March 9, 2014 First Sunday in Lent
Ministers of God
Isaiah 58, Psalm 50, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, St. Matthew 4:1-11
Prepositions are slippery little rascals. They can be harder to translate than a textbook on nuclear fission. Take just one of these elusive midgets: “in.”
What does it mean to be “in” someone? You, Christian, claim to be “in Christ.” Well, bully for you! Now, what in the world do you mean by that?
Our God is a covenant-maker. He relates to His people through covenants. This word “covenant” first appears in the Bible to describe God’s relationship with Noah, but God made a covenant with Adam as well.
In this process, God creates His covenant with one person and it extends to all who are his offspring, or seed. God made a covenant with Abraham in which He promised children as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, the stars in the sky. All of them came under the Abrahamic Covenant.
And so they are said to be “in Abraham.” All of us are descended from Adam, of course, and so “in Adam” all sinned. Because the wages of sin is death, St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that “in Adam all die.”
This individual with whom God enters into a covenant relationship is called the mediator. Christ is the Mediator of the final covenant, which the author of Hebrews calls a “new and better” covenant. Because Christ defeated death on the cross, all who are His covenant children, all who are “in Christ” will not die but live forever.
And so it is good to be “in Christ,” but, we see today, in this life it ain’t all lollipops and roses.
In this season of Lent, I will preach through the collects in the Book of Common Prayer. As we proceed, I invite you to meditate throughout the week on the collect for the coming Sunday. A good approach is to consider the lessons for that Sunday, and especially the epistle and the gospel, and ponder how that brief prayer we call the collect pulls them together.
On this first Sunday in Lent, our collect begins, “O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights . . .”
Our gospel lesson shows us, from St. Matthew’s account, chapter 4, our Lord’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness following His baptism. The epistle lesson, from 2 Corinthians 6, opens with a plea from St. Paul to the members of the church in Corinth that they not “receive the grace of God in vain.”
For good measure, Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting that pleases God and Psalm 50 presents a portrait of God as a righteous Judge.
Now, even during Lent, Sunday is not a day of fasting for most of us and I know many of you are already meditating on lunch. In the interest of good stewardship of our time, I’ll focus on the two New Testament lessons.
The collect begins by addressing God, as all of the collects do, in this case, “O Lord,” referring to God the Son. The next words are “who for our sake didst fast . . .”
For our sake? I can think of a number of ways in which Jesus’ fast blessed us, beginning with giving us an example, but what specific sense does the author of the collect have in mind?
He continues, “Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thine honour and glory . . .”
Allow me to refer briefly to Isaiah 58. The prophet tells of the people of Israel demanding of God why He has not taken notice of their fasting. God replies: “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers . . .
“You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? . . . Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?”
So we see that all fasts are not created equal. Some are pleasing to God and others are not, and the decisive factor, as always, is the motive of the heart. We know that when we fast we are not to emulate the Pharisees; we must keep the matter private between God and us.
But I think I may refer to my own experience to provide a negative example. Some years ago, I resolved to fast for three consecutive days each month for the 12 months. Preceding each first Sunday, I began the fast following lunch on Thursday and broke it at Holy Communion on the Sabbath. I took nothing but water for 72 hours.
I stuck doggedly to this regimen . . . and plunged into legalism. I did not flaunt my fasting in public in the way of the Pharisees but, like them nonetheless, I was using my fasting to justify myself before God.
I was miserable to be around; I could barely tolerate myself. Look at me, God, see how righteous I am. This abstinence worked no better for me than for the Pharisees.
The author of the collect – Dr. Cranmer or one of his close associates – points us to our Lord’s fast as described in the gospel as the model. We are to ask for God’s grace to quiet the yearnings of our flesh to the end that they subside and the Holy Spirit within us rises.
When that happens, we are better able to obey our Lord’s “godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness” to His honor and glory. In this way, the fast serves not to bring honor to me but glory to Him.
In His 40-day fast, our Lord is seeking not honor for Himself but glory for His Father. If self-exaltation had been His motive, He would have turned stones into bread, replenishing His body. Instead, He drove home the point that real nourishment comes from God’s word, which restoreth the soul.
In His fast, meditating on the word of God, our Lord drew nearer His Father. His body grew weaker but His spirit gained strength.
` If He were seeking honor for Himself, He would have thrown Himself off of the pinnacle and let His angels snatch Him out of the air, showing off His power. Instead, He followed God’s word and did not tempt Him, demonstrating His humility.
If He were seeking honor for Himself, He would have worshiped Satan and taken command of all the kingdoms of the world, gathering glory. Instead, He vowed to worship and serve God only, displaying His fidelity.
In His hunger for God’s truth, in His humility, in His fidelity, Jesus models for us the obedience of one who loves God desperately. He becomes what Scripture calls an anti-type, placing on God’s altar the obedience that two previous sons withheld.
Adam met temptation in paradise and gave in to Satan’s blandishments, taking food forbidden to him. Israel, which is also called God’s son, underwent testing in a wilderness. God supplied bread, and they complained bitterly. Jesus, God’s true Son, met His temptation in a desert and turned away bread Satan held out in favor of the true manna, the truth of God.
In the Bible, the ideas of “testing” and “tempting” are intertwined. One Greek word serves for both. When we ask that God lead us not into temptation, we are in fact praying that He will not test us beyond our capacity to endure.
In our gospel lesson, when Jesus declares He will not tempt God He is in fact saying, as the modern translations make plain, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Man does not test God; God tests man. And as His responses to Satan make plain, Jesus understands that in His humanity He is undergoing a test in the wilderness. And so we come to our epistle lesson from 2 Corinthians 6.
St. Paul’s context is reconciliation. In the previous chapter he has written that “if anyone is in Christ” – which is to say, if he has come by faith under the new and better covenant of which Christ is Mediator – “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
And that God “has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
So we see one event begetting another. God, who is in Christ, has reconciled the world to Himself, and as a result of His act of reconciliation we who are in Christ have received the ministry of reconciliation.
The apostle goes on to say that “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us.” And he adds, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Are you terrified yet? I am. Christ’s act of reconciliation is the foundation of the new creation. Christ’s victory over sin on the cross is the basis for obedience and righteous living for those who trust in Him. Am I truly the righteousness of God in Christ?
Paul Barnett, the former Anglican bishop of North Sydney, wrote, “To withhold our faith and love from Him would be perverse and ungrateful . . . We are left with no honorable alternative but to ‘die’ to sin and live for Him who, as our representative and substitute, died and was raised.”
Are you terrified yet? I am. When His crumpled body hung on a cross, He represented us. Now, when that body is absent from this world, we represent Him.
Picking up in our passage for today, we hear Paul calling us – through the Corinthians – “workers together with” Christ. We are not only our Lord’s ambassadors but His colleagues. “We . . . plead with you,” says the apostle, “not to receive the grace of God in vain.”
What does he mean? How might we throw away God’s grace? “We give no offense in anything that our ministry may not be blamed.” You, Christian, are a minister of your Lord. Do nothing that would reflect badly on Him.
Interlopers have infiltrated the church in Corinth. They are preaching “another gospel” and an “other Jesus.” Those who turn to them turn away from the authentic gospel and the real Jesus, and show by their conduct they have received the grace of God in vain.
Are you terrified yet? I am. Our world teems with false prophets. They are leading many astray. Any who have received the grace of God in vain will not be His ambassadors and fellow workers.
Now Paul quotes Isaiah: “(God) says, ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’” The apostle adds, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
That was 2,000 years ago, give or take. Do you suppose you and I are exempt? The day of salvation is for us the day of decision. Some will hug the grace of God to them tighter than their teddy bear, some will receive it in vain.
Will you be God’s vessel of reconciliation? To the extent it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Your ministry must be blameless, for “in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God . . .”
He refers not to ordained ministers only but to that “priesthood of believers” that encompasses all Christians. We are to commend ourselves as ministers of God “in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses.” He has launched the second of three sufferings catalogues in this letter.
He mentions stripes, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, fasting . . . Earlier he told them, “So then death is working in us, but life in you.” Their life has come at the expense of his death
Beloved, none of us has been called to suffer as St. Paul suffered, but all ministry of reconciliation entails sacrifice. It must. It began at the cross.
So here is a progression: Christ suffered, resisting temptation and remaining faithful to God as Adam and Israel before Him had not. He suffered while fasting for 40 days, but fasting in the way God describes in the book of His prophet Isaiah. This was a time of testing from God.
Testing tempers those who have not received the grace of God in vain. It builds character. God tested His Son Jesus as He had tested His son Israel before Him, to prepare Him for His appointed tasks. God’s testing is an opportunity for those who have not received the grace of God in vain to grow in that grace.
St. Paul, the apostle of Christ, represents his Lord in his work of evangelism and discipleship. The Lord’s ambassador calls more ambassadors, the Lord’s fellow worker calls more fellow workers. He calls us to the ministry of reconciliation, the work Christ began and Paul continued.
He calls us to our own time of testing, our own sacrifice. Our Lord has commanded us to take up our cross and follow Him. He has given us Lent as our time to prepare to take His ministry of reconciliation to the world.
Our collect gathers these themes and distills them into a prayer. By it, as we embark on the season of Lent we ask for grace to fast in such a way that we sacrifice for Christ’s sake and not our own, that we become more able ambassadors and fellow workers, all “to thine honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”