Surely you have heard that well-known Lenten song played in stores this time of year–”It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” ! No? Fr. Tom Gaughan of Sacred Heart St. Francis–St. John the Baptist parish has a sign in his office saying, “Happy Lent!” He’s had it since his days of working at Notre Dame University, and he says he still gets e-mails from students at the beginning of the season, wishing him a “Happy Lent.”
That may not be your association with this season. Maybe you have memories of enforced fish on Fridays, of somber faces, of hymns only in a minor key, admonitions to give up something you love, be anything but happy. This was not a season of “good news”–after all, it’s the journey to the cross. But let’s not get Jesus on the Cross too soon, and let’s see what “good news,” or “gospel,” might be found that is deeper than the bad news, more resilient than death, present even amidst the suffering. Maybe we could be less hellbent on sin and death, as one pastor puts it, and more heavenbent on discipleship. (Rachel Hackenberg, CPR webinar)
Mark doesn’t dwell too long with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. With typical brevity and dispatch, Mark merely tells us that after Jesus had been baptized, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” 2 verses. It is the Holy Spirit who sends Jesus out into Satan’s capable hands for testing, and he has the company of the wild beast and angels.
It’s hard not to bring in what we know from other parts of the tradition, from Matthew’s and Luke’s versions, where Jesus is tempted with bread and power and miraculous safety. Mark just says Jesus was tempted, or tested. “At root, [one commentator writes] all temptation is to forget who one is.” (Bob Stuhlman, Stories from a Priestly Life, 2/16/15) Since Jesus had just been told by the voice from heaven, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased,” Satan was making sure he knew what that meant–not just a miracle worker, not a political leader whose soul could be bought, not an exceptional human being for whom the laws of nature had no hold. Better to get those out in the open before getting caught up in the demands and adulation of the crowds.
Actually, maybe it’s helpful that Mark just says Jesus was tempted in the wilderness without any further elaboration, because it invites us to imagine not only what Jesus might have been tempted with, but what we are tempted by. I can’t remember the last time I was tempted to turn stone into bread, but I have been tempted to worry more about what other people think of me than what God thinks of me. I find running for public office to hold zero attraction for me, but I have wanted to be in total control of my life. I tend more to back away from high places, without the slightest urge to jump off and fly, but I can spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over the weather and what that will mean for travel plans. And that’s just the beginning of the publicly suitable list of temptations I experience. There are plenty more where they came from, and some definitely not publicly suitable. How about you? There are the easy ones, having to do with chocolate or alcohol or shopping, maybe, but what about that root temptation–to forget who you are? For that matter, how many of us really know who we are in the first place? It’s tempting not to go that deep, isn’t it?
Another writer says that the greatest temptation is to think that God is not present. (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, 2/22/15) When we are in pain, when we are afraid, when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, don’t we ask, “Where is God?” The real temptation is only to see God’s absence or God’s refusal to intervene–God has abandoned me–or forsaken me–which is why Jesus’ cry from the cross cuts through us so sharply. Yes, I know what that’s like. Where was God for those 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded by ISIS on the beach? Where was God when the bombs were flying between Gaza and Israel and the children were crying? Where was God in the Holocaust? On 9/11? Where was God when peaceful protesters were being bludgeoned and kicked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama? Where is God in my depression? Where is God in my loved one’s battle with cancer? The greatest temptation is to think that God is not present.
So this Lent, let us take an honest look at who we are, and who we’ve allowed ourselves to become, not to simply wallow in guilt or regret, but as a way of getting back to our true Selves, or maybe to discover our true Selves for the very first time. Let us take the time of confession seriously, remembering that “confession” means “telling the truth.” The written prayer may not reflect exactly who you are or what you have done, but it no doubt tells the truth of something of the human experience. In the silence that follows, sit in the truth of who you are and, perhaps, how you’ve wandered from that truth. That’s not the end of the service, of course, for we are always assured of God’s pardon, always given the chance to begin again, reminded that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God, which we know in Christ Jesus.
And I invite you to take an honest look at who we are as a church, as a community, as a nation, as a planet. I invite you to write on the Joys and Concerns sheet the things in our church or our nation or our world that trouble you, that need to be spoken truly of, that need to be held up to God’s healing light. Our ongoing racial divide, the growing chasm between rich and poor, ISIS, climate change, whatever is out there in which we, as citizens of this community and nation and world, take part in, whether intentionally or not. Let us tell the truth about who we are so that we might also remember who God calls us to be, who we truly are.
After his 40 days in the wilderness, “after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” “Let’s do this thing!” When you think about it, good news might not be the first thing that might be on our lips after we’ve been tempted and tested by Satan. But that was on Jesus’ lips. The gospel is, as one woman put it, “a word from God embarassingly and disturbingly thrust into the present, announcing the gift of freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace to a world of conflict, and joy even as the
lamenting continues.” [Liz Goodman, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2015]
The systems and structures and myths of our world “so often hold us captive and prevent us from imagining alternatives to their deadly ways,” she says, so each week in Lent we’ll hold up those systems and structures and myths to God’s transformative power, “open a space where the new creation can be perceived.” (Ibid., p. 10) Jesus emerges from being tempted to forget who he was and putting God to the test, as though God couldn’t be counted on to be present. That is the same old, same old way of the world. What Jesus preached was good news, new paths that lead to real life. “Re-lent,” our UCC Lenten devotional books are entitled, and they offer us ways to… Re-lease. Re-form. Re-member. Re-kindle. Re-start. Re-vive. Re-form. Re-bound. Re-open. Re-claim. Re-invent. Re-boot…40 different ways. Let go of what doesn’t serve you or God.
“Give up indifference for Lent,” Pope Francis urges us.”I have decided to stick with love,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Give up hate for Lent. “Faith and discipleship look like courage, vitality, humility, community, and hospitality, along with death and sin,” a young colleague of mine says. (Rachel Hackenberg, op cit.). “Let us be less hellbent on sin, more heavenbent on discipleship.”
So the journey begins. We do not travel alone, and we are not left with only bad news. There is good news in the midst of the struggle. Happy Lent!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark