Getting into Lent

A sermon more or less from worship at a little Southern Indiana church this past Sunday, on Luke 4:1-13.

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Lent can sneak up on us … it was just Christmas, and then already the VFW is making Mardi Gras food and Jay C has paczkis in the bakery section, and here we are reading about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness AGAIN,

Because literally EVERY YEAR on the first Sunday in Lent the list of scripture texts churches have been using for at least the last 30 years has one or the other of the gospel stories of the temptation of Christ.

So we’re already five days into Lent. Although technically the Sundays during this season of the church year are not part of Lent … Did we know that? If we count them up, the 40 days of Lent don’t include the Sundays! Because – every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a celebration of Christ’s new life and of the good news that we share that new life with Jesus because of our baptism into Christ.

So just in case we were thinking Oh, no, Lent – because a lot of people feel that way about Lent, think of Lent as a dismal dreary depressing church season, when we’re supposed to be thinking about how bad we are – on Sundays we’re reminded that even in the midst of the season of Lent we have a lot, we have plenty, to celebrate.

But my hope this morning is to encourage everyone to get into Lent this year, not to miss out on it. Because it’s tempting just to ignore Lent, especially if we think of it as dismal, dreary, & depressing; but I want to encourage us to think of it as kind of exciting season of the church year, and honestly also a really hopeful one, one that’s worth getting into.

It might help to know that in the early church, Lent was a really exciting time. In those days, almost everyone was baptized as an adult, and people would prepare for baptism with about a year’s worth of instruction in the faith, and then Lent was the most intense phase of that preparation, the last 40 days before the main event, which would take place at Easter vigil, the night before Easter. So the catechumens, the trainees, would be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and then on Easter Sunday morning they would celebrate Easter and new life with the whole church. So, those early Christians participated in a very dramatic re-enactment and reinforcement of the idea that in baptism Christians get to share in a living hope, good news, new life in Christ – and also Christ’s mission of liberating humanity from sin and death. It was a big thing.

It’s still a big thing, in fact, and this story, that we read EVERY YEAR in church on the first Sunday in Lent, can help us see that, because in fact there is a lot more going on in this story than “temptation.”

Like: The leading of the Holy Spirit – which always lets us know that something BIG is about to happen, especially in the gospel of Luke – something big is about to happen whenever the Holy Spirit gets involved, like Mary is about to become the Mother of Jesus, or a voice from heaven is about to announce that Jesus is God’s beloved son, or the church about to be born on Pentecost, always, in the gospel of Luke, or in the book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit is involved something BIG is getting ready to happen.

And this time, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness … and if we remember all the things we know about the wilderness from the Bible … and that could be a lot, because “the wilderness” is one of those places that shows up over and over again in the Bible … we will realize that “the wilderness,” too, is a place where big things happen.

Just think:

Where was Moses when he met God in the burning bush? The wilderness.

Where were the people of Israel when God spoke to them in fire and smoke from a mountain and gave them the 10 Commandments and all the instructions of the Torah? The wilderness.

Where was Elijah when he went through a storm and an earthquake and a fire and finally heard God in a still small voice? The wilderness.

That’s not to mention David, or the redeemed exiles from Babylonia, etc. etc.

Seriously, the wilderness is really The Place in the Bible where people meet God, get close to God, learn from God, and sometimes to get in shape for some mission that’s on the horizon. So of course the Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness as he’s getting ready to begin his ministry …

Because even though we probably think of the wilderness as austere, as a place where people have to do without things like food and water and comfy beds – I admit, I think of it as like backpacking, and it’s not something I would sign up for – that getting away from distractions and luxuries and anything that gets between us and God is exactly what the wilderness is good for.

Still, it might surprise us to think of the wilderness as the place people spend time with God, because when WE think of the wilderness, we are likely to think of a place where people are all alone. Sometimes we even have that idea about this text, we imagine Jesus is all alone in the wilderness, except for the devil …

Even though we just read that the Holy Spirit is leading him out there …

And even though, if we think about that for a minute, we know that can’t be true. We know that God is everywhere. We know there’s no place or time without God. We know that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God …

So we have to know that idea, that Jesus is all alone out there, away from God … that has to be a lie.

Although the devil in the story definitely does seem to suggest that … with his “IF you’re the Son of God …” and with his “all these kingdoms of the world are mine, you don’t see God anywhere in there, do you?” and his “you need some good hard evidence …”

Which is exactly how the devil in the Bible always operates, we can check this out, always operates by trying to get people to believe lies are true. And if we think about it, I think we will see that just about all the misery and suffering and sin in the world does have its root in someone’s taking a lie as truth. 

And that particular lie, that the austerity of the wilderness means God is out of the picture, that this is a time or a place or a condition beyond the reach of God’s love and care, a place where God isn’t – that’s a really dangerous lie, even though it can be easy to take it seriously in the wilderness.

Because when life is not comfortable; or when we are doing without, when we are facing challenges or hardships – it does get easier for us to think God is absent. This is another reason it might be hard to recognize the wilderness as the place people get close to God. Because we might think of the wilderness as a place people get disconnected from God, a place where it is easy to get lost.

And there’s some truth in that. It’s why, in the wilderness, we need a map, and a compass, or a guide, someone with great vision, wisdom, someone who knows the territory.

Someone like Jesus, seriously, because we see him respond to the devil’s attempts to confuse and panic him with terrific clarity, fresh in the knowledge that he is God’s beloved son, supported by scripture and the wisdom to know how it does and doesn’t fit his situation, NOT needing to conjure up some kind of proof that God is with him, NOT getting distracted by appearances to the contrary, NOT needing to demonstrate that God is “for” him or caring for him, grounded in a really solid awareness of God’s presence, whether anyone else can see it or not … and a clear sense of mission, too, his mission of liberating humanity from sin and death, which this time in the wilderness is on the way to …

If we ever find ourselves in the wilderness, Jesus would keep us from getting lost.

Actually, even if we’re not in the wilderness. Because we probably know that we don’t have to be in the wilderness to get lost, or anyhow, get off course.

True story, the first time I came down here … [There follows a story about driving to small towns along state roads in Harrison County, Indiana, that makes sense and is funny – and I have evidence to this effect – IF you know that the way to get to this one particular town is to turn right at a place where I confidently, thinking I knew exactly what I was doing, turned left and headed for a totally different place. But if you don’t know anything about Harrison County, Indiana, it probably makes a lot less sense and is way less funny. Just sayin.]

Fortunately, I repented in time, and got headed back in the right direction.

Which brings us back to Lent. Which is much less about how bad we are, and much more a time to pause and look around and check to see whether we’re on course, and if not, a chance to notice that and get headed back in the right direction – that is, the direction of Jesus, of God, and of Easter.

It’s why Lent famously has been a time for Christians to undertake spiritual practices or recommit to familiar practices that turn our attention back to Christ,

Practices like meditating on scripture – reading the Bible and spending some additional time with it, wondering about it, thinking over what that says and what that means.

Or like spending more time in prayer – especially, what for some of us is a little different kind of prayer, not only the kind where we pray for God to heal someone we know who is sick, or to be with someone who is suffering, but the kind where we are silent and attentive, listening for God, leaving space for God to work on us, in quiet.

Or like fasting, which can be a kind of spiritual housecleaning, that helps us clear away some of our attachments to preoccupations that gets in the way of our actual turning towards God.

Henri Nouwen has a couple of prayers for Lent that put the ways we get off course, and this need to follow Jesus as a guide through this time, into words – this is something of a “mash up” of those:

The Lenten season begins. How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.

I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.

I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life. I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are not times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.

Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me. Amen.

Henry Nouwen; mostly the text of “A Lenten Prayer” which is available all over the place, for instance in Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings (Crossroad Press), but with a little bit of the prayer for Ash Wednesday from A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (Doubleday, 1981).

There really is something big, and exciting, going on in the season of Lent. It may be a season “in the wilderness,” but it’s a wilderness where we get closer and closer to God; where we get better and better at following the lead of the Holy Spirit; where we follow Jesus towards Holy Week, and Easter. It’s meant to be a journey in the direction of that Easter hope.

Since we don’t actually live in the wilderness, but in Southern Indiana, where there are real seasons, we can feel the hope in the world around us, the literal hope of spring, as the days getting a little sunnier one after the other, as the temperature gets a little warmer day after day, as the daffodils start blooming, the forsythia comes out, spring starts to arrive …

And if we have been around the church year a few times, we know that up ahead is the hope of Easter, which is a great hope indeed. And ultimately, because of Easter, a hope for a better world in this world, and a hope for an even better world beyond this one.

Lent is a time for turning towards that great hope, and for preparing ourselves to work for it in all the ways we can in our own lives wherever we are. So let’s not miss this season, let’s get into it, let’s enjoy the lengthening days and the warming temperatures, and let’s set our sights on choosing, with Jesus, to move confidently in the direction of that new life.

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Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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