Lent One - Matthew 4
Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth; you claimed us for Christ in the waters of baptism. Look upon us as we begin these forty days, and bless our way through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth. May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace; our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts. All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus, for in his cross you proclaim your love forever and ever.
Welcome to Lent. This is an ancient season, going back to at least the year 325, the time of the Council of Nicea, a time when early Christians, trying to figure out their faith, drafted the Nicene Creed. Lesser known was the work they did describing practices of the church… but one of these (Canon 5) was describing a season of preparation for baptisms at the celebration of Easter.
So, this season is very ancient…
I heard a part of the program “Science Friday” this week, and in that program, scientists were describing how they are working on storing data on DNA strands, and how all the information in all of our libraries throughout the earth, could be stored on DNA taking up no more space than the back of your vehicle. And that makes me understand how people who have been away from church for a while sometimes arrive in church on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent… somehow, it’s almost like it’s written in our DNA. Like salmon who return to the place of their birth to lay eggs, we return… for a season when we might be able to find our identity in God again or for the first time. We return to meet Jesus in the wilderness. We return because maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit will breathe into us and deepen our faith.
On Wednesday, a young woman who works at the Capitol showed up for our new lunchtime service… and she expressed that she is trying not to be just a Christmas and Easter Christian, “Sorry… have you ever heard that expression?” she wondered with a nervous laugh. She is trying to get deeper. She is trying to “purify the vessel of her body,” she said, and it made sense to her to gather with a few other people for worship. On Wednesday evening, more newcomers came… in spite of a locked front door, they persisted (thank God!), and worked their way around the building and found an open door, and received a cross of ashes on their foreheads. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We were invited to begin the practices of Lent: self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament…
On the first Sunday in Lent, today, we meet Jesus in the wilderness, observing these practices. Right from his baptism, where God declared that Jesus was God’s beloved son, the Spirit calls Jesus out into the wilderness. Some of you regularly go out into the wilderness… you know what’s there that that you can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes, we use wilderness as a metaphor for a place where we’re lost, but I don’t get that impression from Jesus. It seems more like he went out to the wilderness to deepen his sense of being found.
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. It’s the same symbolic time as Noah and his family and all the animals spent on the ark. It’s the same time as Moses was on Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah, and the same length of time Elijah spent in the wilderness, nourished by God, on the way to Mount Horeb. So it’s significant timing and after that… Satan appeared. You heard their conversation just a little while ago.
First, knowing Jesus is starving (and certainly aware now, more than ever, of what that really feels like…) the tempter questions Jesus’ identity and tells him to prove it by doing what God can do—create something from nothing. Make himself something to eat.
How many times are we tempted, when someone questions us to tell ourselves these stories?—Now, I’ve got to prove who I am. Now, I’ve got to show them what I can do.
Somehow, Jesus realizes the response to the test is not to make the bread but to trust God to provide bread… and everything needed for life. The connection with God’s people, wandering 40 years in the wilderness, learning to trust that each day, every day, God would provide their bread for the day. It took 40 years of learning again how to trust in God rather than to be dependent on their oppressors. Forty years—every day—receiving manna.
Inspired by their witness, Jesus goes deeper than his hunger and uses God’s word as a shield. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Secondly, the devil takes him to the very top of the temple in Jerusalem, and uses God’s word against him. “You trust God? Okay, prove it. Throw yourself to the ground.”
Just imagine the fear you might have if you have never experienced a height like this. Just imagine being told that the only way to prove the trust you’ve just expressed in God is to jump, just give up, throw his life away. Who do we give the power to ruin our life?
But again, Jesus sees this for the illusion that it is. This is such typical anti-God behavior—trying to force God to act on our terms. Instead, Jesus takes a deep breath, and responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to a very high mountain and shows Jesus the whole world… and makes the boldest demand yet, “I’ll give it all to you. Worship me.” As if the world is the devil’s to give. As if Jesus would forget the one who called him Beloved.
Have we forgotten the one who calls us beloved in our efforts to control our life?
But at this point, Jesus is done with this game of misplaced power, calls his bluff, and deflates his inflated ego, “Yeah, I’m not even going to get into it with you, Satan. You’re not God.” And the devil leaves.
Angels come and minister to Jesus. And here’s an imaginative story that Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement told: “St. Bonaventure said that after the long fast of our Lord in the desert, when the angels came to minister to him, they went first to the Blessed Mother to see what she had on her stove, and go the soup she had prepared and transported it to our Lord, who relished it the more because his mother had prepared it. Of course.”
That’s a good comfort image. Soup from momma to break the fast.
In the wilderness, the devil throws three opportunities at Jesus and each time, Jesus says, “No.” In our baptism practice, we mirror this story saying no three times to whatever is evil, whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.
We are asked “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!” (It’s a fancy way of saying “No” to the devil and anything like him)
We are asked, “Do you renounce the power of this world that rebel against God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!”
We are asked, “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!”
By saying “No,” we open ourselves up to all the ways that we will be able to say “Yes” to the God who creates, suffers with, and brings life to us. And when we need it most, angels minister to us, giving us the bread we need to survive… or maybe we’re invited to be those messengers, sharing bread for love of God and neighbor.
Blessing from Jan Richardson, “Where the Breath Begins,” Circle of Grace, page 101-103
…I tell you, this is where you will receive your life again.