Lent asks us to go back to the beginning.
Even though we’ve been reading the gospel of Matthew since the first of the year, we are backtracking now to a time before Jesus’ ministry began, to witness a time of testing by the devil (in Greek, the word means, “the Adversary,” the one who’s against you).
(Scripture can be found here...)
And whether we have considered ourselves Christians for months, years, or decades (or minutes), Lent asks us, again, to make the choice to follow Jesus.
On Wednesday night, about 50 of us gathered in the sanctuary to hear the invitation to a holy Lent, this season that prepares us for Easter:
* We were invited to pray… to open ourselves to God’s presence.
* We were invited to fast… a discipline that is not only about food, but which can also be useful for such things as anger and unnecessary spending.
* We were invited to perform acts of love… always easiest to do when you are talking about family, friends, the people we already know we love. Much harder to do for the stranger.
Lent asks us to go back to the beginning, to practices that open us to God’s work in us and through us.
Lent also asks us to enter the wilderness.
And before you get out your tent and your backpack and your compass/ GPS, it’s good to remember there are many kinds of wilderness. There is the wilderness of the great outdoors, awe-inspiring, at times frightening and humbling. The place where beauty looks like El Capitan in Yosemite or Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca, and where fear looks like being lost, or being injured by accident, or being harmed by human or animal or climate. That’s one kind of wilderness.
There’s another kind of wilderness, the internal kind, and it’s short on beauty and long on fear and anxiety.
Lent asks us to enter the wilderness. And while for some of us that may be accompanied by encounters with nature, for most of us, it means an encounter with our own human nature.
I’d like to pause at this moment to remind us, that the Spirit who leads Jesus—and us—into the wilderness, was last seen hovering over Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, while God’s words, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” echoed over the Jordan River.
We are asked to go back to the beginning, because that is the way through the wilderness.
The Adversary asks Jesus to consider three scenarios: One in which he overcomes hunger—really, starvation (it’s been forty days)—by miraculous means; one in which he invites God to save his life by miraculous means, after he jumps off a cliff; and one in which he worships, not God, but his Adversary, in return for all kinds of power and goodies.
Jesus considers the scenarios, and then he goes back to the beginning, and he concludes that these are temptations.
New Testament professor Karoline Lewis describes Jesus’ temptations this way:
To satisfy your own hungers when millions go hungry. To insist that God’s loyalty and promises need to be tested on a regular basis. To choose the power that the world values over obedience to God.[i]
The good professor also lays out several surprising temptations that are particularly tantalizing to Christians who are observing Lent.
The temptation to better ourselves.
The temptation to insist that Lent is all about us.
The temptation to believe that your individual walk matters more than how you can walk with others.
The temptation to believe that a lack of proper self-sacrifice this Lent could likely lead to a salvific downfall.[ii]
We need to go back to the beginning.
“You are my beloved child; in you I am well-pleased.” God whispered these words for each of us on the day of our baptism. These are not the words of a God who wants us tied up in knots, convinced of our unworthiness or sure that what is required of us is to become cookie-cutter disciples, convinced that, we are saved by our own efforts.
This is a God who wants to pour love into us, not so that we can be receptacles, but so that we will be conduits. Not so that we can be sure we are ok, but so that we can take care to see that others are ok. Not to give us a pat on the back, but so that we will be inspired to give someone else a pat on the back, or a hand up, or help getting back on their feet.
Jesus doesn't turn stones to bread to ease his hunger pangs; he turns bread into more bread, to ease the hunger pangs of thousands.
Jesus doesn’t throw himself off a cliff to show that God will catch him. Jesus lays his hands on the suffering to show that God has caught them, and will not let them go.
Jesus doesn’t bow down to the Adversary so as to gain power. Jesus relinquishes everything… home, security, safety, in the end, his own life and breath, so that the power of God might be unleashed through him… on behalf of a world in pain.
Jesus goes back to the beginning: He remembers God’s promises, and he trusts in them, and he reminds himself and the Adversary: That God is a God of love and care, not to be tested, but to be worshiped. Jesus goes back to the beginning, and in so doing, finds his way through the wilderness.
God is a God of love and care, not to be tested, but to be worshiped.
God is a God who entrusts us, not to a project of self-preservation, but to a ministry of caring and compassion.
God is the God who has called us beloved children.
There is nothing to earn this Lent. There are only our own hearts to open.
There is nothing to prove this Lent. There are only the things that make us forgetful of God’s love, to fast from.
There is no one to judge this Lent. There are only acts of love, love that has been poured into us, to be poured out again.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Choice Temptations,” Dear Working Preacher, February 26, 2017, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4829.