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Sunday, February 24th

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.

New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 15:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.

Yet Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Unlike the parallel account in chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus does not weep. He just takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. And he calls us to follow him.

This isn’t a very attractive picture of discipleship. But there are plenty of disciples of Jesus who will tell you that it is often accurate. St. Paul preached the Body of Christ throughout his ministry. What he got was churches like the one in Corinth-fraught with conflict, torn by power struggles and unable to comprehend the good news for which Jesus lived and died. I wish I could tell you about all the aid workers I have met over the years who have spent their lives in refugee camps throughout the world sacrificing ties of family and friendship at home, sacrificing their health and safety abroad for wages that ensure they will never live far above the poverty line. When their service is done they often leave a situation that has deteriorated further despite their faithful efforts. There are millions of church leaders throughout the world who volunteer their time, efforts and resources to build up the Church of Christ after spending a full day at their “real” jobs. These are the folks on the church council; the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and trustees. Some of them toil away in churches that, in spite of their best efforts, are losing membership and financial support. Often times, they go without proper recognition and even face unjustified criticism. That is why I try my best to make these folks understand how precious and important they are. When people ask me why fewer and fewer people are involved in the church these days, I am tempted to reply that I often wonder why anyone at all is still there.

I hope we are all still here for the right reason-the same reason Jesus continued putting one foot in front of the other on the way to the cross. I hope we keep plodding on because we believe that God is serious about creating a new heaven and a new earth. I hope we struggle forward because we believe that God will finish what our lives can barely begin. I hope we embrace the cross because we understand that it is the shape the reign of God must take in a world that kills the prophets and stones the messengers of reconciliation sent to it. I hope we remain faithful because we believe that the prophetic word finally will be heard. I hope we are driven by the conviction that God is able to raise up the shattered pieces of our broken and seemingly ineffective efforts to be disciples just as he raised up the broken and lifeless Body of Jesus from the grave.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”

In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”

This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.

Psalm 27

The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.”

Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.”  Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.

Philippians 3:17–4:1

To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20   (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23   (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.

Luke 13:31-35

This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.

The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.

Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.

As indicated in my introductory remarks, New Testament scholars tend to read Jesus’ words of judgment against Jerusalem as an attempt to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Again, I do not doubt that Luke had this event in mind while composing his gospel. Still, I believe that Jesus’ own remarks about the Temple and the wealth of prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures were Luke’s principle sources of inspiration. As pointed out previously, all four gospels have Jesus uttering prophetic words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt worship practices. Moreover, the prophets were frequently unsparing in their criticism of the Temple and their threats of judgment. See, e.g., Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5. Consequently, I believe that Jesus’ address here in its Lucan context is directed more generally to Jerusalem and the people it represents who have a long history of resisting the messengers of the Lord calling them to repentance. This saying should not be read, in my opinion, to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome was God’s punishment specifically for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

February 17th

First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The devil didn’t show up with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a stack of porn videos when he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Turns out neither God nor the devil have much interest in the sins that rally our guardians of morality to march on Washington, boycott consumer products and bombard television networks with letters of protest. The stakes here are much higher than wardrobe malfunctions, nasty words and irreverent behavior. Real temptations, those that go to the very depths of our being don’t entice us to choose evil. Most of us are smart enough not to do that. For those who aren’t, the devil doesn’t need to waste his precious time tempting them. They will find the way to hell on their own. The devil typically appears as “an angel of light,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. Rather than openly advocating evil, he promises an easier, more cost effective way to achieve the good. That is precisely the tactic he uses on Jesus. “Why wait for God to provide bread when you can have it now? Why waste your breath preaching a kingdom for which all must wait when there is a military solution that can bring it into existence today? Why spend years forming faith through teaching the practices of discipleship when with one flying leap you can perform a miracle so grand that no one can possibly doubt you? The cross is a slow, inefficient and unreliable way of establishing the reign of God. Do it my way! It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s easier.”

I think that perhaps the greatest temptations we face are impatience and laziness. In the corporate world, you are expected to demonstrate immediate results in the most cost effective way possible. Don’t expect financing for a new business unless you have a business plan supported by raw data demonstrating that your company will begin paying off by a date certain-and not in the distant future. We expect elected officials to have some tangible accomplishments to show us within the first one hundred days in office. Such impatience finds it hard to tolerate a God who waits 400 years to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. What is wrong with a God who waits until a woman’s ninetieth year to give her a child? Why did Jesus find it necessary to terry two full days while his friend Lazarus languished on his death bed? The God of the Bible appears to operate in a way that is costly, inefficient and time consuming.

The ancient practices of Lent are similarly impractical. Does anyone really believe that prayer prevents hurricanes, earthquakes and blizzards? What can you show for having fasted? How can a single person giving alms make even a small dent in hunger throughout the world? The answer to all of these questions is simple.  Practicality is not the point. Lenten disciplines were not designed to change the world. They were designed to change us. More specifically, they are designed to help us overcome lazy resignation and learn patience and persistence in faithful discipleship. Prayer, when it is modeled on the prayers of scripture, teaches us to love and long for the reign of God above all else. Fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Giving alms trains our hearts toward thankfulness and generosity. The practices of Lent are tools we give the Spirit for the work of transforming our souls. Of course, transformed people inevitably transform the world around them. But that world transforming energy is a fruit of the Spirit, not the work of our own hands. It is driven by the sometimes hidden purposes of God and not by our impassioned notions of what the world needs. So let us begin our Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and alms, confident that God is at work in us and in the world bringing to fulfillment all that has been promised in Christ.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan.  There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:11,17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. You might call it a sort of “creed.”

The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.

In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. This, by the way, is where I got my inspiration for this year’s Lenten theme: “The Joy of Repentance.” The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12).  Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.

But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.

You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life.

Romans 10:8b-13

In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.

Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Free will has nothing to do with it. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.

Luke 4:1-13

We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has not been an empire yet that has been able to hang onto its vast holdings. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power for securing the peace and security for which we yearn.

Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omlet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t,  at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will take it in a New York minute. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick it up?

Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. We cannot predict the effects of our words that so frequently lead to hurt and misunderstanding despite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.

Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.