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The First Sunday in Lent                                                February 14, 2016

This Weekend's Readings (click each reading to view the passage)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11Psalm 91:1-2,9-16Romans 10:8b-13;  Luke 4:1-13
Pr. Steve's Sermon - Focusing on Thankfulness
Pr. Steve's Sermon - Focusing on Thankfulness

Children's Sermon - The Importance of Numbers
Children's Sermon - The Importance of Numbers
Fasting from Indifference - An Article from Time Magazine on Pope Francis

Pr. Christine's Ash Wed Sermon: Rend Your Hearts
Pr. Christine's Ash Wed Sermon: Rend Your Hearts

Ash Wed Choir Anthem: Make Us Turn to You
Ash Wed Choir Anthem: Make Us Turn to You

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Sermon Notes from Pastor Steve...

The season of Lent has always been intended to prepare us for the great celebration of Jesus' Resurrection at Easter. So in a sense, it's always supposed to be a time of joyful expectation. And yet, for many Christians over the centuries, Lent has often been seen as a real "downer" time in the church year! For many, it seems like Lent is a time when we're supposed to act like we enjoy suffering and pain and hardship. After all, some say, Jesus suffered for us, so we should suffer a little, too.
And so suffering, hardship and deprivation have become for many what Lent is all about. The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, which we read on the first Sunday of Lent every year, is also read like this.
We hear about how Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, and yet resisted the devil's temptations to use his power for fame and comfort. And we figure that what made Jesus able to resist temptation was that Jesus was toughened up by his love and appreciation for:
  • Hardship and suffering... (after all, he willingly went into the wilderness where he knew things would be difficult...)
  • Giving things up... (most of us have difficulty giving up one favorite food, but Jesus gave up all food, and it's tough to top that in the "giving things up" department...)
  • Cutting himself off from the world and even other people... (so that somehow, perhaps he could focus on strengthening his willpower...)
Yet none of the versions of the temptation story tell us that Jesus enjoyed suffering, or being hungry, or being alone. None of them report that this is what all of his followers should try to do themselves. And they don't even tell us that Jesus went looking for a fight with the devil - it just ended up happening because the devil figured Jesus was in a particularly weak and vulnerable point in his life.
So what made it possible for Jesus to resist the devil and stay focused on God's will for his life? Was it really the fact that he was fasting and suffering and all alone, or was it something else?
For some reason this year, I noticed that the first reading for today is the same first reading we have on Thanksgiving. It's the commandment in Deuteronomy to remember to give thanks each year at harvest time for the bounty of the land and the fact that you're no longer a slave in Egypt. One of the interesting things about that passage is that the people are to give thanks no matter what - whether the year has been great or whether the year has been lousy. No matter how life is going at the moment, they're called to maintain an attitude of thankfulness for what they have, instead of being angry or upset about what they don't have or think they ought to have.
So that got me to thinking: maybe we've been reading the temptation story all wrong. Maybe we've become so hung up on the suffering and deprivation and loneliness of Jesus, that we think that's what it's all about.
But maybe it was Jesus' constant thankfulness to God that made it possible for him to stay focused on God's will for his life, in spite of the weakness of the moment. That is, instead of seeing pain and suffering as virtues in and of themselves, what if we're supposed to see the triumph of Jesus' thankfulness to God in spite of the hardships? If we did that, then the story might feel more like this:
  • Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. And Jesus is indeed "famished". But Jesus is so filled with thankfulness for all the ways that God has sustained him throughout these 40 days that he can manage a little longer. In a sense, he's thankful for being filled with God's Word and the promise that he's not going to be abandoned, even if he's famished right now...
  • Jesus is tempted to take short cut, and get fame and glory without going to the Cross. But Jesus is already thankful for the honor and glory that God has promised him, so he doesn't need to take the short cut. He's sure of God's promise, even if he can't see it right now...
  • Jesus is tempted to show off, and prove that God loves him. But Jesus feels so thankful for his connection to God and God's love, that he doesn't need to have it proven to him or to anybody else. And so Jesus is secure in God's love, even though he's really hurting right now...
Maybe thankfulness, not suffering, is the key focus of the story. And rather than trying to show off to ourselves or others how much suffering we can take for a short period of time, maybe a better way to prepare for Easter is to imitate Jesus by practicing thankfulness.
Yet practicing thankfulness can be harder than it sounds. It's easy to be thankful when everything is going your way, and life looks sunny. It's a lot harder if we're going through periods of difficulty in our lives, or when the future looks uncertain.
And even though there are plenty of Hallmark cards and sappy memes on Facebook that tell us about the benefits of an "attitude of gratitude", most of the voices in our world want to remind us about all that we lack and really ought to have. Advertisements tell us that we're deprived if we don't have the thing they're selling. Our news feeds tell us about the latest disaster or horror in the world. And politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to get our votes by telling us how angry and upset we ought to be about the way things are in our country right now.
We don't have to go looking for the wilderness to find suffering in Lent. We live in it already. So what can we learn from Jesus' example of thankfulness in the midst of the suffering of the wilderness?
It seems to me that walking with Jesus through these 40 days of Lent isn't so much about looking to imitate Jesus' suffering as it is to imitate Jesus' thankfulness by:
  • Using what we have to do good for somebody else, instead of using our "giving stuff up" exercise in order to serve ourselves - fasting was always supposed to be about sharing with others, not dieting...!
  • Centering more of our prayers on thankfulness, instead of griping to God about what we want - Jesus refused to gripe to God when the devil tempted him, and maybe that was because he was giving thanks all the time; there have been any number of studies that show that folks who practice counting the good things that they experience each day (no matter how small) are dramatically happier and more content in life than those who don't ...
So maybe the point of this story isn't to go out and look for wilderness and suffering, particularly if we find that we're already there. And instead, perhaps the point is to use our wilderness moments to recognize the blessings of God that we so often take for granted. Perhaps the point of the story is to focus not on our suffering, but on the faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever suffering we find ourselves in. And surely, the point of the story is to remind us to follow Jesus in living lives of thankfulness for the hope and promise of new life, no matter what situation we find ourselves in.