A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, March 1, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 28/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Last week, we began our Season of Lent series on the first wilderness challenge and that was the challenge of our identity. The wilderness is that desolate area where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights facing various challenges to who he was and what he was sent by God to do.

     This wilderness story is why the Season of Lent is a forty day season. The purpose of these weeks leading up to Easter is to help us face these challenges which involve dying to self and offering ourselves to God.

     Last week, we looked at the wilderness challenge of our identity. Just before Jesus was sent into the wilderness to begin facing the challenges that would come his way, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. When Jesus was baptized, we are told that the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, and with him I am well pleased.”

     The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is what reminds us of our identity. We belong to God. We are claimed by God. The Holy Spirit is with us. And because God loves us unconditionally, we too are called his beloved. This is why our weekly benediction has that fist line that says, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God. There are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes.”

     We say this benediction every week at the conclusion of our worship service so that we can all be reminded of our true identity. When we leave from worship and face a new week, it’s so important that we remember who we are and who we were created to be. 

     So when Jesus went into the wilderness and faced all of those temptations, he was able to do so because he already knew who he was. He was God’s Son. He was God’s beloved. 

     Knowing who we are is so important when we face challenges in life. Baptism is an important way for us to remember our identity. We only need to be baptized once, but it’s important that we renew our baptism as often as possible. We can do that by simply repeating the words, “I am baptized” which is something the famous 16th century Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther would do whenever he was feeling discouraged.

     Remember your baptism. Remember that you belong to God. Remember that you are claimed by God. And so the first wilderness challenge during this Season of Lent is remembering our true identity. 

     For this week’s wilderness challenge, our appointed Old Testament reading from Genesis helps us to focus on the challenge of trust. It’s the story of God wanting to make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah for them to have offspring that would lead to the formation of God’s people. It’s an incredible covenant because God specifically says that their offspring will continue throughout generations where even kings will come from them.

     This sounds like an incredible promise that God makes to Sarah and Abraham but there’s just one major problem. A really big problem. Sarah is way past child-bearing years. They are around a hundred years old when God made this covenant with them. Their challenge would be one of trusting that God would be able to make this happen. When Jesus went into the wilderness and faced all of those challenges from Satan, he also needed to trust that God had a different mission in mind for him.

     For the past several years, I have served on the district committee on ministry. It’s where we interview candidates for ministry. And one of the basic questions we always ask someone who is pursing the pastoral ministry is, “Tell us about your calling.” How has God called you to be a pastor?

     And almost every single time these candidates share their story of how God called them, it includes how they were reluctant to respond to that calling at first. One candidate in telling me his call story said how he and his wife attended a small country church one Sunday for worship. It was only their second time visiting that little church and there was a guest preacher that Sunday.

     And after the worship service, one of the church leaders came up and asked him, “I know this is only your second time here, but we are in need of a pastor. Would you be interested?

     You know, I’ve heard of church people asking a worship guest to join the choir but I think this was the first time I ever heard of someone new being asked to become their pastor! I asked him how he responded and he said that he would need time to think about it. 

     Long story, short. He did take time to think and pray about it which led him to have a conversation with the district superintendent who explained to him the process of how a lay person can serve as a pastor of a church. Of course this includes a process of training and credentialing, but even more importantly, it includes trust. He ended up saying that he would give it a try as long as the people in that little church would be patient with him since he didn’t have any experience in being a pastor.

     And the wonderful thing is that because this person had an open mind and was willing to learn, that little church he is serving is responding to his leadership in a very positive way. His initial challenge was to trust that God really did want him to pray about if he should become their pastor which led him to saying yes.

     Another pastor told me his call story that involved trust. He was a truck driver and while fixing a car one day, he was invited to come inside a church to get warm. As he was getting warm, he saw a picture of Jesus on the wall which left an impression with him. 

     He decided to get involved in church again and received training to become a Lay Speaker and that led to him to responding to a calling to start the process of becoming a pastor of a small congregation.

     His story was one of trust because he had to work through the challenge of not feeling equipped to become a pastor, even though he could sense that God was calling him.

     When God calls us to try something new or alter our way of life and thinking, that requires us to be willing to trust as we step out in faith. Abraham and Sarah probably couldn’t believe that having children would be possible through them in their advanced years, but they trusted and God blessed them.

     As I’ve been thinking about the importance of learning to trust God while we’re in the wilderness during this season of Lent, the thought occurred to me that we are all wired to trust to varying degrees.

     A couple of months ago when I was in the grocery check-out line, I noticed a national enquirer newspaper. I had almost forgotten that this publication still existed. The headlines on that issue were hilarious. The one about Kenny Roger’s body was missing made me laugh. And I remember thinking to myself, “How do people believe this stuff and why do these newspapers of fake stories sell so many copies?”

     But then I started thinking about the many people who believe in conspiracy theories especially those of a political nature. These are grown adults who otherwise seem to be fairly normal and reasonable people, but they actually believe the information that come out of these conspiracy groups. 

     So, in a weird kind of way, there is something inside of us that wants us to trust that these bizarre stories just might be true. 

     The challenge we often face is in prayerfully discerning if God is truly calling us in a particular way. And this requires trust on our part. I say “prayerfully discerning” because based on these tabloids and conspiracy theories, we don’t want to just believe everything that we read or hear. 

     When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan was trying to get Jesus to believe that he should turn stones into bread, and jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and angels would save him, and worship him and all the kingdoms of the world would become his. Satan was trying to get Jesus to believe in these conspiracies of what he should do rather than what God sent him to do. 

     The wilderness is where we do a lot of soul searching in discerning what is true and what is not true. This is why spending these weeks of Lent in the wilderness with Jesus are so important. It helps us to face the challenge of where we are called to place our trust and the things where we should not place our trust. 

     Jesus was able to keep his trust in what God wanted him to do rather than what Satan was wanting him to do. Just like God did for Abraham and Sarah, we are called to trust in God’s incredible vision and hope for the world. 

     This vision is one where we are invited to participate in making this world a better place, a place where all people are loved and valued, a place where there is harmony, justice, peace, and equality. This is why our church’s mission statement is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. What an incredible mission we have! To participate with God in bringing transformation to our world.

     If all of this sounds too good to be true, remember that this is what Abraham and Sarah were probably thinking when God made a covenant with them. It sounds like something that you might see on a tabloid while waiting in the check-out line…

     “Hundred year old couple to become pregnant.” But this headline ended up being true and it was through the covenant that God made with them that God would send Jesus, the savior of the world. 

     During this season of Lent, God is calling us to place our trust in something far more interesting than who stole Kenny Roger’s body. God is calling us to change the world.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Trust

Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
February 28, 2021

For our six-week Season of Lent focus, we are spending these forty days with Jesus in the wilderness. Each week presents a new wilderness challenge that is meant to lead us into a deeper faith. Last Sunday, our focus was on knowing our identity. Our identity is rooted in God’s unconditional love and being reminded that we belong to God.

Share a way that you were able to remember this past week that you belong to God. 

This week’s wilderness challenge is related to our trust in God. For this, we turn to our appointed Old Testament scripture which is from Genesis, chapter seventeen and the story of when God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah to become the parents of a great nation. The challenge was that Sarah was way past child-bearing years!

What would have gone through your mind if you were Abraham and Sarah? What does this story tell you about what it means to trust God?

Pastor Robert shared stories of people who faced the challenge of trusting God when they were asked to step out in faith. In each of these stories of trust, they needed to pray, explore the possibility, and be open to God’s signs pointing them to trust and have faith. 

When God is calling you to do what seems like the impossible, what steps do you take in discerning if you are truly being called? How have you helped others who are trying to decide if God is calling them to follow in a particular way?

We live in a world that thrives on conspiracy stories that are not rooted in anything factual. The headlines of the National Enquirer capture our attention and some people even believe these stories are true simply because they saw it in print. When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan posed a lot of conspiracies to Jesus saying that he should turn stones into bread, jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, and worship him and the kingdoms of the world would be his.

Why do you think people believe in conspiracy stories? What helped Jesus to know the difference between believing in Satan’s conspiracies and trusting in God?

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