by Pastor Cherie Dearth
This week we begin our new sermon series, Outcast: The Friends of Jesus. Over the next six weeks, we will focus on five of different people that Jesus spent time with during his ministry. He rarely spent time with those considered the elite of society though we will see in a few moments that he certainly had opportunity to do so. No, instead he goes after the people on the fringes of society, the powerless, the broken, and the broken-hearted, the people who have been told that they don’t matter. In each of these situations, Jesus goes out of his way to reach the outcasts of society. His love is extravagant and relentless.
But this week, it is Jesus who is the outcast, or perhaps he cast himself out. It is a period of time that has inspired the church in its season of Lent. For Jesus it was a period of time when he was purified and refined in preparation for his public ministry. Last week, we looked at Jesus’ transfiguration, when God said of Jesus, “This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Mt 17:5) Our passage for this week occurs, just after Jesus’ baptism. (Mt 3:17)
In the church, we often read this passage the first Sunday of Lent. It sets the tone. It lets us know that there is a reason for these forty days that we call Lent. It also inspires us in our dedication to follow this one who gave up so much on our behalf. That’s what he did, you know. We don’t follow Jesus just because he was a great man, he had some great teachings, even because he did some great things, but because of what he gave up, what he sacrificed for us.
Let us take a look at how the public side of this began even though he was all alone in the desert. Was he really all alone? We will have to think about that. So, Jesus has just been baptized when our narrative begins …
Matthew 4:1-11 NIV
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
One of the Scripture passages that parallel this one has to do with another temptation. The one in the Garden of Eden. The setting is very different. Adam and Eve are not in the desert. They are not fasting or suffering. Their only duty is to tend the garden, and they have the run of the place. There is only one rule. Don’t eat food from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Gen 2:17) The tempter is there too, twisting God’s words, sewing doubt, and they are not able to make the choice of absolute trust in God. The result is that they are cast out.
This story illustrates how we are all made outcasts, or maybe in our own way, we cast out God. The difference is that in our Gospel passage for today (or another way of saying it is, our Good News passage) is that through Jesus is drawing us back. Often we think that we are making a good choice, a logical choice, but it is one that draws us away from God. We have needs. God knows that. What’s wrong with satisfying those needs? Does it mean that it’s wrong to eat, wrong to seek power and influence to affect positive change? No, but we have to be careful. It is very easy to rationalize and make a poor choice and not even give a thought whether that choice will glorify God or damage our relationship with God. Sometimes it seems like we are incapable of making a good choice, but we have the Holy Spirit with us. The thing is that we have to listen. We have to be willing to listen.
Otherwise, we cast out God. We don’t let God into our decision making process. In the same way, we cast others out if they don’t meet with our expectations. We also take on the authority that we have the right to do so. The Pharisees certainly had this attitude with the common people during Jesus’ time. We can do it now as the church with people that we see as unworthy due to their economic status, their lifestyle, their political affiliation, where they live, and so on.
Question: Is it ever reasonable to cast someone out? Our instant answer might be, “No, it’s never okay.” However, is all behavior permissible? Where do we draw the line? How do we draw it? Is it punishing that person? Will it alter that behavior? Is it self-protection? Could we at risk of being drawn away from God through because we were spending time them? Self-protection can be valid if we are at risk for being drawn into sin.
One ministry area that has become popular lately is “pub theology,” where people go to bars and have discussions about God and faith in the relaxed atmosphere of a bar, perhaps inviting other people there to become part of the conversation. There’s a lot to be said for that, but not if you’re an alcoholic. Then, it is WORST place you could possibly be. We are not all alcoholics, but we all have those things that tempt us into drawing away from God. That is what sin is, anything, anything at all that separates us from God. It can be lawful. It can be known to be wrong. Potentially, it could be anything. As Paul says in 1 Cor 6:12, “Everything is permissible for me — but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me — but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Another way to think about it is by considering the kinds of outcasts that Jesus interacts with. One place to look is at the twelve disciples. They were all outcasts in one form or another. The fishermen of Peter, Andrew, James, and John were one of the lowest professions. That could only be superseded by Matthew’s profession of tax collection. Jesus had at least one Zealot with him. That was one of the Jewish sects that thought that assassination was an acceptable way to “encourage” the Romans to leave Palestine. That’s already half of the disciples.
Who else does Jesus interact with? The sick, injured, poor, in other words, people considered sinners by the pious.
I have another question. When hanging out with, so-called, sinners, does Jesus ever condone their sin? No. Never. He encourages them to change their live and move away from sin. What he assures them is that they are forgiven. They are not eternally condemned (beyond hope, or not worth the effort) because of their past behavior. They have been forgiven, but Jesus does not want them to return to that old life.
The way that Paul puts it in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
What is interesting is that Jesus spends time with ALL of the people, the Pharisees too. Jesus doesn’t just have dinner at the homes reformed tax collectors. He dines with religious leaders and Pharisees too. He tries to teach them all. While as a general rule, the Pharisees, scribes, and lawyers are characterized as working to stop Jesus, we see examples where individuals accepted his teaching, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
The difference with Jesus is that he also welcomes the ones who have been condemned by society. In the next chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount where he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” meaning humble as opposed to proud. “Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek,” humble before God (Psalm 27:11). “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful … the pure in heart,” the center of one’s whole being including the mind, emotions, and will. “Blessed are the peacemakers … the persecuted because of righteousness … are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Mt 5:2-11)
Outcasts all. All people that Jesus to be in relationship with, and that is the crux of it. God wants to be in relationship with us. That was the test for Jesus in the desert. It was the test for Adam and Eve in the Garden. Were they willing to rely on God alone rather than their own strength?
And that is part of what the season of Lent is about. It is an acknowledgement that we have been trying to do it all on our own strength and return to God.
Rev. Laurence Stookey has a great overview of Lent in his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church.
“First, a numerical puzzle period that lent consists of 40 days is rather well-known. But go to a calendar;beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the day before Easter. The result? Not 40 days but 46 days! Why? Because the 40 days of Lent are fast days in the broad sense, times of discipline and self-restraint. But the Lord’s Day [Sunday] is ever a feast within the church. Therefore in order to have forty days of fasting, six Sundays must be excluded from the count. Lent in truth is forty weekdays plus six [Sundays].
“Why forty days? In biblical terms forty is a round number symbolizing fullness — a span of time sufficient to accomplish what needs to take place; as such the number is uses frequently and becomes a kind of shorthand for much of sacred history. Rain fell in Noah’s time for forty days and nights; for this same period of time Moses and Elijah (who represent respectively the Law and the Prophets) dwelt at Horeb; for forty days Jesus endured temptation in the wilderness and later for the same period was revealed to the disciples after the Resurrection. Ninevah was given forty days in which to repent. For forty years, Israel wandered in the wilderness prior to admission into the promised land. Eli was a judge over Israel for forty years, and Saul, David, and Solomon are reported to have had reigns of forty years each.
“In the early centuries, forty days was the time sufficient for converts to make their final, intensive preparation for baptism; and thus a pattern for Lent developed. So also the ancient baptismal preparation dictated this period to be a time of particular devotion and discipline, especially of prayer and fasting commended in Acts 14:23. Jesus’ own preparation for ministry by fasting forty days in the desert exerted great influence, despite the obvious difference that Jesus engaged in this practice after baptism rather than before. …
“Briefly put, Lent is like an ellipse: It is a single entity with a double focus. The Forty Days are (a) a time for a probing consideration of our human condition, including sin and its deadly consequences for be individuals and society, and (b) a time for an equally intense consideration of the new possibilities offered to us in Jesus Christ and their implications for practical living. Both foci determine the shape of the season as a whole. But in a sense our Lenten journey takes us through the ellipse lengthwise. At the start of Lent … we are more fully aware of disobedience as our focus. By the close of the Forty Days (around Palm/Passion Sunday), we are more keenly attuned to the benefits of divine redemption. We begin by stressing penitence: an acknowledgement of our rebellion against God and our alienation from God’s whole creation. We move on to the fruits of repentance: the amendment of life that results when we turn around and by God’s grace head in a new direction.” (Stookey, 79-80)
It is that kind of devotion that Christ modeled for us. One of those places was his time in the desert. The test for Jesus was not really whether he could resist a temptation. The test was whether Jesus was willing to rely on God alone rather than his own strength. It was a lesson that Adam and Eve needed. Relationship with God is the MOST IMPORTANT THING. It is more important that a kind of food, more important that a particular ability, more important than not appearing foolish, more important than standing in the community.
That is what Jesus modeled, and it is impossible for us in our own strength. We are all outcast until we acknowledge that and live in his grace.
Lent is a time when we refocus on God and both find a way to depend on God more and to do the things that God would have us do. Then, we don’t feel like outcasts. We feel like the beloved children we are as God welcomes us back into his presence.
Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1996.