Saturday, February 16, 2013

Passing through the Fire (Luke 4:1-13)

[Note: This is my last sermon in Korea, for a long while.]

Luke 4:1-13
 1Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
Then the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”
Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say,‘You must worship the Lord your God    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! 10 For the Scriptures say,‘He will order his angels to protect and guard you.  11 And they will hold you up with their hands    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
12 Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’”
13 When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  Lent is a season of repentance and fasting.  It is kind of like spiritual spring cleaning.  This is the time for us to take a fresh look at how we are living and ask God where we need to change.  During Lent, we fast to help us refocus our lives on God instead of on all of the other stuff in this world that begs for our attention.
In the past few decades, Christians have developed this tradition of giving up all kinds of different stuff.  Some people give up a food: meat, coffee, sweets, chocolate, spices, soda, etc.  Other people give up a normally innocent activity: watching TV, Facebook, internet, shopping, movies, elevators.  Some try to stop a negative behavior: complaining, gossip, using the snooze button on the alarm, not listening when someone is talking.  Some people try to add something instead of giving something up: waking up early, 15 minutes of prayer every day, writing a letter every day, giving compliments, or picking up trash you see on the street.  A few people try to get funny.  One year, Scott Norris said he was giving up fasting for Lent.  I read a story this week about an old lady who apologized for being a little shaky, “I’m giving up beer for Lent, but the whiskey is really killing me.”  
But for pretty much all of these fasts, even the funny ones, the people choose for themselves what to give up.  As I’ve been thinking about this sermon today and its timing, it struck me that there is another kind of fast going on here - one you didn’t choose.  It’s kind of like KNU International English Church is giving up having a full-time permanent pastor for Lent.  Yes, you’ll have Bill Patch, and he’s great, and he’ll do a good job.  And yes, you have a great team of assistant pastors, but they none are full-time, and none are the lead pastor.  Yes, you’ll hire a new lead pastor - maybe not by Easter, but eventually.  
In the meantime, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit has led KNU International English Church into a time of testing.  The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and people have debated why ever since.  It seems that Jesus needed to learn some lessons.  Jesus needed to settle some fundamental issues before he got started in his ministry.  The wilderness was his time of trial and testing between two important stages in his life.  In a similar way, this interim period between pastors is a time of testing for our church between two important stages in our church life.  

These days I’ve been thinking in terms of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 3.  In my ministry here in this church I have watered some seeds planted by the pastors before me, and I have planted some new seeds, and I’ve done my best to tend God’s garden here.  But now another gardner is coming.  The new gardener will think differently, talk differently, and work differently.  That’s a good thing.
When I came here as a pastor, I inherited a church structure that was unlike any other church, unique to this place and to this setting.  Through the years, we’ve been working on the structure of our church like people remodeling and expanding an old house.  We’ve tried to strengthen our best parts and repair or replace our weakest points.  Sometimes we’ve added on whole new rooms to the life of our church.  Occasionally, we’ve had to tear down some structures that were worn out or unnecessary.  I’ve added on to the structure of our church as best as I could and connected us to the foundation of Christ to the best of my ability.  
Now, another chief builder is coming.  The new builder here will celebrate what is good and will tear down some of what is unhelpful.  You need to be open to this process of celebration and adaptation.  But all the while, you will stay firmly rooted in Christ our foundation.
But before the new builder comes, you must pass through the wilderness.  You must pass through the fire.  You must fast having a permanent lead pastor.  In some ways, this is a season of judgment.  If I have been a good leader and a good pastor here, you will be OK without me.  You will continue to serve and to grow and to love and to reach out to others.  This season of fire and testing will show if my work here has any value.  If the work is burned up, if you drift away, if you fall away, if the church suffers great losses, then I will suffer great loss.  But if the work here survives, if you stay connected to Christ and allow God’s Spirit to breathe in you, if you continue to show God’s love to people in Cheonan and Bangladesh, then I will receive a great reward!  That is the best gift you could possibly give me!
You are the proof of my work.  You are the measure of my success.  Your faithfulness will be the standard by which my nine years of work will be judged.

So with that in mind, let’s take a few minutes to look at these three temptations that Jesus experienced in the wilderness, during his time of fire and testing.  As we begin our journey through lent, and as you prepare for your time in the wilderness without a lead pastor, I think God has a message for our church here.

Jesus’ first temptation was to turn stones into bread.  This is basically the temptation of impatience.  Jesus hadn’t eaten for 40 days, and in classic understatement, Luke says Jesus was “very hungry.”  Sometimes I’m hungry after 40 minutes!  If Jesus has special power, then why not use it help himself out?  There is nothing wrong with eating.  The issues are timing and method.
God wanted Jesus to pass through this 40 days of testing, to purify and to strengthen him.  If Jesus jumped ahead of God’s plan and followed his stomach, then he would be disobeying the Spirit.  Jesus would be acting selfishly with a short-term mentality.  But also notice that if you read this story in Matthew or Mark, after the 40 days of trial is over, angels come and feed and take care of Jesus.  
You will also face the temptation of impatience as you walk through this wilderness trial.  You may feel like the church isn’t moving fast enough.  You may be tempted to complain or to leave.  But the most likely temptation is to try to provide for yourself: “Let’s just get a pastor already.  Let’s just hire someone - anyone.  We’re tired of waiting.”  
Don’t fall for that trap.  The antidote for impatience is - naturally - patience.  God has a good plan for you.  This waiting time is not dead time.  This wilderness is not barren.  This is a productive fire.  Embrace the pain of being without a permanent pastor.  Just as people don’t live by bread alone, churches don’t live through pastors alone.  This is a time for you - the church - to be the church.  Be patient.  Be courageous.  Wait for what God will do.  
Just as the angels took care of Jesus, God will take care of you.  God has a plan to provide for your needs.  God has a plan here to provide just the right pastor for you.  Wait in prayer and patience and searching for the right lead pastor.

Jesus’ second temptation was to power.  The devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world.  Power is not bad.  Power is actually good.  In fact, later Jesus would rightly say, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).  In the book of Revelation, millions of angels sing to Jesus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—  to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12).  One day, at the name of Jesus every knee will bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).  
But not yet.  The temptation of impatience is still going on in the temptation to power.  The power will come, but it must be in God’s time and for God’s purpose.
You see, if Jesus had accepted the devil’s offer, it would have been for his own selfish purposes.  So that he could be king, so that he could have power, so that he would be the one that everyone looked up to.
The antidote to the temptation of power is purpose.  Jesus knew that his purpose was to teach, to train, to die, and to send.  Jesus knew that his purpose was to gather the church, to prepare the church, to redeem the church, and to send the church.  Jesus knew that his purpose was not to take over the world in power, but to transform the world in love.  
You will also be tempted to power.  As you look for a new pastor, you may be tempted to choose the pastor that will give our church the most power.  As you endure the waiting period or even after the new pastor comes, you may feel weak and vulnerable, and you may be tempted to play political games to secure our position as a church.  Don’t try to take over KNU, and don’t let KNU take over our church.  Keep power and politics at a distance.  Touch them only with great caution.  They can suck you in and destroy your community.
The antidote to the temptation of power is purpose.  Remember your purpose.  Your mission is to be a loving community that changes our world.  Your vision as a church is to be renewed by God’s love, to be a multicultural community, and to cause global change through local action.  This is why you exist.  You do not exist to be in control.  You are not here to feel safe.  You are not here for any other purpose.  
Stick to your purpose.  Love God and love people.  Be a truly loving community, and you will truly change our world.  And then, God will truly reward you.  

Jesus’ third temptation was the temptation of spectacle or show.  The devil took Jesus to the highest point in the temple and told him to jump off to prove how much God loves him.  The devil even had a Bible verse to prove how good of an idea this was.  
Spectacle is the follow-up temptation to power and impatience.  We want to show off how powerful we are, or how good we are.  And we want it now.    “We are doing all this good stuff.  Look how good we are.  If only everyone will see how good we are, then we could do much more good.  Look how awesome we are.  Take a picture.  Take a bunch of pictures.”
When the temptation to spectacle comes, it might sound really good.  It might even have a spiritual ring to it.  It might have a Bible verse attached.  But be careful.  
Beware of spectacle.  Beware of the temptation to look good.  Looking good can easily become more important than being good.  This is true for churches as well as individuals.  When looking good is most important, we quickly become hollow inside.  The good inside fades away.
The antidote to spectacle is service.  Put others above yourselves.  In all your decisions as a church and as individuals, ask whether this will help those you are called to serve.  Will this help our church members be renewed by God’s love?  Will this strengthen our multicultural community?  Will this empower global change through local action?  Will this help the widows and orphans at the Village of Hope in Bangladesh?  Will this help the international students of KNU and Cheonan?  

Be patient with God.  Allow God to provide for you in God’s timing.
Stick to your purpose.  In all things be a loving community that changes our world.  
Focus on service.  Serve those to whom God has called you.
Then, God will bless you.  God will bring you through this time of trial and testing, and you will be even stronger than you are now.

But now, O KNU International English Church, listen to the Lord who created you.  O church, the one who formed you says:  “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.  I have called you by name; you are mine.  When you go through deep waters,  I will be with you.  When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.  When you walk through the fire of not having a permanent lead pastor, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.
“For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior...  You are precious to me.  You are honored, and I love you.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you.  I will gather you and your pastor from east and west.  I will say to the north and south, ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel from the distant corners of the earth.  Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory.  It was I who created them.’”  (Modified from Isaiah 43:1-7)
Do not be afraid for God is with you.  When you walk through the wilderness, you will not be lost.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned up.  Do not be afraid, for God is with you.

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