Lent 1, Year C, 2010

When I am feeling run down, I like to lapse into fantasies about destination spas.  Whether we’re talking about Canyon Ranch in Tucson or Mii Amo in Sedona, I day dream about their cloud soft bedding, private sunning decks,  hot stone massages.  (I think less about the healthy eating and the rigorous exercise, of course.)  The idea of getting away, of taking a break, of being taken care of, seduces me into wanting to leave my life for awhile.  I just know if I had a week or two at one of these magical places that promise physical, spiritual and emotional healing, that I would emerge renewed, peaceful, a better version of myself.

Man, am I ever lucky that as a Christian, I get a built in retreat every year!  And guess what?  You do, too!

Now, our retreat does not have pools bubbling with warm spring water, or gourmet meals for fewer than 350 calories.  But our retreat is free and it lasts a whopping forty days.

When you think about Lent, you might think about fish on Fridays and giving up something decadent for a few weeks.  But, Jesus’ temptation during his time in the wilderness invites us to experience Lent in a new and deeper way.  And a Lent experienced this way, might just leave us feeling more spiritually refreshed than any destination spa.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ time in the Wilderness comes immediately after his baptism.  Before he goes out to preach and heal and perform miracles, he is led by the Holy Spirit to this time of testing.

The devil tempts Jesus in three ways.

First, he tempts Jesus, who is famished after fasting for forty days, to make bread.

Second, he offers Jesus all the political power in the world.

Third, he tempts Jesus to throw himself off of the temple in Jerusalem in order to prove that angels would protect him.

And while Jesus’ retreat in the wilderness was not a pleasant one—I do not think Canyon Ranch offers any sort of devil temptation treatment—his time in the desert prepared him for the rest of his ministry.

Jesus did not stop facing temptation once he left the desert.  Luke 4:13 reads, “[the devil] departed from him until an opportune time.”  Throughout his ministry, I’m sure Jesus was tempted to rely on his special gifts rather than relying on his Father.  I’m sure he was tempted to use his follower’s adoration as a way to pump up his own ego, rather than pointing people to his Father.  Jesus’ time in the desert made sure he faced these temptations in a dramatic way so that he would know how to handle himself when they came up in his day to day ministry.

We are faced with the exact same temptations.  Lent gives us an opportunity to face them head on, without flinching.

The devil may not tempt us to make our own bread out of the air, but all of us are tempted to rely on our own resources, to forget that God provides everything that is.  All of us face anxiety about how we are going to provide for ourselves.

The devil may not make us an offer to rule all the countries in the world, but all of us are faced with opportunities to abuse power.  Many of you are in positions of enormous power.  If you are a professor or a PhD student, are you treating your students fairly?  Are you jockeying for power within your department?  If you’re a person with employees, do you treat them with respect and dignity?  If you’re a parent are you taking your responsibilities seriously?  If you write or blog or Facebook, do you think carefully before criticizing someone publicly?

The devil may not tempt us to jump off the bell tower at Trinity to see if angels will come and save us, but all of us are tempted to let God or others bail us out on occasion.  Do you get in your car without putting on a seatbelt?  Do you occasionally cheat on your taxes a little bit, assuming you won’t get caught?  Do you drink a little too often, do you smoke?

This Lent, you have the opportunity to ask yourself these questions.  Really reflecting on these temptations will have a much bigger impact on your spiritual life then giving up chocolate for six weeks.  As Christians we are called not just to show up to church on Sundays, but to live a life of discipleship.  We are called to follow Jesus, even when that leads us into the desert.  Even when that leads us into an unflinching examination of our own lives.

Again, here are the questions to ask yourself.

  1. Where in your life are you not trusting God to provide for you?
  2. Where in your life are you abusing the power God has given you?
  3. Where in your life are you taking unnecessary risks because you think God or others will rescue you?

When you ask yourself these questions you are communing with Jesus in the desert.  Just imagine, Jesus asked himself the exact same questions and struggled with the same temptations we do.  We worship a God who understands our experience, who knows what it is like to struggle to live a holy and ethical life.

We honor that compassionate God by taking our lives seriously, by taking Lent seriously.

Lent may not come with mints on our pillows, horseback rides and free yoga classes, but living a holy, reflective Lent can change our lives and give us the perspective we need to face temptations in our lives the rest of the year.



Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2007

Today we observe one of the most solemn days of the church year:  Ash Wednesday.  On this day we remember our mortality and begin 40 days of Lent, during which we prepare ourselves for Christ’s death and resurrection.

Last week at Children’s worship, Jane Lynch spoke to the kids about how Lent is a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection.  When one little boy got back to his mother, he tugged at her anxiously and said, “They killed Baby Jesus!”  Because this was new information to this almost-three year old, he was able to experience the deep shock and pain of Christ’s death.  Just wait until he hears that Christ comes to life again!  He’s going to be blown away.

As adult believers, it is difficult to keep the sorrow over Christ’s death and the joy over the resurrection fresh.  We have heard the story over and over again, but the meaning of the story begins to recede as time passes.  We go about our days getting more and more caught up in the details:  what to make for dinner, what needs to be crossed off our to-do lists, where the kids need to be when.  We don’t have a lot of time to think about theological issues.

Ash Wednesday pulls the rug out from under us.  As we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, as we hear the words, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” we remember that no matter how many errands we run, how many meals we cook, how many days we go into the office, all that will stop one day, and we will die. 

Suddenly Christ’s death and resurrection take on a great deal of significance.  For, through this miraculous event, our deaths are no longer meaningless and terrifying.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know we have a hope and a future. 

So, now that we have been stopped short from our crazy lives, how can we live the next 40 days in such a way that will ready us to hear the good news of God’s salvation?

Our Gospel passage today, guides us, through telling us what Jesus does not want.  What Jesus does not want is for us to beat our chests in public, shouting “woe is me!” so that everyone knows how fabulously penitent we are this Lent.

Like most of our faith, Lent is about relationship. 

When we sacrifice something we enjoy, we open space in our lives for God to enter.  Each time we reach for that cookie, or the remote, or whatever it is we have decided to sacrifice, we are reminded of God’s presence.  Think of that object of sacrifice as a little post-it-note reminding you to say hello to God, reminding you to meditate on Christ’s suffering and glory.  Sacrificing is difficult, but it turns us toward our maker, the One who gives us strength when we are weak and forgiveness when we are even weaker. 

Lent is not about how much you can punish yourself.  Lent is about finding a way to open yourself to the One who created you and who sacrifices his own identity for you.   Lent is about drawing near to God’s presence.  Sacrifice reveals to us our own weaknesses and the strength of our desires for things that are not essential, maybe even not good for us.  When we are reminded of our own weakness, we turn to God, for help and for mercy.

This last week, Chuck and I have been spending a lot of time with a young couple whose twins were born nearly three months early.  We’ve also spent a lot of time with families planning their matriarchs and patriarch’s funerals.  In both these cases-at the fragile beginning of life and the quiet end-these families were turned to God, seeking comfort, healing, and understanding. 

For these families, sacrifice is not an abstract concept, but a very concrete one.  They know that when their security is taken from them, turning to God can bring meaning and comfort. 

In a similar, but much smaller way, our sacrifices help us to cling to God.  For as our psalmist reminds us today:

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children.

God loves us and desires relationship with us.  This Lent we are invited to enter more deeply into that relationship.