I hope you enjoy these reflections about this week’s appointed stories from the revised common and narrative lectionaries, with potential insights about discipleship, mission, innovation, and stewardship.
We are here now. In the wilderness. Confronted by ashes and our mortality. The season of Lent is here. As is always the case with the First Sunday in Lent in the revised common lectionary, the gospel lesson features Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. It’s an important story to begin with, in thinking about Jesus’ mission and our call as disciples to follow, and to recognize that it is God’s call and work that we are invited to be a part of. As we always do, we’ll take the stories in order. But I will preface this with an admission that the first lesson for this week is one of my favorite stewardship stories there is, and is often selected for Thanksgiving worship.
The first lesson as you might have guessed, comes from Deuteronomy 26. We read, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:1-11, NRSV).
Stewardship is all about story, and particularly God’s story and how we’re all a part of it. This lesson recalls the story of God’s people and what God has done, implying too, what God will do. But it also calls us each to respond. It calls us to set aside some of all of the “first fruit of the ground,” and to return that to God.
It might seem odd to start the first Sunday in Lent with a story which then ends with a call to “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house,” but it’s actually very fitting. You see, as we count the 40 days of Lent, Sundays are not included in that count, and are mini-Easter’s during Lent. But also, this story calls us to lean into our lives as stewards and disciples with joy and gratitude. To share the on-going story of God’s life-giving work, and to respond with joy, gratitude, and celebration for what God has done, will do, and promises to do for us and for all of God’s beloved.
The psalm appointed for this week includes a couple sections from Psalm 91. The psalmist proclaims in words, that if you’re like me probably bring the words and melodies of hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” and “On Eagle’s Wings” to mind: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, NRSV).
Psalm 91 like so many psalms gives us words to describe who God is and what God does (and will do) for God’s beloved. There is the obvious parallel inclusion of this psalm because it is referenced directly too in the gospel reading of Jesus being tempted. But Jesus knows the meaning of these words from the psalmist. They are words of promise and hope, provision and salvation. God is our refuge and fortress whom we can trust. God will hold us and bear us up. God will deliver God’s beloved, and protect them. God answers when called upon, and rescues in time of need. God provides and satisfies. God is and does the work of salvation. For all of this, we respond with joy and gratitude through our stewardship. For all of this, we grow deeper and follow as disciples, sharing God’s love through all that we are and all that we do.
This week’s second story come from the tenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes, “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Romans 10:8b-13, NRSV).
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart…” God is near and with us. God’s promises and good news of the Gospel of the Word is with us. Paul is reminding us of the gift of faith and the gift and promise of God’s saving work in whom we have faith and hope. “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him…” Paul recognizes the true abundance of God and that God’s love has no limits. There is no cap on the amount of people whom God loves. And out of that deep abiding and abundant love, God saves. That’s pure gift and grace. Good news. Perhaps even more good news than we might actually hear or sense in the actual Gospel reading that we know well this week.
Luke’s version of the story of the Temptation of Jesus comes at the beginning of chapter 4. Luke writes, picking up right after Jesus’ baptism, “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” (Luke 4:1-13, NRSV).
Instead of the usual verse by verse wondering, I’m wondering about the length of time in the wilderness (which of course is the length of time our Lenten journey). Forty days of testing, tempting, wandering, and wondering. Forty days of being out in the wilderness by himself and being pestered by the devil. Forty days of being filled with the Holy Spirit which led him into the wilderness in the first place, straight from the Jordan after being baptized. Forty days might not sound like a long time. But it could well feel like it without food, others around to talk to, and just the companionship of the evil one.
Of course Jesus wasn’t swayed by the devil’s temptations of power, provision, and testing of God. Jesus was resolute in the wilderness as only the Son of God could be. He knew the mission and work he was called to. He knew, as we mark the start of Lent this week, what lied ahead. But for the rest of us, I would imagine that this would be a challenging if not impossible task to face alone. And thankfully we do not, because we know that our Lord and Savior walks with us in life, no matter what the wilderness might bring.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Wilderness time can be good. It can be full of discernment, discovery, listening and experimentation. But it can also be hard, and full of unknowns, anxieties, uncertainties, and change after change. I wonder if Jesus would have preferred to have been completely alone (without the company of the devil)? I suspect he would have. But thankfully for us, we know that we aren’t alone in the wilderness.
We know from the rest of the stories this week and the larger story which we know of the life, death, and resurrection, that no matter the wilderness situation we may find ourselves in, we are not alone. We’re part of God’s flock, known, claimed, and loved. And as part of that flock together, we hold and support one another as God’s children together, and walking with Christ as God is present and walks with all of God’s beloved.
There’s lots of good stuff in the lectionary this week. Whatever story or image or question draws you in, may God’s love and promises be with you and may you share them and point to them through all that you say and do.
Sunday March 6, 2022: The Narrative Lectionary- The First Sunday in Lent (Narrative Year 4: Week 26)
Narrative Theme: Jesus Raises Lazarus
Focus Passage: John 11:1-44
Psalm Accompaniment: Psalm 104:27-30
The Sundays in Lent in year 4 of the narrative lectionary cycle begin with Jesus and his dear friends, Mary, Martha, and the death and raising of Lazarus. It’s a story we know well which needs little introduction. But let’s see what we might sense with fresh eyes today, taking a little chunk at a time knowing that this is a rich story of 44 verses.
The story begins: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:1-6, NRSV).
Jesus’ friend is not doing well, so he decides to stay two days longer where he was. Yes, John writes that this has a divine purpose so that Jesus’ saving and resurrection love can be seen and witnessed. But I’ll admit, it is a little odd to hear this on the same week as the revised common lectionary Jesus reminds that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test. There’s kind of a rub here. I wonder if you sense that too? Thankfully it’s just the beginning of the story though.
The story continues, “Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:7-16, NRSV).
Jesus knows what has happened. This story in John really leans into the tension and duality of Christ as equally human and divine, and the knowledge Jesus shows here we have to assume is tied to his divinity obviously. Of course, as Jesus weeps in this story too, his humanity is just as real. The disciples though don’t quite understand. Thomas may be the most theologically astute so far, and think well, given the stoning that has been threatened so far on their journeys, that perhaps this is it. They’ll be joining Lazarus soon. Of course, that’s not exactly what happens.
For we read next that, “When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV).
Martha goes and meets her Lord. She believes and knows that if he was there, Lazarus would not have died. She knows too that God provides for and through Jesus. She gets this reality at a level not yet seen by the twelve disciples. To her faith, Jesus says one of his famous “I am” statements that shows up in this story, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” That’s kind of an important message of our faith that John writes so eloquently. But then Jesus turns back to Martha and asks her, “Do you believe this?” He might as well be asking you and me, “Do you believe this?” Martha thankfully gives us all words to cling to and repeat when our own answers or words fall short. She responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” But she doesn’t stop there. She says, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” And here we have through the words of a woman in the scriptures, the words that would turn into the foundation for our very creeds of our faith. Martha’s response is faithful, deep, and one of a disciple and steward.
Next it would be her sister Mary’s turn. So Martha, “When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” (John 11:28-37, NRSV).
Mary, whether she knows it or not, echoes Martha saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Though Jesus was able to keep his composure it seems with Martha, he no longer can keep from weeping in responding to Mary. Jesus weeps. His humanity and love are real, and those present would have witnessed it and seen it too. Jesus feels what we feel. He knows our inner most thoughts, hurts, pains, and hopes because he himself experiences them too. Which makes it all the more powerful to know that Christ walks with us in our life, no matter where we might find ourselves. And in this Lenten season, it’s a great time to especially remember this truth.
The story then moves towards its conclusion. We read, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:38-44, NRSV).
This ending portion book-ends the story well. John prefaces with the acknowledgment that this story will be one that Jesus acts in so that the people might see God’s saving work in action. And Jesus echoes this here by saying, “Father I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” God’s work is being done. God’s mission is on the move. Jesus calls for the stone to be moved, and Lazarus to come out. And he does. Finally Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
What do you need to be set free from? What do you need to be unbound from? These would be great questions for discipleship reflection and preaching this week. Though honestly, I’d also wonder about what Lazarus must have thought about this whole ordeal. I mean, did he get a vote in the matter about this? That he would be used as an object lesson of Jesus’ saving work? What if he was already with God, and then had to come back to earth, only to then have to die again some years in the future later? If that’s the case, perhaps Lazarus might not have been so happy about how this experience went.
Nevertheless, that’s not the point and all we’re doing here is inferring. But what is clear, is that God in Christ can and does save. That resurrection is real. And that ultimately is perhaps the biggest gift and lesson to remember as we walk through the valleys of the shadow of death, amid a world that has gone through pandemic times and is now in times of great evil and senseless war and destruction in Ukraine. God is present doing what God does to save God’s beloved. And that is a beautiful and timely reminder for all of us as we begin our Lenten journeys.
As we remember that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that God in Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, we always give thanks and recall all of what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for God’s beloved. The work of provision, abundance, and bringing creation out of dust, and life out of death, like the psalmist proclaims in the appointed psalm accompaniment for this week from Psalm 104. The psalmist proclaims, “These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:27-30, NRSV).
The stories this week are rich. Whatever might grab your wondering and imagination, may God’s love, provision, and promise be made known to you and may you share it with all that you meet through all that you do and say. Amen. -TS