If you watch carefully in church, the colors here change. Two Sundays ago I stood up here wearing a green stole. Last week it was white. And today it’s purple. And it’s going to be purple from now until Easter. Then it will be white again. (And then red. And then green.)
We clergy sometimes assume that people just know what we are doing. But, I’m reminded that when I first really started going to church I thought that the clergy just sort of wore whatever they wanted on Sunday. Like, they were color coordinating with their shirt, or pants. So, I thought I’d talk a little about why I’m wearing purple today, and what it signifies.
I put the purple on Wednesday night, as we held our Ash Wednesday service here. That same night we put up our Lenten banner, and we received the ashes that symbolize the start of Lent. The purple in the stoles that clergy wear this time of year is a reminder penitence, or mourning, or suffering. We come before God looking for reconciliation, and we follow the journey of Jesus as he was tested, and tried, and ultimately killed for who he was.
Purple is a reminder of what the season is about. It signifies the bigger story. A story that today takes us to this Gospel reading and to Jesus and to the wilderness. Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent, and there he fasted and was “tempted by the devil”.
As the story goes, Jesus was put to a test. First he was asked, “if you’re so hungry, why don’t you turn this stone into some bread?” But Jesus resists and says, “you don’t live by bread alone.” Then, Jesus is taken up to a high place and looks down on all the world and is told, “You know, if you worship me, I’ll give you all of this.” But Jesus says, “Worship God alone…and serve God alone.” Finally, he is taken up to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the adversary says to him, “If you’re really the son of God…throw yourself off the roof. God will save you.” But Jesus says, “don’t put God to the test”. And after that, the adversary, the devil, left him alone until, as Scripture tells us, “an opportune time”.
Forty days of wrestling in the wilderness. Forty days of fasting and refocusing. Forty days of being tested and tempted and being offered an easier way. And at the end of it, Jesus emerges, and he faces even greater challenges.
You and I know how the story goes from here. We know we are journeying towards Easter. But that also means that know that we are about to journey to the cross. Theologians debate whether or not Jesus knew that at the time. I don’t know if he knew exactly how it would all go down, but I think he knew something big was about to happen. Something that would test his will and resolve and faithfulness. And so, it’s telling that before that time came, he took forty days and went into the wilderness.
For Jesus the wilderness was literal. He literally went into a place where few went, a wilderness area. Sort of like off the beaten path in Green Mountain National Forest, but without the snow mobile trails and the Appalachian Trail hikers. He was out there. But that wasn’t the only wilderness he was facing. It was a physical wilderness, but it was also a spiritual wilderness. It was a place that few people spiritually dared to go.
You and I are, hopefully, not preparing for a crucifixion. But we are here at the start of our own forty days, the forty days of Lent, and we are standing at the threshold of what to the world around us might as well be a wilderness. Lent seems like a foreign concept in our culture, and not just because of the religious associations.
Who wants to go into the wilderness? I’m not talking about camping and hiking, I’m talking about a real wilderness here. A place where we wrestle with ourselves, and our spirit, and our relationship with God? What good is it? You can’t put it on a resume. It doesn’t earn you any money. It doesn’t really make your life easier. It may even make it harder. So why would you do it?
But that’s exactly what Lent asks of us. It asks us for forty days to go into a wilderness place, and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. It asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff. To pray. To fast. To do something new. To face temptation and choose to follow Christ anyway.
It’s not popular. Easter morning the church will be full of people, some of whom we’ve never seen before but who go to church twice a year, and I don’t begrudge that. But Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday? Not so much. Everyone likes a party. Not everyone likes setting up for it.
And that’s okay. It’s a personal choice. But for those of us who choose to follow Lent, and who choose to make this forty day wilderness journey, we discover something meaningful along the way: we’ve often been in the wilderness, but now we’ve found Christ there too.
The reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time lost. We spend a lot of time facing temptation. We spend a lot of time wrestling with God. And, spiritually, we spend a lot of time being alone with our demons. And Jesus knows what that was like. And so in Lent we have the opportunity to spend forty days not alone, but with one who has been here before.
Are you having a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you struggling to make a hard choice? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you grieving? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you wrestling with demons? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like too. And I’m convinced that when we go through these wilderness times God looks at us with nothing but compassion and nothing but love. Because God watched God’s own child, Jesus, go through these days too.
Recently the fire department was called to a house fire in a neighboring town. Lots of departments were called, actually. The people were okay, thanks be to God, though the house wasn’t.
I was thinking about the wilderness that day. Most of you know that I serve as the fire department’s chaplain, which is another way of saying that most of the time I just try to stay out of the way. And by the time I got there, a lot of fire trucks were already there. And the house was up this dirt road that most of the trucks couldn’t get up. And so they were running a hose up this muddy, snowy road.
It was at least a quarter of a mile long. And walking up the road we were slipping, and sliding, and sinking ankle deep into the muck. I kept pulling my shoes up out and putting one foot in front of another. And everyone who walked up the road knew that when they got to the top, the hard stuff didn’t end.
But they also knew they weren’t alone. That they had others supporting them, and that others were on the same path.
I think Lent is a lot like that. It’s one of the only places in our culture, and the best time in our church year, where we can say to one another “we are traveling up a hard path right now…let’s do it together…and let’s do it with one who has been here before…let’s follow him.”
I started out today talking about stoles and the color purple. I talked about how it symbolized struggle and penitence and pain. But there’s something else it symbolizes too. The other side of the picture. Purple has often been called the color of kings, which is part of why we wear it. We proclaim Christ sovereign over our life. Not any other person. Not any other situation or struggle. Christ.
He’s not a typical ruler. He rejects the kingdoms of the world when offered to him. He turns away from domination. He chooses something better. And that’s what I want to give my allegiance to. To the child of God who knew what it was like to be in the wilderness. To a person who knew what it was to feel pain, and grief and doubt. And to a God who chooses us.
In Lent we have the choice to find him into the wilderness, and the option to choose a better way. He’s waiting for us. And so, on this first Sunday of Lent, we choose. Amen.