A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“You’re So Vain…” Sermon on Matthew 4: 1-11 Lent 1A March 2, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 1, 2020.  The texts were:

Psalm 32
Romans 5: 12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11


Children’s sermon We heard a story today that makes us ask a lot of questions. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the desert where the devil tempts him to do things that Jesus knows aren’t a good plan. Even though Jesus was tired and hungry, Jesus doesn’t do them. And then at the end, it says that angels came and cared for him. Now, it’s easy to focus on the devil and doing things that we shouldn’t, particularly in Lent, when you might have heard some adults talking about giving things up that are bad habits. But I think we miss in this story the last line of the angels coming and caring for Jesus. In the Bible, another name for angels are messengers, and really, it’s a better way to describe angels. What does a messenger do?  What do you think a messenger for God says? Yes, messengers for God will tell you how much God loves you! Do you think that there are messengers from God around you at school? At the playground? At soccer or wherever you might be? YES! God’s messengers are everywhere! Can YOU be a messenger for God? YES! You can! In your SS class you painted these rocks and now I want you to write words or messages about God’s love for people. You can place these rocks in your neighborhood for people to find and know that God loves them. The adults will do this in a couple of weeks as part of our Lenten worship, so I thought you all could show them how that works.  When we remember these messages of God’s love in our lives, it helps us to live together in love, serving and caring for each other which is what God wants. Let’s pray:

This text had me humming Carly Simon’s song “you’re so vain” all week. “You’re so vain…you probably think this Lent is about you.” It’s so easy to take a story like the one today in Matthew and immediately see myself in it. Oh that tempter, always trying to get me to do things that I don’t want to do or shouldn’t do. I just need to be strong like Jesus! And I need to know bible verses to quote to have the perfect comeback to the devil to prove how pious I am and how much I love Jesus. I need to resist all my bad habits like chips and salsa, or buying books (I might have a theology book problem), or not making my bed. I can take this text and make it all about me in about 3.2 seconds flat. I can make this about how disciplined I can be, how I can follow all the rules and then I will be a better person and never tempted like Jesus. And that can make ME feel pretty good…until I succumb to whatever temptation I have been trying to resist or I fall for the ego trip. When I make this text all about ME, how I can resist the tempter even when I’m at my lowest, how I can deny my human tendencies, it can leave me feeling inadequate, deflated and hopeless. I can’t pass up chips and salsa, even when I’m not hungry.

The good news is that this text isn’t about me, and yet it is most definitely for me, and it is for you and us all. This scene takes place immediately after Jesus is baptized, Jesus is claimed by God as God’s own son and beloved. Jesus is then led to the desert by the Holy Spirit, a place where there is no where to hide, no resources, there is sheer silence and no one around. Until the devil comes. We don’t talk much about the devil, much like hell, and there is much about the evil one that has been conjured up over time. Mostly, that the devil, Satan, the tempter, the accuser, the liar, is sinister or terrifying, is trying to harm us or worse, and is lurking in shadowy places. But here, the devil is in broad daylight. And no where does it say that the devil is frightening to look at or speaks with an other-worldly voice. Jesus doesn’t seem afraid at all. Mostly annoyed. The tempter doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything for him or her (we don’t know) per se, but the devil asks Jesus to do things for himself. There are no weird rituals, or pentagrams or sacrifices, just the devil trying to get Jesus to worry only about Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t fall for it, not for any of it. The devil even quotes scripture to Jesus, trying to twist the faith to justify the view that God is ok with Jesus being self-focused. It’s biblical, right?! Jesus also quotes scripture, not to get into an argument or a tit for tat conversation, but to point to God’s promise and presence not only for himself but for others. Jesus takes all of these temptations or tests, that happen to parallel the experiences of the ancient Israelites in the desert, and lays them bare, by revealing that all comes from God, all is God’s and all belong to God. Jesus’ encounter with the devil is not about how we should resist temptations, it’s not about resisting chocolate, or watching too much tv, or not exercising enough, or not shopping, or whatever. Jesus’ encounter with the devil shows us that the devil is a reality in life, the devil isn’t easily recognizable, the tempter won’t look or sound scary or like a bad horror movie. The devil will look and sound like our egos, our will, our voices in our heads that justify worrying only about ourselves and caring for ourselves first. Jesus’ encounter with the devil, reveals all the ways that we forget that God is God and we are not. Jesus trusts in the promises of his baptism, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and knows that God can’t be manipulated, God isn’t a cosmic slot machine where you can put in your requests and get out the answer you want. There are real consequences for our actions, particularly when are actions aren’t Spirit led. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the desert, to the real world, not to force rocks to be bread, or to jump off a building, or to worship another, but to encounter the real promises of God. The Spirit only leads to actions, God’s actions, that are life-giving and are life-giving for the care, provision and sustenance of all people and creation, not just for some or one. The Spirit led Jesus to the desert to be tempted, not because Jesus had to pass some sort of test, but because reality is that as baptized people the Holy Spirit will lead us out into the real world, we don’t stay holed up in a bubble. And out in the real world, the devil exists but so do God’s promises.

That is where it is good news that this story isn’t about me or us but is all about Jesus for us. Jesus doesn’t use God’s power for himself and for his own wants, Jesus only uses God’s power for others: to heal, feed, care, and love those whom no one else does. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the real world where it is hard and then angels, God’s messengers, cared for him. The good news is that this is true for us as well. The Holy Spirit leads us, is always out ahead of us pulling us to places that we might not want to go and encountering experiences that will be difficult for us to keep our focus on what matters. But God will also send messengers, angels, to encourage us, bolster us and reorient us to God’s vision and mission when we need it.

This story may not be about you, but God is all about you. God sends Jesus to reveal who God is, how much God loves us and wants to be with us and how God places us community, with one another for these promises of love, grace and mercy to abound. You are led this Lent by the calling of the Holy Spirit, to see Jesus’ love and power for you and to hear the messages of God’s promises for you again and again. Amen.


“You’re so vain, you probably think this sermon is about you.” Matthew 18:18-35, 14th Sunday of Pentecost, Year A, Sept. 14th, 2014 September 15, 2014

So, I’m a child of the 70’s and I love 70’s music. You’ve heard me say before that being in the car a lot I like my XM radio (if you hold out long enough, it comes down to a cheap monthly rate). The 70’s station is my favorite, a time when talented singer/songwriters such as Carly Simon were common. One of her hits was “You’re so Vain.” It’s a classic breakup song that regals us, with sarcasm and wit, the damage this former boyfriend (and the speculation of who that was) did to her. We all identify with her plight, as we all know people who only think of themselves and don’t really give much thought to how their words or actions might possibly affect someone else. We all have people in our lives who annoy us, lie to us, or wound us in some way and somehow belting out the words “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? Don’t you?” as you roll down I-25 is slightly cathartic.
Carly Simon puts into a three minute song the microcosm of life with other people. It’s messy, complex and humans tend to be self absorbed. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in Matthew 18 we move from “where two or three are gathered in my name,” to Peter asking how many times he has to forgive these other people who are ostensibly gathered in Jesus name. I’ve been saying all week, “where two or three are gathered…you’re gonna need forgiveness.” We are focused on ourselves and so we bump into one another in ways we’re not even always aware we’re doing and we leave scars to show for it. We wound each other in small and large ways. What are we to do when this happens? Do we forgive the person who gossiped about us? Probably. Do we forgive the person who stole $20 from us? Again, probably. But what about my friend who asks me if she should forgive her ex-husband who killed their children? Honestly, I don’t know. Or what about a victim of abuse, should they forgive their abuser? I don’t know. I guess it depends what we mean by the word “forgive”. Is it to forgive and forget? Is is a clearing of the balance sheet of wrongs done to you by someone or wrongs that you have committed? Is it a second chance? Or is it something else entirely?
Peter is wrestling with this too apparently, and I bet he had a specific incident in mind when he asked Jesus about how many times to forgive someone. Peter must have had a repeat offender in his life. Jesus’ initial answer is frankly a little too school yard playground for me: you should forgive over and over. Well, that’s great if someone just takes your juice box and cookie but I’m not sure that speaks to some of the real abuse and damage that people can inflict on one another.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there with that seemingly oversimplified response. He continues and tells Peter and the others, this over the top parable of the “unforgiving servant.” It’s so steeped in ridiculousness that we know it’s not to be read literally. So we pay attention to the theme of the parable. The amount of debt this slave owes the king is more than a servant can actually ever rack up in a life time. It would be like you or me garnering a billion dollars in debt. We would actually have to work really hard at accumulating that amount of debt. This slave that owes so much, throws himself at the mercy of the king and the king responds out of pity-he feels bad for him and releases him from his overwhelming debt. The slave is free.
What’s the first thing the slave does with his newly found freedom? He takes a fellow servant by the throat and threatens him. In his freedom, he chose to continue worrying about himself. The other slaves told the king of course, who was furious. This slave, who for a brief bit of time, had it all, and lost it all just as quickly and is handed over to be tortured. And then Jesus, not being the touchy, feely, pacifist that I prefer, says that this is what will happen to us if we don’t forgive from the heart. Ok, about now all I’m hanging on to is that this is just a parable.
See here’s the thing. We all hear this story and immediately start to worry about ourselves. So, I have to forgive or lose God’s grace? I have to forgive no matter what the circumstance? How do I know if I’ve really forgiven someone? But I’m still mad, broken and hurt! We want forgiveness to be easy, clear, and neat. I forgive you and the pain goes away. You forgive me and I stop feeling guilty. I forgive myself and I can finally have peace.
But that is not our human reality. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily end the damage that has been done to each other. God forgives us completely and unconditionally each and everyday; more than the 77 times Jesus talks about, unless you’re under 2 months old. God knows that forgiving us is actually about acknowledging and entering into our brokenness and pain of our past and present, and offering us radical hope for a different future. God walks with us into that future. God also calls us to walk together into that future. When we can offer forgiveness to someone else, we are being honest about our pain; not burying it, not denying it and not ignoring it. We are also calling out the other person’s real brokenness that affects us. Forgiveness is a new way to be in relationship together, built on the grace and hope first offered us by God through Jesus over and over.
We are created for community, to be gathered together to reflect and reveal the loving presence of Christ wherever we are. The kingdom of heaven is God’s mercy for all God’s people and God’s desire for her people to fully live in hope, love and grace at all times and in all places. But this kingdom of heaven is not yet fully here, so we continue wound each other and must struggle with our human frailties of thinking only about ourselves, realities of violence, cheating, lying, and all of the other ways that we unfairly deny each other abundant life. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse any of our harmful behavior or means that we have to allow harm to be done to ourselves or others. Actually, in community we are compelled to call out wrong when we witness it and stand with those in harms way. But there is also this difficult reality that because of our interconnectedness, when we withhold forgiveness, when we deny anyone hope, we ultimately deny it to ourselves. It can feel like torture to live without hope for a tomorrow filled with the promises of God.
God extends to all of us radical forgiveness that is difficult for us to even receive because it is rooted in the very heart, the very being, of our unconditional loving God. If we truly receive this forgiveness, it compels us to offer it to someone else because it’s too important, too meaningful and too life giving to keep it to ourselves. We will want with our whole heart, with our whole being, for our neighbor to have this gift. Because ultimately, this forgiveness is about you and about all of us rooted in God’s mercy and love. Thanks be to God.