Genesis 9:8-17+Psalm 25:1-9+1 Peter 3:18-22+Mark 1:9-15
Much as there has been a lot of discussion among my clergy colleagues about how to do or not do ashes on Ash Wednesday (as I mentioned in my homily on Wednesday evening), there has been an equal amount of chatter about the observance of Lent. Usually, it goes something like this:
“My people have already given up enough. I’m not going to ask them to give up even more for Lent.”
“With all the sickness and death over the past year, we really don’t need to be reminded of our mortality.”
“We haven’t been together since Lent last year. It’s like Lent never ended. We’ll go easy this time around.”
Now, I am not in any way criticizing my friends and colleagues. If there is one thing I understand it’s that we have to know our congregations in order to lead them and preach to them. Some clergy have had a much worse time with the pandemic, with death and financial loss, and if that were the case with us, I might be tempted to take a pass on Lent this year, too.
My approach to Lent, though, is not so much about deprivation and denial and punishment. It isn’t about giving something up in order to make ourselves miserable. No. Lent is an invitation. Not just any invitation, but an engraved invitation from God just for us. But I am getting ahead of myself.
You may be wondering why we have gone backwards in Mark’s gospel to the baptism scene which we just heard five weeks ago. In all three synoptic gospels, the temptation in the wilderness comes immediately on the heels of the baptism. This is no accident. Jesus has been anointed as God’s son; God’s beloved. And the implication of the words used next is that he was driven, thrown out into the wilderness. I imagine the Holy Spirit with a giant stick, chasing Jesus away from the Jordan, away from those soothing waters, away from those he knew, into the wilderness beyond.
It’s important to remember that wilderness experiences are a recurring theme in the bible. Moses and the Israelites wandered for forty years after leaving Egypt. They could have gotten there much more quickly, but spies returned with reports that the land of Canaan was inhabited by giants, and the people were afraid and wanted to return to Egypt, kindling God’s anger so that he declared that the current generation would not enter the Promised Land. The wandering, in this case, was really less about punishment, though, than about teaching the people of Israel that God is faithful, that God will provide, whether it’s water from a rock or manna from heaven or victory over foes.
The prophet Elijah also had a wilderness experience, on the run from Jezebel who threatened to kill him after he defeated her 400 prophets. Every time he wanted to give up, angels took care of him, and, finally, God appeared to Elijah in the sound of a still, small voice, encouraging him to return, to continue the work of a prophet to call the people back to the God of Israel.
Jesus’s time in the wilderness, too, was a time of preparation, of facing up to the temptations to power and privilege that could have been his, learning to trust completely in God. As with Moses and Elijah, provision was made, angels tended to him until the moment he left the desert, resolved to proclaim God’s reign no matter the cost. And it was a costly endeavor.
So, when I say we are being invited out into the wilderness, it is not as punishment. It is not because we have been bad. It is a time to learn who God is, and who we are in God. The denial of worldly desires as part of a Lenten discipline is not just for the sake of deprivation; it is to clear space, to rid ourselves of some of the clutter that separates us from God, and to make space for the gifts God has for us.
This countercultural narrative is a hard sell. We have everything we could possibly need at our fingertips. We don’t need God to give us food and water. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps just fine, thank you very much. We can take care of ourselves.
Many of us who grew up in the Church are familiar with the words, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” These are words of King David (1 Chronicles 29:14), marveling at the collection of riches that the people brought for the building of Solomon’s temple. The Chronicler wrote
Then David blessed the Lord in the presence of all the assembly; David said: ‘Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, for ever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.
‘But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill-offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. (29:10-14)
David knew hardship. David knew war. David sinned, egregiously, on multiple occasions. And still, David was beloved of God and understood that all that he had and all that he was came from God. And so, returning the fruits of that blessing was non-negotiable.
I think that, in our 21st century world, we get so caught up in the living of our lives that we forget. We forget that we are created of God, that all that we are and all that we have come from God. Lent is an opportunity for a reset. It’s an invitation for a reset.
And I don’t know about you, but I can certainly use that time to reorient myself right now. The past year has been weighty. Like many of you, I have been preoccupied, not really firing on all cylinders much of the time, and I am ready for something else to focus on for a bit. That engraved invitation from God is getting an enthusiastic yes from me. And I know that I won’t perfectly keep the practices of prayer and fasting and self-denial to which we are called during Lent, but it isn’t about perfection. It is about recognizing our imperfection and allowing ourselves to rest in the God who, in that imperfection, still calls us beloved, who still has gifts just for us, if only we can make room in our hearts to receive them.