holy Lent high points

In case you didn’t notice the Great Litany at the start of today’s service, I’m here to remind you that Lent is upon us.  On Wednesday, almost one hundred seventy-five of us gathered across three services to take part in the Ash Wednesday call to repentance.  With ashes upon our brows, we confessed our sins, recalled our mortality, and gave thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.  In her sermon, Mother Becca invited us into a season of fasting, not in a self-help kind of way, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the redemption of the world by the loosening of the yoke of oppression.  It is interesting how, when one hears a sermon three times over, different things stick out.  On my first hearing, I was very much in tune with her use of the yoke metaphor.  At noon, I was wondering about my own fast and what I am called to do to loose the bonds of injustice.  By six pm, as the day grew long, I was caught short by the reality that Lent lasts 40 days.

I’m sure this never happens to you, but instantly, my imagination went off on a wild goose chase. I began to think about the ways in which I have marked time and waited for things in the past.  One favorite way that we’ve used with our girls is the paper chain.  When we’re just so excited about a future event that we can’t even stand it, we pull out the calendar and count how many days until the event.  Once we know how long it is until Christmas, Spring Break, or a visit from Uncle Nate, and since each child needs their own paper chain, we’ll cut twice that number of paper strips, staple them in intertwining loops, and voila, a countdown mechanism.  Every morning, another ring comes off until the big day arrives.

Last week, we heard the story of Moses entering into the cloud of fire atop Mount Sinai.  The lesson ended by telling us that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  I wonder if he made a paper chain?  Or, since paper wasn’t really a thing yet, did he weave together strips of papyrus or mark off the days on a stone tablet of some kind?  When Jesus was sent out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Devil, I wonder if he knew how long he’d be out there?  Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days, so I’m guessing he didn’t bring a whole lot out to the desert with him.  Certainly, he didn’t have a stapler, but perhaps he marked his days on the rock he used as a pillow.  I don’t know, the imagination is a funny thing.

The Season of Lent makes paper chain making challenging.  In our tradition, the forty days of Lent actually take forty-six days to get through.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the lighting of the Great Fire at the Easter Vigil, the season itself lasts forty-six days, but the fast is only forty.  Sundays are a free day, a mini-Easter, a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, even as we await the fullness of that celebration on Easter Day.  The six Sundays are in Lent, not of it, so you can maybe cheat and have dessert on Sunday, but you shouldn’t pull a rung of the paper chain unless you want Easter to fall on Monday of Holy Week.

The Lenten fast lasts forty days in line with Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Noah’s rain storm, and of course, the Gospel lesson for every first Sunday in Lent, Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  In Judaism, the number forty marked periods of transition and preparation.  As inheritors of that tradition, Christians define Lent as a forty-day period of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus.  This morning, on our first cheat day, 10% of the way through the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we might live in preparation for the joy of Easter Day.  In the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent, we were invited to self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Jesus’s fast was heavy on self-denial, but if we look closely at the story from Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus hit all the holy Lent high points.  Remember that immediately before being led into the wilderness, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  As he came out of the water, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Gospels don’t tell us much of what happened to Jesus before this moment.  We don’t really know how confident Jesus was in his calling as the Messiah leading up to his baptism.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus really needed to hear those words from heaven.  Maybe his forty days in the wilderness was an extended opportunity for self-reflection.  These forty days were for Jesus, and can be for us, a chance to spend some time listening carefully for God’s call upon our lives and to repent, to turn our attention away from self and toward the mission of God to restore all things to right relationship.  In order to engage in a time of intentional self-reflection, many people will choose to give up one or more of the distractions of our world like social media, television, gossip magazines, or video games.  With more space for silence, we have a greater chance of hearing God’s still small voice.

As I said, Jesus was heavy on prayer, fasting, and self-denial during his own personal Lent.  Matthew goes so far as to tell us that by the time his forty day fast from food was over, Jesus was famished, which is where the Devil saw his chance.  It was through Jesus’ stomach that the Tempter first tried to get Jesus to overstep his bounds.  It was because of his forty days of fasting and self-reflection, however, that Jesus was able to be clear about his call.  God hadn’t yet called him to perform such a miracle.  It wasn’t his time.  I find that fasting is where the Devil can get me as well.  Being hangry is no good for anyone, but the act of intentionally going without can be an opportunity to be reminded that everything we have comes from God. Going without for a while is a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for what one has.

Finally, this lesson from Matthew reminds us of the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Jesus didn’t have an iPhone to kill time on in the desert.  Instead, he probably spent his days going through the stories from the Hebrew Bible that he knew so well.  Stories that his mother had taught him since his youth; stories that he had studied intently as a rabbinical student; stories that had become written on his heart, so that, even when the Tempter tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was ready to respond.  As you maybe set aside one of life’s many distractions in order to make space for God, I invite you to pick up your own Bible and to read and meditate on God’s great love story contained therein.

There are 42 more days in Lent and 36 more days of it.  I pray that, rather than just biding our time until the celebration of Easter, this holy season might be for each of us an opportunity to be still, to listen, and to grow deeper in our relationships with God.  Amen.

It’s Temptation Sunday!

You can listen to what I actually ended up saying on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on to see where I jumped off from.

Have you ever felt envious or jealous toward Jesus?  I mean, in about six weeks’ time, as he’s sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, getting arrested, and hanging crucified on a tree, we won’t wish we were him, but this morning as we hear about his 40 days in the wilderness, maybe you’re getting just a tinge of jealousy. Jesus’ wilderness experience isn’t easy, but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Two-thousand years later, the Church invites us into a 40 day wilderness experience every year. Jesus was able to focus solely on his spiritual journey during his time away. Lent happens in the midst of the busyness of life: work, kids, grand kids on spring break, tax season, and, to add insult to injury, just four days into Lent this year we’ve lost an hour of sleep in the name of “Saving Daylight.”  It probably isn’t rational, but sometimes, I’m tempted to feel jealous of Jesus’ wilderness experience.

Of course, that’s what this day is all about, isn’t it?  Temptation is the overarching theme of the First Sunday in Lent, and probably with good reason.  We’ve got four full days of Lent under our belt, and if Lenten disciplines are anything like New Year’s Resolutions, then by now nearly 20% of you have already given up on what you’ve given up for Lent[1].  Couple that with the peculiarity of Lent that Sundays, as mini-Easters and Feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ, don’t count, and your personal Lenten devotion is in for a real challenge today.  I guarantee, you’ll be tempted to give up that extra 15 minutes of Bible reading, or to take back up that morning Coca-Cola before the day is over.  Temptation is alive and well here on the First Sunday in Lent.

It can be said, for many different reasons, that there was great wisdom in the members of the Standing Liturgical Commission that created the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but this morning I am particularly grateful that they chose to pray for God’s help against temptation when they made the decision to replace the Collect for Lent 1 that had appeared in every Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s first in 1549.  Somewhere, in the midst their negotiations, someone brought up a collect buried deep in the Appendix of a book published in 1864[2].  After more than two-hundred pages of history, theology, and devotional reflections on the Collects of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, William Bright, the author of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, was brave enough to offer several collects he had written himself.  Third from the end was a prayer “For the Tempted” which reads, “Merciful and High Priest, Who didst deign for us to be tempted of Satan; make speed to aid Thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and as Thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find Thee mighty to save, Who livest and reignest with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”[3]  Like I said, thankfully there are Churchnerds out there who are nerdier than even I am, and found that collect that, with only a few minor revisions, became the Collect for Lent 1 which Keith prayed on our behalf this morning.  A prayer which calls us to keep alert for the ways in which the tempter will make himself known in our lives.

The deceiver gets to work early on in scripture, seemingly within hours of Eve’s creation out of Adam’s side, sewing seeds of mistrust and doubt into their minds; finding a particular weakness that he could exploit.  “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks Eve, ignoring her nearby partner Adam, the one who was actually around to hear God give his short list of rules.[4]

“No,” Eve responds, “we can eat the fruit of almost all the trees in the garden, there’s just one, the one in the middle of the garden, that God said we couldn’t eat from, in fact, I don’t think we’re even supposed to touch it, or we’ll die.”

“Die!?!” the serpent snorted, “No way!  God wouldn’t kill you over some silly fruit, but he knows that if you eat of it, you’ll gain knowledge, you’ll have your eyes open, you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil. God hasn’t told you the whole truth,” he goes on, “you can have it all, all you have to do is eat this delicious, beautiful piece of fruit.”[5]

And eat they do.  The tempter invited them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracked open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fell into the trap, ate the fruit, and had their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body is the gift that came from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them, lost in the moment of temptation.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, this time as the devil, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the fortieth day.  Whether it is day two or day forty, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food, but take notice of the subtlety of his work.  Satan doesn’t begin by hitting Jesus’ growling stomach, but rather seeks to crack the perfect relationship between the Father and the Son.  In effect, he wants to test whether or not Jesus believed the voice that spoke at his baptism, “you are my son, whom I love.”

If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “then why are you out here starving to death?  Command these stones to become bread.”

When that didn’t work, he moved on to further test the relationship of the Godhead.  “If you are the Son of God, and if your Father loves you so much, then certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  Throw yourself off the top of the Temple and watch as he sends an army of angels to catch you.”  Jesus is not swayed.

Realizing that Jesus’ divinity is nothing to mess with, finally, the devil focuses his attention back on Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us: that piece that seeks after power and glory.  From the top of a high mountain, Satan shows Jesus every kingdom in the world, every stockpile of gold and jewels, every country club membership, every hundred-foot yacht and says, “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”

In the end, Jesus doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations of Satan by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again late one Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane and again on Friday morning in the court of Pontius Pilate and again just after noon as he hangs gasping for breath on a cross.

As the Collect for this week makes clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus does not make us immune to the work of the tempter.  Even now, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities, he knows our vices and our areas of excessive pride, and he will not stop in attempting to exploit them in order to turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.  Again and again, he’ll welcome us back into fullness of life.  You will be tempted today, I guarantee it, but rest assured that God stands beside you as a merciful and high priest ready to forgive and restore you.  Amen.


[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 174.

[3] Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, 237-8.

[4] Note that Genesis 3:6 suggests that Adam and Eve have been together through this whole story.

[5] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft/axpx?post=1488 (accessed 3/3/14).

Temptation

Years from now, we’ll look back on this post as the day Draughting Theology jumped the shark. A cat meme? Really?!?

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” – The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent (BCP, 218)

As you can tell by the Collect above, this Sunday is all about temptation.  The tempter’s work starts early on as he finds a particular weakness within Adam and Eve (note Gen 3:6 specifically says that Adam was there the whole time) and exploits it.  He invites them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracks open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fall into the trap, eat the fruit, and have their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body was the gift given from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the 40th day.  Whether it is day 2 or day 40, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food.  When that didn’t work, he moved on to testing the relationship of the Godhead.  If your Father loves you so much, certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  But Jesus is unswayed.  Finally, the devil goes back after Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us that seeks after power and control. “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”  Jesus, however, doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again and again over the next three years.

We are not immune to the work of the tempter.  Even know, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities and our areas of excessive pride, and will attempt to exploit them and in so doing, turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.

The Devil and Satan

Miroslav Satan played NHL hockey for the better part of a decade, but he never played for the New Jersey Devils.  Still, this jersey would have been kind of cool.

We get both the Devil and Satan in Sunday’s Gospel lesson for Lent 1.

devil-satanIn Matthew 4:1-11, diabolon shows up four times, satanas appears once, and a more generic term, the tempter, occurs once.  The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is fraught with personifications of evil, which is a topic that makes many an Episcopal priest itchy just thinking about.  I’m not in the itchy camp, per se, I’ve experienced too many “coincidences” in my spiritual journey to not believe that an adversary exists, but I do find the whole conversation about spiritual warfare tiring.

The tendency in conversations that deal with evil or Satan is to throw our hands up and fatalistically say, “the Devil made me do it.”  Honestly, though, that’s just a lame excuse.  We give the Devil power way beyond his pay grade.  Just look at the translations of the Greek for diabolon and satanas. Life is full of choices that have to be made, and there are forces: spiritual, moral and otherwise; that pull us in one direction or another, but in the end, every decision that we make comes down to us.  We decide whether to choose good or to choose evil, or as Moses said, “to choose life or choose death,” and the Devil didn’t make you do it.

Doubtless, many a preacher will skirt this issue, they’ll work hard to say that the Temptation story isn’t meant to be an example for us, but I just don’t buy it.  The life of faith is full of moments when we have to choose between Kingdom living or selfish living, and the clear desire of God is that we would follow the example of his Son and choose the Kingdom.

I might like Lent this year

Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with the penitential seasons of the Church.  I just don’t get Advent and last year, I gave up Lent for Lent.  With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, I’ve spent some time over the past week or so thinking about Lent this year.  Ever since The 7 Experiment’s week of fasting from media, I’ve found myself, more often than not, riding in the car without the radio on.  Naturally, then I’ve been thinking about the season in which traditionally, we give things up that take our attention away from God’s saving work in our lives.  As I drove to a VTS alumni lunch over in Pensacola last Thursday, I gave the first real thought on my Lent 1 sermon this year, and these words came to mind, “I love Lent.”

I love Lent!?!

This can’t be true.  My subconscious mind is playing tricks on me in the silence of a hour long car ride.  The more I pressed myself, however, the more I realized that I might, in fact, like Lent this year.  Maybe it is because by the time Lent rolls around, the hardest parts of The 7 Experiment will be over.  Maybe I won’t feel guilty about not giving anything up this year because my life has already been dramatically rearranged by this crazy book.  Maybe I’m already more in tune with God’s calling me toward Kingdom living than I have been in years past.  Or Maybe Lent is starting late enough and coupled with Daylight Savings Time, so the season of penitence won’t be couple with miserable weather and 6pm darkness.  Whatever it is, I find myself with the strange feeling of looking forward to Lent this year.

Maybe you are too.  Or perhaps you haven’t given it any thought yet.  With parades running almost non-stop today and tomorrow, I can understand that, but by the time you’ve gobbled down your pancakes and buried your alleluias tomorrow night, I hope you will have taken a minute to think about what Lent will be for you this year.