slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (sung)
I’ve been singing those words ever since Wednesday.
Those words from the prophet Joel are often read on Ash Wednesday,
and in the church I grew up in we sang this refrain every Sunday throughout Lent.
For me, these words hold within them the whole purpose of Ash Wednesday and Lent:
God’s invitation to turn away from all that distracts and misleads and tempts us,
and return our attention to God’s steadfast love and grace.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent.
If you have been around churches for a while,
you’ll recognize the signs.
The vestments are purple – including a drape on the cross.
We don’t say or sing Alleluia, because it’s a season of penitence.
And our story today is the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.
In every year of our three-year cycle of readings, this story is read on this Sunday –
in versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Jesus has just been baptized.
While he was in the water, the Spirit descended from heaven as a dove,
and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”
God says, “This is my Son,” and with those words lays claim to Jesus as God’s own, and sets Jesus on a particular path of ministry and obedience.
But what does this mean?
What does it mean for Jesus to be God’s Son – living in the world as a human being?
Immediately after being baptized, and hearing these words spoken over him,
Jesus goes into the wilderness and fasts for 40 days.
Actually, the story says that The Spirit of God leads Jesus into the wilderness
in order that he might be tempted.
Whatever it is he needs to learn or make clear for himself in his fasting and temptation,
it is by God’s hand that he finds himself there.
Jesus is tempted by the devil.
It is helpful to remember that “the devil” here is not the horned creature
who rules over hell in later mythology.
The word for devil – dia ballo in Greek – is a noun that means “one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits or slanders.”
In their encounter, the devil tries to mislead Jesus about the meaning and purpose of his life and ministry.
Instead, Jesus defines for himself what it means to be the Son of God.
Jesus has been fasting for 40 days, and he is famished.
He is fully experiencing the discomfort and vulnerability of being human.
The devil – the exploiter of weakness – tempts him to choose divine power over human weakness.
His temptations force the questions –
Can you really abdicate power and be fully human?
Can you really exercise restraint and work in obscurity?
The devil tempts Jesus to use his divine power for his own good,
to take back what he has denied by living as a human.
And each time, Jesus chooses to trust God and follow through as God’s human Son.
On a website called Journey with Jesus, Debi Thomas writes,
“If those forty days in the wilderness was a time of self-creation, a time for Jesus to decide who he was and how he would live out his calling, then here is what the Son of God chose: Deprivation over power. Vulnerability over rescue. Obscurity over honor. At every instance in which he could have reached for the certain, the extraordinary, and the miraculous, he reached instead for the precarious, the quiet, and the mundane.”
In short, Jesus decides each time to throw in his lot with us –
the ordinary, mundane, vulnerable humans for whom he came.
His fast and temptation bring Jesus face to face with his humanity,
and he chooses over and over to trust solely in God’s love and grace.
The journey of Lent is a journey of facing our own humanity,
in all of its messiness, vulnerability, and obscurity.
Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with the most mundane, terrifying reality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In Lent we remember the many ways we are tempted –
tempted to forget who we are and whose we are,
tempted to choose the easy way, or the way of power, instead of love.
Maryetta Anschutz, head of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, helpfully describes some of our struggle with temptation:
“Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.
“Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand.
“Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease.
“Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control definies who we are.
“Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around.
“Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.”
If none of that makes you wince, maybe you don’t need Lent.
But for the rest of us – who heard too much of ourselves in Anshutz’s descriptions of daily temptation and mundane evil – Lent is an invitation and a blessing.
Just as God’s Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness,
that he might be tempted and thus remember what it means to trust God alone,
God’s Spirit leads us into a Lenten journey.
We are invited to practices of prayer, repentance, and fasting,
to assist us in seeing ourselves more clearly –
our faults, our ordinariness, and our messy choices.
But it is not to make us feel guilty, or to suffer as Jesus suffered.
Lenten practice is meant to free us – to clear our minds and help us see –
even with all our faults and messiness, we, too, are Beloved of God.
We, too, can trust solely in God.
We are God’s children, and that is our primary identity,
the most important thing.
Lenten practices are really meant to help us get out of our own way
and show up for God.
Skip a meal and spend time in prayer instead.
Add a practice of meditation or Scripture reading, daily or a few times a week.
Commit to being in worship each week.
Join a group reading Down and Out in Providence and discussing what it means to follow Jesus in a world where children experience homelessness.
Take a morning walk and thank God for the day ahead.
What you do is less important than just doing something to
show up, slow down, and open yourself to God.
“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (sung)