Sermon: “The Ways of Life & Death”

21 February 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010

“The Ways of Life and Death”

Luke 4:1-13

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Kids of all ages are required to take health classes, because our public school systems are committed to do their very best to teach “the ways of life and death,” right?  Whatever the curriculum, it tries to lead them into the ways of life-affirming good nutrition and healthy exercise, or warn them against dangerous ways of death-risking involvement with things like unprotected sex or drugs or alcohol, because parents and teachers want our kids to make wise and healthy choices.  That’s why our Confirmands every year go on their “Healthy Choices” retreat.  We so want our young people to make the best decisions, ones that lead to life. We want them to be as healthy and strong as possible, to be able to face whatever challenges their adult lives will bring them. 

But adults, what about us?  What about our choices?  How healthy are the choices we are making?  When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” do we really mean it?  Temptation can be so much more fun.  Do we walk in the ways of life or death?

I printed in your bulletin the words of our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, where I found the words for today’s sermon title, “The Ways of Life and Death.”  It’s from the first phrase of the Statement of Faith: Do you think we could read it together, just through the phrase in bold?  “We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify: You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.”  Thank you.  Being a Christian means we claim our identity – as precious children of God, created in God’s image – that good stewardship of Creation means we take good care of ourselves, for God.  And we can do that by following Jesus faithfully, even when he calls us into the most barren wildernesses of this world to be tested.  We are called to make Jesus our mentor – so that we learn “the ways of life and death” and steer ourselves away from self-destructive choices, into what the Hebrew scriptures called “the paths of righteousness.”

“Temptation” and “righteousness” are such old-fashioned words and concepts that it might be hard to engage with today’s scripture reading, the lectionary’s traditional Gospel text for the first Sunday of Lent.  Our bright and sunny Congregational churches, with our white walls and clear glass windows, and with our Sunday Schools brimming over with happy, singing children – seem to sit in stark contrast to dark scriptures like this one today, this famous conversation between Jesus and the devil.  And yet, our Pilgrim ancestors – perhaps more than any other religious people before or since – believed strongly in the reality of each soul’s wrestling with angels and demons. 

To faithful Christians of our Connecticut frontier 250 years ago, the forces of Heaven and Hell were very real and ever-present in this world.  Each day was a real-life drama, where ordinary church members went out into the world to be tested and tried in faith, where good and evil forces would engage them in battle for their souls.  Pastors were called to instruct and prepare Christians for this daily battle, which is why the Bible and preaching was always central to worship – and large pulpits like ours were always high up and literally placed front and center.  And the Good News of Jesus, which they learned through story and scripture, taught them to claim the protection of Christ as Lord and Savior, and to know that walking closely with the Holy Spirit every day was the soul’s best (and only) defense against the devil.

Nowadays that theology might seem “quaint,” like any other colonial antique.  Or it might even seem to you dangerous, given how badly it all went wrong at the time of the Salem Witch Trials.  But I think this Puritan world-view is worth a fresh look, to see if we don’t think it still has a glimmer of truth within it.  Just because we don’t often talk about battles between Heaven and Hell doesn’t mean those forces of good and evil are not still locked in mortal combat for human souls.  Don’t we often sense the forces of an active spiritual battle all around us?  I know I’ve felt my own soul getting caught up in them.  You don’t have to travel any farther than the Shop-Rite parking lot to see it. 

Some of you have heard me tell about one frosty afternoon last winter, when I found myself pushing a shopping cart into an icy wind – just getting groceries out to my car as best as I could without slipping on any ice or stepping into any dirty piles of parking lot snow.  It was a little busier than usual at the store, with a new snowstorm on the way.  So about six or eight of converged there with our carts and stopped our coming and going for a moment as a woman slowly backed her car out of her space – carefully, you know – so that she didn’t take any of us down like so many bowling pins.  But there was a tangible good spirit in the air, in spite of the cold, because the driver of the car was so smiling and cheerful and relaxed.  Then, suddenly, up zipped another car, and the driver laid into his horn, made several “instructive” hand gestures to the whole crowd of us – but especially at the cautious driver – and then shot off down the row and out of the parking lot.  Out the entrance, by the way, into Federal Road, screeching tires.

It was the strangest thing.  Talk about the cold wind of an evil spirit.  It was as if the smiles on all of our faces got sheared off – and everyone’s blood pressure shot up.  But then, the nice lady driving slowly rolled down her window to say, “I’m so sorry!”  And the amazing thing was the way ALL of us – all 5 or 6 of us together – joined in a chorus of reassurance, saying, “No, don’t apologize!  It wasn’t your fault!  You’re fine!”  And we started laughing at how passionate we all were about it – we leapt to her defense as if it were the trial of the century.  It could have gone either way – we could have caught the contagion of the passing anger of the speeding car – but we chose instead the gracious way of peace that Jesus taught. 

Now it might seem to you a story like that trivializes the big evils of this world – the destruction and suffering in Haiti, the war against terror in the Middle East, the dangers of racism and poverty here in our own country – but if Jesus taught us anything, it was to see the struggle between good and evil in our own lives, even within our own homes, and to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to give us strength for the battle.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand,” he came out of the wilderness preaching. That is Good News.  Yes, we have to fight evils every day, but Jesus promises to stay with us always, to help us in every struggle.  He will set before us “the ways of life and death” and keep us on the right path, if we are willing to stop, to look, to listen, and to learn.

So on this year’s journey through Lent, I encourage you to draw the spirit of Jesus close around you.  Make the kind of sacrifices it will take to draw you out of the busy clutter of your daily life and farther into the world of Spirit – into the kind of time and space where God can meet you where you are.  Let’s not push our youth to do what we yourselves won’t do– make some “healthy choices” this Lent for yourself.  Come to Sunday worship more often.  We provide here, after all, a spiritual oasis from the rocky deserts of our daily lives.  Or take Jen’s Lenten Health and Wellness Challenge and do some old-fashioned fasting – at least from unhealthy foods.  Think about your daily habits and how they do or do not feed you spiritually.  Join a group for fellowship or study, come to Lenten lunches, attend a retreat, sing in the choir, learn to knit a prayer shawl – or take a turn teaching church school. 

Do it all to draw the Holy Spirit closer to you, the Holy Spirit that Jesus knew.  Because it was that Spirit, which led him safely through the wilderness, that is still our strength and salvation today.  Through Jesus Christ we can live in a new way of faith – faith that grows through sharing our stories, both ancient and new. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith*

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations by your righteous will
declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.  Amen.

* The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith was adopted in 1959 by General Synod – not as a binding creed or test of faith, serving as a doctrinal requirement for membership in the church, but rather as testimony to be shared in worship.  This doxological Statement of Faith was authorized by the Executive Council in 1981.


This page was last updated on 02/08/2014 09:04 AM.
Please send any feedback, updates, corrections, or new content to .