Something happened at the bar this week, and I can’t get it out of my head. I was sitting next to the fire, minding my own business. And somebody had a birthday, so somebody else decided, we gotta find out how old everybody is, that’s a fun game. Suddenly guy number 1 shouts across the entire bar, “Hey, Pastor Rob, how old are you?”
You know what happens next. I’ve told you before. As soon as people find out I’m a pastor, people start explaining why they don’t go to church. Yeah, yeah. Very funny… for you. This is my life! Just by existing I make people feel guilty.
So, this guy number two starts explaining why he doesn’t need to go to church because he can pray in his home or out in a field or whatever, and guy number three says, “You could drink at home too, but you came here.” Brothers and sisters, that’s the best theology I heard all week.
So everyone goes back to what they were doing. But this one guy, the one who two seconds ago was so busy explaining why he doesn’t need church. He looks me in the eye when no one else is listening, and he says, “I’m lost. I am. I’m lost.”
I want you to hear that for a second. Let that sink in. He feels lost, but he doesn’t want to go to church. He doesn’t trust us. He doesn’t want to feel judged. He doesn’t want to follow all these rules and have this rigid, perfect, boring life. But he doesn’t want to drink alone, but he doesn’t want to go to church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had this to say about church:
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. This pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”
“But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone… God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin.”
Now do you understand why these prayer triads we’re doing for Lent are so important? It’s easy to think someone has their life together when the whole time you’re around them they have their mouth shut. I spend a whole week working on what I’m going to say so I don’t sound stupid or arrogant or both at the same time, and everyone else looks at the back of each others’ heads. You don’t have to say anything. You wear your nice clothes, you don’t say anything, and it’s really easy to get people to believe you’ve got your life together.
Sure we go downstairs for coffee, but who can’t put on a pleasant face for long enough to have some free coffee and finger food? If this is the only time we see of each other, how easy would it be to reach the completely logical, and completely false conclusion that we’re all nice, happy people living nice, happy lives?
Brothers and sisters, I’ve only known you for three years, so I don’t know a tenth of what’s actually going on, but even I know that’s not true. This is not a hotel for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. And when we get together weekly, and talk with each other honestly, and pray for each other daily, we begin to see each other truthfully, authentically We see each other as whole human beings, broken and awesome and ridiculously, relentlessly loved.
That’s what people are looking for, but they don’t trust us enough to find it in a church. Thankfully, the Bible is a practical book, and today Jesus gives us a genius method for dealing with people who would rather smack people with a Bible than actually read it. You’re picturing someone in your head right now. Stop that.
Jesus goes off into the desert, is led by the Spirit into the desert, and he hasn’t eaten anything for forty days. He’s being tempted this whole time, and at the end of 40 days, he’s hungry. Then the real temptation begins. That is a whole sermon right there, but we don’t have time, so you’ll have to come back next year.
Anyway, Jesus is hungry, and the Devil says…
Actually wait. Some of you in your head right now are having an argument with me, whether the Devil is actually a real fallen angel, or if he’s the personification of evil, or if all of this is just a metaphor. I don’t care! For the sake of the story, it doesn’t matter, because the moral of the story is the same either way. So stop arguing and just listen to the story.
The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Not since, not because. If. As in, “Prove it. Show me.” Jesus quotes scripture, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
So the devil tries again. He shows him all the kingdoms of the world. “All of this has been given to me, and I can give it to you, if you worship me.” There’s that if again. Only now it’s not casting doubt, it’s laying conditions. “Barter with me. Let’s make a deal. Let’s be friends.” Jesus quotes scripture again, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Last time. “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written:” Did you catch that? Every time Satan says, “Do this, do that,” and Jesus answers, “It is written.” But now Satan says, “It is written.” Remember this the next time someone quotes scripture at you like a club. Anyone can quote scripture. Satan quotes scripture! Just because you can find a text to support it doesn’t mean it’s true, or right, or good.
Pick anything. Slavery? Got a text for that. Misogyny? Got a text for that. Beating your kids when they don’t do what you say? I got a great one for that! How do you answer people who use the Bible to support horrific things?
Well, what did Jesus do? Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Did you catch it? It’s subtle. Test one. Jesus says, “It is written.” Test two. Jesus says, “It is written.” Test three, the devil says, “It is written.” But Jesus answers, “It is said.” He’s not quoting scripture any more. He’s not reading a text. He’s listening to the voices of thousands of years of believers and seekers and teachers of the word. He’s not quoting the words of a specific scripture, he’s quoting the idea behind it. And then what does he do? He shuts his mouth. The spirit of the law will always defeat the letter of the law and it does not need help!
A couple other things to notice. The devil quotes the Psalms, the Hebrew hymnal. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy. On a scroll, the lines he quotes the second and third time are literally inches away from the Shemah, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is the beating heart of Judaism.
Now translate that into modern Christian terms. If someone is pounding you with scripture, and they’re quoting Paul, while you’re quoting Jesus? Jesus wins. Somewhere right now, one of my theology professors just felt a dark disturbance in the force, because that’s bad theology, but it is a solid rule of thumb, and that’s why I’m a pastor and not a professor.
Last thing. Jesus quotes the obvious intent of the law, while the devil argues from interpretation. “According to this Psalm, God won’t even let his holy one stub his little toe. So how much more would he protect you if you jumped off this cliff?” Again this is just a rule of thumb, because sometimes truth takes nuance. Sometimes, the obvious answer is not the correct answer. Sometimes the reading only looks simple because we’re coming at it with 21st century baggage, and we need to read it in context. But even so, it’s still a good rule of thumb. If you’re talking straight and simple, and they’re doing gymnastics, call it a win and shut your mouth. Don’t be smug about it, and don’t feel guilty. It’s not your job to convince anyone. Your job is to speak truth. Changing hearts is the work of the Spirit. Our job is to speak truth, even when it costs us. We control our mouths. Only they control their mind.
Now, with all that in mind, hear the words of Psalm 91 one more time, and see if it sounds different in your ears. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield…”
Is that Psalm about triumph, or about hope? Is it about certainty, or faith? Was it written by someone who had it all together, or someone with a long way to go? Yes! All through Lent, we’re going to examine these Psalms, because they are everything that guy down at the bar is looking for. They are authentic emotion. They are real life. They are hope and faith and love, when we feel lost. Because we all feel lost. Welcome to Lent.