Manuscript of the sermon preached on February 26, 2023, at Briensburg UMC [Audio Podcast]
Bible Readings for 1st Sunday in Lent:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
[Video of readings by Briensburg UMC lectors]
Angels are incorporeal spiritual beings. They can’t be contained in any specific shape or form. In the Bible they seem to have appeared to some people in recognizable forms, but in others in ways no one would have guessed they were angels. Sometimes they appeared in visions, other times in dreams. Most of the time, angels don’t appear to anyone, they just take care of their angel business.
Fascinating studies of angels have developed throughout the histories of Christianity and other religions. According to the New Testament Greek Lexicon, the actual word translated “angels” in today’s Gospel reading is defined as an envoy, a messenger sent from God. The ministry of angels is to assist and take care of and attend to the interests of those to whom God sends them (Bible Study Tools, New Testament Greek Lexicon – KJV, Web 25 Feb 2023).
God sends angels to help alleviate our circumstances.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (Matthew 4:11 KJV)
The Bible tells how after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of prayer and fasting. The Church historically invites everyone to observe the forty days leading up to Easter as a time of prayer and fasting. During this time, we collectively and individually reflect on the things we need to change in our personal and corporate lives. Maybe there are things we need to abstain from or cut back on, at least for a little while if not permanently. Maybe there are things we need to do for at least a few weeks, and maybe some of these will also become permanent changes. The forty days of Lent is our “light form” of what Jesus experienced in the wilderness, and reminds us of other forty day periods in the Bible that ushered in major changes and renewals.
The Bible names three specific temptations Jesus faced. To each temptation, Jesus responded by quoting a Bible verse. When tempted to turn a stone to bread, he said as worded in the Good News Translation, “The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks’” (Matthew 4:4 GNT). When tempted to jump off the highest point of the Temple, his reply is phrased, “Jesus answered, ‘But the scripture also says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7 GNT). When Jesus was tempted to worship the devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world, he said, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’” (Matthew 4:10 KJV).
The Bible tells how the Tempter left Jesus, unsuccessful in the diabolic mission. In the Book of Hebrews, the Bible reminds us that Jesus “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 KJV). Maybe Jesus was tempted in other ways at other times, but however and whenever he faced temptation, he resisted and never gave in to temptation. St. James wrote in his letter, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 KJV). That method seemed to have worked for Jesus and is recommended by the Apostles, and a lot of people have testified to times it has worked for them. Maybe during Lent would be a good time to practice our own resistance and see how it impacts the temptations we face.
The Bible doesn’t say how many angels tended to Jesus, or how they helped him. It doesn’t say even whether they appeared to Jesus in some form or remained invisible. It just says “angels ministered unto him.” Jesus obviously knew they were there, helping him. Likewise, we can have confidence that God is using some means to send us the help and guidance and support we need in our various predicaments. Perhaps these messengers bring us thoughts of encouragement and wisdom and direction that would be to our benefit to follow. Perhaps there are times we might sense that God has placed people in our lives at just the right time for just the right reason. Maybe even ordinary people can serve as “Lay Angels” sometimes, when God sends us to minister unto someone. Remember how Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40 KJV).
Spiritual death comes in many forms.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17 KJV)
Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden, but their response was different than with Jesus. In their case, they rejected what God had said in favor of some other path. This was their choice, and theirs alone. The consequence of their bad choices include the continuing bad choices of their posterity. Likewise, the bad choices we make may be our own, but they still usually affect other people in adverse ways that may cause harm even to future generations.
Unlike with Jesus in the wilderness, the devil left the Garden successfully getting Adam and Eve to succumb to their temptation. Through their sin, our faith heritage affirms that sin and death entered the world. This sense of death applies not only to our physical bodies, but also to the various aspects of our spiritual lives.
Spiritual life comes in many forms.
For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 KJV)
Paul reminds us through his letter to the Romans that Adam and Eve started the cycle of sin and death. But then Jesus started the cycle of sanctification and life. Faith in Christ is the turning point for Humanity
Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,”
Adam's Likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
The people of God unite spiritually during Lent to cultivate new beginnings.
I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5 KJV)
Lent is a time of confession, in the sense of self-examination and realization. It is an opportunity to think about the changes we need to make in our lives for our own betterment and happiness, and for making the world a better place for everyone.
One of our United Methodist rituals of worship invites us to pray together this General Confession:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all people:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty.
We do earnestly repent,and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us.
Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.
For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake,
Forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Service of Word and Table IV)
Another of our rituals invites to phrase our community confession:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your name. Amen.
(An Order of Sunday Worship Using the Basic Pattern)
Note that these and the many other prayers of Confession the church offers for us to pray as congregations and as individuals are acknowledgments of the kinds of ways we, like all, in the words of St. Paul, “have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 KJV). However formally or informally we may phrase our confession, with whatever level of detail and remorse we choose to articulate, the concept is that of facing ourselves honestly in the presence of the Almighty. We evaluate and identify the issues creating obstacles in our reconciliation with God, with each other, and with Creation.
Forgiveness always follows Confession, to complete the Reconciliation. Sacramentally, we announce that “In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.” With this proclamation, we offer assurance of God’s love and forgiveness as reflected by Jesus at Calvary when he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 KJV). In all our relationships and communications, we try to extend this attitude of reconciliation in whatever ways are appropriate to our conversations. By our friendship and acceptance, our encouragement and support, by how we treat each other, we communicate God’s forgiveness. St. John expressed this concept in his letter, If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 KJV).
Renewal comes as we resolve the issues we have identified for improvement during the reconciliation process. We discover and acknowledge something that needs to change, we accept the forgiveness that brings release and reconciliation, and then we begin to make the changes. Some things change easily and quickly, but most are difficult and take time. Spiritual renewal is a long-term commitment, usually including many attempts and failures. But each time we fall short, we cycle again through the reconciliation process and continue to do better.
The season of Lent is for us a time of spiritual relief and renewal. We spend about six weeks focusing on self-examination and spiritual cleansing. Through that process, we accept God’s forgiveness and begin to make the changes in our lives we discover are necessary. The angels minister to us in various ways and forms to bring comfort and encouragement, strength and guidance from God.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.