A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, Year C
Welcome to Lent, people of God! My how the mood has changed! Last Sunday we heard about Jesus, transfigured on the mountain in bright and shining glory, but this Sunday we hear of Jesus, hungry, alone and being tempted by the Devil. A newcomer to the community who came last week may wonder if they stumbled into the wrong building this morning.
It’s often the punchline of jokes, some I make myself, how we Episcopalians are among the more affluent faith communities, and we do not deny ourselves many of the pleasures of the world. We know how to throw good parties, with good food and even better wine. Tuesday night was a great example – enough pancakes, bacon and sausage to make a line-backer choke, not to mention laughter and celebration, breaking bread with friends. But if someone who came to Tuesday night thinking our church was all about good times would suddenly have found this same congregation on Wednesday night, Mardi Gras beads put away, on its knees remembering that we are but dust. The tenor of our worship this morning has noticeably changed from just a few weeks ago. No manger scene, no Christmas tree. The joy of Christmas and the light of Epiphany have been replaced with shadows and self-examination.
Last Sunday we beheld Jesus, transfigured in all his glory, but on Wednesday night our faces were transfigured, not in shining glory but with ashes and penitence. In this morning’s gospel lesson we encounter Jesus not on the mountain top, but alone in the wilderness. Luke’s Gospel tells us that he was tempted for 40 days by the Devil, and this Devil tempted him in three ways. First the Devil knew Jesus’ hunger and tempted Jesus on a very primal level – food. Turn these stones to bread.
Then the Devil tempts Jesus with power – worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world. Jesus shows where his true nature lies – in worshiping God, not power. His life and ministry would be about obedience not ambition. And finally the Devil takes Jesus to the very top of the Temple, the top of the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica, or, in our case, the top of the bell tower at Canterbury Cathedral, and tempted Jesus with what I call precociousness. And he does so by quoting scripture. We suddenly find ourselves in a very rabbinic moment – Jesus and the Devil quoting scripture to each other, just as Jesus, the rabbi, would do in the Temple.
You’re God’s favorite, right? Let’s see what lengths God will go to to save you – throw yourself down and see if God will send angels to catch you. What child has not defied his mother doing a very dangerous and stupid stunt? Jesus’ response is that it is not our place to test God’s resolve, perhaps the way a child tests the resolve of his mother’s warning not to touch the hot stove.
And so we have this portrait of Jesus this morning, painted not in bright colors but in shadowy hues – alone, vulnerable, tested by the Devil. This is a moment of identification, of connection – Jesus, this man whose birth in Luke’s account was attended by angels, who was just baptized in the river Jordan with equally dazzling special effects, is now in a very dark place. As we say in the preface for Lent during the Eucharist – Jesus, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil and to live no longer for ourselves alone but for him who died for us and rose again.
So Jesus has identified with us – tempted in every way as we are.
Temptation is something we often joke about these days, but when was the last time you truly considered in what ways you are tempted. We can identify readily with the first temptation – the temptation of food, of self-indulgence. Shrove Tuesday was awash in carbs and fat and sugar! But there are so many more ways to indulge in our appetites – alcohol, tobacco, drugs, television, the Internet! Yes, our appetites have taken on many strange and beguiling faces in these latter days, but the temptations are very much the same.
What about this temptation of power – surely none of us are tempted as Jesus was, to deny what we know to be God’s way in favor of self-promotion, ambition, of putting ourselves first no matter who gets hurt in the process. Surely we as individuals or as a nation know nothing about reckless self-promotion. And this final temptation to demand our own way and test the love and resolve of God, and the parents God has given us. These are powerful temptations – ones with which we can readily identify, that is if we take the time to reflect on our behavior and our attitudes.
We have become a very comfortable, complacent people, we Christians, especially we Christians in America. Very few of us know what it is like to be truly hungry. We have access to food 24/7. We have food enough that we throw away more food as a country per year than many other countries have a chance to consume. We Americans owe more in personal debt than many countries GDP. We have the luxury of travel, both public and private. We have untold numbers of labor saving devices – when was the last time you had to beat your clothes against a rock or wash them in a stream – the same stream where you might need to get your drinking water? We even have invented countless gadgets and devices to entertain ourselves, from the smallest iPod Nano to our 55” LED HDTVs, we know how to entertain ourselves both privately and publicly.
Lent is a fitting time to stop, to put down the iPad (or Kindle), turn off FoodTV, close the newspaper, unplug a bit from our wired and wireless society, this matrix we find ourselves tangled in, and reflect. This is not an exercise in guilt but in awareness. We are called not to live with regret but with intentionality. Lent is a time to stop, reflect and ask ourselves, who are we as a people, both individually and corporately. Where are we going? And if this isn’t the direction we’d like to be traveling, how might we change course or at least slow our progress down the wrong road.
Self-discipline during Lent is not an excuse to start a new diet, pay off credit cards or clean out a spare room. Lent is a time for us to face our own devils, to acknowledge how helpless we are at times, to acknowledge and indeed embrace the fact that we need God and that we need each other.
I recall a member of this parish family (now gone, so don’t look around) who, at the end of Epiphany, just before Ash Wednesday would announce, “See you at Easter!” If you asked her why, she would quip, “I don’t do Lent. It’s too depressing.” I never directly challenged her on this habit, this BAD habit of hers, but her words were telling. I’m sure many more of us think these same thoughts, but we just don’t speak them aloud. We might miss a few Sundays during Lent. And yes, it would be all too easy to check-out when the party seems to be over, when we suddenly put ashes on our faces and reflect on our sinfulness. Neither Scott nor I will bang on your door or call you on Sunday afternoon to ask, “Where were you?”
Yes, Lent can be a dark time – no flowers, no A-word, no twinkly lights on trees, no big parties. But here we are. The rhythm of the year has brought us to a turning in the path. Ahead of us the path descends into what we might call the valley of the shadow of death. The time has come to let the shadows lengthen a bit and to contemplate life in a minor key. I am here today to encourage you to walk with us through this valley of shadows. Lent is not a time to just check-out, as tempting as it may be, but rather a time to gather our courage, steel our resolve and make the journey, as a community of faith. As Scott said on Ash Wednesday, we are not going through this alone. We have each other to strengthen and encourage each other. We have several programmatic offerings as well to help us as a community contemplate the ways in which our lives could change, to live our baptismal covenant, to be quiet, to rediscover a life of prayer and self-discipline.
The God of Lent is the same God as the God of Christmas and Easter, just as your parent is the same parent that gives you good things on your birthday but also practices discipline when you need it. This is not to say God has sent us to our room during Lent. We are not being grounded. What the church in her wisdom practices during Lent is a time to remember just how bad this world can be, and what our role is in that evil when we deny God, when we refuse to follow God’s way. Many faith communities out there talk a lot about Hell and do a lot of finger-pointing to the sinners heading there. Countless souls are doomed to fiery torment in the afterlife for all the evil they have done. We, however, take a different approach – we consider how in many ways we humans have made a Hell right here on earth. This hellish earth, then, is not our destiny nor is it a punishment from God – it should serve instead as a wake-up call, not in the hereafter, but now.
Lent is a time to reflect how we may have made this life a living hell for ourselves, for those who love us, and for our neighbors. Confession and absolution for us are not fire-insurance, but our solemn pledge to reform our ways, that, leaving our self-destructive ways behind, we might delight in God’s will and walk in God’s way, to the glory of God’s name.
The Devil may tempt us with pleasure, with power and with precociousness, but with God’s help we will resist the many snares of the Devil, both the Devil without and the Devil within, and make a new day.
Welcome to Lent, people of God. You are not alone. But get on your hiking shoes because the path in these dark days can be a bit treacherous, but see, Christ goes before us with the light. He has walked this path already. He knows the way out to the other side. Let us gather our courage and follow him. Amen.