March 9, 2014


Matthew 4:1-11


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 fasts.

And then the devil shows up to tempt him.

Remember who—or what—we’re talking about here.

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 face.”

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 wilderness.

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 agenda.

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 action.

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 negative effects.

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 walk together.

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.

[i] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, pg. 12-14.