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.