Lent (Part 2)

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on March 6, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Sermon

Let’s get into it this morning.

We’re going to be continuing our discussion about Lent, because we’re in what we call the season of Lent, but really it’s a 40-day period where we explore ourselves and our relationships with God and that plank in our eyes, right?

And if you missed Ash Wednesday, that’s understandable if you’re a regular in our community, because we don’t do anything special for Ash Wednesday. In fact, this is the first time most of us have ever even considered Lent, let alone actually tried to observe it, and so that’s okay. In fact, if you’re part of communities that do Ash Wednesday, you might realize that many people actually don’t show up on Wednesday, either, so this first Sunday of Lent is a good time to jump in.

You don’t have to feel like if you didn’t start Lent on wednesday that you can’t participate in Lent. These traditions are designed to help us do something and accomplish something, and so you don’t have to strictly adhere to all of the little observances in order for it to be beneficial. It’s kind of like prayer or fasting or reading scripture or any of the other things that we do throughout the year; just because you missed part of it doesn’t mean you can’t just pick it back up again.

And that’s part of of the tradition of Lent, as well: understanding that we have a relationship with God that is based on grace. It’s not a legalistic sort of righteousness that we adhere to. It’s not a legalistic sort of salvation that we depend upon, and we talked about that a few weeks ago when we talked about the flesh and the spirit in Galatians. We are free in Christ, and even the self-imposed practices in Lent are a way of acknowledging that freedom — even as we try to be better in our relationships with each other and our relationships with God.

So, this morning, we’re going to be in Luke, chapter four, and we’re going to talk about the 40 days of Lent, and we’re going to talk about the most popular practice of Lent, which is the abstaining from something for 40 days.

If you’re not in orthodox traditions where Lent is a regular observation, that might be the only thing you know about Lent. Maybe you’ve heard of Ash Wednesday, but you’ve never actually looked into it. Maybe you’ve heard of Lent, but you only know it as a time when you abstain from something. Maybe you’ve heard that there’s prayer and fasting involved, but how those things fit in, you don’t know.

One of the most common things is the idea that you’re going to deny yourself something that’s a normal part of your life for 40 days, but why do we do that? Why do we choose to abstain from something? Is it just like self-discipline? Is it just a way of committing ourselves to something else? What’s actually going on there?

Well, in Luke, chapter 4, starting in verse 1, it says,

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.'”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you

    to guard you carefully;

they will lift you up in their hands,

    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

Luke 4:1-13, NIV

So, the easiest and probably most obvious thing, here, is that Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Spirit and that he was tempted for 40 days. Or, if you’re reading another gospel, it says he was out there for 40 days, and then he was tempted.

But, the idea, here, is this 40 days. It’s the same 40 days we find back in the Old Testament in several locations. It’s the same 40 we find when we talk about the israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. That number, 40, represents a time of trial. It represents a time of hardship, a time of challenge, a time of tribulation, which is why the tempting comes here with the 40 days.

Anytime that you see that number throughout scripture, that’s a symbolic number. Was Jesus actually out there for 40 days? I don’t know, but in the story, it’s not important, because that’s not the point. The point is he was out there for a time of trial. He was out there for a time of testing. He was experiencing a time of hardship through which and during which he was seeking after God in deeper ways, and when you look back at stories like the exodus and you look at things like the 40 years in the wilderness, that’s the kind of thing we’re experiencing, through the story, with israel. That’s what’s being conveyed there.

Israel wasn’t just wandering out for 40 years because that’s how long it took people to die and he was just waiting for that generation. It says all of those things, but the idea here is that israel was in a time of trial, a time of refining, a time of transformation and testing.

This isn’t just a matter of Jesus being tried, like you’re going to walk in and take a test and see if you know enough. This trial is a refining trial, a transforming trial. It’s the fire that purifies. It’s the sweeping away of the chaff.

These times of testing — these 40 days of being tempted, the 40 days of Lent — these are built around the idea that what we do is not just a self-imposed test but an opportunity for us to participate with God in some kind of transforming work. That’s why Lent is 40 days. It’s an emulation of the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, and whether you’re going to actually go and fast and pray for 40 days — which, by the way, you can do, but I would recommend you do it in a progressive way, if you’re interested in that — or if we’re just going to say abstain from something for 40 days — regardless of how we observe it, literally or metaphorically, there needs to be along with it the same kinds of things we find in Jesus: fasting, praying, meditation on scripture.

The reason that these things are part of that is because when you’re going to deny yourself for 40 days, whether it’s physical food or it’s something [else] that’s a regular part of your life, it’s going to become burdensome. It’s going to become a trial. Then these temptations begin to set in, just like with Jesus.

The story of an adversary coming to tempt Jesus is not exclusive to Jesus. Anybody who attempts to try any kind of new habit or to break an old habit experiences the same thing. They say it takes around 30 days or so to form new habits, but if you’re trying to break an old habit — if you tried to go on a diet, if you tried to become more fit, if you’ve tried to eat less sugar, or if you’ve tried to watch less tv or spend less time looking at your phone — you know that these habits can be difficult to break away from. The temptation sets in very quickly to say, “Well, maybe just this one time. Maybe just that second time. Well, maybe we’ll just take this day off or this week off and come back to it later.”

So, the 40 days that we experience in Lent — that we dedicate in Lent — is a commitment. It’s a commitment to sharing with Jesus in this time of trial and transformation.

How do we, then, begin to actually participate. I mean, if I’m going to give something up, how do I know what to give up?

A lot of times, you’ll see people just kind of “halfway” this commitment. One person I was reading said he thinks of this as being “half a mind.” “I have half a mind to do something,” he says, and what does that mean? Well, it means I have the thoughts without the actions. I’m not fully committed to this thing, so I have half a mind to give up something for Lent. I have half a mind to participate in Lent, to commit myself, and the challenge of Lent, then, is to have a whole mind about something.

Another person that I was listening to said that this is kind of the place where people struggle to see whether or not they’re really committed, by deciding to abstain from something that’s, you know, not really all that challenging.

Well, what can I give up? “I will give up eating dessert at the end of the day,” but if you only eat dessert twice a week, anyway, that’s not much of a commitment. You’re not abstaining from much. Now, if you’re the kind of person who eats dessert after every meal, and you’re like, “Well, I’m not going to eat dessert anymore,” that might be quite a commitment, but the question becomes why give up that thing?

Why give up dessert? Why give up electronics? Why give up staying up late at night? Why give up anything? And I think we get a glimpse of how we can analyze that when we look at what Jesus’s temptations were like.

Jesus gave up food for 40 days, but I don’t think that that’s the key that we should focus on, because fasting is fasting. He didn’t have electronics, and he didn’t have board games, and he didn’t have cars, and his diet was basically whatever he could get, whatever he could afford. Look at the temptations that Jesus actually endured.

The first one is this: if you’re the son of God, tell this stone to become bread. The first temptation is very specific to Jesus. You have been fasting for 40 days. You’re out here in the wilderness. You have no food. The one thing that Jesus is physically craving more than anything else is food. He knows his body needs food. He can feel it. He knows it intellectually, and the thought of having bread available has got to be tempting, just the way that a person who goes on a diet is tempted by the things they abstain from, just like a person who eats sweets every day and then stops eating sweets is tempted by the idea of sweets.

The next temptation is similar in the way that it’s directed to Jesus. I’ll give you the authority and splendor of all the kingdoms of the earth. Isn’t that what Jesus came for? And, I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Jesus comes so that all of the nations and everything in creation can be put under his feet, even his adversaries. The adversary, here, is offering Jesus the exact thing that he came to obtain: power and authority over all the nations. But, here, he says you don’t have to suffer and die for it. You don’t have to do anything for it. All you have to do is worship me, and it’s yours. It’s easy, just like with the bread. You don’t have to wait until your time of trial is over. Just create it out of rocks, now. Have it now; be filled now. He says just worship me; all you’ve got to do is bow down. You can have everything you came to obtain.

This is not a temptation you would offer to just anybody in the world. There are people in the world who don’t care about this. If you showed them all the nations — said all power and authority are yours — some people would say, “I don’t want that kind of power and authority. I don’t want to be president of the United States. Are you kidding? I see how people talk about him. I see how people look at him. I see how people treat him and slander him and write bad things about him. I don’t want that kind of attention. I don’t want people following me around all day long. I don’t want secret service standing in my living room while I’m trying to eat breakfast.”

You know what I mean? People don’t want that. Jesus wanted that, because that’s the [reason] he came, to draw together all of creation in the kingdom of grace, and the devil says, ‘This is yours, immediately, if you would simply bow down to me.”

And then the third temptation… Jesus finds himself alone in the wilderness. He knows that he’s destined to be forsaken. There’s that famous line on the cross in one gospel where he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There’s that moment in the garden of Gethsemane where he weeps and he sweats drops of blood, and he prays earnestly that this cup could pass from him, and the adversary says, “If you would throw yourself off this temple then the angels would come and attend to you. You wouldn’t be alone. You wouldn’t be suffering. You would have people caring for you. If you would bow down and worship me you’d have all the authority. You wouldn’t have to go and suffer and die on the cross. You wouldn’t be forsaken by your father. Complete opposite of all that, your father would send his servants to come and attend to you.”

These temptations are handcrafted for Jesus, and the reason is not because some adversary knows Jesus’s heart very well. It’s not like that. The New Testament tells us we’re tempted by our own selfish desires. The reason these things are tempting to Jesus is because these are things after which Jesus desired.

  1. Food, because he’s hungry.
  2. Authority over the nations, because, like a mother hen longs to gather its chicks beneath her wings, he desires for them to be attended to in a way that connects him to the father and to the people around him.
  3. To not have to go and suffer and die alone.

These are the things that Jesus desired, so when we examine our own lives in this time of Lent, the question is this: what tempts you? What are you tempted by? What is it that you desire after, and what’s the temptation associated to it? Because giving up something and desiring something are not necessarily beneficial, and they’re not necessarily bad.

Is it bad that Jesus desired any of these things? Is it bad for a person who’s starving in the wilderness to desire bread? There’s nothing bad about that. A person who is hungry, who desires food and desires to be fed, is not sinning in their desire. The desire itself is not the temptation. Temptation is when the desire turns into something it shouldn’t be.

Is it bad to desire to be recognized by your peers? Is it bad to desire that your peers should love you and care for you? Is it bad to desire to love and care for others? Is it bad that Jesus should desire to gather creation under his wings like a mother hen? Is it bad that he should desire for the nations and all the authority and splendor of those nations to be put under the care of God? Is that bad?

It’s not bad. The temptation becomes bad when the desire overrides the goodness that could come from it. When the desire for resources so that you can help your family and your friends and your loved ones and your community becomes greed for resources, becomes attaining those resources in the easiest possible way, becomes obtaining those resources in ways that compromise morality — then it becomes bad. That’s where the temptation comes from, so what is it that you desire, and what is the temptation associated with those things?

For example: in my own life, I have a very hard time self-motivating. It’s hard for me to sit by myself and be like, “Let’s do all of this work. Let’s build all of these things by myself, without the help of others, just because I think these things are good,” because once I start doing them, I realize that, if I really had my way, the world would be such a place that I wouldn’t have to bother. I wouldn’t have to spend all this time and energy building these things that should already be.

Why should I have to be educating myself about racism? The world should be a place where racism doesn’t exist. Why should I pour myself out into creating safe spaces for people? The world should be a place where safe spaces already exist, and it becomes overwhelming to think about the fact that the world isn’t that place.

The world doesn’t have safe spaces for people, and the world is filled with racial inequality and with oppressive systems of power, and the reality is many people don’t want to fight against those things. They don’t want to think about that. They just want to go about their lives and find whatever pleasure they can until they die, and so when I think about the idea of fighting for those things and trying to build those things but I’m sitting in my office by myself, I become weary. The desire to have space safe spaces is not bad, but the temptation in my pursuit of safe spaces is to either cut corners or procrastinate, and so when I think about the things I could give up, I could give up things that allow me to do that. I could give up things that allow me to procrastinate. I could cut out of my life for 40 days anything that I tend to use to procrastinate from the real mission of creating safe spaces.

Are those things bad, necessarily? Is it bad for me to play a game? Is it bad for me to, say, clean my house? No, but it’s bad if I’m using those things as an excuse — if the temptation is to play a game in order to not work, if the temptation is to decide to clean my kitchen or my living room instead of doing the work that I have set myself to beforehand. That’s the place where Lent becomes a practice of digging deeper into our lives.

We talked about that last week — to find the ways that the treasures in heaven become real, here and now, manifested in this life, to find the ways that our relationship with God is being hindered by that plank in our eye — and when we take the time to dig deep into who we are in our actual relationships with others and with God, we find that the things that we desire are sometimes temptations away from other things that we could be doing.

My desire for safe spaces and my desire for leisure are not bad things in and of themselves, but when one desire interferes with the mission of another desire, I have to decide what kind of life I’m going to live and who I’m going to be. When my desire to have comfort interferes with my desire to create safe spaces with racial equality, then my desire for leisure becomes not only detrimental to my committed mission but also to the lives of others, because I stray away from my commitment to create safe spaces, and if I don’t become a safe space for others, then I’m not safe.

When our desire to be comfortable interferes with our desire to pursue God, then we stop participating in the work of God. When our desire to be comfortable interferes with our desire to know God or to know others or to better know ourselves, then we begin to stagnate for the sake of comfort, because comfort is easier.

When we examine ourselves in Lent, we’re not asking, “What is something I desire?” We’re asking, “What are all the things that we desire,” and we’re looking for the places where, like Jesus, we are tempted, not because the things are bad but because they begin to interfere with what we think is participating in the mission of God.

What do you desire? What are the places where your life is stagnating or drawing you away from what you perceive to be the mission of God? Where do your desires become temptations because they draw you away from loving your neighbor — because they draw you away from seeing other people as part of yourself, because they draw you away from being part of the creation of love in the world — and where do you find those temptations? Ask yourself, “What can I give up for this season of Lent that will push me to dig down deep and challenge me to be transformed into something different?”

That’s the process, and just because you missed Ash Wednesday doesn’t mean you can’t start now. Just because it won’t be a full 40 days doesn’t mean you can’t start now. Start this process now, and throughout this week, really engage yourself. Really ask yourself, “Where have I let this plank in my eye go unnoticed because it’s too much for me to bear,” and commit yourself to looking at it — even just to taking time every day to look at it — and really be present with it, not only so that you can be aware but so that you can experience the grace of God as you deal with it — that God is with you and empowering you in the way that Jesus was not by himself in the wilderness but was filled with the Spirit and guided by the Spirit and comforted by the Spirit, and he comes out of that time of trial stronger than when he went in. That’s what we desire for ourselves.

Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we go through this season of Lent this year, Lord — as we go through this time of trying to really dig deep into our understanding of ourselves and examining our relationship with you — I pray that you would give us the grace and the self-compassion to be able to be honest and open with ourselves but also to not be overcome and distraught by what we find. Help us to be strong enough to be honest with ourselves about our desires, to be honest with ourselves about the places where our desires turn into temptations, to be honest with ourselves about the plank in our own eye.

Give us eyes to see it, Lord. Give us the self-awareness we need to really understand the ways that we interfere with our own desire for love and the work that God is doing in the world, but also give us the self-compassion to allow your grace to be present with us. Give us the self-compassion to allow your spirit to strengthen us and transform us through this time of trial.

Help us to come out of this stronger than when we went in. Help us to come out of it more self-aware, and, rather than wearied by the experienced, Lord, help us to be recovered at the end and rejuvenated and inspired to press forward in participating with your work — with your mission of love in all of creation to bring everything into the dominion of grace. Help us to be fueled by that so that we can extend that same grace and love to others.

Guide us in our choices this week, Lord. Guide us in our choices this season, and help us to be deeper and deeper in your love and your grace.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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