2.21.10 sermon notes
Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series: Faces of America. Traces the history of a handful of famous Americans, revealing stories about their ancestors they never knew, connections to people they NEVER thought they were related to. For some, it confirmed a rich history they had always heard about. For some, it offered a surprising depth about who they were. As the photographs, newspaper clippings, and ship manifests were revealed, individuals swelled with a renewed sense of identity. One man stated how important it is to know one’s family history, saying, “We cannot go forward until we know where we have been.”
Knowing our story matters. And I think that is a big part of what this text from Deuteronomy is all about today – about the importance of knowing who you are and the communal story of your people. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. All of their hard work and grumbling and struggling in the wilderness for 40 years are about to see their big payoff. But before they can reap the benefits of this great land – before they can comfortably settle in and begin tilling the land, they are reminded from where these great gifts have come. And they are instructed to first give credit where credit is due – they are to make an offering of the first fruits of the land and return it to God. And they are told to remember their story, to remember from whom and from where they have come – to recite this beautiful ancient creed: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor . . .”
As soon as we begin to forget who we are, we can find ourselves off track. . . . This is the first Sunday of Lent – the 40 days of preparation and reflection during which we journey with Jesus to the cross during Holy Week and then to the joyful celebration of the resurrection on Easter. Lent is a season in which we are compelled to remember who we are, and whose we are – to get back on track.
That is why this time is a bit of a dramatic shift in the church year. The pulpit cloth and stoles shift from the bright white of Transfiguration Sunday last week to deep purple. The music in our service changes – the tone of our worship shifts a bit – gets a bit more mellow, more somber at times, more thoughtful. Lent is a time to get back to the basics of our faith, to clear out the clutter that gets in the way, to remember who we are. In the early church (and in many traditions still today), Lent was a time of preparation for those wishing to join the church. It was a time for instructing new converts about the faith, followed by baptism on Easter.
One preacher offers a look at this bit of church history, which I think gives us a helpful perspective on what Lent is really about. She says: “Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary. There was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.
“When the world did not end as Jesus himself had said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves. They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth.
“Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things made them feel safe and cared for — if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy, and God moaned out loud.
“Hearing that, someone suggested it was time to call Christians back to their senses . . . So the early church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word lenten, meaning “spring” — not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves” (BBT). Forty days to remember who we are, to get back to the basics and re-claim our place in the story of God. And to remember that we are a part of a wonderful community – a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and surround us.
And to help us do that, each year on the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary offers us an account of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. This story connects Jesus back to the great story of the people of God: Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust the Lord. Elijah spent 40 days there before hearing the still, small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God give the law. And it is in this captivating dialogue with the devil that the very nature of Jesus’ ministry is revealed. Jesus stays grounded in his own story, resisting the very desirable offers to feed the hungry, rule over all the earth, and prove the powerful protection God can offer. But as desirable as these thing are, Jesus knew they were temptations to draw his focus away from God. They were seductive offers to give in to this world’s notions of power and greatness. They were the easy ways, really. But that was not the kind of kingdom Jesus was sent to bring. He was not called to display power as we tend to expect it – he was called to help usher in the kingdom of God, where everything is reversed. But that is easy for me to say now, from here, thousands of years later. Jesus undoubtedly was tempted to take the easy way, knowing how hard the road ahead was going to be. But he remembered the story. He remembered who he was and whose he was. Notice that every response Jesus gave to the devil is a quotation of scripture (all from some other chapters of Deuteronomy):
Temptation 1: To turn stones into bread.
Response: (Deut. 8:3): “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Temptation 2: To rule all the kingdoms of the world.
Response: (Deut. 6:13): “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Temptation 3: To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12.
Response: (Deut. 6:16): “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Jesus never strayed from his own story, because it shaped who he was and how he would deal with tough challenges.
What about us? How often do we let ourselves get distracted by the noises around us that we forget our own story? One scholar speaks of the “cacophony around us, or the incessant electronics of our lives, or the overload of messages and material objects, all of which seem to set up a smokescreen between us and God. Sometimes a smokescreen, and sometimes a thick, thick wall.” He identifies a certain “spiritual forgetfulness” that sets in when we allow ourselves to get so distracted.
So people tend to talk about giving things up for Lent – meat, chocolate, TV, alcohol. But Lent is not a time to give up things that are bad for us – as if we were merely giving ourselves another chance to follow through on those New Year’s resolutions we have already abandoned. Rather, Lent is a time to move some things out of the way. It is about clearing out clutter – creating some space in our souls so that God has a bit more room. It is about removing some of the comforts of prosperity, religious acceptance and complacency so that we can identify where our source of trust truly lies. It gives us an opportunity to rely on God instead of on the noise and distractions and pacifiers we try to use to fill our lives. Create a little self-induced wilderness of our own.
Barbara Brown Taylor points to the freeing qualities of the wilderness. She writes that “if you have spent a lot of time and/or money trying to acquire whatever it takes to grow your soul without seeing any new buds, then maybe a little spell in the wilderness is worth a try–a few weeks of choosing to live on less, not more–of practicing subtraction instead addition–not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is your real life–the one you long to be living–which can be hard to do when you’re living on fast food and busyness.” This is not a call to give up bad things – it is a challenge to practice simplicity – to experience the freedom and clarity that comes in doing less, having less.
But this process takes time. If you could turn off your TV and your cell phone for a bit and hear the still, small voice of God, “then our churches would be full and Lent would only be about 20 minutes long” (BBT). But it doesn’t work that way. WE don’t work that way. That is why Lent lasts for 40 days. It is hard to let go of those things that blissfully distract us.
When our daughter Julia was about 2-and-a-half, she finally decided to give up her pacifier. Well, really, she had decided that only one pacifier would do, and she would not accept any others. Finally, that pacifier become worn and cracked JUST enough that it would flatten every time she tried to suck on it. Thankfully, this wear and tear happened to coincide with her developmental fascination with our trash can and throwing things away. So she declared “Paci broken. Throw it in the trash.” And without a second thought, she got up, walked to the kitchen, stepped on the trash can pedal to open the lid, and dropped it in . We were shocked. And a little worried about how naps and bedtime would go for the next few days. I think Joel and I were just as dependent on the pacifier as Julia was. So for a few days, she did take a little more time to settle down to sleep. And when she was upset or tired and had usually sought the beloved pacifier, instead, she would pause and say: “Paci broken. I threw it in the trash.” She needed to remember to get herself back on track.
While Julia was clearly not trying to simplify her life, and I hope most of us have better will-power than a 2-and-a-half year old, this process of simplifying, of clearing out, will still be difficult. This wilderness of our own making will feel foreign and uncomfortable at first. But if we practice these disciplines in community, and remember that the Spirit goes with us, even into the wilderness, we can make it. And in the spaces that we create, in the silence we experience, let that be an opportunity to reconnect with your own story, with your identity as a beloved and broken child of God. And spend some time meditating on the scriptures: reconnect with the story of the people of God, who have struggled and fallen and wept and danced and experienced the amazing grace of God. Let the journey begin.