Sermon: Anchored in Christ, We’ll Never Be Lost

Sunday, February 26, 2023
Zion Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE
First Sunday in Lent, Installation of Pastor Jacob Krueger
watch this service online (readings start around 14:32; sermon starts around 22:04 (children’s sermon) 27:43)

[I prefaced this sermon with a children’s sermon in which I asked the kids to tell me what they knew about the ocean; we talked about how people find their way when they’re sailing across the sea and about how easy it would be to get lost in a storm; I brought a little anchor and talked about how it keeps ships grounded so that they’re not blown off course, and how as Christians, Jesus is our anchor when life gets stormy]

In our gospel reading for today, we find Jesus wandering in the wilderness – in the ἔρημος/eremos, a Greek word which can also be translated as “desert.” And considering that our gospel reading for today takes place entirely in the desert, I imagine that you might be thinking to yourselves that it’s a pretty weird move to start off my sermon(s) talking about the ocean!

But the feeling of being lost at sea is something that was often on my mind over the last few years of ministry – especially during the time when we as a church were still wandering through the wilderness of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was such a strange experience to all collectively have absolutely no idea what we were doing. I was barely a year into ministry when the whole world shut down, so I especially had no idea what I was doing! 

Everything about the way we did ministry had to change, literally overnight – and they really don’t prepare you for that kind of stuff in seminary. Just trying to carry on beloved and familiar traditions in the midst of pandemic precautions suddenly presented us with a whole host of difficult and contentious choices we’d never have imagined having to make. It was like being at sea, tossed about by a storm – there was no roadmap, no roads, no familiar landmarks pointing out to us the right way to go. Like a ship without an anchor, we could drift in any direction; the only thing we knew for certain was that, no matter which way we moved, it was bound to tick somebody off, haha.

It was a really hard time to be in ministry, especially to be a leader in ministry. I struggled daily with my own sense of limitation, and with the weight of responsibility I felt. I felt that it was up to me to care for this congregation with which I had been entrusted. And I wanted so badly to be a good pastor, to make sure my people were fed, that I poured out everything I had to give, every last ounce of energy and creativity and time, until my tank was completely empty.

I ached for some kind of sign from God that we were on the right path, that all this effort would be worth it. And especially when other congregations in our community began returning to their regular practice of worship much sooner than we did, I longed for some kind of clear vindication that I had made the right choices.

And I agonized constantly over the unhappiness of my people. I lost nights of sleep trying to think up ways to win over my crankiest parishioners, because it bothered me so much to know they were upset with me. Admittedly, I probably spent quite a bit more time worrying about trying to please my people than about whether my choices were pleasing God.

It was a time of testing, not unlike Jesus’ time being tested in the wilderness. And, thinking back over the pandemic as I read this gospel story, it’s kind of hard not to draw the conclusion that, had I been in Jesus’ sandals out there in the wilderness, I probably wouldn’t have even made it past the first temptation. Seriously – the devil would suggest that I turn stones into bread, and I’d immediately be like, “Dude, omg, that is such a good idea!” and the rest of the passage would just be a discussion about what kind of bread we should make.

Life – and ministry in particular – is a minefield of temptations for us to fall into, and often with the very best of intentions. It’s very rarely the case that there’s some kind of devil or bad influence trying to convince us to do something wrong; most often the struggle is simply that there are so many paths that we can choose, so many opportunities and wants and requests and obligations that clamor for our time and energy and attention. There are so many different directions in which our little boat could go that we can become lost in a wilderness of choices – and lose touch with God’s voice in the midst of it, or forget to listen for God’s voice altogether. And that’s how we end up falling into the kinds of temptation that Jesus faces in our gospel reading.

But we can continually learn how to identify and resist temptation – and that is precisely what Jesus is teaching us how to do in this gospel story: by modeling how to do it himself. When faced with challenge and temptation, Jesus anchors himself in God – through scripture, through prayer, and through his trust in God’s abiding faithfulness. Firmly anchored in God, he isn’t blown about every which way by the devil’s suggestions; he remains centered in what is most important. And this centeredness enables him to know what choices he needs to make; it keeps him focused on the direction he needs to go.

As people of God, called to follow the way of Christ, we can do this too. We can firmly anchor ourselves in God by spending time in prayer and reading scripture – as we do during Lent – and by remembering God’s faithful love for us. With God’s help, we can resist temptation. And for those who are called to be leaders and shepherds of God’s flock – like Pastor Jacob – it is all the more important that we do so.

None of us is able to turn stones into bread (or, I guess, if you can, please see me after worship, because I have questions for you…), but we can easily get caught up in the material worries of life and ministry. We get caught up in worries about what we shall eat and how we shall meet the budget and whether giving this month will be enough to keep the lights on. We feel that weight of responsibility, that pressure, that it’s up to us to make things happen.

But in response, Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy and reminds us that one does not live by bread alone – or by bucks and butts, or by the creative energies of a first call pastor – but by the word of God. Jesus reminds us that it’s actually not up to us. The church is in God’s hands. And God alone can sustain us and give us what we need for eternal life. And God provides us these things in abundance.

Most of us probably wouldn’t be too tempted to go out and climb up to the top of Zion and throw ourselves down in order to try and test God – but we do often grow impatient when it seems like God isn’t acting in the way we wish God would. We demand some kind of sign that God is faithfully working for our good, or we might begin to lose faith altogether that God really is present and active among us like God promised. 

But Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy, warning that it is written: Hey. Don’t do that. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” It comes down to an issue of trust: we have the entire scriptural witness of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, the witness of generations of believers before us to the same, and the witness of God’s past faithful actions in our very own lives. God has proven to be trustworthy and faithful over and over again – and so God asks us to persevere in trust and in faith, even – and especially – when we have no idea what God is up to.

And as for the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, there is no end to the temptations to be found there. For pastors, this especially seems to come in the form of temptation toward people pleasing. That way lies madness. This world offers us so many ways to compete and consume, to measure our worth, to gain dominance and power and puff up our images of ourselves. 

But all these things are illusory, and Jesus cuts right through them – again with a quote from Deuteronomy – by reminding us that God alone is worthy of our worship and service. After all, God is the one who made literally everything that exists. How foolish it would be for us to give our hearts to anything lesser, when the Creator of all that is is vying to be the object of our devotion.

There are many temptations that would lead us astray, but, mercifully, God does not leave us to find our way alone. Even in this gospel story: though Jesus wanders alone in the wilderness, the story ends with Jesus being cared for by angels – messengers whom God has sent. We can likewise look and listen for the helpers and messengers whom God sends to us. And Jacob, well, I’m not about to suggest that Pastor Heidi or I or any of our clergy colleagues across the state are exactly angels – but, like you, we are messengers whom God has sent, and we are here to support each other and lift each other up. And in the same way, all of us across this synod and across this church are walking together, building up the body of Christ in love, and teaching one another to keep ourselves firmly anchored to the rock of faith.

Jacob, as a pastor, you have been called not only to follow the way of Jesus, but also to be a shepherd leading others to follow it. And as the words of our ordination rite ominously remind us, this is work for which we will one day be called to account. I speak from experience in saying that ministry will test you in ways that it’s impossible to anticipate. And, inevitably, you will make mistakes. But the life of faith isn’t about achieving perfection (as though any of us could!). Instead, this life is about how we find our way back to God, time and again – to God who is continually calling us home. It’s about being anchored firmly in Christ and knowing that, whatever storms may come, we will never be lost.

Photo from Jacob’s installation — featuring me living my best and fanciest liturgical life 😍😂

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