March 9, 2014
This past week on Ash Wednesday we begin
the season of Lent. A minister in this pulpit 100 couldn’t imagine speaking a
sentence like that, unless it was to shock the good Congregationalists of Iowa
City. Our ancestors in the faith avoided recognizing even Christmas. Early
Congregationalists developed their own special days of penitence and
thanksgiving, but long continued to ignore the Roman Catholic calendar of holy
days and seasons. It wasn’t until 1918 that the Commission on Evangelism and
Devotional Life of the Congregational Church made an initial, hesitant
acknowledgement of what they called the “Lenten period.” In 1919
Congregationalists went so far as to take what was considered the “rather bold
step” of recognizing Ash Wednesday.
Lent is not deep in our bones as a congregation
or as a denomination—which might be a good thing. It means that we can explore
this season, this “period,” and discover new meanings for these days in which
we prepare to receive the good news of Easter. We can recognize that the six
Sundays of Lent are not really a part of the forty days of Lent. These Sundays—as
all Sundays throughout the year—are “little Easters,” opportunities for us to
celebrate the resurrection.
Sunday is a time for us to remember that
the days between now and Easter are less about sorrow for sin and more about
thanksgiving for God’s grace and mercy. They are less about our failure and
more about God’s faithfulness. And as I suggested on Wednesday, all of these
days of preparation for Easter are times for us to look for the warm,
springtime mercy of God.
And at last the actual weather helps us
with this as well. As the saying goes, “the axial tilt of the earth is the
reason for the season” and with the lengthening of days the temperature begins
to rise and the snow begins to melt. The
name “Lent,” as you probably know comes from the Middle English word—lente, “springtime,” from the Old German
word—lenzin, “spring.” The name of
this season has a connection with the lengthening of days, with the longer time
of sunlight as we move toward spring.
Lent is a time in
which we start looking for signs of spring. And in my sermons in the weeks
ahead I want to look at what we might discover about ourselves and about God in
times of thawing, times of mud, times of shoots, and times of green grass.
But we need to
start with where we have been for the past three months or so: frozen.
This winter we became very familiar with
record-breaking sub-zero cold. More than one person asked, “Why do I live in a
place where the air hurts my face?”
Of course the intense cold also helped
us to appreciate the wisdom that Dante showed in The Inferno in which depicted Satan not surrounded by flames but
instead dwelling in the lowest circle of hell locked in ice—as far as possible
from the light and warmth that is God. Certainly there were days in recent
months when I felt I was getting closer and closer to such a realm.
I was thinking about this as I read over
those lessons from Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew that we heard this
morning—lessons that are often read at the beginning of Lent. And it occurred
to me that these stories suggest the danger of a frozen attitude—locked in
place, unable to move, unable to change.
For forty days in the wilderness Jesus
And then the devil shows up to tempt
Remember who—or what—we’re talking about
The Hebrew word, satan, is not a name but a word that simply means “adversary.”
Throughout the Hebrew Bible the word appears several times, referring to
ordinary human beings. If you had an opponent, you had a satan.
Over time, the word took on the sense of
“one who pleads a case against another person.” In a court, you would be faced
with a satan. You might remember that
the Book of Job begins in the heavenly courts where Satan, the accuser, the adversary has been patrolling the earth,
and brings the case of Job before God.
“Has not Job good reason to be
godfearing?” Satan icily asks God. “Whatever he does you bless…But just stretch
out your hand and touch all he has, and see if he will not curse you to your
Our word “devil” comes from the Greek
word diablos, which means, literally,
a slanderer. For Matthew, the adversary
of the Hebrew Scriptures has become the one who distorts the accusation and
twists the evidence. The one who was seen as opponent of human beings has
become the ultimate adversary, the one opposed even to God.
Set aside both those medieval and those cartoon
images of pitchforks, horns, and pointed tails. The devil is, as William
Barclay put it, the “essence of everything that is against God.”[i] Far
from warmth, far from light, frozen—this is what Jesus is up against in the
At the end of forty days the devil
suggests that Jesus turn a stone into a loaf of bread. He would have something
to eat. And if he kept doing this, he could feed a hungry world.
At the end of forty days the devil
offers Jesus all the power in the world. What better way to help the powerless
and the oppressed?
Both times, Jesus rejects the offer—as
appealing as it might seem. And both times Jesus quotes scripture as a way of
choosing something better.
But it’s the offer in the middle that
struck me as I read this story this year. Here the devil quotes scripture:
Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple, for “God will command the
angels concerning you, to protect you”…“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The devil is using words
from Psalm 91.
What interests me is the way in which
the devil uses scripture. When appealing to compassion or the desire for power
doesn’t work, use scripture. When all else fails, pull out your Bible.
The devil quotes scripture to persuade.
He uses it to push for a specific course of action. He uses it to press his own
The troubling fact is that the devil
quotes scripture for the same reason so many people do today: to push, to
press, to force consent and action. Like so many others, the devil quotes
scripture for his own purposes.
Still today there are many who fall into
this tempting way of using scripture acting as though only one interpretation
of ancient words is possible.
Still today there are many who fall into
this temptation of seeking to control the lives of others by making them
conform to one
There is a frozen quality in the devil’s
thinking and speaking. It possesses a kind of certainty—a rigid assurance that
there is only one way to view reality, only one possible outcome for any
Throw yourself off the pinnacle and the
angels will take care of you.
Eat the fruit and you will be like God.
Well, maybe. But out of God’s warm mercy
we can imagine other possibilities as well.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of
“unintended consequences”—pointing out that even our best actions can have
A small, wintry example:
For years our little parking lot was
plagued by the freezing ground pushing the pavement up and creating an uneven
and unsafe entryway into the church. Well, last summer we did something about
that. You’ll remember that we dug up the parking area and filled it with some
new material and made a little slope to help keep moisture away from the
building—I was on sabbatical and missed that excitement. The result was that
through all the cold and ice of this winter the pavement has been smooth and
people are able to come and go without the danger of tripping. Along with many
others, I am grateful to the Trustees for working out this solution and taking
the needed action.
But even some Trustees have recognized
that when the snow melts and the water then refreezes, the sidewalk on
Jefferson Street is icier than in previous winters. Unintended consequences.
Solutions to problems often give us new
problems to address. We do not need to despair over this or hesitate to take
needed actions because of what might happen. We can instead see that this is
the human condition. We count the cost. We prepare for the worst and work
toward the best.
If we use Lent as a time to move into
the warm springtime mercy of God, we might recognize the ways in which our own
thinking, our own actions, our own lives are frozen in place, in need of God’s
warmth and light.
One of the gifts of Congregationalism is its emphasis on individual
responsibility before God. At our best, we’re not going to let some snake—or
anyone else—tell us what to do. We recognize that in joining this congregation,
each one of us covenants to live in certain ways toward God and
neighbor—“walking in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to
us” is how we put it here. We recognize that the life of faith will be
different for each one of us. We recognize that we will discover new ways as we
Another small example.
Last Tuesday evening as a board meeting was concluding, we were talking
informally about the pancake dinner coming up the next evening. A newer member
asked: “Do we always have pancakes here on Ash Wednesday?
A few of us looked at each other, trying to figure out how to respond
to this and a wise, long-time member said, “There’s no ‘always’ here.”
It’s an “unfrozen” attitude toward the life of faith and, really, an
“unfrozen” attitude toward life. We are able to allow for differences between
us and among us. We are able to see new possibilities rather than constantly
hold to how it’s been done.
The warm, merciful God gently calls us
away from all that is cold and frozen.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark,