First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
My father is a pretty patient guy, and always has been, even when we were little. But my older brother Mark always tested his resolve to be patient. He was the instigator of many a donnybrook which often happened in the car, while we were driving to my grandparents’ house on Sunday. Mark would slap, needle, eyeball, do anything in his power to get you going. He knew everyone’s pressure points. I should say that he is my close and dearest friend now that we have put some distance between us and those halcyon days of youth.
I remember us being at the beach one summer, our one week of summer vacation every year that my father worked double time all summer to pay for. And we were in a beach shop or some place where we were looking at all the stuff, my dad’s least favorite thing to do. And he announced it was time for us to leave and everyone followed suit … except for Mark. He kept messing around, going to different parts of the store, while he was asked repeatedly to come on. So, we all get into the car and my brother has still not come out. He is maybe 10 or 11. And my dad, with a little gleam in his eye, pulled around the side of the store, so that he could see the front door, but could not be seen; I cannot remember how he managed that. Well, Mark eventually comes out. And he looks, and sees no one, and he looks, the panic rising … just as he begins to call out, my dad slowly rolls around to the front of the store. Mark gets in, doesn’t say a word, and I can swear I can see my dad chuckling to himself. God knows my siblings and I were doing more than that …
Now that might sound a bit mean and a long story for no real payoff other than to say that episode became somewhat legendary in our house (my brother actually fell for that a few more times with my dad; some kind of mischievous revenge). My father, who loves stories, still loves to tell that one. There is something about stories that knit us together, remind us who we are, and celebrate the victories and learn from the agonies of defeat in life … or lament of what might have been.
Lent is at once about story. It is the story of God’s unending love for us; and Holy Scripture is its blueprint. How many times, in the Old Testament, does the storyteller go back to tell of the father of our faith, Abraham, who left his own country, a wandering Aramean, and came to the land that God had promised. Deuteronomy follows that by reminding us of the story of the Exodus: you were once captive in the land of Egypt. But God brought you forth with a mighty hand and will give you a land again, flowing with milk and honey. And your response to this story, O Israel, is one of awe, thanksgiving, and gratitude such that you will give a portion of what you grow to the Lord, through his holy tabernacle …
Jesus relies on the story of holy writ as he responds to Satan. To the promise of turning stones to bread, as he stands starving before the devil, Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He is quoting Deuteronomy 8:2-3. Jesus responds to Satan’s promise of power and riches with Deuteronomy again, this time chapter 6, verse 13, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.” And so, it goes with even Satan quoting scripture. Sometimes the Devil knows his bible better than we do, yes? The story of Jesus’ strength and resolve, amidst temptation as he begins his ministry, has come down to us. The strength of the Jesus narrative, however, is not in its historical accuracy or subjects, necessarily. We are drawn to Jesus’ story because we have come to understand its true meaning: “… that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son …” Lent is a time when we fall deep into the story of God’s sacrifice given to us in Jesus, the Christ because it is, at the last, a story of God’s love.
Lent is not a time in the wilderness. It is the time when we are called to take some special time, maybe heightened by fasting, denial, or something else but focusing, above all else, on how our personal life story is aligning with God’s story. How are our stories infused with God … where does God seem absent? How do we square God’s seeming absence with our own view of life? How might our life be enhanced by a clearer understanding of God’s presence? And how does our sense of God’s absence, or maybe even God’s interference, change our worldview?
On Ash Wednesday I got a call, as I often do, from Touchpoints, the rehabilitation and convalescent center right down the street from us. I tell people in town, even local clergy, where Touchpoints is and they really usually don’t know. Touchpoints is filled with people who are struggling. There is no one there who isn’t. The new program director, an energetic and vivacious young woman, called to see if I might come and do the imposition of ashes with the residents. And I arrived and she and I walked down the halls, into the memory unit, and many, many people wanted to ashes.
But one man, who was wondering in the halls, let’s call him Abel, didn’t know at first if he wanted ashes. He was much younger than most of the residents there, probably still in his 40’s. And, after thinking for a moment, Abel said yes, he would like ashes. And as I said the words, “Remember, Abel, on this Ash Wednesday, that you are dust,” he said, “Father, will you pray for strength to fight my addiction.” And of course, we prayed. And we embraced, his eyes filling with tears. And I saw him the next day, when I was at Touchpoints again for Holy Communion. And when I came to him, wafer outstretched, he was hesitant. He said, quietly, his eyes full of tears, “I’m not worthy.” “Of course, you are,” I said, barely holding back tears of my own. And he received it, as the special gift it truly is. And again, he gave me a hug. And after the service, he lingered, eyes still full of tears, struggling, mightily, with some mighty big demons, I reckon …
I will not soon forget my encounter, my story, with Abel. His gentle and tentative approach to God. Seeing God as important, a relationship he would like to have, but not feeling worthy to approach the Divine presence. I have rarely been so touched by someone in all my years of ministry and we talked only for a moment.
Lent is about moments and stories. We all have them. Where is God in our stories, especially our stories of the wilderness? Our times when we feel abandoned by God? Are we feeling abandoned and lost now, without the presence of a God who is too big, too terrifying or simply too absent for us to sense, approach, or love? Do we not feel worthy of that love? Who am I to be loved by God or, conversely, who is God and where is God and I have given up on having my life changed by the goodness and grace of God?
We can look at Paul’s story, how he became Paul in the first place? The story of Moses, who ran away, resisted, but was moved by God anyway? The story of Samson, who abused his powers, lost them, but had them restored through faith. Scripture is full of the stories of the lost and found, the hopeless who were redeemed, the merciless who somehow, through God’s grace, found mercy. But sometimes those stories seem far away from our own time in the wilderness. And maybe we aren’t lost; we would genuinely love to understand and know, more fully and completely, God’s love and grace in our lives. Wherever we are, Lent calls us to find new ways to approach God’s glory through Jesus, His son, who cast off His glory, so that He could know us and embrace us, in all our messiness. How can we begin, from wherever we are?
God invites us, during this season of Lent to begin our journey. To pray and prepare ourselves for the good news that is coming at Easter. Lent represents how we can all approach God through the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that we are never too far gone, too hopeless, too angry … Jesus’ story overwhelms every other story, the greatest story ever told, because in Christ’s story is our story of salvation. Jesus is God’s desire to enter into our human story. We are connected to the God of our creation by Jesus’ life. Lent invites us to enter into Jesus’ story of suffering, grace, teaching, and – at the last – redemption.