First Reading Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Second Reading Romans 10:8b-13
Gospel Reading Luke 4:1-13
Sermon “An Invitation to Keep a Holy Lent “
Not many of you were able to join us for The Ash Wednesday service, so I would like to begin the message this morning by repeating words from that service which explain this season of Lent which we have just entered. These 40 days of preparation and self examination are an important time in the annual cycle of remembrance and celebration of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Listen:
“Friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes. This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marks the penitence of this community. I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by works of love, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.”
A Holy Lent – what does this mean? First the word Holy – it means dedicated to God, set apart from the common and the ordinary. And indeed that is what we seek to do in this time. The term Lent comes to us from an old English word that refers to springtime, but the season is ancient in the church going back to a customary season of fasting before Easter likely in Apostolic times and being formalized at the council of Nicea way back in 325AD. We’ve been doing this for a long time and yet it still seems strange to many. This morning, my purpose is to invite you all to take it seriously this year, to invest your time and attention in Holy contemplation, study and acts of love and caring.
Often as an exercise in self discipline, people will give up some food or some luxury during this season, often donating the money saved to a special offering. I remember years ago one of my co workers, who was a big coke-a-cola drinker, gave up caffeinated drinks for lent. The first week was particularly trying for all of us as they made the unhappy transition to an uncaffinated life. Another of my colleagues was Catholic and always gave up meat on Fridays during lent. He thought I was being particularly good Protestant when I would always eat fish with him at lunch on Friday. I had to tell him that it didn’t count for me. Fish is a treat, I love it, it was not a sacrifice at all for me. So do these kinds of things make for a holy lent? Well, holy things in scripture refer to objects or people set apart for the service of God. In and of themselves, these little sacrifices don’t do much to make us holy. But they can serve as a reminder, a means of being intentional about how we live.
Lent has long been practiced as a special time for preparation, repentance and rededication. It was a time when communicants prepared for baptism, and a time when those who had been disciplined by the church prepared to be restored to the fellowship. We need these times to remind ourselves of our dependence on the grace of God and to draw closer in prayer and devotion.
The first Sunday of Lent always includes the story of the temptation of Jesus as a model for our observation of these 40 days of preparation. Jesus’ formal ministry began with his baptism at the age of 30. As the first three gospel writers all tell us, he immediately went out into the wilderness for a 40 day period of fasting and contemplation before doing anything else. Those 40 days recall several other periods in scripture: the 40 days Moses spent on mount Sinai with God receiving the commandments. Particularly, they remind us of the 40 years Israel spent wondering in the wilderness. Jesus apparently though so too as all three of his replies to the tempter were from the book of Deuteronomy. Even Elijah’s 40 day journey back to Mt Sinai during his ministry has a similar ring.
God has frequently taken his faithful out of the normal stream of events for times of preparation and contemplation. Our Gospel reading tells of his experiences out there in the wilderness. First off, let’s be clear. Jesus’ temptations are not ours, though perhaps they might be in some way for the church in general. This is certain however- if he was tempted, if he had to struggle, how can we expect to be exempt?
Jesus’ temptations, while not common to ours, do tell us a great deal about what kind of a Savior he is. Here he came to terms with what it really meant to be about his Father’s business. He had not yet preached a sermon, cast out a demon or even healed anyone. What route will he go?
The first temptation is subtle. Will Jesus use his power to make life comfortable for himself? Jesus will miraculously feed thousands, but out of love and compassion for them not for self pleasure. The gifts of God are given to be shared. We will share a memorial feast in just a little while with bread and wine to remember what a wonderful gift Jesus has given us.
The second temptation is political: Will Jesus submit to the alleged ruler of this world in order to achieve good for the people of this world and a short cut for himself? The church faces this temptation regularly. Will we seek political power and fall in line with the existing forces of this world or will we humbly seek to follow God’s will above all others? I could talk a great deal more about this one, but my purpose is to invite you to take the season seriously, not to start a political debate.
The third is religious and social: will Jesus win a following by the flashy display of supernatural power? Just think of the publicity such an act would have generated. No, he chose a different route. The route of service and sacrifice; the route of obedience and love.
The temptations that Jesus faced were unique to who he was and to the moment in time. The specific temptations were not to evil acts, rather to betray his mission and purpose. Each was answered with a firm refusal rooted in Godly wisdom from scripture. Later he would miraculously feed the multitude, but not for selfish satisfaction, but because they had come a long way to be taught and were hungry. He was in fact a King, but his kingdom is not of this present world. He had no designs on the Roman political system. He did perform miracles, but always as acts of grace and compassion, never for show or popularity.
So what then about us? If the temptations of Jesus struck at his purpose and identity, perhaps ours might as well. What traps has the tempter laid before us that might draw us away from our Savior. Temptations to debauchery and overt evil? No, not usually. Those are too easy to recognize. Rather for us, Satan is usually more subtle and cunning. Procrastination or competing interests to keep us distracted are more his style. Things that cause us to put off time with God or convince us that our own strength is sufficient. These are some of the modern temptations we face among many others. Temptations to self importance, even self righteousness; Things that cause us to lose track of who we are and who God is to us. Did you notice in the readings this morning that Satan can quote scripture too? Only careful study of the full span of scripture can guard our minds from his attacks.
Each of us has our own struggles and weaknesses. But each is also loved and called by God who has provided a way for us to be made righteous in his presence. Each of us is given the precious gift Of the Holy Spirit when we trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. What is required is to accept the gift and its claim on us. Then, in humble gratitude, to turn away from those other, worldly things that also try to claim us. This requires us to take our salvation seriously and to allow the Spirit to mold us and reshape our lives. This is the emphasis of Lent. A time of special discipline to take stock of ourselves to be intentional about our relationship with God and our fellow man. To spend time in the presence of God, seeking Gods will over and above our own. Also, as we heard in our first reading this morning, to thank God for his grace and mercy, to remember the story of how you came to first know God and how God has formed this fellowship of believers and sustained it through the years.
Here the invitation to this season once again: I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by works of love, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God. Please RSVP to God!