Blessings of the Cross: Lent 2011

Overview

Blessings of the Cross invites you to explore God’s hope and presence presented in the scripture readings for Lent and Easter. Key Bible readings call us to praise God as we contemplate God’s redemption and new creation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the readings, we hear the call to celebrate the blessings of new life offered through Jesus Christ.

The study for Lent and Easter in the Scriptures for the Church Seasons series is based upon the ...

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Overview

Blessings of the Cross invites you to explore God’s hope and presence presented in the scripture readings for Lent and Easter. Key Bible readings call us to praise God as we contemplate God’s redemption and new creation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the readings, we hear the call to celebrate the blessings of new life offered through Jesus Christ.

The study for Lent and Easter in the Scriptures for the Church Seasons series is based upon the Revised Common Lectionary scriptures for the church year, a three year cycle that includes readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles. Blessings of the Cross offers the opportunity to explore these Bible readings in a seven-session study. It will help you understand, appreciate, and participate in prayerful reflection and celebration of Lent and Easter and inspire you to live each day with God's blessings of life and salvation through Jesus Christ.

A seven-session leader’s guide is available for use in Sunday school classes or other small groups. A separate leader's guide is available written by Nan S. Duerling(order #9781426709180)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687466771
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2010
  • Series: Sftcs Series
  • Edition description: Student
  • Pages: 61
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT MARTIN WALKER is an ordained United Methodist minister and pastor of First Church of Round Hill in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of numerous books, including Encounters With the Living God, Politically Correct Parables, Politically Correct Old Testament Stories, You Might Be a United Methodist If . . . , Encounters on the Road to the Cross, The Jesus I Knew, You're Probably a United Methodist If...., and the Leader Guide for God's Care for Us: A Study of Ezekial in the Bible Reader Series. Walker also writes regularly for Adult Bible Studies and other publications.

Bob holds degrees from Yale Divinity School, Perkins School of Theology, and Southern Methodist University.

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First Chapter

Blessings of the Cross Student

A Lent Study Based on the Revised Common Lectionary
By Robert M. Walker

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-46677-1


Chapter One

The Blessings of Tests

Scriptures for Lent: The First Sunday Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

It is the rare person who welcomes tests. Whether the test is an exam taken in school or a trial of one's patience, most of us do what we can to avoid them. We avoid them because they cause anxiety or pain. Even medical tests are usually unpleasant. So how can tests offer blessings?

Tests can be blessings in disguise for two reasons. First, a test can point to what is wrong with us. Whether it is a character flaw or a disease, tests can reveal who we are and why we are suffering. Second, the tests and trials we face in life have the power to mold and shape our character.

Take a moment to reflect back on your life by asking yourself, What were the most defining moments that made me who I am? I will bet that many, if not all, of these moments are tests of some kind: a major loss survived, a defeat that taught you an important life lesson, a crisis that showed your resilience. In many cases, the difficult and challenging times have more to do with making us who we are than the good or easy times.

History is filled with examples of great persons facing tests and surviving them. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill struggled with depression. Beethoven composed some of his greatest symphonies after becoming deaf. Mother Teresa survived a crisis of faith in God. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to confront hatred, imprisonment, and violence in his ministry. The Scriptures for this first Sunday in Lent deal with tests that become defining moments in the lives of the characters in these stories.

In the story of Adam and Eve, we enter into a test of obedience that every one of us has faced and still faces. In Paul's words about Adam and Christ, we see how the consequences of Adam and Eve's test echoes through time and history. Finally, in the Gospel passage Jesus faces a daunting test at the beginning of his ministry.

A TEST OF OBEDIENCE GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7

* * *

Nearly everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. As children we likely heard this story in Sunday school, yet this is more than a simple children's story. This is an imaginative drama filled with suspense, fateful consequences, and theological depth.

We pick up this story in Genesis 2:15, after adam (a Hebrew word meaning "human" or "man") was placed in the garden of Eden. Note that the Hebrew word for "earth" is adama, reminding us that adam was formed "from the dust of the earth" (2:7). This first human is told by God to "till" and "keep" the garden. This role was not simply one of maintenance but one of being part of the creative process. Humans are to work with God's world as cocreators.

The garden was filled with beautiful trees that produced nourishing fruit. However, there were two trees mentioned by name in the middle of this garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). God gave the humans the freedom to eat of all of the trees in the garden except for one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why? Because eating of the fruit of this tree meant death. Since we know the ending of the story, we know that the death mentioned here was more than physical death. It included the "death" of harming one's relationship with God through disobedience.

When you think about it, the humans were given an amazing amount of freedom in the garden. They cold eat the fruit of every tree, even the tree of life. The only limitation on their freedom was this single prohibition.

The story continues in 3:1 with the introduction of a talking serpent. This was a wily and sly creature, as we will soon see. Notice that Eve ("the woman" in Hebrew) had no fear of the serpent. She was having a conversation with it. The leading question asked by the serpent was a clever one as it put Eve on the defensive. It asked whether God prohibited eating of any tree in the garden.

Eve's response was to set this know-it-all serpent right by quoting God's prohibition from 2:16-17. However, she added another prohibition to emphasize how dangerous it was to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: "Nor shall you touch it, or you shall die" (3:3b, emphasis added). It seems that Eve was trying to impress the serpent through this exaggeration. However, the serpent one-upped Eve by proclaiming that the man and woman would not die and that the reason for the prohibition was that God did not want them to be "like God, knowing good and evil." Therein lay the great temptation: to trust the serpent's word rather than God's.

The temptation was too irresistible for Eve. She looked at the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and saw that it was good for eating and "a delight to the eyes." Further, she believed the serpent's word that eating it would make her and her companion wise. So she succumbed and took a bite of the fruit and gave some to Adam, who ate as well.

It turned out that the serpent's words had some truth in them. Although they did not become wise or godlike, they soon realized that they were naked and therefore vulnerable. To cover/protect themselves, they made garments of fig leaves. The phrase that begins 3:7 is key: "Then the eyes of both were opened." In other words, they saw themselves, the world, and God differently.

Because of their disobedience, their relationship with God changed dramatically. Instead of having an open and trusting relationship, they were fearful. Instead of meeting with God directly, they hid from God like guilty children. The consequences God imposed upon each of them at the end of Chapter 3 were the natural consequences of the changed relationship: They had to leave the garden of Eden and make their own way in the world. "Death" in the story included estrangement, vulnerability, and fear.

In many ways, Adam and Eve's story is our story. We relive this story of freedom and limitation almost daily. When we are irresponsible with the exercise of our freedom, then it is inevitably curtailed. When we refuse to accept the limitations on our freedom, we face the consequences of this refusal.

Note that even though Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, God did not leave them. God's love for them did not change. What changed was their understanding and perception of God. Their act of disobedience was actually a betrayal of trust. They trusted the word of the serpent rather than the word of God.

There is an unbreakable connection between obedience and trust. The hymn "Trust and Obey" acknowledges this connection. To disobey one in authority—whether it is a parent, a boss, or God—is actually saying, "I don't trust you" or "I trust myself more than you." Disobedience is a breach of trust.

So how does a test of obedience offer blessings in disguise? Disobedience is a sign that something is wrong in a relationship. Like a medical test, disobedience exposes the cause of the problem. Disobedience is a diagnosis that something needs to be fixed in a relationship.

Paradoxically, disobedience can lead us to a renewed and deeper relationship with God. When we know we have done something wrong, the way to set things right is to admit it and accept responsibility for it. At that point, we open ourselves to receiving God's forgiveness. That forgiveness restores us to a right relationship with God and frees us for a relationship of trust.

In what ways do you identify with the choices of Adam and Eve in the garden?

When have you had to choose between obedience and doing what pleases you? What consequences have you faced for disobedience? How did it affect your relationships?

A GIFT OF GRACE ROMANS 5:12-19

* * *

Paul's Letter to the Romans is arguably the most theological of his letters. Perhaps it is because he had not yet visited Rome when he wrote this letter that he took great pains to explain fully the essence of the Christian faith.

As you read this passage, you will see how densely packed it is with theological arguments. However, the central message is simple: God's grace is more powerful than human sin.

Chapter 5 begins with Paul pointing to the results of justification by faith as an act of God's grace in Christ (verses 1-11). In verses 12-19, Paul continues to expand on the results of justification by contrasting Adam with Christ.

Adam represents humanity before Christ came. "Sin came into the world" through Adam's disobedience; and, as a result, death also came (verse 12). As in the Genesis story, death here is more than physical. It also describes a spiritual condition of alienation from God.

The function of the Law was to reveal sin. God's moral law, as given to Moses, made humanity aware of their sin (verse 13). Sin is what prevents humanity from realizing God's intentions for us.

Grace ("the free gift") is so much greater and more powerful than sin. In verse 15, Jesus Christ is identified as the supreme act of God's grace. Because of Jesus Christ, freedom from the bondage of sin and death is now possible. Just as sin leads to condemnation and alienation from God, grace leads to justification and reconciliation with God (verse 16). Just as spiritual death is the result of sin, so "the abundance of grace" leads to new life through faith in Jesus Christ (verse 17).

As the representative of the old humanity, Adam exemplifies disobedience, the essence of sin. In Christ's life of obedience is the beginning of a new possibility for humanity: justification and new life (verses 18-19). So the contrast between Adam and Christ is complete. Adam represents disobedience, sin, and death. Christ is the "new Adam," who exemplifies obedience, justification, and grace.

In my life, I have felt the power of this amazing grace many times. I have felt it in the experience of forgiveness after I have hurt another person by my words or actions. I have experienced grace in a hike through the lush forests of Connecticut and have seen the awesome God-created beauty surrounding me. The experience of grace is like receiving a gift I do not feel I deserve. The definitions of grace that I have heard underline its gift-like character: undeserved forgiveness, unmerited favor, unconditional love.

The experience of grace can be an overwhelming experience. John Wesley's Aldersgate conversion in 1738 was such an experience, he wrote in his journal that he felt his "heart strangely warmed" because he deeply felt God's grace through forgiveness of his sins. Grace has the ability to warm our hearts and ignite our souls.

One of my favorite quotes on the experience of grace comes from twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich. He wrote:

"Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of an empty and meaningless life. It strikes us when we feel our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when ... our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear ... when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, 'You are accepted. You are accepted' "

The experience of being totally accepted is rare and powerful. We know how painful the opposite of acceptance is. To be rejected, especially by someone we love, hurts deeply. When a relationship ends with a rejection, it seems more painful than an ending by mutual agreement.

The experience of total acceptance is a life-changing experience. When have you experienced unconditional acceptance? From a baby you are holding in your arms and seeing the total trust he or she has in you? from a spouse who forgives you for a wrong that you deserve to be rejected for? from a grandparent who loved you no matter what you did? This experience of total and unconditional acceptance is at the heart of God's grace in Christ.

When we become aware that we have received God's grace as a free gift, everything changes. We know deep down that we are forgiven and loved. We have a new relationship with God, one characterized by trust and obedience. We see our fellow human beings in a new way: as children of God and therefore as our brothers and sisters. Indeed, grace is stronger than sin, stronger than rejection, and stronger than death!

What is your favorite definition of grace? Why? When have you experienced the power of God's grace in your life?

When have you experienced unconditional love? How did this experience of unconditional love change you?

A TEST OF FAITHFULNESS MATTHEW 4:1-11

* * *

How often it is that tests and trials follow high moments of spiritual fulfillment. At the end of Matthew 3 is the story of Jesus' baptism (verses 13-17). After being baptized by John, a heavenly voice proclaimed, "This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Yet this moment of fullness of Spirit and divine affirmation was followed by Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.

Note that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness (4:1), the same Spirit that was present and filled Jesus at his baptism. This time of testing was essential for Jesus to understand his messianic vocation and mission. The Greek word for "temptation" also means "trial" or "test." The temptation in the wilderness would indeed be a test of Jesus' trust in God.

Jesus' forty days of fasting remind us of the forty days of the Flood, the forty years of the Exodus, Moses' forty-day fast, as well as Elijah's fast. Remember that Lent is a forty-day season (excluding Sundays, which are "in" rather than "of" Lent), based on the length of time Jesus was tested in the wilderness.

After being weakened by a forty-day fast, the tempter came to Jesus to put him through the first of three tests. These temptations represent categories of tests that all of us face: using our power for self-gratification, putting God's love to the test, and giving our allegiance to evil rather than to God. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews observes, "For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

The first test Jesus faced was to satisfy his hunger. Remember that he was "famished" by the forty-day fast. At first glance, what would be wrong with Jesus feeding himself? At some point he would need to eat, so why not then? Yet the test was whether Jesus would satisfy his hunger by miraculously turning stones into bread at the tempter's command. He passed this first test by refusing to do so and quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 in support.

In the second test, Jesus was placed on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, the highest point for miles. There he was challenged by the tempter to throw himself down to show his trust that God would save him. Showing that even the devil could quote Scripture, he recited Psalm 91:11-12. Again, what was wrong with trusting God to save him? On the cross, he placed his fate in God's hands. However, the test was whether Jesus would put God's providence to the test at the command of the tempter.

Jesus was taken to another high place—a mountain top—to face the third and final test. There, he was shown "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" (Matthew 4:8) by the tempter. Jesus was offered power over all these kingdoms if he would submit to worshiping the tempter. Jesus refused this by telling Satan to leave him and quoted Deuteronomy 6:13. The tempter left him "suddenly"; and, just as with Elijah, angels came to give him nourishment and strength (Matthew 4:11).

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Blessings of the Cross Student by Robert M. Walker Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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