On Being Led to the Wilderness

When Christians talk about being led by the Spirit, we often think about serving in ministry, going on mission trips, or starting some new service project: “Well I was not positive that it was the right thing to do, but I felt led by the Spirit.” In the ministry of Jesus, the first place the Spirt leads him is to face temptation.

This Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, many churches will read the story of the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4.1-11). In rushing to focus on how Jesus overcomes three dramatic temptations, we may loose sight of the very first verse which reminds us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation.

We tend to think that once we have affirmed our commitment to God, we should face no difficulty, no adversity, no temptation. But the Bible says it is often at the moment of our commitment that temptation arises. So the Spirit calls us to face our temptation, drives us to it, instead of trying to ignore it or pretend it is not there.

This is not the first time the Bible uses the wilderness as a place to confront temptations. Israel wanders in the wilderness for 40 years facing temptation after temptation. The three temptations that Jesus faces in Matthew’s story parallel three of the temptations the Israelites face in the wilderness:  bread (see Exodus 16), testing God (seed Exodus 17) and idolatry (see Exodus 32). Though Israel succumbs to these temptations, Jesus resists them. Elijah is driven by God to face his fears and doubts in the wilderness for 40 days before his encounter with God on the mountain (I Kings 19). Now Jesus, fresh from the waters of baptism, where the voice proclaims he is the Son of God and the Spirit descends, is led by that very Spirt into the wilderness to face temptation for 40 days.

We tend to think of the early Christian ascetics as people who were trying to flee the temptations of society, the evils of civilization and the cruelty of humans. Yet most of these early monastics and hermits saw themselves following in the footsteps of Elijah and Jesus, being led by the Spirit to go out into the wilderness to face their temptations. What we read as dramatic encounters with demons, they meant as honest confrontations with temptation.

The danger is, when we do not face our temptations, we are prone to give in to them. Or, we may start excusing our sin because of our temptation: “Well I already thought it, so I might as well commit it. Thinking it is as bad as doing it. I would not want to be a hypocrite.”  No the temptation of Jesus reminds us that there is something different about facing the temptation to turn stones into bread and actually doing it.

So the Spirit leads us to a place where we are not distracted by background noise, by the self-congratulatory clapping we give ourselves that we have not succumbed to the temptations of others or the chatter we occupy ourselves with that may mask the temptations we have already let hold sway in our lives; a wilderness where we can honestly face the temptations that distract us from trusting God. Our wilderness may not be a physical desert like where Jesus, Elijah, and the early ascetics led. Perhaps our wilderness if the prayer closet that Jesus talks about in the gospel. The wilderness the Spirit leads us to is a place where we can face the temptations that arise in our journey with the Spirit.

We should not think that temptation is a once and done affair, once we have said no to temptation it will go away never to return. Jesus is tempted at other points in his ministry. But we can trust the Spirit who leads us to face our temptations to also empower us to resist them.

Remember the Dust

I do not remember exactly how old I was the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service. However, I know there was a lot happening that I did not understand at the time. For instance, when I went forward and my father put ashes on my head, I honestly thought he was telling me to remember to dust my room when I got home. “Remember you are dust,” is, I am pretty sure, what he said. Remember to dust, is what I heard.

It might have made more sense if I had paid more attention to the scripture reading, his sermon or event the instructions he surely gave before the imposition of the ashes. But for me, this was all just new, strange and very intriguing. Plus it helped that he put some dust on my forehead to remind me to dust once I got home. When I got back to my pew, I realized a lot of other people forgot to dust as well. Everyone I saw in church that night had that same reminder, “Remember to dust.”

Dusting is still one of my least favorite household chores. It’s not that I do not see the benefit, it’s just that it takes so long, you have to move stuff around, and even once you have gone over an area, you can almost always spot a smudge or a stray spot of dust left behind. Remember to dust. If you forget and let it build up, it’s just that much harder to clean up later on. The more dust that accumulates, the more difficult it is to get rid of.

Maybe dusting is not a bad analogy to what we are trying to say on Ash Wednesday. Remember to clean out the sin. Remember that as soon as you think you have it all wiped up, there are going to be stray marks and sins floating around you. It’s a never ending vigil. As long as we are human, as long as we are dust, we have to remember to dust.

Rember you are dust and to dust you shall return. So, in the meantime, remember to dust.

Get Up: Matthew 17.1-9

One day Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him to the top of a mountain. As they were watching him, Jesus was suddenly changed before them. They saw him in a different light. The Bible says, “he was transfigured before them” (Mt. 17.2). Then they saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

My guess is that at this point, the three disciples were thinking that they had reached the pinnacle, the high point of their journey with Jesus. When they first started following him, they did not know much about Jesus. They heard him teach. Saw him perform miracles. They helped him feed thousands from a few scraps. Now, on top of the mountain, they see him changed before their very eyes and talking to two of the greatest prophets. What more could there be? Surely this is where all their journeys have been leading.

It’s then that Peter, ever the spokesperson of the group, steps forward and says, “Lord, this is great and a great place to be. We need to commemorate this event with some buildings!” Matthew doesn’t say this, but in my mind, I can hear James and John chime in, “Yes, we can organize a capital campaign. Set up a designated amount to give if you want your name on a plaque. This is great!”

As the three disciples are splitting up the responsibilities of chairing the building committee, capital campaign, and communications team; they are knocked to the ground by a cloud and a voice. The voice speaks words similar to those spoken at the baptism of Jesus: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Only this time there is added the phrase, “Listen to him!”

So Jesus comes over to the disciples, puts his hands on them and says, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” They did not know that even greater things were waiting for them. They did not know about the heartache they would suffer at the death of Jesus or the joy they would experience at the resurrection. This mountain top experience, great as it was, was not the pinnacle experience of their journey with Jesus, for that they had to get up and keep going.

As easy as it is sometimes to read this story and poke fun at Peter for impulsively speaking and wanting to throw up some commemorative structures, or to wonder how all three disciples could wind up on the ground in fear at the sound of the voice from heaven, let’s also be sure to give them their due credit, they got up and walked back down with Jesus. They did listen to him.

Right now, I find myself needing to really hear those words of Jesus, “Get up and do not be afraid.” There is a part of me, a large part of me to be honest, that would like to run to the mountain and hide out in a tent with Jesus. I find myself at times wanting to lay down on the ground and cover my face, not at the blinding radiance of Jesus or the booming voice from heaven, but because of the hate and anger and division that seem to be so loud and clouding our world at the moment. This is what makes me want to lay down and cover my eyes. As I write this, a close family member lies on her bed near death. I want to cover my eyes, crawl into my sanctuary and hide out with Jesus. I want to go back to one of those spaces where I heard God speak with the clarity of thunder rolling through the mountains, where I saw the path ahead as clearly as a bright light shining like the sun on a clear day.

Yet Jesus comes over and places his hand on me. He does not chastise me for lack of faith or scold me for wanting to give into to fear. With his hand on me, he utters the words, “Get up and do not be afraid.” In his touch and invitation comes the strength to rise and move on. Thanks be to God.

Little Miracles

II Kings 5.1-14 is a story filled with powerful figures. Naaman, the commander of an army has leprosy. Naaman tells his king that he believes there is a cure for his leprosy in Israel. The king sends Naaman with a letter to the king of Israel, asking for a cure. The king of Israel thinks it is a trap, “I cannot cure this guy! When I fail, the king will just use that as an excuse to invade Israel. What can I do?”

So the prophet Elisha says, “Send Naaman to me.” The king is so desperate that he sends the army commander to the prophet, hoping the prophet can cure Naaman of his leprosy.

When Naaman arrives at the house of Elisha, the prophet does not come out to meet him. Instead, Elisha sends his servant to tell the army commander to go and wash himself in the River Jordan.

Naaman is furious. The Jordan river is not a very strong, powerful river. Yes, it is important in the Bible, since it forms part of the boundary of the promised land and is the main water source for the country. But the Jordan river is not one of the major waterways of the world. In fact, Naaman is from a land of larger and more impressive rivers. “Why could I not wash at home?” he asks. “What is so special about this river? It is little more than a muddy creek.”

This is a great point to notice that while this seems like a story about impressive and powerful leaders, it is really a story about how God often works through some little, almost unnoticed means. Some of the most important people in this story are not even named.

It is a young slave girl who sets all this action into motion. On one of his raiding parties into Israel, Naaman has captured a young Israelite girl. She becomes a slave in Naaman’s house, working for his wife. She is the one who first says that she wishes Naaman could go to Israel and be cured.

When Naaman goes to the house of Elisha, he is greeted by Elisha’s unnamed servant with the instructions to go wash in the Jordan.

Naaman does not think the River Jordan is as important as the rivers of Damascus, so why should he bother washing there?

Finally, it is the servants of Naaman who convince him to try the prophet’s prescription of washing in the Jordan.

Like Naaman, I often only expect God to act in the extraordinary and powerful ways. I look for God to speak through the powerful and well-known figures. I wonder how many miracles I miss because I do not expect God to work through the tiny rivers, the nameless servants or the tasks that I think are just too easy for God to be involved in?

At the end of the day, Naaman  did not care that his miracle came from the tiny waters of the River Jordan, or through the suggestion of a young servant girl, or that the instructions were delivered by the prophet’s messenger and not the prophet himself; Naaman knew he was cured. How it happened and who gave the instructions did not diminish the miracle.

This week I have been at camp with some 300+ elementary and middle school kids and their counselors. I have watched kids who have never spent a night out under the stars hike off to an overnight camp and rush to tell me the next morning about  how they survived. I listened as a group of kids encouraged a teammate who was not sure she could climb to the top of a tower. I had a group of kids cheer me on as I got my harness on and rode the zip-line. I watched kids practice compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Miracles encouraged by counselors, staff and camp directors. Miracles no less important or less impressive than an Aramean general being cleansed of leprosy by dipping seven times in a muddy creek called the Jordan. What miracles are taking place before you today?

Picking Up The Mantle

II Kings 2.1-14 tells the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven, and his disciple, Elisha, taking up the mantle of Elijah to continue the prophetic ministry. Our use of the phrase, “Passing of the Mantle” to describe transitions in leadership comes from this story. The story is filled with dramatic transitions: Elijah is taken from earth in a fiery chariot, Elisha becomes the new prophet and he will engage in a new style of ministry. Elijah is a prophet best known for what he brings about through the power of the spoken word. Elisha is a prophet best known for miracles and acts of wonder. But the two prophets are united by the mantle that passes between them.

We are first introduced to the mantle of Elijah in I Kings 19, where Elijah has his encounter with God on Mount Horeb (Sinai). When Elijah hears the silence, he steps out of the cave and covers his face with his mantle. What Elijah hears from God in the silence is a message of change, there will be a change in prophets and changes in kings. Elijah is to be a part of this change by preparing Elisha to succeed him and anointing new kings. Elijah’s role is to prepare for the change and to bless it.

When Elijah first encounters Elisha, he covers him with his mantle. After pausing to offer a sacrifice and say goodbye to his parents, Elisha follows Elijah as a disciple. In II Kings 2, as Elijah is preparing to depart, he keeps telling Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha is unrelenting in promising to stay with Elijah to the very end.

In their journeys, the two prophets reach the River Jordan and Elijah strikes the river with his mantle. The waters part, and they are able to walk across to the other side. There Elijah is taken up in a fiery chariot, but as he ascends his mantle falls to the ground. Elisha rushes over and picks up the mantle.

As he begins his journey back to Israel, Elisha comes to the Jordan again. He stands by the banks of th river unable to cross. Suddenly Elisha takes the mantle and hits the water. Just as it happened for Elijah, the waters part and Elisha is able to cross the Jordan.

I wonder how often I have left myself stranded on the banks of the river, because I have looked upon the mantles that others have passed on merely as relics and not anything that applies to the current situation? What I mean is, it seems entirely possible to me that Elisha could have stayed there on the banks of the river, lamenting to God to send Elijah back to part the waters, letting Elisha cross and make his way back home. Thankfully, Elisha picks up the mantle and does what he had seen Elijah do. Elisha discovers that there is a power in what has been passed on to him.

Elisha will be a very different prophet than Elijah. He will learn to use this power in different ways. But there is this connection here at the transition of one ministry to the next, and Elisha learns that he can carry forward the ministry that he has learned from Elijah. He takes up the mantle and learns to use it in his own way.

I have a stole that I often wear for weddings. It originally belonged to my father. When I wear it, I often think of how different ministry is today from when I, as a boy, saw my father wearing this same stole. I think about ways our style of ministry are similar and different, but I also am reminded of how they are fed from a common source in God’s Spirit and are aimed towards a common goal of working for God’s reign.

All of us, laity or clergy, have been entrusted with powerful resources to carry that same ministry forward. We have resources that those who have gone before us have placed at our disposal. But we also learn to use them in our different times and different ways. So the ministry of Christ goes forward. Thanks be to God!


O God, you have built your church

upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.
Save the community of your people
from cowardly surrender to the world,
from rendering to Caesar what belongs to you,
and from forgetting the eternal gospel
amid the temporal pressures of our troubled days.
For the unity of the church we pray,
and for fellowship across the embittered lines
of race and nation;
to growth in grace, building in love, enlargement in service
increase in wisdom, faith, charity, and power,
we dedicate our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen
by Harry Emerson Fosdick, The United Methodist Book of Worship, #506

Between the Mountains

This week the Old Testament lectionary text is from I Kings 19:1-15. As the story begins, Elijah is between two mountains. He has left Mount Carmel, the mountain where he had his dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal. With his adrenaline flowing, Elijah runs down the mountian through the valley of Jezreel, faster than King Ahab can travel in his chariot.

With his blood still pumping and thinking surely things are gonna get better now, Elijah receives the threatening news from Queen Jezebel that, just as Elijah has called for the slaughtering of the prophets of Baal, she is planning for his death.

So Elijah starts running again. This time he is not running in ecstatic celebration. This time he is running in fear. He is running for his life.

Elijah runs out of the valley of Jezreel. He runs out of the kingdom of Israel. He runs to the southern kingdom of Judah. He runs as far south as he can. He runs to Beersheba, ditches his servant there and runs into the desert to die.

Then Elijah gets a call to eat and drink and run a little further, cheered on by the news that the journey is still gonna be difficult.

Eventually, Elijah winds up at another mountain. This mountain is the same mountian where Moses and Israel encounter God during the Exodus. Here Moses goes up to meet with God and we are told the mountian was shrouded in a cloud, thunder and lightning split the heavens, the mountian shook as if there was an earthquake. The Israelites assumed Moses was dead, because who could survive all that?

Elijah’s experience on this mountain is different. He too encounters God, but not in the wind or an earthquake or even fire. Elijah encounters God in the silence. When he  hears the silence, Elijah cries out to God about the injustice he sees, the evil that is let loose and the fear that he has for his own life. Elijah laments. With tears washing his face and his voice growing hoarse, Elijah hears God in the silence.

This is a story that I not only needed to hear again this week, but that I am trying to live into at this time. It reminds me that in our spiritual journey there is more than one mountain. Often I think only of the mountain of the ecstatic experience where I leave feeling energized and ready to run for God for miles and days. But there is another mountain where we do not encounter God in the wind, not this time; a mountain where God does not come to us in the earth shattering experience, not this time; a mountain where God may not speak to us out of the fire, at least not this time. On this mountain, I am reminded that I can stand before God and give voice to the cries of my heart, that I can call out the injustice and pain that I feel and God is not gonna pat me on the head or tell me how I just do not understand. God will let me lament. And, if I am brave enough to wrap my face and step into the silence, I will leave having yet another experience of God, even in the silence. Thanks be to God.


Our Son Laughter

Several years ago my wife, Kristen,  and I were told by a series of doctors that it was highly unlikely we would ever conceive and bring a child to birth. The most optimistic doctor gave us a 1-3 percent chance. We went through a period of grieving, went to see a counselor for a time and then began exploring adoption possibilities.

In the midst of the grief, counseling and learning, Kristen woke up one morning with a lump in her stomach. It was a few anxious days before she could get in to see a doctor. The doctor wanted her to have an ultrasound. I was not able to be with her during the ultrasound, so the doctor’s office called me and said, “The doctor would really like you to be here when she goes over the results with your wife.”

During the drive across town, God and I had a pretty serious conversation. Well, I’m sure God was trying to talk, but I wasn’t giving God the time or space. I let God have it. I told God I was nervous, angry and scared. I thought God was being unfair putting all this on us at one time and I was expecting the worst news from the doctor, so it was time for God to start helping out. Let’s just say, it was a prayer modeled on some of the Psalms of lament or the cries of Job. In all fairness,  it may have been more of a rant than a prayer; it was rather one-sided.

As soon as I entered the doctor’s office, Kristen stood up and started crying. I wanted to go back outside and tell God this was the big moment, good time to start helping out and all. Instead, I hugged my wife and she slipped a picture into my hand. It was a picture of the four-month old child growing inside her. Even as the reality of this pregnancy began to sink in, I was still nervous; the doctors did not say it was just unlikely that we would conceive but conceive and bring to birth.

Thankfully the last five months went well (we were especially thankful since we pretty much missed the first four months). As the date of delivery approached, we realized we were gonna have to settle on some names. We chose Matthew, because it means a gift of God. Then we added Isaac as his middle name. Isaac means laughter.

Isaac is the name given to the child born to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis. In Genesis 17 we are told that Abraham falls down on his face and laughs when God tells him that he will have a child with Sarah. In Genesis 18 Sarah is said to have laughed when she hears the news. Finally, God says, “Name the child laughter, since you all think this is so funny” (that’s a very loose translation of Genesis 17:19).

So we named our son God’s Gift of Laughter (Matthew Isaac) to remind ourselves that God is present and working in unexpected ways in our world and in our lives. Today, our son turns 12 and he and God continue to amaze me and bring laughter into our midst.

Thanks (and sorry I missed the first four months you were around son.)