Sunday, February 25: 1st Sunday of Lent

Luke 4:1-13

Last Tuesday night the folks who signed up for the Lenten Study gathered for our first meeting, an orientation to the bible study program we’ll be following throughout the weeks of Lent. Only Tuesday night technically wasn’t Lent yet, but the night when cities like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro go wild with Marti Gras celebrations. In the spirit of carnival, I stopped at a bakery on the way to church to pick out a slightly-lopsided yet very delicious chocolate cake. Since a message in frosting came with the cost of the cake, I had the baker write “SBCC” across the top. At church, I joked with the bible study group that I’d considered having her write “Happy Lent,” but wasn’t sure how it would go over. Steve Cornwell commented that “Happy Lent” is an oxymoron, given that the 40 days before Easter are traditionally a time of penitence. I fired back some comment about how heartfelt penitence brings a joy deeper than happiness, and Steve jokingly accused me of sounding like SUCH a pastor. And that is how the title of this week’s message for the first Sunday of Lent came to be The “Joy” of Lent.

On the surface, Lent seems as far from joy as can be. There was a movie a few years ago called Chocolat that sharply lampooned dour, self-righteous expressions of Lenten piety. A woman moves into a small French village and opens a chocolate shop. This would seem harmless, but she is a stranger in a tight-knit community, and the grand opening of her confectionary coincided with Ash Wednesday. The village moralist is completely offended by her den of temptation, and tries everything in his power to stop the villagers from giving in to their chocolate cravings. To him, the greatest virtue is self-denial and the worst sin is pleasure.

I don’t think that’s what Lent is about. Yes, many folks give up chocolate for these forty days, but there is a deeper meaning to our discipline. Let’s turn to the scripture that is set forth as a framework, a guide for this season.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke finds Jesus returning from the Jordan River. He has just been baptized by John. In his baptism these words descended from the heavens: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

He is full of the Holy Spirit, which I think is to say that the fibers of his being are woven so tightly with the fibers of God’s being that you couldn’t tell the one from the other. He is as holy as he is human, and the time has come for him to get started on his divine mission. He is thirty years old, still young enough to be suspect in the eyes of his elders. If you didn’t know the story by heart, you might think that after such an exhilarating baptismal experience, Jesus might walk straight out of the water and begin the work of preaching and healing and teaching before his hair even dries. Instead, the Spirit that’s gotten under his skin and into his bloodstream shoves him into the wilderness, for forty days of solitude, with no one but the devil to keep him company. It’s a text about temptation, yes, but it’s more than that.
Frederick Buechner writes that Jesus goes into the desert to figure out “what it meant to be Jesus.”

The adversary he meets in the wilderness offers up one fine illusion after another. In the midst of profound hunger, Jesus is dared to use his God-given power to transform stones into bread. It would have been a fancy magic trick, one completely within the realm of Jesus’ power, but he refuses to play the trick. He decides that being the Son of God means that he has to trust the One who created him. He decides that he would not substitute the bread of magic for the bread of life. Even as he is still racked with pangs of hunger, the devil tried another tack. Maybe it would be power that would cause the Son of God to crumble. All Jesus had to do was worship the corrupt spirit, and he would have what so many have thirsted for: the glory and fame of absolute power.

Jesus again resists, and we who know the whole story can smirk here, for we can follow this foreshadowing to the time when Jesus will reign in heaven over all the kingdoms of the world, only in God’s way and in God’s time.

Then there’s the third temptation, the one that on first glance is the least tempting. Bread, yes. Power, yes. But what’s so alluring about tossing oneself from the edge of a building? And yet, what a building it is. The devil, whose name in the original Greek means to “stir things up,” knows just what pot he’s stirring when he plants Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. That’s the place where the tests of the devil will pale in comparison to the tests of humankind. That’s the place where Jesus will be rejected, where his ministry will collapse into a wall of fear, of distrust, of retribution.

It is the place where his dreadful walk to Calvary will begin, and here, buoyed by the promise written in the very scriptures Jesus honored, he could step into the arms of waiting angels and avoid all that suffering. But he knows the escape hatch is mere illusion, and passes his final test.

So what does that have to do with us, with our journey through these forty days of Lent? Why, as followers of Christ, must we follow him through the treacherous desert? Just as the desert was the place Jesus went to figure out what it meant to be Jesus, we must go through the same process to figure out what it means to be followers of Jesus—what it means to be human. Confronting the temptations is ultimately about honesty, about facing who we are and who God is.

Barbara Brown Taylor likens Lent to a sort of Outward Bound for the soul. Folks who go on Outward Bound excursions willingly follow wilderness guides into dangerous situations. They climb mountains and hike long distances.
After a few weeks of training they are left alone, for one full revolution of the earth. It’s out there in those desolate twenty four hours that people learn what they’re really hooked on, what comforts and security blankets they can hardly bear to live without. Taylor writes that “without those things they are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out. It is hard. It is awful. It is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God. I am convinced,” she writes, “That 99 percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming, or taking care of other people. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.” And then Reverend Taylor pulls out all the stops with one of those lines that earned her a slot in the list of the best living preachers. She writes, “The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God.”

Lent is spring cleaning. It’s recognizing that we may have let the holy of holies get cluttered with junk. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing that we’ve filled up that God-shaped space with our need to be safe, or liked, or comfortable. And it’s an invitation to begin the work of recovery, to be weaned from the pale substitutes we prop up on the throne set aside for the Lord.

No one claims that Jesus was having a good time in the wilderness. The work of resisting temptation was difficult, and the devil makes for terrible company. Yet the bread he tasted after the forty day fast was that much sweeter because it had not been baked from stones.

Lent is not about refusing the pleasures of being human; if anything, it is about become more fully human. In Lent, Jesus leads us to the bread that will truly nourish us, the Kingdom that will truly harbor us, and the arms that will truly save us. It’s a harder-won joy, but may the joy of Lent be yours.

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