A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Sunday, February 14, 2016, the First Sunday in Lent. Principal reading Luke 4:1-13
After his baptism in the River Jordan, where Jesus is identified as the Son of God by a voice from above, descending like a dove, he is led by the Spirit into the desert to fast and to pray. Scripture clearly tells us what his physical state was at the end of forty days. He was famished. He was weak – he was hungry, his very skin was probably painful with sores and blisters. Scripture tells us that he fasted for 40 days and nights. Forty is biblical speak for a good long time – Noah built an ark at God’s instruction in anticipation of 40 days and nights of rain. Moses fasted alone in the presence of the Lord for 40 days on top of Mt Sinai as he wrote the ten commandments, after escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years as they struggled to be faithful. Forty is a number well rooted in Israel’s history – a significant number that would have great meaning for those hearing Luke’s gospel.
Then we are told the tempter or Satan appears and puts Jesus’ faith to the test. So just like their ancestors in the faith, Jesus’ faith will be tested, will he be able to endure? First Satan tempts him with something very simple – food! He knows this is God’s Son – we can probably imagine his question to Jesus with a sneer, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ He is famished, he could turn stones to bread and feed himself. It doesn’t seem like a horrible thing – he is famished after all and it wouldn’t hurt anyone. But no, Jesus quotes scripture, Deuteronomy, to Satan telling him that man does not live by bread alone but by the word of God. Satan’s attempt to get Jesus to use his power for himself rather than to rely on God to provide for his needs fails.
Satan tries again by attempting to seduce Jesus into using his power to have control over all earthly kingdoms. This seems like a good thing – Jesus could bring about God’s agenda in quick order! All Jesus needs to do in order for this to happen is to bow down and worship Satan rather than God. Jesus is not deceived reminding Satan that Scripture tells us to “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Not a quitter, Satan takes another tack, he appeals to his need for safety and security and this time Satan quotes scripture but Jesus refuses to use his power in this way. Jesus recalls scripture that reminds us to trust God completely and not put God to the test.
Finally Satan retreats to a more opportune time. Jesus has endured this time of trial by complete and utter trust in God and God’s saving grace. Jesus is God’s Son and still went through a time of temptation. All these tests put to him by Satan are certainly within Jesus’ power and yet Jesus knows why he is on earth and will not lose sight of what God is calling him to do.
We are entering the time of year that the church refers to as ‘lent’. Lent is not in the Bible so how did we come to this place where Christians all over the world in practically every denomination practice what we call lent for forty days before Easter? Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that many years after Jesus did not come back, the people of the early Christian church lost their devotion and zeal. They decided there was no contradiction between being Christian and being comfortable and soon the world could not tell them apart from the rest of the population. “They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They blended in. They decided to be nice instead of holy.” (Home by another Way).
By the fourth century, the church had instituted a period of lent taking the term from the German word for spring, the lengthening of days. At first this period was required only of new converts as they prepared for baptism on Easter morning. But then the whole church joined in as a practice of setting time aside for reflection and repentance. In the congregational way, our puritan ancestors knew nothing of lent and indeed, it is only in the last 100 years that we have reclaimed what was previously only practiced by our brothers and sisters in other denominations. This period of lent is meant to be a time to grow closer to God; a time to reflect on our world and what it might mean to rely solely on God rather than on self and self interests. To consider why God has put us here and what it is God is calling us to do.
Often you hear of people giving things up for lent – sometimes food or drink or TV – at its worst this is merely a way to restart new year’s resolutions but at its best, it is a way to help us see that we do not need all that we have come to hold dearly and that we can be blessed by God’s grace alone. Another Lenten practice is to read and reflect on scripture on a consistent basis or to spend dedicated time contemplating our own inner feelings about ourselves, our families, our world and our God. How do we spend our time? How do we spend our money? What is God calling us to do as individuals, families, and church? Are we doing that or are we so preoccupied with self-interests and the interests of our families that we have little time left for God?
Give up TV one night a week or going out to a movie or out to dinner. As a family use that time – make supper together, read a scripture passage and talk about it and pray together. Look at your priorities and if you have children, help them look at their priorities and discuss what activities are God affirming and which ones are for self-interests.
As we contemplate what separates us from God and what draws us closer to God, we are in fact ‘feasting’ on God’s love and grace and mercy for us. God created us with a purpose, have you found that purpose? Take this time during lent to examine again what God has in mind for your life making sure that you are still on course. Or look at your life for the first time asking the Lord what your life’s purpose is. This purpose may change and so we need to stop and take assessment at times and lent provides us the opportunity to do just that.
Some of you may be thinking ‘OK I can do this for forty days’ and then you’re looking at your calendars saying, ‘hey, wait a minute!’ There’s more than forty days until Easter! Sundays are excluded as they are ‘Feast’ days – the day celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Feast days celebrated God’s presence in our lives. Days of lent can be feast days as well. God loves you. Embrace that love. Trust in that love. Respond to that love. Remove things in your life that tend to separate you from that love. Make time for yourself alone with God and allow God to renew your soul.
Here in North Yarmouth, I suggest we use this time for getting to know each other better and for discerning who we are – let’s take these 40 days and use it to come closer to God by becoming closer to each other. Each week, I will schedule an hour or so where small groups of us can get together for conversation. The days and times will vary so that hopefully all might be able to participate. Coming together in Christian love and fellowship, we will listen to each other’s stories.
Let us join together in Christian love and really get to know each other and our dreams and wonderings for this church and God’s world. Go back to the source of all dreaming and wondering and feast on God’s love – God’s dream for you, your family, your church, your world – is an amazing gift. God is always with you – rely on that – trust in God’s love always – feast on God during lent – you will not be disappointed!