A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (10th March 2019)
Preached by Clare Collier
Lent 1 2019 – A turning point
Luke 4.1-13 Jesus is tempted in the wilderness
As you’ll know, Easter, and therefore the start of Lent, is late this year. I am so ready for it. This period of the church calendar when we slow down and reflect more, when we are urged to spend more time with God, is precious. It’s no wonder Jesus chose to spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness before he began his ministry, he will have needed it to centre himself, to prepare himself for the hard work he was embarking on.
Those 40 days are reflected for us in the 40 days of Lent which for us also is a time of preparation. 40 is a symbolic number in scripture reminiscent of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before they arrived in the promised land, and the 40 days and nights Moses spent on Mount Sinai. In the bible, a period of 40 days or years is a period of time that separates two distinct time periods. In this case, it the dividing line between Jesus’s early life and his ministry. It can be a turning point for us too.
In catholic tradition, Lent is a time of repentance, a sort of spiritual spring-cleaning, a chance to turn again towards God – that is what repentance means – to re-orientate ourselves towards God, and to ask for forgiveness and to commit to do better. It is a time of fasting, prayer and giving. Many of us make resolutions or set an intention for Lent. In my case, I usually do something like reading Isaiah, give up Facebook, or try to stop shouting at my kids.
Many of us would admit though that in our fraught lives it can be hard sticking to Lent resolutions. I know I’ve given up chocolate more than once, and failed by the end of week one, or I’ve devised an ambitious bible reading plan and not managed to get anywhere near to the end of it. Already this week despite my intention to be less busy I’ve ended up working past midnight more than once. So perhaps it’s not always helpful to think about Lent in terms of rules: ‘giving something up’ or ‘taking something up’. Better to focus on what the point of those things is.
We need to make our experience of Lent something more meaningful: we need to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit as Jesus was in the wilderness.
To be nourished and guided by the Spirit, as Jesus was, to find our core being refreshed and sustained as we wait for Easter.
To reflect on our relationships with God, and with each other, to challenge ourselves, to transform ourselves.
I think that when we look into our hearts, on Ash Wednesday, today, or at any time, we each know the thing that we need to work on in us.
For Jesus, being filled by the Spirit meant he could indeed stick to his fast. When the devil tempts him to turn a stone into bread, he answers “one does not live by bread alone”. He can put up with being famished and survives his fast because he knows he is sustained by God – by the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus spells it out, quoting a passage from Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live from bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”
To survive this too-busy life we do not only need food to live on but spiritual sustenance too. That is the very essence of the meaning of Lent for me – a time really to try and focus on feeding the soul, to allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirt acting in us and through us. And to do that we need to slow down.
In this gospel passage, the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – power and riches – just as the world seems to tempt us with products and celebrity and consumerism and all the things we don’t need. Jesus knows the answer – It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”, he says, he’s not seduced by the temptation laid out before him.
We too can choose that path and choose to serve and worship God instead. Lent is our annual reminder to focus on the important things in life and to learn to do without.
Whatever our personal crutch is: sweets or cynicism, alcohol or anger, trying to do without that thing that we depend on too much, in favour of increased trust in God, is challenging.
For his third temptation, the devil tries to taunt Jesus into proving himself. Jesus ends up on the temple roof and the devil is encouraging him to jump. It’s like a scene from a gritty drama where the aggressor squares up to the good guy trying to goad him into a physical response by jeering at him. ‘Go on, you reckon you’re better than me, prove it’. Jesus doesn’t rise to the bait. We could all do with a bit of that serenity sometimes. This is where spending a bit of extra time talking to God, listening to God, genuinely helps.
I think of prayer as simply being intentionally attentive to God’s presence. I love that idea (it’s not mine), that you don’t need to speak in words, let alone specific words, or be in a particular place or posture. Prayer can be anywhere, you can be engaged in anything; all it takes is an awareness of God’s presence, in the people around you, in creation, within yourself. That is a practise worth cultivating this Lent.
So what happens in the wilderness? Jesus prepares himself for his ministry. Allowing himself to be led by the Spirt for 40 days and 40 nights, transforms Jesus, it makes him ready for the next phase of his life. The wilderness is necessary. It works.
When we choose to follow Christ’s example we focus on our relationship with God not merely for its own sake but as preparation. It’s as if Lent is a gathering of energy which will be released by the burst of freedom that is Easter.
So Lent may mean giving something up – or taking something up – a commitment to self-sacrifice, to giving to charity, to practising random acts of kindness or generosity, reading the bible, making a retreat. These are all good things to do.
But none of those things are ends in themselves – but a means to an end, towards making a Holy Lent, towards preparing ourselves for the great gift of Easter which will come 6 weeks from now – however prepared or unprepared we are for it.
If we seek Him out in silence, prayer and service we will deepen our relationship with Christ, we will improve our relationships with other people, and we will find that spiritual growth and nourishment that this season asks of us.
Our task is to look inside ourselves, to find the thing in us which needs our attention and carefully resolve to do something about it. Not by making a dozen resolutions, but by finding the one thing that needs our focus, and intentionally, carefully, working out how to do that.
And the best news is that we are never done with repentance, with turning again to God, with turning away from all the things that distract us from the important things in life. We never finish renewing our resolve.
So when we mess up in big ways or small – as we always do – we just need renew our hope and start over.
May we all go on a spiritual journey this Lent. May this Lent be a turning point for each of us.
May we deepen our relationship with Christ, that we may be transformed by our Lenten practice, and know the power of God’s grace.