This is the first Sunday in Lent.
The first Sunday of our journey to Jerusalem. A time for reflection and contemplation about what it means to be the people of God. In the early church Lent was a time of preparation… those who wanted to be baptized on Easter Sunday entered into their final 40 days of learning and testing, and it may have included fasting to symbolize the 40 days that Jesus spent being tested in the desert.
Although this 40 day period of preparation was originally intended for those preparing for baptism, in time many church members voluntarily undertook for their own self-discipline this 40 days of penitence and fasting, reflecting on their baptismal vows and at Easter joining with the catechumens in renewing their baptismal promises. (Whole People of God 2007)
Today Lent offers us the same opportunity for reflection and renewal, for testing and temptation… for seeking and listening. Some of you are quickly calculating and saying to yourselves… hey, wait a minute, if there are six weeks of Lent that is already 42 days and Lent started on Ash Wednesday so that is a few more, what’s with this number 40! And you will be right! The 40 days of Lent are counted without the Sundays… unlike the season of Advent before Christmas, in Lent, we do not count the Sundays. I am not sure if it is because the early church leaders knew that six weeks of unrelenting fasting and testing would be too much for people, or whether it is part of our Hebrew heritage to keep the Sabbath holy and worship God. Not necessarily with solemn faces and hearts, but with joyous hearts as we focus on preparing to be disciples of Christ.
Listen to Jesus experience of being tested in the wilderness as written in Matthew 4: 1-11:
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every wood that comes from the mouth of God.'” 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The reading from Matthew occurs right after Jesus’ baptism… a high moment in his life… where he was full of the Holy Spirit… And just after that high point, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days… It’s not the kind of thing that we usually envision the Holy Spirit doing is it… We usually picture the Holy Spirit as empowering and encouraging us… not sending us out into the wilderness to wrestle with the devil…
Picture yourself in the wilderness… How do you feel… are you cold… are you hot… do you have shelter of any sort… Are there animals in this wilderness… This is what Jesus experienced… Jesus was human… just like us he knew hunger and thirst and pain and sorrow… Perhaps hunger bothered him the first few days… but after about a week he didn’t notice it anymore… He is totally focused on deepening his relationship with God… To honouring the voice heard at his baptism… The voice that told him he was a beloved child of God…That same voice that is said to us at our baptism… that we are beloved children of God.
Jesus was preparing to begin his public ministry… But… before heading out into the world to preach his message of love and justice he needed to know what kind of person he was… And in order to do that, he had to wrestle with his own temptations to do good by doing bad… The things the devil tempted him with were not bad in themselves… turning stones into bread could feed a hungry world… Authority over cities and nations could give him the power to effect positive change… trusting in God’s protection… But all of that would come at a price… if only he would renounce his God and worship Satan… And Jesus, wise as he was, knew that anything gained through methods like this would be tainted and ultimately doomed…
The wilderness held great wisdom for Jesus and it can hold great wisdom for us… but only if we are willing to enter it. He emerged from the 40 days ready to try and create a more beautiful world… to fill in the cracks with the shimmering treasure of love and acceptance and community.
James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, wrote, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your identity. This is why habits are crucial. They cast repeated votes for being a certain type of person.”
I believe that it’s the same for groups and organizations of all sorts, including churches. Every action we take is a vote for the kind of community of faith we want to be. Every decision we make forms us for good or for evil. Decisions and actions take place in the now, not the past. History and tradition are important, without them, we wouldn’t be here today. However, when tradition impairs our ability to listen for the Spirit’s calling, we become enslaved, we are bound just as surely as if we had chains.
Some of you heard the Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett at my covenanting service a couple of weeks ago, when he spoke of two stories in the Bible, exile and exodus. In one, it’s the story of a people going back and rebuilding, the other is a journey into an unknown future. One step at a time, trusting that God was with them us on the journey. That is where we are now… on an exodus journey, putting one foot in front of the other, making one decision after another, and in doing so, create the kind of community that God envisioned for us.
Psychologist Dr. Adam Grant says this, “Too many people spend their lives being dutiful descendants instead of good ancestors. The responsibility of each generation is not to please their predecessors. It’s to improve things for their offspring. It’s more important to make your children proud than your parents proud.”
What do we want our children, our grandchildren to say about us? What do we want them to say about our response to climate change, refugees, Indigenous rights, poverty, hunger, racism? Hard questions to wrestle with alone… we must be attentive to the voice of God, Jesus and the Spirit. Let us listen to that leading with open hearts, open minds and open hands.
I am closing with these beautiful words written by Donna Knutson
Oh Most Holy God
As I find You.
As I hear You
Whether wanderer or breath of life
We are meant to be united.
Set these feet on a path of possibility
Light a candle in the hearts of the world.
Remove our lack of,
I’ll try later,
So we sing Glory, Glory to Your Name.
In this world of visible wonder,
May we always sing the song
Which names us as Yours.
May we walk a hundred miles in Lent
To touch the inner lands of grace and peace.
May there be visions of brave new worlds
And communities that stand for hope and harmony.
Speak, in the waves,
In the washing by the seas,
To the listening of our hearts.
May we quiet
Wherever we are,
And be reminded of Your Hallelujah
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus today. Amen.
Matthew 4: 1-11 – SJUC
Photo – Tablelands, NL – Catherine MacDonald