Given in response to Matthew 4:1-11.
We’re now in a new church season. It’s the first Sunday of Lent, really just the beginning, only the 5th day of our Lenten observance. Ash Wednesday is still in recent memory and if you attended an Ash Wednesday service you can still call to mind the feeling of the oil and ashes across the forehead, and you can see the smudges imposed on the faces of others, and you can hear the minister who says “remember that you’re dust.” From dust you came and to dust you shall return. We are now in that somber season, the season of preparation called Lent.
I had realized earlier this week, even before Gene called to say that Jerry wasn’t doing well and even before Stan sent news of his loss, I had realized that you wouldn’t greet the season by saying “Happy Ash Wednesday” or “Happy Lent.” Happy is very clearly the wrong word, even under normal circumstances. Even more so now. And I don’t know that there’s an alternative. There’s not really a greeting for Lent. We say blessed Advent, happy Easter, merry Christmas. What do you say about Lent? What do you say to the person observing Lent?
There’s a reason we don’t have a greeting for Lent. It’s because Lent is a bit of a downer, and very few people are actually excited to see Lent. You spot Lent from across the room, you see that you’re in the same vicinity and you might be required to have a conversation, and your first inclination is to avoid eye contact. “Maybe Lent won’t see me.” You notice out of the corner of your eye that Lent is sort of drifting around the room, can’t find anyone to talk to. Suddenly Lent spots you, makes a beeline for your side of the room and you know that you’re trapped. You say “Wow, it’s so good to see you, but you know I was just getting ready to leave…”
But Lent has a way of catching up to you, maybe during the 40 days that’ve been allotted but maybe some other time. Your friend Lent is persistent and Lent has a lot to talk about, and a lot to ask of you. Lent would like for you to renounce something, preferably something you find comforting or hard to do without. Leave it alone for 40 days and see how that goes. Lent would like to talk about intentionality, discipline, introspection, self-denial. It can all be very draining. But probably the main reason no one wants Lent around is that Lent wants always to speak of dust and ashes and death. Just in time for the beginnings of Spring and in the midst of all that new life you’ll find Lent imposing ashes, reminding everyone, all of us, that we are mortal, limited, finite. And the worst part is that we have to acknowledge eventually that Lent is speaking the truth–the truth about our need to give things up and the truth about our mortality. In fact, the ashes and the spiritual practices go hand in hand. We give things up, habits and objects and attachments, we loosen our grasp for a while because we could never hope to hold them anyway, at least not forever.
That’s Lent, and I think we can be excused for declining to call it happy or merry or blessed.
I suppose that’s part of the reason why we do so much planning. We do a lot of preparation before and during Lent.This is some serious, heavy stuff we’re talking about so you’ll want to be prepared. You need to start thinking about it before Ash Wednesday arrives.
“What are you giving up Lent?”
Oh, I don’t know…Chocolate, maybe meat, definitely not caffeine.”
Something difficult but something doable. Its no use to pick something you can’t follow through on. We call it “intentionality”, that’s the church-speak, “intentionality.” So you plot out the course of action but more importantly you sit down to think about why, why are we doing these things? I saw a very good list of 40 Lenten practices, one for each day. A church in Denver put it together. It’s 40 small practices instead of one big practice. And they’re all very well thought-out. All are in the Lenten spirit in one way or another. Some are religious–pray for your enemies one day, read Psalm 39 another. You might, one day, donate art supplies, or ask forgiveness of someone, or bake a cake, or turn off the radio while riding in the car. Some of them don’t sound spiritual but they could be. If you’re in the Lenten mindset then you’ll find that even regular activities strengthen your Lenten spirituality.
And I hope you’ll do some of those things, or maybe even all of those things. A well-planned Lent is bound to be a productive Lent, and it would be a shame to let a perfectly good liturgical season go to waste by failing to plan for it.
However. I wanted to point out that planning can only go so far because there is a Lent you can’t plan for. You might’ve noticed that’s the name of the sermon–the Lent you can’t plan for. Well, what needs to be said today is that you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes. Of course you can plan to attend a service and you can choose to step forward at the appropriate time and you can wear the ashes around all day, to school and to work. You’ll forget just for a moment that you’re wearing the ashes until someone double takes or glances quickly at your forehead, and then you’ll be reminded of what the ashes signify–that you’ve been marked by Christ, baptized with the same baptism and called by the same Spirit into the same wilderness. And you’ll remember that Lent is a season of preparation.
But all of that is symbolic. And while you can plan to wear the symbol of the ashes you cannot plan, cannot anticipate the moment when you’ll actually experience what the ashes are trying to represent. The minister says, “You came from dust and you’ll return to dust, eventually.” And you hear the words, wear the ashes, understand the ritual. But you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes, not if the imposition of ashes is meant to contain the reality of mortality. Because the only way to fully understand our mortality is through death, through the death of someone else, and you cannot prepare to lose a friend.
* * *
I wanted to point out just a couple of things about today’s reading, a couple of details from the story of Christ’s temptation that seemed relevant this week. First is that Jesus doesn’t seem to do any sort of planning for the Wilderness. Maybe he did and the story just fails to mention the planning, but I wondered while reading the story if Jesus had any idea the how the whole episode was going to unfold. Remember that Jesus doesn’t get there on his own. He goes to the wilderness because he’s led there by the Spirit, so there are already two people characters involved. Then he fasts, forty days and forty nights, and after fasting he is famished. At this point a third character shows up–we call him the devil or the adversary or the tempter–this third character shows up when Jesus is at his very weakest, maybe even when he’s close to death. That’s when this encounter happens. Not when Jesus is at his strongest and best-prepared and most spiritually intentional. The temptation happens probably at the worst possible time, at the time when Jesus is probably most unprepared.
Well, then Jesus is tempted. He’s hungry, practically starving, and the tempter says “feed yourself.” And the tempter says if you’re so powerful why don’t you throw yourself off of a building and then call on angels to save you. And the tempter says, finally, why don’t you grab hold of political power. I can offer you that but first you need to bow down and worship me.
Three temptations, three different temptations, but in all three cases Jesus is being asked to deny his mortality. What the tempter is proposing is that Jesus become a superhuman–someone who could never be hungry or harmed physically or be subject to the whims of any earthly ruler. And the tempter, because he is shrewd, always shrewd, proposes all of this when Jesus is at his most famished and most human, just as he’s standing toe to toe with the reality of death.
And that, for me at least, doesn’t sound like the sort of Lent you could plan for. I’ve not yet heard of anyone who could prepare to face death, or to confront their mortality, or to receive an imposition of ashes. How’s that for an irony–you can’t prepare for the inevitable, not completely.
I thought maybe Jesus could show us how to navigate Lent, but Jesus didn’t seem very well prepared for Lent either, at least not if preparation means having any easy time of it. Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? A few more characters show up, only in the last verse, they are practically an aside. The episode concludes with the tempter taking his leave and then suddenly, the text says suddenly angels appear and they start ministering to Jesus.
Jesus–the one we call the Great Physician–does not heal himself. God sends helpers.
If you’re looking for the heart of Lent, here it is. Not in the fasting or in the ashes or even in the confrontation of our mortality, but in what comes next. And one thing we know about our God, the God of Jesus, is that God always sends help after an imposition of ashes.