The following sermon was preached on February 14, 2016 at Trinity Church, Hartford CT. The lessons can be found here. The text of the sermon is copied below and you can listen to a recording over on SoundCloud.
Here we are once again embarking on our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, our yearly pilgrimage to the cross and the grave, to the upper room with the disciples and the empty tomb.
Like every other year, we gathered on Wednesday, we were marked with ashes, and invited to the observance of a holy Lent. We were invited to join in observances marked by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
This year, as is true each Lenten Season, we thoughtfully revisit the legacy of the cross and the defining miracle it brought forth for each of us as Christians – the redefining miracle it gave to the world.
But this year is not like every other year.
Each and every day the world seems to be plagued by deeper and darker violence and sin. As the calls for love and justice grow louder, they are matched, and at times outdone, by calls of bigotry and hatred. In this country we are welcoming in refugees from one of the largest refugee crises the world has seen, we are observing an intense and brutal presidential primary season, as primary election results surprise and appall all sides of the political divide, and now we are preparing for what promises to be a very interesting process to fill Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court seat.
As is true for our country and world, this is not just another Lent for Trinity. We are now a parish with a part-time rector, we are facing massive budget cuts to be in compliance with diocesan regulations, and faithfully, with new urgency, we are discerning who God is calling us to be in this time and place. So we enter this Lenten season with uncertainty and maybe a little fear of what will happen on the other side.
It seems to me, now is the time to think a bit differently about Lent, to think a bit differently about our lives and relationships with God and one another. As we embark on this Lenten journey, we cannot remain fixated on our own sin; our own shortcomings; our own mortality. We must acknowledge these things, and then turn again towards God. As we begin this journey we must seek to ready ourselves for the inbreaking of God’s radical grace, abundance, and love.
The readings we have heard this morning from scripture help us do just that.
The story of the people of Israel that we hear in today’s passage from Deuteronomy is describing a liturgical act that is simultaneously confessing their beliefs, recounting their history, and offering their praise to the glory of God. They are confessing that the faithfulness of God to the people of Israel is the basis of their own lives, and from that place they are able not only to express their gratitude to God in praise, they are also able to claim the history of their people as their own story. This is more than, a simple “hey thanks God that was great” or “hey God we couldn’t have done it without you.” What we are hearing in Deuteronomy today is the climax of the exodus story.
Imagine this: after thirty-nine years, eleven months, and one week in the wilderness, the Israelites are gathered on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the promised land. After nearly forty years of feeling lost and unsure, having had to learn a mountain of laws and rules, after being chastised for bad behavior (which frankly was, at times, deserved), and after having spent a good deal of their journey being confused, underfed, and poorly housed – wondering why in the world they left Egypt in the first place – here they sit on the highlands overlooking the Jordan River Valley. The Promised Land is in sight!
That which they gave up everything for, that for which they have endured, worked, suffered, sacrificed, and even died for is finally within their grasp. The sense of God’s grace and blessings, in return for their faithfulness, must have been overwhelming.
And so this liturgical act of thanksgiving is the retelling of this remarkable history. It is the expression of their unending and profound gratitude to God for upholding God’s promises. Through this gratitude they offer up to God the first fruits of the land that God has given them – they are giving back to God what God has given them.
The journey of this Lenten season is not remarkably different from the journey to the priest to offer the first fruits of the ground. We can say this journey is about having to really think long and hard about our story; that we have to practice some daily or weekly disciplines to keep our story fresh in our minds; that we have to work harder to be better or more sincere Christians. But, is that the journey this text is really describing or is it the journey we have proscribed for ourselves?
Is Lent really about giving up chocolate, carbs, or alcohol? Is it really a liturgical self-help season to restart failed New Year’s resolutions? Or is that just a simplistic view of Lent? Is there something more?
I wonder if the journey we hear about today in Deuteronomy, the journey to which Lent calls us, is really about celebrating God’s unimaginable grace, abundance, and love? I wonder if it is about the overwhelming sense of God’s blessing in return for our faithfulness? I wonder if Lent is really about refocusing our attention and receptivity to God’s grace so that we may be worthy to participate in the mystery of God-with-us?
This idea of faithfulness to God, and constantly adjusting our focus on God’s call to us is not unique to the Israelite’s journey in Deuteronomy. It is also at the core of today’s Gospel passage: Luke’s telling of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
This passage from Luke’s Gospel is at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has just been baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him, and a voice came from heaven proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And being full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
The first time Jesus is tempted by the devil, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God.” This, according to some scholars, is a reasonable translation of the text. However, it is more likely that the accurate translation should be “Since you are the Son of God.” After Jesus’ baptism there is no question “if he is the Son of God.” The question now is what kind of Son of God will he be. Will he be the Messiah who takes the easy way out? Or will he be the Messiah who is faithful to God?
These three temptations – turning the rock into bread, claiming all the power and authority of the kingdoms of the world, and testing God – are incredibly important. First they are not necessarily bad things. How bad could it be for Jesus to start ending world hunger by converting the rocky terrain of Jerusalem into bread? How bad could it be for Jesus to claim the power and authority away from the brutal power of the Roman Empire? How bad could it be for Jesus to ask a sign of God? This is the point. Can Jesus be lured away to take the easy way out? Can his followed be tricked into following the comfortable Messiah? Instead of falling for these temptations, Jesus abides by the most difficult of all commands as he quotes the words of Deuteronomy to “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, the meaning of his earthly ministry and Baptism is unfolded in these three trials. While he refused to turn stones into bread, he spends his ministry feeding the hungry. While he refused political power, his preaching and teaching are proclamations of God’s empire of love and justice. While he refused to test God, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life, will trump the world’s decision to execute him.
Each and every time Jesus’ tempted to take the easy way out – to follow the comfortable path, he says no. By saying “no” to the world, he is saying, “yes” to God. As such, today’s Gospel text is not about the power of evil, the nature of Christ, or the power of temptation: this Gospel passage is about obedience – Jesus’ choice to be obedient to God, and our invitation to follow in his footsteps. It is our invitation to say, “no” to easy answers and half-truths and to loudly proclaim, “yes” to God. To shout “yes” to God’s love, to shout “yes” to God’s grace, to shout “yes” to God’s call to action and service.
Jesus’ journey in the wilderness recalls Israel’s forty years of wandering. In the harsh environment of the wilderness, habits formed by the Israelites while in slavery in Egypt are discarded and new ways of complete trust in God are formed. Jesus is the perfect example of this trusting relationship. As we enter into this wilderness season of Lent we are invited to discard all the habits we have picked up while being held by the bondages of sin and death and replace them with the perfect freedom that comes from obedience and service to God.
The season of Lent reminds us that we do not have to be stuck in slavery, that we do not need to be stuck in the way we have always done things. Renewal is possible. Change can happen. Because 40 days from now, the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son of God, Jesus will die on the cross. He will descend into hell, break down the gates of death once and for all, and rise victorious from the grave.
Jesus begins this journey, he enters the wilderness, only after being baptized and claimed as Beloved. We too have shared in those waters of Baptism. We too have been claimed as Beloved of God.
Jan Richardson, artist and poet, beautifully captures the importance of our identity as Beloved children of God on this wilderness journey. She writes:
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
As we enter into Lent, as we embark on this year unlike any other, as we set out into the unknown may we be assured that God is with us and that we are Beloved.