Monday, February 27, 2023

2.26.23 "The Tempter Came," Sunday Lent 1 - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, AC

 Genesis 3.1-7; Matthew 4.1-11

Important words point us in the right direction …

Words like love, happiness, mystery, hope, purpose, patience, gratitude  … words they are, just words, but they embody a universe of meaning … 

Words to remind us: 

~ who we are.

~ what life requires of us.

~ how we relate to one another, how we get along, how we mend what has been torn, rebuild what has been broken, recover what has been lost … help one another, along the way.

This morning, let’s talk about sin … an important word, a word we should not set aside, a word we need, as we try to understand ourselves … 

We understand “sin” when it comes to the big stories: children tortured … people starving … murder … mayhem … war … evil on an untold scale …

We understand sin at that level, but there’s another level in need of the word - it’s the day-to-day stuff of life that most of us live … 

We are not free of sin; it’s just harder for us to see it in the usual flow of life - someone said to me the other day, “I’m a good person,” and that’s true - I’d say, most of here are “good persons.”

So, it’s harder for us to see what we all know to be true, when the tempter comes our way: in our quiet moments when dark thoughts emerge … moments when we lose our temper, rage silently with jealousy and pride … in our soul a gloom, a billowing storm cloud on the horizon, things we’d rather not see in ourselves … if our neighbors could see within us, they’d pull the curtains and bolt the doors.

Let me pause for a moment … important words can be destroyed by misusing them … 

Take the word patriotism, for example … I’m a patriot, I love America, I love our story - the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all, from sea to shining sea.

But the word patriot has been hijacked and turned into nationalism … no longer “my country ’tis of thee,” but now, “my country right or wrong - love it or leave it” … 

The Proud Boys claim to be patriots, but they’re not … the Oath Keepers claim to be patriots, but they’re wrong … Christian Nationalists claim to be patriots, but they’re on the road to perdition.

Their love for America isn’t big enough; their love for America is too small, crimped, cramped, crabby … their love is not big enough to include every American, but only a few Americans, who look and talk like they do … small love finally proves to be not love at all, but only a lousy counterfeit …

The word “patriotism” has been turned inside out …

This can happen to important words …

The same has happened to the word “sin” … 

In the hands of many preachers and priests, sin has been used to humiliate and hurt … even someone as grand in thought and heart as Jonathan Edwards failed to grasp the glory of God as he lost himself in the sins of the world, eager for the wrath of God … to break the human spirit, shame the soul, frighten the faithful … “sinners in the hands of an angry god.”

Children have gone to bed imagining themselves burning in hell forever! … adults have gone mad with thoughts of eternal destruction!

A friend of mine was so afraid of God when he was a child, he hid under the pews … when it came time for the LORD’s Supper, he put the bread in his pocket, and kept the grape juice in his mouth, spitting it out when he left the church … afraid of “eating and drinking to his own damnation.”

When I was in seminary, I taught an adult Bible class in a nearby church … we studied the Gospel of Mark … I read the commentaries, worked hard to put something together, for the 25 or 30 adults who showed up for Wednesday evening fellowship.

At some point in time, I suggested that “hell” was not co-equal with heaven … heaven is forever, but hell has its limits - because Jesus descended into hell to break down the doors of hate and fear, to establish, even in the far land of hell, the love of God for all God’s creatures, great and small.

A man stood up - he began to explain to me, and to the class, the importance of hell, eternal damnation, punishment forever, fire and brimstone, suffering and sorrow.

He trembled, his face reddened, bits of saliva flecked his lips - I’ve never forgotten his gleeful, beatific, expression, as he made clear - hell is forever … millions of people are going to hell, to suffer in flames, forever … sinners damned to an eternity of torment! 

This man found bizarre spiritual comfort in the suffering of others. Talk about an upside down world.

Dear friends, God’s love will win the day; hell vanquished; heaven victorious … but until the final victory, we live East of Eden.

Sin is real … 

It’s the opposite of love.

~ Love seeks the welfare of the other; sin uses the other for personal gain and wealth.

~ Love puts God in the center; sin puts me in the center.

~ Love pays attention to the world; sin ignores the world, even hates the world.

~ Love crosses boundaries; sin builds walls.

~ Love welcomes diversity; sin can’t stand it.

~ Love sings; sin curses.

~ Love welcomes; sin excludes.

~ Love admits guilt; sin blames the other.

~ Love trusts wisely; sin is full of suspicion.

~ Love grows up; sin remains infantile.

~ Love gives; sin takes.

It’s important to know these things!

My friend, Jill Hunting, sent me a fine article about angry young men who take up a gun and kill …  

The author uses an important word  … narcissism; “Lost Boys,’ - in love with themselves, fixated on their anger, a deep sense of displacement - blame the world, blame women, blame religion, immigrants, anyone, everything, for their sense of failure … they are out for revenge, some even believe they’re doing good - protecting America from bad people.

Narcissism? Sin? The self above all … me first.

The Genesis story has it right: Adam and Eve had everything … except one tree - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - a tree that belongs exclusively to God … only God has the final knowledge, but that was enough to tempt Adam and Eve … the snake in the grass knew it … played havoc with them …  You’ve been cheated by God, says the snake. God is not to be trusted … you’d better take it yourself, take it while you can, then you’ll be just like God.

And they did, as the story goes …  

A story turned on its head, thankfully, turned right-side up, by Jesus in the wilderness … the Tempter

came to him, with subtle ideas, clever suggestions, Take care of yourself Jesus … take the easy road not the hard road … dazzle the crowds, and you’ll have them eating out of your hand … jump off the Temple roof, and angels will come to your aid … bow down to me, and I’ll give you everything …

Jesus reminds the Tempter - love is costly, salvation demands a lot, there is no easy way to life … and if the way of life takes us to a cross, so be it; if it must be done, it will be done. 

Jesus refuses to dazzle the crowds … Jesus refuses to tempt God with foolish, self-serving, behavior … Jesus will not bow down to the instincts of self-preservation … Jesus will give himself away … for the world … which is more than any of us can do, but each of can give ourselves away for that part of the world - that belongs to us … we do this in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

I can’t be Christ, and neither can you; but in our own way, we can be Christlike, at least some of the time.

So it is: I am a sinner, saved by grace …

Sin is real, so is grace.

Sin is huge, grace is larger.

Yes, saved by grace … that means, we’re free … free to be honest, free too say, “I’m a sinner … saved by grace.”

Sin is an important word, and we needn’t be afraid of it. But it must be handled with care.

In Christ, we have the means by which sin is handled … sin doesn’t go away … it won’t go away until our last breath is taken, and our first breath of eternity drawn.

We are, after all, finally and forever, sinners, saved by grace.

Hallelujah and Amen!

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