Sermon: Beloved Is Where We Begin

Deserts are not fun places. The sun is fierce; the wind is harsh and dry – sand is blowing everywhere. The plants are prickly and the animals, predators. But the desert is the place where Jesus – with the words from God that “You are my Beloved,” still ringing in his ears – was led. Not exactly what he might have expected after hearing that he was God’s beloved son, you say?

So here’s another question –  what might he have been expecting after hearing the voice that said “this is my son, my beloved”? Do we have any way of knowing how Jesus might have felt about hearing those words –Confident? Overwhelmed? All the above? Is it possible – do you think – that this whole scene with the devil is about what was going on in Jesus’ heart as he tried to live within those amazing words from the heavens? Might this confrontation have helped him realize his complete identity?

When you listen closely to the dialogue, what the devil said was true. “Tell these stones to become bread,” he said, “if you are the Son of God.” Well yes, the son of God could probably could find bread in the desert. On the one hand, it had happened in the past – God had provided manna during the exodus from Egypt. And, it would happen in the future – in stories to come, Jesus would provide a miraculous abundance of food for thousands of people.

But the time of manna was past and the time for feeding the thousands had not come. This was in between time, the time when Jesus had to decide what it meant to live within the boundaries of God’s will for his life. And so he answered that we need more than just bread in order to live. We need a connection to God.

Then, Jesus – all alone, with no followers and no disciples gathered around him – was offered this one: “Look at all these kingdoms – look at all those people! They can be yours! All yours!”

Finally, a vulnerable Jesus, was offered this one at the start of his ministry: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down to the stones below. Let’s just test God’s commitment. Let’s find out if the scriptures are right about angels coming to protect you.

But the time of heralding and guiding angels was over. And the time of angels rolling away the stone had not come. This was the in-between time, when life needed to be lived and people needed to be fed. And so he answered that he was no more desperate for instant power than he was for instant food.

Still, there was something Jesus did need and did receive in the wilderness. When he came out and turned his face towards Galilee, he took with him an amazing clarity about who he was and what he was going to do. Moments  later, in a synagogue in Nazareth, he would express his new understanding as he read from the scroll of Isaiah: Good news to the poor, he said; release to the captives, sight for the blind, fulfilled in your own hearing.

Clarity like that doesn’t come cheap. It takes a wilderness – a space where we can shed something of the routines and rhythms we have shaped our lives around — or perhaps bent and broken our lives upon. And in that space, we can begin to see and to know who we are, perhaps even who we are meant to be.

To understand a little more of how Jesus came to that clarity, we need to take a closer look at the Old Testament stories behind his conversation with the devil, specifically the stories of the Exodus through the wilderness to the promised land.

One of the major themes in the Exodus story has to do with the people putting God to the test. “Putting God to the test” seems to mean forcing God’s hand and then not recognizing it. In the Book of Numbers, God says that “None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors….”How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

So, clearly Luke is using the imagery of the exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the wilderness. When Jesus said do not put the Lord your God to the test, those are the stories in his mind.

But what might they mean to us? We know the dangers of looking for salvation in material things. We do not live by bread alone. We know about not preferring material things over holy things. We try – imperfectly to be sure – to resist those temptations. But this notion of testing God –  this thing Jesus was so determined to avoid – what might it look like today?

I think we need to look at the difference between the “words of the Bible” and the understanding of Scripture as God’s living word in order to find a useful answer here. Going back to the temptation story, we need to recognize that – though the devil’s words are from scripture – they were not God’s word to Jesus at that moment in his life. For Jesus, it was not just about God’s word; it was also about God’s context – God’s time, God’s hope, and most of all about God’s love.

Although God would, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment was not God’s time for Jesus to use God’s power to provide. Although God would reveal the full extent of Jesus’ authority, this was not the time or the place for that revelation.

And what about us? As individuals, our temptations are not very much different from Jesus’ – to take care of our own needs first; to show off; to force other people to do things our way. In short, to forget that we are God’s beloved too – and to forget that being beloved implies strengths and skills we don’t even know we had, until we spend some time with them.

But what about us as a church? We are a tiny group of people. Many of us ache for the old days when the sanctuary was crowded and the Sunday school was full. Many of us would say that these are wilderness times for the church.

But – even if that is so, we have strong, caring love among us and big hearts to reach out to neighbors who need us. So here’s a big question – is God’s presence here any less now than before? Are we as faithful – to God and to each other – as ever?

But beloved is where we begin. the lesson of the desert is that it is not devil-defined and God-forsaken. It’s the place to hear God’s own voice, within us and beside us and waiting to lead us home.   Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Sermons, 0 comments

Happening: March 9 – 15

Join us Sunday at 10 for the Service of Ashes,

our way of visioning through holy story

to the mystery of the Christ.

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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Happenings: March 6

Today is

Ash Wednesday

Does it matter much to you?

Join us Sunday at 10 for the Service of Ashes,

our way of visioning through holy story

to the mystery of Emanuel, God-with-us.

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Happenings, 0 comments

Sermon: The Dazzling Dark

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The question before the one about what might this story mean to us is what is it doing here on the last Sunday before Lent. It’s time, we’d all agree, to take down the lights of Epiphany. You either believe or you don’t. But what do we believe or not? What did Jesus and the disciples do or not? Yes, the story takes a new direction once Jesus “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” but what might that have meant to the disciples who lived and worked with him when the times began to change?

Peter had proclaimed: “You are the Messiah…the son of the living God.” But then, Jesus told his squeamish friends that “ whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Now that’s serious talk – especially when you live in an violent and autocratic country.  Maybe it was still a step too far for Peter. Or maybe he needed time to live with it and so, six days later the story goes, he saw the transfigured Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

The first thing we need to remember before we try to figure out what this might mean is that an experience is always different from its explanation. An experience is time-bound, so first-century experiences will always be revealed in first-century thought forms and vocabulary. Whatever happened on that mountaintop can be passed down to us, but only in whatever form it was held in the memories of Peter, James and John.

The next thing to remember is something we said last week – that perhaps it’s enough to focus on Jesus’ humanity and what it means to be truly human as the church leads us toward the mystical stories of Lent.

So what do we know? The four of them went up to a place apart to pray and Jesus appeared very different to them. In the circle of his inner light, two figures appeared — Moses and Elijah – both long gone heroes from two separate times in the past, showing up in the present as if time were not limited by death, but more like a light that could be stepped into and out of.

Whenever the Bible speaks of dazzling light, the hope behind the words links the light to the true presence of God’s Spirit – God’s Glory or God’s Shekinah, the rabbis would have said. So there they stood and talked within the light – Moses the Lawgiver, Elijah the Prophet and Jesus the Messiah – all wrapped in such dazzling light that it is  wonder enough that Peter, James and John could see at all. They talked, only Luke tells us, about a departure, an exodus – not Moses’ exodus, but Jesus’ exodus.

But Peter, James and John did see, Luke says, and then they did not see anymore, because of the cloud and the voice saying again those words that had come before at Jesus’ baptism. Listen to him.

What we do not need to do with these words is to build a building, or an order of worship, or a way of speaking of God – that suites us and – in the doing – makes us feel like we have some control of the story. What Peter was suggesting was a plan that tried to freeze the moment – and cut its meaning down to a manageable size.

What we do need to do – is to see this otherworldly story in context, as part of ongoing life. If Jesus had mythically ascended into heaven with Moses and Elijah, he would have been an abnormality, not a Messiah, and it would have been impossible for us to see what he had in common with us before or after death.

As it did happen, he would die very much like those on either side of him, one of them begging to be saved from what was coming, and the other asking to be remembered when Jesus got to where he was going. He could not do anything for the one who wanted to be spared, but he did do a great thing for the other. Jesus told him that the darkness was light, dazzling light, a new way of living for both of them.

It might have been something he learned on the mountain, when light burst around and through him and showed him that humanity is more than flesh and bones. It might have been because the power of the One who first said “Let there be light,” is bound, like the light and the splinters of the cross, always and forever to undying love.

It is a lot to believe: that his path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of Good Friday. But from here on the mountaintop, we can look to the days ahead and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. That God’s life includes and surrounds death itself. That, in the wholeness of God’s reality, even the darkness can dazzle.   Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Sermons, 0 comments

Happenings: March 1 – 8

As our latest project, Bridge of Faith is sending a van to Nigeria for use there.

As you can see, the van is jam-packed with boxes and bags of donated items, including items from BASES and Serenity Academy.

Join us Sunday at 10 as we celebrate…

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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Happenings February 24-28

Epiphany: Seeing with new eyes

That’s the whole story of these past seven weeks –

we’ve come past exotic stories of kings and desert adventures

to a glimpse of Jesus and his friends coming to grips

with a starker – even a life and death – view of reality.

Join us Sunday at 10 as we try to understand…

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Happenings, 0 comments

First Sunday in Lent, Feb. 18

Rather than an Ash Wednesday evening worship service, we will commemorate the start of Lent during the service on Feb. 18, We will again provide an opportunity to name something you want to give up or work on in your own life during Lent and then burn to make ashes. Please try to join us for this meaningful way to start the Lenten season.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Announcements

All are Welcome

Our welcome isn’t just bricks and glass on Sunday.

As a community that cares for each other all the time, not just now and again in a separate space, we invite you to our weekly sermon and prayer so we might share a moment here and now…


19 Church Street, Verona, NJ

973-239-3212 / webmaster@firstcongverona.org

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