Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 20, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

IMPOSSIBLE
This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

TEMPTATION
Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.

Except.

Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

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Servants of Love Incarnate: John 2.1–11


2018.1.14 non being
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 14, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
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JOHN IS DIFFERENT
If John’s gospel were the only one we knew, if we studied it and dedicated our lives to it, then read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would be shocked. It’s all lies, we would think! That’s not the truth about Jesus! Likewise, if we had only ever studied the synoptic gospels, synoptic meaning same, we would be baffled by John. It is that different.

John’s gospel does have Jesus traveling and teaching, he does endure trial, death, and resurrection. But John’s chronology is different than in the other three. There is no Eucharist, no Last Supper, in John. Jesus shows no concern for the Kingdom of God in John, only for his own special identity. Jesus talks more in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels, with great long dialogues, but never in all of that does he share any parables, those stories of mustard seeds and buried treasure.

And John is the most anti-Semitic of all the gospels. Maybe not universally so, maybe not condemning of all of Judaism, only of specific strains or communities of Judaism at the time. But I am guessing that not many 21st century Christians are all that familiar with the differences between contemporary streams in Judaism, let alone those of the ancient near east, so reading the subtleties of critique in John can be dangerously misleading.

I decided, as a result of that, and this era’s resurgence of overt hatred of and aggression toward people who are Jewish, to modify our readings of John to avoid easy misunderstandings and make clear where we are as a church. Rather than “the Jews” it will read as “the authorities” or whatever the appropriate target of Jesus’ concern may be.

But the difference I really want to focus on today is an omission in John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the inclusion of the story today.
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