Sermon: Learning from the Best

Sunday, March 1, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday in Lent

Something that I am really grateful to my mom for is that she instilled in me a great love for reading.  She was a teacher – no surprise there – and some of my earliest memories of her are of seeing her curled up on the end of the couch with her big, owl-like reading glasses perched on her nose and a book in her hand.  And of course, she always used read to me, especially before bedtime.

As a little girl, I wanted to be just like my mom, so I was really, really eager to learn how to read.  I was obsessed with the idea of being able to read before I started school – and I was bound and determined that I was going to make that happen.  I remember bursting into my parents’ room one day when I was maybe four or five years old, excitedly yelling, “Mom, Mom, look; I can read!”  I insisted that I was going to read to her for a change.  So I made her sit down on the bed and I ran to get one of my favorite books – The Little Red Caboose – and I sat down next to her, and page by page, I excitedly “read” the whole story to her. 

Mom let me down gently.  She chuckled at my enthusiasm and thanked me for wanting to read to her.  But she also pointed out that I wasn’t really reading quite yet; I had just heard the story so many times that I’d basically memorized more or less what was on each page.  I got so mad when she told me I wasn’t doing it right.  But she told me that it was something that would just take time and practice and patience to get better at.  (My three least favorite things)

One of the themes that kind of runs through our readings for this morning is the fact that all humans have a need for this kind of grace and patience that my mom modeled for me.  

In our first reading, from Genesis, we read a very familiar story.  The first humans in the garden of Eden get some pretty bad advice, and they decide to do literally the one thing that God has told them not to do – and they instantly regret it.  And of course, this mistake sets the whole tone for humanity’s relationship with God for generations to come.  

Paul then references this story in our second reading from Romans.  He contrasts the actions of Adam and Eve with the actions of Christ, writing that, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  Death comes through the actions of Adam, but life comes through the actions of Christ. 

Paul parallels Adam and Christ as models for humanity.  Now, to me, this comparison seems a little unfair.  Adam and Eve are literally only human – they’re a couple of newborn human dummies who don’t even know they’re naked at the beginning of the story.  Christ, on the other hand, is literally God made flesh.  He is perfect and he knows everything.  How could any regular old human ever hope to measure up to that?  Isn’t there like an in-between kind of role model somewhere between Adam and Jesus that we could aspire to be like instead?

The idea that we are called and expected to imitate Christ makes my little inner over-achiever feel a little bit discouraged, if I’m being honest.  Because I know that that is something that I can’t do perfectly – and unlike my four-year-old self, I’m not even going to try to pretend that I’ve got this whole Christ-like living thing down pat.  I still struggle so much with my own brokenness and sin.  

But Paul writes that it’s not like that.  “The free gift is not like the trespass,” he says.  “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.”  In other words, Christ brings us forgiveness and life.  Rather than continuing to condemn humanity for one sin and all the many that followed, Christ’s one perfect example takes the pressure off of us and brings us, as Paul writes, an “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.” 

Like my mom – and, hopefully, like all good teachers – Christ isn’t out to condemn us or to make us feel crappy for our failings.  Instead, he is here to lift us up and to show us how to do better.  (And better not so we can earn our salvation, but so we can grow closer to God.)  And so it stands to reason that, of course Jesus is better than we are at living a perfect human life in tune with God.  Ideally, you want a teacher who knows more than you do.  Four year old me struggled to learn how to read as fast as I wanted to – but the solution wasn’t for me to be taught instead by like a ten year old who was closer to my level; the best thing to do was to have patience and to keep learning from my mom, the full grown adult person with a teaching degree.

And that brings us to our gospel reading for today.  It’s a lesson in living like Christ.  In this passage from Matthew, Jesus perfectly models how to respond to temptation with grace.  A lot like the very first humans, Jesus receives some pretty bad advice in this text, but instead of giving in like Adam and Eve did, Jesus shows us instead how it is possible to resist.  

Now, most of us probably aren’t tempted in the same ways that Jesus is tempted here.  Personally speaking, the devil has never popped in to tell me that I should use my Godlike powers to turn rocks into bread.  But there are still elements of common human temptations at the root of all the things that the devil says to Jesus.  

Jesus followed the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days.  And he was starving.  This intense fast was clearly something that God had called him to do, but it would have been easy to give into fear – especially fear of starvation, fear of what would happen to him, fear that God would not provide.  Fear is a temptation that is common to all of us, to all humanity.  Especially fear of scarcity: we fear that we won’t have enough, or that if we share with others there won’t be enough, or we fear that somehow we are not enough for the task at hand.  

The devil then takes Jesus and puts him on the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down in order to prove that he really is who he claims to be.  That way, he will force God’s hand and God will have no choice but to save Jesus’ life through direct divine intervention.  Again, probably not a situation that most of us have been in.  But at its heart, there is still that temptation to try to bend God’s will to our will.  We are tempted to try to make God over in our image and to claim that what we want is actually what God wants, that what we think is, conveniently, also what God thinks.

And finally, the devil offers Jesus the world – power, riches, everything – if only Jesus will bow down and worship him instead.  For us, the real temptation isn’t that we will become devil-worshipers.  But still we face the temptation to put other things before God in our lives, to make gods of these things – of money and power, of advancement in our career, of security, of youth and health, of all the many things the world has on offer.  

There are lots of different temptations we may face.  But Jesus’ response to each one of these temptations is the same.  The devil’s temptations focus on Jesus as a person, on his pride and his identity, but each and every time, Jesus turns it around and focuses his answer on God.  And as he does so, he roots himself deeply in scripture, quoting three times from the book of Deuteronomy.  Jesus shows that by putting God first, everything else will fall into place.  

This is an example we can emulate!  Whenever we are facing temptation, we can imitate Jesus by looking to scripture for guidance and we can move our focus from ourselves to God, praying and listening for God to tell us the way we should walk.  We can do that!  

We probably won’t do it perfectly.  And that’s okay.  Thanks be to God, our salvation does not depend on us doing everything perfectly.  But with time and practice and patience, we can keep getting better and better.  We can keep growing up more and more into the Christlike people that God created and called us to be.

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