The First Sunday in Lent
February 10, 2008
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19 St. Matthew 4:1-11
For many people this season of Lent began with the imposition of ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. The ashes served to symbolize our eventual death and to remind us of the fleeting nature of our life here on earth. The ashes remind us that we were made in the image of God from dust and that our fleshly body will also eventually return to dust. It is a somber experience in which we are called to reflect on our relationship with God and our own mortality.
But I think it is important also to remember that ashes also provide for new life. They are rich in the nutrients necessary for growth. A forest filled with ashes after a fire soon springs for with new life, like phoenix rising from the ashes of death. And we would be missing something every important if we focused only on the meaning found in death and not the meaning found in new life. New life is what Easter is all about and that is what being a Christian is all about. New life in Christ means new beginnings for us all.
But before we get to that new life found in the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus we must face Lent. The issues of temptation and sin run through all of the lessons for today. Sometimes in Lent I find this emphasis on temptation and sin, and the examination and repentance which the church has traditionally taught, during this season a rather silly way to countdown the days until that most wonderful of events in history, Easter.
For many years I have fought against this from the pulpit every Lent. It has been a tiring and lonely battle. It seems that everyone else is resigned to the fact of this ancient Christian tradition.
Luther preached on these very texts as well on the First Sunday of Lent. I was reading one of his sermons and got very excited that perhaps I had, at long last, found an ally in my quest for a gentler and more exciting Lenten tradition. He was really preaching up a storm against fasting in Lent. But alas as I continued reading I realized that he was not railing against what bothers me so much. He was concerned not about the fasting per se, but about the motivation behind it. It appeared that he is definitely not an ally in my camp.
I want a happy countdown to Easter, that most celebratory season of the Church calendar. Sort of like the countdown to my birthday or other happy events (although admittedly I don’t do the birthday countdown anymore.) But we do have a young man in our parish who, weeks before his birthday, at ever Sunday announcement time, lets us know how many days are remaining until he turns 8. Oh the joyous anticipation you can clearly see on his happy face. That is what I want for an Easter countdown.
And so for years now I have been engaged in the task of swimming against the strong current of a somber Lent. I have argued that we should not focus so much on giving up doing things, but on starting new things. But to be honest, I don’t think I have gotten very far tilting at this particular windmill.
Not that I have completely given up mind you. I continue to believe that, in addition to the practice of giving something up for Lent, it is also a very good thing to consider taking on some new spiritual discipline during your Lenten observance. It is the opportunity to stretch ourselves, try something new, something that may cause us to grow spiritually in ways we might never have thought of before, and that is not a bad thing. I believe that God will bless you for doing so.
But I also realized that I needed to turn myself to the harder work of dealing with the issues of sin and temptation so glaringly evident in the passages for today. Adam and Eve faced the temptation to sin and surrendered to it. They failed completely and totally to heed the words of their creator. They fell prey to the siren song of the tempter in their lives. In Matthew, Jesus faced the temptation of sin and conquered it. These two responses can sum up the history of humanity. We are faced with temptation and sin in our lives and there are only two responses. We will either fall into the sin, or through the strength of God to overcome it in our lives, we will resist and conquer sin.
The story of Adam and Eve provide a clear example of failure to remain faithful and of the strength of temptation and sin to draw us away from God. That temptation is always around us. It sometimes can seem we live in a world whose entire goal and purpose is to tempt us to sin.
I recently read an article about a college professor of religion who in every class ended the term with his students devising their own religion. Sadly, to me at least, he has noted that the vast majority of these religions made up as a class assignment revolve in some way with meeting the individual’s personal desires or wants. Some were focused on success, others focused on sleep, or food, anything and everything it seems. This I think reveals a great truth about all of us. We tend to be driving by our wants, our desires, our passions, and most of those tend to be selfish.
Lent is a time when we need to reflect carefully on our lives as Christians, to examine ourselves for sins and failures, and temptations that seem to overcome us and our desire to follow God.
It seems less traditional now, but for many years fasting was a regular part of most Christian’s Lenten practice. Fasting has many great benefits both spiritually and physically. But I think that one of the greatest spiritual benefits from fasting is the discipline of learning to control our desires. Depriving ourselves of food once in a while should serve as a reminder that our desires and passions should be under our control, they should not be controlling us.
And so as we continue this Lenten journey together, I encourage you to use this time for self examination. Consider fasting on a regular basis during Lent as an affirmation that it is we who control our passions and not our passions that control us.
Above all, let us prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate new life in Christ. Both in the Resurrection of our savior which we will observe this coming Easter, but also let us as Christians celebrate the new life in our own life as we struggle to follow the call of Jesus in our own heart.