Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent 2022
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Psalm 91:1-2,9-16 Romans 10:8b-13
The leading concerns of the texts in this First Sunday in Lent are temptations that lead to death and God’s Spirit that leads to life. Not light topics to struggle with. But woven in and among all of them is the presence and promise of God. We hear this gospel reading, because Lent commemorates the forty days of Jesus’ temptation and fasting in the wilderness. The Gospel reading stresses that the response of Jesus to the temptations was faith in God and the confession of that faith. The other readings of the day carry forward these same themes. In Deuteronomy, we hear instructions for the celebration of the festival of first fruits, including the confession of faith. The psalm is a meditation on God’s care for those who trust in the Lord. In Romans, Paul tells us that justification follows belief and salvation follows confession.
I have been trying to imagine how Jesus felt right after his baptism. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit into the wilderness. Whatever Jesus was feeling, he didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Spirit of God “led” Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is led into the wilderness with his hair still wet from the baptism – so much for being God’s beloved son.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to embrace an intentional way of life. In some traditions, Lent is referred to as the “Season of Bright Sadness,” a beautiful illustration of what these forty days represent. The bright hope of the Resurrection is overcast with a cloud of sadness, anticipating the betrayal and death of Christ. This season teaches us to hold in our hands both the celebration of life and the reality of death.
It’s not just the death and resurrection of Christ, but the undeserved grace and deliverance from death that we must come to terms with. For the forty days of Lent (not including Sundays), we follow the example of Jesus who was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil”. The Spirit doesn’t just drop him off in the wilderness to fend for himself. The Spirit continues to abide with him, enabling him to grow stronger through this season.
In Luke’s account, we see that the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus in baptism and his faithfulness to God amid the testing that prepares Jesus for his mission. Being chosen and anointing isn’t enough preparation either for our ministry gathered here or scattered throughout the community. During Lent, we are tempted and stretched and led to places of hunger and despair. The branches on the altar help us enter the wilderness with Jesus. What is it that we are to learn during these forty days? What are we to let go of? The stones in your hands represent whatever that may be. I have found that each time we talk about our stones – they represent something different for me, depending on what’s going on in my life at the time. You may find that to be true too. When we let go of our “stuff” then God fill us to overflowing with love and hope and compassion and joy. Only then do we learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all our needs in all of life’s seasons.
There is a spiritual depth and power for life and ministry that is made possible as we respond in faith to trials, trouble, and temptation. If given a choice, most of us will not choose difficulty in our daily life. We don’t enter the wilderness on our own volition. We are not gently led there by the Holy Spirit. We are thrown into the wilderness. Most of us know that experience at some point in our lives. A shattering of a relationship, the sudden loss of job or health or home, a fault line opening up in our ground of being – any of those things can land us in a desolate place, or land a desolate place within us. We hear the details of Jesus’ inner struggles. We experience Jesus’ ongoing battle with Satan and the forces of evil. In the wilderness, we experience the beginning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century. His story is both tragic and inspiring. After his ordination, Bonhoeffer worked in Barcelona and at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While on New York, he was invited to experience the Harlem Renaissance. He was exposed to different more emotional worship in the black American Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was in America when the war broke out in Germany. He could have stayed and been safe, but he chose to return to his homeland and speak out against Hitler. He wrote,” It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”
Bonhoeffer believed that religious experiences only happen in community. His return to Germany began a twelve-year struggle against Nazism in Germany. He supposedly was a part of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. A large part of his published works was smuggled out of prison. When the Third Reich crumbled in April 1945, Hitler ordered the execution of all those who were a part of the assignation attempt. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 8, 1945, just ten days before German forces began to surrender and less than three weeks before Hitler’s own death by suicide. Our Wednesday evening devotions are written by Bonhoeffer. One question posed in this week’s reading - “If God is with us, but we are not with God, what then?
Several years ago, when I was struggling with my calling, as I sat in the shadows of Ash Wednesday, I felt weary, and bewildered about my path, about my wilderness. Thinking, “I can’t do this, I’m not equipped, I’m not worthy, I can’t be like Jesus, I’m not Jesus, why can’t it be easy”. A small child stirred, whimpered and whined in the background and I realized that was what I was doing with God. I took a deep breath, a cleansing breath and released the angst. Then I felt a stirring in my heart, a warming of light and love. As the warmth spread, I realized on a basic physical level that I was being awakened, recalled to an awareness and engagement with life. I heard, “When have you learned who and whose you are when it was easy.” It seems that growth and awareness of God’s hand in my life have always come during challenging times, those wilderness moments. God’s hand seems bigger during those times of struggle. I felt renewed, the sacred space where I was sitting felt transformed. I began to experience what it feels like to fall into God’s grace.
A nurtured spiritual life connects us to where we come from, even in the midst of where we are now. It gives us roots. That is what Lent does for us. It’s about reaching back to remember who we are even while we keep on becoming more than we were. Lent is one of Christian practices that binds the faith community to one another and to its beginnings. It ties us to the core of us that is not changing, that does not fail. We are not alone. We walk with the church throughout the world on this journey of renewal. We walk, too with the One who has gone before us to bring us home again.
Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. We know that when there is less of us in the picture, there is more room for God. We are told to look at our actions, our priorities in living out a life of faith. Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ wilderness experience challenge us, prepare us to reevaluate how we are living our lives.
Lent is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it fresh, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it. It is a call to prayer, to liturgy, to the co-creation of the world. It is about rising to the full statue of human reflection and in so doing, accepting the challenge to become fully alive, fully human rather than so self centered that we fail to see others and fail to see God in them.
What is asked of Jesus is what is asked of us: that we give up illusion – its false promises and it addicting resistance – and come to our senses. We know that the temptations focused on the basics: physical needs, possessions and pride. Things we face every day. Physical needs are different from physical wants. Most of us have some kind of muffled hunger in our lives. One does not live by bread alone. From deep within Jesus emerges his refusal of the way of power, a refusal he will have to repeat again and again on the way to the cross. Jesus will be doggedly and passionately one with God’s struggling and needy children. To stand with them means that he can never stand over them.
The desert is not only a physical place. It is also a spiritual place abundant with spots to engage the self-examination and repentance commended to the faithful during Lent. The many offerings are listed on the Lenten Offerings in the back. To better prepare us for the Kingdom of God and to better profess the Good News, I challenge you to add something, to enrich your daily practice – daily devotions, mid-week Eucharist, Stations of the Cross, making a confession, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, devotional readings available in the back. Lent is a time of looking for resources that will equip us to live authentically as God’s people, and inspire us to live in God’s grace. And when we do, we become actively engaged in our own lives, our families, our work, our church, our community, our world.
In sending Jesus into the wilderness, God was asking, “Can you hear me?” God also asks us. Can we hear that the one who was with Jesus is also with us always, even when we’re in the wilderness? Can we recognize the “angels” God sends to wait on us? Can we hear God’s call to us to be angels who accompany others in their lonely and desolate places? Can we hear God??? Amen.