In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A man shivered on a cold Chicago street. He had lost his faith. Someone, a stranger, handed him a little green book on that frigid winter day. The book was a tiny New Testament. Wrapped in his worry, the man turned to an index, and he found a scripture verse to turn to for "anxiety." He read from the sixth chapter of Matthew, part of the Sermon on the Mount, "...do not worry about your life ... Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"
You may know this story. I learned about it some months ago. The man is Stephen Colbert, and he recalled his encounter with scripture, an encounter that brought him back to faith and to the church, in a November 2018 interview on "Faith in Focus."[i]
In the interview, Colbert remembered, "I was absolutely, immediately lightened. I stood on the street corner in the cold and read the sermon. And my life has never been the same."
His life was never the same. I think that's true for any of us who turn to the scriptures with an open heart. I was reminded of Colbert's story as we begin another journey through the season of Lent. In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, we are invited to the expected "observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial" but also to engage scripture by "reading and meditating on God's holy Word."[ii]
If more of us did that, we too might find ourselves saying, "My life has never been the same."
Our forty-day Lenten journey recalls Jesus' forty-day sojourn in the wilderness, a time in which he was relentlessly tempted by Satan. Our Gospel reading today from the fourth chapter of Luke recalls the three ultimate temptations that Satan offers Jesus.
Satan tempts Jesus to perform a miracle on command, to worship him, and to leap from the Temple's summit. Each time Jesus rebuffs Satan with scripture.
Jesus' time in the wilderness comes right at the beginning of his ministry. But this encounter with Satan is not the only time Jesus will turn to the scriptures. Again, and again, Jesus quotes the scriptures in his teaching, in his ministry, and even in times of crisis. Immediately before his death on the cross, Jesus cried out in anguish, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In this hour of suffering, Jesus gave voice to the psalmist's plea. I don't believe that Jesus had special, superhero abilities to know the entire word of God. Instead, I think Jesus spent years and years studying the scriptures day in and day out. He kept the feasts and went to the synagogue to hear the scriptures proclaimed, to learn, and to teach.
Jesus steeped himself in the Bible. And so, when he needed strength and sustenance, he had a reservoir of scripture to draw on. Nearly every conversation he had was infused with quotations or references to the scriptures.
It is worth noting that Satan, in tempting Jesus, also quotes scripture. The scriptures can be used for nefarious as well as godly purposes. We can see this in our day, in the way people have used the scriptures to divide, to enslave, or to denigrate peoples and nations. Those who know the breadth of scripture can, like Jesus, rebuke those who would dismiss God's word.
Jesus dismisses the folly of Satan's abuse of scripture by quoting Deuteronomy, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." But beyond knowing the scriptures well enough to counteract their misuse, Jesus draws on the scriptures time after time. He uses the scriptures as a kind of yardstick against which to measure earthly concerns by heavenly standards.
As Jesus says in our Gospel reading, "One does not live by bread alone." If we only meet our material, earthly needs, we are not really living, Jesus seems to say. We need to meet our spiritual, heavenly needs to live well.
We find ourselves in an era in which we are surrounded by a cacophony of unhelpful messages. You need more stuff! You need to do something to yourself in order to be beautiful! Be afraid! Each of these messages is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.
Our salvation isn't in having more stuff, and in fact our stuff is likely to be a barrier to following Jesus. We don't need to look more beautiful, because we are made in God's image, and what could be more beautiful than that? We don't need to be afraid, because we are claimed by Jesus Christ who has conquered death and sin.
If we only listen to the voices of scarcity and fear, we are hearing the wrong news. We aren't hearing the right voices. But if we turn to the scriptures, we hear the voice of mercy, hope, grace, and truth. We need the scriptures because this is where we hear the Gospel.
Lent is really a kind of spring cleaning for the soul. It is a time for us to reject those things that tempt us away from following Jesus. We might find ourselves amidst loud messages of consumption, superficiality, and fear, and hearing from the church a different voice. In a quiet plea, the church says, return to the Lord your God. God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
We, like Jesus' own disciples, would do well to cry out, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."[iii] It is Jesus who is our salvation, who frees us from the tyranny of all our temptations and sins. It is God's word that reminds us of God's gracious love for us, and it is God's word that reminds us how we are meant to live.
We should not imagine that we can resist the temptations we face on our own. We should not imagine we will figure it out by ourselves. It is with God's help we can turn to Jesus. It is with God's word we can be transformed.
How wonderful it is that God the Father loves us so much to send Jesus Christ into our world to be for us perfect love. How wonderful it is that the Spirit abides with us to lead us into all truth. How wonderful it is that in the scriptures we can - as Jesus did - find sustenance and strength.
A friend of mine told me how she came to be transformed by an encounter with God's word. As a child, she grew up in a household that went to church, but she didn't get any exposure to an actual Bible. Visiting a friend's house - a home where the family were very involved in their Baptist church - my friend saw a Bible. She was curious, and she somehow turned to the first chapter of John's Gospel.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." "and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."
It is, I think, the most beautiful chapter in the entire Bible. And my friend was captivated. She copied down that poetic chapter onto a piece of paper and kept it with her for years. Through the words of scripture, the Word made flesh transformed her. Her life has never been the same.
We are still very early in this season of Lent. There is still plenty of time to decide how you might use this time to turn to Jesus, to reject those things that draw you away from him. If you already have a plan, wonderful. But if you don't yet have a plan, perhaps you will take a suggestion. Find a Bible. Or find a Bible app or a Bible website. Every day this season of Lent, read a few words of scripture. Read a Gospel. Read the Bible from the beginning. Read the psalms. Read the invigorating story of the early church and the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts. Find an index and read about a topic that interests or concerns you. Whatever you do, read. Read God's word.
We do not live by bread alone. We live - we truly, fully live - when we are nourished by the bread of life and our thirst is quenched by the living water. Jesus shows us the way in all things. And today he shows us that the scriptures can be our companion when we are tempted, when we are most in need.
Our life's journey is full of challenges, full of relentless temptations. How can we resist the temptations to turn away from Jesus? How can we make sure we hear the still, small voice of God amidst a din of competing noises? We can turn to the Bible. We can open our hearts. We can bask in the glory of God's love for us as it is revealed in the scriptures.
We might find ourselves saying, "My life has never been the same."
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Retrieved on November 25, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8qaseX5ntM
[ii] Book of Common Prayer (1979), page 265
[iii] John 6:68