Sermon, 2/26/23: Tips on Packing Your Suitcase!

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1 Lent

Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7; Romans 5:12–19; Matthew 4:1–11

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

My former colleagues in creative writing courses would instruct their students that words have consequences.  The choice of words and the order in which we use them to begin a narrative, even a scientific article or a historical biography, can determine whether the writer or the storyteller gains and is able to retain the attention of the hearer or the reader for what is to follow.  And so, it is with today’s gospel according to Matthew.  According to the edition which I present to you on this first Sunday in Lent 2023 begins “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”   There is a four-letter word in today’s gospel which makes me rethink the entire account of Jesus’ retreat into a quiet place for solemn reflection.  That four-letter word  T H E N, this one word, this adverb of time, alerts me simultaneously that something has happened in the past, which we may have missed or ought to recall, and which makes me what to know the answer to the question, “and so what happens next?”

With that one word, Matthew has gotten our attention.  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, has a purpose. What follows is integral to the entire story.  It is not a throw-away sentence or paragraph.  It is not there to aid in the passing of time.  Contextually, Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness takes place immediately after his baptism by John.  On that occasion, according to Matthew, Jesus is declared by God “my beloved Son, in whom I take delight,” (Matt. 3:17) an acclimation which is dramatically reinforced by “the Spirit of God descending like a dove to alight on him.” (Matt. 3:16)  This one small word, this adverb of time, takes on an immense importance.  This seemingly insignificant adverb becomes instructive for our understanding of Lent and how we might respond to it. 

If Matthew is correct, Jesus was being further outfitted for a journey which he had already begun 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 level 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.  However, that is not at all my interest this morning.  Rather, of greater interest to me this morning is what Jesus did, as he was on a mission.

On Wednesday evening last, we assembled in this holy place where we listened to words which outfitted us for our individual and communal journey to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the glorious Feast of the Resurrection.  Ash Wednesday was the first day of a liturgical season which lasts forty days and nights.  In preparation for that liturgy, given what Ash Wednesday and this first Sunday in Lent symbolize for us, I believed it to be an excellent time for me to make my confession to you.  Know this: Since last Wednesday and today, my own approach to a Holy Lent has not changed.  

As a teenager, I listened to our priest deliver the obligatory doom and gloom and shaming sermon of some length, all in a well-intended attempt to promote piety.  I rejected quietly, not as a rebellious teenager, but one given to thoughtful reflection, that approach to Lent and religion.  For me, Christianity is about Good News and positive living.  Ash Wednesday and Lent ceased forever to be 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, to be sure, a period for solemn reflection, but at the same time one for positive reflection and action.  My rationale was a simple one: My self-denial of my favorite ice cream seemed so trivial, so inadequate, when compared to the temptations which Jesus faced, as recorded by Matthew.  And so, then as now, I 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 promoting my virtues 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.  If the proposed trip is of some duration, about a week before departure, I lay out on one of the beds in my house all the things I believe I need for that trip.  Those items include not only clothing, but also reading material, as I am an avid reader.   During the week, inevitably I add more things.  However, as my departure date draws closer, I begin to remove items, in fact lots of “stuff.”  I remind myself 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 stores where an item, if I truly need 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” and it was done without “the flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” (Matt. 6:2)   And in his response to Satan, he dismissed unnecessary conditions which would weigh him down and impede his mission on earth.

Allow me a 21st century choice of vocabulary which places squarely before you and me what is at issue and what, if attended to properly, might make our journey more meaningful.  If Matthew were to use our 2023 jargon, he could perhaps say, that what Satan offered Jesus for his ministry was a SCAM.  Jesus recognizes this, for Satan promised him something which he, Satan, was not able to give.  Listen again to the Matthew’s text:
The devil…showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and … all these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus recognizes the scam, and is able to reaffirm what the psalmist and the prophets of old have stated repeatedly:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.  (Ps. 24:1)

Happy is he… whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.  (Ps. 146:5f.)

Now hear Jesus’ clear and unqualified rejection of the scam:
But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool… And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:34f.)

May I suggest this morning, that when you depart this place, you do so with a smile on your face.  Odd?  I think not.  I beg you to rethink Lent.  Consider what items, what things, what attitudes, what grudges you may need to discard, what acts of generosity you may undertake, in order to convince first yourself and then others that you are a believer in a God who has offered us over and over again a journey, and who continues to offer us a journey through life which is filled with excitement, the unexpected, with joys and sorrows, with demands and successes.  Above all, consider of what value you are as an individual, made in the image of God, and what gifts you have to share with others.  Solemn reflection, yes, but also a joyful reflection!

Ash Wednesday is the day on which you lay out for your journey through Lent those items which will make your travels easier, more pleasant, less stress-filled, and therefore more meaningful, for you have reflected and removed those items that you do not need, but which, if held onto, would only tire you out because of the heavy lifting.  May you be able during this Season of Lent 2023, or for that matter during any Lenten Season in the future, to smile broadly, and for two reasons: 1) You have a scriptural basis for your joy during a solemn season of reflection, and I read it again for you: 
When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6: 17–18)

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 through that crucifixion 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, and that we smile because God through Jesus Christ has smiled on us.  AMEN