think, is to miss the point. Our lived experience is not the standard by which we judge God’s word. Rather, God’s word is the standard by which we judge our lived experience. Our lives do not give meaning to God’s word, but God’s word gives meaning to our lives. That is what it means to have the word on our lips and in our heart. It means having the word so much a part of us that it becomes the lens through which we see and understand our own stories.
I wonder if Daddy recalled his Sunday school lessons as he watched the water come crashing over Thornburg Shoals. I wonder if he remembered “The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” as he stood on the bank holding his little brother’s hand just sure that it was God’s Hand that had saved them. Whether he remembered that particular story or not, what is pretty clear to me is that God’s story is what gave meaning to Daddy’s story. God’s story of salvation with a mighty hand is what helped Daddy understand his and his brother’s story. And it became a lens through which he saw the rest of his life.
In this season of Lent, I hope you will take time to immerse yourself in the stories of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. To tempt—er, help—you, I’ve included a bookmark in today’s bulletin. It contains Thomas Tewell’s list of 50 Bible passages we should all have at our fingertips. Thomas Tewell was pastor of 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in NYC and he created this list as a resource for his own congregation. I encourage you not just to read them. But let them sink into your heart. Let them become the very marrow of your bones. Know them. Trust them. Share them. And when temptation or suffering comes—as it inevitably comes to us all—let them shape your understanding and your response. For we live . . . by every word that comes from God. Thanks be to God.