This is probably a bit odd, but despite the sermon title, I never did make a connection between the temptations Jesus faced in chapter 4 of Matthew’s* gospel and any of the recent TV shows that play on that theme. Boy howdy, did I make a slew of other references and winks, though. ‘Cause, you know, gotta be me.
My thesis was Jesus used his power to care for others and lift them up. We’re called to do the same. As always, I’m interested in knowing how what I intended to say compares to what you hear. All the visuals I used (plus a bonus one or two) are below, after the audio.
The many faces of the Devil/devil/tempter/tester…or could it be…Satan??
Maps! We’ve got maps. I know I struggle to remember where to find all the places mentioned in the story, so these help me.
Bonus image! I didn’t think of this in time, but I should have shown the congregation what Spider-Gwen looks like. (I couldn’t re-find the devil image that reminded me of her.)
Obviously didn’t show this during worship. But still. Seriously, see. this. movie. “It’s amazing. You could even say it is spectacular.”
*Fun aside…thanks to the absolutely fantastic Marvel/Neflix series, Daredevil and its tantalizing and fun companion, The Defenders, every time I say or write “Matthew,” I hear Elodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios distinctively intoning that name. Every. time. You can get a sense of it in this video. But, seriously, watch those shows. Luke Cage too. I’m really ticked they are all cancelled.
Brevity. Not a quality for which many pastors are known. At least not when we’re in preaching mode. We tend to like to talk. A lot. The truth is (at least in my experience both listening to sermons and giving them), a short sermon that is also a good sermon is much more difficult to achieve than a longer sermon. The easiest, most natural path for a preacher to take is to just keep talking.
I don’t know if this sermon here on Matthew 1:1-17 from December 30th is good. But clocking in at about eight minutes, I say it qualifies as short. It is half as long as many of my sermons. (Even approaching one-third as long as when I am most verbose.)
At the very least, it should make the students in our Confirmation class happy. Earlier this year, analyzing and critiquing their worship experience, they determined what we really need is shorter sermons. Or, as they put it, “shorter long-talk talk time.” If that’s not the perfect description of how 13 year olds (or, honestly, most people regardless of age) consider sermons, I don’t know what is. Love it.
I attempted to communicate: Whatever skeletons are in your family’s closet, you’ve got nothing on Jesus. One parishioner told me that idea really helped them better accept the way their family sometimes fails them. That’s better feedback than I often get. Maybe I should aim for shorter more often? I’m always interested to know what you hear and how that compares to what I thought I said. What message (if any) comes through to you?
You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.
I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.
Let me know what you think.
“The Gospel According to Thor”
Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23
Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!
Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:
Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games
Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.
Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.
So really, why not Thor??
Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.
Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.
“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”
“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”
“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”
“What! How do you figure?”
“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”
While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.
So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?
A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.
When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.
There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:
[I showed a few panels from Thor: God of Thunder #12]
-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…
-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.
-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.
-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.
-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.
-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.
-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball
-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.
-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.
Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.
So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”
“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.
We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.
Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:
For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.
Or consider this from CS Lewis:
“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Stories within stories within stories.
In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.
Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??
Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.
Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.
Stories within stories within stories.
There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.
(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)
God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.
Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?
Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.
One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”
You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”
Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:
-1 Billion w/o clean safe water
-800 million hungry
-27 million trapped in slavery
-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted
-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability
There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.
And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.
Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!
But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:
-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.
-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people
-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.
-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.
How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.
What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?
I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?
*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.