Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now I Can See by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

I went to get a new driver’s license at the end of February. I wear glasses but I can see okay without them. I have always been able to pass the eye test at the license bureau without them, so I always take the test without them. I started wearing glasses when I was in high school but like I said, I did not have to wear them all the time. As the years have worn on, I have become more dependent on my glasses. So, I stepped over to the machine they use to test your eyesight at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles. She said, “Read the bottom line of letters.” I laughed as I tried to read it. The lady gave me that look with her eyebrows raised. I said, “I think I had better put on my glasses.” I read it again. Much better this time. She looked at my paperwork. “You didn’t wear your glasses last time for your test?”
“No,” I said, “Until now, I have been able to pass without my glasses, but I guess those days are gone.” She stamped my license with the restriction: “corrective lenses required.” No turning back now.  From now on I must wear my glasses while I’m driving.
Thankfully, I can still see to get around without my glasses, unlike my husband Kurt. When he wakes up in the morning, and his glasses have fallen off his bedside table I can hear him pawing around like Mr. Magoo, trying to find them. I come to his rescue and help him search. He cannot see a thing without his Coke bottle glasses. Our poor daughter Becca inherited Kurt’s eyes. She lost her glasses the other morning and Jamie and Kurt were both in there trying to help her find them. We finally had to move the furniture to rescue them.
When one cannot see, and is given the gift of being able to see again, it is a wonderful thing. In our story for today, there is a man, blind from birth. He has an encounter with Jesus, and Jesus restores his sight.
The townspeople who have known this man from birth won’t believe it at first. They say he is not the same man. Then they take him to the Pharisees. You remember, they are the religious leaders who believe that keeping the religious law is the most important thing. They ask, “Who did this?” They find out it was Jesus and that he healed on the Sabbath. They say he must not have been from God because he broke the Sabbath law. They are more concerned with criticizing Jesus for breaking the law than celebrating the gift of healing.
They go back and forth with the man and with Jesus, trying to trip them up.
The man believes. He says that Jesus is a prophet.
The Jews bring in his parents for questioning. His parents hedge, because they don’t want to become outcast. So they bring the man in again. He says simply: “I was blind but now I see.”
Then they question him: “How did he do it?”
I love the man’s answer. He asks them: “Why are you so interested? Do you want to be his disciples?”
That puts them over the edge.
People are so threatened by Jesus. How can this be? How can they be threatened by someone who brings sight to the blind?  How can they be anything but overjoyed?
The man understands exactly why they are threatened. You see, up until this time, the Pharisees ruled the roost. They had authority. They were at the top of the heap in the religious hierarchy. People may not have liked them, but they had to listen to them. They had status. They had power.
But their power is only held together by the law, by their grip on the law, and by the people’s fear of the law and respect for the law. They had convinced people that God was all about law, and because they were all about law, well, then, they were the people who were closest to God.
Jesus comes along, loving, gentle Jesus, and he simply will not play by their rules. And this man healed of his blindness is evidence that Jesus does not care about their rules. And Jesus is closer to God than they are. The man says to them: “It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man [meaning Jesus] didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Well, as you can imagine, that puts the Pharisees over the edge. They go off on the man. They say to him: “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” Then they throw him out in the street. 
They do this because if Jesus is closer to God than them, then they do not have a corner on the religious market. Jesus is trying to take their place. In fact, he has more than taken their place. They do not have the ability to give sight to the blind, and to set the captives free from their burdens. They don’t have the ability to free all of us from our brokenness and give us new life. All they have to offer is a life of burden living under the weight of more and more laws.
But Jesus comes along and puts some salve on the eye of a blind man and sends him to wash in a healing pool and, lo and behold! He can see! What, then, might Jesus do for us?
We are stumbling around in the dark looking for the glasses we lost in the night, when Jesus is standing there all the time saying: I will help you. Follow me, and I will clear up your cloudy eyesight. I will show you the way.
The religious leaders threw the man who was healed out into the street and Jesus went to him. Jesus said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The healed man said to him, “Show him to me and I will believe.”
Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
And the man says: “Master, I believe,”
And then Jesus states his mission ever so simply: “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”
Oh, that really makes the Pharisees mad. They say: “Are you calling us blind?” And he says, “Well, if you were really blind then you would be blameless, but because you claim to see everything, [but of course, it’s obvious to everyone that they do not], then you are at fault.”
Jesus is bringing light to the places of darkness. These religious leaders were using their status to hold the people down. They were not pointing the people to God. They weren’t setting people free with the law.
Jesus came to bring everything into the clear light of day: both for those who were obviously blind and for those who claimed to see and know everything but who really saw and knew nothing.
So how do we apply this to our lives? There are people who try to reduce following Jesus to a rigid system of rules. “Do this, don’t do that, and you will be in good shape with God.” We all fall into this system of a judgment-based-religion at times. It seems like it would be easier if we just had some rules. The 10 commandments, for example, are a good place to start. But practicing religion with only a rules based approach usually gets us into trouble, because there are never enough rules to fit every situation, so we have to write more rules. And then we have to determine who gets to write the new rules, and human beings who write and interpret the rules for God are imperfect, like the Pharisees. Even when we work in community and try to come up with rules together, it’s an imperfect process.
Now of course I am not saying to throw out all the rules and neither was Jesus, but he was responding to a context in which a rules based religion was not working so well, and we see evidence of this in our day, too. Some people are caught up in a strict rules based system that is not working so well. We watch as those systems begin to unravel.
Jesus said that he “came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, so that those who have never seen will see.” We are all blind in some way. We need Jesus to be the corrective lenses that we put on, so that we can see more clearly. Jesus wants us to see the world through his lenses. It’s like when I could no longer pass the eye test at the DMV. I think Jesus was saying, “You are all blind without me. Let me give you some mud to rub in your eyes and you can go wash in the healing pool. Or let me give you this pair of glasses to wear. When you wear these, you will see the world with my eyes.”
Wouldn’t that be great? We could put on a pair of glasses and see with the compassion of Jesus. We could put on a pair of glasses and see injustice and how to make change for justice. We could put on a pair of glasses and see harm and we could bring healing and the restorations of God’s way in the world.
Hmmm. I am pretty sure that is what Jesus offers us every day when we open our eyes.
Try this with me. Close your eyes. Now open them and see what God wants you to see.
You see, the eyes we have are the eyes God gave us, and they have lenses in them, made by God, lenses made to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. So, how about we use them? Let’s try an experiment this week. When we open our eyes this week, let’s imagine that we are seeing for the first time, and let’s imagine that we are seeing what Jesus wants us to see.
I want you to try that exercise several times a day. Set an alarm on your phone to go off several times a day.  When it does, close your eyes, and then open them and see what Jesus sees. Or do it before each meal at the time you would pray. Let’s post on the Village Facebook page what we see.
Let’s ask Jesus to open our eyes to those things to which we have been blind. His promise is clear. Jesus came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, so that those who have never seen will see.  Let’s see what Jesus wants to show us. And then let’s follow Jesus. Let’s be the voice of Jesus. Let’s be his hands and feet. Look through those eyes God gave you and see what Jesus wants to show you. Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Deep Conversation by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

The scripture reading today is about a conversation between Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman (John 4:5-30, 39-42 from The Message translation for those following along from afar). We have just wrapped up a series of great conversations about our dreams for the Village church’s future. One of the things we learned is that we want to get to know one another a little better. Another smaller groups of us have been working on a new Conversation Project here at The Village and across Ohio, in Columbus, in Cleveland, but it started here. We are learning that when one person asks another person some questions and then really listens, it can be a really enlightening experience. We seem to have a theme of conversations going on around this place, did you catch that?

So I would like to start today with a little conversation experiment. I’m going to ask you to have a short conversation with one other person before the message. We call the person who invites the conversation the host and the other person the guest. So if you are someone who is not feeling like you want to talk much today I encourage you to be the host in your pair, because the host mostly just gets to listen. The host listens and asks questions like: why, and tell me more. 

It might go something like this. I might ask the question: what brought you to Toledo? My job. Tell me more about that. I’m a teacher. Really, why did you decide to be a teacher? I just always liked kids and thought I could make a difference. Really, can you tell me more about that? Well I guess it was really this one teacher I had. When I was in the 7th grade I had a really bad year. I had no friends. But there was this one teacher, the science teacher, who made me feel like I was ok. I loved science and he just opened up a whole new world to me, but more than that, he showed an interest in me. I didn’t have any friends that year, but that teacher helped me survive the worst year of my life. 

Do you see how by asking a few questions, “why” and “tell me more” we got learn quite a bit about what brought the person to Toledo.  It wasn’t just a job, it was a turning point in 7th grade, that made her a teacher and gave her a calling.  By just asking a few questions like “why?” and “tell me more”, we learned a great thing about our friend here.   

In the worship experience we did just that, we took the scripture conversation seriously, we invited everyone to get into pairs and Today’s scripture is about a conversation. The Congregation then shared what they heard from one another.  People described themselves as feeling valued and validated when they were heard.  They felt the connection between people and how we are connected and more alike than we think we are.  It was hard to just listen and let the person speak was what person shared.  But connections were found for a little conversation of a few minutes. 

In our scripture for today, (John 4) Jesus has a conversation with a woman. He travels through a part of the country where no self-respecting Jew would generally travel.  Jews and Samaritans were not friends.  They would make a huge detour in any trip, in order to avoid Samaria. But Jesus does not see divisions; he just saw people, he just saw children of God. He sends his disciples into town to get some food and he sits down by a well to rest.

A woman comes to the well, in the middle of the day. We know she’s a woman who wants to avoid the crowds, because the custom was that all the other women come to the well early in the morning when it’s cool. We know because she comes in the middle of the day that she is a woman who is trying avoid the other women. This is a sign that she is an outcast. You name a religious law, and she has probably broken it. No one respects her anymore. 

She came to that well that day, quite possibly dejected, lonely and without hope. But she likely was not seeking anything except a bucket of water.  What she found was Jesus, a man, first of all, who would look her in the eye and have a conversation with her.  This was shocking enough. For those who are outcasts, for instance our friends who come to Food for Thought on Saturdays to get food & hygiene items, it is something just to have someone look you in the eye and voluntarily talk to you.  

For a Jewish man to talk with a Samaritan woman broke about a hundred customs right off the bat. She was unclean. Taboo. But he not only talked to her, he listened to her. She later told her friends: “this man knows me inside and out.” I’m quite sure we don’t have the whole conversation recorded. Remember this is oral history, written down long after the fact. Only a few details actually got written down. I have an idea that it took his disciples a long time to walk into town and come back. I think they sat their all afternoon talking Jesus had all the time in the world for this woman.

Have you ever had a conversation like this? A conversation with a dear friend or relative? Someone who knows you deeply and really cares about you? Jesus kept questioning more deeply with this woman. She mentioned a husband and he said: “Yes, tell me more about that husband, because I have an idea that you have had several husbands, and the man you are with now is not your husband.” 

Perhaps it was harsh of Jesus, it seems a bit harsh, but it was like he had to peel back the layers of an onion in order to get to the truth of who the woman is. She had spent so many years living in sin.  Jesus had to help her find her way back to being the loving creation that God made her to be.  Because Jesus sees everyone of us as the beautiful, beloved child of God we are.  

They had a conversation about worship and Jesus said to her: This is “the kind of people [God] is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before [God] in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship [God] must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”  He was calling her to be her true self – the person God created her to be – a person of love, compassion and generosity.  Like a little child who hasn’t learned how to sin, to separate oneself from God.  

Jesus freed her. She was filled with shame. She had no friends, no self-respect. She was an outcast in her community. But when you community tells you that you are no good, you start believing it. And for this woman, it appears, there were some choices she made that caused her to be on the margins, some choices for sin. 

But all of that changed when she met Jesus. In her encounter with the living God, she was set free. She went back to her village and told her friends, 

“Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.
39-42 Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman’s witness: “He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!” They said to the woman, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He’s the Savior of the world!”

Because this woman had an encounter with Jesus, her life was transformed and the lives of many people in her village were transformed.  She became not only a follower of Jesus but an evangelist as well.  Not only was her life transformed, she transformed her village.   She went from being an outcast, to being an instrument to transform the world from one conversation.  

You see, this is what happens when we allow Jesus to peel back the layers of our lives and help us discover who God wants us to be. 

It is very easy for us to read the story of this woman, and distance ourselves from that woman.  She was bad. She was a sinner.  She went to the well in the middle of the day because she wanted to avoid the other women who were not so sinful. The scripture says when the disciples come back from the village, “They were shocked. They could not believe that Jesus was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.” They were judging the woman and they were judging Jesus for even talking with her.

But what do we say here at The Village? We know we are imperfect people who make mistakes. We give thanks that God loves us anyway.  My friends, every one of us is that woman at the well. Jesus is coming to us today, and standing in front of us, and naming with us, the things we have said and done that we wish we had not done and said. And he is naming with us the things that we have not done that we wish we had done. We don’t have to be ashamed and beat ourselves up.

But we can only be set free when we name and own up to our failings. When we hide from them, and pretend we have done nothing wrong, our sins become a cancer. They grow and spread. They make everyone around us sick. Jesus came to the woman at the well and said, “Be free. Speak the truth, and then do not be controlled by what you have been and done. Let these things go. Drink the living water that God has to offer. Leave the past behind and step forward into a new life in God’s way.  A beautiful future that God has to offer you.   

And so I invite us now, to confess our sins and to move forward into the light of God.   Cheri then led us in a prayer:  Holy God, each of us knows we are not perfect.  We are not the person you created us to be. We have hurt others and hurt ourselves.  We have failed to take opportunities to help others, to be giving and generous. We open our hearts to you and we ask your forgiveness. 

If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us. Take the time to do this quietly now.  For yourself, be open to God and let go.  And then say these simple and powerful words and know that they are 100% true, ready? “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”  That’s it.  You are forgiven.  Now, start reclaiming that you are a beloved child of God and you have something to give yourself and others.  Now, go find that.  Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

God Loves Us So Much . . . by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

We have all seen the signs on a football game on television: “John 3:16.” When Tim Tebow played for the Florida Gators he put John 3:16 on his eye black. Kids for decades have asked their parents “What is John 3:16?” Some parents can recite it. If you grew up going to Sunday School you may have learned it as a memory verse. Even though I grew up as a preacher’s kid and went to United Methodist Sunday School just about every Sunday of my life, we were not big on memory verses. (Not like my friends at the Southern Baptist church back in Abilene Texas). But I knew that one: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (You had to learn it in the King James version, right?) I can barely say it without hearing a church choir singing in my head: “God so loved the       world . .  . “  

But what does it mean?

Today, we are going to put that verse in context and dig deeper with what has become almost so cliché that it has lost all meaning to us.  We’re going to break it apart in the message.  We start with a guy called Nicodemus. He was a Jewish religious leader, and not just a Jew but a Pharisee. That meant that he was deeply religious and took the Jewish law seriously. He studied that law and felt it was his responsibility to help Jewish people live by the law. The Pharisees believed that they were paying the ultimate respect to God by keeping the law. You could do a lot worse in the world than being someone who guards God’s law. But they were, at times, a bit rigid. We see this in religious rule followers in our day. Sometimes following the law needs to give way to the spirit behind the law. 

In any case, Nicodemus seems to be a thoughtful man. He wanted to learn more from this Jesus. He came to Jesus one night and said: “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right.
Then Jesus says the most peculiar thing. He says: “Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again.
You see, this is where that fact that Nicodemus is a Pharisee is getting in the way. He really wants things to be concrete. The law is concrete. Things are this way or that. There is no metaphor to the law. There is no transformation when it comes to the law. You either follow it, or break it.
That was what was wrong with the folks. They had been breaking the law for a long time, and so people like the Pharisees just kept making new laws. People were getting farther and farther from what God intended and so the religion just kept getting more and more rigid.
So God sends Jesus.
God sends Jesus to turn the whole thing upside down.
Nicodemus knew there was something different going on with Jesus. That may be why Nicodemus sneaked out at night to go talk to Jesus. He was confused. He knew that his ways were not working. He was curious about this Jesus. But it’s possible he did not want the other Pharisees to know he was going to talk to Jesus.
Jesus is trying to get through to Nicodemus. Jesus says to him again:
Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.
When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
Jesus has just given this beautiful picture of how, when we are baptized, or when we give our lives to God, we invite the spirit of God to live in us and form us and transform our lives. We ask God to form us and shape us and live in us so that we can experience God’s kingdom right here and now on earth.
And do you know what Nicodemus does? Rather than saying: “Yes! Give me that life. Baptize me right here and now!” He asks more questions:
Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
If I were Jesus I would be getting a little impatient by now. I think Jesus had had it with Nicodemus.
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay.
“Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. [He is referring to himself.] In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
And here comes the key passage – the one we have heard so many times: John 3:16.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: God gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. The Son came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in the Son is forgiven; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because that person failed to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
You see, Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus why he, Jesus, was sent by God. He was not sent to judge the world and tell them how horrible they were. He was not sent to be the leader of the Pharisees. Judging the people with the law was not drawing them to God, it was crushing them.
Jesus came to tell them they were loved and forgiven. Those who refuse to accept God’s love are already under a death sentence. It is death to be separate from God. We experience death right here on earth when we feel abandoned by God but God never abandons us; we abandon God. The only mistake we can make, the only mistake we can make is to fail to trust in Jesus.
God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son so that whoever trusts him will not die but will have a whole and lasting life.
I don’t know what motivates people to carry those signs that say John 3:16 to football games and basketball games. If I sat down and talked to them, truth be told, we probably would not have much in common. I would probably find them to be religious fanatics. But that does not matter, because their message is still my message. God loves us. God loves us.
Jesus loved Nicodemus, the religious fanatic who was bound by law and could not wrap his mind around the metaphor of being born again, and having a new start in life.
Jesus loves us, even when we put up barriers and find reasons why we are unlovable. We find reasons why we don’t believe, or why we are mad at Jesus or mad at organized religion. Or we wonder: does it really matter if I come to worship?
It matters to this person and this person and this person. Because when I have had a hard week, it helps me to see you and have you stand with me and sing some songs of joy. It is important to you and me that we pray together and remind one another to pray for one another throughout the week and to pray for our world. Coming together is important because we remind one another as a body that God loves us – unconditionally. God sent Jesus so that whoever puts their trust in him would not be destroyed; but have a whole and lasting life.
I read a story this week from David Lose. He said that because of this verse in scripture, John 3:16, he sometimes thinks we should “add four words to our service of Baptism to highlight the offensive, scandalous nature of the sacrament: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy it or not.’"
He preached a sermon in which he talked about this and he writes that sometime after he preached the sermon, “Tom, a member of our congregation, told [him] a story. Several nights earlier, Tom's six year-old son Benjamin protested his bedtime. Frustrated by his father's refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, ‘Daddy, I hate you!’”

Tom simply said “I'm sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you.”

“To which Benjamin replied, "Don't say that!" Surprised, Tom continued, "Ben, but it's true -- I love you." "Don't say that, Daddy." "But I love you, Ben." "Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!" And then it came: "Benjamin, now listen to me: I love it or not!"

“Even at six years old, you see, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love he was powerless. If Tom had been willing to negotiate -- "I'll love you if you go to bed nicely" -- then Benjamin would be a player: "Okay, this time, but I'm not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow." But once Tom refused to negotiate, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben couldn't do anything but accept or flee that love.”

Source: From Working Preacher: David Lose

God does not put conditions on the love. God loves us. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to follow a bunch of laws. Sure, we can reject it. But God will still love us, and “like it or not.” And if we reject God, God will accept us when we return. This is the message Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus that night. You can be born again. You can have a new life in God. A life of freedom to be loved and to be someone who loves others because you are so full of God’s love. We don’t love because the law tells us to. We love because God loves us.
God loves us so much, that God sent Jesus to tell us and show us and get this message into our hearts. Jesus even died so that we would know how much God loves us. God loved the world so much that God sent God’s only son, so that whoever believes in him would not be destroyed but have a whole and lasting life forever.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

“The Test” by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

In the 1983 film War Games, a very young Matthew Broderick plays a high school student who accidentally hacks into a top secret military computer system, set up to respond if the Soviets launch a nuclear missile (hmm, the US and Russia having a tense situation, everything old is new again – Kurt). It was created because the military had decided that there was a problem with allowing humans to make the decision of how to respond to nuclear strike. The high school student thinks he is playing a game but he inadvertently sets off a chain reaction that is about to result in nuclear war (The WOPR, the computer, was designed to win any game it plays, even if it’s playing with the end of the world). Spoiler alert. I am going to show you the pivotal closing scene in the movie, but it’s a 30 year movie so you’ve either seen it, or not by this point. Broderick’s character is trying to teach the computer that certain games are unwinnable. Watch the scene by copying this clip into your web browser:

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” The computer learns that any move will destroy the world. The only winning move is not to play the game. My husband loves to quote this line when he is in a lose lose situation. You know, when I say: “I want you to be honest, can you tell I have gained weight.” “The only winning move is not to play.” 

The computer was being tested. It was facing the opportunity to destroy the world. It had been programmed to respond. It was being baited to respond. But it played out all the scenarios and even a computer could “learn” that none of these choices were good ones.  The computer was tested and passed it. 

Have you ever faced a test? Of course you have. We have all taken tests, in school, for professional certification, tests of loyalty or moral character. There are some tests for which you can study. They are academic, or skills based. Some tests are based on our values. Some tests are more along the lines of what we would call a temptation. You find a wallet with lots of money in it. Do you keep the money or turn it in? That is a test of our values. 

Jesus faced a test of identity. Could he live into his identity as the Son of God? Because you see he was fully human and fully God. So at any moment his fully human side could have won out, over his fully God side. Fear could have won over trust in God. Pride could have one over humility. 

Here is the story. For the first thirty years of his life Jesus grew up like all other Jewish boys and young men. We have a few stories of him being a precocious young student in the Temple, holding the attention of the rabbis at a study session. But we’ve got to think that he had some normal experiences a child and young man. 

I really wish we knew more about what he was like as a young man. I wonder what it was like for him to be a teen-ager coming to understand at age 14 that he was the Son of God. I mean, seriously! Being a teen-ager and finding your way in life is hard enough. But imagine the pressure of somehow knowing that you are somehow both fully human and fully God. Maybe he did not know that, but Mary and Joseph surely told him that he was born for a unique purpose. 

Anyway, we know that by the time he reached about age 30 he was ready to begin his public ministry. He was baptized by John, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he immediately went into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer and fasting to prepare. This was his time of preparation for what was to come. There was a test to come, actually lots of tests and trials. So he did what he needed to do to prepare. 

Before you face a test, you prepare, right?   Whether you are taking the exam to be a Certified Public Accountant, a certified electrician, a dental assistant.  If there is a test, you prepare.  
·         have a plan for your study
·         Get plenty of rest
·         Eat a good breakfast
·         Wear your lucky pants (Kurt had to insert a picture of one of his 3 Zubaz Bengals pants he wore that Pastor Cheri was referring to in her message)

Jesus prepared by praying and by fasting. Fasting is a spiritual practice that most of us have rarely practiced. I only know a couple of people who have fasted for as long as 40 days and they were doing it as a witness for some justice issue. In the Jewish tradition, fasting means no food, drink, including water.

In fasting, when we refrain from, food and drink which meet our physical needs, then we have an opportunity to focus on our spiritual selves.  Giving up these physical things, helped Jesus to be vulnerable and to experience his total dependence upon God. God sustains everything in creation. Fasting helps put us in touch with our connection to creation and to God. 

In order for Jesus to pass all the tests of his life, he had to experience complete dependence upon God and put his whole trust in God. No holding back. This was his preparation for the testing. 

At the end of 40 days, so the story goes, The Devil, or some sort of evil came to Jesus. Honestly, he could have been so delirious it could have been a dream. When we read stories like this, we need to remember that the Bible was written to teach us truths. And the stories in it were handed down through an oral tradition for a long time. And think about it. The only person who was there, was Jesus. So this story came to us, because Jesus told it to someone. There were no TV cameras or voice recordings. We could do a whole study about what might or might not be literally true in the Bible, but for now, suffice it to say, Jesus had some encounter with what he called “evil.” 

Evil tested Jesus. Evil said: “Why don’t you make it easy on yourself and turn some stones to bread?” And Jesus said: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. I live on God’s word.”  I think Jesus is telling Evil – “I am not going to play your game.”  That is round one of the test.

Round two – Evil takes Jesus up on top of the Temple in Jerusalem and says to him: “Since you are God’s Son, jump. The angels will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.” You see Evil is trying to get Jesus to give in to pride and prove how powerful he is. But Jesus will not play the game. He quotes scripture and says:  “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

That takes us to the third and final round.  “Evil took him to the peak of a huge mountain…. He said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

 Jesus’ refusal was pretty short: “Beat it, Satan!” ….“Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”  Evil leaves and the angels come and minister to Jesus.

It’s a strange game. The only winning move is not to play. Evil tries to get Jesus to give in to his physical hunger. Evil tries to get Jesus to give in to the human desire for pride and for power. Even in his physically weak state, Jesus is stronger than ever. His season of prayer and fasting has taught him that he belongs to God. His trust is in God. He can stand up to any Evil one. Jesus can pass any test. 

And so my friends, we are entering a season of 40 days called Lent leading up to Easter. This is a season for us to be vulnerable with God and to put our complete trust in God. Some of you may be choosing to fast from something that you love during this season. It can be anything that you depend on: a food you love, Facebook, television, the radio in your car. Abstaining from that physical thing is an invitation to open ourselves to God and to be vulnerable. The silence in the car is an emptiness that we allow God to fill. 

We are preparing ourselves for a test too. The test is daily life. The daily life of living as followers of Jesus. Because you see the tests will come, they come every day. The tests dare us to put our trust in ourselves and our abilities. You see, we tend to put our trust in our accomplishments and the uneasy sense of self-worth we get from them. Because, of course, the self-worth we get from some accomplishment does not last. We will always need the next “fix” in order to prove that we are worth something.  

And so then we put our trust in pleasing other people, but when those people leave us for some reason, then we feel worthless. 

So then, we put our trust in money and things that money can buy. We hope that if we surround ourselves with comfort we won’t be afraid. But there will always be someone else who has more stuff. 

But what if we look to Jesus for our example? What if we put our trust in God? Because God never goes away.  God never lets us down.  

What if we believe the promise that we are enough because God loves us and we don’t have to accomplish anything to prove we are enough? 

What if we put our trust in God and shared our money with those who have less, because it feels good to share? What if we find our affirmation not from pleasing other people in a way that ties us up in knots, but just by being in community with other imperfect people who are trying to live in the way of Jesus. 

I’m told that “when Martin Luther felt … plagued by doubt, fear, or insecurity, he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, ‘Away with you Satan! I am baptized!’” (David Lose, in Working Preacher).   We are claimed by God in our baptism. We belong to God and we are enough.  

So I invite us to enter into this season of Lent, with Jesus, ready to meet the tests that life will bring to us. When evil comes along and dares us to put our trust in ourselves, let’s be ready not to play that game. The only winning move is not to play with evil. Let’s be like Jesus and put our trust in God. Amen.