40 Days! First Sunday of Lent 2023
Sermon notes from February 26, 2023, the First Sunday of Lent at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Good morning, again, St. Timothy’s family and friends and all who have gathered for worship. As we gather around our scriptures on this the last Sunday of Black History Month and the First Sunday of Lent, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel story this morning is important to us today for several reasons, the first being because the 40 days in which Jesus fasted in the wilderness is the model on which we have created and practice the season of Lent, 40 days of preparing for Easter, 40 days of self-denial, reflection, prayer and repentance. Just a quick review of the math… Lent began on Ash Wednesday this past week and if you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays of Lent, you have 40 days.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:1-11, NRSVue
Let’s Talk About the Text
These 40 days in the life of Jesus are recorded for us by Matthew and Luke, in chapter 4 of both Gospels. Mark mentions that Jesus was tested for 40 days, but doesn’t tell us any of the details. Matthew, Mark and Luke all give the story of John baptizing Jesus and the Spirit descending as a dove with a voice from heaven just before the temptations, but in John’s Gospel he has John the Baptizer tell the people about the baptism and descending Spirit in a bit of a flashback.
Between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the temptations we have substantially the same stories, but with a slight variation. They change the order of the the second and third temptations, and Luke doesn’t specify a mountain for the high place where Jesus is taken up. In Luke’s Gospel, when the tempter leaves Jesus, Luke says the tempter leaves until an opportune time. That’s important and we’ll come back to it. In both Matthew and Luke the tempter begins twice with “If you are the son of God…” and all three times Jesus answers the temptations with scriptural quotations.
Now, in the context of his day, this story is happening as Jesus moves to begin his public ministry, and it feels a lot like a right of passage, doesn’t it? It feels like a proving ground of sorts to show that he’s ready to do his ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this event immediately precedes the beginning of his public work. So for Jesus I don’t think we can completely dismiss how powerful a testing and beginning this was for his ministry.
Picture for a moment the sequence of events… Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends and a voice proclaims Jesus the beloved and pleasing Son, and then *BOOM* that same Spirit drives him or leads him into the wilderness time of testing.
That Jesus was in the wilderness place for 40 days is a possible parallel to the people of Israel wondering in the wilderness for 40 years after God brings them up out of Egypt, referenced several times as 40 years in the book of Deuteronomy. I feel like most Jewish readers of the Gospels would have caught that parallel from the stories they had heard and studied all their lives.
The meaning and message is that something important is happening here, something is about to begin! The temptations are a middle space of sorts, a liminal space, the space between God witnessing to Jesus at his baptism and Jesus being ready to start his work.
The three temptations are most important, I think, in their relation to the life of Jesus: 1) Jesus is tempted to break fast and miraculously create bread, if he is the Son of God, 2) Jesus is tempted to prove God’s promise of protection by attempting self-harm, if he is the Son of God, And lastly, 3) he is offered the world, if he will renounce God and worship the tempter.
We may wonder at the temptations, and they are bit exotic compared to the temptations that so often come our way, right? I mean, we might be tempted to cheat a little in tax season, roll a stop sign when we think no one is watching, tell a lie, have an extra slice of cake, or on a really bad day we are tempted to give into our temper, anger and frustration. But testing God? Miraculously creating bread? Worshipping some other god? Not so much.
It’s crucial for us to recognize that these temptations have everything to do with the ministry Jesus is about to start. They have everything to do with the way Jesus is about to go and call people to “take up their cross and follow” him. Let’s look at it:
- His ministry will not always be a warm bed and a full belly, and if those are his priorities then he wouldn’t be ready for starting his ministry.
- His ministry will be full of opposition and danger, but not the thrill-seeking or irresponsible testing God instead of faithfully following God.
- And certainly, if Jesus was getting into ministry for fame, glory and riches, for personal gain, he wouldn’t have been ready or able to do the ministry to which God had sent him.
So our Gospel writers are giving us this clear and unambiguous picture of a Jesus who is ready; he’s named by God at his baptism and tested in the wilderness as the very people themselves were tested, and is ready to begin his work for God.
And Identity Issue
And that brings us to where I think our lives and the life of Jesus begin to cross and overlap in this testing story. I think that this is very much a story about identity. First we have the baptism, the Spirit descending and the voice proclaiming the identity of Jesus. Then the tempter would sow doubt with that “if you are the Son of God…” business. And we have Jesus rooting his answers, his heart and mind, in the scriptures. He establishes his faith and trust in God in the face of the temptations.
This is an identity issue here at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus: Jesus is showing who is he and who he will be. Will he be able to keep his focus on God and the kingdom business for which he was sent, or will he be tempted to seek self-satisfaction? Will he trust in God or have a fickle heart which questions and tests God’s love and care? Who is Jesus? Who will he be?
You know, Lent is an identity issue, our identity issue. Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? This season is our chance to again take stock of our lives, review our hearts and minds, and make the changes needed to head in the direction we want to be going. We are reminded that God has proclaimed divine love for us and named us daughters and sons, children of the Most High… and God calls us to a Holy Lent, a self-testing of our motivations and priorities and faith in the love and work of God in us and the world around us.
Who we are and who we will be are questions for us to decide.
If you have not begun a fast, it’s not too late. If you have not yet thought about a practice of self-reflection and internal examination, it’s not too late to begin. If you’re just now thinking about the Lenten Season as an opportunity to go deeper into who you want to be and the direction you want to be headed, today is the perfect day to get started.
No Novice to Choosing God
Remember that we mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, Luke makes sure to mention at the end of the temptations that not only did the tempter leave Jesus, but left him until an opportune time. These temptations were a struggle for Jesus, even if it looked kinda easy to us in the way the story is told. Truly, it looks like Jesus had no trouble at all with these temptations, doesn’t it? Rapid fire scripture quotes, no hesitation… and yet, having fasted, being so weakened, this had to have been an opportune time for the tempter. I think, if we step beyond the stylized way the story is told, Jesus looks like he handles it so easily because he has prepared himself. This is not his first time to choose God. He’s been choosing God for some time now, and so when the testing gets tough, he’s able to continue to choose God, to stand firm in what he’s chosen.
Just quoting scripture isn’t enough, nor does simply quoting scripture necessarily show wisdom or relationship with God; the temper finally resorts to it in trying to catch Jesus. But I believe we see that Jesus has made the effort to know scripture in the context of loving God and choosing God, so it is a strength to him. Jesus has chosen God and grown in God before the temptations, and that gives scripture the power to strengthen him and uphold his faith.
Let’s Put in the Effort
Let’s do the work of choosing:
- Let’s choose a fast that makes room in our lives for good things to happen. Let’s choose a fast that creates space and recognition of our desire for God. Fasting is not just denial, but it’s about making room for opportunity and potential.
- Let’s set aside time for prayer, setting alarms and creating space in our lives that prioritize prayer, so that it’s not just an afterthought or forgotten intention. Prayer is not just asking for God’s help, but also living in God’s presence.
- Let’s prioritize opportunities and resources for going deeper with scripture and our faith; let’s lean into our midweek study times and our Morning Prayer times on Mondays and Thursdays. If you’re a reader, get a good book. Find some uplifting and strengthening music. Make time to talk and pray with a trusted spiritual friend. Use the time of Lent to create helpful and faithful routines that will carry on into the rest of the year!
Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? These are not questions we ask and answer just one time, but every day and with each breath. And the more we choose God the better able we are to hold onto our choice when the wilderness times and storm times and times of weakness come our way. So may our Lenten practices and observances strengthen us in our choice of God, of faith and of one another. May our faith be made strong and our choice of who we want to be in this world made firm.
May God, the God of wilderness places and the God of difficult times, be our help and strength when moments of testing arise. And may we practice choosing God and following the example of Jesus who knew who he was to be and wanted to be. In the love, the grace and the calling of God. Amen, amen and amen.
Good Friday Gratefulness
It’s Holy Saturday and I’m supposed to be quietly waiting for Easter, focused specifically on the darkness of the tomb and the cost off the cross. Instead, I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the services yesterday, especially the long vigil we held from noon to 3pm.
The clergy and good folks at St James Episcopal Church in Potomac opened their hearts and minds to a new vigil exercise, different from previous years. Together as a community we followed the readings of the fourteen stations of the Biblical Way of the Cross as designed by the late Pope John Paul II. These fourteen stations are all built upon scripture instead of upon a mix of scripture and tradition. They are also accompanied by some amazing prayers!
As we read, prayed and sang through the stations many volunteers placed pieces of a tableau at the altar for each one. At the end we had an installation of greenery, signs and elements of the crucifixion, each related to the passages we read. In the final station we placed a corpus upon the altar, a representation of the wrapped and buried body of Christ.
Let me say honestly, a three hour vigil is a long time, wearying and taxing. I have such respect for my clergy colleagues (Meredith and Mary Margaret) who stood, vested and focused, for the lion’s share of three hours of liturgy and stations, just to uncomfortably kneel the rest of the time. I was on my feet as well, but I was at the back of the sanctuary directing the placement of the tableau pieces. I had a chair handy, but stood in solidarity with those on stage.
I have heard good things from some who haven’t worked together to make such a tableau before, and I’m so happy that the images and art spoke to them. I am most moved by what we did for the stations in which Peter betrays Jesus and then later when Jesus forgives the criminal on the cross… we had a familiar image, a Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was made to be broken in two at Peter’s denial and then put back together at the moment Jesus forgives the dying criminal: a broken heart, and a healthy active heart.
What a blessing. I am so grateful to have shared the time with the amazing souls at St James, grateful for the legacy of selfless love and devotion we find in Christ. I am so blessed by God’s church. Easter will be that much sweeter in joy and celebration after such a rich Good Friday.
Have a great Easter Sunday, beloved!
Beginning Lent 2019
Sitting behind the altar yesterday, having received the ashes and having imposed the ashes for others, I found a quiet moment to flip over to a prayer in our Book of Common Prayer…
Prayers for the Church
7. For the Church
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is
amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in
want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake
of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer pg. 816
This prayer touched me, on the first day of Lent, in the wake of the recent divisive decisions and news from the United Methodist Church, in the context of the Church of Rome and many others finally facing up to sexual sins they have worked so hard to hide for so long… and I prayed it sincerely.
In case you don’t know, when Episcopalians pray or speak of the Catholic Church we mean the whole of the Church in all places and times, not just the Church of Rome. The word Catholic comes to us from the Greek katholikos which is a combination of kath and holo, throughout and whole.
The prayer resonated with me as a needed reminder that we must resist the mistake of equating the church with God, just as we must always remember that our beloved scriptures are not God. When the church fails, God has not. When scriptures fail, God has not. But it still hurts. In daily life it’s too easy to look to what can be seen or touched for our compass and foundation. And when those foundations shake, we fall apart. When our compass fails to point a way from pain to healing, we despair.
As I begin this year’s Lenten journey I’m feeling called to pray for more than my own transformation, but also for a transforming of the church, all of us, throughout the whole. We have fumbled with truths that should have been held tightly. We’ve too often exchanged peace for power. We’ve ignored our neighborly responsibility to this world and its people. Reform us, God! Please, heal the hurting!
This morning I pray that our Mothering God would teach us to have broken and pliable hearts. I pray that the Holy Spirit, the spiritual presence of God living within each of us, would give us her wisdom and a deeper joy. I pray that Christ would truly be our spiritual food and daily sustenance, the One who animates us as we speak and act. I pray that the whole church throughout all of humanity will be courageous in its love and humble its following of the God who breaks down the barriers between us and frees us to love and serve one another. This is my Lenten prayer.
Loving the Unseen to Love the Seen
I must confess something to you: I’ve always doubted, at least a little, John’s statement that we cannot love a God we do not see if we do not love a sister or brother we can see. It always seemed to me that an opposite principle would be truer, that loving what can be seen is far easier than loving what is not seen, and not loving the seen is also easier. I mean, I see the failings and suffer the injury of these seen brothers and sisters, don’t I? I also see their beauty and goodness at times. So then, how can my love of God be doubted by my lack of love for other people, especially when they can sometimes be seen as not very deserving of that love?
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears
has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, “I love God,”
and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister
whom they have seen, cannot love God
whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4:18-21
Have you ever read some of the old prayers of saints gone by, the prayers that are rich hymns of love for our unseen God? Those prayers have drawn me like a moth to the flame for years, and also left me a bit confounded. How do these prayers come into being? How do I love an unseen God that way, and not just be celebrating the ideas of that God which I’ve been taught?
Let us pray…
“I entreat thee, dearest Saviour,
come and reign over my heart.
Far from me for ever be all other loves but thine,
my Supreme Good.
Burn me with the fire of thy beauty,
O sovereign of my heart;
to thee I sacrifice all, even my inmost being.
Jesus, lord of my heart, mighty and strong, all hail!
O Saviour, reign absolutely over this heart of mine.
Oh! How happy I am to think
that thy reign can have no end.
Thousands of hearts have loved thee tenderly,
thousands of hearts will cherish thee in time to come.
Would that they were all united with mine
to love and cherish thee as thou deservest.
Would that I could make thee sought for and loved
by all the sons of Adam, Lord who art all lovable!
Triumph, my love, my beginning, and my all!
I want thee only, desire thee alone!
My joy, my great joy is that thou art God,
a God that is good, perfect, immeasurable,
infinte, just, wise, powerful.
I love thee for thy own sake, and I rejoice
in thy favours for the sole reason that they are thine!
I throw myself into thy arms, Jesus,
with all the fervour of my soul.
I sing for joy that all of the angels
and saints adore and praise thee.
Oh! That I could love thee in proportion as thou art lovable!
But since this is impossible for any creature,
let me at least love thee as much as I can and ought.
Fill my soul with thy love, my God,
so that I may die in its embrace,
wholly devoured and burnt up in its flame.
How much I repent having loved anything else but thee!
Oh! Would that I might have my life over again,
and drown it in thy love!
Sweet life of my soul, let my heart faint away in thee!
What else can I desire in heaven,
what else can I seek on earth,
I have asked of thee one favour alone,
and it is all that I shall seek, Lord, at thy hand:
to dwell in thy house all the days of my life.
May my last breath be a sigh of love.
May I die of thy love, my God.
May my life, if it did not begin with love,
at least end in it;
and let my last act be an act of love.”
from the Aspirations of Cardinal Bona
I have prayed these aspirations with the good Cardinal many times over the years, always caught and entranced by the deep poetry and power of the words. This morning as I was praying my own small daily aspiration “let me love, let me learn, let me serve” I was reminded of this prayer of love and I turned to love God with my whole self. I turned all my inner strength to focus on loving my God, my unseen God, my hope and center of faith. From that exercise of loving God, straining to love and embrace the unseen, I felt another door open, a door to a treasure room of strength to love the people around me.
I think now that John was actually saying something along these lines… that we can’t have truly given ourselves to the act of loving God, a God we do not see, if a greater love for those who are seen around us has not been manifested in our lives. He’s not essentially contrasting the ability to love what is seen versus what is unseen, but he’s teaching a principle: Turning our hearts to God in a deep stream of affection and love will automatically cause us to have a deeper affection and love for the people around us made in the image of God and so beloved by God. If I’m not loving people, and I find it so difficult to do so, then I need to turn back to applying myself to loving God, for that love is being lost.
In truth, in living the religious life, walking in faith for years, there are many pitfalls that can sneak in and replace my love of God: love of self, feelings of correctness, personal piety, personal giftedness, pride, anger, impatience, fatigue. Love takes effort. Remember how our scriptures tie the love of God and the love of other people together in several ways, from this passage in John’s letter to the famous summary of Law and prophets that Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40 that is repeated by Paul in his letters: 1) love the Lord your God and, 2) love your neighbor as your very self.
But somewhere past simply agreeing that those two commands constitute a summary of the Law, past agreeing that these are two important streams of love, there is a reality that John’s seems to hint at for us, that there is an intrinsic connection between those loves. Instead of getting caught up in arguing with John about ways to love those seen and unseen, I need to immerse myself in loving the unseen so that the tidal surge and burning sweep of that love may overflow to the people around me. May I love my God in such a giving of myself, such a visceral application of my strength and being, that when my eyes move to those around me my eyes still see only God. And then I not only am loving the people I see, but my cherished unseen God suddenly has a face as well.
It’s Ash Wednesday again, and if you don’t have plans tonight I’d like to invite you to join my family at St. John’s Episcopal Church for the imposition of ashes and celebration of the Holy Eucharist. (I’m working all day and can’t make an earlier service.) We’ve come to another Lenten Season, a time of reflection, repentance, sometimes rededication. But, why ashes?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t think about our death each day. And really it’s probably healthy for us not to be too focused on our impending deaths. Once in a while though, it’s good and it’s healthy to remember that our journey here on earth needs to be made with intention, and it needs to be made in view of the end and the destination of our journey.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
St. Francis on Compassion
“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
Saint Francis of Assisi
This is a day and age when we are openly speaking of care and concern for all the earth, and compassion for the lost beauty and lost goodness of an ill-treated creation is an appropriate response to destruction of habitats, litter, oil spills and human negligence.
As an individual, does my stewardship of creation reflect my love of people? Does my compassion for the hurting extend to animals as well as humans? Have I allowed my compassion to be stunted and limited?
I believe that these are the kind of questions that would drive St. Francis to give us such a warning. I can ill afford to let my compassion be stunted or bounded or restrained. If it is to be a ready gift to my own species, a blessing to other people, then I must allow it to be growing and ever-expanding for each and all.
The Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours,
all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High,
do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day;
and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant
in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which
you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom
you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful,
and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits
with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who
endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds
doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve him with great humility.
Desmond Tutu on Active Compassion
“Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
And amen, Todd
A Compassion Prayer
“God, another day unfolds before us…
Help me to forgive more and judge less.
Help me to love more and be angry less.
Help me to speak more grace than criticism.
Help me simply to speak less and listen more.
Help me see another’s beauty before their flaws.
And bring to me people who will forgive me,
love me, speak grace to me, listen to me
and celebrate the beauties of my life.
The Necessity of Compassion
I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama. I like so much of what he says, teaches and exhibits in his life and humility. And I can’t tell you how much I wish I could work some Buddhist robes into my daily life, I just don’t have the body for it. So in the interests of being compassionate to others I’ll just quote the Dalai Lama and leave myself safely encased in flannel.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Dalai Lama XIV
As I read Jesus year after year, I’m more persuaded that the idea of life is not to make the world like me, or to make the world to be like me, but life is an effort to love and serve the world around me. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is on record as having said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only does judging use up my time, it also wastes my precious energy and skews my prayers. I truly believe that living my life in judgment of others does more harm to my own soul than effects correction in anyone’s life.
Today, I’m going to let the man in orange speak to me. Compassion is not something I can ignore or replace in my life without serious consequences to my own health and the world’s joy. As Micah’s words have needfully reminded us for so very long: let us be about justice, mercy and humility, walking the road of life with a God we proclaim to be love. (1 John 4:7-9)