Author Archives: Matthew van Maastricht

About Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew lives and ministers in Altamont, New York where he shepherds a Christian community. He has particular interests in church history and church polity and teaches for the theological seminaries of the Reformed Church.

Echoes of 1857

In 1857, the Reformed Church found itself fracturing when a faction saw themselves as purer than everyone else. Their separation had nothing to do with their ability to follow their consciences. They were not pushed out, they were not forced to function against their beliefs, and no one was forcing their beliefs or practices into a different direction. The secessionists simply saw themselves as too pure to be associated with those with whom they disagree.

Upon receiving several letters of secession, Albertus C. van Raalte, the Clerk of Classis at the time, spoke, and the following was recorded in the minutes. These words ring just as true today as they must have when they were spoken on April 8th, 1857.

…although there is noting else for the Classis to do than to receive these letters of secession as notification, as it is the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders, against which there is no weapon, which will do us less damage outside of the church than inside of it; and although the speaker has no desire to abridge the liberty of those who are separating themselves, also is even earnestly desirous that we may not be involved in quarrels, and [thus] arouse [mutual] bitterness among the Holland people, but may avoid everything that may give occasion thereto, and may, as far as possible, promote [mutual] love…nevertheless he is constrained with his whole soul to testify against this conduct that tears asunder the church of God, and warns each and every one against such a reckless course of conduct, which will bring ruin upon our posterity; [and to point out] that the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the [Classis] have been constantly for years the prey, which trampling under foot now extends itself to the entire old Dutch Reformed Church and the orthodox denominations — [a spirit] which has never been characteristic of the Reformed Church [and] which shall bear the judgement of God.

(Classis Holland: Minutes 1848-1858, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 244-245)

The issue then, as now, was not necessarily the separation, it was what brought it about. Pride, hubris, the necessity to bend everyone to your perspective or divide. And it was the pretending that separation was the holy option. At times, separation may be necessary (though these instances are very few). But it is sin. And to pretend that it is not does nothing to further the cause of Christ.

Of course, the most significant difference is that then the schismatics were in the clear minority, though today, there is possible that there is a numerical majority. But despite the American principle that numerical majority is right, the wide road does not necessarily lead to life.

To be Reformed is About Belonging

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…

What does it mean to be Reformed?

I fear that we haven’t done great P.R. of late, leading to some sobering definitions and associations with our tradition. Many have been taught that being Reformed is all about the “five points” (even though those five points are mislabeled, taken out of context, and given an authority much greater than was ever the intention) — that is, to be Reformed is nothing more than a certain soteriology (a doctrine of salvation). For others, the word Reformed calls to mind a person who is overly legalistic, patriarchal, and closed to anything outside of a narrow box. And for others, to be Reformed is to be cold, imagining God to be a cold and loveless giver of decrees and little more.

For me, to be Reformed is about belonging…

I’m over at The Twelve today, come on over and let’s share together…

The Hidden Life

Those who know me know that I have been called to a new place. No longer in the Midwest, I make my home in the East, in a place also settled by the Dutch, only this place was settled over a hundred years earlier than in my home. Though, the traces of Dutch settlement lie only in place names and the Dutch Reformed churches that dot the landscape in cities and villages, valleys and hills, flatlands and mountains.

And we have settled in a little village on the edge of a mountain and I pastor the church under the mountain and I live in the pastorie next door which was built at the same time as my church called its own minister. And for generations, over a century, the ministers of this little church under the mountain in our little village have resided in this house, walking on these floors, occupying these rooms, doing the ordinary things that comes with life. It is a place which bears the memory of changing people and times. It has many pieces that are original to when it was built in the late nineteenth century. It also has many pieces that have changed over the years.

A couple of months ago, when autumn advanced, we made our mark, or rather, will make our mark. Not an indelible mark but a mark of fleeting beauty. Hopefully. In the cool of autumn with the winds blowing we planted bulbs along our front walk. Daffodils and tulips, to offer the world color and joy come spring.

Is a bulb life, or is it potential life? I’m not really holding a plant, but a part of a plant, something which will become a plant given the right conditions. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is that bulbs need to be in the ground through the winter. They need the cold, they need to freeze.

And so as I look out my window buried somewhere under the snow are those little patches of dirt that we turned and below that the bulbs that we nestled into the spaces created for them. Looking at it, one can see no difference between this space and the others, no one would know that this space was any different than the space next to it, or beyond it.

Even I forget, at times, of the bulbs which I planted. But whether I realize it or anyone realizes it, the fact remains that life is hidden, in waiting, just below the surface. And that in due time, the snow will melt and the ground will thaw and the days will lengthen and life will sprout forth from the ground.

Life which is hidden remains life, and sometimes what lies beneath the surface is known, other times it is a mystery. But the life which lies below the surface, hidden from view is nothing short of grace.

To Our Home’s New Owner

Welcome to your new home!

We are so happy that you were interested and even happier that you’ll be staying a while.

We are very sad to leave, perhaps it’s good for you to know that. We’re not leaving here to get away from here, but because we’ve been called elsewhere. We intended to stay here for many years, but life, at times, has different plans. And so we are moving across the country, and this space has been prepared for you.

A building is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint. It is a material thing which was, at one time, built; and will be, at another time, gone. It is a thing, not a living thing, but a thing which is made up of so many things which once were living but had died so that this house could be built. But in a way, It is living. Because, as I’m sure you understand, a house is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint, but it is much more than just that.

This house saw our family grow from two to three, and it was to first home to which we brought our son. It was within these walls that we had sleepless nights, laughed, cried, and began learning how to be parents. These walls saw his first smile, first sitting up, first crawling, first pulling up. These rooms echoed with laughter from dinner gatherings with friends and family. These walls heard of joy and sadness, hope and despair. In fact, this was the very first house that we ever owned.

Far more than a shelter from the elements, this house served as a respite from the trials of the world and was a place that was bursting with love, with all of the ups and downs that come along with that. And so we will take all of our things with us, and all that will be left will be the marks in the carpet where our furniture was. A desk, a table, the crib. And with time those marks will fade and any remnant of our time here will also fade away. But that’s okay, that’s the cycle of life.

You may be wondering why I’m sharing all this with you. There is, though, something within me that finds the process of selling a home less than satisfying. So impersonal, anonymous. Those times that you’ve been here, I’ve been gone. And we will likely never meet. And it is strange for me, to have this home that has been so much a part of our lives, and now to sell it to someone that I’ve never met. And perhaps you feel similar, wanting to meet the people who loved this home before you. And so this is why I’m sharing this with you. To let you know a bit of ourselves, and to welcome you to this space.

Even though we’ve only lived here a few years, so much life has happened here. And now it is time for a new chapter for this house. Our chapter has ended, and you are just beginning to add a piece of yourself to these walls and to the collective memory which is held within its bones.

I hope you add much life, and life in its fullness, to the memory of this home. The ups and downs, the twists and turns. Because it is not just the happiness that is meaningful, but all of it.

We hope that you enjoy it here. We have been blessed here. I hope you find the same blessing. 

 

Rethinking the Artificial Binary

In 1857, my church communion, the Reformed Church in America, experienced a secession of several churches because those churches and ministers thought that the things that divided them were greater than those which held them together. The fact of the matter, however, is that the things which divided were far smaller than those which united, but on those things which became their pet issues, they saw a binary choice — “you are either with us or against us.” The issues which they divided were held up to be gospel issues, issues in which there was no place for disagreement or a difference in perspective. Black and white, right or wrong. While some revisionist historians may argue that it was a disagreement understood at the time to be about cultural issues, even a cursory read of the letters of secession shows this to be wrong. While the things which caused the secession of 1857 were most certainly about nonessentials, the people involved saw them as things core to the gospel.

In 1882, there was another secessionist movement, this time over freemason lodge membership. There was nothing forcing boards of elders to allow members to be members of lodges, there was no statement by the General Synod allowing (or favoring) lodge membership. Indeed, the General Synod discouraged it. But because other churches somewhere else might allow their members to be members of lodges, a secession was required. Not because one is being forced to live and worship and practice their faith in a way that conflicted with their conscience, but because “somebody, somewhere might be doing or thinking something that I don’t like.” And so, this became a binary issue. Black or white, right or wrong. This became a gospel issue, and issue over which it was worth the risk of splitting the church apart again, leaving yet another wound in the body of Christ.

***

These are only two examples in my little corner of the Kingdom of God. Throughout history and across traditions, there have been topics, issues, that are held up as gospel issues that one must choose, you must choose this or that, black or white, right or wrong. No ability to wrestle, to struggle, to be in fellowship with disagreement. Whereas Joshua told his people to serve God or foreign gods (Josh 24:14-15), the narrative at times of tension and conflict are: choose this day your stance on this particular topic, because this topic determines whether or not you are a part of Christ.

This, however, is a false narrative, a false choice, a false dichotomy. To claim that we cannot be in relationship and fellowship and that we must break our covenantal promises because, while we all agree on the foundations of our faith and although we have all made the same promises, some see one topic differently.

This false narrative is rearing its ugly and sinful head in the Reformed Church yet again. One’s stance on human sexuality has become elevated to the single “gospel issue” which seems to matter by many in the fundamentalist/evangelical wing of the communion. The means of grace (the sacraments), the nature of covenant, salvation, or even the covenant promises that we had made to God and each other when we were ordained to ecclesiastical office, all these take second place. The narrative is that there must be a choice forced between two binary poles. This narrative, however, is artificial. This narrative is little more than a way to scorch the earth in order to try to force one into a sense of the worldly understanding of “victory.”

***

So often I hear, “We are tired of fighting!” To which I respond, “Then stop!” Stop fighting. Stop lobbing grenades over the walls, stop shooting artillery from your trenches. These are trenches that we have dug, they are walls that we have built, they are fights that we have initiated. Those who wish to cause the single issue of human sexuality to be the only thing that matters in covenantal fellowship wish to continue the fight until they either “win” or harm the church seeking a sense of victory. The goal is to continue the language of “us vs them” because it is known that if we are able to break free from this framework, that the fighting will stop, and no one except Christ and Christ’s church can claim victory.

And what about those who are not able or willing to make an artificial binary choice? What about those who think there is more to the church than sex, and who can have sex with whom? What about those who want to focus on living as disciples of Christ and living as a foretaste of the kingdom of God? What about those who want to love God and love others? What about those who are weary of the fighting, weary of the division, weary of the trenches and grenades and the war of attrition in which we are currently locked?

The choice is not binary. No two people can agree on everything, how much more for a church communion? The point is not to ignore differences, but to talk about them, even argue about them. For some, there are differences which are irreconcilable, but these are not the same for everyone. For one new and newly public faction, however, human sexuality seems to be a mark of the true church, but the means of grace are not. However, to insist that this must be the line in the sand for everyone is simply false.

***

So to those who wish to be the church, you are invited not into a faction, not into an alliance. You are invited, not by me, or by a leadership cadre. You are invited by Christ and by the saints who have gone before. You are invited into the church, you are invited into the Body of Christ, and into our corner of the Kingdom of Christ, the Reformed Church in America. Into this covenantal communion who have commitments to each other in the things that we see as essential (these can be found in the Government (and disciplinary and judicial procedures), the Liturgy, and the four Doctrinal Standards), while also allowing for difference with proper oversight (board of elders for members, consistory for church, classis for ministers and consistories), as well as ensuring that we live up to our covenantal promises, and fulfill the obligations which we have promised to fulfill (the synods, then, have a role in this).

There are those spinning this false narrative of an artificial binary choice which we must choose and choose in an instant, and if we allow this to control the conversation, we will never find peace, we will never find, unity, and we will never find purity. Indeed, there is no clear dividing line between the broad and problematic categories of “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” Indeed, there are conservatives who refuse to make this single issue the hill on which they are willing to die, and upon they are willing to, once again, carve up a part of Christ’s body.

We are not the world. We do not have parties, we do not have a binary opposition. We may disagree, but we are all working together for the same goal. Now we are to live into this. Understanding there are differences, and some of these differences are big. Understanding we can disagree about these differences and that we can even disagree strongly. But always understanding that Christ is far bigger than whether we sing hymns or Psalms or how we teach the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ is far bigger than the question of lodge membership, Christ is far bigger than human sexuality. Because if Christ is not enough to hold us together, then what is?

 

Digressions in Church Polity: The Reformed Church and Its Constitution

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) about the Constitution of the RCA and the role that it plays in the life of the church. Indeed, this culminated with a directive from the General Synod of 2015 which formed a large task force to find a constitutional pathway forward to deal with the different views of human sexuality within the communion. This, then, has brought the issue of constitutionality to the fore of the discussion of the communion, and it is a discussion that we are oft ill prepared to have.

What is a constitution? The word “constitution” is itself derived from the Latin term constituere, which means to set up, establish, arrange. So, then, a constitution refers to those basic things on which a body stands. It refers to the basic establishment or arrangement, it provides a framework to set up a body…

Continue Reading…

Digressions in Church Polity: There are no members of the Reformed Church in America

For anyone familiar with my ecclesiastical communion, the Reformed Church in America, or anyone who has read my writing elsewhere as of late, perhaps you are aware of the struggles that our communion is facing regarding differing understandings of human sexuality. However, the real issues are much deeper, the real issues are the things below the surface that we don’t talk about. I hope in this series of who-knows-how-long of digressions in church polity, I will have an opportunity to address some of these issues, and hopefully this (and other engagements) will serve to edify the church.

***

Part of the struggle within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over differences in biblical interpretation is a misunderstanding of how a communion (or denomination) exists within our theological doctrine of the church. One of the biggest problems that perpetuates and enhances this misunderstanding is the concept of being a member of the RCA. The root of this misunderstanding is a misidentification of the locus of the church.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a member of the RCA. No one joins the RCA, people join local churches which are a part of a covenantal communion called the Reformed Church in America. While the RCA has a common glue that holds it together (Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government), the major bonding agent in that glue is our own willingness to submit ourselves to it. So while there are procedures to hold each other accountable to our covenantal commitments, these processes are to originate locally rather than from afar. There is no magisterium or college of bishops. The RCA does not have a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in New York, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan or anywhere else.

The General Synod, then, is not a magisterium, it is not a collegial pope, and it is not the essence of the church. Instead, church is when the congregation gathers, shepherded by the offices, around pulpit, table, and font. Church is located in the local churches, not in synods. 

One of the ubiquitous statements arguing for the urgency of a lock-step uniformity on understandings of human sexuality (and interestingly enough, many of these same people also desire complete liberty for local interpretation of many other things, sometimes even those things which are of the essence of the church) is that people are leaving local churches because the RCA doesn’t have a lock-step uniformity on this one topic. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of understanding and education, on the part of office bearers, to help their flock understand how we, as Reformed Christians, understand the church.

The RCA is not a monolithic hierarchy . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, the Reformed Church is not a hierarchy and has never located church within an episcopacy or hierarchy. Rather assemblies operate within their sphere of responsibility, with the greater assemblies not infringing upon the lawful prerogatives of the lesser assemblies.

So as we discuss this, we need to stop talking about being members of the RCA, as there are only members of local churches (and in the case of ministers, members of the classis).

So rather than disregarding and discarding our doctrine of the church in the name of cultural utilitarianism, perhaps it would behoove us to live into our countercultural way of being and understanding our covenantal communion, and help the members of our churches to understand this.

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

Wait…Where are we going?

Sermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Genesis 15:1-18.

It is one thing to hear about the promises of God, or to read about the promises of God. It is another thing altogether to really feel and understand the promises of God. Especially when you are in a difficult place. It can be hard to think that God has a purpose when it seems like you’re just moving this pile of bricks from here to there and back again, or when you are facing seemingly endless health problems, or when you feel trapped. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when you look around and see the sparse sanctuary. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when this world seems to only tear itself apart.

It is easy to read about the promises of God, it is easy to hear about the promises of God, but when things don’t seem to be working, when things don’t seem to be turning out, it can be really hard to truly believe the promises of God.

But surely this is just a problem for us? Right? Surely this didn’t happen with the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith? Right? Well, maybe not.

Abram — later to become Abraham — is the perfect example of faith, I would always think. You see, when God told him to get up and move out of his country, away from his home, and move to the other side of the world — at least what he would have understood to be the world. What did Abram do?  Genesis never reported him ever saying a word, just that he got up, packed up his tent, gathered his flock together, loaded his camels, and he and his wife Sarai headed off to a new land that they did not know, filled with people that they did not know, who spoke a language which he did not know. At the command of God, Abram just packed up and went. The perfect exemplar of faith.

Abram goes up and settles in what would be the Promised Land. There was a famine, though, and so he moved to Egypt, a major world power, where he would have access to food and resources. He did well there, although he had a little run-in with the Pharaoh — the ruler of Egypt — who sent him away. Abram went back to settle in Canaan, the land that God Promised to his descendants, while his nephew, Lot, settled elsewhere. God told him to get up again, and to walk the length and breadth of the land. So Abram got up, and he wandered all around, and finally made camp.

Up until this point, the relationship between God and Abram had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God commands, Abram obeys. Abram, the perfect exemplar of faith. But we must keep reading, because the story of Abram doesn’t end there, and there is certainly more than what we have seen thus far. Abram, gets to a point where he says, “Wait…I don’t quite understand this.”

***

Twice in our passage today, we see Abram asking God some overdue questions. All this time, God has been telling Abram that he will be the father, the patriarch of a great nation. Abram, at this time, is very old, he is tired, and he knows that he likely doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. I can imagine Abram would begin to be concerned, after all, he didn’t have any children. So if he didn’t have any children, and he was going to the father of a great nation, it obviously couldn’t be his children, but it must be a servant in his house. I mean, it surely wouldn’t have added up to Abram.

“Uh…God?” Abram responded, “You keep telling me about all of these descendants that I’m going to have, but I don’t have any children…so how, exactly, is this going to work?” To answer, God points up to the sky and tells him, “Look up and count the stars. This is how many your descendants will be.”

And Abram believed. This is what is interesting, is that Abram believed. Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God then told Abram, “I am the God who brought you from your home, and gave you this land for your descendents.” God reminded Abram that he has followed God so much already, reminding Abram of what God has done, and what God has promised.

Now, we are told that Abram believed, but he is not yet done asking questions.

“But how do I know this?” Abram asked.

Suddenly this Abram that I had mentioned in the beginning of this message, this Abram who is the perfect example of faith because he never asked questions, this Abram is gone. We’re left with another Abram. We are left with an Abram that believes, but yet has questions. Abram doesn’t really do anything that exciting or earth shattering himself, Abram is just another guy who sometimes does great things, who other times makes great mistakes and has been given an inkling of faith, who has simply been shown the immense grace of God. Abram is replaced with, well, a human being who is not that different from you or I.

We are left with this Abram who wonders how all of this is going to be accomplished because things just aren’t making sense.

You see, Abram believes, but he also seems to be wondering, can I trust God? Can God really do this? Is God telling the truth?  Abram believes, but this doesn’t mean that all of his questions or uncertainties vanish. Abram has questions for God, and God gives him some answers, but not quite the answers, or in the form, that he was expecting.

Does this sound familiar? God says, “Go!” and we go. At some point, though, we begin to ask, “Wait…where are we going and how are we getting there?”

So Abram asked this question, and how does God respond?

God tells Abram to get a cow. Rather than telling Abram, God decides to show him something.

Now in the ancient world, a covenant — which is like a contract — was made in several different ways, one of them was to take an animal, cut it into pieces, and each of the parties would walk between the animal pieces. The unspoken message, then, is that if one of the parties breaks the covenant, they will end up like these animal pieces. Pretty gruesome, I know, but also very powerful. We’d probably take our commitments a little more seriously if we had to walk through animal pieces.

So Abram gets a cow, as well as several other livestock, and goes beyond what was told of him and he cuts them in two. Abram knows what’s going on here.

Abram them falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision and a torch and a smoldering pot pass through the animal pieces. It’s a common covenant ceremony, except Abram didn’t pass through the pieces, this covenant was one-sided, that is God promised these things to Abram, and God takes on the responsibility to fulfil them.

I think that this part of the story is quite telling. Abram, the person on whom God chooses to lay all of the promise for the world. The person that God chooses to carry on that promise. God chooses to put all of God’s chips into one person, and that person is Abram.  This person suddenly begins asking questions about what is going on. “How is this going to work?” Abram asks. “How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Abram asks.

This isn’t surprising, after all, Abram is human, human like you and I.  This is not really that insightful at all. What is insightful about this is how God responds. God not only tolerates his questions, God is open to his questions, God responds to his questions, God seems to welcome his questions. God could have become frustrated with Abram, and decided to start over with someone else, someone who wouldn’t ask questions. But God doesn’t do this, not in the slightest.

***

And it is in this story that we are able to see the developing relationship between God and God’s people. God is not just a deity who commands, but does not otherwise involve Godself, no, God is deeply connected with God’s people, relationally so.

And while it would have been much easier for Abram if God would have just given him a vision that would clearly show how things would have played out, that’s not what happened. God gives him a little bit, and a little bit. Look at the stars, see me make a promise to you in a way that you understand. This does not take the place of faith, but it confirms faith.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-16, NRSV.)

So when the promises are hard to believe, when they seem distant and unfounded, when you look around and you don’t see a path forward, remember Abram. Remember his questions, his conversations, and remember our gracious God who welcomed his questions and interacted with him.

So take heart, brothers and sisters, for you are in good company. And keep watch for those glimpses of the promise. Perhaps they won’t be obvious as a smoking pot and a flaming torch passing through split animals, but God continues to give glimpses of God’s promises to be viewed and accepted in faith.

Take heart, brothers and sisters, and let us remember the story of Abram, and let us gaze upon the steadfast promises of the Divine in faith.

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.