The Prodigal Who?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Read the whole passage)

We are four Sundays into the season of Lent, and the journey to so far has been a challenging one. We came down the mountain of Transfiguration to find our selves in the valley of ash. We then followed Jesus into the wilderness of temptation, and then to Jerusalem to lament over God’s people. Last week the crowds asked big questions about suffering and who is to blame and Jesus answered with the curious parable of the fig tree where the gardener advocated for the tree, “give it another year.”

Today Jesus continues to talk to the crowds of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and tax collectors. And the parable that he tells is one of the most iconic of scripture – The Prodigal Son.

The story of the son who spend his inheritance on dissolute living only to return home, hat in hand, is one that still carries some cultural memory. You can still hear the occasional tv show or movie throw out the label ‘prodigal son’ in reference to someone who returns home from an ill-spent time away, usually involving drugs, alcohol, crime and/or jail time.

The image of the prodigal son holds a certain place in our minds and in our larger culture that pushes us to understand this parable in ways that might not be the ones intended by Jesus as he told it.

In a facebook group of mostly Lutheran pastors that I am a part of, someone admitted that they had grown up being taught that “prodigal” meant “naughty.” And many more pastors admitted to the same thing. And while I won’t ask you to raise your hands, I am sure many of us grew up with a similar understanding of the term prodigal.

Of course, prodigal doesn’t mean naughty. It means lavish or abundant or extravagant or wasteful even. But even still the fact that we label the son as prodigal speaks to a common understanding that has been attached to this parable over generations.

The usual understanding of this parable goes that the son who asks his father for his inheritance and goes off to spend it on a good time in a far away place has committed some terrible, near unforgivable sin. After realizing the error of his ways, he returns to his home to be surprisingly welcomed by his father.

Yet, it is actually not totally clear what his great sin is. Is it asking for his inheritance prematurely? Is it leaving his family duties behind for another life? Is it the dissolute living that he engages in in a far away land? Or is the most Protestant and capitalist of sins, not putting a substantial sum of money to a profitable use?

The term prodigal might best apply to the last one, yet Jesus was not the one who named the parable. Rather English speakers did about 1500 years after the Gospel of Luke was put to paper.

In fact, only when the title is put aside, we are finally able to shed some new light on this story.

The parable begins not with the son, but with a man who has two sons. The younger of which asks for his inheritance… yet, this is was no simple a matter for the people of Israel. Inheritance wasn’t just a convenient equal split as it often is for us. In the ancient world, the eldest son received a double portion of inheritance. In this case, the elder son would received two thirds of his father’s wealth. The younger would received one third. But this did not include the land, as the land was understood to belong not just to one man but to the whole family or tribe of the landowner. The land was meant to provide for all those who lived on it, not just for the landowner. The elder son would not just inherit the wealth of his father, but also his obligation to manage and care for the land, the family, and the servants who worked the land.

The younger son would become the right hand to his older brother, the first of his brother’s servants.

And so when the younger son asks his father for his inheritance it is more than just asking for some party funds. And his inheritance is much less than we imagine to be. What this younger son is really asking for is a different life. He is wanting to do something else than be the first servant of his grumpy older brother.

Often when we tell this story, we imagine some great change in the younger son, someone who learns the error of his ways. Yet, as a new life in a foreign land doesn’t materialize, the younger son finds a job as a hired hand. Quickly, realizing that if this is to be his lot in life, he might as well do it with family than with strangers. And so he goes home, not as a changed man, but back to the destiny that was always his to begin with. To be a servant in his father’s household.

And despite his father running to meet him on the road, it is this understanding of himself that the the younger son says his las words in the story,

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

And then there is the often forgotten older son… the son who is grumpy about life in general. Who despite inheriting a double portion of his father’s wealth, is mostly inheriting duty, obligation and responsibility. The responsibility to managing wealth and land not for his benefit, but in order to provide and care for an entire community.

Perhaps he too feels trapped in a destiny that he may not want. And just like the younger son who begins and ends the parable in the same place, the older son begins bitter about his lot in life and finishes bitter, angry at his father’s generosity towards his younger brother.

In fact, understanding these brothers in this way begs us to ask, who, in fact, is the prodigal one? Who is the one who wastes something?

And again, there is a problem with the familiar title of the parable.

Despite the Prodigal Son’s relatively recent English name, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have called it by a different name for much longer…

‘The Parable of the Loving Father’

Our first clue as to who this parable might be about came in the very first words:

There was a man.

It is usually the case that the first person mentioned in a parable is who the parable is about.

There was a man who had two sons.

And it is the Father whose story just might be the most significant.

As the younger son comes looking for a new life, the Father gives his son the opportunity to make a new life.

And when the younger son returns home, the Father runs out to meet his son, to welcome him home with open arms.

Then when he Father throws a party for his lost son, the Father also goes out to find his elder son, and to welcome him to the party.

And as the older son complains that his Father never provided anything for his enjoyment, the Father reminds his older son that all that the Father has is also his son’s.

While the two sons are stuck inside themselves, stuck only seeing the burdens they may carry and the things they might miss out on… the Father continually seeks them out in order to love them, in order to remind them that they are more than they imagine, that they are the beloved children of their father, they belong to their Father’s family and community, and they forever bound to one another as siblings.

It may be true that the younger son is prodigal, lavish or wasteful with money. And it maybe true that the elder son is abounding in bitterness and resentment.

But perhaps it is the Loving Father who is truly the prodigal one. The Father who is lavish and extravagant in his love and welcome, who is willing to risk wasting everything that he has so that his children will know his love, who is willing to seek out and find his lost sons regardless of of the cost.

Of course, this parable is about the Loving and Prodigal Father who seeks his lost children.

And of course this parable is a reminder of just how God is with us.

Each and every time we come home to God’s house, God runs to meet us in the waters of baptism, and lavishly reminds us of God’s mercy and grace given in the Word, and God welcomes us again and again to the table, again and again to the feast of heaven. The feast of heaven where our bitterness and shame, our burdens and loss are left behind so that we can reminded again of who we are.

That we are God’s beloved children that God will spare no cost to find.

An important reminder as we journey towards the end of Lent, and towards the heart of human messiness on Good Friday… That there is no place and no thing that can keep God from loving us, not even the cross.

And The Loving and Prodigal Father is the one running to meet us on morning of the third day.

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Saving the Fig tree and Saving Us

Luke 13:1-9

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?…

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

Sermon

Our Lenten journey arrives at the halfway point today… and along with Jesus we have been wandering the wilderness. From the desert wilderness of temptation to the center of human chaos in Jerusalem. Jesus lamented over God’s people bustling and scurrying about. But now the questions begin coming, the obliviousness of the crowds is fading, the un-veneered truth is breaking through the humdrum of human busy-ness. Today, the questions are big and the answers are vague… yet amidst all that, Jesus reveals again something about ourselves and about God.

Now, before going any further, there is something about biblical wilderness that you ought to know. Normally, we see wilderness as the place of danger and peril, the place of exile and isolation. Wilderness found in the bible is something else, something holy and sacramental almost. In the familiar stories of faith, wilderness is the place of prophets and messiahs. Abraham is sent away from his homeland into the wilderness with only Sarah and God at his side. Moses escapes the dangers of Egypt only to be found by the burning bush in the wilderness. Elijah escapes occupied Jerusalem to be provided for by God in the wilderness. The Israelites leave slavery to return to the God of their ancestors in the wilderness.

In the bible, to enter into true wilderness is to leave the chaos of human life behind for a time, to be brought closer to God’s presence. And so our Lenten wilderness is exactly that, not a time of danger or worry, but a moment to come closer to God.

But along side our Lenten wilderness journey is something different. There is also the reality and harshness of creation. The crowds comes today to Jesus with their questions about the world, questions about cruelty and suffering, about sin and death. And their questions are our questions. They ask Jesus about the worshippers, Galilean pilgrims, that Pilate had murdered while they worshipped in the temple. They want to know who is to blame, if the pilgrims had somehow brought the violence on themselves.

This of course is a familiar notion these days as the entire world continues to reel from the murder of 50 worshippers into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are some out there that have asked if they two somehow brought this violence on themselves. But most, like those who came to Jesus are simply wondering why?

So Jesus brings up another tragedy in the recent memory of the people of Jerusalem, a construction project gone wrong, a tower collapsing and falling on 18 workers. Jesus asks rhetorically if these are also to blame for the calamity that befell them.

And again, we are reminded of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the 157 people who died in that disaster. Were the pilots to blame or the aircraft builders. Again the question is why? Followed by, can this arbitrary violence and suffering come to us?

In both cases Jesus condemns the idea that somehow the victims are to blame. And today, he would do the same.

And then he tells a somewhat curious parable. One about a fig tree that had not born any fruit, for 3 years… And the landowner was ready to give up on it. Yet the gardener asks for one more year. Curious indeed.

These are complicated questions for this 3rd Sunday in Lent. Complicated questions that have something to say about our world in the midst of our questions and grieving. Questions about the things that we have no answers ourselves for. Why do we suffer? Why is violence so arbitrary? Why is hatred so seemingly common place?

On some level we know that we contribute to the problem. We know that, indeed, our sinful and selfish tendencies as human beings bear some of the blame. Whether it is someone falling into a rabbit hole of twisted ideology and othering that results in a heinous act of terrorism, or the obvious corruption and self interest of so many in power who simply wring their hands and offer thoughts and prayers as the solution to the problems of terror and violence. And then we also know that even in small ways we daily put ourselves ahead of others… we know that we are found somewhere in this mess.

But Jesus isn’t just rejecting the idea that the victim is to blame… Jesus is redirecting the focus of the crowds who have come with their questions. Jesus is pointing to the big picture.

The parable of the fig tree is a reminder that the big picture matters.

The landowner comes to his unproductive fig tree with all our questions, all our assumptions. Why hasn’t the tree produced? What is wrong with the tree? What has the tree done or failed to do?

The gardener sees the big picture… the gardener knows its about so much more than the tree.

The soil, the water, the shade, the root system, the weather, the pruning, the fertilizer and so on and on.

“Give it another year” He says

And all of sudden suffering and violence and sin and death are pushed aside. And there is grace and mercy and reprieve.

“Give it another year.”

And a global community gathers around families and communities torn by tragedy. Investigations begin up provide answers, and questions about plane safety are asked.

And high school students in New Zealand stand together and perform the Maori Hakas to honour the dead and to show resolve and strength. Biker gangs stand watch outside mosques so that prayers can be offered up in safety. And laws are introduced so future violent acts can be limited before they ever begin.

“Give it another year.”

You see, there is always more to the story, more to know and understand. And the big picture, the big picture is where grace and mercy come. The big picture is God’s surrounding our mess and chaos with love and compassion.

The big picture is the reminder that the gardener knows how to to turn suffering and violence and sin and death away. The gardener knows how to grow new and unexpected life. The gardener is knows that new life will always surprise and always come when we don’t expect it to.

The gardener knows what we do not… that repentance and transformation always begin from God’s end, from God working our soil, watering us in baptism, shading us in the word, feeding us to produce good fruit with bread and wine.

“Give it another year.” Jesus says about us.

The gardener is the Christ who sees what comes after failure and axes and death.

The Gardener is the Christ who knows that there will be new life and an empty tomb.

That tragedy and violence might shake us, that sin and death are always around in the messiness of human existence is certain.

But that God in Christ is also with us, walking along side us.

Despite all the things that push us to death and threaten to destroy, God in Christ has the final say. Christ is the one who defines us, who names and claims us, who declares that sin and death will not be our end.

It is the Christ who hears the questions about murdered worshippers and those who have died in tragic accidents who also is the one who goes to Good Friday and Golgatha — to cross and grave.

And it is this Christ who will not let us be ended by the harshness of our existence, who instead will walk with us from wilderness into our messy existence.

It is the Christ who shows up at falling towers and crashing planes,

The Christ who stands vigil and watch with grieving families in Galilee and Christchurch.

It is the Christ who walks out of the tomb and who declares,

“You have been given another year.”

Amen.

A Lament for Jerusalem, a Lament for Addis Ababa, Christchurch and the Red River

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus,] “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

The Lenten wilderness is real today. A couple of weeks ago on the mountain of Transfiguration and then out in the wilderness of temptation, there was an abstract sense to things… not quite connected to our experience. But today the wilderness is very real and familiar. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the holy city… but not in the royal courtyards or temple. He is in amongst the crowds, on the streets, in the centre of human activity. He is where humanity is, where we are. And it is indeed in the middle of humanity’s messiness and chaotic existence, where true wilderness is found.

The thing that we were reminded of this week is that Lent is by no means just a spiritual exercise divorced from the rest of the life. Just when we are close to forgetting how real this struggle of wilderness is, the world brings us back to harsh reminders. This week, we received harsh reminder after harsh reminder.

Another plane crash, another tragedy measured in numbers that we cannot imagine. This is what wilderness is.

Another terrorist attack on mosques, shock and grief and the feeling helplessness. This is what wilderness feels like.

Another report reminding us just how much society failed a young woman missing and murdered in our community. This is the wilderness where we live.

Today, Jesus has moved from mountain to desert to city street. He has come to Jerusalem, the holy city of Israel. We can imagine the scene. Jesus makes his way down a crowded street, bustling with marketplace activity. People jostling and bumping him, as if he isn’t even there. There are beggars on one side, vendors and hawkers on the other. People are bartering and milling about. Some clump together on street corners to listen to religious zealots, while other groups stand together talking and gossiping. As Jesus wanders invisible, a group of Pharisees finally notice and call out to him. “Go away or you’ll be killed” they warn or threaten… it is difficult to know which.

Jesus retorts back telling the Pharisees to run back to Herod the Fox and tell him that Jesus is not afraid.

As Jesus this scene around him, the bustling and oblivious crowd, it can be hard to believe that all of this began as a promise made between God and Abram who became Abraham. As Abraham complained to God that he had no heirs, no offspring, God made a promise: That Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. A promise made out in the same desert that Jesus has just wandered, has now become the chaotic family turned nation centred together in Jerusalem. And this chaotic group in the centre of human activity, human chaos and messiness, the centre of sin and death… they don’t even notice as the very same God who made that covenant with Abram and Sarai, who walked with their ancestors in the desert is now standing in their midst, Word made flesh, Messiah come to save.

And so Jesus laments… Jesus laments for God’s people. Just as God looked up into the starry night sky with Abram and imagined descendants for Abram… Jesus looks around Jerusalem with the same tender compassion and care. Jesus wants to gather these lost and desperate masses together, just like mother hen gathering her chicks.

And yet, God’s people are unwilling. Unwilling to be gathered, unwilling even to see. To see the Word made flesh walking among them.

Unwillingness is central to the human condition, it is central to how we are in the world. Its is perhaps our most powerful tool and trait. Even cats and foxes, dogs, horses and cows can show great unwillingness. Unwillingness to be moved, unwillingness to obey, unwillingness to be distracted. And with all creation, humanity is the best at saying no, the best at choosing ourselves first. The unwillingness of creation towards God is powerful. We are unwilling to have a God other than ourselves, and therefore unwilling to be loved by the true creator of the universe. As God moves to love us, to be close to us, we push back, we say no, we want to be our own God, we want to be in control.

Unwillingness overtakes us in so many forms. Today, the people of Jerusalem are unwilling. They are unwilling to be see God present before them, to see God casting out demons and performing cures in their midst, just as Jesus says. And their unwillingness will eventually lead them to nail Jesus to the cross.

For us, unwillingness my strike us in different ways. Perhaps it is unwillingness to set aside our rage or grief or distraction. Or maybe our unwillingness to care just a little more for those around us. Perhaps it is the unwillingness to be comforted or consoled, to be vulnerable to a community but instead to choose hatred and violence, to place skin colour above human kinship. Perhaps it is unwillingness to see possibilities and hope for the future, but instead only see with fear a future of loss and destruction.

And our unwillingness, either individual or collective, leads us always to wilderness. Always to the harshest realities, that we are imperfect and flawed people, that our unwillingness leads to death.

158 in Addis Ababa, 50 in Christchurch, 1 in the Red River.

And it is for this unwillingness that Jesus laments. Jesus laments over Jerusalem and he sees see where their unwillingness will lead them. It won’t be long until the people of the holy city are getting ready to lay down their coats and palm branches on the highway. They will shout “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”, the blessing shouted for David and Solomon and for every king of Israel. As Jesus rides in on a donkey, being expected as King, the people want a conqueror. They want the Romans ousted and they want to be powerful as they once were. But the shouts of “Blessed is He” will turn to shouts of “crucify him”.

Jesus knows how the unwillingness of humanity will respond to God. Jesus knows that it won’t be until the third day that people might begin to see, and even then it will not come easily to us. And even with this knowledge that our unwillingness will torture and execute God like a criminal, Jesus longs to gather us in, to gather all people in as mother hen gathers in her chicks. Even as a mother hen protects her children in the face of the fox.

Jesus laments over Jerusalem, longing to protect her from harm, to protect us from ourselves. Jesus laments in Addis Ababa, in Christchurch and on the banks of the Red River. And even there, even in the midst of the harshest examples of human unwillingness. God is gathering us up. Gathering us beneath his wings to protect us with tender care, to love us away from sin and death.

And even as our unwillingness will lead Jesus to the cross,

nailing his hands and feet

with the final blows of our rejection of God.

It will be beneath these outstretched arms,

beneath these the wings of Christ that we are gathered.

Gathered as one creation,

gathered as God’s unwilling children.

And beneath this cross, God begins the work of three days.

The work that is completed, that is revealed to the world on that easter morning.

Yes, today Jesus laments our unwillingness, but today God also gathers and protects us.

Today, in the quietness of Lent, in the middle of bustling and obvious human wilderness, God is gathering. God is gathering us into Christ. Gathering us to be protected from the power of sin and death, the power of our own unwillingness. And while soon we will chant, “Blessed is he who comes…” and then “crucify him”, God will be quietly covering us with his love. Quietly working in the world to bring life from death, quietly reminding us what is truly important despite our unwillingness. Jesus the mother hen stands in front of the fox today, stands in front of death, in order that as God’s little chicks we might know what it is to be beneath God’s open arms, beneath the cross of Christ.


Image source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-the-hen

It is Not Jesus’ Temptation but ours

GOSPEL: Luke 4:1-13

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” (Read the whole passage)

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, today we enter into the wilderness. The hot, dry, windy, sun soaked wilderness of Lent.

Last week we were on top of the mountain with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured and was greeted by Moses and Elijah. We were awed as God spoke, declaring who Jesus is, the Chosen one. And then we confused as Jesus headed down the mountain.

Yet by Wednesday, we were down into the valley. The valley of the shadow of death. The valley of ashes, the valley of nothingness. Our brows were marked with ashes and we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return.

And today we have been cast into the wilderness with Jesus. Cast into the place of testing and temptation, far away from the comforts daily life.

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we journey into the wilderness with Jesus. We hear how Jesus is tempted by the Devil. Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell the story a little differently, but the purpose is the same. This is the place where our Lenten journeys begins. In the wilderness, on the road to Jerusalem and Good Friday. We are being made ready for a transformed life in Christ. But this is only the beginning.

We stand by while Jesus and the devil interact. We watch as Jesus is offered things that the devil hopes will divert Jesus from his mission. We hear Jesus respond with steadfast faith as he quotes scripture in order to hold back the Devil and his attempts to siphon off a little bit of Jesus’ will power.

This familiar story of Jesus life is often upheld as a formula for Christian living. Jesus is an example to us of how to resist those worldly and devilish temptations to satisfy ourselves, to obtain power, to take the easy way out. This story seems like a guide for us. If tempted with food, quote passage A. If tempted with land and power, quote passage B.

But this is no manual on avoiding temptation, and Jesus is not some moral paragon demonstrating the right techniques.

In fact, as we hear this familiar story today there is a strange tension about these temptations. They are things that have caused all the prophets who have come before to fall:

Moses who committed murder,

Elijah who stuck his neck out and then last all hope,

And Abaraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

And King David and Solomon…

even God’s chosen prophets, especially God’s chosen prophets and kings fell for one reason or another.

And yet, Jesus is different. It isn’t that Jesus has some kind of super human will power, it is that these temptations for Jesus, the son of God, the prophet of the most high God, are not really temptations at all.

The Devil has forgotten or doesn’t really understand just who he is speaking with.

God has just declared Jesus to God’s chosen, God’s son. The Devil thinks he is just dealing with another prophet perhaps, he does not understand that this Prophet is not just who speaks with God’s voice, but is the very Word of God made flesh.

The devil is trying to sell power that the devil does not have to give and Jesus knows it. The devil is really doing something that we do on a regular basis. The devil is trying to act as God, trying to be God in God’s place. To control and handle God. To make his will, God’s will.

The devil asks God to bend to creaturely demands, to the whims and desires of the finite and created. The devil’s temptations are not offers of power, but demands that God act according to his desire. And just like the devil, the sinful self, the original sinner part of us wants that too.

In fact, if we are honest… those temptations that the devil offers aren’t really temptations to us either. If we could command the angels, we would! It would be a virtue, we would feel like superheroes. And power… we well know that the pursuit of power in this world is constant, it is the game of the rich and the powerful, but also ours too. And stones into bread, the most seductive temptation of them all, the temptation to survive at all costs, to put ourself first above all others… this is often touted as one of the most important virtues of all.

And so there is tension in the temptations, between how we would hear them and how Jesus does.

There in the hot, dry, sandy landscape of the wilderness. There standing beside a tired, hungry, thirsty, chapped lip, windblown, dusty Jesus stumbling through the sand, the Devil offers bread. The devil offers rocks as bread to the creator of the universe. To the same God who spoke all of creation into being from nothing by saying, “Let there be”… and it was so.

The Devil says, if you are God, turn this rock into bread and Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone”. God in Christ reminds the devil that nothing has come into existence apart from the Word of God, the Word that is standing there in the flesh.

And then from the hot, dry desert, to the top of world, the devil offers Jesus power over all the nations if would only bow down to chaos and confusion personified. The devil offers earthly power to the God of all creation, the same God who has just been born in a manger as powerless baby, who has come to live in the created world, to play in the mud and sleep over at the neighbour’s house, to stub his toes and hug his parents, to go to weddings and learn the torah in the temple as a teenager.

The Devil says worship me, and Jesus says “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”. God in Christ reminds the devil that being God is not about power, but rather about giving power up in order to love and to love deeply. That being worshiped is not about being on top, but worship is about serving one another.

And then from the top of the world to the temple of Jerusalem. The devil ask Jesus to prove who is. The devil asks Yahweh Elohim, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph. The God of Moses and Elijah. The devil asks this God to prove who he is on top of his own house, on top of the place that God’s chosen people come to worship the one true God.

The Devil says throw yourself from this temple, and Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. God in Christ reminds the devil that there is no need to prove who he is, that this is not about people choosing to believe in God, but about God choosing to love us, about God giving Godself to the creation that has come into being in the Word.

____________________________________________

This story is not about how good Jesus is at resisting temptation. Rather its about Jesus telling the devil and telling us who God is. And telling us who God thinks we are.

This is not Jesus’ own private wilderness. It is is our wilderness, our temptation, our darkness. Jesus has not come to prove that he can make it without giving into temptation, Jesus has come to show us that the God of the Universe, the God of creation. To show us that God has come into the world to be with us, to go with us into our wilderness.

We live in the wilderness of Lent, the wilderness of temptation grasping for material things, for power and for worship. We live in the wilderness trying our best to be like Jesus, but failing at every turn. And yet, we also live as an Easter people, people who are loved and forgiven by God. We live in a world where death has been over come by resurrection and new life. We live each day in both Lent and Easter, both wilderness and mercy. God reminds us each day that we are Baptized sinners, clean sinners, loved sinners.

And it is into this world, this wilderness, that the creator of Universe, that the God of all meets us. The God we fail to recognize, the God who shares in our joys and sorrows, who goes with us, even when would rather do other things. This God sets out with us, on our Lenten journey today, knowing that we will forget who Jesus really is, but never forgetting who we are.

Nothing but Ashes

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Return to the Lord, your God,

for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

and relents from punishing. (Read the whole passage)

Tonight we stand at the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley and our perspective has changed. Just a few days ago on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus stood between Moses and Elijah as Peter, James and John looked on. And there, Peter wanted to set up shop up on the mountain. You see, the perspective from the mountain top makes everything look great. The world below looks idyllic, like a perfect paradise in every direction. Yet, the story ends as Jesus sets off down the mountain with his disciples in tow.

And now that we are down from the mountain, and the idyllic view of the world is no more. Up close, down in the valley things are less paradise and more real, more authentic. There is no veneer, there is no benefit of distance, there are no flaws that can be glossed over. In the valley, there is brutal honesty.

Jesus didn’t take us up the mountain to be dazzled and amazed. Jesus took us up so that we can witness the prophet of the most high named by God and then sent to God’s people. Sent down to the valley of humanity and death. Down to us.

And down in the valley, down with humanity, the truth is revealed. We are revealed for what we are.

And down in the valley, our worst fears are confirmed. All that we thought about ourselves, all that we thought we could accomplish, all that we thought had meaning, all that we thought was significant is not what we thought at all.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we aren’t just sinners needing forgiveness.

We aren’t just the suffering needing consolation

We aren’t just dying needing good news.

We aren’t just the dead needing new life.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we are nothing. Just like the ash that will mark our brows

We are nothing.

Sin and death turns our lives, our beings, our selves into nothing.

All our living and our doing and our being will mean nothing once we are dead and gone.

This is what this valley of Ashes reveals:

A process that we have no control over, no power to stop.

And so just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction and desolation, faced being blotted out from the earth by conquering armies… they gathered together in worship, gathered around the only real and honest thing they knew.

We too gather around the ashes, gather around prayer and the Word of God.

We gather before the One who brought us down from the mountain.

Before the One who stands beside us in the valley of Ash.

Before the One whose cross gives shape to the nothingness that will mark us.

And we confess and repent and pray and hope that this One will do the thing that we cannot do.

That this holy One of God, this prophet of the most high, this Messiah sent to save…

We hope that this One will turn our nothing into something.

And just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction…

They were met by the One who is gracious and merciful,

The One who is slow to Anger.

The One who is abounding in steadfast love.

And this One did what they could not.

This One turned their nothingness into something. Their ash into a cross. Their death into life.

And this One who met the people of Israel comes also to meet us.

This Christ comes down the mountain and finds us in our valley of Ashes,

and reminds us that this cross stamped on our forehead was first stamped in baptism.

This Christ comes down the mountain and gathers here with us, here in this moment of brutal honesty, this moment of our final hope in the face of destruction.

And this Christ declares that our nothingness is not the end.

The Christ declares that our death is not the end.

This Christ declares that our sin is not the end.

This Christ declares that our suffering is not the end.

This Christ declares that we are not the end.

This Christ declares that God IS our end

And our life

And our hope

And our meaning

And that this Ash that marks our brows, that the flaws and imperfections and humanity that mark our being… they are no longer signs of our ending, but signs that we are not alone, signs that we are loved, that we are beloved of God.

This Christ reminds us that our creation began in the very dust and ash we are smeared with. And that out of the dust and ash, out of the mud and the dirt God formed and shaped nothing into something, God formed and shaped the Adam, the dirt creature, the muddling, the first of creation. And then God reformed the Christ out of the dust and dirt of grave, into a new creation.

And that Remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return is not just to reminder that in our humanity we shall all die and turn to nothing…

but that returning to dust we will return to the God of life.

Carrying our burdens up the mountain of Transfiguration

GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray….35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we come to the end of an unusually long season after Epiphany… Nearly two months ago, a lifetime ago, we gathered with the wisemen around the Christ-child to worship this new king sent to save the people. And in the weeks that followed, the divine Christ was revealed to us in different ways, each time pushing us, making us ready for today. For this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration… because on the mountaintop our Epiphany lingering, our time of sitting with Jesus as he is revealed to us in new ways, will come to an end. On this mountain, Jesus charts a course that puts him on a collision course with our efforts to be like God, to be in control of our own fate.

Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge Sunday, a Sunday that swings us from one part of the story into the next. From the dark of Christmas night, into the bright noonday desert sun of Lent. Transfiguration is that moment where the bright lights are too much to take in and our eyes need some time to adjust.

Things begin innocuously enough down in the valley, where Jesus decides to bring a select few with him to climb a mountain. Peter, James and John… oh, and the rest of us… are chosen to follow Jesus up the mountain. If you have ever had the chance to climb a mountain, you will know that it is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is mostly staring at the ground and the feet of the person in front of you as you tiredly trudge uphill. Once in a while there is a stop or pause to admire a view, but then more trudging.

So after Jesus, Peter, James and John have trudged up their mountain, the disciples are understandably tired, sleepy even. And in their tired and sleepy state all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah appear. The two greatest prophets of Israel. And they standing next to Jesus… but not normal Jesus. Jesus in dazzling white, looking suitably prophet-esque himself.

Now before unpacking what happens next, it is important to know about all the clues we missed up until this point. The religious practice of Israel of the day was centred around the Jerusalem temple and laws of Leviticus. Making sacrifices in the temple and keeping the laws to maintain one’s purity and righteousness was how you stayed in God’s good books. The burden of righteousness of salvation rested on the shoulders of people. And the Jerusalem temple and its priests were the chief judges and gatekeepers of righteousness, making sure that only those who could keep the law and make sacrifices were given righteous status.

But before the levitical laws and Jerusalem temple, there were the prophets of Israel. Messengers appointed by and speaking on behalf of God who brought God’s righteousness and mercy and compassion to God’s people. These prophets were the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But chiefly Moses and Elijah. And these prophets represented God away from the temple, and apart from the following the law. They often came preaching from the wilderness, they met God on holy mountains, they brought the very voice of God to God’s people.

So as Jesus and his disciples trudge up this mountain, the clues are there. Jesus is not aligning himself with the centre of religious authority, with the temple and its laws. But rather with the prophets of old, those appointed directly by God to represent God to the people.

And there on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus receives his prophetic appointment, just as Moses and Elijah did. Confirmation that God was sending Jesus, the Messiah, to bring God’s righteousness, God’s love and mercy to God’s people.

And even in this moment Peter cannot escape the burden of keeping the law, the sense that he must do that work of saving himself.

“It is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wants to preserve this holy moment and make it a holy place, a place where the faithful can go to earn their righteousness. Peter just cannot imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t include his responsibility to earn his salvation.

And we get it.

We totally get the feeling of this burden.

Even as good Lutherans who know that we cannot earn our own salvation, but rather it is given as gift by grace through faith… We too still act as if the burden of faithfulness is ours.

Our world, and often the church too, conditions us to think that it is our good actions, our gifts of generosity, our ability to be moral and of good character, our prayers and worship, our biblical literacy and theological understanding are the things make us faithful. We fret over our families and communities when they start to show a waning interest in church, will they still be saved? We fear God’s punishment when the pews seem a little emptier than they used to and the budget a littler tighter than we like. We wonder how we have failed God when it is clear that world simply doesn’t care about what Christianity has to say anymore. And we often lap up the advice of experts and gurus of church mission and growth who promise to give us the secrets of successful faithfulness for just a small speakers fee.

So yeah, we totally get Peter’s feeling of being burdened. We would almost certainly want to do the same thing if we were standing on that mountain, we would try to capture the moment for a deposit in our faithfulness bank account.

Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans for righteousness earning,

God interrupts.

Just as God spoke in Jesus’ Baptism, just as God spoke over the waters of creation, God speaks again.

“This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!”

And what is that Jesus has said?

Well, he has NOT told his disciples and the crowds that earning their righteousness comes through keeping the law and making sacrifice at the temple.

In fact, the last time that Jesus said anything before going up this mountain was to predict his death. That he will suffer, be rejected and be killed. And on the third day be raised again.

Jesus has just told his confused disciples that he is coming to meet God’s people, to meet them in the midst of their suffering and rejection. And to die just as they die. Jesus has just told his disciples that he has come to bridge the distance between God and creation, and has come to carry their burdens.

Jesus has come to carry their burden of righteousness earning to the cross.

Jesus has come to carry our burden of faithfulness to the grave.

Jesus has come to carry the burdens of God’s people so that we don’t have to.

This Messiah born in the manger, baptized in the Jordan, who turned water into wine in Cana, who filled the fishing nets on the lake, who preached on the plain… this Jesus, transfigured Prophet of the most high God does not stay on the mountain for an important reason.

God’s prophets are not sent to go up mountains

They are sent to go down.

To bring God down to God’s people.

Jesus the Messiah is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John… and the rest of us… so that we can know that it is not our burden to earn our righteousness, it is not our burden to be faithful… but that God has come to be our righteousness and our faithfulness for us.

God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens… even if we are trying to be faithful all on our own.

God comes down to meet us every time we gather as community, no matter how many of us there are.

God comes down to us whether we are in church every week, or have forgotten that church entirely.

God comes to down to us despite our morals or character, regardless of our prayers or biblical literacy.

God comes to meet us in this place and in many more places of worship whether they are full or nearly empty, whether the budget is easy to meet or underwater, whether we follow the mission expert’s steps to success or have no idea where to begin.

God comes to meet us because we are God’s people, weighed down with burdens that only God can carry.

And so God comes to carry them and to carry us.

In God’s Word spoken here, in the waters of God’s cleansing grace, in the bread and wine of mercy, Christ’ body and blood – in all these things, God comes down the mountain to us.

And so on this Transfiguration Sunday, as we also go down the mountain with Jesus, we are reminded God is always on the way down to us.