Jesus in the Wilderness and Temptations that aren’t Temptations.

GOSPEL: Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, 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.’ ”…

Here we are, on the doorstep of the mysterious season of Lent. Mysterious because unlike Christmas and Easter, Lent is mostly a non-event outside the walls of the church. Beginning with Ash Wednesday – a Wednesday hardly noticed by the world – we enter into this strange springtime season when we know that we are supposed to be more solemn, more serious than usual. 

When I first started as a pastor, the congregation I served only vaguely knew about Lent. The colours changed at the front of the church according to some kind of calendar, but for what reason wasn’t known. 

And at times in my time in ministry, people have pushed back against observing Lent. 

“Can’t we just have one song with an Alleluia Pastor?” 

“Do we have to give something up?”

“Can’t be a little less serious and more happy?”

Of course we *can* do those things, it isn’t about what we can and cannot do. Rather the question is what ought we to do as ones who belong to the Body of Christ, as a world -wide community of practitioners of this common faith in Jesus and how we walk together through the different seasons of our life and witness. 

And so, as we step into this season of Lent, we so do following paths trodden by the faithful over centuries. Paths towards a deeper understanding of faith, towards a growing awareness of God’s mercy to be poured out for us in Christ. 

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we journey into the wilderness with Jesus. We hear how Jesus is tempted by the Devil. 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. 

As we watch Jesus, the model resistor, this familiar story is often upheld as a formula for Christian living. Jesus’ responses are said to be sure-proof ways to avoid temptation, as if two people slapping each other with bible verses prevented anything. 

Of course there is no manual and this is not a video guide demonstrating the right techniques of temptation avoidance. 

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  committed murder, 

Elijah  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. 

Jesus has been declared God’s chosen, God’s son. The Devil thinks he is dealing with another prophet, he does not understand that this Prophet is not only one 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 concerns, 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 the devil’s desires.

And if we are honest… the temptations that the devil offers aren’t really temptations to us either, because we all too often seek them our shamelessly.

If we could command the angels, we would! It would be a virtue, we would feel like superheroes. We would wish this pandemic way, we would send them into the hospitals and grocery stores, to provide childcare and senior-care we would find a million places to put them to work. 

If we had the power over kingdoms… we know well the pursuit of power in this world. Power on any scale from families, neighbourhoods, workplaces all the way up to cities and nations requires controlling others, taking away their power. We are watching the worst of it unfold before our very eyes Ukraine. The Power over Kingdoms and armies sought by one unstable dictator means violence, destruction, war and death. It means sending our young to sit behind tanks and guns to destroy cousins and neighbours. 

If we could turn stones into bread… it is the most seductive temptation of them all. The temptation to survive at all costs, to seek our own satisfaction, to put ourself first above all others. A temptation that looked like convoys rolling down Portage Avenue in protest of masks and vaccine passports, while at the Jets game the Hoosli choir sang for freedom in front of Winnipeg and the whole world.

These temptations that are presented to Jesus are things our world simply strives for, often at all costs, often proclaiming the virtuousness of power, control, of being satiated and comfortable, of putting ourselves first. 

At their core, these temptations are about getting Jesus to set aside his mission. To set it aside in favour of just being, just striving, just existing. But at the cost of giving up something of himself, to be less than the full Son of God, less than the full Messiah sent to save. 

The same thing that these temptations do to us…by asking us to set aside our callings and purposes, in order to just be, to just exist, to just take up space without moving forward.

And yet, there in the hot, dry, sandy landscape of the wilderness, there tired, hungry, thirsty, chapped lip, windblown, and dusty Jesus sticks to the mission. 

As the Devil says to the same God who spoke all of creation into being from nothing…  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 the Word is standing there in the flesh.  

And then on top of world, the devil offers Jesus power over all nations if he would only bow down to chaos and confusion personified. The devil offers earthly power to 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. 

Then 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 up power in order to love and to love deeply. That being worshiped is not about being on top, but how God comes down to us.  

And then from the top of the world to the temple of Jerusalem. The devil asks 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 whole mission, that incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection are about God showing us who we are  – God’s beloved children. 

Jesus sticks to the mission. Because Jesus has come to fulfill God’s love and mercy given for us, to bring us back from being less than and to reclaim in us our calling and purpose. Jesus has come to pull us back from the brink of temptation and set us again on the way. The way to God. 

And so we begin each Lent in this same way. This mysterious, mostly unobserved season meets us in the messy world. In the world where we are seeking the satisfaction of bread, reaching for all power, looking to worship and follow the wrong things… and this year especially in all the worst ways. 

And Jesus reminds us that he has come into our world for a purpose. For a purpose revealed last week on the mountain of transfiguration, but soon to be revealed again on the mountain of Golgotha. Jesus has come not to prove who God is to us, but remind us again and again and again who God says we are. 

So as we set out on our Lenten journey today, God in Christ sets out with us knowing that we will forget who Jesus really is, but God never forgets who we are. 

Why we need this 3rd Pandemic Lent – Pastor Thoughts

The season of Lent began this week with Ash Wednesday. This is the 3rd Lent to take place during the pandemic. 

There are many similarities between Advent and Lent, both are seasons of preparation that culminate with one of the two most important celebrations or feast days of the church year. 

I love Advent. Everything about it speaks to me. The shades of blue, big and small stories from the bible, images of light and dark, the hopeful anticipation in the midst of struggle. Advent is an exercise in contrasts. 

Lent on the other hand is not nearly as playful or vivid… sigh…

While Advent arrives with winter when it is new and exciting, Lent usually comes when we are ready to say goodbye to the snow. And before Lent takes us to Easter, we have to go through Holy Week. Holy Week which is intense, emotional and draining. 

Lent is less like preparing for the Holidays and more of a spiritual spring cleaning or exercise regime. 

Last year, as our second pandemic Lent arrived, many commented on how it felt like Lent had never ended. We had simply wandered in the wilderness for most of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. 

Yet today in March of 2022 when the pandemic that has dominated our attention for the better part of 2 years, it is about 4th place in terms of headline news right now.

Someone on Twitter commented that if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were in a horse race, Famine and Death would have been strong for a long time. But Pestilence made a big comeback 2 years ago, only to have War surprise everyone in this homestretch. 

With all that is happening in our world these days – war, protests, economic disaster, disease and more – it can be hard to feel like our small Lenten practices are of any impact. It is a lot easier to watch, listen to, or read the news and feel hopeless about the world. 

And yet, I wonder if taking on a Lenten practice this year might be just what we need more than ever. It can look like giving something up like chocolate, coffee, tv or meat. It can be taking something on like daily prayer and scripture reading, giving alms, or watching mid-week Lenten services (Wednesdays at 7PM on the Facebook Page). 

Having something small and out of our usual routines to focus on each day as a way to draw our attention back to God may be just what is needed these days. When the problems of the world are too much to bear, those small reminders that we do not walk in this wilderness alone can carry us through to the promise of Easter. 

In the early church, Lent wasn’t just a season to wallow in the wilderness waiting for Good Friday. Lent was (and is) the season when catechumens (essentially adult confirmation students) would finalize their preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. And usually all those already baptized would join in the preparation as a reminder of their own baptism. 

Lent and its seasonal practices are meant to provide little disruptions in our lives. Moments and practices that wake us up from the rest of life, and turn us back to God. Turns us back to the promises of God found in baptism of forgiveness, life and salvation. 

Promises that we certainly need reminding of right now, week to week and day to day. 

And so I invite you to consider what your Lent will look like this year and what it might include for you.

Pastor Erik+

Omicron, Bruno and The Freedom to Change

In episode 2 of season 2, Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik talk about Omicron, We Don’t Talk About Bruno the hit song from Disney’s Encanto and what it means for churches to adapt and change in the face of this ongoing pandemic (recorded prior to the war in Ukraine). 

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synodof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

Practicing life and death with the ashes – A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you….

Growing up my family was committed to being in church every Sunday, and often another night of the week for youth or orchestra practice or another church event. 

But Ash Wednesday was one of those days that seemed to get lost in the shuffle of family life. The way it moved around because of Easter, it sometimes landed on the same night as sports or music practice, some years its was during reading week at University. 

Yet, on the years when we did make it, it felt like it came out of nowhere. 

Church has just been merrily humming along through Christmas and the new year. Stories of Jesus’ miracles and the memorable story of Jesus going up the mountain, being transformed into dazzling white. A story that I can remember occupying my imagination as a child. 

Then all of sudden, the brightness of that moment is gone and rather than a mountain top, Jesus is giving a dinner table lecture on pride and boastfulness. Jesus’ instruction to pray behind locked doors invoked the image of praying in the closet to my mind as a child. 

But then the year that I did my pastoral internship, my supervisor had me help him burn the palms from the palm Sunday the year before. And a strand of connection materialized, a circle from humanity’s act of welcoming and then crucifying Messiah was made. This Ash Wednesday confession both rooted us in our great sin of trying to be God in God’s place both before the day of ashes and in the time to come as we retold the story of Holy Week soon again. 

In my first years as a pastor, the weight of Ash Wednesday would eventually hit me like never before. Ash Wednesday in its pacing and words feels like a funeral liturgy. Funerals which can come at any time and out of nowhere, interrupting any season of life. 

A good friend and seminary classmate wound up serving neighbouring coigretaion, and so we shared Ash Wednesday worship. As we stood together at front of the church, while worshippers came forward to receive ashes, the blessing took on more weight. 

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” takes on all kinds of new meaning when you have stood over a casket being lowered into a grave, and while dirt made the sign of the cross while declaring “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” Especially so when you are imposing ashes onto the foreheads of spouses and siblings and cousins and friends of those whom you have blessed into the earth. 

As we made the sign of the cross in ashes on those that we served, finally it came time for my friend’s eldest son to receive ashes, maybe 5 or 6 years old at the time. I remember my friend stumbling back as if hit by a wall. He tried to compose himself to reach forward with his ashy thumb to mark his son. But he was barely able to choke out the words, “Remember you are dust…”

It is a pleasure to bless those whom we love. But it is a terrible burden to make that same sign of the cross in ash, to receive that sign of the cross in ash from those that we love – a souse, a child, a parent, a friend or even any cherished sibling in Christ. 

I could not help but think of that Ash Wednesday moment this week when I saw the video of Ukrainian father weeping as he hugged his young daughter goodbye. It was an Ash Wednesday moment seen around the world. 

For you see, Ash Wednesday truly the acknowledgement of the realities of sin and death in our world. WE confess both the truth of our sinfulness and the truth of our mortality.

And we practice. 

Just like in Nighttime Prayer, when we entrust our selves into God’s care through the night, it is an echo of the same blessing of entrusting ourselves to God that is said at funerals, the same blessing repeated at grave sides just before “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” On Ash Wednesday we rehearse having ashes and dirt put on us in the sign of the cross.

But even if we do not make it to Ash Wednesday each year the Ashes – the signs and symbols of sin and death – are still all around us. The signs of humanity’s sin, and suffering, the signs of our morality and dying are all around us. 

What is the pandemic if not Ashes?

What were the convoy protests if not Ashes?

What is this war in Ukraine if not ashes?

And yet…

And yet even though the Ashes dominate the day, even though they seem to ever surround us… 

The ashes are not the real point of the day.

The Ashes are a symbol that blows away in the wind, that washes off without a problem, that disappears as easily as they appear. Their impermanence is the point.

The Ashes only ever reveal what is already and was always there – what is underneath the sign they mark.

The mark of the One who has claimed us from the beginning.

The sign of the One of will not leave us to our morality, who will not leave us to the ashes and dust.

The cross of the One who turns the Ashes into something new, who turns us into someones made new.

Just as the ashes are all around, so to is the sign of the one in whom we are made new. 

The Ashes remind us that we are finite beings on our way to death AND they also remind us that One whose Cross they are marked in is the God of Life. 

The One who is also all around, found among the ashes wherever they are.

The One is comes to us in Word, Holy Baths and Holy Meals. 

Who does not abandon us in the time to trial and tribulation, who holds pandemics, occupations and even war in God’s hands. 

The One whose cross marks our bodies forever a sign that while we practice for the time when we die… we also rehearse and practice the promise that we too, on the 3rd will be called forth from our graves, as the ashes fall away, into resurrection and new life. 

God’s Interruption of Our Expectations – A Sermon on Transfiguration

GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 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. 

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 everything changes and the world as know it 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.

These past two months have shown us a world that we were not prepared to see, a world that we did not expect. It has felt as between Sundays, between the stories that showed us again and again the Christ revealed in ways – in his baptism, at the wedding of Cana, filling fishing hets on the lake, preaching in Nazareth, and preaching blessings on the plain…. In between of all that a Pandemic thought to be winding down has raged, our family friends and neighbours occupied streets in Ottawa, important border crossings and the roadways outside of provincial legislatures all in name of freedom, with some white supremacy accelerationismon the side. And then as if that wasn’t enough… a peace between western nations that has last, if not uneasily, for 70 years, was broken as Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. 

In in twist of sick irony, the bright lights of bombs and gun fire has revealed to us a whole new world. 

Back on the mountain of transfiguration, 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 are 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 yet 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. Peter cannot imagine a faithfulness outside of what he knows and experienced outside of his expectations.

We see you Peter. And we know you. 

We totally get this feeling. 

As for the past 20 years our world slowly shifted and twisted away from our expectations, as the church slowly but surely stopped being a given in Canadian society, in the lives our neighbours, friends, and family… maybe even in our own week to week routines… We understood that feeling that Peter has… we know in our bones what the world is supposed to look like, we know what being faithful Christians takes. And it almost hurts things aren’t just woking they are supposed to anymore. 

Following the rules, paying taxes, working hard is not the guarantee of a safe, secure, peaceful life it once was. Showing up to church with an offering envelope – when Sunday morning didn’t conflict other more exciting options – isn’t the promise that church will just be there when we need it that it once was. 

And certainly these past 2 years have crumbled our expectations that life will just keep going as it always has, the pace of change accelerated while we have held on desperately to the hope that we can go back to what things were. 

Finally this week, the 70 years of relative security and comfort for the Western World has come crashing down. Where we go from here no one knows, but building a dwelling place on top of a mountain is possible any more. There is no going back. 

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, hoping to continue life as we once knew it. 

Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans to hold on.

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 carry our burdens alone.

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 nor our right to stay on the mountain-top. So that we can face our changing world, even though we would rather stick with a world that meets our expectations. 

Still, God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens, to walk with us in suffering, to show us the way through uncharted waters.

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 in a world that we hardly recognize, to remind that us in the midst of the chaos God reminds the same and holds us to a faith that roots us in the image of God, that gives us an identity in the Body of Christ. 

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 success comes easy or we 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.