The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same God is God of all and richly blesses all who call on the Holy One, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Holy One will be saved.”
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Child of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Mortals shall not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the realms of the world. And he said to Jesus, “I will give you all their authority and splendour; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Holy One your God and serve God only.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Child of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘God will command the angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Holy One your God to the test.’”
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Jesus until an opportune time.
Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, you are the ultimate source of our lives. Teach us to trust in you for all our needs—for safety, for nourishment, for grace. Open our hearts to your loving presence; and may all we speak and hear be a reflection of your great love for us. Amen.
Today’s the first Sunday in Lent. "What is Lent?" some of you may be asking. It’s a season, a time within the church, the forty days before Easter—we don’t count the Sundays, because every Sunday is considered a “little Easter” for worship purposes. It begins with Ash Wednesday. The day before is Mardi Gras—aka Fat Tuesday, Carnival, or Fasching. In many countries, especially those with a Roman Catholic heritage, like France, southern Germany, the Philippines, Italy, and Brazil, the carnival season begins very shortly after Epiphany—the twelfth day after Christmas—which is also celebrated with lots of parties and good food. Carnival is traditionally a time of freedom, laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say in New Orleans. It’s a time to clean out all the goodies left from Christmas and have a great time before the quiet and more somber time of Lent. In Munich, there’s a tradition of going to a certain fountain and washing out your purse to show you have spent all your money on Fasching, on Carnival, and are now ready to settle down and be contemplative.
On Ash Wednesday, many Christian traditions have services to mark this first day of Lent; foreheads are marked with a cross of ashes to show that the person is preparing to fast and reflect as Lent arrives.
In the days of the early church, it was also a time of preparation for baptisms, which only took place on Easter morning. For forty days, those who wished to be baptized Christians studied and learned and prayed and discerned as they prepared to make their decision for baptism or not. Remember that Christianity was a very minority religion at the time—like Judaism, Christianity did not permit its followers to worship Caesar as a God. Unlike Judaism, Christianity did not have a long history behind it to give it stature and an argument for not worshiping Caesar as the Roman required their subjects to do. Becoming a Christian meant placing yourself in a position of oppression and marginalization. It was not undertaken lightly or without due prayer and consideration.
We who are already baptized, however, can also use this time of Lent as a time for reflection and thought and prayer. Traditionally, Christians give up something that they enjoy—chocolate, TV, meat, and so on—as a sacrifice and in order to focus more fully on God. Or they might take something on—reading spiritual books, studying a specific book of the Bible in depth, a regularly scheduled time at the local soup kitchen, doing something for someone else every day, and so on, again, as a form of self discipline. We can do either or both of these. Whatever we choose, we are making a decision to mark this time as set apart and special—forty days to think about our faith, what we believe, what is really important to us, what we cannot give up in any circumstance.
This is exactly what Jesus was doing in the wilderness for forty days. We can see Satan as more of a concept than a literal being here; Jesus is being tempted by his own dark side, to take a simpler, more worldly route. Some things to notice here. First Jesus is tempted—if he were not drawn to what is offered in exchange for his worship, there would be no point in it. A friend always makes a New Year’s resolution to not become a brain surgeon—it's an easy resolution to keep because she has no interest in becoming a brain surgeon! If you’re not drawn to something, there’s no sacrifice, there’s no struggle to give it up. I can give up Brussels sprouts easily; chocolate, not so much!
I think we can look at this forty-day retreat of Jesus as a time for him to discern what is truly important to him, and how he will carry his message of God’s faithful and eternal love into the world. Each of those temptations relate to a kind of power--political power, in which Jesus would rule the world; economic power, in which he would feed everyone, be sure they had what they needed; and spiritual power, the ability to work miracles, and thus gain power. And yes, Jesus is drawn to the simple expedients of power—political power, ruling over all nations; to economic power, filling people’s bellies and thus controlling them; or spiritual coercion, the demand for God to perform in order to increase his own power. Any one of them could have led him to power of a sort.
But Jesus denies all of them.
This Lent we are examining questions as markers on our journey through Lent. This week’s question asks about the purpose and meaning of our lives. In his forty days of prayer, fasting, and discernment, Jesus came to understand that he did not want any earthly power, that the purpose and focus of his life was make God very present to humans, to remind them that God cares for them, and that the best use of any life is sharing that love and grace with others, even—or especially—those we fear and distrust. He refused the temptations of the easy way, the path of earthly fame and glory, trusting in God's power of grace and wisdom over any earthly power.
What temptations do we face in our lives? Our temptations may not be the same—remember what I said about the things that we want being temptations, but things we don’t want aren’t temptations. So what is a temptation to me may not be at all tempting to you. And this is true for material things as well as our values and our purposes in life—see chocolate and Brussels sprouts above. Perhaps the temptation is to inaction and inertia—it’s easier to let someone else do the work of struggling for what is right. Or maybe the lure is to anger and hatred towards those who hate us; or to fear the new rather than embracing it.
This is a valid and valuable use of our Lenten time, of those forty days of prayer and reflection. What is my purpose in life? What is most important to me, when I strip away the extras and the decorations? Is it my family? My work? My friends? My creativity? My partner? Is it justice, or hope, or healing? There's a spiritual practice called a Rule of Life, based on the idea of the rules of orders of the monks. "Rule" here doesn't mean "law," or "regulation," but rather guidelines on how to live. The metaphor of a trellis is often used--our Rule of Life is the trellis, our lives the vine that grows on and around the trellis, which supports our lives and gives them form. My Lenten goal this year is to create my own Rule of Life--those guiding principles which inform all I do. If the idea intrigues you, the book I am using is "Crafting a Rule of Life," by Steven Maccia. Creating a rule of life involves asking ourselves questions--those difficult questions about what we really believe and whether that is shown in our lives, what our temptations are, and how to resist them, and recognising God's call on our lives--the same sorts of questions we will be examining in our worship time--discovering or re-affirming our purpose and our call.
Once we know that, then we know more clearly what our path should be. In the coming weeks, we will be asking other questions: questions of doubt, about good and evil, of belonging, of fear, of how God works in our lives. They are not easy questions. But take the time and energy to dig deep into the questions, to explore, to contemplate. Lent is not a time of sadness and despair, but a time for reflection and prayer, with hope and renewal promised us at Easter.
May your Lenten journey be full of questions and answers. In all God’s names, amen.