Lead Us Not Into…

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

I’ve often talked about the role that commentaries play on the development and proclamation of a sermon. Perhaps the text is very familiar and the pastor desperately wants to find a new angle, or the passage appears to difficult to tackle and the preacher just wants all the help the preacher can get.

That’s when the commentary gets dragged down from the shelf and the pages start flying.

Commentaries can be an invaluable tool when doing this thing I do every week, but sometimes they just fall flat.

I looked through just about every single commentary in my office this week in preparation for this sermon. After all, the temptation of Jesus is indeed one of those stories that lots and lots of people already know. And, to further complicate matters, the devil is in it. 

It’s familiar and it’s difficult. 

What’s a preacher to say about a story most of us know that contains a character most of us ignore?

So I pulled down the commentaries and started reading…

Just like Jesus, we will all face trials and temptations, and we need to do everything we can to resist them in whatever way they present themselves.

When we read the words from the Devil, it is a reminder that we need to take on a posture of intentionality to rebuke his destructive advances.

We read this story at the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we need to let go of the things that are keeping us from being with God.

Did you notice anything there? In almost every commentary I read about the temptations of Jesus, they are ultimately focused more on our temptations than on those faced by Jesus.

Or, to put it very plainly, the commentaries make it seem like Jesus is an after-thought in the never ending battle against our vices.

Or still yet another way to look at it – God helps those who help themselves.

Except, this isn’t a story about us.

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On Ash Wednesday many of us gathered here in the sanctuary and we heard those frighteningly familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those ashen cross on our foreheads were the first steps into a season that is often marked with sacrifice, repentance, and fighting against temptations.

There are plenty of things we can, or perhaps should, give up.

4 out of every 10 adults in America are obese. Maybe we should go on a collective diet?

The average American has $5,331 in credit card debt right now. Maybe we start budgeting our money?

I could go on and on and on.

But perhaps today can be a sobering reminder, akin to the reality check that Ash Wednesday provides, that we aren’t really capable of resisting temptation. Maybe, if we abandon anything this season, it should be the notion that giving something up it makes us better people. 

Perhaps we should ditch the belief that life is up to us.

If Lent is at all about us, its about how far off we are from God, how unlike God we are, and yet God choose to be like us in order to rectify the wrongness within us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure I’m grateful to Luke for this story about Jesus in the wilderness. It’s certainly dramatic, but the longer I read it, the worse it makes me feel.

The Devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, then do something!

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, there are people starving for food, they’re suffering from the chaos of a world that could be incredible if someone with enough power would smack them into shape, they’re wandering around in darkness waiting for God to give them any definitive demonstration that they can hold on to.”

It’s like the devil takes a good look at Jesus and realizes, “If we combined our powers we really could get this whole show on the road.”

This story has the power to bring me down in the dumps because in it I hear myself asking Jesus some of those same questions. I think I know what would be best for the world, and if Jesus could just get with the program, my program, we could fix all this brokenness around us.

Take away the fact that Jesus is Lord, and in this little vignette, he looks kind of like a jerk. Why won’t he work a little miracle and bring about some food?  Why won’t he just take control of the world? Why won’t he give the world a taste of God’s saving power?

But, those questions are our temptation, and they only go to show how far we are from the divine. It shows how this story is just like any other conversation between two people who simply cannot understand one another.

The devil is operating out of a world view that is remarkably like our own – he wants a demonstration of power and wants immediate gratification.

Jesus is operating out of a kingdom view that is totally unlike our own – he knows the myth of progress to which we are so inextricably tied.

If we were really capable of fixing this world, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

Of course the hungry should be fed, and the wanderers should be led, and the hopeless should be given hope. But we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, a really long time, and what do we have to show for it?

We are so much a people of the world, rather than the kingdom, that it is nearly impossible to see the story from any point of view other than the devil’s. Again, if you take away the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, take away the fact that we know the end of the story, the devil’s questions sound pretty good!

That’s crazy.

It’s a crazy thing to realize, here at the beginning of our own Lenten journeys, that the person with whom we have to most in common in this story isn’t Jesus, but the devil. 

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But the craziest thing of all is that Jesus eventually does all of the things the devil tempts him to do. Not out there in the wilderness, but by the time we reach the end of the gospel we discover that he does them in his own time and in his own way.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy his hunger – but later he turns some bread and fish into a buffet for 5,000. Which, incidentally, only incites the crowds desire to him become a version of who the devil tempts him to become.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to worship the devil to gain control of the world – but later he ascends to rule over the earth, not with a powerful and war-like regime, but from the vulnerable arms of the cross.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to test God’s willingness to demonstrate his saving power – but later he dies and is buried in the ground, only to rise again through God’s power in the resurrection.

How strange a story this is for people like us to read. In it we discover that the God who took on flesh to be like us is still completely unlike us. We catch a glimpse of the totality of the gospel in just a few verses. And we even celebrate Jesus’ ability to resit temptation even though he eventually makes all of those tempted realities real in his own way.

One of the worst temptations during the season of Lent is to puff ourselves up as if we are above and beyond the temptations that are thrown at us by the world. 

The hard truth of the gospel is that even if we are able to resist a temptation or two, part of our human nature implies that we will succumb. We will eat the food we know we shouldn’t, we will hurt the people who deserve better, and we will foolishly believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, for others, for the world, and even for Jesus.

I like to think, on some days, that I’m a pretty okay person. I like to believe that given the right set of circumstances I will make the good and right choice. I like to imagine that there is more goodness in me than there is badness.

But, there are parts of me that are indefensible. 

I have made wrong choices.

I have hurt the people I love.

I have thought myself greater than I really am.

At the heart of Lent is a willingness to look in the mirror and realize who I really am.

And if pastoring has taught me anything, there are parts of each of you that are indefensible as well.

A particular word that stung someone so badly they haven’t talked to you in years.

A receptive omission of something seemingly insignificant that became a wedge between you and your partner.

A foolish assumption that elevated you above everyone else and resulted in nothing but more and more resentment.

There is a frightening truth in the words that we often read in church without giving them much thought: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

There are parts of us that simply cannot be defended.

And, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, if we don’t know that to be true, then we do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of sin, and temptation, and death, then we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the One who justifies the ungodly.

This Jesus, the one who rebuffs the temptations of the Devil, is the one who comes not to make our lives better or give us the strength to resist our own temptations. Jesus comes to live and die and live again to justify us. 

Take a good hard look at the cross, survey it in all of its wonder and violence, it is the sign for you and me that our God is a God of impossible possibility. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness it is a harrowing reminder that Jesus does for us what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

He delivers us from evil. Amen. 

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Jesus’ Temptation or: Who Does Government Belong To?

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice interviewed Stanley Hauerwas about the Lectionary Readings for Lent 1 (3/4/17). You can listen to our conversation here: Strangely Warmed

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There is a temptation, during the season of Lent, to make it all about our temptations rather than Jesus’ temptation. While people today (Ash Wednesday) are embarking on the beginning of their 40 fast from the likes of chocolate, coffee, and candy, the Revised Common Lectionary forces us to confront the truth about Jesus’ temptation on the first Sunday of Lent. Our conversation with Hauerwas brought forth some interesting insights about comparing Jesus temptation by the devil with the serpent’s tempting of Eve in the Garden for both pastors and laypeople. If you’re preaching the first Sunday of Lent, or if you are interested in the connections between Genesis and Matthew, check out the episode from Strangely Warmed.

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Devotional – Matthew 4.1-2

Devotional:

Matthew 4.1-2

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

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In a few days churches across the globe will begin the season of Lent through Ash Wednesday services. Countless disciples will have ashes in the shape of the cross on their foreheads at school, at work, at the gym, and everywhere in between. The season of Lent marks our journey with Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem that culminates in the empty tomb on Easter.

For a long time, Lent has been a season in the life of the church focused on personal piety and repentance. It is an opportunity for Christians to confess their sins and spend a number of weeks turning back to the Lord in spite of their previous choices. And this emphasis on repentance has been made manifest in the popular decision to “give something up for Lent.”

We are told that it is good and right to give up a temptation during the season because it allows us to focus more on God and because it allows us to mirror Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil. When done faithfully, giving something up can be a truly fruitful activity; fasting has always had a place in the life of disciples. However, the season of Lent is about a lot more than personal piety, and when we limit our participation in this important season to “giving something up” we neglect to remember that Jesus’ temptation is not our temptation.

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When Jesus was hungry the devil challenged him to turn stones into bread and yet Jesus refused. When the devil enticed Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to put God to the test, Jesus refused. And finally, when the devil offered Jesus all the governments of the world in exchange for Jesus worshipping the devil, Jesus refused.

The devil offers things to Jesus that only the devil can offer to the Son of man. We, like Jesus, can be tempted by hunger, contractual prayers with God, and with a desire to control our lives through things like government, but they are not offered to us in the way that they are offered to Jesus. Jesus’ temptation marks the beginning of a ministry that will upset the expectations of the world and eventually result in his death on a cross. As the Son of God, Jesus is offered, and tempted, with the devil’s way out but he refuses. He refuses because he is God incarnate and cannot deviate from the path that leads to resurrection.

If we want to give something up during Lent in order to grow closer to God, by all means we can. However, perhaps a better thing to give up is not a physical and tangible item like chocolate or watching TV, but instead we can give up the false notions that we are the central characters of scripture, that we can earn our salvation, that we are more important than we really are.

Instead, maybe this Lent we give thanks to the Lord our God who came to walk among us, be tempted like us, yet be totally unlike us, and save us from sins, from death, and from ourselves.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

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This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

Bryson City UMC

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

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But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Devotional – Matthew 6.1

Devotional

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
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When I was in seminary we called the season of Lent, “The Spiritual Olympics.” For those of us enrolled in higher theological education, we loved competing with our peers regarding our public piety during a season of fasting. Whereas many Christians rightly use the season of Lent to return to God’s way by confronting their finitude, we used the season to show off how holy we thought we were.

It was not uncommon to hear subtle brags throughout the hallways of our esteemed institution: “This year I’m going to give up sweets…” “Sweets? That’s easy! I’m going to give up meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation…” “Meat? Give me a real challenge! I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain of the Word of God…” And I was there in the thick of it, offering up my own sacrifices to demonstrate my piety for anyone with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

What made the Lenten season so ridiculous was the fact that everyone knew what everyone else was giving up because it became the forefront of our conversations. In those moments of “Spiritual Olympics” we wanted everyone to know how pious we thought we were, and we had lost contact with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It was frightening how easy it was for us to turn the gospel around to be more about our own selfishness than the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Resisting temptation is a powerful practice during the season of Lent. When we take the time and energy away from bad habits and give that time back to God, it gives glory to the Lord. But if we take this season as an opportunity to flaunt our piety, it bears no fruit.

This Lent let us challenge ourselves to engage in acts of piety. Perhaps we know of something in our lives that we need to give up this season, a distraction away from recognizing God’s grace in our midst. Maybe we know of a practice that we need to add into our daily rhythms like prayer or bible study. But instead of sharing what we are giving up, or adding, with everyone around us, instead of making this vulnerable season in the life of the church into “Spiritual Olympics,” let us keep our piety to ourselves.

If we can keep our piety in check, which is to say if we can be pious for God’s sake and not our own, we will begin walking down the path that Jesus’ prepared for us.

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Red With Envy – Sermon on Genesis 25.29-34

Genesis 25.29-34

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

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There was a man who lived a perfect life. For years he did his very best to maintain the commandments of God, love his family, tithe to his local United Methodist Church, serve on the Trustees Committee, and volunteer as a coach for local little league sports. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. He was charismatic and hardworking, personality traits that would come to reward him when he started his own business.

He was a shrewd business man who seemed to be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market, quickly amassing a vast sum of money that he would then reinvest in the right companies. Yet, even with his vast wealth, he never overdid it with his community. He was humble and thrifty, fitting in with everyone else even though he was wealthier than anyone he knew.

As his life progressed he found success in nearly every direction. His company continued to expand and produce wealth, his family was the ideal example of love and compassion, and he had a strong relationship with his church. Near the end of his days God appeared to him one morning in his office. The Lord said, “Do not be afraid! You have lived a wonderful and virtuous life. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to make an exception for you; when you die you can bring a briefcase of whatever you want to heaven. So think about it while you still can, and I’ll see you soon.”

During the final weeks of the man’s life he thought deeply about what to bring with him to heaven, and when the time came he was confident with his decision.

Standing on the clouds of heaven, right beside the pearly gates the man was thrilled to see St. Peter ready to greet him and let him into paradise. “Welcome” St. Peter began, “we have been waiting for you. But if I’m being honest I can’t wait to see what you brought to heaven! God doesn’t make a deal like that with just anyone and we have been so curious to see what you brought!” The man smiled and proudly passed his briefcase over to St. Peter. As he opened the case he discovered six perfectly polished gold bars that glowed in the light of heaven.

“Interesting choice,” St. Peter said, “but we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”

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Greed. Our current economic downturn is often attributed the vice of greed, having grown out of control. For many of us, we’re not exactly sure how this actually happened, but we are ready to believe that we are suffering because some became too greedy. Greed has no limits or shame; while CEOs make millions and millions in bonuses, regular people are stuck in debt, unsure of the future, starving for work, and afraid of the consequences of others’ greed.

Greed is seductive and always waiting in the recesses of our minds. It is something that tempts all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Just like the hypothetical virtuous man who lived an incredible life, he failed to appreciate the goodness of God’s kingdom when he brought gold bars to heaven. We so desperately cling to the materialism of our world that we are unable to imagine a life without greed.

Have you ever heard a sermon about greed? The fact that we do not hear about this particular topic seems strange considering how prominent the temptation of greed is considered to be one of the greatest threats for Christians.

Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24). Paul suggests that the love of money is the root of all evil leading some to walk away from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10). James is very blunt about the folly of greed: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4.1-2)

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Time and time again scripture frustrates our conceptions about the world: If we are Christian and wealthy or if we desire to have wealth, we have a problem. 

Greed, however, is not limited to monetary gain alone. Greed sits at the root of most of our sins. We become greedy for wealth, power, position, place, people, and programs. We want more than our fair share. We desire the most for the least effort.

Jacob and Esau were born in conflict with one another.

The first born was red and covered with hair so they named him Esau, which means Red. The second born came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel so they named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber. Esau would grow to become a mighty warrior, skillful hunter, and a man of the field whereas Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob.

So it came to pass one day that while Jacob was cooking a meal, Esau came in from the field completely famished. “Let me have some of that red stuff, because I am starving!” Esau said to Jacob. So Jacob replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to, but first sell me your birthright.” “Are you serious, I am about to die from hunger; what good is my birthright to me now?” “Swear to it” said Jacob. And so Esau swore to his younger brother and traded his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. When Esau finished eating he rose and went away and began to despise his birthright.

Who is the greedy one from our scripture? 

Esau’s greed is evident and obvious. Rather than trust in the Lord’s provision, Esau’s vision was limited to the present and he wanted immediate gratification for his desires. In order to satisfy his appetite, Esau’s greed became so powerful that he was willing to give away his future for the present moment. 

We are a generation of busy people, consistently fighting a battle to determine what to give up and what to continue. When our plates become too full with responsibilities we plan to remove that which is unnecessary and no longer life-giving. So many people give up the important things of life to pursue something that is meaningless because we are consumed by our present needs rather than steadfast in our trust of the Lord. Many of us are tempted to ignore our baptismal identifies when we see someone in need, we are tempted to disown our family, friends, and children when they do something wrong. We are often tempted to sell out for something less than what we are truly worth.

Esau’s greed is obvious because it is so similar with our greed. Forgetting the long-term cost, we are quick to serve our sinful desires and natures right here and right now. What do I have to do to make more money as soon as possible? What do I have to do to get that girl at school to like me? We are captivated by the fast sprint rather than the patient marathon.

Pastors love to chastise Esau for so quickly releasing his birthright, and use him as an example for what not to do. But what about Jacob? Jacob who used crooked and deceitful ways to steal his brother’s birthright. He was no doubt the promised one, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive him for taking advantage of his brother’s need.

Jacob’s greed is subtle and relentless. Instead of offering his brother some food out of kindness he is always looking out for number one. Later in the story, after Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob is willing to give away all his animals, wives, and children just so that he might save his own neck. Jacob was blinded by the greed of power, to draw to himself everything he could by whatever means necessary, even letting his brother starve.

We are a generation of individualists who are taught from infancy the importance of a capitalistic world view. When we see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain we are willing to do whatever it takes to amass power. So many people will go against their values, morals, and ethics in an instant, purely to make our lives a little better. Many of us are tempted to forget who we are and whose we are because we have forgotten the true meaning behind “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

Jacob’s greed is apparent when we realize how similar it is with our own. Consumed with our lives alone, we ignore the needs of others when they prevent us from getting what we want. Why would I give my money to the church when I am the one who earned it? Why should I be responsible for helping to poor when they should be the ones helping themselves? We are captivated by our solitary vision of the world rather than seeing the world through the eyes of Christ.

Years ago I was preparing to help lead a team of youth on a mission trip to Guatemala. We would be serving the needs of the indigenous Mayans in the highlands for a week by building stones, playing with children, and planting trees. In order to go on the trip, as a youth, you had to regularly participate in youth group and fundraising. Throughout the year there were numerous opportunities to plug into the regular programming and this requirement helped to foster strong bonds and fellowship before we left the country.

There was a man at the church whose daughter wanted to attend the trip but had not participated in any of the youth activities, nor was she part of the fundraising. Her father believed that these requirements were frivolous and he was going to beat the system.

One morning he arrived at church and walked straight to the pastor’s office with a smile on his face. He held up a substantial check that he was willing to give to the church with the following stipulations: I will give this money if it directly goes to the mission trip to Guatemala, and if it guarantees my daughter a space on the trip.

Greed. I’m sure that the man felt he was doing a great thing for the church and indeed for the kingdom of God, after all here he was willing to give of his own money to help others in need. Yet, don’t you see how similar he was to Jacob and Esau? Rather than encouraging his daughter to give of her time through participation in youth group and fundraising he, like Esau, wanted immediate results for the minimal effort. Yet at the same time he was willing to challenge the church and, like Jacob, was willing to have his needs met at any cost while foregoing the need of others.

Greed is mighty and powerful. It seduces us and tells us that we are the most important beings in the universe. It fuels our desire for gratification in ways that are even beyond our imaginations.

Yesterday I arrived at our church to do some pre-marital counseling only to discover the church had been broken into and my office door had been kicked in. With a knot in my stomach I walked into my office: all of the drawers had been opened, most of my paperwork examined and scattered. Thankfully nothing seemed to be missing which furthered the mystery of the break-in. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what they were looking for. But I’m sure that they were fueled by greed.

Jesus, thanks be to God, calls us to a different life. Less is more. We are not the center of the universe, God is. We have more than we will ever need because God’s love and grace abound and our cups runneth over.

In order to break free from the slavery of greed we begin by acknowledging it in our lives, in whatever forms it presents itself. It’s easy to point out the greed in others, but now we have the challenge of looking inward at our greed. We may succeed in our fight against greed only when we learn to trust God for our needs, when we see the world the way that God sees us, and when we are prepared to give our lives for others because Christ gave his for us.

Amen.