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.
I Get To Sermonize Some!
I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…
January 22 at 5pm
March 5 at 5pm
April 2 at 8am, 11:15am and 5pm
It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)
St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.
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?
Ash Wednesday is next week, February 18th! If you know me, then you’ve probably heard me mention growing up without a Lenten tradition. I was raised in an interesting little brand of Protestant Christianity which emphasized that days like Christmas Day and Easter were not to be religious holidays for us. We could celebrate them, but not religiously. We didn’t wear “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” buttons and we were told that “Every Sunday is Easter!” So yeah, Lent didn’t exactly fit the model we used for faith.
I discovered that Lent holds hidden treasures and depths of spirituality that I desperately need. Growing older and going deeper in studying Orthodox Theology and exploring my own affinities for high church experience with beloved Episcopal and Roman Catholic friends and guides, I have come to appreciate the practice and I insist on the cleansing cycle of Lent for my life. It is always a good time, time well spent and effort rewarded by drawing closer to God in tangible ways.
Here are some of the things I’ve found across the web that can help us get into a Lenten journey this year. These are recommendations on things from photo-a-day projects to creating your own sacred space for prayer and meditation…
Seven Tips for Creating Sacred Space for Lent
RethinkChurch.org’s photo-a-day for Lent 2015
General Background Info on Lent
Eastern Orthodox Fasting in Lent
Various Fasting Ideas for Lent
How about a “Lenten Carbon Fast?”
I would also like to share a few things I have worked on over the years for Lent… the first is a Lent With the Psalms 2015. I made this last year for 2014 and have updated it for the days of Lent in 2015. Also, two years ago I made a daily life retreat that I have updated and readied for this year: 2015 Lenten Daily Retreat. Finally, new for this year… I will be tweeting/blogging/Facebooking daily during Lent on the Theme of Compassion! Hope you’ll jump in and participate!
Here are some other related posts on prayer from my blog…
Prayer Intention: Finding Rhythm
A Morning Prayer, adapted from Psalm 51
Have a blessed Lenten Season!