Posts filed under ‘Temptation’

‘And I will harden Pharoah’s heart’ – a Reflection and Proposal on God’s goodness

It was a beautiful morning as four of us prayed Matins today at St Mark’s Lutheran Church in Williamsport. The readings for before Holy Week are from Exodus, the plagues leading up to the Passover and the rescue of the Israelites from Pharoah, which Christians see as an anticipation of our rescue from sin, death, and the devil by Jesus the Messiah.

Of course, Exodus has that tricky dichotomy. God says, ‘I will harden Pharoah’s heart, so that he will not let the Israelites go.’ The reason for this, says the writer, is so God’s glory may be shown. In other times in Exodus, such as today’s reading, the wording is, ‘Pharoah hardened his heart’ or even ‘Pharoah’s heart was hardened.’

This of course is problematic on many levels. There are many attempts to justify God for hardening Pharoah’s heart, and depending on your point of view they work better or worse. Of course, trying to justify God’s action is a fundamentally dangerous thing to do.

But sitting there hearing this story, with sunlight shining through the windows,  I thought – what if God hardens Pharoah’s heart by showing him goodness? After all, every time there are plagues, and especially when the plagues get serious, Pharoah ‘gets religion,’ but when the plague is removed, Pharoah hardens his heart and changes his mind, and will not let the people go. His rash words and promises in the midst of the darkness are cooly reconsidered in the light of day.

This sounds much like what we do when there is tragedy, crisis, or other seemingly insoluble problems in our lives. But once the plague is removed, once our lives ‘return to normal,’ the urgency is removed. The openness to God and others that we had vanishes. We look at the world around us, with its pleasures and possibilities, and reach out for them. There is nothing to hold us back, and the problems we had seem far away. We return to seeing the world as we always did.

If it is God’s goodness that hardens Pharoah’s heart, the return of a relative sense of peace and security that beguiles Pharoah into living like he always did, into not changing his attitude towards God or the Israelites, then God is acting in character, as the benevolent, loving, sustainer of all life, and it his very activity as a good God that hardens an already calcified Pharoah’s heart. He shows himself to be ignorant of the source of the blessings of life, and refuses to turn and worship. After many of God’s attempts to change his heart, his hard heart is dashed to pieces. The expression ‘I will harden Pharoah’s heart,’ may anticipate Paul’s’ saying, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon their heads.’

Am I trying to justify God here? I hope not. And yet it seems to be consonant with reality as we know it. God acts in character, to give us all we need, and being surrounded by so many apparently good and permanent things, we harden our hearts against all that would take them away, or anything that seems to deny them.

In Christ Jesus, God himself entered into his good creation, and yet Jesus received it as a gift from God and not as God himself. Faithfulness to God led him on the road to the cross, and the darkness did not diminish his faith in his Father. His resurrection leads us to understand that in good and bad times, we may be open to the Lord who gives us himself as his best gift.

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March 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

The Eternal and That Which is Passing Away

I certainly don’t know if I would have had the wherewithal to do this. A child interrupted his Orthodox priest father’s church service with the news, “Our house is on fire.” Fr. Adam Sexton’s response: “Go tell your mother. We’re celebrating the liturgy right now.”

Uncaring? Before you decide, read the post – and consider donating to the Sexton family. And while you do, ask yourself this: do we consider our worship of God to be a participation in reality – more real than the worldly realities with which we are confronted every day?

I am reminded of a story – I think it was told by Garrison Keillor – about the farmer couple who, seeing a hailstorm coming on Sunday morning, went to church as usual, knowing that when they returned home, their crops would most likely be destroyed. What is real? What is eternal? What is faith?

Do worshipers (either those leading worship or those participating) believe that what they are experiencing is a real encounter with the living God, a revelation of the reality of life on earth and a foretaste of that overwhelming reality of the coming Kingdom of Heaven? Or is it unreal, simply a play-acting, a brief escape from the much more ‘real’ reality of the world?

Those who believe that worship is more real than what we can see each day still may not have responded in the way this priest did. However, because this priest responded in this way, we all may be encouraged to consider the way we approach worship. May we approach with awe, as the Eternal really stoops to meet us and we really ascend to meet him, leaving all that is transient behind.

March 6, 2012 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

‘Living in the Covenant’ – audio

Here is the audio for yesterday’s sermon, ‘Living in the Covenant.’  Please excuse my atrocious French pronunciation.

February 27, 2012 at 10:07 am Leave a comment

Living in the Covenant – Sermon 1 Lent 2012

‘Living in the Covenant’

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

United and Salona Lutheran Churches

Sunday in 1 Lent

February 26, 2012

 

Yesterday, for his thirteenth birthday,

I took my son Michael up to Syracuse

to see the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the musical Les Miserables.

We tend to pass on our interests and our passions to our children.

Some children learn to go fishing and hunting

because their dad has taught them how.

Some enjoy certain foods or movies because they are family traditions.

My wife and I have music and literature to pass on to our children;

and I pass on my love for sports,

which I’m proud to say that Michael does not only like to watch sports,

but is more physically fit than I ever was.

So we made the trek to northcentral New York

to see the musical based upon a book written by the French author Victor Hugo in the early 1860s.

Les Miserables was translated very quickly into English,

and around the time of the battle of Gettysburg,

many officers and men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

were carrying it around in their knapsacks.

Some sarcastically referred to themselves as ‘Lee’s Miserables.’

 

The main character of Les Miserables is a man named Jean Valjean,

who spent nineteen years on the chain gang:

His family desperate with hunger,

He broke into a bakery and stole a loaf of bread.

For that crime he served five years.

Fourteen years were added to that sentence for his attempts to escape.

Released at last, he finds nowhere to turn but to a kindly bishop,

who takes him in and feeds him for a night.

The embittered Valjean repays the bishop’s generosity by stealing some silver.

When he is caught, the bishop maintains Valjean’s innocence,

and says that he has forgotten the silver candlesticks the bishop has also given him.

Humbled by the bishop’s mercy,

and terrified by his own sin,

Valjean turns from his old life

and takes up a new name.

Within eight years he has become a factory owner

and the mayor of a small town in France.

 

But he finds that his identity cannot escape him.

He discovers that a man has been caught and identified

as the parole-breaker Jean Valjean,

and that this innocent man will receive a sentence

for the crime that he has committed.

The real Jean Valjean is confronted with a desperate choice.

He has responsibilities,

He has people dependent on him,

He has hidden himself so well that he would never be suspected.

He has done so well – living as an upright citizen and helping those in need.

And yet, he has made covenant with God to live for God.

Who is he? Can he escape from who he had been –

Or is he always the convict who must live as a convict,

bearing his shame and his name to save another?

 

The idea of covenant runs through the entire Bible.

Two parties who make a covenant agree to be faithful to that covenant,

to abide by the covenant,

no matter what may come.

This Lent, we will hear read several Old Testament covenants

that God made with his people,

including the covenant of the Ten Commandments:

God promises to be our God,

and we promise to be his people.

 

Today we heard of the covenant that God made with Noah and his descendants,

that never again would the inhabited earth be destroyed by the waters of a flood.

The sign of the covenant was the rainbow.

Nowadays the rainbow is supposed to symbolize diversity of people,

but that is not the biblical image.

Instead, it is God hanging up his bow,

renouncing this weapon –

never to be used again.

Perhaps that understanding has faded over the years,

but it can easily be recalled:

The rainbow is a sign of peace – peace between God and humanity.

 

The remarkable thing about this covenant is that it is unconditional.

In other covenants, there are stipulations when the covenant is broken

by one party or the other.

Not in this covenant.

God makes an everlasting covenant,

that the earth shall never be destroyed again by a flood.

God binds himself by his Word.

He declares his unbreakable intention toward humanity;

to preserve life, to continue life, to maintain life.

 

One wonders whether or not God ever had second thoughts.

Having witnessed the barbarism of humanity over the years,

how we haven’t changed since the time of Noah:

our cruelty to each other,

our ignorance of his commands,

our despoliation of his creation,

our pride and our despair and our indifference,

one would think that God would have ample reason to abrogate the covenant.

And yet, God remains faithful,

because he does not break his promises.

 

When Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Spirit,

And the Father declares, ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,’

The Spirit immediately drives him in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The Gospel of Mark does not relate the content of the temptation.

But a more relevant question for us is ‘why?’

Why does temptation follow so quickly upon baptism?

Why, after the baptismal covenant is made,

is it immediately tested?

 

It is tested because only there can faithfulness be discerned.

The devil tests the Son’s faith in the covenant declaration about him.

Does God really have the ability to deliver on his covenant?

Jesus himself knows that God has hung his bow in the clouds –

That he will refuse to intervene even if Jesus suffers the death of the cross;

That God has chosen another way – the way of love –

To conquer human rebellion.

Satan asks – can you really trust God?

Wouldn’t it be safer – wouldn’t it be smarter – wouldn’t it be easier –

to rely on yourself rather than upon your Father?

 

We will hear more on this in the Gospel lesson next week.

But let us return to the fictional Jean Valjean.

He has a choice before him –

To give in to the temptation to hide behind the lie he has created –

A lie for a good purpose – but still a lie –

And to let an innocent man take his place;

Or to emerge into the full truth,

Living in the covenant that God made with Jean Valjean

And not with any other man:

‘I will be your Father, and you my adopted son.’

Does he trust that God will provide for him

even if he emerges into the light?

Or does he trust in himself,

in his own cunning, to steal another man’s meaningless life

for the sake of the good life he has created?

Wouldn’t it be safer? Wouldn’t it be smarter? Wouldn’t it be easier?

If the meeting with the bishop in the beginning of the story

was Valjean’s baptism,

then the scene where he appears before the court

and rips open his shirt to show the convict’s tattoo upon his chest

is his victory over temptation.

Valjean believes that God will keep covenant with him,

And so Valjean is empowered to keep covenant with God, no matter the cost.

And he does so throughout all the rest of the story.

'Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean!'

In doing so, Valjean follows in the steps of his master, Jesus.

For Jesus, alone among all of us,

Remained in the covenant which God made with him,

Trusting in the promises that God made,

No matter how distant or full of trouble they seemed.

And in Lent, we are invited,

Gathering around Word and Sacrament,

in fasting and prayer and works of love,

to live ever more deeply in the covenant God made with us

through Holy Baptism,

answering Valjean’s question, ‘Who am I?’

with the answer, ‘I am my sinful self,

but I am also the Father’s adopted child,

forgiven and claimed by his faithful Son,

and I will live each day in this trust and in this promise,

keeping covenant with the one who will always keep covenant with me.’


February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am 1 comment


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