Matthew 4:1-2

Tuesday, February 28

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

I remember a night when I was quite young. My parents were gone away, and my elder siblings were to make dinner for my younger brother and me. It was summer, and I was out in the neighborhood and did not hear the call to come for dinner. When the sun began to set, I went home to find dinner cleaned up and nothing left. My parents still laugh at the emphatic note I left, informing them that “THEY DID NOT SAVE ME ANY DINNER!” and I had to go to bed hungry.

My reaction in the moment was rather dramatic (admittedly, my reactions can often be dramatic!) I was certain I was going to die of starvation, and blame would be placed on my siblings. But let’s be honest, I was not abused and left hungry. I was not living in poverty and that was my very last chance for a meal. I would get breakfast and all the meals after that.

And here we encounter Jesus; sitting in the desert, waiting for forty days, anticipating what is to come, fasting, praying. “And he was hungry.” What an understatement in human terms.

Here we encounter the divinely incarnate God. Jesus is 100% human in his hunger and 100% divine, full of the Spirit of God. Jesus is full, filled to overflowing with those aspects of the divine that allow the human aspects to be simply “hungry” and rest in the Father’s plan.

How many times have I sat in a literal desert with no sustenance? Never. How many times have I sat in the figurative desert thirsting and hungering, hoping for God to provide the nourishment I desperately need? Often. But here in Matthew, I realize that God has always been there with me. I need not fear being left wanting. The Spirit is constantly filling me up with all I need to continue to do God’s work in the world.

Thank you, loving God, for constantly filling us with your Spirit that we might fight temptation, wait patiently for your plan, and work toward the salvation of the world. Amen.

Genesis 2:16-17

Monday, February 27
Karl Reko

And the Lord God commanded the man. You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.

As a child involved with learning things in school every day, it never made sense to me why Adam and Eve weren’t supposed to eat a fruit that let them learn what was right and wrong. However, this is a story about much more than apples. It has to do with a problem initiated by Adam and Eve which is still with us.

Seventeen verses before the verses above we are told that there were not one, but two trees involved. In addition to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there was also a tree of life. The knowledge of good and evil is tied to the tree of life. This is not a story about morality. It’s talking about knowledge of the divine plan of God that lies behind life and death, a plan that involves life and immortality. This plan is God’s business, not ours. When Eve and Adam violated the use of those trees, they were trying to be like God. We still try to be like God whenever we assume that we, and not God, have the plan, are in control of our lives and to maintain that control, must be perfect.

Our encounter with our Lord Jesus frees us from the burden of always trying to be in control and perfect.  Lack of control is not deflating but is daily Good News. This season of Lent is all about the relief that we experience when we acknowledge our uncontrolled imperfection and thus remember that God is in charge. We don’t have to be perfect in school. We don’t have to be perfect children or parents or spouses. We don’t have to be perfect employees or employers. We don’t have to be in perfect health and afraid of losing control when we are sick and die. A loving and good God is in charge of all that.

I’m not given to miraculous messages from God, but I once had a dream that I can’t explain any other way. It had been one of the worst weeks possible. All I was hearing was bad news and accusations against me, including my own. I gave up in despair. That night I dreamed I was floating in space in a peaceful and beautiful weightlessness. A calming and warm voice came out of the void and simply said, “It’s okay.” Even though my little world was crashing, the voice told me that there was a larger picture in which God is in control, and therefore I was okay. I woke up feeling inside a peace from God beyond reason and understanding. 

Our encounter is with God’s Son who forgives our imperfection and lets us live in gratitude because we live forgiven and free in God’s world.

Good and loving God, thank you for your peace which passes all understanding. Amen.

Psalm 32:7

Sunday, February 26
Rev. Troy Medlin

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

There was no place like my grandparents’ house growing up. Walking in the door of their house at the corner of Constitution and Lowell it felt like all the troubles of life would melt away and be left outside. There I could truly rest. It was as if just the unique aroma caused a deep breath to exhale from the lungs. It was one of my hiding places. A shelter where things were okay no matter what was swirling around out in the world or in my heart.

Both as young people and adults we crave those kinds of spaces. They are like mini escapes from the heartache and the pressures of this fallen and broken world. The problem is of course, all these oases are only temporary. The troubles and burdens we carry, whatever they are, are still real and lurking. They always greet us again whether we are ready for them or not.

This Psalm reminds us that the most secure and enduring hiding spot is not a place but a person. The one the psalmist speaks of is the one who created all things and who has come among us in Jesus Christ. He has stretched out his arms of love upon the cross, and those of us who have been born from his wounded side can find a home in his embrace. Carried in his arms of love we know that the troubles that we face are not the end. For Christ will bring us through every death into life. In each twist and turn he leads us to that dwelling place where all are safe at last. And all along that path, we are kept. Our wounded and risen Savior is our hiding place. There we can breathe for we know the future. Not even death’s arrows can harm us anymore. As his body on earth, may we become a hiding place for others and a refuge for those in need.

God of mercy, may we find our hiding place in your wounded and risen body. Safe in your hands we are kept safe from death’s power. Preserve us as people who offer refuge to all in your name until our Lenten cries of deliverance are transformed into shouts of Easter praise. Amen.

2 Corinthians 5:20

Saturday, February 25
Laura Merwin

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

To be an ambassador—now, as in Paul’s time—is to be respected and well-connected. It is to be favored by a ruler—even in our democracy, ambassadors are presidential appointees and often reflect deep personal and political interconnections. But to be an ambassador is also to be a servant, albeit one of high place. A good ambassador, by definition, never acts in self-interest, but only and always as a representative of a higher power. 

To be an ambassador is also to only rarely directly encounter the power one represents. The meaningful acts of an ambassador necessarily take place at a distance—one must leave one’s homeland (one may try to take comfort in the idea that an embassy is “home soil,” but history shows that this is little more than a polite legal fiction). More, to be an ambassador is to act for a power even—especially—when one cannot communicate with that power. Ambassadors have always been chosen because they can be trusted to be the hand and voice of the absent. This is why being an ambassador is such a great and terrible responsibility.

And so, while there can be significant perks of ambassadorship—a beautiful residence, diplomatic immunity, garden parties with lots of champagne—there is also great potential for fear and loneliness. On foreign, possibly hostile soil, far from home and allies, an ambassador must sometimes feel an overwhelming desolation.

And don’t we feel this way, sometimes, as ambassadors of Christ? We are asked to continuously represent our sovereign, even when we feel uncertain, alone, unsure of our precise instructions or exact remit, even in the darkest moments when we feel totally abandoned or doubt our own capacity for loyalty. (After all, earthly ambassadors have sometimes woken to find themselves representing countries that, overnight, have ceased to exist. And we’ve never even visited ours – perhaps it was never there?)

C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters, Letter 8, God is most happy with us when we do his will at moments we feel his presence the least. It is easy—or easier, at least—to represent a sovereign when we are receiving regular dispatches, when we feel his attention and regard and understand clearly his instructions. But the most valuable ambassadors are those who cling to the identity of their lord even when separated by distance, silence, war, or doubt, trusting their homeland remains inviolate and they will travel there when their task is done.

Lord, please help us to faithfully act as your hand and your voice until we may be ultimately reconciled to you. Amen.

Joel 2:13

Friday, February 24
Julie Hinz

Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

After college, when I was free to make my own decisions about church and faith, and no longer bound by the rules of my parents’ home, attending church became a periodic activity. I did not need their faith. I needed my own. I knew there was more to faith than I understood, but the constant reminder of my sin became a barrier that reinforced my unworthiness and my deep sense of being unlovable.

It was during this time of self-doubt and unworthiness I encountered the God around which my faith is now centered. I was lovingly scolded by a friend: “I get that you don’t believe this, but you are loved. At some point, you’re just gonna have to accept that as the truth. I’ll remind you until you can believe it for yourself.” That moment echoes in my head. I had been truly seen. My friend acknowledged of my state of being and invited me to explore those hard feelings. It opened the door to honest and open questioning and learning while being safe in the knowledge that I could return and still be a beloved child of God.

It was through this friend’s constant reminder that I finally came to know a God who loved me, who wanted to walk with me, who loved me beyond measure. A God who was not angry at my wandering but loved me and my questions and doubts, who welcomed me back time and again not because I was worthy or had learned some valuable lesson in my wandering but because, to God, I had always belonged with him.

No matter how many times I wander away or find myself lost and distant from God, the door is always open for me to return, and the path back is always clearly marked so I can return easily to the arms of my Savior.

Blessed Lord, thank you for your constant invitation to return to your loving embrace no matter how far we seem to wander. Amen.

Psalm 51:10

Thursday, February 23
Michael Costello

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and put a new and right spirit within me.

A friend of mine told me about a dream they had several years ago in which they purchased a new heart on the illegal market for an ailing family member. As odd as this dream might sound, the image is one worth thinking about as we pray part of Psalm 51, the appointed Psalm for Ash Wednesday: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” In earlier verses of the Psalm the psalmist also prays to God: “Have mercy on me,” “Wash me,” and “Purge me.” There is a recognition on the part of the psalmist that sin and evil are things from which one must be purified. This is the truth we speak of during the season of Lent: We need a new heart.

The market for a new heart has a new economic reality; there is only the gift of new life in Christ, the one who gave himself up to death on a cross for us and for our salvation. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial love for each of us we need not wonder where and how to find a clean heart for ourselves. Through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection our sin is forgiven, and our hearts have been fashioned anew as a free and undeserved gift from God. This new heart we have been given cannot be purchased; it has been won for us by Christ’s death, once and for all.

Trusting that God is doing a good work in us even now, we are empowered to share the gift of his new life with others. We do this by how we show up in the world, offering ourselves in service to our neighbor and treating those with whom we live and work with compassion. Ultimately, as Christ’s body, we are called to love as he first loved us—by showing mercy, even to the point of laying down our lives for the sake of those in need.

Almighty God, create in us new and honest hearts, that we may bear witness to the love you have given us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 6:20-21

Wednesday, February 22
Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I received a phone call from a student’s mother who was at her wit’s end. She didn’t know what to do with her son, who she felt had been seriously damaged by a program the college sponsored, and she wanted some answers and some help in dealing with the changes she was seeing in him. My student had been in Africa doing development work for an NGO during a six-month stint sponsored by a program at the college. From a well-situated suburban family, he had seen for the first-time starvation and disease, abject poverty, and a neediness that opened his eyes and his soul to what he had never considered before. His response, on returning home, was to take everything in his bedroom—clothes from his closet, from the bureau drawers, trophies he had won at sports, academic awards, radio, CD player, all other electronics—and pile it in one gigantic heap on his bed. He said to his mother that she needed to help him get rid of the stuff of his former life, that it didn’t make sense to him now that he knew how most of the world lived. He wanted only one change of clothes, a few books, and nothing more.

This young man was beginning to understand what Luther meant when he wrote: “Those people are most fortunate who do not possess many treasures, for they do not have to support many rats and need not fear thieves.” But I knew this boy. He had other treasures:  a sensitive spirit, a love of God, a desire to reach the suffering, a faith in things unseen, things not subject to rust or moths, things that thieves cannot steal. Give him time, I advised his mother. With her guidance, he would see that his material blessings are not abominations but are meant to be shared and that his spiritual blessings are also to be used to allay the suffering of others.

Lord, you have given us much. Help us to use our gifts to help others who need them. And to see our worldly goods as gifts from you to be used for others. Amen

Encounters with Christ

In six days we will gather to begin our Lenten journey.

Our theme for Lent this year is Encounters with Christ. Our readings through the season present us with encounters various people have with Jesus throughout his ministry. After his encounter with Satan in the wilderness, we’ll see Nicodemus come to Jesus at night and an unnamed woman whom he meets during the day. Jesus will meet a man born blind, then he’ll meet Mary and Martha in their grief and Lazarus in his grave. Finally, Jesus will encounter the powers of this world head-on. Sin, evil, and death will look to win the day. They will fail.

During this season, as we walk once more toward the cross and the empty tomb, you will read powerful stories of how our writers have been encountered by Christ along life’s journey and deep insights into the biblical witness.

Our prayer is that this season of Lent is one of deep meaning for you. Like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, like the man born blind and Lazarus, we are changed by our encounters. We are born again. We are gifted the water of life. We develop eyes to see all that God is doing. We all called forth from our graves and stripped of our graveclothes, clothed instead with the righteousness of Christ.

As Christ encounters you anew throughout Lent, may you feel his promised presence in your life, preparing us for the great feast of Easter when his presence will be all in all.