February 26, 2012
1st Sunday of Lent
I tried to fast once. When I lived at Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt one year during Lent the students and staff set up a fast. We would fast all 40 days of Lent as a group. So we divided up the days- and each of us took a day or more of our choice. Together we decided that our fast would include drinking juice, but not consuming any food until during daylight hours. I took my day on a Friday because I had fewer classes that day. I did not do well- by noon I was starting to feel weak and shortly thereafter I was not able to fully concentrate on the schoolwork I was trying to do. My friends and I spent a lot of Friday night dinners at a Mexican restaurant near the campus. I asked if we could wait until the sunset to go. I distinctly remember sitting there, with chip in hand- ready to dip into the salsa as the sun was making its final descent beyond my line of sight. That kind of fasting was rough on me. I was told that each time I had a hunger pang- I should spend some time in prayer. I prayed nearly all day long!
Mark’s gospel reminds us that before Jesus began his public ministry, he was led into the wilderness for forty days. During that time we are told that he was alone with the wild animals, while angels attended him. Mark doesn’t say too much more about what happened when Jesus was in the wilderness other than he was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke also share the story of Jesus in the wilderness and they give the added detail that Jesus was fasting during this time. In fact my favorite line comes from Matthew’s Gospel. He says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Um…yeah) Luke’s Gospel also says that Jesus ate nothing during this time (and that he was hungry).
We don’t know the specifics of Jesus’ fast. Did he fast only during daylight hours? (Although Matthew’s gospel says he fasted at night as well) Did he have any kind of food to sustain him? Did he drink water? We’re not sure. We do know that fasting is part of many religious traditions, including Jesus’ Jewish faith. Fasting in the bible occurs often when one is waiting on direction from God, or hoping to receive God’s guidance for their life. Corporate fasting, or fasting as a group, took place when the people wanted to repent from sin. Fasting would also occur when mourning was taking place. Fasting is one spiritual practice that people have used for years to connect more deeply with God.
Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark’s gospel says “sent” which is different than Jesus being “led” by the Spirit as Matthew and Luke put it. This part of Jesus’ life is a little startling to me. I would think that after his baptism, Jesus would be ready to go and begin his public ministry. I can’t imagine a more ringing endorsement from God than for Jesus to hear the words at his baptism, “You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” To hear those words- directly from the lips of God- I can’t imagine feeling more fulfilled than that. I would think with a commissioning like that, that Jesus would be good to go. You would think he could go right into his teaching, and preaching and healing being both full of the Holy Spirit and assured of God’s love and favor.
Instead, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the wilderness. He is alone for forty days- he encounters no other humans. He encounters wild animals, he is tempted by Satan. Just like we saw last week in the transfiguration, Jesus leaves a place of spiritual high- his baptism, for a place of desolation and temptation.
I like what one preacher had to say about Jesus being sent to the wilderness. Phyllis Kersten (CC) says, “We can take some comfort in Mark’s honesty about how Jesus ended up in the wilderness. We don’t generally enter the wilderness on our own volition either. Nor do we feel gently led there by God’s Holy Spirit. We are thrown into the wilderness. Most of us know that experience at some point in our lives. A shattering of a relationship, the sudden loss of job or health or home, … any of those things can land us in a desolate place…”
We do know what its like to be in the wilderness- in a desolate place. The question for us is the same question that stood for Jesus- when we are in the wilderness can we still hear the voice of God calling us beloved child? In Romans, Paul tell us that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God, but sometimes it is hard to remember that when we are in the depths of the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals. Satan, wild beasts, no food- the wilderness is not a fun place to be.
We are about to voluntarily enter a place of wilderness in our spiritual lives. Wilderness isn’t just a place of testing and temptation; wilderness is also a place of preparation. The season of Lent is a season of preparation. This past Wednesday we entered into a forty seven day journey that leads us to Easter Sunday. Seven of those days are Sunday, which are always days when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. So if you take away those seven days, we have 40 days of Lent- just as Jesus had 40 days in the wilderness.
Wednesday night we began this season by repenting of our sins, and being marked with an ashen cross that reminds us of our humility and our mortality: “from dust we came, and to dust we shall return.” Confessing sin is one way to enter into this wilderness of preparation. The season itself beckons us to examine our lives and recognize our dependence on God.
During the season of Lent there are three practices that can help guide us through the wilderness as we journey through the life of Jesus. These three practices are: fasting, prayer and giving.
Fasting- there are all different types of fasts. Fasting is defined by abstaining from something that you enjoy. If you are fasting from food, please do it in a way that is healthy for you. As a diabetic, I wouldn’t even attempt a fast from all food for an entire day. You can fast from non-food things as well. I have seen people fast from facebook, or ebay or from playing online games. With the time you save by not doing these things, you can spend more time in prayer, or spend more time with your family, or use the time for anything that will bring you into closer relationship with God. In fact I want you to look at any fasting you are currently doing, if it is not serving the purpose of bringing you closer to God- then don’t do it- it is an empty action. However, if when you crave chocolate- you stop and say a quick prayer, or think about the sacrifice of Christ- then your fasting has served its purpose.
Prayer is another incredibly important Lenten practice. I have to imagine that during Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness he spent a lot of time in prayer. During the 40 days of Lent we have an opportunity to be more dedicated in our prayer life. Find a time in each day to devote to prayer. I read somewhere about the concept of “bookending” your day with prayer- praying first thing when you get up- and the last thing at night before you go to sleep. Your prayers don’t have to be fancy- in fact one of my favorite prayers, called the Jesus prayer is easy to remember and can be repeated any time. This prayer says, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Any prayer you pray during this time will help prepare you to more fully experience the joy of the resurrection that waits for us at the end of the journey.
A third practice that can help us achieve a deeper relationship with God is giving. Almsgiving, or giving to the needy is a practice that accompanies times in the Bible when the people wish to draw near to God. Around here, we’ve been in a season of giving. We’ve been wonderful about giving to our Raising the Roof campaign and the Souperbowl of Caring. Giving doesn’t have to necessarily be about money- we can give the gifts of our time and our skills to others as well. Giving can be about making time for family members and friends. Any act of kindness that reminds someone of God’s love for them is a powerful act of giving.
During Lent this year I am giving up buying coffee. Not drinking coffee mind you- that is crazy. What I am avoiding is the coffee drive through purchases, and purchasing any extra beans for home use. At the end of our Lenten journey, I plan to estimate what I might have spent on coffee and donate that to a charity that works with children. There are so many ways to give- I encourage you to find a way to honor God through giving during this season.
After 40 days Jesus was ready to start his ministry. After this time of wilderness preparation Jesus began to teach and to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God is here! Repent, and believe in the good news.” The time of preparation was vital to his ministry. During Lent we are called to prepare our hearts for the most important truth in our faith life- the resurrection of Christ. May we journey with Jesus through the wilderness and to all the other places his life will take us. May this be a time of deepened relationship with God and a strengthening of our faith. Amen.