St. Luke 4:1-13
You shall make this response before the Lord your God: ďA wandering Aramean was my ancestorĒ
What do you do with your bad memories?
What do you do with the times that you have suffered and struggled and failed?
What do you do with those moments when friends turned their back on you and you found yourself ďdown to rock bottom, againĒ?
What do you do when you realize Ė in all of the pushing and shoving of life and all of the ways in which we make our compromises to get by - that you donít even know who you are anymore?
Modern wisdom would tell you, in the words of the old Eagles song: ďGet over it, get over itĒ. And there are times when we need to get over the momentary anger or hurt, but the reality of who we have been and what we have been through, I am not so sure we ever want to get over.
All of this comes to mind as we enter this season of Lent, Lent tell us not to get over the things of our past, but to embrace them, to weave the failures and the pain and the embarrassments and the rejections into the narrative of your life, our life together and to gain strength from the memories.
Take a look a the people of Israel in the morning lesson, they were on the brink of the Promised Land, they were anticipating their entry into the Promised Land, they were excited about the great things that lay ahead of them in the Promised Land.
And Moses was worried.
Moses, at the age of 120, knew that his time was coming to a close.
However, Moses was worried, not about his own place Ė he had already been told by God that he would not be the one who led the people of God into the Promised Land and that was OK, because he had come to peace with his sins and successes, he knew who he was Ė but he was worried that they would forget who they were, he was worried that they would, in the coming days of prosperity, forget their identity as a people dependant, not on their own wisdom or strength or wealth, but a people dependant upon God and God alone.
John Denver had a song, it was one that I listened to a lot about 11 or 12 years ago, it was a song about the price of fame, the price of success by the worldís standards:
Now the face that I see in my mirror, More and more is a stranger to me
More and more I can see there's a danger
In becoming what I never thought I'd be
Thatís what happens to us when we forget who we are, thatís what happens to us when, in our prosperity, we start to confuse making a living with living and we start to become what we never thought we would be, what we never wanted to be.
I am not talking about change here, change happens, life moves forward and the world changes us, stresses change us, circumstances change us, but when we start to see a stranger in the mirror, there is a danger.
I spoke a few weeks ago about the sinner I encounter in my bathroom mirror every morning and every night, and how uncomfortable that encounter can be.
But when Iíve seen a stranger there, thatís far more than just uncomfortable, thatís life in the wilderness, life where the dangers and temptations life.
I donít know if you saw Tiger Woods on Friday and I donít know what you thought of it, but I Ė as one who deals in the reality of sin and repentance and forgiveness and restoration Ė turned off the TV and I prayed for him.
You see I donít believe that God calls us to cynicism, I believe that God calls us to accept the sincerity of words that are spoken and then to watch the lives that are lived to see if the words become flesh.
And my hope and prayer for Tiger is that he doesnít ever forget what he has done, the pain that he has caused and felt, the humiliation that he has endured. Itís the same reason that I donít want to forget my own sins, my own wilderness times, I want Moses to keep reminding me to remember who Iíve been, who we have been.
Most of us have never had the temptations that are thrown at athletes and celebrities, and for that we can be grateful, but all of us have had moments when we could have sinned and caused great damage, and we didnít . . . or we did and we got through it, we found forgiveness.
Whatever the wilderness was for you, remember it, learn from it. Our hard times, our scars, our failures are the evidences of Godís love in our life, not that he gave them to us, but that he healed us from them. Donít forget your scars, for if you do you will never appreciate your joys.
Look, here is human nature, as Moses understood it: everyone with even a smidge of faith turns to God when we are thrown into the depths of despair, but for too many of us, when things are going well, God is just a hobby, worship is just an option, when it is convenient.
And the only way to avoid that trap, that sinful neglect of God in our good times, is by following Mosesí advice, by remembering our times in the wilderness, our times when temptations almost won, our times when sin abounded, our times when we almost were lost, our times of humility and humiliation.
ďA wandering Aramean was my ancestorĒ
They needed to remember who they were, they needed to remember that their freedom from Egypt, their journey in the wilderness, and their milk and honey were all gifts from God.
We cried to the Lord . . . the Lord heard . . . the Lord brought us out of Egypt . . . he gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Thatís what their history was and if you donít remember your history the same way, if you donít recognize all of the times and ways that God guided you and protected you and sustained you then you need to revisit your story.
Life is difficult enough when we are aware of Godís presence and grateful for Godís love, it is impossible when we start thinking that we are God, when we think that our opinions and our desires and our fears and our prejudices are the realities, then we succumb to the temptations that Jesus overcame.
How are you going to live your life?
That was at the heart of Christís temptations, wasnít it?
Will you focus on material things, and try to change the circumstances of life? Or will you focus on people, changing the ways in which we respond to circumstances? Jesus says that bribing people with bread is not Godís way and it wonít be his way, and it should never be our way. One of the great sins of American Christianity today is an obsession with giving people what they want in order to attract them and keep them, rather than giving God what he requires from us: Do Justice, Love Kindness and Walk Humbly with God.
And the second temptation was to compromise on what we worship, to kneel at the altar of patriotism or ethnic identity or job demands and Jesus says there is no compromise: God is God and no one and nothing can stand in that place. It doesnít mean you canít be a good citizen, or celebrate your family heritage or work hard and well at your job, it means that you canít worship those things, you canít give Godís stuff to them.
And the third temptation was to do the spectacular for the sake of impressing people. Jump off the building, Jesus, let everyone see Godís angels swoop in and save you and then you will be a celebrity, you can talk with Oprah and the world will be yours. People will use words like awesome and fantastic and stupendous and extraordinary to describe you. And Jesus said, ďnope, thatís not how weíre going to play this.Ē
And he chose a road that would alienate his supporters, create a rift between him and his siblings, drive one of his closest followers to betray him and a great friend to deny he even knew him, and unite the Jewish and Roman leaders in a plot to kill him.
And in all of that he remained faithful, the same temptations that he faced in the wilderness would be faced during that week that we have come to know as ďholy weekĒ.
Jesus never forgot who he was, he never forgot the teaching of Moses: ďA wandering Aramean was my ancestorĒ
You see, that reminder of our identity is what gets us through so many of the temptations that we face, itís why you hear me speak of being from Pompton Lakes so often. If you have been there you know that itís not a real impressive place and thatís the point. I know where Iím from, I know that Iím the son of an immigrant, I know Iím a state college graduate, I know that none of those things are impressive and that all of those things have shaped my world and my faith and defined how I live in this place, my Promised Land of Clover Hill.
You see, in the Deuteronomy story the people are still in the wilderness when Moses tells them how to behave once they hit the Promised Land, the place where he will no longer be with them.
And he says remember who you are, remember the wilderness and then gather your first fruits, take your 10% off the top and turn it over to Godís work, not reluctantly, but with a strong sense of who you and your ancestors have been, who you and your generation have become and who you and your children will be. You turn it over to Godís work with joy and celebration.
And then you go home and you gather your family, and you include those who have less and those who are outsiders, and you celebrate: you eat and laugh and drink and sing and dance, you live and you love.
They were still in the wilderness and yet they anticipated the end of the story, they anticipated Godís blessings in ways that they had never seen, but had been promised.
Iíve often spoken about the weakness of a faith that depends upon pie in the sky bye and bye, the weakness of saying ďdonít worry things will be better in the next worldĒ, for I know how greatly God has blessed us and joined and called us to service in this world.
But I donít ever want that focus on Godís love today to hide the fact that the best experience that you and I ever have in this world will not even be close to as good as the worst experience you and I will ever have in the next world.
Thatís what we are preparing for, a quality of life that exceeds all that we can describe or imagine. Thatís how the story ends, not with an occupied cross but with an empty tomb.
Knowing that, we are free to live, we are free to love and laugh and be filled with joy, to wear smiles rather than ashes, not because of anything that we have done but because of everything that God has done and will do.
The story ends well, the good guy wins and we all win with him.
So celebrate that throughout this Lenten season and let your hearts seek out opportunities of joy each day and you will have a happy Lent!
You shall make this response before the Lord your God: ďA wandering Aramean was my ancestorĒ
To God alone be the Glory, today and forever. Amen
Clover Hill Reformed Church
February 21, 2010