So, it’s the first Sunday of Lent and I have to confess that so far, anyway, I haven’t had a very Lenten Lent. On Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday, I had a couple glasses of wine. On Friday, I ate French fries, and yesterday, Saturday, I ate a piece of black forest cake. Every day I’ve drunk coffee, as well as my biggest temptation—Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper—well maybe I’ve had a little less of that, but not considerably. If Lent is supposed to be about giving things up, about denying ourselves things we like, little pleasures like French fries, Black Forest cake or Dr Pepper—well, then, I am a miserable failure. Of course, the good news is that there’s still over a month to go, so maybe I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and start over again. Maybe.
But it’s so hard sometimes. Especially when we have gorgeous spring-like days like yesterday. Under those conditions it’s hard to focus on fasting and self-denial when outside it feels a lot more like Easter, a lot more like resurrection and new life. That’s the trouble with Lent beginning as late as it does this year. In other years, Lent starts in mid-February, when its cold and dark and we already feel a little morose. It’s just not fair for it to start when, after a long and torturous winter, we are already eagerly anticipating the new life of spring. So, I am perfectly comfortable blaming my Lenten failures on the calendar. It really won’t care.
Plus, the really good news is that Lent is actually about a whole lot more than giving up wine or chocolate or fried potato products. It’s really about journeying deeper into the heart and being of God. It’s about letting go of whatever doesn’t matter, whatever clutters up our lives, so that we can focus on the things that really do matter—who we are, who God made us to be, who God hopes for us to become.
That’s what I think I would like to focus on this Lent, in both my prayer and in my living: discovering who I am in Christ and who God wants me to be. And I would invite and encourage you to do the same: focus on who God made you to be and who God wants you to become. Those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday this past week will remember that I spoke about the stark dichotomy between the dark symbol of the ashes—a sign and reminder of our mortality—and our society that seems so intent on denying or even somehow trying to overcome that mortality, whether through exercise or diet, medicines, face creams, or more dramatically with the very pleasant and breezy sounding “lifestyle lift,” which is probably not all that pleasant or breezy in reality. All are meant, in a way, to help us defy the odds and live forever—or at least look like we are 20 years younger when the time of our mortality finally comes.
Now, as I said on Wednesday, there’s certainly nothing wrong and a lot right with being healthy. And really, there’s nothing wrong with looking young or younger than your years either. After a certain age we all desire that. But what is problematic, I think, is when the attainment of a perfect body or the perfect job or the most stunningly gorgeous spouse or partner becomes so absorbing that we lose sight of who are, and whose we are. The cross of ashes on our foreheads and the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return serves, I think, in a very powerful way, to draw us, or even jolt us, back to our center in God. Through the ashes, through the cross, we are reminded, yet again, that none of this external stuff, none of the stuff or the promises that are advertised on TV, radio, or the Internet really matters. Because it won’t last. Like our mortal bodies, one day all that stuff will also again be dust. It will return to the source from which it came: God. And so will we.
I think, really, that’s the meaning in the wilderness temptation story that we just heard in today’s gospel. Much like the voices speaking to us through our TVs, radios, and computers, telling us that if we only sign up or show up, take a pill or pay three easy installments of $29.99, we can be skinnier, prettier, younger, richer, have a better partner, a better house or a better car, much like those voices Satan tries in various ways to lure Jesus away from his true self and center in God by suggesting that if he just turned some stones into bread he wouldn’t be hungry any longer, or if he’d bow down (in other words, turn to Satan and away from God) he’d have all the power he could possibly want or need. Jesus doesn’t give in, as we know, but we shouldn’t imagine that it wasn’t hard all the same—after all, after 40 days he probably was really hungry. And who wouldn’t be drawn in by the promise of wealth or power or prestige?
And here’s the thing. Because we are good Christians and because we have been brought up to believe that Jesus lived sinlessly, we tend also, sometimes, to think that Jesus was so perfect, so beyond corruption or temptation, that nothing could or would have phased him, that these temptations just sort of rolled off his back. But I don’t think that’s right. Because Jesus was human. Fully, truly, really human. Human like you and me. And if these temptations weren’t really tempting, well then, who cares? It’s easy not to give into things you don’t like or want or need. What’s hard, what’s real, what’s miraculous even, is standing firm in the face of something that is truly alluring. That’s why, when we prepare to confront the power of temptation, we shouldn’t imagine that we will get a proper warning—like seeing a little red devil on our shoulders with horns and a pitch fork. Rather, it will be pleasant, reassuring, alluring and seductive even. It is for us, and I imagine that it was for Jesus, too.
In fact, if the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is to be believed, being tempted in this way, being tempted into thinking that we can be better or smarter, more attractive and more powerful, is something that humans have struggled with from the beginning of time. Only, also, as long ago as that, we humans have known, in a deep, inward, spiritual place, that by giving into these temptations, we end up losing part of ourselves, even as we also drift, little by little, and usually quite unintentionally, away from our center in God. We forget who we are and whose we are.
That, I think, is why the Adam and Eve story was written down in the first place—to try to help explain this weird inward pull we humans have for making choices that, for whatever reasons, seem to be good in the passion of the moment, but in retrospect are extraordinarily bad. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the whole of the Bible is full of such stories—people, good people, who are lured in by the promise of power, or prestige, or sensual pleasures, only to find that they have sold themselves or lost themselves to the highest (or even sometimes the lowest) bidder—Adam and Eve for a piece of fruit, Esau for a bowl of lentil stew, Samson, David, and Solomon for the lure of beautiful women.
But what we also learn, in reading the Bible, in encountering these stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines (now there’s a biblical approach to marriage—how did he even have time for actually ruling Israel?), and so many more, what we learn through all of these stories is that although we may wander far off into wildernesses of our own making, God is steadfast, God is faithful, and God will always welcome us home again, welcome us home into God’s heart, where we were born and where we belong, forever and always.
And that, I think, is what this Lenten season is all about, more than giving up fried potatoes or black forest cake. It is the journey through temptations and out of our wildernesses. It is the journey back to God. And for Christians, for us here this morning, that journey comes with and in and through Christ. In following him, in striving to resist temptations the way he did, in taking up our own crosses, and even dying to the lure of power and prestige and beauty, dying to all of that, we will find that we are, in fact, truly alive. We find that we are able to rise again.
You know, on Wednesday, when we were marked with ash crosses and told that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we could just as well have been reminded that earlier, on another occasion, on another day, at our baptisms, after we were sprinkled or doused with water, we were likewise marked with crosses, on our foreheads—crosses that day not of ash, not of death and mortality, but of eternal life, life with and in God. And it is those crosses, the baptismal crosses, the resurrection crosses, that we are journeying to rediscover this Lent. So that when it really is Easter, when that glorious day comes, we will be ready and able to leave our wildernesses, our tombs, and rise with Christ.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.