“The Unspeakable Sweetness of God’s Love.”

A Sermon for the
First Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-
begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious
resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant
us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him
in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son
our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Temptation of Jesus from Mount Athos

There is a lovely quote from the Prologue of the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (verses 48-50) which gives us excellent advice at the beginning of Lent: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”

 

The single most important liturgy of the entire year is the Great Vigil of the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  (The text is found in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 285). The Great Vigil is  the summit of our worship—and the very model of what Christianity is all about. The powerful symbols and prayers which are used that night provide the best articulation of the Christian message. If it is true that “Prayer shapes belief,” and I think that it is, then we must constantly use the Vigil as our source of inspiration—and as a catechetical tool to explain everything else. In particular, it seems to me, that the Season of Lent—in order to really be effective, and to make sense to us, must be understood in light of that new fire, the Christ-light of the Paschal Candle, and the Easter Proclamation—the Exsulset.

In the past few years, I have come to feel ever more strongly that we have just been getting it wrong about Lent. When I reflect on my own experience and listen to what others tell me about their own experience of Lent, I conclude that for most of us, Lent does not seem to really make much of a difference in our lives. It is a bit like making a resolution for a New Year. Many of us were “guilted” into giving something up. We felt that if we wanted to be authentic disciples of Jesus, we had to become Penitents. We had to give something up—something which would be unpleasant—something which would be a sacrifice—something that would enable us to imagine (if only in the smallest of ways) what the passion and death of the Lord was all about. Sadly, the result was that most of us became miserable, unpleasant, disagreeable, and cranky. And, then when Lent was over, we just went back to our lives as if though Lent had never happened.

There was a negative downside, though. It was easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, “That was a Good Observance.” It led to self-congratulation and self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee in the Temple we could say, “Thank you God that I am not like those other lukewarm Christians who did not take Lent seriously.”

The distortion happens when Lent is conceived of as primarily a time of Penance. In the common view, it is thought of as a time of preparation for Good Friday. Even in the Instruction, which is given to us on Ash Wednesday, there is a strand of this thought. In it, we are reminded that Lent was a season in which Notorious Sinners were reconciled to God and to the Church. I am not entirely sure what it takes to be a notorious sinner—other than getting caught and having everyone know what we have done—but I wonder know what it would take to cause someone in that situation to want to change. I doubt that most of us would fit into that category anyway. It is one thing to have a horrible notion of humanity—the Reformers, for instance, spoke of total depravity. But it seems to me that is rarely an understanding that causes people to want to change.

From my perspective, a healthier view is that Lent is a season of conversion-change, of growth, and of transformation. We are also reminded–in that same Ash Wednesday Instruction–that Lent was also the season in which the catechumens were prepared for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. This, I think, is what Lent is really all about.

Lent should be a joyful season, not a penitential one, in which we prepare to celebrate—not primarily Good Friday—but Easter Sunday. It is a season in which we begin to discover the reality of God’s love for us, It is a season of hope in which we begin to realize that we are called to a new kind of life, a new way of thinking, and a new way of acting in this world. It is a season in which we begin to change into the people that God loved us and created us to be. It is not only a season of preparation for those preparing for Baptism. It is a season in which we unite with them as we prepare to renew the vows of our own Baptism.

If we put on these new hopeful and joyous Lenten glasses, we are suddenly able to find new meaning in the Sacred Texts of God’s word and in the Prayers of our own Tradition. At the very center of that new view is the concept which our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, so often repeats to us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”

The explanations offered to us in the accounts of the Temptation of our Lord have often been discussed in ways which are disconnected from their theological context. So often, these explanations have seemed to stress the vast distance between Jesus and us. Although these explanations hoped to convince us of the true humanity of the Lord, they often left us feeling that we could never be able to resist temptation in the way that Jesus did. And many were left wondering if Jesus was really tempted at all? After all, an exclusive focus on the divinity of the Lord seems to conceal his humanity. In such a way, those who presented this view often concluded that while this victory over temptation and sin might well be true of Jesus, it could never be true of them.

What they failed to understand is that the meaning, the value, and the purpose of annually recounting these powerful stories from the life and experience of Jesus is to enable us to understand that the humanity of Jesus is precisely the place where the “rubber meets the road.” The humanity of Jesus is the very locus of revelation in which we come to understand that there is meaning for us in our own broken lives and frail humanity. It is not just that “the original sin of Adam and Eve” is overcome. It is rather that we are given a solution as to how we can grow to become fully human ourselves.

While the reality of these temptations is something which I do believe actually happened in the lived experience of Jesus, I also think that the way in which they are presented to us in Scripture is grounded in an approach intended to instruct us and to teach us how to apply this to our own lives. Jesus is presented as the “New Adam,” as the “New Exodus,” and as the new embodiment of Israel. He is the New Emmanuel who comes to show us how God responds to the challenges and difficulties in life–in ways which are generous, and loving and empowering rather than self-centered and destructive.

In these accounts we see the ways in which humans who are, after all, created in image and likeness of God and then declared very good, could choose to respond when we are empowered and transformed by the love of God. We see what could happen if we re-ordered our own values, priorities, and goals to align with God’s values, goals and priorities. We learn what is possible if we choose to say yes to God. We discover God’s own plan for overcoming all the dichotomies which lie at the very root of evil, hatred, injustice and oppression. We are given hope that God’s plan will not be thwarted by the power of evil, hatred, and cruelty—but will be vindicated by the transforming power of love.

An image which I find quite useful is that of tools. In the experience of the Temptation, we are presented with three tools which we can use, not only in Lent—but daily, to enter into the way of Love. These tools are prayer (the third temptation), fasting (the first temptation), and alms-giving (the second temptation).

Jesus, like the people of Israel, journeyed into the desert. There he spent 40 days and nights in prayer. It is sad that the theological significance of the desert and of 40 days need to be explained to us. For the first century Jewish audience which heard these words, there was an immediate recall of all the images from the Hebrew Scriptures: garden, and desert; Noah, Moses, and Elijah. Testing and Confusion juxtaposed with water, manna, ravens, and God’s loving generosity.

They remembered that it was in the wilderness that Israel was truly formed as a community. It was in the desert that Israel learned to trust in God. It was in the desert that Israel prepared to take on all the obstacles which could prevent them from becoming a source of blessing and hope for every nation. It was in the desert that Israel found God and learned to communicate with God. The desert–rather than the garden–was the place of hope. The desert became a model for conversion, for turning away from self and for turning toward God.

In those long forty days in which the human Jesus focused on God and prepared himself to discern God’s will in his own life, he prayed. That prayer was effective. It connected him to his beloved father. It gave him the answers that he was seeking. It opened his eyes to God’s plan for him and for all of humanity. It enabled him to say yes!

This commitment to prayer is reiterated in the third temptation. Here, Jesus learned to say yes to God-and to say no to anything else which offered an “easy way out.” He learned that there are no simple answers in life. And he accepted that there may well be a difficult price to pay for signing on to God’s plan.

It reveals the difference between magic and faith. God will not force or compel us to do what is right. We must choose to do what is good and just. In so doing we will become participants and co-workers with God to bring creation to its intended fulfillment.

It would be impossible to hear of Jesus fasting—freely taking on hunger and thirst—without thinking of all who hunger and thirst without having made the choice to do so. We live in a word of abundance in which there is more than enough for everyone to be fed. And yet, there is such waste and such greed that so many have nothing to eat. Children go to school hungry each morning and go to bed each night without having had anything to eat. Families have no food to prepare or any way to procure the ingredients to cook even a simple meal. People lack the means to grow their own food or the resources to purchase it.

Droughts and floods, war and violence all interrupt or prevent the production of food. In this first temptation, Jesus refuses to magically transform stones to bread. He recognized that hunger can only be overcome through human effort and struggle. A just society only comes about through the abolition of injustice, hated, and oppression. And, in any case, humans need more than bread and water. We need God’s choice food of unity, love, and equality.
This bread, which we find in God’s word—we learn must be applied. It is the healing remedy which God generously offers to the wounded world in which we live. If we choose to fast, we too enter into solidarity—not only with Jesus—but with all who hunger and thirst for justice. We learn what their daily experience is like. And we realize that we have the power to make a difference. In so doing we too will be changed and transformed. In that hunger we will be fed and will find that the deepest desires of our heart will be fulfilled.

The second temptation is in many ways the Rosetta Stone for understanding how God’s plan works. This temptation is really about the danger of being self-centered. We learn that it is all too easy to take God for granted and to presume on the knowledge that God is able to provide for our needs. It is entirely another matter to trust that God will in fact provide in situations which for us seem impossible.

When we are surrounded by darkness, it is not easy to believe that light will be found. When we are cold and shivering, it is difficult to trust that there is warmth in the world. In this moment, Jesus learned to stop thinking about himself—and his own needs– and to, first, place his focus firmly on God, and then, secondly, to think of everyone else.

For this reason, the traditional tool which has been derived from this temptation is that of almsgiving. It is by being generous to others who are in need that we avoid the danger of expecting that God will miraculously solve all the problems which we face, and which our word faces. It is not so much that this kind of magical thinking puts God to the test—rather it exonerates us from rising to the challenge of sharing the gifts, talents and resources which with which God has blessed us to make a difference in the world.

Lest we be tempted to think that we have only these three tools, though, that same Ash Wednesday Instruction reminds us that we have a whole tool kit (with at least seven tools) to use this Lent—and each day—to truly turn away from sin and to say yes to God. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Here is an unsolicited suggestion. Are you looking for simple things which you can do which might inspire you and help you to grow this Lent? Here are two ideas.

First, what about starting to attend the Adult Forum each Sunday morning. You are at Church already—or you could come to church a bit earlier than usual. All you have to do is to stop and grab some coffee and walk on down the hall. You might be surprised at what you learn. You might find new ideas or practices which could be helpful. You might be surprised to learn that you are the answer or that you have the answer to some problem which has stumped everyone else.

Second, each Wednesday night this Lent, there will be the opportunity to come to church to pray to listen and to learn. Together we will be exploring that many ways in which it is possible to seek and to find God. We will be sharing our own experiences of how we have gone about that. We will be exploring the often unexpected and surprising ways in which God is revealed to us.

Most importantly, we will be reminded that each of us are called by God—each of us have a “vocation” or a “call.” A vocation is not something which happens to only a select few or especially holy people. Each of us need to be challenged to discern the question, “What is God’s call for me?” And together we will affirm our individual calls and our collective vocation to become God’s Beloved Community. Please come out into the desert with us Wednesday nights this Lent to hear and to answer God’s call.

In this Holy and Joyous Season of Lent, as we prepare to renew our Baptismal Vows and Commitment, may we so fully experience God’s love for us that our hearts overflow with unspeakable sweetness: “For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with the unspeakable sweetness of love—and come to share in the fullness of God’s reign.”

Lent at Trinity in Easton 2020

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