Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Misfits

Blessed are the weird people

Texts used – Ruth 1:8-18; Matthew 5:1-16

  • Been preaching our way through Eric Elnes’ Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers)[1] all summer
    • Dark Wood = struggles we face in our lives – not places that we intentionally seek out but also not places we can avoid → Everyone finds themselves in the Dark Wood sometimes.
      • Dark Wood is also not a one-time-only sort of experience → place we find ourselves in again and again
    • Surprising gifts/blessings that we find in the midst of those Dark Wood journeys
      • Gift of uncertainty → trusting in God
      • Gift of emptiness → making room for God
      • Gift of being thunderstruck → all about openness/awareness of those flashes of God in this world
      • Gift of getting lost → lets us be found by God of love
      • Gift of temptation → helps us discern our true calling to do God’s work in this world
      • Gift of disappearing → shaking off all the limiting labels that the world places on us and claiming our most important name: beloved child of God
    • And today, we come to probably my favorite gift – the one I’ve been looking forward to preaching since we started this series weeks ago: the gift of misfits. The gift of square pegs in round holes. The gift of those who go against the grain … dance to the beat of their own drummer … think outside the box. This is the gift of the weird people.
      • As we come to the end of this Dark Wood journey, Elnes: Up to this point in our exploration of the Dark Wood, we’ve been considering the quest for our life’s path primarily from the perspective of our journey as individuals. It is only as individuals that we awaken to find ourselves in the Dark Wood, and each of us must find our own distinctive path through it. Yet, given the difficulties and challenges we encounter in the Dark Wood, walking alone is about as advisable as walking alone in a physical dark wood. It’s easy to get lost without the aid of companions. And it is often through [those companions] that we receive our clearest glimpses of heaven.[2] → In a nutshell, that’s what the gift of misfits is all about – companionship. It’s about finding people who are struggling like we are – not necessarily with the same obstacles, but struggling just the same.
        • Not always the companions we expect
        • Maybe not always the companions we would choose
        • But companions nonetheless. The gift of misfits is about finding those other companions so we can band together and travel together through the ups and the downs, the sideways parts and the rocky paths – so we don’t have to suffer the scrapes and setbacks, the lost moments and the vexing moments all by our lonesome. A few years ago, I came across an anonymous quote somewhere in my internet wanderings, and it’s a quote that I’ve loved ever since: “Make your weird light shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find you.” The gift of misfits is about letting our weird lights shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find us.
  • Believe it or not, this is exactly what Jesus preaches as well!
    • Today’s NT text = beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
      • Scriptural context:
        • Follows Jesus’ baptism
        • Follows temptation in the wilderness
        • Follows Jesus calling the first disciples (Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John)
        • Text just prior to what we read today says Jesus spent some time traveling throughout Galilee “teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people.”[3]
      • All this traveling and teaching and healing has stirred up the word about Jesus, and he’s begun attracting quite a crowd. So he climbs up to a higher place so more people can see and hear him. And what does Jesus start talking about? None other than … the misfits. – text: Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”[4] → Can you imagine what the crowd thought when they heard him say this? Here Jesus is, this brand new guy on the scene. He’s been roaming the countryside doing all sorts of amazing and unexpected things – teaching (even though he never studied with the legal experts), healing people, and talking about the Kingdom of God. Everyone’s curious about what this new and kinda weird guy is going to say. But Jesus’ pronouncement of who is blessed is almost certainly not what they were expecting to hear.
        • Happy are those who are …
          • Hopeless
          • Grieving
          • Humble – other translations of Gr. = gentle, meek
          • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness = those who are not righteous → those who are broken, imperfect – those who have made mistakes and know it
          • People who live harassed because they are righteous
        • Not exactly the list of blessed people that the crowd was expecting
    • Goes on to emphasize the importance of being misfits: You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.[5] → Jesus is pointing out not the things that make salt and light common but the things that make them special … unique … noticeable: that distinct, salty flavor of salt and the brightness of the light. Without these things, salt and light are useless. They must stand out, they must not blend in with everything around them, in order to be themselves. To fulfill their true potential – to be the blessing they were created to be, they must, in fact, be misfits. “Make your weird light shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find you.” 
  • In terms of traveling through the Dark Wood together, Elnes delineates 3 types of misfits → think of them as 3 concentric rings
    • 1st misfit (innermost ring) = mentor/guide – Elnes: This is a person who has spent a little longer in the Dark Wood than you have and is therefore more familiar with trails that lead to dead ends, or over cliffs, or back out into the bright and broad streets that lead straight toward doing the wrong good. This guide isn’t always at your side, but is a wise person you can check in with regularly, particularly when the trail becomes faint or the wait between lightning flashes is long.[6]
      • Purpose for spiritual directors/advisors
      • Purpose for confirmation mentors
    • 2nd misfit (middle ring) = “small band of traveling companions” – Elnes: They do not have to be as familiar with the Dark Wood as your mentor, nor need they be on the same path as you. They simply needed to be committed to finding and living within their own place of aliveness, following their own sense of call that keeps them from worshiping at the shrines of the mediocre. … [These are] people with whom you can let your hair down and simply be yourself. They are the folks to whom you can reveal your triumphs and tragedies, your joys and fears, and they to you.[7]
      • These are the other weirdos that flock to your weird light
      • Could be friends, family members, people at work, people involved in some of those activities that are part of your genuine call/vocation in this world
    • 3rd misfit (outermost ring) = a misfit community of faith – Elnes: Just as individuals have distinct paths or callings, so do communities. … If a personal mentor could be likened to an interpretive guide in the Dark Wood, and a small group of Dark Wood traveling companions could be likened to a group around a campfire, a misfit community of faith could be likened to an alehouse in the Dark Wood. As common at alehouses in Great Britain or Ireland, those who gather in these misfit faith communities are drawn there for camaraderie and conversation, as well as the basic spirit of the place. … They cater to a diverse crowd. Yet there is a spirit within them that transcends differences and gives each its distinctive identity.[8]
      • Doesn’t have to be a church … But it is certainly my hope that this congregation may be that misfit community of faith for you.
        • We’re certainly all different
      • BUT, as Elnes says, I think we also transcend those differences to come together in support, in compassion, and in grace
  • Naomi and Ruth in our OT reading = probably my favorite unlikely, misfit pairing in Scripture
    • Naomi = woman who traveled to a foreign country with her husband and sons due to famine in Israel → while in that foreign country, her sons marry, her husband passes away, and then her sons pass away → Naomi gets word that the famine is Israel has ended, so she heads back home → And as she heads for home, Naomi is definitely traveling a Dark Wood path. She has lost her entire family – her husband and her sons. She is grieving. She is bitter. She is traveling back to a place that she knows will be difficult. As a widow with no sons to care for her, she has no holdings or property or anything of her own. Naomi knows that she will have to survive on the generosity of others. She has become the epitome of someone who doesn’t “fit in” in society at the time.
    • Initial traveling companions = daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah
      • Naomi convinces Orpah to turn back → return to her family so they can care for her → tearfully and reluctantly, Orpah finally agrees
      • But in contrast, she cannot convince Ruth to turn back as well. Naomi tries to convince Ruth that she has nothing for her and that Israel – home for Naomi but a foreign country for Ruth – has nothing for her either.
    • Ruth’s response = Dark Wood response of companionship – text: “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord to this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”[9] → Something inside Ruth knows that she and Naomi need each other as they travel this road of grief and hardship and outsider-ness together.
      • Fits perfectly with Elnes definition of “misfits”: What I mean by misfit is someone who is being as intentional as you are about embracing the gifts of the Dark Wood and finding their place in this world, if not more so.[10] → Maybe it’s because it’s two women. Maybe it’s because of the unconditional love we see in both Naomi and Ruth. Maybe it’s because of the wholehearted devotion that Ruth displays. But something about these women … this journey … this Scriptural soliloquy that tugs at the heart and seems to be such a perfect illustration of misfit community.
  • Elnes explains why the gift of misfits is so crucial: Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. … If you live an unreflective life, allowing these forces to shape you unawares, they will take away your name and give you a number. They will not ask what brings you alive in this world, but will demand instead that their world lives in you. They will not ask what is the specific good that you must do to live into your full humanity. Instead they will empower you to do only the good that keeps their specific processes alive and well, running seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.[11] → But when we find our blessed community of misfits – when we find our other wonderfully weird folks – they give us the courage to break outside that box. They give us the courage to live a reflective life – one that values our name, one that encourages us to find our specific good that feeds our fullest humanity. These are the people that see us, not with the world’s eyes, but with God’s eyes.
    • On the cover of your bulletins this morning: “Blessed are the weird people – the poets and misfits, the artists, the writers and music makers, the dreamers and the outsiders – for they force us to see the world differently.” Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 150.

[3] Mt 4:23.

[4] Mt 5:3-13

[5] Mt 5:13-16.

[6] Elnes, 157.

[7] Elnes, 159-160.

[8] Elnes, 162-163.

[9] Ruth 1:16-17.

[10] Elnes, 157.

[11] Elnes, 155-156.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Disappearing

sideways into the light

Texts used – Luke 1:5-25, 57-64; Ephesians 2:1-10

  • Well, friends, we are nearly through our summer sermon series on Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes.[1] So far, we’ve spent six Sundays talking about what the Dark Wood is and how, even though we are often initially disheartened to find ourselves there, some of the gifts that can come from our Dark Wood experiences can be the most formative, faith-assuring, life-changing experiences we’ve ever had.
    • Reminder of where we’ve been
      • Dark Wood = difficult times/places along our journeys
        • Journeys of life
        • Journeys of faith
      • Unexpected gifts that we find there
        • Uncertainty → trust in God
        • Emptiness/being emptied → make space for God in our lives
        • Being thunderstruck → being open to the flashes of the Holy Spirit that illuminate our path and reverberate in our souls
        • Getting lost → being found by a God who loves us wholly
        • Last week: temptation → discerning God’s authentic and unique call for each and every one of us
    • Last week, as we started talking about the gift of temptation, I said that it was a tricky one. And this week is also a bit of a tricky one. This week, we’re talking about the gift of disappearing.
      • Basic idea: gift of disappearing is all about humility
        • Elnes: Humility is what keeps us grounded in reality. … Humility is living by God’s vision of you, not your own. God sees a lot more than you do. … The Dark Wood gift of disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamp of shame. More than most, this gift provides us a certain spaciousness and grace to move about life freely, following those sweet-spot moments that mark our path even when significant obstacles are placed before us.[2] → Last week, we talked about how the gift of temptation helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic call in our lives in terms of our vocation – what we do and how we go about being in this world. This week is sort of the flip side of that coin. The gift of disappearing helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic claim on our lives in terms of our identity – who we are and how we go about being in this world.
  • Throughout the chapter, Elnes uses a poem written by British poet David Whyte to illustrate his point.
    • Opening stanza: “Turn sideways into the light as they say // the old ones did and disappear // into the originality of it all.” → That language of “turn sideways into the light” is what Elnes considers “disappearing.” It’s all about sloughing off all of the labels that the world has tried to stick to us and clinging wholeheartedly to the only label that matters: beloved child of God.
      • Reminds me of a beautiful children’s book by prolific Christian author Max Lucado → basic storyline of You Are Special[3]
        • Elnes (in speaking about the power of and need for the gift of disappearing): Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection with God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection. Ironically, both pride and shame tend to fabricate an image of ourselves that is ultimately too small to live within. Too small because it is restricted by the limits of our imagination, which itself is limited by the cultural norms of our surroundings, historical contexts, family upbringing, personal fears and insecurities, and so on.[4] → Just like the Wemmicks in the story, we so often get wrapped up in wearing all our accomplishments and all our failures for the world to see, letting them completely cover up the person that God truly intends for us to be. The gift of disappearing gives us the opportunity to reveal who we truly are both to ourselves and to the world around us.
  • NT scripture reading from Ephesians this morning reminds us of the importance of humility in terms of our faith
    • Text: At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! … This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.[5] → “This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.” It’s not about who your friends are, where you live, how big your house is, what’s on your dinner table, how much is in your bank account, where you go on vacation, or any of those other ways that we try to measure ourselves against one another in this world today. It’s about God. It’s about us. It’s about how crazy-much God loves us, and how desperately God wants us to understand that.
      • Elnes speaks of the gift of disappearing “refus[ing] to give into any power that seeks to give us a name or identity that is too small for us. … We seek a place where the world around us can call forth something deep from the world within us in a way that points toward our highest identity. … The key is to refuse to let any situation or circumstance mark you in a way that does not reflect your highest identity. You must disappear.[6]
  • So what does Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist have to do with this idea of disappearing into our most authentic self? Let’s explore it a little bit.
    • Historical explanation – text: One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.[7] → This is one of those places in Scripture where we lose quite a bit if we aren’t familiar of the cultural and historical context. We hear “go into the Lord’s sanctuary,” and we think of our own sanctuary. It’s a beautiful place to be. It’s a worshipful place to be. There are certainly times when it is holy ground – moments in various services throughout the year when we feel God’s presence here in this place. But in Zechariah’s case, this was a thousand times more important than that. Zechariah was chosen by lottery to go into the Holy of Holies.
      • Holy of Holies = inner sanctum of the Temple
        • Remember the Temple was the only place that was considered the House of God → Jews could learn from teachers and scholars in small synagogues scattered throughout the countryside, but those weren’t considered places of worship. The Temple was the only place to truly worship.
          • Temple = most holy place
          • Holy of Holies = most holy spot in their most holy place
        • Holy of Holies housed many things including Ark of the Covenant which contained, among other cultural treasure, the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai
        • Holy of Holies could only be entered by priests of the highest rank on ONE DAY A YEAR
          • Priest tended to the altar within and the furnishings
          • Rope around the priest’s waist just in case he died while he was in there – pull him out so no one else would have to enter → goes back to the ancient Israelite fear that those who met with God face-to-face would die
    • So here we find Zechariah chosen by lottery to perform this incredibly honorable and sacred duty. He’s in the Holy of Holies, and an angel of the Lord appears to him to tell him that he and his wife are going to have a child … and we find Zechariah clinging to the broken identity that the world has given him – text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.” … Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”[8] → In the face of this miraculous pronouncement … to this face of Gabriel, God’s most powerful messenger … in the holiest spot on earth, Zechariah says, “Really? Are you sure? Somehow I doubt it. Can’t happen. Not to me … not to us.”
      • Gabriel’s response: The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”[9]
        • Gr. “you will remain silent” = preceded by powerful, attention-grabbing word (idou) which means whatever directly follows it is exceptionally important
        • Most often view Zechariah’s term of silence as a punishment for his doubt BUT Elnes presents another idea: By striking Zechariah deaf and mute, God is not punishing him for failure to accept his true identity. God is blessing Zechariah, helping him accept his identity. How? Imagine how Zechariah’s world might change over the coming nine months while Elizabeth is pregnant. He will be more of a silent observer of life than an active participant. The last sound Zechariah would have heard before his hearing was taken away was the sound of his son’s name being spoken by the archangel Gabriel: “His name will be John.” John is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew name Jonathan, which means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Can you imagine how your world might change if, for nine long months, you heard nothing, and said nothing, yet the last words you heard constantly ran through your head, “God is gracious”?[10] → In essence, Zechariah disappears from his life for a bit. He cannot hear what is going on around him. He cannot give voice to his thoughts, needs, desires, prayers, hopes, or dreams. When Elizabeth finally shares with him that she is pregnant, he cannot even laugh out loud as Sarah did centuries before. And yet in disappearing, Zechariah finds a strengthen and a trueness of his identity in God and in God’s path for him – an authenticity that leads him to finally declare (through the written word) when the child is born, “His name is John.” And in that naming – in claiming that authentic identity for his son and also accepting his own authentic identity that God has given him – Zechariah’s hearing and speech are restored.
  • So friends, let me leave you with a question this morning.
    • Elnes: This story [of Zechariah] ends practically begging the question, What is the miracle that gives you voice in the world? What treasure have you found in the darkness that blesses you and others?[11] → What element of your truest and most authentic self is God leading you to claim? To cling to? To disappear into? And what part of your identity is God encouraging you to let go of? To escape? To disappear from? Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 126-127.

[3] Max Lucado. You Are Special. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), 1997.

[4] Elnes, 125-126.

[5] Eph 2:1-2a, 4-5, 8b-10.

[6] Elnes, 127-128, 129.

[7] Lk 1:8-10.

[8] Lk 1:13, 18.

[9] Lk 1:19-20.

[10] Elnes, 140.

[11] Elnes, 141.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Temptation

2nd temptation of Christ
The Second Temptation of Christ by William Blake

This sermon was preached Sun., Aug. 12, but because we headed out for a family vacation directly after church, I wasn’t able to post it until now.

Texts used – Psalm 103; Luke 4:1-13

  • Well, friends, since it’s been a few weeks since we’ve been together and tackled this journey through the Dark Wood, let’s remember where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to throughout the summer.
    • Dark Wood = place/time of challenge in our lives
      • Often places that we don’t want to go initially
      • BUT often places that give us powerful revelations about who God is and who God is calling us to be in this world
      • Often places that reveal some powerful gifts in the midst of the darkness and ambiguity → talked about …
        • Gift of uncertainty = teaches us to trust
        • Gift of emptiness = reminds us to make room for the moving of the Holy Spirit
        • Gift of being thunderstruck = reverberations of God’s guidance and inspiration in our lives
        • Gift of getting lost = gift of being found by a God who loves and cares for us
  • Today, we’re jumping right back into our journey through the Dark Woods and exploring the various gifts that we find there by tackling a difficult one: the gift of temptation.
    • Important clarification: not the typical kind of temptation – temptation to do things we know we’re not supposed to do → We’re not talking about the temptation to do all those things we know we’re not supposed to do – sloth, gluttony, hate, lust, and all those other sins, deadly or otherwise. What we’re talking about today is actually much more difficult, much more subtle, and much harder to wrap our brains around than your everyday, run-of-the-mill temptations. Believe it or not, what we’re actually talking about is the temptation … to do good. Yup. You heard me right. The temptation to do good.
      • Elnes’ description of the gift of temptation: In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good, I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own.[1] → gift of temptation is all about discernment
  • Elnes’ greatest example of the gift of temptation – of being tempted to do the wrong good = Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness
    • Context of Jesus’ overall ministry: this is just the beginning
      • Comes right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan River
      • Beginning of today’s reading: Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil.[2] → Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness … sounds like a pretty intense, physical version of the Dark Wood, doesn’t it?
    • Now, I have to say that using this passage in terms of Elnes’ idea of temptation to do the wrong good is interesting. Most of the time, when we read this passage or hear it preached, the focus is on how temptation is bad. The temptation comes from the devil – the Adversary, if you translate the Hebrew word literally – so we focus on the push and pull of good versus bad. In a nutshell: “Satan tempts. Jesus refutes. Temptation is bad. Be like Jesus.” We inherently think of the temptations that Satan lays before Jesus as evil because of their context – they are, in fact, temptations laid out by Satan. So they must be evil by their very nature and by the nature of the one presenting them, right? But have we ever actually looked at the three temptations that Satan presents? Have we ever considered them at face value?
      • Elnes makes an interesting point – point illustrated by our bulletin cover image this morning
        • Image = William Blake’s painting “The Second Temptation”
          • 2nd of three painting inspired by this Scripture reading
          • Painted as illustrations for John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”
          • Now, what’s interesting about this image that Blake painted is the way Satan looks. He’s not the guy with horns and a pointy tail brandishing a pitchfork like we see in cartoons. In Blake’s depiction, Satan is actually even more beautiful and composed and appealing-looking than Jesus. – Elnes: If you did not know that the painting was of Jesus’ temptations you might not realize that the man on the left is the Adversary. … If anything, the man looks pious and sincere. … Blake recognizes that someone with the spiritual stature of Jesus would be even less tempted by overt evil than we are. If you were the Adversary and wanted to tempt someone like Jesus, you’d have to convince Jesus you were on his side while rolling out the biggest temptations you could muster. All your temptations would have to be about doing good.[3]
    • So let’s think about those 3 temptations that Satan lays out for Jesus.
      • 1st temptation: The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”[4] → In a world in which 815 million people go hungry every day[5] … in a world in which 17 million children under the age of 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition every day[6] … in a world in which 3 million children die from hunger every year – that’s one child every 10 seconds![7] … in a world in which we produce more than enough food to solve this problem but cannot get it together enough to actually solve this problem, we cannot argue that Satan’s idea of turning stones into bread is actually a bad one. Jesus himself goes on to feed thousands through his own miracles not long after this. So Satan’s first temptation is to help Jesus feed first his own starving body and then the hungry of the world. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • 2nd temptation: Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”[8] → This one sounds easier – of course we don’t want to worship Satan, the Adversary – but as Elnes says, “Imagine the temptation of being able to change a few of the world’s laws, or direct public and private resources to their best use, or create world peace?”[9] How many wars have been fought … how many atrocities committed … how many people killed “in the name of God”? Which god? Which interpretation of God? Based on which version of God’s word? So much pain has come from people trying to impose their own conclusions about God on someone else’s life or culture or country that it must have been tempting for Jesus to circumvent all that suffering by simply becoming the One-and-Only Man in Charge. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is also not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • 3rd temptation: The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” → This temptation gets at motivation and at “proving it.” Think of the playground taunt that all children endure at some point or another in their lives. They claim they can do something or that they have something wonderful, and the unbelievers around them say, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” The only things that matter – the only things that count – are the things we can see with our own eyes. Imagine how much easier it would have been for Jesus to gain followers … to silence the Pharisees and the Sadducees once and for all … to avoid the pain and humiliation of the cross if he’d just thrown himself off the tallest building in Jerusalem and floated down to the crowded, eye-witness-thronged street below. All of the arguments that we have today about whether God is or is not would be unnecessary. Sounds good, right? Of course! But even that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • Elnes: The point is none of these activities would harm anyone. Not initially, anyway. And Jesus does feed the hungry, change the political equation, and perform miracles at various points in his ministry. Yet none of these individual activities were ones that Jesus was called to devote his time and energy to. … Part of Jesus’ calling was to live more fulling into his human identity than anyone else had ever done before.[10]
  • You see, the gift of temptation is all about discerning your special and specific call in the world – discerning that “sweet spot” that God has especially for you. At the end of all of my emails are a few of my favorite quotes. One of them is from American poet and theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The gift of temptation is all about finding that place – that place where your unique gifts and passions are being utilized in a way in which you are being fulfilled and the world is being fed all at the same time.
    • Elnes provides some clarification: The reason the Dark Wood gift of temptation is so important is that it produces results – like exhaustion – that reveal fairly quickly whether you are on a path that is central to who you are and what you’re here for or are on a side path. … The temptation to do the wrong good is one of the greatest gifts you can receive, as it continually challenges you to discern between the good you are called to do and the good you are specifically not called to do.[11] → So the gift of temptation is a litmus test of sorts for whether or not we are following our true call from God.
      • All about why and how we’re making the decisions we’re making – what is motivating those decisions
        • Is it passion, joy, spiritual contentment?
        • Is it logic, reason, and strategy?
        • Elnes: Finding your distinctive path in live involves more than applying reason, logic, and strategy. It requires instinct and imagination. Instinct because the surest sign that you’re on your path is not reason alone but wholeheartedness. Imagination because your true place in this world tends to be found just beyond the edges of your immediate awareness. It’s a bit like walking in the dark.[12] → This sort of goes back to our Puritan roots in America and in the Reformed tradition because somewhere along the line, we seem to have adopted the idea that if we’re doing something and it’s bringing us great joy, we’re enjoying it too much. Work is supposed to be work.
          • Quote from BBC mini-series version of A Little Princess – Miss Minchin, one of the headmistresses of the school: “School is school, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!” → That seems to be how we’ve come to think about many aspects of our day-to-day being in this world: it’s not supposed to be too much fun, and if it is – if we’re enjoying it “too much” – then it must be selfish or self-serving in some way. “Self-sacrifice is self-sacrifice, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!”
          • Doesn’t necessarily have to be about your job – could be a hobby, a side endeavor, a volunteer opportunity → The point is, when you feel that passion arise in you and you feel the world around you responding in a positive way, you’re on the right path.
    • This is where our 2nd Scripture reading comes in this morning – Psalm 103. It is a psalm of praise – a song extolling the blessings of God and the overwhelming and overflowing joy that the psalmist experiences in God’s presence and God’s goodness.
      • Text: Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything inside me bless his holy name! Let my whole being bless the Lord and never forget all his good deeds … The Lord is compassionate and merciful, very patient, and full of faithful love. … The Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from now for those who honor him. And God’s righteousness reaches to the grandchildren of those who keep his covenant and remember to keep his commands. … All you heavenly forces, bless the Lord! All you who serve him and do his will, bless him! All God’s creatures, bless the Lord! Everywhere, throughout his kingdom, let my whole being bless the Lord![13] → Everywhere throughout God’s kingdom – in the sunny, easy patches as well as the wandering journeys through the Dark Wood – let your whole being bless the Lord.
    • Elnes: My friend Bruce often observes that the question is not “Are you saved?” The question is, “Are you used?” In other words, have you given yourself over to the Spirit in such a way that you are willing to allow it to lead you on your path and bring you to fullness of life? Are you willing to move beyond the protestations of your logical, strategic mind, and your desire to figure out everything for yourself, to follow the sweet-spot moments that reveal where your soul yearns to travel in this world in conversation with God?[14] So let me ask you, friends: As you travel through these Dark Woods – as we travel together along this winding, up-and-down path – as you listen for the thundering reverberations of the Spirit’s leading – as you go out in search of the special and specific good that God has for you to do, are you used? Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 104.

[2] Lk 4:1-2a.

[3] Elnes, 116.

[4] Lk 4:3.

[5] Action Against Hunger, “World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics,” Facts from the 2017 UN Hunger Report, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mercy Corps, “Quick facts: What you need to know about global hunger,” Udated Apr. 28, 2018, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.

[8] Lk 4:5-7.

[9] Elnes, 117.

[10] Elnes, 117, 118.

[11] Elnes, 105, 108.

[12] Elnes, 106.

[13] Ps 103:1-2, 8, 17-18, 21-22.

[14] Elnes, 118.