1 Lent: Prophets help us tell the true story of our lives

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Link to Lectionary Readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=24

WHO is telling the story, and
WHY they are telling the story,
and WHAT the story is,

You have a story,
I have a story,
and together, at Trinity,
we have a story.

Do we tell our own stories?
Who is telling our stories?
Why are they telling our story?

I am going to make an assumption
that everyone here, who grew up going to church,
was told the story of Jesus
in fairly similar ways.

Orthodox Christianity –
whether Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, or Evangelical –
has a Jesus story prototype
that we have been given.
Most of the time,
it is NOT the same story
the Gospel editors were telling.

The reasons that Orthodoxy
and the Gospels tell different stories about Jesus
is too big for one sermon,
but I am going to show you two examples –
the so-called temptation of Jesus
and Adam and Eve story –
in which the church
has told a different story than the Bible.

If you were here last week,
you heard a preview: Jesus is Moses.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is Moses.

Matthew was a Jew
writing for a community of Jews
and Jewish Christians.
His Jewishness oozes out of his gospel.

Matthew wants us to see Jesus
as the sum total of everything heroic about Israel:
A prophet-leader like Moses,
genetically connected to King David and
the throne of Israel,
descended from Abraham,
and more powerfully miraculous than Elijah.
Get that: Abraham,
That is the Hebrew Testament Hall of Fame.
Matthew voted Jesus into that Hall of Fame.

I would guess that your experience
of preachers preaching on the 1st Sunday of Lent
is one that depicts Jesus
being tempted in the wilderness
as an age-old struggle between good and evil.
Frankly, that is not Matthew’s point at all.
Let me show you what I mean
and then you can judge for yourself.

A simple comparison
between the Exodus story and Matthew’s story
about Jesus in the wilderness,
reveals that it was intended to be the same story.

Moses, 1000 years before Jesus,
was taken up to the high mountain
in his story
and shown land as far as the eye could see –
and so was Jesus in his story.
Moses was with God for 40 days and 40 nights
in his story –
and so was Jesus in his story.

During the 40 days in his story,
Moses did not eat or drink –
and either did Jesus in his story.

In his story, Moses said,
“We do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from
the mouth of God.”
In his story, Jesus said the same thing.

Moses said, “Do not put the Lord God to the test”
in his story – and by golly,
Jesus says the same thing in his story.
In his story, Moses said, “You shall serve the Lord God alone” –
and Jesus says the same thing.

Obviously these parallels are not accidental.

The point here,
the one Matthew is making,
is that God has raised up someone like Moses.
That is what this story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness
is all about for Matthew.

It has a different punch line in Mark and Luke,
and we’ll get to those next year,
and the year after,
when those versions of the story come around.

But the Christian preaching tradition
has generally wanted to turn this story
into something supernatural about Jesus verses the Devil,
as if it was an ESPEN Fight Night narrative.
Yet the way Matthew tells it,
this story is about how God has raised up
a great prophet like Moses.

The problem is,
when we move down the highway of history and culture away from ancient Israel,
we just don’t get the importance of a prophet.

We get the importance of engineers.
We can fathom how amazing astronauts are.
We appreciate Presidential power.
There is awe that goes along
with the Nobel Peace Prize.
We are simply stunned by surgeons,
and especially the incredible array of technology
they have working for them these days.

But prophets live somewhere with camels and sand
for those of us who live in concrete and asphalt.
They are not even real.
So we don’t get Matthew’s point at all.
Even if we did, we wouldn’t care too much
about God raising up a new Moses
because we don’t really care about the old Moses.

We also have this competitive cultural thing going on.
We want our heroes and sports teams
to be the winners,
and the best.

We want other, lesser figures
compared to our heroes
and not the other way around.
In religion,
at least before the 21st century,
there is an either/or game going on.

Our heroes and mystics
are the only ones to be followed,
because otherwise,
how would we know who owns the truth?

So we inherited this story about
and turned into an allegory about good verses evil
and how Jesus was more powerful than the devil.

Then, centuries after that,
it became the allegory that created the season of Lent.
Lent was intended to provide a period of
sustained self-reflection and self-regulation
in anticipation of celebrating Easter.
It began as a one or two-day preparatory period
but soon blossomed into a 40 day and 40 night
tunnel of darkness
with a blow out party on either end.
Lent took on very dark and demeaning tones
and for centuries was a way of browbeating
ourselves for being human –
as if we could be something else.

In other words,
Jesus-in-the-wilderness was used as the gateway to Lent,
and so it became a story about temptation
and overcoming sin,
rather than the story that Matthew was telling:
that God has raised up a new Moses.

The same thing happened to Adam and Eve.

We took that wonderful Jewish Creation myth
and turned it into a morality play
that somehow got twisted into the idea
that sex is something bad for us,
and proof that we were born sinful.
But Jewish Midrash,
which is the body of historic Jewish commentary,
treated the Adam & Eve stories much differently
than Christians did.
What Jewish storytellers tended to see and hear
in that Genesis narrative,
was a story about the hierarchy of human need.

Their take on it went something like this:
Once our essential physical needs are met,
and we feel safe and secure,
and we have love and affirmation,
then what we want is power.
There is nothing that makes us feel
more powerless than, “NO”.

Adam and Eve leave the garden in search of an answer
to a question God won’t even entertain.
They go in search of a knowledge that God won’t give.
God’s one little “No” in an entire ocean of “Yes”
was enough to drive them out of paradise.

It is just a story, the rabbis might say,
but it is probably a story each one of us
has lived out in our lives too.

Well, there you have it, two stories –
Adam & Eve
and Jesus in the wilderness –
that we were pretty doggone sure
we knew what they were about.

All our lives we have been told that
Jesus in the Wilderness is about
the war between good and evil.
And all our lives we have been told that
the story of Adam and Eve
is about forbidden fruit, the fall, or sex.
But low and behold, it turns out that neither story,
as told by the earliest storytellers,
was about those things at all.
So what does any of this have to do with you and me?

Just this: I bet that your story is like those two stories –
not at all about what other people told you it was about.

Our stories, yours and mine – our personal stories –
are not what people told us they were about.

We have all grown up being told
what our own story is about,
and some of us then come to discover
that what we were told
is not our true story at all.

Many of us, for example,
were raised believing that life is all about
meeting the right girl or boy,
falling in love,
getting married,
having children,
and living happily ever after.
But some people discover
that they are in love with someone of the same sex
and for most of history,
and in most places still today,
they can’t get married
or have children;
nor many of the things we are told
that go along with living happily ever after.

What I want to know is,
are they supposed to then be stuck
living out a story given to them by other people?
No, and no for any of the other prescribed stories
about gender, sexuality, race, class, or personality type.

Moses led slaves through the Exodus
into freedom;
and Jesus endured the cross
for Resurrection.
We are not stuck.
We are never stuck.
God is the author of a liberation story
not a prison story.

I would bet that every one of us here
has had the experience of getting placed
in the wrong story,
and then the struggle to recover
as we wiggle our way out of it.

The same thing happens to societies
and whole nations,
which can get placed into the wrong stories too.

In the United States of America
we are stuck in the wrong story.

We have been given the idea
that our story is all about
the personal pursuit of happiness.
That is a story of death and of self-destruction
for everybody but the winners.

We have been sold the story
that Consumerism is the answer to poverty
and even world peace.
That story ends with the rape of the Earth
and pervasive misery for all.

We have heard the story all our lives
that America is the greatest country in the world;
that we are the freest people in the world;
that we are the richest, smartest, greatest,
bestest, most wonderful nation in the world.

In short, we have been told
the story of American Exceptionalism.
The logic of that story is that if it is not true
then we are nothing at all
because it is an all or nothing story.
But American Exceptionalism is children’s story.

It is a ruse, a subterfuge, a trick
to keep our eye off the injustice and cruelty
that not only surrounds us
but that we have helped to inflict upon the world.

How bad could we be if we are the best?

To wiggle out of that story
does not then deny all that is good and wonderful
about us either –
we do not have to live in an either/or story.
We are not stuck with that story as it was given to us.

Moses refused to let the Golden Calf stand!

Jesus refused to speak before the jack-boot of Pilate!
We are not stuck.
We are never stuck.
God is the author of a liberation story.

It is difficult to discern the meaning of our stories
with the lies and manipulations
and psychological violence
heaped upon us
by those who tell us they know better.

But that is exactly why we need prophets.
Prophets help us discern the meaning
of our own stories.

So when Matthew
wants us to know that Jesus was a prophet
in the mold of Moses,
we are hovering around the central star
of our universe.
It is a very big deal that Jesus was a prophet.

Those who tell stories about us,
and place us into stories that are not our story,
often have a spectacular array
of weapons of mass deception
given by spellbinding storytellers.

When we think about the power of false stories –
whether our personal story,
our community story,
our national story,
or in the case of Adam and Eve, even our human story –
what prophets do
is lead us out of false meanings
and into true stories.

Prophets are the people God gives to us,
often at just the right time and place,
to lead us into the truth of our own stories.

Prophets are a big deal,
and that is why we need to perk up
and be amazed
when Matthew tells us that Jesus is a new Moses.

The title “Messiah” that we have translated as Christ
is just another way to say, Prophet.
Messiah or Christ
is the dream of a once and forever Prophet.

I think that is crucial information
if we are going to be practicing, 21st century Christians,
instead of 19th century Christians.
Here then is my invitation to us for Lent:
Open the book on your life and begin to read it again.

Take another look at the meaning of your life,
however old or young you are.
What is the meaning of your personal story,
and our corporate stories?
Who told us the meaning of these stories?
Who had a vested interest
in our reading our story that way?
Is what we were told indeed the meaning of our story?

Prophets abound in history
and in the present,
and they can help us discern our stories.
Find them, use them,
allow them to help with the discernment
of the true story of your life,
and of our life-together.