First Sunday in Lent

But what does it say?

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because[a] if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In the Spring of 2010, I put on my clerical collar, finished preparing for my first Ash Wednesday service with this congregation, and walked across the street to the local pizza joint.  I ordered a salad and a slice of meat lovers pizza.  The waitress came towards me with a tray containing my lunch.  As she got close, she looked at my collar and then look at my meal.  She looked at the collar and looked at the slice of meat lover’s pizza.  “FATHER, IT’S ASH WEDNESDAY!  WHY ARE YOU EATING THIS?

Lent for some is about eating fish on Fridays, or the practice of giving something up for the season. Having grown up without many Catholics around me, I was not very aware of such practices; yet, being Presbyterian, I have come to enjoy the freedom from such demands. I could keep eating meat on Friday, and did not have to give up chocolate or other treats. Curiously, this resulted in feelings of both smugness and jealousy.

As Protestants began to rediscover Lent as a season of penitence and self- reflection, an alternative to the “give up for Lent” practice emerged. Instead of denial, the thought was to add something at Lent. Rather than give up a food or pleasure, the idea was to take on a practice, from setting aside time for daily prayer or devotion, to embracing a regular exercise program.

Yet, in the end, whether one gives up chocolate or cake, endures a daily trek on the treadmill, or sits for fifteen minutes in prayerful silence, the focus of such disciplines is often on ourselves. That is not to say we are not doing something good in watching what we eat or seeking to be more fit, or even having a Lenten practice of daily Scripture reading. I am not even suggesting we stop doing so, but our text this morning seek to alert us to the warning signs of legalism.

Paul wrote to the Roman Church about how God sent the law to be received as a gift to the people. What happened was following the requirements of the law became a prideful measure of personal faithfulness. In other words, if I obey the food laws, and make my offerings and say the right words when I present them; if I regularly go to synagogue, and I fast and pray and give alms to the poor, then God will be pleased – with me! And God will come close – to me! And God will provide protection and blessings – for me!

It would seem there is a human inclination or desire to have clear directions about both the rituals and practices of faith, and in our everyday lives. We may say, “Just tell me what to do to earn the promotion, or receive the raise, or be accepted into the college or graduate program. Just give me the directions, the rituals, the Lenten practice that will make God notice, earn God’s favor, and bring God close.”

Therein lies the problem. In our desire for clear directions, we fail to remember God is already close. It is not up to us to bring God close, and particularly not by our rituals and practices. God is already close. What we are to do is trust God is close.

In his biblical commentary on Romans, Paul Achtemeier, writes that the goal of the law was to engender trust in God, not define Israel’s contribution to the relationship with God. It is an important distinction, in that God was already close, through the law, and there was no need for the people to create a hierarchy of closeness based on their own achievements.

So, in any Lenten ritual or practice we observe, may it steer clear of centering on us and be aimed at enhancing our trust God is already close to us. Again, we cannot induce God’s favor or closeness. God is here, and our challenge is to trust God is close to us even in wilderness times, and then have our lives reflect it.

When our lives reflect God’s grace we know in Jesus, it becomes our confession with our lips and our hearts – not just in the words we speak, but the trust with which we speak them. It is this trust people sense.

This theme of trust is on full view in Jesus’ own wilderness temptations. Again, at least two of the temptations are seductive. Turn stones into bread and you will be able to feed people in this land prone to drought and famine – people will love you. Just worship me and all the lands and empires you can see will be under your control – you will be a liberating Messiah, overthrowing the Roman emperor. People will love you.

What Jesus is being tempted to do is be someone he is not. He is tempted to set aside the trust he has in God’s purpose for him while a human on this earth. How tempting to feed all the people with bread, and to overthrow Augustus Caesar – and be loved as the liberator. The final temptation, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, is a test of Jesus’ willingness to test God.

A part of me wonders if the human Jesus knew exactly what was ahead for him, even fully knowing what God’s intentions were for his life. A part of me almost hopes he did not, for if he could resist the temptations without being fully sure, then it offers hope for me when we are in such wilderness times, when we find ourselves caught in the strange land of not being sure we are the self, God intends, but also not sure exactly what God does intend for our lives.

At such times of uncertainty, it is tempting to reach for something that seems great, or even to test God by jumping. Yet, then comes that voice that says, “Don’t jump!” Even if we do not know what is coming next, even if Jesus was not completely sure what was coming next in his life, we, as did he, can sense what God does not intend, and so we don’t jump!

Just as Jesus did not take the bait and jump from the pinnacle of the temple, tempting God’s angels to catch him and protect him as gracefully as a parachute landing, so we are warned not to jump into the temptation of being something or someone we are not. Don’t jump into the lure of success or power. Don’t jump! Don’t jump from the place where God is already close to you.

On Wednesday, we began this season with the following words: Friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our lives in the paschal mystery.  We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes.  This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marks the penitence of this community.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by works of love, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.

Let us bow before God, our Creator and Redeemer, and confess our sins.

Let us recognize that God is close and Lent is a season to recognize God’s walking beside us.  Thanks be to God!

Commentary by Elizabeth Shively, Audrey West, J.R. Daniel Kirk, Anna B. Olsen, and Richard E. Otty