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February 21, 2010
Psalm 91

Lent I

“Beyond Forty”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis

Forty Days. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days. He fasted and faced temptation for forty days. This season of Lent. It is forty days. Forty days plus the Sundays because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed! Forty days! According to Luke in the Book of Acts, the Risen Christ spent forty days appearing to the disciples and speaking about the kingdom of God. Forty days before he was taken up into heaven. Noah and the flood. Forty days. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai for forty days. When Goliath was standing on the mountain and thumping his chest and daring the Israelites to send forth a fighter, “You want to go? Come on, let’s go!” Goliath stood there for forty days before David came along. When the prophet Elijah had had enough, when he told God that he was ready to die, an angel of the Lord baked a cake and gave him some water, the bible says Elijah went in that strength for forty days to Horeb the mountain of God. Forty days.

At forty days, there on the Mt of Horeb, that’s when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Elijah was convinced he was the only one left doing the Lord’s work. The word of the Lord tells him to go and stand on the mountain, for the Lord was about to pass by. Then comes the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire. But the voice of the Lord only came in the imperceptible, powdery silence; the still small voice. The voice told him to go on his way, to return to Damascus, and to there find Elisha, the young prophet in waiting. Mt Horeb, Elijah, the still small voice; it’s a story of succession planning, of mentoring, of passing on the mantle.

Just after day 40, Elijah set out from Mt. Horeb and found Elisha who was plowing the field with twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him. Elijah passed Elisha there at the plow and tossed his mantle over to him, his wrap, his outer garment.  A universal sign that everyone, including the reader, is supposed to understand. You’re the one, Elisha. Elisha, left the plow and the oxen and ran over to the veteran prophet. “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will come and follow you.” Elijah says to the young prophet in waiting, “Go. Go back again, what was I thinking, Of course, go.” Elisha turns away from Elijah and he takes those twelve oxen and he goes about throwing one heck of a going away barbeque for himself, a big party for the people, for his mother and father. “I’m going to be a prophet you know!” Then, and only then, Elisha set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant. His mentee. His underling. His intern prophet. His protégé. His anointed one in waiting. All just after forty days.

Someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to the folks at home, kiss my father and mother, maybe even a bit of going away party?” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” And by far the majority of all within ear shot of Jesus, within eye shot of the gospel, by far the majority share a timeless, understandable reaction “What did he say? Not even a good by to a parent, a hug, a kiss?” But somewhere in the kingdom of God, somewhere a light bulb goes off, and the sound of a sudden understanding can be heard  (Ohhh!), and then a voice, not the voice of the Lord, but of the one who gets it, “So, it has nothing to do with passing the mantle, a succession policy, a prophet in waiting. Jesus isn’t hiring interns. He’s calling disciples.” Or in other words, when it comes to following Jesus, our Lenten journey with Christ, it’s a whole lot more than forty days.

You remember when Ruth started to sing? Ruth in the Bible. The Book of Ruth, Ruth and Orpah and Naomi and their tearful embrace. All the men in the family had died and Naomi tried to send her two daughters-in law back to their mothers. Confident that they had cared for the dead and fairly certain that their best shot at survival was to return home, away from her, Naomi tried to send them away. They all wept aloud. Orpah heeded to Naomi’s wisdom. But Ruth, Ruth clung to Naomi. “Your sister in law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You need to go” Naomi said. But Ruth, that’s when Ruth started to sing. A poem of commitment remembered generation after generation in the kingdom. “Entreat me not to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”

Jesus called to a person in the crowd, “Follow me.” The man said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead: but as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Let the dead take care of themselves? But this was father and son? And the communion of saints tries collectively to wrap heads and hearts around the apparently callous teaching of Jesus. Yet, somewhere in the kingdom of heaven, one of the wisest among the great cloud of witnesses heaves quite a sigh. “Oh, my, my, my…my people, your people, where you go, I will go, where you die, I will die. It’s even more than that, istn’t. The call of Jesus, it’s even more; even more than even is most important to us. Jesus isn’t looking to extend the family. He’s calling disciples.”  The call of discipleship. It’s more than forty days.
There is a picture of an elder son tucked forever into the scrapbook of our faith; the older brother to the prodigal son. He had been out working in the field when the lost son came back into the embrace of their father. The father called for a robe and a ring and party; “this son of mine who was dead is alive; he was lost and is found.” The eldest son heard the commotion on his way in from work and he had to be told what was going on; all the commotion, the party, the celebration; he heard about it all second hand. Ticked doesn’t begin to describe his reaction. “All these years I have been working for you. I never did anything wrong. You have never given me even an inkling of a party like this. This son of yours, him, that one, over there, he lost all your property, all the stuff, everything that was yours and mine, that was ours, you just gave it to him and he lost it all with his carousing. He squandered it away. The father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. All this, this property, these fields, the harvest, the ring, the robe, all this stuff, this house, our home, it is nothing.  For your brother, he was lost and has been found.”  

Just after Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, someone called out to him and said, “I will follow wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  Nowhere to stay. Not a nickel to his name. Nothing. And most in the great congregation feel a nudge of familiarity with the phrase, no where to lay his head.  They hear an echo of that song about the baby Jesus with no crib for his bed, his sweet head, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. Nowhere to lay his head.  So cute. Most in the great congregation are more than willing to join in, “Jesus, we’ll follow you!” All the while seeing no connection to all the stuff, the accumulated wealth, that charity beginning at home thing , the looking out for number one, the what’s in for me or what have you done for me lately, the earmarks, the loopholes, the “its never too much.” Sure, I’m in. I’ll follow you. And somewhere in the kingdom of God,  an inspired listener of the puzzling teaching of Jesus nods a head yes, and clears the throat, and says to no one in particular and everyone all at once, “It was never about the stuff. He had nothing. Nowhere to lay his head. It means it not about the stuff.” And when Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, all who would ever take his name, would have to learn that their citizenship, their home, their treasure was in heaven, and heaven alone. This journey with Christ, its way beyond forty days.

When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, the cost of discipleship (to borrow Bonhoeffer’s phrase), went way beyond forty days. Nowhere to lay his head. Let the dead bury their own dead. No who puts a hand to the plow and looks back…. Follow me. Follow me. The urgent and shockingly unsettling call of Jesus. Maybe Lent shouldn’t be about forty days in a row without Sundays, but more of a collection of those moments in this life of faith, moments when you and I have the opportunity to respond anew to God’s pressing invitation to the kingdom of God. A memoir, of sorts, that tells of all the times when you and I have had to choose, in a moment, in a blink of the eye, whether to follow Jesus. Maybe Lent should be a gathering of those moments in your life and mine, when Jesus’ call to discipleship comes with an urgent plea and a sobering reminder of the commitment required.  Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem and he turns to you and me, and he says “follow me.”  

Just this last Monday evening my small group broke up from our meeting here at the church. One of the group came back in the room to tell me that someone was spreading out and preparing to sleep in the alcove just outside the ramp door that opens from the church to the parking lot. A few in the group offered to stay with me as I went to talk with the young man. I told them I would be okay; go ahead. I didn’t mind talking to him alone. But actually, I was thinking it would be easier for me to take a harder line, to move him along, if the small group folks weren’t around. You remember Monday night. It was snowing again. Cold.  Damp. Thomas is his name. He had a sheet of plastic. A bunch of blankets. Several layers of clothes. He is from California by way of Texas and most recently New York City. “Where did you stay last night Thomas?” I asked. “Right here, sir. I hope that was okay” he responded.

Many of you know that the bible study for small groups right now is designed to study the question of “who is Jesus?” That’s what we were talking about right before I met Thomas who had no where to lay his head. Thomas slept inside this building Monday night, right inside the door. He ate some food from the church kitchen. Finished a jug of apple cider. Tuesday morning I was the first one into the building. Over there at the ramp door inside the container intended for nametags (the tags we use to try to work on our welcome and hospitality) inside the drop box was a paper plate, an empty jug of juice, and a napkin…and then some of your names on tags. As I carried the dinner dishes to the trash, I thought about how Thomas found the right spot for them, a container that represents our frail efforts to embody the hospitality of Christ.

Lent started for me not on Ash Wednesday, but on Monday night when God’s intrusive call to discipleship once again shook me from the comforts and the routines. When by grace and the Spirit, I was once again reminded me of the pressing, unrelentent, urgent, daily call of Jesus Christ.




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