Old Testament Reading for the Second Week in Lent

“After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, ‘Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.’ He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.’”
Genesis 15:1-3

'A Question of Light' photo (c) 2013, Brian Fuller - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/It is strange what getting married will do to a person. I am not a naturally confrontational person. I hate tension, I do not like to argue, and I am generally an all around people pleaser. There were few things I was willing to argue about before marriage. Color palettes, couch placement and bed sheets were not high on my priority list. I was, however, ready to defend why Gladiator is a superior movie to Braveheart and why coconut is the best food on the planet (before it recently became cool). Those were things I stood up for, those were things I believed in. But, like I said, marriage does strange things to ones brain. I began to care about things I never thought I would. Things like…

Silverware.

The first disagreement, and probably biggest disagreement to date, between my wife and I was over what silverware we were going to register for. We had spent two gleeful hours registering for things at a Bed, Bath and Beyond. We zapped towels, kitchen gadgets, pillowcases, plates, bowls, and curtains generally coming to an agreement without too much wrangling. However, our gleeful romp through housewares came to a screeching halt when we tried to settle on what forks, knives and spoons we wanted. It became quite apparent that there was a strong divide between our preferences of silverware and neither of us was willing to budge. We each argued the merits of size, style, weight, contemporary vs. traditional, and three tines to four on a fork each of us digging our heels with our chosen styles. Thankfully, neither of us decided to use the samples as weapons in defending our choice. Harsh words were spoken and tears were shed, but eventually we settled on a set that seemed to balance our preferences. We zapped the box into our registry and left the store. It was quite an ordeal, and probably more dramatic than it needed to be. We laugh about it now, but it definitely helped us to learn more about what causes each other to tick.

Disagreements are such an inherent part of our relationships, but we overlook and even avoid them often to our own detriment. Talking about our different points of view can be an important part of developing relationships. Through them you may learn about what is important to you and to those around you. Disagreements and even healthy arguments can be good for deepening relationships. Yes, you read that right…I said healthy arguments deepen relationships. Now, I’m not encouraging you to go out and intentionally get into arguments, Jesus does say, “blessed are the peacemakers.” What I am encouraging you to do is to not be afraid and ask a question when you see things a different way or when things do not make sense. Ask a question, make your point, listen to the response and try to come to an agreement. Discuss and argue well, don’t just scream your opinion at the top of your lungs drowning everyone else out.

I bring this up during Lent because I think this is something that has been lost and even discouraged in the church. Take this passage from the Old Testament for example. God shows up to Abram and tells him, “Your reward will be very great.” Abram seems confused by the proclamation and begins to question how he can have any reward that will be great. He has no son, his inheritance will fall to his accountant who is not even from the same country as Abram. Abram (whose name means father) will not even live up to his name. Having no children to pass an inheritance too means Abram will fade away into obscurity and never be honored. What kind of reward can God give or create out of those circumstances? This makes no sense to Abram and he questions God’s proclamation. If you read the rest of the chapter, Abram questions God more. Did Abram ask all these questions because he did not have faith in God? It does not seem like it because verse 6 of the same chapter is the famous verse that says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Abram believed and placed his faith in God, but it was not without some healthy questions and argument. It was not blind faith. Abram asks questions but God never turns his back on Abram, never calls him faithless, and ultimately God keeps true to his promises and covenant with Abram.

Questioning and arguing with God is actually pretty standard in the Bible.

Jacob wrestles with God.

Moses argues with God A LOT.

Gideon tested God.

David wrote some argumentative psalms (i.e. Psalm 13).

Job got pretty upset with God.

Jonah practically threw a temper-tantrum.

The prophet Habakkuk questioned God’s motives.

Paul pleaded with God about a “thorn in his side”.

Jesus asked if there was any other way in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These were not arguments, questions or prayers of faithless people. They were prayers of very faithful people who had genuine questions and concerns about how God was working. I think somewhere along the line we were told a lie that questioning God is a faithless act. That we just have to close our eyes, hold God’s hand and never question what he says or where he leads. That if we question the sovereign will of God then he will strike us down with a vengeful thunderbolt as if God was as precocious and temperamental as the Greek god Zeus.

We don’t serve Zeus folks. They both may have awesome beards but that’s where the similarities end. We serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Israel. The God spoken of by the Prophets. The God revealed and incarnated in Christ. The God who chose to work with humanity to save creation, who came down to interact with and demonstrate his true nature. God entered into this relationship knowing full well that questions were going to be asked and he has gone to great pains to answer those questions.

Excruciating pain actually.

So have no fear, argue with God, wrestle with God, fight with God, scream at God, do not be afraid. Write your questions in a journal, pray about it when you are walking, ask a friend or pastor, write it out in your Bible, put them on your mirror or fridge. Do not worry about God, he can take it. Lent is a time for us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” God’s faithfulness does not end when we feel like ours does. God wants a relationship; he wants to hear from his people, he is ready for your questions, concerns and arguments. But know that the answer might be similar to the examples above.

Abram got a son.

Job got a lecture.

Jacob was blessed.

Jonah smelled of fish.

Moses saved the children of Israel from Egypt.

Moses had to deal with the children of Israel.

Gideon was victorious.

Paul had to persevere.

David became king.

Jesus was crucified.

Jesus was glorified.

We should have frequent recourse to prayer, and persevere a long time in it. God wishes to be solicited. He is not weary of hearing us. The treasure of His graces is infinite. We can do nothing more pleasing to him than to beg incessantly that He bestow them upon us.”
St. John Baptist de la Salle
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Prayer for the Second Sunday in Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your word, Jesus Christ your son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

New Testament Reading for the First Week of Lent

“Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving.”
Luke 4:1-2 (CEB)

'Wild Goose Chase' photo (c) 2012, DarrelBirkett - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/There is an odd unpredictable side of the Holy Spirit that I do not think we would wish for that often. Take today’s verse for example. Jesus goes down to be baptized by John in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and God blesses Jesus by calling him his son. Jesus was empowered and excited by the presence of the Holy Spirit. You know this feeling if you have ever gone to a retreat, summer camp, or heard a great speaker. You walk away feeling like you could convert the most selfish of sinner and argumentative atheist you could find. You are ready to build your own church and travel to the most remote and unreached people group.

You feel like Jesus probably felt. Full of the Holy Spirit and ready to take Satan on.

Ask and ye shall receive.

The same Holy Spirit that Jesus was amped up on also directed him to, “the wilderness, where 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.” Within a little over a month Jesus is moved by the Holy Spirit from a mountain-top experience to almost literally walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” where he is tempted by Satan and starving for a decent meal.

By show of hands, who would sign up for that Holy Spirit experience? Anybody? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

This is not the peaceful dove experience of the Holy Spirit most people think of when they pray for a stronger presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. However, I think this story illustrates a pretty standard example of how the Holy Spirit works in the world and in our lives. Scripture does tell us that the Holy Spirit is a good thing to have in our lives. We want to have the presence of God around us and in us, this is something to be desired. Although, it is not something we can control or take for granted. As often as the Holy Spirit is comforting and peaceful, the Holy Spirit is just as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Wind is a good image of this. It moves and blows where it pleases and generally out of our control. Sometimes it is helpful for moving your boat across the sea to your destination and other times it wants to shipwreck you on an island where you end up getting bit by a snake. But, there is another image of the Holy Spirit I have heard about recently that seems to be a good illustration of its ability to be unpredictable and unknowable.

Let’s take a minute and examine how the Holy Spirit can be like a wild goose.

Yes, I said a wild goose.

Mark Batterson, Pastor of National Church in Washington D.C. wrote a book called “Wild Goose Chase” where he examines this fairly obscure image of the Holy Spirit. It is supposedly a Celtic Christian tradition where the Holy Spirit is referred to as a wild goose. From the introduction to his book, Batterson describes the Holy Spirit as something that, “cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surround Him.” I do not know how familiar you are with wild geese, but that nails it on the head. I had an unfortunate experience as a child with a goose that has scarred me for life. I was riding my bike to a friend’s house when I got caught in the crosshairs of an angry and territorial goose. He approached me fairly unassumingly but then started to make that distinctive (and frightening) honking sound geese make and began to attack the wheel of my bike. I barely escaped with my life. To this day, geese still make me anxious to be around.

When we begin to acknowledge the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit I think we begin to accept God more for who he is rather than what we would like him to be. During Lent, we give up something that we want and strive to be more like who God would rather us to be. We look for things in our lives that might be hindering our relationship with God or with others and set those aside for the sake of strengthening relationships and not for feeding our own selfish desires. To us, the Holy Spirit is unpredictable, moving like the wind and escaping our grasp like a wild goose. You cannot contain it, bottle it or sell it. It restrains any attempt at being wrapped in a box with a neat little bow for easy presentation and consumption. Lent calls us to drop those neat and tidy assumptions about God and the Holy Spirit and enter into the alternative, unpredictable and slightly messy reality that God is in control and we are not. Jesus followed the Holy Spirit from his baptism, to his temptation, to feeding 5000 people, to the pain of the cross and then to the glory of his resurrection. Jesus followed the movement of the Holy Spirit wherever it led him, during Lent throw off your preconceptions of the Holy Spirit and see where it might take you.

It may feel like a wild goose chase, you might confront Satan, you might witness a miracle or you might shine a light on a dark place within yourself. Wherever the Holy Spirit leads, at least you are chasing after God.

“May the strength of God pilot us, may the wisdom of God instruct us, may the hand of God protect us, may the word of God direct us. Be always ours this day and for evermore.”
St. Patrick

Old Testament Reading for the First Week of Lent

“Because he will order his messengers to help you, to protect you wherever you go. They will carry you with their own hands so you don’t bruise your foot on a stone. You’ll march on top of lions and vipers; you’ll trample young lions and serpents underfoot. God says, ‘Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you because you know my name.’”

Psalm 91:11-14 (CEB)

'Vanity in Miniature' photo (c) 2013, David Goehring - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The story of Jesus fasting in the desert and being tempted by Satan is one that constantly humbles me and blows my mind. As the story goes, shortly after being baptized by John, Jesus heads off into the wilderness in order to fast for 40 days before he starts his ministry. While Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry from fasting, Satan shows up to try and tempt him. The various temptations and challenges that Satan throws at Jesus are basically asking one question.

Who are you going to be?

At the baptism of Jesus, a dove comes down and the voice of God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” When Satan shows up to tempt Jesus, he begins to call into question the proclamation of God.

Who are you going to be?

One of the temptations and challenges that Satan presents Jesus with is the temptation to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple to demonstrate God’s protection of his chosen Messiah. Since Jesus has been using scripture, Satan chooses to fight fire with fire and quotes the first part of this scripture reading.

“Because he will order his messengers to help you,
to protect you wherever you go.
They will carry you with their own hands
so you don’t bruise your foot on a stone.”

You could see a lot from the pinnacle of the Temple. And, everyone in the city would probably see Jesus jump if he chose to. They would see the angels showing up to slow his descent and carry him to the ground. The cliché image of Jesus floating just slightly above the ground, would seem to come true with this passage and everyone in the city would see Jesus as a great and powerful Messiah, chosen and protected by God. However, that’s not the Messiah Jesus was going to be.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Jesus quite skillfully handles all the temptation and challenges of Satan. Definitely a feat after 40 days of fasting. If I skip breakfast I can hardly remember what I did yesterday let alone quote scripture. But Jesus stands up to the questions and temptations and demonstrates exactly who he is and what type of Messiah he will be. A humble, unassuming servant, devoted to God and his word. He will not seek glory at the expense of others, or test God for his own benefit. Like the end of today’s reading says, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you because you know my name.” It’s not about who we are or what we can do. What matters is our devotion to God, knowing who he is and who he wants us to be.

For Lent, we would do wise to ask ourselves the very same question.

Who are you going to be?

Lent calls us out of ourselves, calls us to enter the wilderness with Jesus and stretch ourselves to see who we really are. Whether we fast or not, Lent should be a time of self-examination in order to see what elements of our lives, our thoughts or feelings in our hearts need to be questioned and challenged. The Bible only records Jesus being tempted by Satan once, yet we face his temptations and challenges daily. Daily Satan whispers into our ear.

Who are you going to be?

I pray that through this season of Lent you will discover who you really are and who God wants you to be. I pray that you would not fall for the temptations and challenges that Satan throws at us, trying to convince us that we are something other than what God has called us. I pray that you would listen to the voice of God as he desires to draw you closer to himself and grow into the mature person he desires for you to be.

“The person who scorns conventional forms of protection and seeks only the refuge provided by the Most High will find his faith rewarded. He will be enveloped by God’s providence so that he can continue to seek holiness and wisdom without fear of those who would seek to do him harm.”
– Rashi

Prayer for the First Sunday in Lent

'Lent votives' photo (c) 2012, Jamie - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

New Testament Reading following Ash Wednesday

“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:16-21 (CEB)

'Tragedy and Comedy' photo (c) 2012, Tim Green - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Trying to insult a Christian can be a difficult endeavor. There are so many verses we often have memorized to combat insults that may be flung in our general direction. Call a Christian stupid and they may quote you “God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise.” Tell a Christian they can’t sing and you might hear about the Psalms that mention “make a joyful noise.” Tell a Christian they dance like Elaine on Seinfeld and they may throw out “David, dressed in a linen priestly vest, danced with all his strength before the Lord.” However, if you really want to insult a Christian you do not have to look much farther than this verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

Call them a hypocrite.

Call a Christian a hypocrite and you may crush them. You know that old image of an angel whispering in one ear and a demon whispering in the other? I think for many Christians the demon is whispering what an awful, horrible hypocrite they are and the angel is trying to convince them that they are not. We Christians are so afraid of being called out as a fraud saying one thing and doing the other. I know I have worried about this more times that I care to admit. This can be especially tough during Lent because we choose to give some things up and try to focus more of our time on spiritual disciplines. What if somebody actually saw through all that and knew what was going on in my heart and mind? Would they, could they, call me a hypocrite?

Thankfully, Jesus gives us some advice by using an analogy with a very familiar scene in his time. We get our word hypocrite from the Greek language. In Greek the word hypokrites referred to someone who was an actor or pretender often on stage or in some kind of performance. Plays and performances were huge in ancient Greece and Rome and many of the amphitheaters and coliseums built to stage them still stand today. In this verse, Jesus is warning against fasting like someone performing on a stage. Putting on a big show, over-exaggerating and embellishing every detail in order to make a bigger impact. Think about the old Batman television show where the words “POW” and “BANG” would flash on the screen anytime Batman or Robin punched a bad guy. Or, like any movie directed by Michael Bay where the sound effects are loud, the explosions over-the-top and we’re fooled into thinking that Shia LaBoeuf is a competent actor. I think this is more what Jesus is warning against. Exaggerating as if acting for an audience, in order to seek applause and acclaim.

I like applause and acclaim. I would be lying if I did not admit that after speaking to an audience that I did not enjoy or even need to hear from others how well I did. Heck, after posting this I’m sure I’ll go back and check regularly to see how may people “Liked” it, shared it or commented on it. It feels nice to be affirmed in that way and inherently there is nothing wrong with encouraging and affirming words.

Where things can get sticky is when our acts of faith and spiritual disciplines are done with an eye towards recognition, an ear listening for the applause and a hand prematurely extended for a reward. The issue with hypocrisy is not so much saying one thing and doing another (although that is a part of it), but rather putting on a show in order to be recognized and rewarded. People who perform their spiritual disciplines for the sake of recognition are judged by Jesus when he says, ” I assure you that they have their reward.” If you want applause, acclaim and affirmation, then that’s what you’ll get. However, remember that applause fades and words of affirmation can be forgotten.

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.”

With Lent this can be difficult because we are encouraged to do certain actions. Fasting, wearing ash crosses and giving up something to make more space for spiritual disciplines in our lives can quickly devolve into simply feeling like a performance. However, I think that Jesus’ instruction to “brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people,” has a much deeper meaning than to simply look normal and act like nothing is happening.

The actions we perform rarely transform or determine who we are on the inside. Rather, it’s who we are on the inside that will ultimately transform and determine our actions.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Matthew 23:25-26

If the inside of the cup is clean, what goes in will come out clean and reflect the integrity of the cup. If only the outside of the cup is clean, what goes in will be distorted and changed and not faithfully reflect what the cup looks like on the outside. If we have allowed the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds, there should be no acting, performance or hypocrisy involved. Whatever actions we do will be informed by the Holy Spirit in our lives. Brushing your hair, washing your face and simply being normal then is being who the Holy Spirit has transformed us into.

When we have this perspective, when we realize it’s the Holy Spirit working in us and not concern ourselves with acting the part the season of Lent can truly come into focus. Lent is not about us or about what we give up. Lent calls us to lessen the focus on ourselves by intentionally putting our own wants and needs aside in order to grow closer to God, become more like Christ and gain a sharper focus on the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Unlike the actors and hypocrites in Jesus’ day who draw attention to themselves and desiring recognition, Lent calls us to direct our attention away from ourselves and towards God. Then, we can truly find the everlasting reward that does not grow quiet like the fading of applause.

“Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

'prayer' photo (c) 2013, hannah love yoon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever. Amen.