Grace Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2022, Lent 1C
The Word Is Near You
Well, here we are again, back in that season called Lent.
You can be forgiven for being caught off guard by this. Even though Lent has arrived relatively late this year, since Easter isn’t until April 17, somehow it always manages to sneak up and arrive almost by surprise, at least to me. Conversely, one can certainly be excused for feeling as though we’ve been living through a constant state of Lent since, oh, March 2020, what with isolation and then continuing pandemic conditions and <wave arms around wildly> all of the stuff surrounding that.
Nonetheless, here we are again, and as is always the case for Lent 1 we get a gospel reading that recounts the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, from Luke in this case. Luke’s account is a rich one, giving us the good full details of just what the Tempter threw at Jesus, who was also fasting through the experience. We are reminded of how the Tempter tried three different temptations – turning stone into bread, claiming power, and engaging in a spectacular stunt – only to be turned away by Jesus with a word from Deuteronomy in each case. Even when the Tempter tried to back up his lure with his own scripture quotes [note: one from Psalm 91, which was read in the service as well], Jesus didn’t fall for it, not for a second.
One thing to take from this story is that, to put it almost simplistically, Jesus knew his scripture. Of course one could also point out that the Tempter knew scripture too, but here we come to the difference between knowing scripture and knowing scripture – between having a basic head knowledge of verses contained in scripture and knowing scripture as a vital, living presence within us, as we are led by the Holy Spirit in encountering it. The Tempter knew words; Jesus knew The Word.
This is a theme Paul picks up in his letter to the church at Rome. In doing so Paul, as he often does in his letters, shows off his own knowledge of scripture, drawing from Deuteronomy 30, Isaiah 28, and Joel 2 in this short excerpt of his discourse.
What Paul is encouraging here, though, is far beyond simple Bible drill-style memorization of scripture verses or some kind of scrutinizing to “unlock the hidden secrets of the Bible” or whatever. No, what Paul is urging is a knowledge of the word that is both verbal and spiritual; one that is bound up in profession and confession of our faith and is also essential to living out that faith. It’s not about mastering the secrets of the Bible, but it’s about being mastered by God, led by the Spirit and following after Jesus through the Word given in the scriptures.
That interplay is made all the clearer in verses 9 and 10, in which Paul engages in a bit of rhetorical flourish to draw out how both of those knowings of scripture matter. These parallel statements help us see that it isn’t an either-or, or a first-second, or even a 1a-1b situation; both confession and belief are part of what it means for the Word to be near us as in verse 8.
Here I might suggest that we’d benefit from parsing the word “belief” for a moment. We live in a time where the word “belief” has gotten out of whack, particularly when applied to scripture. It’s not hard to find some preacher or other who will tell you to “believe in the Bible,” but when you unpack and tease out what that statement is encouraging, it turns out to be little more than that same head knowledge we’ve already talked about. Or, worse, it becomes “belief” in the Bible as some sort of magic talisman little different from whatever such object might be used to wield power in some fantasy novel or movie. Suffice to say that is not what Paul is about here.
One fairly simple way of getting at this is to think of the game that one might find done on different kind of retreats, be they youth retreats or corporate retreats or some such. You’ve quite likely heard of it, the one in which the participants are paired off and one stands behind the other in a position to “catch” the other as the other falls backward. For the one falling backward, the act of falling backward, as required by the game, goes far beyond the “belief” that the person behind is there to prevent a potentially painful outcome of collapsing to the ground; what is involved here is not merely belief, but as that game name suggests, trust. The one designated to fall is trusting the one designated to catch.
Frankly this is a lot closer to what Paul is talking about in speaking of the one who “believes in the heart.” This is about much more than intellectual assent to the Resurrection of Jesus; put bluntly, it’s about living like one who knows Jesus to have been raised from the dead, and who knows that Jesus lives, and who knows that one day the same will be true for us. “Heart belief” shows up in action, in day-to-day living, or it’s not there, period. Talking a good game isn’t the same as that “heart belief.”
At the same time, the “talking a good game” part also matters. Paul places an equal emphasis on confession of that faith. Here “confession” is not used in reference to our sinfulness, but to our ability and willingness to say what we believe. It’s the kind of “confession” that it meant by the various statements of faith found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. Note even how many of those are simply named as “confessions,” from the older Scots Confession and Second Helvetic Confession and Westminster Confession of Faith to the more recent Confession of 1967 and Confession of Belhar. In essence, when we do our Affirmation of Faith right after the sermon, it is one small example of how we “confess with our lips,” to borrow from Paul. You might even think of it as practice in this kind of confession.
Part of the power of this is caught up in that statement in verse 13, the one lifted from the prophet Joel: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s a statement that pushes the boundaries of what we call faith; it challenges our neat little boundaries and rules to suggest that everyone who calls out to the Lord is somehow drawn into God’s salvation. It’s the kind of thing that likely would offend those with mere belief in God, but that won’t trouble too much those who trust in God.
All of this, as yet another Lent is upon us, offers us another way to view this season so typically associated with penitence and that other kind of confession. This is a time to practice our faith, to “trust with the heart” and to “confess with the mouth” the God who has saved us and still saves us and will keep on saving us, in a way that perhaps we have lost track of in our lives.
Lent, with all its confession and humility and even giving stuff up, is also a time to get back on track. It’s a time for getting back to the basics, so to speak, and remembering what it means to trust God with our lives and profess God with our lips, and to do so with confidence that God has saved us, and God is saving us, and God will save us when we call on the name of the Lord. When the word is near you, all of this is possible.
For the word that is near, and all that it makes possible, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #481, I Believe in God the Father