Saturday, February 20, 2010

The First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2010

Luke 4:1-13

Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.

Do you know how it feels when you’re just starting out on a vacation? The planning is done, the laundry is finished, the packing is taken care of, the dog is boarded, the mail is stopped, the lights are off, the doors are locked, and finally you are on your way, filled with sweet anticipation. That’s sort of where we are now in our church year as we enter into our Lenten journey: Epiphany’s passed, the palms are burned, the ashes smudged on our foreheads to remind us of our common humanity, and our shared mortality, and we’ve set our faces towards Jerusalem, pledging to keep a holy Lent.

Only, only that anticipation we feel? It may not be so sweet. It may in fact be tinged with a bit of dread, a sense of “let’s hurry up and get this over with.” We’ve described Lent as a long, dark journey, a time of sorrow and repentance, a time for taking up a discipline to help us turn back to God, and it may feel like it’s going to be a looonng six weeks.

But as we undertake our Lenten journey, it’s a good time to add a cautionary note, a reminder that may lighten those that Lenten anxiety that sometimes grips us. For despite our emphasis on penitence and on discipline, we need to remember Lent is not about feeling guilty or inadequate, and it’s not about being able to stick to some sort of self-deprivation just to prove to ourselves, or to others, that we can. Instead, as somber as it is, Lent—and all those things we undertake during Lent—should be a means of turning back to God, renewing our faith, remembering God’s abiding and ever-present for love for us, and taking up the hard work of discipleship. And our readings during Lent help us with this task.

On the first Sunday in Lent each year we hear the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and this year we hear Luke’s version. Just as Matthew and Mark do, Luke tells us that Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days and while he is there he is tempted by the evil one, the one we call the devil. “Tempted” is the word used in most translations, but really, “tested” may better convey what Jesus experienced. We’re tempted by the candy bars merchandisers skillfully place by the check out counters, by the pull of our favorite clothing store in the mall, or by the lure of the next new electronic gadget—we all understand that kind of temptation, but what the devil dangled in front of Jesus –well, let’s just say the stakes were considerably higher. All three of the tests the devil presented to Jesus ultimately had to do with what kind of a Son of God, what kind of a messiah he would be; all three of them had to do with earthly power and might, all three had to do with the how Jesus would live into the vocation given him at his baptism.

The first temptation has to do with food. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus is near starvation. The very thought of bread must have filled him with overwhelming desire. But rather than succumbing, rather than turning the stones into bread, Jesus recalls how God provided manna for the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness to demonstrate that humans do not live by bread alone,. Next the devil offers Jesus power and dominion over all the nations of the earth, if only he will worship the evil one—and wouldn’t that be a good thing, if Jesus were in charge instead of the Romans? But again recalling the travails of his ancestors, Jesus responds with the words Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land, “Worship the Lord, your God, and serve him” for it is from the Lord that all has come, and to whom all power belongs. Finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple, and urges him to jump off, for if he is truly the son of God a thousand angels would surely rush in to save him. One more time Jesus returns to the story of the Israelites about to enter their new home and repeats Moses’ words to them, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus resists the temptations set in front of him by the devil; he “passes” the tests by resisting the urgings of the evil one to turn away from God, to take for himself power and might, and to test, to push the limits of his Father’s love and care. Ultimately, in passing up these temptations, Jesus has demonstrated once and for all his absolute reliance on the trustworthiness of God’s love. Jesus didn’t need the presence of thousands of angels rushing him to save him in midair to demonstrate the power of God. Filled by the power of the Spirit in baptism, Jesus trusted in the unassailable care and presence of God for all, the same care and presence of God that carried all the way through to the resurrection, Christ’s victory over death and human sin, the ultimate show of God’s power and love.

We often hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a model for us in resisting the temptations of our world, temptations that can take us away from God and God’s will for us—and it can surely serve as such a model. But I think the message of this story is even larger than that, even more powerful than that. Just as Jesus trusted completely and without reservation in the power and goodness of God, just as he trusted completely and without reservation in God’s care and provision without the need to test the limits of that care and provision, so too can we trust in God’s power, God’s love, God’s provision for us. We do not need to test God’s love for us; we can rest assured that even when we cannot see it, even when we cannot feel it, it is there. We do not have to earn it, we do not have to “deserve” it; it is there.

As we move through Lent, as we walk that road towards the cross with Jesus, as we seek to reorient ourselves towards God through our Lenten disciplines, may we rest securely in the assurance of God’s unassailable love and care for us, now and for ever.


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