Thursday, March 14, 2019

Sermon: "Rock of Ages: God's Sovereignty", Luke 4:1-13/Job 38:1, 4-7, 33-38; 42:1-6 (March 10, 2019)

(This sermon is the first in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)

I’m going to describe a scenario, and you let me know if any of it sounds familiar, okay? You wake up to the sound of an alarm because you don’t want the day to get away from you; maybe you panic because you’ve hit snooze too many times and you’re afraid you’ll be late for work. Of course, your coffee’s ready for you, since you planned ahead and set the automatic coffee maker last night. You start making breakfast, and you choose oatmeal because you want to make sure your cholesterol stays under control. Or maybe you choose the sugary-coated kids cereal because, darn it, no doctor’s going to dictate YOUR life! While you eat, you decide to watch something on the TV, but you turn on Netflix instead of cable TV because you want to be able to pause it if you need to. As you get dressed, you make sure to wear your lucky socks to ensure that your day goes smoothly. If you’re headed to work, you decide against the carpool, because you don’t want to risk Francis forgetting his report at home AGAIN and making the whole car turn back to get it. Or if you’re headed to the grocery store, you pick up what you need quickly and make a bee line for the self-checkout stand—you don’t want to deal with the clerk bagging your groceries wrong or get stuck behind the lady paying with a bag of pennies.

Even if this scenario doesn’t describe your morning perfectly, you can probably relate to at least one aspect of it, or something like it. You may not have noticed it immediately, but every single thing I mentioned was a way that someone might try to exert control over their life. Planning ahead, superstitious habits, avoiding unpredictable situations…we’ve all done these things. In a world that’s constantly moving forward with or without our permission, it’s completely natural that we try to seek control over our surroundings as much as possible. It gives us comfort and a sense of agency. It makes us feel good.

Now, your brain might be skipping ahead (perhaps trying to maintain control over your perceptions?) and assuming that the next 10 minutes will be me telling you that being in control is a sin. Don’t worry, that’s not quite where I’m going. I’d get a lot of angry letters from your doctors if I tried to tell you that regulating your cholesterol is a bad thing. Control in and of itself isn’t evil; there are plenty of situations where it’s not only useful, but necessary for flourishing and growth. We are, after all, the denomination known for doing things decently and in order—a.k.a., keeping things under control for Christ. What I AM saying is when we begin to believe that we need to be in charge of EVERYTHING, that’s when we start running into problems. We aren’t God, so there are some things that we aren’t meant to control. The sin lies in trying to exert power over these things.

When we read scripture through this lens, it sheds new light on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Ha-Satan (“the Adversary”) entices Jesus with all the things that we human beings crave most—sustenance, power, and safety—but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t just offer bread, glory, and rescue directly as temptations in and of themselves. Perhaps that would have been too easy an offer for Jesus to reject; after all, I’d be wary of gifts from Satan, too. Rather, the real temptation lies in HOW Ha-Satan encourages Jesus to accomplish these things. He says, “Use your own authority to make food for yourself. Claim your own agency in choosing to worship me. Exploit your status so that you might do whatever you like.” Do you hear it? Each time, Ha-Satan tempts Jesus with his own agency and power…he tempts him with control. He tries to persuade Jesus to usurp the authority of the Spirit, who had orchestrated this wilderness retreat for her own unknown reasons. Ha-Satan is telling Jesus to trust his own self-sufficiency over the Holy Spirit. None of us know what it’s like to have the resources available to the Son of God, but ALL of us can relate to a desperate desire for control over our surroundings.

Now, when Ha-Satan presents a temptation, he doesn’t do it halfway. There’s a reason he tells Jesus to turn a STONE into bread, to keep himself from dashing his foot against a STONE—rocks are stolid and consistent. They’re the ULTIMATE metaphor for being in complete control. If it’s you versus a rock, the rock will win every time. Ha-Satan isn’t just encouraging Jesus to take control over the situation; he’s telling him to flaunt his dominion over that which is unyielding and uncompromising. He’s challenging Jesus to be more rock-like than a rock.

We all have times when we want to be more like a stone: unshakable, strong, enduring. We want to be the “unmoved mover”—the one who’s in charge of what happens without it impacting us (unless we want it to). We want to be sovereign over all parts of our lives. But that’s not who we are. That’s not who we were created to be. And if we try to be what we’re not, we’re committing idolatry, placing ourselves and our desire for control before God.

Jesus, of course, manages to avoid this pitfall fairly easily, realizing that the difficult road ahead of him would be full of things out of his control that he doesn’t understand. He’s able to make peace with it, which we’ll see play out more as we get closer to Holy Week. Job, on the other hand, comes very close to crossing that line in the chapters preceding today’s reading. Although he trusted God through tragic circumstances that few of us would be able to endure half as well, he finally snapped and began to lash out at God. He lamented that he’d led a blameless life; it wasn’t fair that wicked people should prosper while righteous people like himself were made to suffer. In other words, he’d done all the right things, so why is his life so out of control?

Finally, God’s voice erupts from a whirlwind, demanding Job explain the workings of the universe and demonstrate his understanding of all things. Rhetorically, God demands to know by what authority Job is challenging the sovereignty of the Lord. Of course, Job has no response, and is appropriately humbled before God. Job wanted to be a rock, taking control of his situation and standing up to the divine, but in reality, he was no more than dust before the mighty boulder of the Lord.

When two rocks encounter one another, it’s impossible for the one that’s softer to compete with the strength of the harder one. It’s not that the harder rock wants to damage or destroy the softer one; it’s just in its nature to be unyielding. There’s nothing the softer rock can do to change this. If it accepts this reality and stops trying to challenge the harder rock, it can become a part of something wonderful: like a piece of jewelry made with precious stones surrounding a diamond. But if it tries to overcome the harder rock, it’ll inevitably crumble. Because it wasn’t created for that.

This is why we start Lent the way we do. Ash Wednesday isn’t centered around a specific Bible story, the way Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are. Instead, it’s centered around a reminder that we aren’t the center of the universe. We come from dust, tiny fragments of rocks, and one day, we’ll become dust again—and the world will go on. We aren’t in charge. God is. And we badly need to repent of the way we get that mixed up. Fortunately for us, we have six weeks ahead of us set aside to do just that.

So, let’s begin Lent by cloaking ourselves in humility, giving up control, and trusting in God’s sovereignty as we embark once again on our journey towards Jerusalem and the foot of the cross. During the hymn, I’m going to come down and stand in the aisle with a cup of ashes. I invite you to come forward to receive them and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is a really hard message to hear, but an important one. As I mark you with the ash mixture, think about what this mark is saying. The dust of the ashes reminds us that we’re not in control. But the oil with which it’s mixed reminds us that the one who IS has chosen us, set us apart to be anointed and sealed as God’s beloved. We’re not in control, but we can trust that all will be well. We’re not in control, but that doesn’t diminish our worth in God’s eyes. We’re not in control, but it will be okay.

Don’t let the adversary deceive you: sustenance, power, and safety don’t come from being the one who calls the shots. They come from God alone. Place your trust in the sovereignty of God and rest your hope on the one who is truly in control. Amen.

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