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"The Servant Song" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on March 10, 2019 by Kathy Miller

The Servant Song

(1st Sunday in Lent)

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

Then 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, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’


‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.



Lent requires a strange kind of calculus. When done correctly, this high-level math can lead you to the perfect Lenten practice, so it’s worth spending some time on, but it’s also a little convoluted, so see if you can follow. To begin, you’ll need a piece of paper, a ruler, and something to write with. Using the ruler, you’ll need to draw a line down the middle of the page (I suppose you could do this without a ruler, but then it’s unlikely that the line would be straight …  so … ). Once you have your line, you’ll need to label the left side of the paper Column A and the right side Column B.

In Column A, you want to list all of the various Lenten disciplines you’ve come across that sound even a little bit appealing to you. Some examples might include fasting, prayer, simplifying, meditation, giving up a particular food or beverage or pastime, you get the idea. In Column B, you want to list all of the New Year’s Resolutions you haven’t gotten to but would still like to—for example, exercising more regularly or eating a more healthy diet; perhaps decreasing clutter or the amount you yell at family members, again, you get the idea.

Once you have Column A and Column B, you want to compare the two lists and see if there are commonalities or points of connection. This is more of an art than a science. For example, if in column B you listed eat a more healthy diet, you might connect that with fasting or giving up a particular food or beverage in Column A. If Column B contained “declutter,” you might connect that with “simplify” in Column A. You get the picture.

Assuming you’ve found some connections, the next step involves ranking each pairing based on the amount of effort it will require, 1 being something that will essentially take care of itself and 10 being something that is doomed to fail. Once you have those numbers, you want to flip the first sheet of paper over and make a list of the other stuff you’ve got going on in your life right now (jobs you’re expected to show up for, families members you have to feed and care for, church committees you’ve agreed to be on, you get the picture). Once you’ve made this 3rd list, you need to assign a number to the amount of energy you have to commit to this Lenten practice.

Now, take this second number and go back to your first two lists and compare this new number with the numbers you’ve written down next to each pairing on the first page. Whichever number is closest contains your Lenten discipline for the season. Should you have more than one match, you can either choose one you like or do eeny-meeny-miny-moe. (What? You’re telling me you didn’t use eeny-meeny-miny-moe in your high school calculus class? It’s wrong to lie to your pastor.)


Okay, so it’s possible I made that equation up this week, but, if you’re anything like me, what I’ve just described probably isn’t too far from the truth. We’re a self-help, do-it-yourself kind of culture and with Lent coming just far enough after New Year’s that we’ve had a chance to abandon our annual resolutions, choosing a Lenten discipline that aligns with our own self-improvement plans is as obvious as to be almost intuitive—something we likely do without even realizing it. After all, what’s wrong with fasting for Jesus while losing weight for yourself? Or giving things away to charity while also cutting back on the amount of clutter you have to clean up every week? Two birds, one stone.


Every year at the beginning of Lent, we read the story of Jesus being driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit where he spends 40 days fasting and being tempted by the devil. When the forty days are up, we are told of three particular tests the devil puts before him.

Forty days fasting in the desert while resisting temptations. This is the model we are given for the Lenten season. Surely we cannot be blamed for thinking this is a season in which we are called to give up whatever tempts us the most, a season in which we should deprive ourselves (or better ourselves) so that we too might be able to withstand such temptations. After all, Jesus said ‘follow me’ and we lift him up as the model, the example; surely we should strive to do as he did.

Except that Jesus hasn’t yet said “follow me.” His time in the desert comes immediately after his baptism and before he starts his ministry. He hasn’t called any disciples or issued an invitation to follow. And so I think we need to be careful not to confuse a story that is essentially about who Jesus is and what kind of Messiah he will be with a story that is meant to be an example or model for us. Jesus himself will tell those stories later on in the gospels, but here at the beginning, when we are hearing stories about Jesus rather than by him, what we’re hearing are stories about who Jesus is and what Jesus will be about. One of the ways in which the gospel of Luke helps to make this clear is by putting this morning’s text after a long genealogy (a long list of who Jesus is related to that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden). Luke is establishing Jesus’ pedigree and lineage. He is making clear who Jesus is and where he has come from. And, with this morning’s text, Luke tells us something about what kind of Messiah Jesus is going to be.

Jesus’ temptations in the desert are not temptations of self-control. Yes, he is hungry and so turning stones to bread probably would have been appealing, but there’s more going on here. The temptations Jesus faces in the deserts are actually questions of trust—in whom is Jesus going to place his trust. Will Jesus take the devil up on his offer and command kingdoms to obey him and make bread appear with the snap of his finger and allow angels to wait on him? Surely doing so would benefit Jesus’ ministry. How many more hungry people could Jesus feed if he could turns stones to bread? How many more oppressed people could be liberated if Jesus controlled the political powers of his time? How many more people could he heal if he had angels working for him? What the devil offers Jesus in the wilderness is an alternative way in which to go about his ministry—a way that would surely lead to a greater impact and might even have kept Jesus off the cross. Jesus is here given the choice between trusting that God has given him what is needed to accomplish the work that is to be done or taking a shortcut that seems like it will be more successful. 

It is a choice that, once made, reveals who Jesus is and what Jesus will be about. But it is not the question that is placed before us at the beginning of each Lenten season. The question placed before each of us is not will we follow Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil, but will we go with Jesus to the cross?

Are we willing to allow our own ideas about what is right and good die? Are we willing to sacrifice our own desires and interests in order to follow God’s plan? Are we willing to give up our own illusions of control in service to a gospel that frequently feels foolish and irrelevant?


It is fitting then that Stephen Ministry Sunday should fall on the first Sunday of Lent. If you’re not familiar with it, Stephen Ministry is a ministry of one-to-one care. A Stephen Minister is trained to come alongside someone and be a caring companion—someone who will listen, someone who will show up. They won’t do your laundry for you, but they’ll check in with you, keep your confidences, give you space to say or process whatever is happening in your life right now. It is a ministry that requires a great deal of humility. And I don’t mean on the part of the Stephen Ministers, although that is a quality many Stephen Ministers possess or practice. No, the humility I am referring to is the humility required to ask for a Stephen Minister or to accept one when one is offered. After all, we are (or at least often strive to be) a self-sufficient people. We want to help others, not accept help ourselves. Besides, when compared with the struggles and challenges of others, whatever we’re dealing with is small potatoes.

Add to that the challenge of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with someone else, to let down our guard and trust that this person who we likely do not know very well but surely will see in church on a regular basis will not judge us, will not share the juicy details of our lives with someone else, and it is no wonder that there are not many people who ask for a Stephen Minister for themselves. For someone else, of course. For ourselves, not necessary.

And yet, Lent is a time when we’re called to be honest about our humanity, our limitations. It is a season that reminds us that discipleship involves not only helping others but accepting help ourselves. Because often, it is when we accept help that we’re able to take the next step toward who God is calling us to be. It is accepting help that we allow those offering help to be the caregivers God is calling them to be. And it is in accepting help that we become a community known for our ability to care for and support one another.

So this Lent, instead of trying to improve yourself, instead of denying yourself or practicing your self-control, consider finding ways to ask for and accept help. For when you do so, you allow all of us to embody what it means to be the Body of Christ not only in the world but also in this place. Amen.

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