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LENTEN SERIES 1998 - "In The Thick of Things!"

Overall Theme: The Season of Lent is a great time to reflect on the genius of Christian Faith. Jesus is with us in the "Thick of Things". He is there when we are tempted, when we fall on our face,and in the everyday experiences of our lives. He is present in the heights of joy and the depths of despair. The gospel stories of this Lenten season show Jesus involved in powerful "slice of life" episodes. Using the lessons, we can help our listeners open their daily lives to the presence of the One who is with us "In the Thick of Things."

(Bulletin Insert:

Instead of giving something up for this Lenten season, add something to your life! Make this a time of building your spiritual life by being present each week to experience how Christ has walked in our shoes. His experience with life's greatest trials can help us build faith for tough times! He is with us "In the Thick of Things!")

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March 1, 1998 ~ First Sunday in Lent ~ Luke 4: 1-13

In the Thick of Temptation!

Can you remember the last time temptation pinned you up against the wall and dug its claws into your throat?

No, I don't mean the chocolate eclair you passed on this morning. I'm talking real, heart wrenching temptation so serious that to fail the test would lead to a disaster in your life. If that temptation comes at just the right -- or maybe the wrong -- moment, we are all the more vulnerable.

A 20/20 episode a few months ago showed children of about four years old struggling with temptation. They were left alone in a room sitting in front of two or three M & M's, having been told they could have a whole package of M & M's if they would wait for a bell that would ring in five minutes. The struggle of temptation was recorded through a two way mirror. The result was hilarious as these poor kids twitched, fidgeted, wiggled and twisted their faces up in knots trying not to grab those M & M's. About half made it and half said in effect, "To heck with it, I want what I want when I want it!"

The consequences for these children were mild, at least from an adult perspective. (For a four year old, missing out on a package of M & M's is at least semi-traumatic!) For the rest of us the results of falling to temptation can be devastating. We've all seen it. The judge who goes to prison for taking a bribe. The teacher who does time for molesting children. The pastor who is caught in a massage parlor. The military officer who sells secrets to a foreign government. Temptation is a booby trap in life's journey. It is a kind of "pass go, collect $200, skip the hard stuff and proceed directly to fulfillment and reward!" "You can have it all!"

Maybe you've heard this prayer. "Lord, thank you so much for being with me today. I have not gossiped, nor have I spoken a cross word. My thoughts have been on you and I am thinking of the people in my life with love in my heart. I have not been angry, sarcastic or impatient. Now, please help me as I get out of bed this morning!"

To live is to be tempted. Sometimes mildly. Sometimes with gut wrenching severity.

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The good news is that Jesus Christ is available to us in every circumstance, in "the thick of things." That's our Lenten theme this year. No matter how difficult or painful the circumstances we face, Jesus Christ is with us in the midst of it. By the time we reach the joy of Easter Sunday morning, we will have discovered in a fresh new way that there is never a time when Christ is not available to us. Better yet, he is very much in touch with the depth of our struggles because he's been there.

Our scripture puts us at the prelude to Jesus' ministry. Before he speaks one word, calls one follower or touches one hurting life, he is slammed with crushing temptation! Today's gospel reading tells the dramatic story of how Jesus faces enormous temptation at an extremely vulnerable moment. As with all powerful temptation, the Adversary shows up when physical strength is depleted and most of us are emotionally and spiritually strung out to boot. "Hey Jesus, you can have it all! Forget the rejection, humiliation, the cross. For what? You can have the kingdoms of the world in exchange for one little act of worship. Do it. Cross your fingers if you like! Who's to know?"

When people speak of the temptations of Christ, they usually have in mind the three specific temptations Luke describes in our text, but the fact is Jesus has endured forty days of continuous tempting followed by these three frightful challenges. Imagine that after all this, Jesus simply can't endure any more. Unthinkable! If he fails any of these tests, there can be no such thing as Christian faith. The incarnation is trashed! Yet, the flip side of this is just as amazing. If Jesus doesn't blink, refuses the offers... an incredible spiritual reality emerges. We don't ever have to go through life's horrendous temptations alone.

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When temptation hits, it is usually at "opportune" time. Not for us, but for the devil. It strikes when we are hurting, tired, strung out, depressed, financially distressed... you get the picture. Look again at the last verse of our scripture, When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (4:13) There's a bit of tough news here. It is never over. We shall deal with temptation until the day we leave the planet. But, there is good news too. Namely, Jesus has, as they say, been there, done that, and can help us through it.

Three striking issues jump out from Luke's account.

I. Who needs the spiritual?

When you get right down to it, do we really need this spiritual thing? Culture as we know it does not put a high priority on the spiritual dimension of life. Face it. The spiritual dimension of life like the physical, intellectual, emotional or social dimensions are subject to the "use it or lose it" law. The first temptation brings a question. "How am I doing in my spiritual life?"

You see, when Jesus emerged from his time of trials and had not eaten for forty days, he was obviously "famished". The devil suggests a short cut. "Why put up with hunger? No need to wait. Turn a rock into a loaf of bread. What's the big deal? What kind of a big sin can this be?" Jesus, however, sees through the deception and takes us to the key issue here. "One does not live by bread alone." Get it? The physical dimension of life is important, but there's much more to it than that. If we don't eat physical bread, we may die, but if we don't get spiritual bread to feed our spirits, we die spiritually.

Who needs the spiritual? You do... I do! Make a list. How many ways are you tempted to neglect the care of your spiritual life?

There is a wonderful story about how the spiritual dimension can break through, even in our very secular world and especially in the world of television. When Touched by an Angel, was first produced for television, the critics had a field day. "Failure of the year", they predicted. No way people would buy into this sappy story line about angels coming into people's lives to help with life's pain and suffering. The rest, as they say, is history. It was the critic's reviews that flopped! Evidently, right behind the surface of this secular culture is a longing for the spiritual dimension of life. Don't fall for the notion that you can live by bread alone.

II. What will you worship?

The second temptation comes right on the heels of the first, but it's really a double play. It's like the devil says, "Really? Can't be tempted to neglect spiritual things by your hunger? Okay... everybody has their price. Look, here are all the kingdoms of this world. All the power and wealth you can imagine. Worship me, give me your allegiance and it's all yours. You can have it all!" The first temptation is a direct assault on the spiritual dimension of life. The second comes at the same issue by trying to overwhelm the spiritual with the material.

A former IRS agent who went into a private accounting practice told me about a colleague who had been imprisoned after accepting a bribe. "I was really shocked," he said, "This guy was Mr. Clean if there ever was one!" He went on to tell me how the agent had received offers over and over again until the amount of the offer was, "Too much to resist. I guess everyone has their price," he concluded.

Did you see the movie, "Indecent Proposal" where Robert Redford offers Woody Harrelson a million dollars to spend one night with Harrelson's wife, Demi Moore? The film proposes that everyone really does have their price, but the price in this case also includes the destruction of their marriage. Marital break-up was the terrible price of their choice lurking in the shadows of the promise of wealth. They worshipped the wrong thing!

Jesus slams the door shut on the devil's offer with a simple statement of spiritual reality. "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" So, whether it be a loaf of bread for a hungry man or the combined wealth of the entire world, what we worship will be our god. And if the god we worship is not God, the consequence is spiritual bankruptcy. A short test of what we worship is this: "Does the god you worship fill your life with meaning and purpose and can that god see you safely into eternity?"

Here's another quick diagnostic test of how vulnerable we are to this second temptation. "Am I more given to having what I want or wanting what I have... and what role does God play in this?"

III. You say God is important? Prove it!

By the time the third temptation rolls around, it is clear Jesus will not be moved from his spiritual foundations. The devil comes at the spiritual in another way. If he can't get Jesus to deny the spiritual, maybe he can get him to trivialize or play with God. "You're God's Son? Prove it. How about a little demonstration? Let's have a miracle." It is as though the devil is trying to hook Jesus with a "nanny, nanny, poo, poo."

If Jesus jumps and God saves him, God is no longer Almighty God, but god of the sideshow.. a god of cheap tricks, smoke and mirrors or illusion. If Jesus jumps and God saves him, he will never be able to say, "Not my will but thine be done..." or "My meat is to do the will of him who sent me..." or "The Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve and to give..." No, once again the temptations aim to effectively cancel the whole point of the incarnation.

If Jesus jumps, it is no-win either way. If God saves him, then God is not God. If God does not save him, Jesus is no longer Redeemer, but simply another misguided soul who says to God, "Prove yourself to me and I will believe in you?"

In some ways, this is the toughest test of all for you and me. I must confess that my spiritual history has some prayers that follow the formula, "O God, if you will __________, then I will __________." Sometimes those prayers had to do with things I consider frivolous today. (Like the time I promised I would live a good life if God would let Debbie say "Yes" to going to the senior prom with me.) But, many times there was a heart breaking plea for someone I loved and wanted to see healed.

In the toughest of times, when the answer I wanted didn't come, something else came. It was the One who had been through every kind of test, every kind of temptation -- but never failed the test -- someone who seemed to say, "I've been there. I am with you. We will get through this. I am with you in the thick of things and I will never let you down!"

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The next time temptation sneaks up on you and grabs you by the throat -- and trust me, it will -- turn immediately to the One who has survived what you are going through. Having been there, Christ not only understands, he is able to guide you through this time of trouble. Every time you turn to him and manage to get through a time of trial, you will emerge just a little stronger. If you were to read one verse beyond our gospel reading, right after the temptations, you would read, "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee..." You will discover too, that every time you return from temptation where you have opened your heart to Christ, you have gained just a little more power of the Spirit of God!

[Apply It!] ***[See note below]

Try this... sometime during this next week, you will experience some temptation or another. Perhaps you even know exactly in what area of your life the temptation will come. The instant that temptation comes, let a flag go up in your mind. The flag says, T A G. Tag stands for Temptation, Action and Goal. When the temptation comes, your action is to ask for help. "Lord Jesus Christ, you have endured every kind of temptation and survived. Be with me now in this time and give me strength to overcome." The goal is to arrive at the point Christ did in his temptations. When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (4:13) In other words, the temptation passes. Note how the power of the temptation diminishes the moment you turn your spirit toward Christ.

** [ Each full text sermon has a concluding section we call "Apply It" -- We sometimes use these as a conclusion to the sermon, but also use this section in "sermon talk-back" groups or adult discussion and lectionary discussion groups -- We also occasionally use them in Sunday Bulletins as a part of our Sermon Notes and tell the folk this is "homework. Experiement with it.]


Alternate Sermon Ideas

"The Power of The Word" - Luke 4:1-13

Theme: In times of temptation, it is the power of God's word that keeps us from spiritual disaster. Additional texts: Psalm 119:11 - Thy word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against Thee. I Peter 5:8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The devil finds Christ in the wilderness, weakened by the fasting and extremely vulnerable. The Adversary seeks "like a lion" to devour the weakened prey. One weapon can save. Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword...

Develop the theme of how important it is to have a relationship with the scriptures. The idea of "relationship" with the scriptures implies a dynamic, on-going development. This could be a good theme to develop if you are doing a Lenten Bible Study Series. The idea of a "relationship" with scripture is especially important in light of the fact that the devil leaves at the end of the temptations but only until a "more opportune time..."

Consider the hymn, "A Mighty Fortress". Luther's hymn contains the theme that it is the word of God that can counter the attacks of the enemy. "One little word shall fell him..."


"A Time To Remember" - Deuteronomy 26:1-11

If the traditional temptation scripture has become somewhat worn over time, consider connecting the Deuteronomy passage with the beginning of Lent. Moses asked the people of Israel to remember where they came from, what they came from and who they were and then to celebrate their arrival in a promised land with a gift that puts God first. That is, "Lord, We Thank Thee For Thy Blessings."

Likewise, Lent can be a time for Christians to do some remembering. If you celebrate Holy Communion on this Sunday, Jesus words, "Do this in remembrance of me..." will help relate the Deuteronomy passage. As Israel needed to keep God first, Lent can be a time for Christians to do some reflecting and renewal that puts Christ first.


Prayers and Other Aids

Invocation

O Lord God, Spirit of love and hope, justice and righteousness, come be in our midst today so that we can perfectly worship you. As we begin our Lenten journey once again may we be aware of the presence of Jesus in the nooks and crannies of our days and hours. May our hopes and joys, failures and sorrows find their way into your tender embrace. Help us to look... really look... at our relationship with You, as the hours and days draw us surely to the power of Calvary, and the potential of Easter morning. Amen.

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Prayer of Dedication (Offertory)

As we stand at the threshold of this Lenten season, O Lord, we open our hearts to the absolute wonder of your gift to us. The gifts we bring today are but pale reflections of our gratitude. In Jesus, your heart was fully opened to us and through Jesus our hearts are opened to you. May these gifts provide for the opening of hearts that have yet to know your love. Amen.

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A Litany (Based on Psalm 91)

Leader: Let we who live with faith in God proclaim,

People: "Lord, You are my refuge and my fortress, my God I will trust forever."

Leader: Let we who trust in the Lord know that holy love surrounds us.

People: God's protection will follow us throughout our days.

Leader: When we call out to the Lord,

People: We know that we are heard.

Leader: God is with us in every trial and temptation,

People: Therefore we will rejoice in the salvation of the Almighty! Amen!

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