March 18, 2019
The Lent 3C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 13:1-9 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 55:1-9, from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 63:1-8 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 10:1-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 78 (Lord’s Day 29)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Someday I’d like it explained to me why the Lectionary would assign the final verses of a chapter for the week prior to looking at its first 9 verses. Nobody reads the Bible backwards like that so it’s not the least bit clear to me why preaching it this way makes any sense, either. In any event, last week many of us preached on Luke 13:31-35 and now this week we find ourselves faced with jumping back to the beginning of this same chapter to pick up the initial section.
Since we are unlikely to get an explanation of why the Lectionary does it this way, let’s plunge ahead and take a look at what we have here. And what we have here fits Lent pretty well for some of the same reasons we detailed in last week’s set of sermon starter ideas; namely, a text that gets at the urgency of repentance and of getting on board with God’s kingdom. As such, what we have here are both words that sound an urgent note and words that give a little hope that God can be patient, too. On the one hand, you never know when the end might come for you so get with the program sooner rather than later and come to Jesus in repentance. On the other hand, even the unproductive fig tree that might otherwise be chopped down might just get another shot at becoming fertile after all.
So don’t delay forever but on the other hand, there is a little hope for some level of reprieve, too. Still, the bottom line message is clear enough: you cannot wait forever to get matters of eternal importance right in your life.
Ah, but this Jesus in Luke 13 . . . he’s not the one we want in the modern world. Let Jesus be all softness and light, kindness and grace and he can nestle into the marketplace of religions and religious figures pretty easily. Let him spool out charming parables and memorable phrases and gather to himself little children and everyone is fine with him. But that’s not the Jesus we get here.
The Luke 13 Jesus has some sharp edges, some seriousness of purpose even as he exudes a pretty intense set of warnings. It’s easy in reading the gospels to want to divide up everyone into the camp of either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys but the sheer fact of Jesus’ presence on this earth as the incarnate Lord tells us that we’re all finally in the same boat: we all need what Jesus alone can give: grace unto forgiveness for all those who recognize their utter need to repent of everything that is wrong with this world (and of our multiple complicities in that wrongness).
In a memorable scene from the disturbing film Unforgiven, a young gun slinger is literally shaking in his boots in shock and remorse after having shot a man dead for the first time. In a weak attempt to justify himself, the young man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.” To this the grizzled old gun slinger played by Clint Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”
And that’s Jesus’ point in Luke 13: finger pointing and spending our days coming up with graduated systems by which to rate evil and sinfulness in other people just won’t do. Over against the shining holiness of Almighty God, we all of us need to repent (and repentance is not apparently graded on the curve). One person does not need to present a mouse-size portion of repentance whereas another needs to generate an elephant-size portion: repentance is repentance is repentance. It’s all the same, as is the divine solution and response.
Apparently about the only mistake a person can make—aside from believing he or she is beyond the pale of needing repentance in the first place—is to seek ways to ratchet your own spiritual status higher by downwardly comparing yourself to people you deem worse off than yourself. The gospel encourages us to compare ourselves to just one other person: Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, our elder brother in the family of God. We compare ourselves upwardly to Jesus and that action has the tendency of cutting the very nerve of any temptation subsequently to compare ourselves downwardly to anybody else.
Yes, we all have a tendency to pay more attention to the sins of others than we do to our own sins. Yes, sometimes we use our time to zero in on another person’s problems (real or imagined) precisely as a way to prevent ourselves from having to look in the mirror. But insofar as there is gospel in Luke 13:1-9 (and despite this passage’s grimness, there is gospel here) it is this: there is still time. We can still repent. We can still let the Holy Spirit turn our lives around and cultivate in us the fruit of that same Spirit in ways that will let us display the glory of our God. This is a wholly appropriate message for Lent, of course, but really for any time.
In the Greek text of Luke 13:8 when the servant tells the vineyard owner to “leave it alone,” the Greek is the word aphes, which is, of course, also the root word from which we get “forgiveness” and is identical to Luke 11:4’s presentation of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive (aphes) our sins.” So it may not be wrong to see the servant’s words in Luke 13 as meaning not just “leave it alone” in the sense of doing nothing to the fruitless tree but as meaning also “forgive it” for its fruitlessness. In this case, the forgiveness seems to do no more than buy the tree a little more time. But suppose that same servant made the same request even a year later. Would the master forgive it again? The gospel seems to say that the answer may be yes. In any event, even those of us who do try to repent of our prior fruitlessness know that we are, even so, never perfect. There is always the need for God to forgive us. Thanks be to God, in Christ, forgiveness is always available, too.
In her startling story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a fussy woman of a certain age who spends her life nurturing gratitude in her heart that she is not like most of the other people she meets. Without knowing it, Mrs. Turpin has narrowed the confines of her world steadily downward to the point that she gives off waves of disapproval to the people around her. One day while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin engages in just enough conversation with another woman in the room as to tip off a college girl named Mary Grace regarding Mrs. Turpin’s true attitudes toward others. (Indeed, in her heart, Mrs. Turpin had already written Mary Grace off as a fat and ugly girl.) Mary Grace finally becomes so incensed at Mrs. Turpin that she hurls her “Elementary Psychology” textbook at her face, blurting out as she does so, “Go back to hell where you belong, you old wart hog!”
This shakes Ruby to the core. She’s just sure she’s not an old wart hog.
True, she has spent her days being grateful not to have been born a member of any group of people she despises but still, there is nothing really wrong with her. But the words of Mary Grace don’t go away until one evening Mrs. Turpin gets a revelation. In her mind’s eye, she looks off toward the horizon of the setting sun and sees a giant staircase to heaven. On these stairs the whole mass of humanity is trekking toward God’s heavenly kingdom. But to her shock, the black folks and the white trash folks and the Mary Graces of this world were all leading the way to God’s kingdom with Mrs. Turpin and her ilk taking up the rear.
In Luke 13 Jesus told us to be less concerned with the sins or shortcomings of others and more concerned with our own character and our own godliness. Those who have ears to hear . . .
Author: Stan Mast
An old farmer once told me that there are two ways to break an egg—you can smash it with a hammer in a second or you can put it under a warm mother hen for a few days. An old preacher once told me that there two ways to call a sinner to repentance and faith—you can smash that sinner with a sermon that says, “Turn or Burn,” or you can beckon her with a sermon that says, “Turn and Live.”
In the Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus preaches the first kind of sermon. When people pointed at a couple of recent disasters in the news and implied that the victims might have been punished for committing some egregious sins, Jesus turned on them with what sounds like a snarl. “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”
In our reading from Isaiah 55, God preaches the second kind of sermon, calling the exiles in Babylon to repent and live. Perhaps the difference between the two sermons is that Jesus’ audience seems to speak from a position of moral superiority about “those people” who’ve just been punished for their sins, while Isaiah writes to an audience that has been smashed by God’s punishment for their many sins. They are now poor and destitute, far from home and dying for a sip of God’s grace or a crumb of divine kindness, but pretty sure that God has forsaken them once and for all.
Which text you pick for this Third Sunday of Advent will depend on where you think your congregation is in their Lenten journey. Are they hardened in sin and thus need to be smashed with a “Turn or Burn” sermon from the lips of Jesus? Or are they struggling along, barely hanging on to God’s grace? Then they need a “Turn and Live” sermon from Isaiah 55. Ironic, isn’t it?
Isaiah is definitely a call to repent of sin. Verses 6 and 7 are unmistakable. “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.” That has always been part of the dark side of Lent. Turn away from your sin. But there’s another side to Lent, and to repentance. Not just the negative turn from sin, but the positive turn to God. That’s what Isaiah focuses on: “Seek the Lord…, call on him…. Let him turn to the Lord….” That’s an important distinction. Where you focus today will determine whether Lent is a dark time of moral introspection or a bright time of spiritual re-direction.
A God-ward focus doesn’t make this call to repentance any less urgent or serious. It is still a life and death matter. Verse 6 underlines the importance of this turn with those mysterious words, “while he may found” and “while he is near.” Does that imply that there may be a time (soon?) when the Lord will not be available, when he withdraws his offer of grace, when it is too late to repent? Some commentators and preachers certainly talk that way, in an effort to press their congregations to repent here and now. But is there ever a time when God moves away from a sinner and it is too late to repent? Traditional Christianity has maintained that such a moment comes only when a person dies in unbelief, though more progressive preachers say that even in death there is still a chance to be saved.
Rather than wander into such eschatological speculations, it is probably best to think in terms of Isaiah’s exilic audience. For years they have languished in bondage, far from home and temple and God. God is saying, “Salvation is here, now. Don’t delay.” For our congregations the message is, don’t wait for another time, another chapter in your life, another church, another preacher. God is here now in this place, so come to God here and now.
“Come” is the dominant word in this call to repent—not turn away, but come, five times. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, come buy and eat, come, buy wine and milk, come to me.” The opening 3 verses are peppered with imperatives, but they don’t sound like commands so much as invitations.
Fascinatingly, this sermon on repentance uses vivid images for God, drawing on the most basic of human needs, the need for food and drink. God is like that, your most basic human need. So, come, you who are thirsty for God, come to the waters; think of Jesus speaking of himself as the living water (John 4:14, 6:51, 7:37). Come, you are hungry, come buy and eat; think of Jesus speaking of himself as the Bread from Heaven.
But God is not your basic subsistence diet, just bread and water. God is a rich banquet of flowing wine and milk, “the richest of fare.” God is what you need, all you need, to live a rich, full, abundant life. The call to repent is not a call to avoid hell; it is a call to enjoy heaven by coming to the God who is here right now. This preacher calls us to repent not by painting lurid pictures of hell, but by painting lovely pictures of a banquet (the messianic banquet of which Jesus spoke?).
The prophet here is doing what we preachers struggle to do—make God and his grace so much more appetizing and attractive than worldly delights that anyone with any sense will choose God. Isaiah’s questions in verse 2 arrest us in our infatuation with the world. “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Why indeed? Because the “not bread… that does not satisfy” looks better than God. But it’s a waste of money and labor.
That’s even more the case, when we are told that the blessings we receive when we turn back to God are free. Even if you have no money, nothing to offer God for his blessings, you can come, buy, and eat. In fact, don’t even try to bring your money, even if you have pockets full of it, because this food and drink have no cost. Don’t think there is anything you have to do to get; in fact, trying to buy it with the currency of your life is an insult to the God who wants to give it away free of charge. New life with God is not only rich; it is free. All you have to do to get it is turn, turn back to God.
When you do that, the nations will turn to you. When you turn back to me, O Israel, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David…. [and you will be] a witness to the peoples… and nations you do not know will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”
This is a stunning promise to the exiles in Babylon and to us today. Not only will God give you a new life, a life richer than you can imagine, but he will also restore you to the mission he gave to David (and Abraham long before David), namely, the mission of being a light to the nations. It’s the same mission Jesus gives all of us, of course.
Which means that turning to God makes life not only good again, but also meaningful. As we languish in our Babylonian captivity, we might think that life will never matter again, that we will never be able to do anything that will make a difference. But even exiles, even former rebels, even the worst sinners, can turn and live and shine for God.
How is this all possible? It sounds too good to be true, especially if you are Israel in Exile. For 70 years you have received double for all your sins (Isaiah 40), suffering the loss of everything because of your sin. How can we believe that such an angry, hard God would do the things promised here in Isaiah 55? It doesn’t make sense. How can we understand such a God?
Well, here’s the bottom line with God, says Isaiah in verse 7. With God, there is mercy, even when God’s justice hammers hard. There is mercy even in exile, because “he will abundantly pardon.” That’s the last word with God. Sin does not get the last word; God does. Punishment is not the last word; pardon is. Exile is not the last word; home is. The Devil does not get the last word; Jesus does, “for he will abundantly pardon.”
You must end your sermon with Jesus, because he is the servant who has been the focus of what critical scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (40-55). The Suffering Servant of Yahweh is the One through whom Yahweh keeps the covenant made with David. In the work of the Servant, the mercies promised to David are brought to fulfillment. Or to put it in terms of the famous Servant Song of Isaiah 53, the servant paid the price for the new life God freely offers to sinners; “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We don’t have to pay for life, because Jesus did with his death. Or as Romans 6:23 summarizes, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This Gospel does not make sense if we cannot accept the work of Christ. It is foolishness to its cultured despisers and a stumbling block to those who try to earn their salvation with their life’s works. That’s why our text ends as it does. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my way, declares the Lord. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We can’t think our way to new life, rich life, meaningful life. Grace will never make sense. All we can do is humbly turn, turn back to the God who took the Way of the Cross to give us life. Humbly accept the invitation to “come.” Turn and live.
In Luke 14:15-24, Jesus told a story about a rich man who prepared a rich banquet for many guests, but all of them begged off with a flurry of “really good” excuses. Not one would come as invited. So the host turned to the least, the last, and the lost. So strongly did he feel about having them share in his rich feast that he told his servants to “”make them come in, so that my house will be full.” That is a word for preachers. When you invite people to the great banquet that is God’s grace, preach with urgency, with passion, with love. “Turn and live.” Only those too involved with their own lives to answer the invitation will not “get a taste of my banquet.”
It has been years since the last Master Card “Priceless” commercials were all the rage on TV. You remember them. They were all like jokes with three lines followed by a punch line. After three scenes featuring some hapless individuals, the punch line would be “priceless. For everything else there’s Master Card.” Those ads ran so long that they lost their appeal and became the subject of wicked parodies. The whole idea of “priceless” became a joke. In our text, God’s offer of life for free is not a joke. It has no price and it is beyond price. It is priceless, because the price has been paid by Christ.
Author: Scott Hoezee
When a psalm is as relatively brief as Psalm 63 and yet you notice that the Lectionary would have you stop reading—and presumably stop preaching—three verses shy of the actual conclusion of the poem, one might be justified in wondering what’s up. What is in those last few verses? Why the full stop before this short psalm is truly wrapped up? As is typically the case, the reason seems fairly clear: this otherwise lyric poem that expresses both utter longing for God and then also complete satisfaction in communing with God concludes with less-than-lyric statements about having one’s enemies be slaughtered and so silenced.
This, of course, is not the only psalm that seems to take a hard turn toward some measure of vengeance or violence. Psalm 137 and especially Psalm 139 are more classic examples of otherwise “nice” songs that suddenly curdle into expressions of significant mayhem wished upon enemies and/or wicked people.
At my seminary the week I was pondering this sermon starter, it was Oral Comprehensive Exam week for our senior M.Div. students. So in their exams I asked a couple students about this choice by the Lectionary. Why did the folks who put together the RCL stop the reading at verse 8 and what did these students think about that choice? Was it conveying any kind of a message? One student said that maybe it was because such sentiments as the ones in verses 9-11 just don’t accord very well with the Gospel. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus who told us to forgive enemies and hope for the best for even those who persecute us. So rather than confuse people in the church today, best to leave such pre-gospel calls for violence and vengeance out perhaps.
That is a charitable view.
A second student, however, had a slightly dimmer view, suggesting that leaving out verses 9-11 is an attempt to make the Bible tidier than it really is. And in particular it might be an effort to make even God out to be a kinder, gentler, less upsetting deity. It’s less that the Lectionary does not want people confused by verses so much as it is an attempt to evacuate from God any hints of judgment.
That is a bit less charitable, though since the Lectionary has been known to hopscotch around the words of also Jesus in certain passages so as to skip over parts where Jesus pronounces woes and judgments, this less charitable view may be right.
What both students agreed on, however, was that when you consistently ignore or bracket the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s judgment on wickedness—or the need for God to judge evil and those who perpetrate it—the net effect is to reduce the shining splendor of God’s grace. Grace shines the brighter when we truly understand what sinful people like us would otherwise deserve (all things being equal). No one likes to ponder God’s judgment or the punishment of evil but something of the holiness and righteousness of God gets lost in the bargain when we ignore those realities even as the love of God that saves us by grace alone becomes a little less remarkable.
I suppose it counts as an irony that the Lectionary stops us up short at verse 8 precisely during the Season of Lent when we are supposed to meditate on our sinfulness and on our utter need for what only Jesus could do for us on the cross. It may also count as an irony that the first 8 verses of Psalm 63 are all about a deep, deep hunger for God, for ALL of God, for a true fellowship with God. The psalmist wants to soak up God’s power and glory, wants to get to know God and how God upholds him at all times.
The thing is, though, that the closer you get to God, the more you begin to sense God’s holiness. The more you see God’s glory, the more you see how tawdry our fallen world is by comparison. It’s like Isaiah in Isaiah 6: once you see the holy, holy, holy God of glory and of might sitting upon his throne—and then once you look back at your own life—you are undone. “Woe is me! I am a person of unclean hands and lips!” The light of God’s holiness lights up and illumines our hearts and we have no choice but to see ourselves and our world for what we are: fallen and in need of help.
But it also means you see those who willfully stay far away from God as in need of some kind of response. To try to tap dance around the idea that a holy God of power and glory could just let evil slide on by without any response is not right. We cannot avert our eyes forever and anon from the prospect of judgment, of wrongs being righted, of injustice being addressed.
We probably need those last 3 verses of Psalm 63.
But to my one student’s point about not confusing people who follow the Prince of Peace we have to say another thing: we need to read and interpret—and preach on—verses like Psalm 63:9-11 as Christians, which means hoping for the best and recognizing that any “evil” people we might ponder need no more and no less of Jesus’ saving blood and grace than we do. We wish for them to be saved. We hope that they can come to Jesus so that God’s response to wickedness and injustice can be seen by also these people as having ultimately fallen upon Jesus alone. Because it was on the cross that the full weight of God’s just and righteous and also necessary judgment on evil fell. Evil and wickedness and those who sin high-handedly cannot be winked at or waved away lightly. Yes, we need to know about the reality of judgment in order to savor God’s grace the way it deserves to be savored. But when we know we ourselves were saved by that very grace, we desire it to come to all others, too, even those who wish us harm.
Including words of judgment and such make the preaching life harder not easier. But since pondering these dimmer realities also keeps grace as the shining effulgence of divine love that it is, it is worth the extra homiletical effort.
“If we fail to acknowledge truthfully who [our enemies] are and what they are doing, then we cheapen forgiveness and, indeed, may perpetuate or exacerbate the cycle of violence and vengeance. The path of forgiveness cannot be authentic unless there is truthful moral and political judgment. Of course, that means, in the first instance, acknowledging the senses in which all of us have been, and to some extent still are, enemies of God. That is what it means to repent daily, to continue to unlearn the patterns of sin and evil as we seek to become holy people.” Jones, Gregory, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, Eerdmans, 1995, p. 263
1 Corinthians 10:1-14
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s likely that nearly all of us have heard Christians say something like, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Because the people who say this generally have a lot to “handle,” I’m reluctant to confront them on it. But I’m always tempted to ask them, “Where exactly does God make that promise?”
Those who anchor that profession in the Scriptures probably point to the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday. More precisely, they likely point to verse 14’s: God “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
And, of course, what we can “handle” sometimes overlaps with temptation. Temptation can be a lot to “handle.” However, many things that are hard to handle, such as infertility, illness and grief, are only tangentially linked to temptation. That is to say, while they may tempt Christians to doubt or reject God, it’s hard to call them “temptations.”
Paul brackets 1 Corinthians 10 with chapter 8 and 10:15ff’s discussion of eating meat that people have already sacrificed to idols. That’s one reason why Stephen Farris (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001, 197) calls it “a health warning: ‘Idol worship is hazardous to your health’.” In this Sunday’s Epistolary lesson, Paul describes the horrible consequences of the poor spiritual health practice that is idolatry.
The apostle sets the context for Israel’s wilderness idolatry in our text’s first four verses. But in what scholars recognize as at least a “creative” use of Scripture, he spiritualizes much of Israel’s journey from Egyptian slavery to the land of promise’s freedom.
So as Farris (ibid) notes, 1 Corinthians 10 claims that Israel didn’t just walk under the cloud or pass through the sea. She was also “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (3). In Paul’s interpretation of Israelite history, God didn’t just feed Israel food and water in the wilderness. Israel also “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (3-4). It’s a picture of God’s extraordinary physical and spiritual generosity with Israel’s former Egyptian slaves.
It’s a lovely history and theological lesson that in some ways makes the very next verse exceptionally poignant. “Nevertheless,” (all’) Paul begins verse 5 with. This word that we also sometimes translate as “but” or “yet” is a word that can signal a bad or good turn. In some cases the Bible’s “nevertheless” can signal God’s grace in the face of human sin. In I Corinthians 10, however, it signals a description of sin in the face of God’s grace.
God, says Paul, perhaps with an aching heart, “was not pleased with most [Israelites]; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” In verses 6-10, Paul goes on to list four examples of what displeased God, examples of Israelite ungrateful responses to God’s extreme generosity. He notes that God’s Hebrew sons and daughters were “idolaters” (7). They gave their whole selves, in other words, to various gods instead of the one true God. God’s Hebrew wilderness wanderers were also, Paul grieves, sexually immoral (8). They were, in other words, intimate with someone (or perhaps even thing) to whom they were not married.
What’s more, Paul writes in verse 9, Israel tested the Lord. He links that to Israel’s grumbling that led to the plague of poisonous snakes whose bites killed 23,000 of them. Finally, (at least in this passage), Paul mourns the Hebrews’ “grumbling” (10). While Israel grumbled throughout her wilderness sojourn, Paul seems to be especially alluding to the grumbling that led to Exodus 12:23’s “destroying angel.”
These “things” (11) – these punishments – happened to the Israelites, the apostle continues, “as examples, and were written down as warnings for us.” The biblical accounts of Israel’s sin are, in other words, illustrations of what N.T. Wright (The Bible for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, University Press, Cambridge, 2003, 128) calls “the earlier parts of a long narrative that has now reached its climax in the Messiah and in the people who have come to belong to him through the gospel.”
The sinful Israelites’ story is, in other words, not just theirs, but also ours. So when they sinned against God in the wilderness, God wasn’t just warning the Israelites against and punishing them for their disobedience. God was also warning all of God’s people about the consequences of willful disobedience.
Yet that warning is so chilling that God’s people sometimes struggle to understand and even heed it. Perhaps some 21st century Christians especially struggle to view God as being so holy and righteous that God punishes sin. It may even be a reason why some of God’s modern adopted sons and daughters emphasize how God turned God’s anger with our willful disobedience onto God’s Son, Jesus Christ, especially at Calvary. We didn’t “get” what Israel got and we deserve. Jesus “got” it.
Those who proclaim this text won’t have time to fully address the issue of God’s apparently harsh punishment of sin in the context of one lesson, message or sermon. But we may want to note that God’s punishment of disobedient Israel is a sign of how seriously God takes all sin as well as the radical nature of grace.
Paul reminds his hearers that we too are tempted toward the kind of willful disobedience Israel practiced in her wilderness wanderings. “If you think you are standing firm,” he warns in verse 12, “be careful that you don’t fall. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” That suggests that while temptation is nearly as old as humanity, there’s little new “under” temptation’s “sun.” What’s more, it means that the evil one is just as interested in the destruction of God’s 21st century beloved children as he was in God’s ancient Israelite children’s ruin. He may even use our self-confidence to heighten our vulnerability to temptation.
Yet as Wright (ibid) notes, God’s grace embraces everyone who deals with temptation. Yes, temptation is nearly as old as humanity. But God’s faithfulness is even older. The evil one is endlessly improvising on a handful of ancient temptations. Yet God is working even more relentlessly.
“God is faithful,” we can almost hear the apostle sing in verse 13b. Wright (ibid) calls that little phrase “words to be carved in letters of gold on the memory and in the imagination of all Christians.” After all, it means that while God’s adopted sons and daughters are only sporadically faithful, God is persistently and forever faithful. People are reliably unreliable. God is reliably reliable.
So when God’s beloved children face the kinds of temptations our ancestors, we and succeeding generations have and will continue to face until Christ returns, God graciously gives us an “out.” Paul says that takes two forms. First, God will not let the evil one tempt us beyond what we can “bear” (13b). In other words, while God lets the evil one wreak havoc, God doesn’t let that havoc take the form of temptation that’s too hard for God’s people to resist.
Because, if nothing else, God will also “provide a way out so that [we] can stand up under it” (13c). While temptation sometimes seems like a short one-way hallway that has no exits, the apostle insists that God always provides a door that leads out of that hallway.
Those who proclaim this text might spend some time exploring with our hearers what kinds of doors make up those “way[s] out.” Certainly those doors may include prayer, meditation on God’s Word, confession and even accountability to brothers and sisters in Christ.
Yet that’s not the limit of God’s grace. God fully graces God’s beloved children with everything we need to resist temptation. Yet in Lent God’s people confess that, among other things, we’ve not always made full use of those means. While God has fully equipped us to resist any and all temptation, we have too often succumbed to temptation.
So while the Epistolary lesson the RCL appoints for this week may seem to end with grace that’s limited to the power to resist falling into sin, at least our liturgy if not also our proclamation should go one step farther. After all, God generously extends God’s grace to even our disobedient failure to employ the means of resisting temptation. In other words, even when we don’t “stand up” (13c) under temptation, God, for the sake of God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ, graciously forgives us – and re-equips us for further service to God, our neighbors and creation.
In her article, “A Long Obedience,” (The Christian Century: January 7, 2015) Katherine Willis Pershey writes about a “way out” of temptation that God gave her: “It is strange to think of a particular person as the person with whom I did not have an affair … And yet there is one man I cannot help but think of as the man with whom I did not cheat on Benjamin.
“We had no improper physical contact, no inappropriately intimate conversations. I don’t even know if the attraction was mutual. There was, however, temptation. I felt desire… When I realized that I had feelings for this man, I was shocked. I dearly love my husband, to whom I have been married—mostly happily, and decidedly faithfully—for more than a decade.
“I almost didn’t recognize the crush for what it was, it had been such a long time since I’d had one. It was disorienting, terrifying, the slightest bit exhilarating—like being on a roller coaster but knowing full well that upon hitting the last loop-de-loop, your car will derail and you will plunge to your death.
“My internal alarms all tripped at once, clanging an overwhelming and persuasive warning. Danger, danger… [So] I did the only thing I could fathom: I told my husband everything. Even though there wasn’t much to tell — oh, how profoundly glad I was to go to him with a clean conscience! —the conversation was risky.
“Would it wound Benjamin to know that his wife, though delivered from temptation, had experienced it? Yes, it did. But it was a hurt he could sustain, because he understood that at the root of what I was telling him was that I was trustworthy. I had been tested and proven faithful.
“As we pondered the nuances of fidelity, a curious thing happened: our love for and attraction to each other deepened. Benjamin trusted me to nurture the new friendship. I established the boundaries that would govern my platonic relationship with this man to whom I am not married, and in so doing, I rediscovered the intrigue of my delightfully unbounded relationship with the man to whom I am.”