Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon for Sunday: Matthew 5:1-12

This is the first in a series of 4 sermons focusing on The Sermon on the Mount

Who are the Disciples?
Rev. Julie Jensen
Nineveh Presbyterian Church, Nineveh, NY
Jan 29, 2017


Matthew 5:1-12

         Do we have any Monty Python fans here? The movie The Life of Brian offers a glimpse into a comedic view of what Jesus life and ministry could have been like – if the British sketch writers had written the gospels. The movie opens with Jesus’s first public act of ministry in the book of Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount. We see Jesus on a mountain preaching to a large crowd. Not all of them can hear his words, and when he reaches what we know of as verse 9 those gathered don’t hear “blessed are the peacemakers”. What they instead hear is Jesus saying “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”.   A spectator looks at her husband and says “what did he say?”:


Spectator I: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.

Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

And then the movie begins.

This movie clip not only makes me laugh, but it also makes me remember that things are not always what we think they are at first listen. I tend to be what’s called a “lectionary preacher”. The lectionary is a 3-year cycle of common readings that many mainline protestant denominations follow through the church year. These readings tell the story of Jesus and our faith, and are usually thematically connected. For the next few weeks, the Gospel readings are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and we will be listening to his words and seeing how they apply to our lives as disciples today. At the end of the series, I will be doing something I have never done before, and invite you to join in.

One of my preaching professors recommended we memorize the Sermon on the Mount and always have it ready in our back pocket “just in case we needed it.” It is Jesus’s most well known sermon and one that can be preached almost anytime. Her advice was to have it ready for the day when you may need to preach without notice or warning. Looking at the lectionary readings for the next few weeks from the beatitudes, I thought it would be interesting for us to study the sermon with the readings for each week, and then listen to it in it’s entirety, preached as a sermon. So in a few weeks, we’ll do just that. The hope is that the preaching and reading we have done from now until then will let you hear this passage with new ears, and gather something from it as a whole. We can put ourselves on the mountain with the disciples and hear this familiar sermon through new ears with fresh insight, focusing on discipleship – who are the disciples, what are the responsibilities of discipleship, and what does discipleship look like in the community and the world.


The fact that Matthew places this sermon as Jesus’s first public act of ministry in this gospel is important. When you consider what Jesus’ first public act was in each Gospel, you see how that author of that Gospel saw Jesus, and how they want us to see Jesus. In Mark, Jesus performed an exorcism setting him up to be the ultimate boundary crosser. The subtext of this gospel is the tearing apart of that which separates us from God – the tearing of the temple curtain is a stunning visual reminder that the things that keep God at bay, or keep us separated were torn apart when Jesus entered the narrative.[1]

In Luke, Jesus goes home to preach a sermon and tell his hometown what his ministry will be like. He lays out that his ministry is for the unseen, the marginalized, the outcast. Jesus’ people rejected his message and wanted to toss him off a cliff. The subtext here is that those who listened were just fine with God as long as God was for them and not for those they dislike or want to oppress. Jesus is telling him that he is here for everyone, including those whom we despise.

In John, Jesus attends a wedding and helps out with the bar tab by turning water into wine. But the point is not the act itself, but that abundance – 6 jars of 20-30 gallons brimming with the best wine. It is the way John sees Jesus – overflowing and brimming with grace. Grace that overflows, grace that pours out, grace that flows abundantly.

So what about Matthew? How does his sermon tell us who Jesus is for him? Throughout Matthew we see Jesus as a teacher. And who is he teaching? His disciples. What that says to us is that to be a disciple is to be a student of Jesus. To quote Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary, Jesus being a teacher means that “being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner. Being a disciple in Matthew demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as teacher.”

Who are the disciples? They are those who followed Jesus, those who were with him while he fulfilled his ministry. Those who listened to his teachings and followed them. As Dr. Lewis continued, she named something that is important in how we learn from what Jesus is teaching in this passage. How we think of who Jesus is reveals who we are too. In hearing the Beatitudes, we are hearing that we are blessed, that we are children of God. Jesus wants us to not only hear that, but also feel it.

In the beatitudes the characteristics of disciples are named. Characteristics of the faithful, the attributes of those who believe. They name the truth about who we are, and what we will encounter when we follow Jesus. And we, the disciples of Jesus, need to hear them on the front end of Jesus’ ministry. Those who heard these words first needed to know what was at stake in the blessings of Jesus, in their identity as disciples. “They have to know who they are in order to be able to hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be”. And who he needs us to be. They need to hear this first sermon so that they might live out the Great Commission.

This sermon is an identity piece for the disciples, and for us. The disciples are learners, students, listeners. All that learning happens covered by the promises of God. The promises that we are bless-ed. That we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Once we claim the identity that Jesus gives us then we can live out what we have been asked to do as disciples.

So who are disciples? The disciples are those who are blessed. This is not the #blessed that we see in social media or other facets of modern life. This is not the prosperity gospel where we are blessed because we ask God for wealth and God complies. God is not a celestial vending machine dispensing winning lottery tickets. When you think of being blessed, what comes to mind? If someone did not have a faith vocabulary, how would you respond when they asked you “what does it mean to be blessed?” The greek word makarios can take on many meanings and interpretations. It can include facets of happy, well off, fortunate. It can indicate special favor, unique standing, permission, empowerment, endowment.” David Lose reframes the question as to “what does it feel like when you are blessed?” You cannot pursue a blessing, he writes, but you receive it as a gift. By thinking of blessing in these terms, we begin to get a sense of Jesus’ promise. Being blessed feels like “you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth – not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are…”[2]

So Jesus says that if you are poor in spirit, if you are meek, if you mourn, you are blessed. You are accompanied, you are not alone. If you are meek, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, if you are merciful you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances. If you are a peacemaker – or a cheesemaker – if you are pure in heart, if you are persecuted, or reviled, you have worth.   If you are a disciple, you have the promises of Jesus to be accompanied, to know you have worth, to move forward from the past into the future. That is an important message for the disciples to hear as they begin to minister with Jesus. And it is an important message for us as modern day disciples who need to hear these promises as we live out our lives of faith and live into the Great Commission and the work Jesus has called us to do.

I invite you to claim your identity in Christ as a disciple. To hear the claim that Jesus has placed on you. To hear the comfort offered as we listen to his teachings as students who want to learn.   To hear these familiar words in a fresh way. I receive a daily e-mail from Steve Garnaas-Holmes entitled Daily Light. In this week’s, he sent a poem/prayer I’d like to share with you:

I will stand[3]

Beloved, by your grace

I willingly accept my poverty of spirit;

for you bless me with your Realm of love.

I honestly mourn,

for you bless me with your comfort.

I will be gentle,

for you bless me with the gift of the earth.

I continue to hunger and thirst for you,

for you fill me with yourself.

I will show mercy,

for you shower me with mercy.

I seek to be pure in heart,

that I may see you.

I will be your peacemaker,

for I am your child.

I will accept persecution

for you bless me with your Realm of grace.

I gladly accept that justice and peacemaking

attract persecution and resistance,

for so people treat all those

who do justice, who love kindness,

who walk humbly with you.

In my poverty I will stand unbowed,

for in your grace you bless me.

You, disciples of Jesus, are blessed. You are loved. You are accompanied. You are more than the sum of your past, and you are a child of God. Claim these promises and live into them as you follow the teachings of the Great Teacher. Be reminded of them today and everyday. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12.

[2] Lose, David. On Beatitudes and Blessing. Dear Working Preacher.

[3] Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Unfolding Light

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Sermon for Matthew 10:1-26 – Because the World

Because the World
Rev. Julie Jensen
Preached July 26, 2015, First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA

Matthew 10:1-26

Cards from our first Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa, AL to help tornado victims

Cards from our first Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa, AL to help tornado victims.

You may have noticed a theme for worship today, with the missions of the church set up around the sanctuary for you to learn about, the photos behind me of how we see and do mission in the church and beyond, and the signs on the wall where we have asked you to sign your name where you serve in the community beyond the auspices of FPC. As I preach this morning, you will see the photos submitted during our “Mission Photo Challenge” for July. Yesterday a group of us served Bartow Give a Kid a Chance at the College and Career Academy.  We made and handed out lunches, helped children of all ages find the perfect color backpack and t-shirt, facilitated the program (Dennis  – I’m looking at you) and had a fun day helping the children in our community.  One of the things I love about this congregation is our heart to serve others in the name of Jesus.

The idea for a month to focus on mission came from a conversation the mission committee had this winter.  We were discussing plans for the coming year and wondering why sometimes we have a hard time finding volunteers for projects or trips.  As the conversation progressed, we identified one possibility.  Cartersville and Bartow County have an overabundance of non-profit agencies and opportunities to serve.  The question was asked – if service doesn’t happen through the church, is it still serving Jesus.  We agreed on the answer – yes.  In brainstorming, we developed a list organizations and ways we know our congregation serves the community in mission – even if it isn’t mission facilitated by the church.  Those places are the places listed on the signs around the room today, and I hope if you have not written your name where you serve that you will before you go.  Being “missional” means that we serve others where we are there they are.  So, instead of mourning a perceived lack of participation, we celebrate the ways our congregation serves God.

The reading from Matthew tells a story Jesus sending the disciples out for service.  It is part of Jesus’ mission discourse.  As New Testament Professor Stanley Saunders writes, “Jesus’ mission discourse is a “get-out-the-volunteers” campaign like no other. On the one hand, the disciples are granted remarkable powers to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead. But he also denies them money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23).”[1]

Jesus grants them power to do the work he has placed before them, and then sends them out in utter dependence on God.  No extra clothes, no hazard pay, no snacks, and no money.  Just what they carry and God go with them to serve in the world.  They are sent out to proclaim the gospel – in the broad daylight of the world, and to proclaim the good news Jesus whispers to them from the rooftops.  The disciples are sent out into a broken world to offer the hope of Christ, just as we are through our acts of service.

The second reading, which is a continuation of the first, portrays a scary world that the disciples enter into.  Jesus talks about all the things that might happen to them along the way, and when they return.  He describes sending them out like sheep among wolves, and being handed over to councils and flogging in the synagogues, being drug before governors and kings all because of the Gospel – the good news – that they share.   Jesus describes a life that launches the disciples out of their comfort zones and into something hard.

What faces us when we go out into the mission field?  What do we encounter in our service to Christ that we may wish we did not encounter?  How are we thrown out of our comfort zones?

When we step out to serve, we step into the lives of people and places that may be broken.  And it is when we are there that we have to acknowledge that we too are broken. Maybe not in the same ways, but that we have more in common with the poor person we serve a meal to on Tuesday or the family that we are welcoming into our congregation that we might want to admit.  Sometimes we are called to serve in places where we will be physically uncomfortable – in the heat or sleeping on air-mattresses, or far from home or learning an new skill.  Sometimes stepping out of our comfort zones means letting our guard down – wearing work clothes and not worrying about who sees us without makeup, dispelling the idea that we have it all together or are perfect.  Sometimes we are scared that “these people” will no longer be “these people”, no longer be strangers, but instead will be people with names and faces and stories, and we have to admit that we are all connected.  When we enter the mission field, we enter into places that may scare us.

Yet, like the disciples, we do not go alone.  We may not take a bag or money or snacks, but we carry the compassion, mercy, and love of God into a broken world, where they are so needed.  And as we share the good news of that compassion and mercy, even as we receive them ourselves.

The words of our charge today send us out.   Jesus sends us out with what we need.  When we serve in the mission field, we don’t have to be the brightest, the best, we go with what God has given us.  We are sent to be the hands and feet of Christ.  Not for ourselves, not to make ourselves feel better, but to offer bread to a hungry world, truth to a world full of lives, courage to a world living in fear.  We are sent to offer hope to those in despair, joy to those who sorrow, justice for the unjust, and mercy for those who are judged.  We take peace into a world of violence.

Sent to do something.  Not just write a check, but be involved in the world.  Challenge you to do something today – take 30 minutes after worship.  Walk around.  Look at how the church serves our community.  Ask yourself how you might be called to stretch out of your comfort zone and serve Jesus in a new way.  Ask yourself what scares you and perhaps find a way to step into service that way.  Find something that brings you joy and a chance to share that joy with others, and serve there.  The disciples didn’t sit in their houses waiting for what would happen next, they stepped out of what they knew, what felt safe and took risks as they shared the good news of Christ by serving others.  To what service is Jesus calling you, and how as his disciple are you participating in Christ’s mission?  Because the world is broken, because the world needs hope, because the world needs love, and peace and justice, Jesus’ disciples – then and now – are sent out to bring them to those most in need.   Because we are in the world, we too need the love, peace, justice, hope, mercy, joy and love of Christ too.  When we offer Jesus to others through our hands and feet, we find him in ourselves.


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Sermon: Matthew 28:16-20

Matthew 28:16-20

The Commissioning of the Disciples

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’*




            What do you hope or imagine your last words on this earth to be?  Some individuals have had the ability to make quite profound statements as they approached the end of their lives.   For example, US President, Grover Cleveland said at his death in 1908, “I have tried so hard to do the right.”  Dancer Isadora Duncan said, “Farewell, my friends, I go to glory!”  President James K. Polk in 1849 had these words for his wife: “I love you, Sarah.  For all eternity, I love you.”  Others had words that were not quite as profound.  Actor Humphery Bogart proclaimed, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis” when he died in 1957.  PT Barnum – of Barnum and Bailey fame asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”  Author Oscar Wilde proclaimed “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do” with his dying breath.[1]


            The last words of Jesus as he was crucified were somber– he declared “it is finished” as he took his last breath.  However, those were not the last words he ever said.  In our reading from today, we experience the last recorded encountered between Jesus and the remaining disciples in the Gospel of Matthew.  This encounter was not a casual “Hey Jesus, welcome back” exchange.  Rather, in the text for today we find the disciples in a place of disorientation and despair.  This is Easter morning.  They are still coping with the reality that the one they thought was going to save the world instead died a brutal death.  They are mourning him, and someone they thought was one of them – Judas.  Suddenly, the women appear and tell them that Jesus is not dead any longer, but has been resurrected and has commanded them to meet him in Galilee.  So they make the 70-80 mile journey, and Jesus meets them there, on the mountain where he sent them.  We do not know specifically what mountain, but it does not matter.  Throughout the Biblical story, mountains are the places where God meets us and we meet God.  Mount Arrarat is where the Ark rests when God places the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his promise.  Mt. Moriah – the site of Abraham’s intended sacrifice, and the mountain on which the Temple of Jerusalem was built. Mt. Olivet – the Mount of Olives; the scene of David’s flight from Absalom; of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem; and of His Ascension.  Mt. Pisgah – The headland of the Nebo range from which Moses saw the Promised Land.  Mt. Sinai – The mountain where the Israelites encamped for nearly a year, and where the Law was given to Moses.  There is the unnamed mountain where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered, as well as the mountain top where the disciples find themselves in the presence of the risen Christ.  Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and so it seems fitting that it is here it will end, in this Gospel.[2]


            But the encounter with Jesus is not an end.  His last words are not “It is finished” or “I must go”, or “I wish I had turned more water into wine”.  No, they were instructions to the disciples on how to continue his work, how to live, and what to do in his absence. In his words to them we find our place in the midst of faith and doubt, commands on how to be disciples, and assurances of Christ’s presence with us always.


            Verse 17 is one that can be easily skipped over as we read this passage.  We want to rush to the end, to see what Jesus has to say.  However let’s rest here for a moment.  “17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  Standing on that mountain were the ones we might never expect to doubt – these were the men who knew Jesus intimately – they worked, ate, rested, and traveled together for three years.  Surely, if anyone would be certain of the risen Christ, it would be them.  Wouldn’t it?  Across all the gospels, the ones we think would most easily accept the news of the resurrection are the ones who disbelieve it.  When they saw Jesus, however, the first thing they did was worship him.  Even the ones who doubted, offered worship to the risen Lord.  David Lose, who holds the Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN talked about the intersections of worship, faith, and doubt. “…worship and faith go together nicely. We come together each week because, quite frankly, it’s hard to believe the nearly too-good-to-be-true news of the Gospel for more than about seven days in a row. Think about it: the confession that God not only created us and all that exists, but also knows about us, cares for us, and wants to use us to care for the world is a pretty bold affirmation. Such news needs to be repeated and shared in order for us to believe and live it.”[3]


 We come to worship in times of faith, and in times of doubt, and sometimes in times of both to worship and bear witness to the work of Jesus Christ in each of us and in the world.  Even when we doubt, just as the disciples did, we still worship.  We can hold faith in what we believe and doubt about it at the same time.  The Greek word distazo is a word that carries with it a sense of standing in two places at the same time, a sense of being of two minds at once.  The Greek can even suggest that all of the disciples were in a place of doubt – not just some of them. The response of the disciples is one of distazo – all worshipped even though they doubted in their faith.[4]


I was asked this week to talk about what it is to be Presbyterian, and why I am Presbyterian.  Reflecting on that question and this passage, I realize that one aspect of our particular faith tradition that I hold dear is that we don’t have to have all the answers.  We are not expected to be people without any doubts, or looking for easy solutions.  We are part of a faith tradition that says, “yes, even you who came to worship Christ though you have doubts, is welcome to be part of our community.”  So often there is an expectation of being sure in the faith while we worship. That to come to worship means we have our spiritual lives all together and wrapped up and in line, and that we are “super-disciples” living and studying the Word.  That’s not the expectation here.  Our tradition is one that recognizes that when Jesus gave the great commission – the biggest sending out he ever did, he sent those who had doubts.  As one of your pastors, I can tell you with certainty that there have been times in my career that I have had to lead worship from the place of distazo – a place of faith that was mixed with doubt.  God calls all of us – yes, even the doubting and imperfect to carry out his great commission.


Which raises the question – what does it mean to be a disciple?  A quick Google search, a flip through theology books or books in the “Christian” section of the bookstore, or asking people yields a variety of results.  You get everything from a vague “follow Jesus” to specific three point lists with subpoints and more “don’ts” than “do’s”.   In my mind, discipleship comes down to this: do what Jesus teaches and live by his example.  To experience what Jesus teaches, that requires us to study scripture – both the Old and New Testaments.  How can we know how to follow the example if we don’t know what it is?  It is in the teaching of Christ that we learn how to care for others, how to pray, how to serve, and how to live.  Living out the example of Christ is where our faith and actions come together.  Disciples do what Jesus taught us to do.  We worship.  We pray.  We care for the poor and disenfranchised. We love our neighbors.  We take risks and step out in faith.  We hear the words that following Jesus can be hard and dangerous, and we take them to heart. 


One way I see discipleship in action is in community involvement through the churches in Bartow County.  Many of you hear Pastor Ted and I talk about the Thursday Morning Coffee group that meets – not coincidentally – at Starbucks on Thursday mornings.  It is a casual atmosphere where pastors in the community come together for fellowship.  There is usually not an agenda – we don’t meet to do business, but to support one another and simply be together.  However, through this group, amazing things are happening.  And, you should know, that is rare.  Many communities have “ministeriums” or pastors groups, but this is one of few I have heard of where the clergy consider themselves to be friends and community colleagues.  Two weeks ago we were reflecting on the impact of this group as Eric Lee, the one who first said “we should have coffee,” prepared to leave the Bridge for his new appointment in Roswell.  We shared with one another that in many ways this is a community that often lives out our faith.  Sometimes it is in bold ways such as the National Day of Prayer, but other times it is in the ways we just do what we think Jesus would do.  The initial conversations about Family Promise of Bartow County were held in the corner of the coffeeshop as we realized that there were children and families who could not get the services they needed to help them move to self sufficiency.  While most of the planning happens at other meetings, Bartow Give a Kid a Chance is discussed as we all strive to serve the least of these in our community.  So are events for the Good Neighbor Shelter, events for the Collaborative, Backpack Buddies and a whole host of other activities in our community.  When people ask “who does this?” the answer is “the church”.  Not “First Pres.” Or “Sam Jones” but “the church”.  And by your participation in them – either by supporting financially, with prayer, or volunteering, you are part of that discipleship and witness.  The congregations represented are different in theology, governance, worship style – some of us are as different as you can get.  Yet we all act as disciples, and seek to model that behavior for all to see.


Jesus is telling them some hard stuff here – that not only are we to be disciples, but we are to go out into the world and make disciples.  One way we do this is in how we raise our children in the faith, and in the church.  When we as a congregation promise to nurture and love a child their entire life, we do that on behalf of the entire church – Christians everywhere.  Raising our children as disciples means each of us modeling what that looks like.  It means coming to worship even when we would rather have brunch, or going to Sunday School – both adults and children. It means talking about money and why and how we give offerings to the church.  It means living our lives following the teachings of Jesus.  But, Jesus doesn’t just say “make disciples of the children you have under your roof.”  We are called to go out into the world – the great big world and show others what it is like to live as a disciple of Christ.   I read this week that the majority of individuals and families who come to church – any church —  come because they were invited to come.  How many of you were invited by a friend, and met at the door when you started attending FPC?  And how many of you have ever invited a friend to come worship with you?  Presbyterians are not always comfortable with the “making disciples” task – it sounds too much like evangelism, which in our context evokes images of going door to door and talking to strangers.  What if I said that discipleship can mean saying to a friend “have you thought about trying our church?  I’d be happy to meet you and help get the kids to Sunday school. Maybe we could have lunch after?”   What if I said that discipleship looks like a child asking a friend to come to parent’s night out with them, or a youth inviting a friend to Youth Group?  We can do that.  Just as we serve the community and love others in the name of Christ, we can tell others where our desire to serve comes from and invite them to be part of our family here.


   This passage always leaves me with a sense of comfort and hope.  It is here we read the words, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”  The Psalm for today is Psalm 8, a Psalm praising God for the creation of the world.  The beginning.  God was with us at the beginning, and here we see that Jesus will never leave us.  This is where we get into the tricky language of the Trinity – God as three persons who are distinct but of the same nature.  For me, it is one of the great mysteries of our faith, but I find comfort that the Word was at the beginning and promises to be with us until the end of the age.  We call that Alpha and Omega – The first letter of the Greek Alphabet is Alpha – You see it on the drawing on your bulletin (or on the screen).  It is the letter that looks like an A.  The omega is the one that looks like the w (it is lowercase) or the horseshoe.  It is the last letter of the Greek alphabet.  The very last thing Jesus says to his disciples – to us – in the Gospel of Matthew is that he will be with us from the alpha to the omega – from the beginning to the end, and all that comes in between.  This is not a birth to death timeline, but rather an eternal timeline.  From the moment the universe was created until the moment it ends, or even beyond, God is with us.  Look back at the symbol.  The letters in the middle are one of the monograms for Christ.  It is the Chi-Rho.  Chi-Rho is the oldest known monogram (or letter symbol) for Christ. Some call this symbol the “Christogram” and it dates back to the Roman Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337). Though the truth of this story is questionable, it is said that Constantine saw this symbol in the sky before an important battle, and he heard the message, “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, he adopted the symbol for his army. Chi (x = ch) and Rho (p = r) are the first three letters of “Christ” or “Christos” in the Greek language. Though there are many variations of the Chi-Rho, most commonly it consists of the overlaying of the two letters, and oftentimes is surrounded by a circle.  While originally used in battle, the symbol, when surrounded by the alpha and omega takes on a different meaning.  Christ is forever.


I don’t know about you, but there are periods of time when my faith is shaky.  When friends battle cancer or when a colleague of mine suffered the death of her infant to SIDS.  When what you thought you were certain of has been shaken.  What helps me remain faithful is the knowledge that I am part of the cosmic universe that God created, and Jesus promised never to leave us.  Even when life seems to be at it’s worst, we never walk alone.  Always.  Always and forever.  The Romans thought they could put an end to that with some nails and wood, and yet, Jesus defeated them.  Always – Jesus is a constant in whatever upheaveal our world may be in at ay given moment in time.  Even when we doubt.


So we are sent.  We, as imperfect human beings have been called by Jesus to leave our comfort zones for the uncertainty of the world.  We have been called go out and tell the good news of our salvation to others.  To live our lives as a witness to what we believe.  It is not always easy.  It is not always comfortable.  But we never go alone.  The God that spun the heavens is the God that sent his Son.  The Son who modeled a life for us to follow promises to never leave.  He is truly with us, always, and those are good last words indeed.  In the name of the Father, Son , and Holy Spirit, Amen.



[2] Richard Beaton Commentary On Matthew 28:16-20.

[3] David Lose:

[4] Stanley Saunders:

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The Lord’s Prayer #2: Thy Kingdom Come

9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.




The Lord’s Prayer #2 Thy Kingdom Come
Rev. Julie Jensen

We are spending this season before Lent looking at one of the prayers central to our faith – the Lord’s Prayer.  Last week we looked at the beginning of the prayer – Our Father –  and today we pick up with verse 10 – Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  This prayer is one that we say when we gather – for worship, at weddings, funerals — sometimes we say it before meals, or when we don’t know exactly what to pray.  In the Catholic tradition, the “Our Father” as it is known is said either 6, 16, or 21 times when the rosary is prayed.  The repetition allows for those praying to enter a contemplative state, while focusing on their prayers.  It is a prayer that is familiar to many who are not Christian, and one that we say here each week.  Our children are taught it when they learn the Apostles Creed – it is a building block of faith education.  Sometimes when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray from rote memory rather than paying attention to the words we speak to God. We say the words from today’s section in less than 5 seconds.  What are we praying for in that short amount of time?

When we think of the word “Kingdom” we tend to think of human made boundaries.  In the movie The Lion King, lion cub Simba wakes up early one morning, and coaxes his sleeping father Mufasa out to the edge of their den.  From there they can overlook the African savanna.  As the sun begins to rise, Mufasa tells Simba to look – that everything where the light touches that they can see is their kingdom.  As the sun covers the land, there are places that are in shadow.  When Simba asks about them, Mufasa says that that is beyond their boarders, and Simba must never go there.  “But I thought a king can do whatever he wants?” says Simba.  “There’s more to being a king than getting your way all the time.” Is the answer his father gives.  “Kingdom” calls to mind a finite area of land ruled over by a monarch.  It is a geographical and political term.  In modern terms, we might think of the word “country”.  And, like Simba, we want to claim it as “mine.”  As we look at old maps and globes, we see the shift of power and kingdoms across time.  I remember when the maps that hung on the wall of my classroom had a vast red area called “Russia”, and a line called the iron curtain.  Today, we see that the “kingdom” of Russia is now divided in to many smaller kingdoms, or nations.


In the New Testament, we see a different idea of a kingdom.  Throughout scripture, we hear repeated references to The Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is not a set geographic region defined by people, but rather refers to the authority of God. Jesus uses parables to teach what the kingdom of God is like.  The kingdom of God denotes the coming of Israel’s God in person and power, and this, through forgiveness, deliverance and resurrection, is happening now. He will do again what He did in the exodus: come and dwell in the midst of His people.  The Kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Heaven is the proclamation that the power and authority of God has come near. Jesus says that those who keep the law and commandments he presents are those who will be called great in the Kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20). Those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven (matt 7:21-23).  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses parables to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like.  Jesus compares the kingdom of God to growing seeds, to the tiny mustard seed that grows to be a massive bush, he illustrates what his kingdom looks like in the way he lived his life.  We see that in Jesus’ kingdom all are welcome.  Jesus ate with prostitutes, with sinners, with tax collectors, with those who denied him and betrayed him.  When God reigns, all are welcome to come and participate.


When we pray “thy kingdom come” we praying for this kingdom to be present here and now.  As my Greek professor used to say “pay attention to the little words – those can make all the difference.”  Just as we thought about the word “our” last week, we think about the word “thy” – or “your” in reference to the kingdom.  We are not praying for a kingdom for us. We are not praying for our country, for anyone’s country, actually.  We are not praying for anything that is ours, but recognizing that it is God’s kingdom that we are calling to come.  God’s kingdom has also been described as the household of God.  One of the ancient Jewish words for Kingdom closely translates into the word for household.  A household is the joining together of people for the good of all.  Think about different types of households – households where singles live alone or with children.  Households where parents raise children together.  Places where adult children move back in with parents, or grandparents move in with children to help provide care, or to be cared for.  A household can include siblings or friends who come to stay because they have no place else to go.  A household is a place where all can come and find sanctuary, nourishment, and care.  It is a place where we can find the healing peace in times of sorrow, and justice to right what is wrong.  The kingdom of God, the household of God is one all are welcome to live.  It is not mine, it is not yours, it is God’s.  When we pray for the kingdom of God to come, we pray for that place where all shall be well.


The themes of Advent echo through this section of the Lord’s prayer.  We spend the time before Christmas preparing for the arrival of Christ.  Not only as an infant in the manger, but also as the king of kings and lord of Lords.  Jesus knew the prophecies of Isaiah – the words we sing and pray and hear in December – words calling for the lion to lie down with the lamb, the messengers who proclaim “your God reigns”, words proclaiming the release of the captive Israel, a defeat of evil, healing for the nations and Israel being the light of the world. Prepare the way…


The next clause is one that can cause us to pause.  How many of us have prayed for what we want and then prayed something like “unless you want something different” or “your will be changed.”  When we pray that God’s will be done, we are submitting to God.  We release control, release our own desires, and know that we will allow God to act in our own lives, often in ways we might not understand.  When we say “thy will be done” we make known and accept that we want to be in a profoundly intimate relationship with God – you have to trust in order to give up control and authority.  Prayer is never a solitary act.  When we pray, there is always another participant – the one to whom we address our prayers – God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit.  When we speak the needs and desires of our hearts, there is the presumption and the reality that one is listening.  We never pray alone.  Prayer is a conversation with God about how we want things to be.  It is interactive – we speak, we listen, we speak.  Not only do we pray for things to be the way we wish they would be, we also pray for courage to accept them as they are.

This is an easy prayer to pray when times are good, and things are going our way.  When we know the outcome will be what we want either way.  However when times are hard, it can become a litmus test of our faith.  When we want things to change, and change now, how do we pray?  We pray for God’s kingdom to come now, and yet there are people who slept on the streets last night in the below freezing temperatures.  That’s not the kingdom of God here, and if we take what Jesus teaches throughout his career, that’s not God’s will.  We never just get the good, and often get the unexpected, so how do we sincerely pray about this?  The last word of the clause is the word done.  Done carries a variety of meanings. Sometimes it means, “I’ve had it.  I can’t take anymore.”  Parents may say it about tending to their energetic children “I’m need a break – I’m done.”  In this context it has a sense of giving up or quitting.  But, done is the past tense of the verb “do”.  As in an action for us to carry out, or for God to carry out.  “God, do your will” may be one way of looking at the clause.  Or, perhaps, may we DO God’s will.  And what if we hear the word “will” as “love”?  May God’s love be done. May we do the love of God.  So then, how do we do the love of God, what would happen in the kingdom of God for others?  Instead of fretting over the homeless sleeping outside, perhaps we offer our extra coat, or work to provide shelter for nights when it is frigid.  When we pray, asking God to help us DO what God wants us to, rather than bemoaning the fact that the world is not exactly as we like it opens us up to truly living out the Lord’s prayer.

A grandfather was walking past his young granddaughter’s room one night when he saw her kneeling beside her bed, with head bowed and hands folded, repeating the alphabet.

“What are you doing?” he asked her.

She explained, “I’m saying my prayers, but I couldn’t think of just what I wanted to say. So I’m just saying all the letters of the alphabet, and God can put them together however he thinks best.”

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done…

…on earth as it is in heaven.  God’s kingdom is not relegated to one realm.  We think about “Heaven” as the place that God inhabits, and Earth as the place that is ours.  We think about them as distinct, but pray that one day they will be one.  We pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, for God’s space and our space to finally become one integrated space.  However, in this prayer, we also pray that God’s kingdom will come to this earth.  That while we wait for the day when heaven and earth come together, we can live here simply and kindly, showing God’s love.  We know that living on earth is a messy task.  The earth is subject to the laws of decay and impermanence that rule over us all.  When we pray that God’s will be done on earth, we again take a risk and open ourselves up to be used as agents of God’s love and healing here and now.  It has been said that heaven is born on earth in a thousand invisible kindnesses offered every day.  This section of the Lord’s Prayer is a call for us to discover through love and kindness that we can find heaven on earth, and we can pray and work for the kingdom of God right here, right now.  As scholar N. T. Wright said, when Jesus taught his followers to pray the Lord’s prayer and to say “your kingdom come, your will be done”, he wanted them to succeed in that prayer.  What does success look like in this case?

You (noticed) will notice that the words of the Lord’s Prayer are different for today.  They are from the Anglican Prayer book for New Zealand.  Much as we often sing along to a favorite song without noticing the lyrics, sometimes we can pray the Lord’s Prayer without noticing the words.  Today’s portion is prayed, “The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.”  How do those words strike you?  They are a prayer for God’s justice, God’s will, and for the promises of God to sustain us until the return of Christ.  How are you praying, and doing the Lord’s Prayer?  Are you willing to really pray it and open yourself up to fully submit to the will of God, and to work for God’s kingdom?


We live in a state of “already-not yet”.  The Kingdom of God is both already here, but at the same time is not yet fully here.  As we look out into this world that God made, we see that there is truly much that needs to happen before we are all living together in the household of God.  And so we pray.  And so we act.  Our lives are lives as answers to this prayer.  In it, we tell God that we are committing ourselves to God and what God has in store for us.  It may be the most wonderful thing ever, or the challenge of our lives.  This prayer is how we sign up for the work that we are going to do for God’s kingdom.  It is a prayer that is spoken, and then lived.  May you go out and live it.  Amen.

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The Devil Went Down to GA: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

Lenten Series: Encountering Jesus

#1: A Wilderness Encounter

             I noticed something really strange when I was in Target a week ago.  Perhaps it is because this is the latest we have begun Lent in almost 20 years, perhaps it is because of what has become known as the “holiday creep”, but there was an aisle that caught my attention as just being really strange.  At one end, there was a sparse display of leftover Valentine’s Day detritus – the unpurchased chocolates and plush toys and cards, bedraggled and tossed on the shelf, with their bright red stickers proclaiming that if you wanted a deal on chocolate samplers, this was it.  At the other end was a display of vibrant, pastel colored Easter candy.  The packages were untouched, fresh and crisp out of the boxes.  The bags depicted chicks and bunnies and eggs and just cried out that spring is here, come and get it!  And in the middle of this aisle, between the endcaps was a long expanse of empty shelves waiting to be filled.  My initial reaction was “Easter candy before Lent even begins?  Really!?” Although, between you and me, I was really more upset that the overlap of the two displays will just make it harder to find my favorite St. Patrick’s Day Hershey Kisses.  But, passing the aisle again, after recovering from my pretend indignation at the pre-Lenten Easter candy (which does strike me as just wrong), I paid attention to the empty space in the middle.  That space that waits for something else to fill it.  And my thought turned towards Lent, and the expanse of the wilderness where we will be for the next 40 days, waiting for something else to fill us as we wait to rejoice in the Resurrection.

             We begin our Lenten reading today with a very familiar passage – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  This encounter is the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent each year, from one of the Synoptic gospels.  This year we hear the story as Matthew tells it.  Much like that wide, empty, barren space of the store shelves, Jesus is in the barren, dry desert.  But this is where the parallels end.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is baptized and immediately fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.  For those hearing Matthew’s gospel, as well as for us today, there is deep meaning in the phrase “40 days and 40 nights”.  In those words we hear the echoes of the Old Testament, the echoes of the scriptures with which Jesus and his followers would have been intimately familiar.  Noah and his family waited in the ark for God to deliver the earth from evil for 40 days and 40 nights.  We most frequently see the numbers used in reference to Moses fasting on Mt. Sinai in the presence of the Lord as he wrote the 10 commandments. Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights as he fled to Mt. Sinai and encountered God.  This number is rooted in Israel’s struggle to practice faithfulness in the wilderness both day and night.[1]   So it should not seem out of place that Jesus enters the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray and draw closer to God.  What is important to note, is that he does this before he is tempted, before he is tested.  The fast is not the test of his faith, the fast is not the bar by which he is measured, and it is not the bar by which we are measured. 

 Lent is 40 days and nights –  a time for us to draw nearer to God. It is a time for us to pray and fast in meaningful ways.  A time for us to be in the wilderness with Jesus.  So often the conversation is “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The answers are often either things we can give up easily in our everyday world– chocolate, soda, candy, alcohol or things that mirror our New Year’s resolutions or will make us better for the sake of making us better – “I’m going to exercise more.  I’m going to give up TV.”  I have heard or done many of these myself, and did not find any of them spiritually fulfilling.  I remember the year I was in college and decided to give up caffeine for Lent.  It was a complete and total disaster.  Not only was I sleepy, but I was cranky too.  That may have been the year I learned in one of my classes that caffeine is more addictive than some illegal drugs, and harder to quit than smoking.  My roommate at the said she was never so glad to see Sunday come as at the end of that first week, and bought us large sodas to celebrate our survival.  There was nothing at all holy about the experience; I did not turn to God in prayer instead of grabbing a Diet Coke, instead I fixated on what I could not have.  At the end of the first 20 days I decided that Jesus would be Ok if I tried something else.  Have any of you had a similar experience with Lent?  We are spending our Lenten season looking at encounters with Jesus in the New Testament.  How are those who encountered Jesus face to face changed by the experience?  How are we changed by their experiences?  How can we encounter Jesus in a different way this Lenten season and be changed ourselves?

  Today’s encounter is between Jesus and someone the text calls “the Tempter”.  You may know him by other names – the Devil.  Satan.  The Evil One.  We don’t talk a lot about him in the Reformed tradition.  Some have even said that Presbyterians don’t believe in the devil, and yet, there he is, right in front of us in scripture.  Who or what exactly was Jesus about to encounter in the wilderness?  Shirley Guthrie, Jr. was one of my theology professors when I was in seminary, and I was blessed to be in the last class that he taught before his death.  He had this way of making theology equally accessible to those who liked the nuances and deep thoughts, and to those who liked the broad strokes.  He wrote one of his best known books for Sunday School classes and church groups to use to study Reformed Theology together, and it was to that book I turned to figure out what to tell all of you today about the devil and evil.  I gave deep consideration to singing the song “The Devil went down to GA,” but decided to spare us all that bit of fun.  Instead, I refer to Christian Doctrine and what Dr. Guthrie says about the devil and evil in the world. 

There are 2 ways we as reformed Christians can think about the devil and interpret what we read about him in scripture.  The first, a literal interpretation, will actually offer some comfort to those of you who say Presbyterians do not believe in the devil.  We know that the devil is present in scripture – we read about him in our Old Testament reading this morning, and again in the New Testament.  But, as Christians, we do not believe in the devil.  We believe in Jesus.  In the entirety of Christianity, there is not a single Christian Creed that states that we place our faith in Satan.  Worship of evil is idolatry. We have faith in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We believe against evil, and against the power of darkness.  As Christians, if we take a literal interpretation, we must insure that our interest in the devil does not overtake our interest in God.  That the realities of darkness and evil do not become more powerful to us than the reality and power of God to overcome them.  This is one of the reasons why it just does not come up that much – kind of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books – we don’t give the devil power by talking about him.  Instead we acknowledge the power that God has over our lives, and our faith in the God that overcomes evil.

We can also look at the devil symbolically if you are not one who is comfortable with the literal interpretation.  In speaking symbolically we acknowledge that there is evil and chaos in this world that is not of God, nor was it created by God.  One advantage to looking at evil not personified as “the devil” is that we can see it in a more broad light.  Rather than thinking about someone “possessed” by a demon, which though we read about it in the New Testament, few of us will say we have seen for ourselves, we talk about other kinds of possession.  We know what it means for someone to be possessed by power, greed, lust, prejudice or hatred.  Those are all evil, and of the Evil One.  And again, what we must remember is that we proclaim the power of God over these forces – the power of God is stronger than any force that attempts to corrupt God’s good creation.

The bottom line, whether you see evil as the Devil personified or as more general forces at work in the world is this, straight from Dr. Guthrie’s pen, “Evil is the lie that leads us to the futile, self-destructive attempt to live without and against God, when the truth is that we can be truly human only as we trust and obey God…Evil is the Big Lie that is so destructive that and terrible just because it convinces us that the truth about God, God’s world, and life is not the truth.”[2]

So…Jesus goes into the wilderness to face the devil.  He goes to face the one who is going to try to tempt him into believing the Big Lie that Jesus was more powerful than God, that Jesus could be God, all by himself, and that when God said we were to place our faith in God alone, God was lying.  Jesus was going to go face the one who was going to try to tempt him to throw off what he knew to be true and encourage him to grasp onto the power offered by this world.  To grab to the sustenance offered by physical comforts, false hope, and political gain.  Matthew hints that Jesus knew this was coming, and I wonder why Jesus thought this was a good idea.  Would you be willing to sign up for this trip – go and fast for 40 days and nights, become your most vulnerable, and then face the toughest challenge of your life thus far?  Maybe we’ll offer that as a Lenten opportunity next year and see who signs up – I’m not sure how many takers we will have…especially if one of the side trips is a conversation with the Devil. 

But Jesus does it.  He resists the temptation of the devil.  The word “devil” is drawn from the greek words “dia” and “ballo” which together mean “to throw over or across.” Used more broadly, the word means, “one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”  The devil is here to mislead Jesus about what it means to be the son of God.  His hope is that in his encounter with Jesus, he will change Jesus for the worse and throw him across to the side of evil.[3]  Jesus is famished, the text says.  Hungrier than we can imagine.  He has not eaten for 40 days, and the Devil whispers to him – “since you are who you say you are  turn these stones into bread”.  The devil wants Jesus to use his powers for himself to satisfy his own physical needs, and not rely on God to care for him.  Jesus does not fall for it, instead quoting the scripture that he knows so well – “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  He knows that God will satisfy his needs, and that he was not sent to earth to put himself first.  And thus, he thwarts temptation the first time.

The second time, the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the temple – -the highest point in the city and says to Jesus, “jump”.  Since you are the son of God, make yourself secure from injury and death.  Save yourself.  Since Jesus used scripture last time to thwart the devil, the devil uses it this time.  However, he takes it out of context, and Jesus again rebukes him.  He will not misuse his power for his own safety and security.

For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the mountain.  The modern day comparison would be taking Jesus to the top of the Empire State building or Rockefeller Center in New York.  All that you can see – -all the buildings, all the businesses, all the people, all the money and trade, and power – it will all be yours (even the UN, which you can see) if you worship me and not God.  I’ve been to the top of both of those buildings.  At Rockefeller center, you can stand on the roof with the TV antennas and see for miles.  It is a dizzying and dazzling experience.  To be told that you would be given power over all of what is below, well, I can’t even imagine.  And yet, Jesus does not even hesitate – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”  Jesus will not misuse his power to gain fortune and political rule.  He has come to bring in a different kind of kingdom.

And then just like that, the devil is gone.  Jesus has relied on God to see him through these temptations and has overcome them.  The angels have come to attend him – I hope they brought a good meal and a change of clothes – and the encounter is over.  The story moves forward and Jesus begins his ministry.

This Lenten season we are exploring the theme of “encounters with Jesus.”  Through the rest of Lent, Ted is preaching about individuals from the Gospel of John who encountered Jesus and were forever changed by those experiences. I’m not sure we can say the same was true for either of the characters in our story today.  However, today we can imagine how the encounter between Jesus and the devil may change us instead.

The Greek philosopher Hereclitus said “you could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”  That same phrase has also been translated as, “No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and they are not the same person.”  Lent is like that.  It happens every year.  Every year there is Ash Wednesday and the reading of the temptation of Jesus and Holy Week and Easter.  We know the stories.  We know them well.  Sometimes we think it is all the same.  We give up the same things and have the same results.  Yet, Lent is always different.  For we are not the same people we were last year.  We have had experiences with Jesus that have changed us.  They have changed how our faith is shaped, and how we practice it.  We may have been tempted by the devil and succumbed, or resisted.  Where Jesus was close last year, he may feel distant now.  Our lives are not exactly the same now as they were then.  The river is in the same place, but the water, and those who enter it are different.  Jesus may have been different after his encounter with the devil.  He had been tested, he had been tempted, and he had drawn on his faith and knowledge that God is more powerful than anything else that the devil could offer to him.  I wonder if when Jesus was living out the events of Holy Week he remembered this encounter and drew strength from it?  If he recalled that God is stronger than the worst evil present in the whole world?

During Lent we again enter the river and face death.  We face the darkness of our sins, and how we have wronged one another.  We examine what separates us from God and try to find ways to draw nearer.  Through Lent we affirm the power of God over evil.  That affirmation, that belief is one of the hopes that carries us through the wilderness to the cross and through to Easter Sunday.  The year I failed to give up caffeine I did not draw any more closer to God than if I gave up anything else superfluous in my life.  I felt more pious, but I had, in fact, given into the temptations of self-reliance and self-congratulation.  As a result of my own experiences that year, I no longer ask anyone about their Lenten practices.  I pray instead that during Lent, each of us encounters Christ in our own way that is meaningful and draws us closer to God.  My hope is that when we encounter Christ in the wilderness of this time, that our encounter deepens our faith and changes us so that we are never the same.

When we see Christ in the wilderness we see who he is as the son of God and what kind of ministry he will bring.  It is not one that is self-serving or power-seeking.  It is a ministry that  is grounded in the belief that God is stronger than all else we will encounter in this world.  Jesus is not here to serve himself, but to serve others.  In his encounter with the devil, we do not know if he is changed, or if the devil is changes, but we know that we must leave as changed people.  As we continue our 40 days and 40 night journey, may we continue to encounter Jesus and be changed by him along the way.  In the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.  Amen 

[1] Feasting on the word, exegetical perspective 47

[2] Guthire, doctrine, 179-182

[3] Feasting, exegetical, 47