Wednesday night some of us gathered here in the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday worship. I joked then about the overflow crowd. You know, there are three packed services in every church year: Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday.
That’s not true, of course. On Christmas and Easter the church makes some joyous proclamations. Christ is born. Christ is risen. It’s no wonder that the pews are full for each service.
On Ash Wednesday, though, we tell you you’re going to die. So, that’s not really the way to draw in the crowds.
I get that. And I also get that Lent, the season whose first Sunday we are observing today, is probably the most dreaded part of the church year. Our hymns get a little slower and more introspective. We don’t have flowers in the sanctuary. We put up purple to symbolize repentance from sin. And you can kind of feel the whole church get a little more serious and pensive.
So, if church feels a little different this time of year, a little slower and harder, I get it. It does to me too. And yet, I’ve always believed in the power of Lent to make Easter even more joyous. I’ll tell you why, but first I want to look at the text.
Jesus was led out into the wilderness for forty days to be, as Scripture puts it, “tempted by the devil”. And while he is out there, Jesus faces a lot of temptations. He’s fasting, so he’s really hungry, and the devil says to him “you know, if you just told these stones to become bread, they would.” But Jesus refuses saying “we don’t live by bread alone”.
Then the devil takes Jesus up to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “you know, if you’re really God’s son, you could just jump and he angels would catch you.” But Jesus says, “Don’t put God to the test.”
And finally the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, one where Jesus could see every kingdom, and he says “all you have to do is worship me, and this could all be yours.”
But Jesus says, “away with you, satan, I will only worship and serve God.” And Scripture tells us that the devil left, and angels came to wait on Jesus.
Jesus was tempted for forty days. And he wasn’t even in the comfort of his home, or his friends. He was along, in the wilderness, wrestling with the powers of death and destruction. And he overcame evil incarnate itself. It’s amazing.
But he was doing all of this not just to prove a point. This wasn’t some kind of spiritual marathon whose medal he would then wear. He was doing this because something even harder was coming. Jesus was doing this because he was preparing to walk down a road that would lead to his betrayal, and crucifixion, and death. Jesus was doing this in order to grow strong enough for what was to come.
It’s no coincidence that our Lent is forty days long too. Because, while we are not preparing for betrayal and death, we are preparing for what comes next. We’re getting ready for Easter. We’re getting ready for that Sunday morning next month when we will come to church and the flowers will overflow the chancel, the choir will sing victorious hymns, and the whole world will feel like it is alive once again.
But, more than that, we are preparing to be the people who will proclaim Easter with our lives. We are getting ready to go out in the world and glorify God by loving the world. We are soon going to be given this joyful work to do, and that’s why right now we have to do the hard work of Lent.
And Lent is hard work. It’s not joyless work, but it is hard. Because Lent is about more than giving up candy, or coffee, or meat, or Facebook, or whatever else. Lent was never just about “giving up” anything. Lent is also not about just praying more, or reading Scripture everyday. Lent was never just about “taking something on” either.
Instead, Lent is about this: growing closer to God. And the way we are often called to do that, is by looking in ourselves, and removing the things that are keeping us separated from God.
Jesus had to wrestle with the devil in the wilderness. I think that in Lent we are called to wrestle with our own demons. We are called into the wildernesses of our lives, maybe even the one within us, to confront the things that tempt us, and that hold us back.
What those things are, what form those demons each of us wrestle with, will be different for us all. Maybe it’s resentment. Maybe addiction. Maybe the judgement of others Maybe self-doubt. Maybe fear. Maybe some combination, some cocktail of pain and regret and alienation from others.
Whatever is in there, whatever we don’t want to face, it’s a good chance that it’s our real Lenten work. And Lent is the perfect time to grow closer to God, and then to get in there and wrestle with our demons, and kick those suckers out.
If we want to get to Easter, if we want to rise up with Christ in the morning, then we have to be willing to face the things that we worry could kill us. We have to be willing to face the wilderness, and rely on God to bring us through. Because we can’t hope to change the world if we cannot face ourselves first.
I was reminded of how important that can be. A friend of mine from college is now a physician working in family medicine. Most years she gives up Facebook for Lent, but this year she decided to do something else. This year she is staying on Facebook in order to write daily posts about her patients, with their permission, and about the choices they are making in their lives in order to live more fully, and serve the world. She is calling them “Lent stories”.
Now, let me say first that while this might sound sort of sweet and sentimental, like a Hallmark card, my friend first practiced medicine as a Navy doctor assigned to care for US Marines in Kuwait during the war on terror. She understands the gritty realities of life. But that’s what makes these so great.
This week she told the story of a patient who came in for a routine medical clearance form so that she could study better environmental practices in Sri Lanka. And then there was the story of the man whose liver transplant wasn’t working, but whose first response when told was “okay, let’s get to work. Let’s fix this.”
There was the story of the mother with three sets of twins. (Yes, three.) She was going back to school. And there was the story of Mrs. S., who after years of abuse from her husband, decided that she and her 12 year old daughter would be leaving him this week. She told her doctor, “We are worth more than that. My daughter deserves more than that and I intend to model behavior that she can be proud of.”
These are stories of hope and transformation. They are stories of overcoming the demons of life and finding new life. And they are Lent stories.
Every one of us has a Lenten story waiting to be told. This is the season where we write it. So what is your Lent story? What is the story that you want to be able to tell the world come Easter morning?
Whatever it is, that’s what the work of Lent can be for you this year. Draw close to God, and then dig deep. Walk into the wilderness, and know that God will be with you every step of the way. Amen?