For people of the Christian faith, Lent is “the promise of deep mercy.” It is a gentle alternative to the “pull of chaos and waste and superficiality” that takes up so much of our time (Joan Chittister.) And it gives shape and form to the practice of radical gratitude – living our lives with such a thankful heart that we ourselves become a blessing of joy and tenderness to others – a peaceful alternative to our worst fears, obsessions and addictions.
· Lent is NOT meant to be an empty ritual nor a season for the sour and stern – although it has certainly become that in some places. Nor is Lent intended to be a spiritual discipline largely ignored by Protestants even if that is often true, too.
· Rather Lent is a gift given to us in humility that leads us towards an antidote to ingratitude if we are able to receive it. Did you get that? It is a gift that offers us healing IF we are able and willing to accept it?
That is what our first lesson was all about: the early people of Israel learning to offer thanksgiving to the Lord by sharing the first fruits of their harvest. In this not only did the dirt of the desert become a source of blessing, but so too the caring for the land and the sharing of its bounty. In fact, this festival of first fruits became a way to worship God and care for the most vulnerable. After the harvest of the grain and barley and wheat was complete, loaves of bread were baked and brought to worship. They were offered to the Lord in a ceremony of thanksgiving. And then these symbols of gratitude were brought to a table where two young lambs and one young bull had been sacrificed and roasted as a burnt offering. And when the cooking was complete these offerings became a feast to which the poor, the stranger and the temple priests were nourished together in community.
· Remember, says the reading from Deuteronomy that our ancestors were wandering Arameans who left their homes as illegal and undocumented aliens and once found protection in Egypt. In time, however, their kin became slaves – oppressed and despised – but the Lord heard our cries and led us out to a new land filled with milk and honey. So now we remember the blessing of freedom and new beginnings and celebrate it with a feast of gratitude.
· That is what Lent is meant to be: a remembering of God’s mercy, an act of shared gratitude, a living antidote to the fear and anger and waste that surrounds us. Probably every generation needs to wrestle with the potential for a holy and gratitude-infused Lent. Mary Jo Letty offers a contemporary urgency, however, when she writes that ours has become an era of social and ethical amnesia. We have no sense of time, history or future:
Lent provides a tender and quiet alternative – a sacred antidote – grounded in radical gratitude. Like St. Paul said: no one is shut out of God’s grace and healing – not Jew or Greek – for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. But it takes some practice to call upon the Lord with an open and grateful heart – and to that end let’s consider what Jesus has to say about all of this on the first Sunday in our season of God’s mercy.
And before we reflect on the three essential challenges articulated in today’s Gospel, let me give you a bit of literary context because it makes an important theological point. It isn’t an accident in Luke that after Jesus has been baptized – and before today’s story of his temptation in the desert – there is a genealogy included in the story. Now most of the time most readers will skip over these things as boring and essentially irrelevant to our lives – and most of the time when I’m reading the Bible I do that, too – but it would be a mistake to ignore it today.
· Because in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus we’re shown a connection between Jesus and Adam – the first man in God’s created universe – and Luke wants us to know that the good news of God’s mercy won’t become clear until we compare and contrast Jesus and Adam. In fact, we won’t know how to call out to the Lord for salvation until we grasp the differences between Jesus and Adam.
· So what do you think is going on here? Why is the story of Adam and Eve important for us at the start of this season of mercy we call Lent? Can you say out loud some of the things going on in the Adam and Eve story and why they might be significant in the light of Christ?
I think that Adam and Eve paint one picture of what life can be like while Jesus paints another – and at the start of Lent we’re asked to consider where we want to wind up. In the first picture, we see what it looks like when we follow our own direction – with no Lord but our own feelings and inclinations – and it leads to alienation and separation from God’s mercy. Not because God wants to push us away, but rather because such emptiness is the consequence of living just for ourselves. The picture of Adam and Eve is essentially self-centered – a story of ingratitude – and it’s sad consequences
The other picture, born of Jesus, is all about gratitude: it is an equally hard and demanding life, filled with suffering and the Cross, but it is also saturated with joy and meaning. Lent asks us to look at the picture of our own lives and wonder: am I going in the right direction? Am I living just for myself – without a deep connection to thanksgiving – or am I grounded in gratitude? And just so that we can’t miss the point, the Gospel gives us three examples in the temptation of Christ in the wilderness:
· The first has to do with consumption: eating actually and it is another very subtle reference to the Adam and Eve story that invites us to wonder whether we’re living just to satisfy our own personal wants, addictions and needs. Jesus is hungry – he’s been fasting for 40 days – and the Tempter playfully says: Come on, man, use your gifts to make yourself happy. Now there’s nothing wrong with being happy and there’s nothing wrong with using our resources and abilities to have a good time. Jesus was often condemned by the religious authorities of his day as being a party animal. So the question is NOT about good times, but rather what’s the trajectory of our life look like over time? Is it generous or selfish arc? Is it built upon gratitude or greed? Is their ample evidence that we are trusting in God’s grace; or are we trying to protect ourselves and grab as much as we can because we’re afraid? Are we fundamentally about sharing or stinginess?
· The second has to do with power: how are we going use our strength, influence, gifts, time and energy in the world? Satan – diabolos the confuser – encourages Jesus to become a political leader. Come on, man, if you had some corporate PAC money behind you – and could advance your cause with military and political power – think of all the people you could help. And that’s a very seductive offer because Jesus wanted to help and heal his people. But he decides against the Tempter’s offer because God’s grace isn’t partisan; like St. Paul reminds us, all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. Not just Democrats – or Republicans – or the Roman Empire – or narrow minded religious leaders. We all have fallen short of the grace of God and Christ came to share salvation with us all.
· And third has to do with magic or sensationalism: Jesus said that is always a mistake when it comes to caring for the people you love. Satan wanted Jesus to do some tricks – jump off the highest point of the Temple and see how the people react when God saves you from the fall – come on, man do something wild and flashy. I couldn’t help but think of this when I saw the President and his skeet-shooting picture that was to my mind simply misguided pandering and manipulation. So Jesus told Satan to get lost – and set his sights not upon the Temple but the Cross.
Three ways we either nourish or starve gratitude in our everyday lives: consumption, power and style. Gratitude practices sharing, solidarity and subtly – it is humble, quiet and tender – while ingratitude encourages waste, selfishness and sensationalism. Gratitude is expressed by joy and caring for others while ingratitude is obsessed with the self. Joan Chittister hit the nail on the head when she wrote:
When I myself am the total square footage of my own small world, that’s darkness. When my pains and my successes and my agendas are my only concern, that is darkness. When I see no larger meaning in my life than my own interests, that is darkness. But when I begin to look at life through the eyes of Christ, then the light begins to shines.
Gratitude, said Karl Barth, is all about joy while its opposite is all about fear and resentment and darkness.
In mercy – in tenderness – Lent comes around every year as a quiet gift to invite us out of our cycle of selfishness. It is a subtle and liberating antidote to the cynical ingratitude that wants to enslave us. So in the spirit and practice of Jesus who very clearly turned his back on temptation, I want to try a little experiment with you today.
· Do you see the 3 x 5 cards in your pews? Maybe you’ve been wondering what they’re for – so I’m going to tell you. On one side, I’d like you to write down something that is important to you or which you feel confident of God’s support: maybe it’s the love of your family or a job or even the love of the Lord. What I’m talking about are things that really matter the most to you and for which you sense you have God’s loving support.
· Is that clear? On one side write down one thing that you sense you can trust God about – and mark the top of that side: TRUST.
· On the other side of the card, write down something that you find it is difficult to trust God on right now: it could be a health issue, a family or relationship concern, something happening in the world. Something that you find it hard to trust God with, ok? And mark that side of the card: MISTRUST.
Now let me ask you something: when you compare one side of your card to the other, why is it easier to trust God with one but not the other? Why is one harder to trust than the other? Can you share your thoughts out loud? Maybe we can learn something about trust and gratitude together this morning…
Preacher David Lohse came up with a way to bring this all home that I’m going to borrow now: I’d like to decide to either take your card with you or put it into the offering plate. If you take it with you, try carrying it around for the week, taking it out from time to time and giving thanks to God for that truth you feel trust about and praying about the harder truth. And if you choose to put the card into the plate, then you are asking for prayers on these matters… and I will hold your concern in prayer during next week.
Like I said at the beginning: everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved – but it takes some practice. So let those who have ears to hear, hear the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord.