My sermon text from the first Sunday of Lent.
Having spent some time hopping from Church to Church, and having the same gospel story for this day each year, this is the first time in 3 years I haven’t relied heavily on old work.
And I’m glad of it…
Here is a picture of bread, and chocolate.
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be now and always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.
Did you grow up with the tradition of giving things up for Lent? I heard some people talking about it at the pancake supper. That’s a thing here, too? In recent years you’ve begun to hear people talk about what they take on for Lent, rather than what they give up.
It’s a kind of convenient short-hand to talk about the Holy Lent we are invited into, in the language of the Ash Wednesday service, through self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Our preparation for Easter.
And so we begin this season, always, with the story of Jesus, fasting in the wilderness, and tested by Satan.
It’s a strange and interesting story; and an important one. We have skipped back in time, to long before the Transfiguration, before Jesus’ first sermon at the home synagogue, immediately after his baptism. And yet, between these the baptism story, and this, Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus- all the way back to Adam. And so with Adam’s name fresh in our minds, we hear this story of temptation, God’s authority questioned, and food offered. Clearly, Jesus and Adam are bound together. But where Adam fails and the relationship between God and humanity is broken, Jesus succeeds, and our relationship is restored.
Eating is one of the most basic elements of life. We live, and we eat. We die and we are eaten. It is the great circle of life. And in his 40-day fast, Jesus participates in a disruption of that cycle. And everything that Adam lost is somehow now back in reach.
But even as he connects this moment in the life of Jesus with the beginning, with Genesis, he also connects it with the end. For we, astute readers that we are, know that for Luke a loaf of bread is not just a loaf of bread. It is a foreshadowing. Watch and see, he says, in these early chapters, how Jesus will disrupt the very nature of life and death. Watch and see, he says, how he will, he did, he has, he does triumph over Satan, every time. Watch and see, how this victory will be extended to you- when a loaf of bread is not just a loaf of bread.
Watch and see, he says. Because Satan takes Jesus not to just any city, but to Jerusalem. “If you are the son of God” he says, throw yourself down, and God will let no harm come to you.
The crowds just outside this same city will offer an echo: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross, and save yourself”.
So this story of fasting and temptation is an important one.
And I’m not sure how we, as a community of the faithful, to from there, to “so, what are you giving up for Lent this year”
And I was raised with this idea that every time we are “tempted” to break our fast, we remember to be thankful.
Or, that Lent is the time to bring ourselves closer to God by kicking bad habits, or taking on good ones. But then, why stop after 40 days. I mean, if you really feel like daily prayer is important for your spiritual development, don’t wait ‘til Ash Wednesday to start, and don’t take it on for 40 days. Just… as the saying goes… Do it!
Or, this notion that because Jesus withstood temptation, we should, too. As if we needed to create opportunities for temptation. As if every day wasn’t a constant battle to choose what is right over what is easy.
But at the heart of my general discomfort with the whole “giving up for Lent” approach to fasting is what one commentator described as “a second chance at failed New Year’s Resolutions”. Have you done that? Or known people who do? “I quit going to the gym around mid-January, so I’m going to take that on for Lent. It’ll be good for me.”
Which misses something really key about the story that inspires the very real and potentially very holy practice of Lenten fasting.
And that is that the tempter is the father of lies.
He offers Jesus the easier path of taking care of himself first. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread”. He offers Jesus the easier path of compromise, sharing Power with Satan, “if you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours”. He offers Jesus the easier path of spectacle and wonder-working, that would avoid the pain and humiliation of the cross. “Throw yourself down from here”.
With each promise, he plants the seed of doubt “If you are the Son of God”. And with each promise, he lies. Glory and Authority were never his to give.
But Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, withstands this test. And, in the verse we don’t hear, immediately following, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returns to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Having defined what his work is not he goes to Nazareth to proclaim what is is: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And if the Father of lies could find his way to Adam, to Jesus… is it so hard to imagine that he could work his way into the traditions of the Church?
so hard to imagine that we could find him casting doubts around the very core of our identity?
Casting doubts around the nature of our relationship with our god?
It is so hard to imagine that we, too, could have lies whispered into our ears?
If you really are beloved of God,
If you really are forgiven,
If you really are redeemed,
Prove it. Prove it by how much you can give up,
And by how much you take on, for these 40 days.
We run the risk, I think, of treating this Holy Season as a way of bootstrapping ourselves to holiness. As if, by the exercise of our discipline and self-control, if we sacrifice, as he sacrificed, we can win our way into the heart of God.
As if we were not already held, beloved, forgiven, redeemed, in the heart of God.
“It is finished”. He said.
So that we don’t need to go back and re-fight this battle.
He already won. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
It is finished. There is no more opportune time. We have nothing to prove. But, that liar still whispers.
We, too, are offered the easier path of taking care of ourselves first. We, too, are offered the easier path of compromise, and the slow erosion of integrity. We, too, are offered style and show, over sacrifice.
That liar still whispers.
And should I stand here and say “Jesus withstood these lies, filled with the Spirit, and with the power of Scripture, and so can you if you read your bible and pray”? He’s Jesus. We’re not. So we’re going to fall. We’re going to be fooled.
We will fail, as Adam failed. But that is not the end of the story.
So, in this Holy Season- it does make perfect sense to take inventory. What have we allowed in to our lives that separates us from God? Get rid of it! What have we let go of that we should have held dear? Pick it back up! Where have we turned wrong? Turn right again!
Not because we have anything to prove. But because the God who has already saved us delights in our trying. Because stepping out of the ordinary rhythm of life can give us a glimpse of the extraordinary. Because we are thankful. Because we are beloved, and we reach toward God with self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And when we reach, we catch a glimpse of God, reaching back to us.
So, my brothers and sisters, may you spend a Holy and Blessed season. Not hoping that, if only we are good enough, or penitent enough, or sacrifice enough, then Easter will come. But in the sure promise: Easter has come. What Adam lost is regained.
Hope wins. Life wins. Love wins.
Truth wins. And the Father of lies is already defeated before we begin.
So fast: know that your life comes not from bread alone, but from the God who will never leave you. Give alms: participate in God’s constant call to share what you have with those who have less. Practice self-examination: become aware of what holds you back from accepting God’s gracious gifts. Be penitent: know the length and breadth of God’s infinite mercy. Pray: spend time in the presence of the God who loves you.
We have 40 days to prepare, to get ourselves ready for Easter.
But we make this journey in the light of this promise:
Easter has always been ready for us.
(sotto voce: Alleluia)
Thanks be to God.