First Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
I saw something posted on Facebook last month that said, “January was a tough year, but we made it.” That’s usually how the week leading up to the first Sunday in Lent feels to me. We have had a flurry of events that remind us of the cycle of the church year. We started with Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras with a great feast and celebration while raising money for a very good cause. Then Wednesday we gathered to have our foreheads marked with ash and to be reminded of our humanity, of our inescapable mortality. We also do this to grieve the state of our broken relationship with God, or maybe we would like to call it, ‘a work in progress’. We were invited by the Church to the, “observance of a Holy Lent” and our forty day journey began. On Friday we began marking that special day, which during Lent we commemorate, the day on which Jesus was crucified, with a service of the stations of cross. We walk with Jesus on the Via Della Rosa to Golgotha and remember the sacrifice made.
So we are now four days into Lent, and our first Sunday in Lent has come. Today in our Gospel we move back in the narrative lectionary to right after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Right before the reading today, at the end of the third chapter of Luke, the action that takes place is Jesus coming up out of the water, and God declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son. As we bring baptism back to mind, consider the parallels we have in our liturgy, when at baptism and confirmation we are sealed on the forehead with oil, in the shape of a cross to be marked as Christ’s own; and on Ash Wednesday, when it is time for us to be driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God for forty days, we are marked again on our foreheads like at baptism in the shape of a cross, this time with the grit of ash instead of the smooth gentle drop of oil. We are called to a time of self examination, of repentance, of setting the foundation of faith in our hearts and minds.
These days it seems like the idea of giving things up for Lent has re-entered common culture. There was a time when it was the standard for everyone, but then again so was being a part of the One Holy Roman Church. Over the centuries the observance of Lent, especially in this country, became lost to culture, especially American mainline Protestant Evangelicals. Now you see it more in media, hear about it on the news, and definitely see something about it on Facebook. Many non-liturgical churches even observe Lent in some way, giving a bit more tradition and lifestyle to their message. It’s almost, dare I say it, become so ordinary of a conversation topic, that the focus of our Lent becomes the golden calf of the giving something up and less learning how to put our trust in God.
Now, a quick disclaimer, I am not belittling or setting aside the practice of giving things up for Lent. I think that in the full and rich history of our faith and tradition it has its place. I think that when done in the right mindset can be very beneficial. However, I also think that like many religious traditions the action often loses its meaning and theological significance, and we simply do things because that’s what we do.
So let me ask a question. Who stops eating chocolate for good after Lent? Who continues to struggle with that same Lenten discipline of self-denial for the rest of their lives? I don’t know very many people, if any, that would fall into that category. Quite the opposite actually, I’ve talked with people who are exquisitely relishing the moment on Easter morning when they can binge on whatever it is they have given up for Lent. I wonder then, if the penitential act of self-denial isn’t so much about punishment, but about changing your life.
The Spirit of God didn’t lead Jesus into the wilderness for forty days so he could prove he could give up meat on Fridays. His time in the desert was one of great transformation; of life changing transformation. In the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin in earnest until he has been baptized, spent his time in the desert and returned, as Luke puts it, “filled with the power of the Spirit.” In the midst of this desert time, Jesus faced tests: to observe the frailty of his humanity; to be tempted in the essence of his divinity. And he returned to Galilee changed.
This story shows that temptation hits us when we are weak. Temptation waits until we are at our most vulnerable before offering us the easy way out. For Jesus this was for food, for survival, for power. The deceiver offers Jesus a path to kingship that doesn’t include the cross. But Jesus knows better. We are often tempted to these same things. Tempted to plenty. Tempted to power. Certainly tempted to survival. But Jesus teaches us that our only righteous path is to put our faith in God. To have faith that the work we have to do is indeed worth it.
Even after the wilderness, even after Jesus goes on to do miracles, to teach, to be transfigured and gain a following, the deceiver comes back. Luke tells us that when the deceiver is rebuffed by Jesus in the wilderness, there is a retreat and waiting for the opportune time. That might be Judas’ betrayal, that might be when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The point is our work in Lent, whether we give something up or not, isn’t about proving we can suffer minor inconveniences to remember Jesus’ suffering, it is about taking actions that show we put our trust fully in God and to the work God calls us as followers.
So here’s my challenge to you. Make this Lent one of life changing transformation. Make it count. Be present and intentional in whatever discipline you decide to take on. Use this time to reset or shore up the foundation of your spiritual life; of your relationship with God, and your relationships with the people around you. Don’t give something up for Lent because that’s what you do. In fact, don’t give anything up at all if that isn’t going to help you grow. Personally, I usually don’t give any one particular thing up for Lent anymore. My practice is instead to begin reshaping my life, putting my mind back to God. To use this time to once again refocus. Let’s be honest, life happens. We get busy, we get distracted, because we are human we fail at leading that perfect life. So for me it is a reminder to clear it all away, to start intentionally rebuilding and repairing every part of my spiritual life, hopefully to make a lasting impression on myself. I don’t expect that I will ever fully arrive at that perfect life; in fact I don’t think that is possible in our human existence. But, we are given the opportunity to always strive a little more. To change, to grow, and to continue throughout our life, reshaping what that looks like.
So let me leave you with this. When you, in forty days, emerge from the desert, will you be forever changed? Will you have made a difference in your life? Will you have done what was needed to prepare your heart and mind for that Easter vision, for the Risen and Triumphant Christ? Will you be ready to set to work in the ministries you are called, filled with the Holy Spirit? That is my prayer and my hope. That each of you will find something in this desert time to prepare the way of the Lord.