Can there be joy in solemnity? 1 Lent, 3/1/20

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from Rev. Clarence

Jesus was then led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. Matt. 4:1

The gospel [that] is appointed this year for the first Sunday in Lent is one [that] we have heard so often as to be immune to the challenge that it puts before us. After all, we know what happens. Jesus is challenged by the devil three times. Jesus rejects the devil’s challenges three times, end of story. However, I ask you this morning to rethink this story, for it has implications for us. There is a challenge subtly hidden in the reading. There is a four-letter word in today’s gospel [that] makes me rethink the entire episode of Jesus’ retreat into a quiet place for solemn reflection. That four-letter word is T H E N, “then.” That one small word piqued my curiosity. What had happened prior? Was it something of importance that we missed, that we ought to recall?

If we take the writer of Matthew’s gospel at face value, this trek into the wilderness (i.e. away from the busyness of villages and towns) on the part of Jesus takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism by John, on the occasion of which Jesus is declared by God, according to Matthew, “my beloved Son, in whom I take delight,” (Matt. 3:17) and [is] dramatically reinforced by “the Spirit of God descending like a dove to alight on him.” (Matt. 3:16) This one, seemingly insignificant word, this THEN, is instructive for our understanding of Lent and our place in it.

Jesus was being outfitted for a journey [that] he had already begun, having arrived at the River Jordan from Galilee, which was the Northern Province of Palestine that was under the rule of the Roman Empire. His ultimate destination was, of course, Jerusalem, the religious center of biblical Israel. If you were to levy at me the criticism that you did not come today in order to receive a lecture of biblical geopolitical history, of what nation controlled certain regions, that would be a fair criticism. Indeed, that is not at all my interest this morning. Rather, of greater interest to me this morning is what Jesus did. Jesus was on a mission, on a journey [that] would have immeasurable significance for our created world. It is his preparation for his journey, as well as the fact of the journey itself [that] are of interest to me today.

On Wednesday last, Ash Wednesday, a small group of us were gathered here in this sanctuary. And today, our number has been augmented. But Ash Wednesday was the first day of forty days and nights of a journey of sorts. In preparation for that liturgy, given what Ash Wednesday and this first Sunday in Lent symbolize for us, I believe it to be an excellent time for me to make my confession to you, and that confession would be that I am tempted to say to you on these first day of deep solemnity essentially the same thing that I said to you Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent 2019. Our liturgy and the lessons have not changed, and my understanding of them has not changed.

However, in order to do that, I would have had to make a recording of what I said last year. Still, my thoughts, which undergird my belief in the necessity of such a day as Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, have remained the same. And those thoughts are that Ash Wednesday and Lent, in all their solemnity, should be a time of celebration, of joy and of smiles. I explain.

As a teenager and as I listened to our priest deliver the obligatory doom and gloom and shaming sermon of some length, Ash Wednesday and Lent were never for me a time for negative thinking. Rather, I believed even then, that Ash Wednesday and the extended period of Lent were then and remain even now a period of solemn reflection, but at the same time one of positive reflection. My self-denial of my favorite ice cream seemed so trivial, so inadequate, when compared to the temptations which Jesus faced. And so I would ask myself, how best I might show my appreciation for the sacrifice that Jesus took on behalf of all humankind, because I believed that Lent ultimately is not about me reaching out in the singular to, and proving myself before God, but about God’s reaching out to me and all people. So, over the years I have assumed a different approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent. You will have your own.

I think, probably irreverently, of Ash Wednesday like packing my luggage for a journey. When I must travel, I prepare for it. Especially if the trip a long-lasting journey, about a week before departure, I lay out on one of the beds in the house, all the things I believe I need for the duration. Those items include not only clothing, but also reading material, as I am an avid reader, for those lsuitcasePJengthy flights and train rides. During the week, inevitably I add more things. As my departure date comes closer, I begin to remove items, in fact lots of “stuff.” I remember that I am the one who has to lift and pull behind me my luggage. I recall the admonition given by Jesus to his disciples when he sent them out two by two: take no extra sandals, no second cloak, just what you can carry. I remember that at my destination there are independent shops and department where, if I truly need an item, I can purchase it. I remember that laundromats and dry cleaners are available. In other words, there are myriad people along the way who can lend a hand and make my journey more enjoyable and meaningful if only I allow myself to be open to them.

Jesus prepared for his journey to an out-of-the way destination, made known to us simply as “the wilderness” by seeking through his baptism affirmation of his status and mission. It was that simple, unadorned act, not “with the flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” (Matt. 6:2)

and 2) you should remember, as well, that Lent, with all its solemnity, prepares you and me for a destination, where and for which God has done already the heavy lifting. God asks only, as every lesson to be read during this solemn period declares, that we remember whose we are, namely recipients of a love that even a crucifixion could not diminish, but rather has remained unchanged. Remember: The heavy lifting has been done for us. As we journey, we need only exclaim through word and deed that we, who claim the faith of Jesus, as the hymn says, are a people with hope. We smile because God through Jesus Christ has smiled on us.