Lent 1

“Journeying With Jesus to Jerusalem: Prepare”

This morning we begin a Lenten journey that we will be traveling together for the next six weeks. Lent is the season observed between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and is traditionally seen as a time for contemplation and preparation for the events of Holy Week, as well as a time of redemption and renewal. This year we will begin our journey with the familiar passage from Matthew’s gospel that is the usual the reading for the first Sunday of Lent.

Matthew 4:1-11
[After he was baptized] Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Our theme for the next six weeks of Lent is “Journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem,” and each week we will consider a different aspect of the journey. We already know how the journey ended for Jesus – his going so boldly into Jerusalem brought about his death. Of course he had already put himself in danger because of his radical message of peace, inclusivity, and justice, and there were many plotting ways to silence him. What is most impressive to me is that Jesus was acutely aware of this, and it would have been very easy for him to avoid the city altogether, especially during the high holy days when everyone was on guard. Or he could have blended in, kept his head down, and not caused a scene – saved his life by keeping quiet. But instead he chose a course that would ultimately lead him into direct confrontation with the powerful elite, and did not back down. And while it cost him his life, it gave life to a story that has inspired and compelled humanity for centuries. So perhaps we can learn something from him to embolden us on our own journeys. The message seems timelier than ever, as we consider the crosses we are willing to take up for the sake of others.

Today we will reflect on what we can do to prepare for such a journey, next week Bob will talk about having companions journey with us, and in two weeks we will consider what to do when we encounter difficulties along the way. As Bob and I discussed our Lenten theme in preparation for these next three Reflections, Bob wisely said, “It’s important to acknowledge that a journey is different then a trip. A trip has a planned route, an itinerary with known destinations and way stations at planned intervals. A journey means traveling with unknown and unknowable outcomes and circumstances. We often treat faith as if it were a trip wherein if we acquire the right knowledge and affirm the correct beliefs we have a guaranteed outcome. It’s much more realistic to experience faith as a skill set needed for a journey where our circumstances and experiences cannot be predicted or managed.” With those profound thoughts in mind, we turn our thoughts to preparation for the journey.

We notice that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit – not forced but invited, called. Part of being called to something means that you have to be called away from something else. Like Jesus, we have to be called away from the familiar things, people, and places we all use to keep our lives organized and safe. In other words, we have to be able to step outside of our comfort zones into the unknown. Prior to this story we know little about Jesus’ life, other than that soon after he was born his father moved the family to Egypt to flee King Herod, and that they returned to Israel after Herod’s death, settling in Nazareth in Galilee. We suspect that in Nazareth he probably lived a somewhat normal life for his time and place in history. He was not yet preaching, teaching, or healing. He did not have any disciples – he was simply Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. And while he wasn’t a rich man living in the lap of luxury, he must have had some creature comforts, a place to call home, and a routine to fill his days.

But then he was called away from all of that – first to be baptized by John, and then Matthew says the Spirit led him into the wilderness. He was called to go alone to a new, unknown place to face new, unknown things – but he couldn’t do any of that until he set aside the comfortable routines that kept him from answering the call of a more profound relationship with the Sacred. So like Jesus, we can’t expect to figure out what it is that we are being called to until we recognize what we are being called from and acknowledge what needs to be set aside. Jesus answered that call in the affirmative, stepping into an unknown wilderness experience. He did not know what he would face, he did not know what would happen to him there – but he was compelled to respond. This walking away from something comfortable, familiar, into the unknown is called self-emptying – or kenosis – and is central to Christianity. “And Jesus – who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped — emptied himself.” (Philippians 2:6) You can’t take on something new and important until you clear out things that comfort and numb you. Jesus was able to move forward into the unfamiliar mystery that awaited him once he was able to let go of that which bound him.

Part of that unfamiliar mystery included the devil, a key player in the story. The Greek word diabolos does not refer to the devil we have come to think of as having horns, a pitchfork, and tail, lording over the fires of hell – that’s a modern incarnation. The term Jesus uses – Satan or “ha-satan” – can be translated as “adversary.” So when you hear this story, don’t think of demons or “The Exorcist” or the man in a red suit – think challenger or inquisitor, because that’s what the Hebrews would have thought when they heard this story. This “opponent” concept reaches back to the Genesis story of Eden where Adam and Eve’s obedience were tested, and to the story of Job where a prosecutor (Satan) suggested to God that Job’s fidelity was a matter of convenience. Satan’s role was not to sadistically torture someone as a punishment for sin, but to test one’s authenticity, one’s preparedness for cooperating with God’s intentions. Thus the Hebrew people would have understood Satan was just doing his job when he offered Jesus power, fame, and riches. And the point is that Jesus resisted those temptations, came to terms with his mission, and made a choice about what he valued.

We are told his wilderness experience lasted that magical number of 40 days and 40 nights. Numbers had symbolic meaning to the Hebrew people, in addition to being used as terms of measurement. The number forty symbolized ‘as long’ or ‘as much time as it takes’ to accomplish God’s purpose, so like the forty day flood, and the Israelites wandering for forty years before finding the Promised Land, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness – meaning he spent as long as was necessary to get what he needed from the experience. And when that time was complete, Jesus emerged and was ministered to by angels.

During Lent, Christians take on a symbolic remembrance of Jesus’ experience. For those of you who have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, there are similarities between Jesus’ spiritual journey, which ultimately took him to Jerusalem, and the journey taken by Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandolf, Legolas, and Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which led them to Mt. Doom. Most classic journey stories – Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Peter Pan – feature characters who want something and overcome great obstacles to get it. We travel with them and intersect our imaginations with theirs. But like the story of Jesus, The Lord of the Rings reverses our expectations by taking us on a quest – not to gain something, but to give something up. Frodo and Sam go to Mount Doom in order to throw away something that they were both tempted to keep, or else to use for their own purposes. But they, like Jesus, resist temptations along the way and give up the ring, even at the risk of their own lives. This is the essence of the Christian story – of the human story.

We all have our own Jerusalem to face. The journey is long, and there are many challenges upon it. We will all fail at times, whether near the end, having just started, or throughout it. But no mountain pass un-scaled is a true loss while there are other roads to tread and strength still in us. The only true failure, when we do fail, is to turn back and give up entirely. So prepare well – pray, meditate, fast, resist temptation – take as long as you need until it is accomplished. And then, hit the road.

Closing words – Stephen Price
The world is crumbling around us
there’s a crazy man in the White House.
And not for the first time either.
The water is poisoned
the arms race is growing
Racism is now flagrant
mocking all the progress
we thought that we had made.
And you want me
to dab dirt on my forehead
and commit to being still
really still, you say
for at least five minutes a day?
for How long?
the great corrective
for “And I alone can fix it.”
Reminding me that I am dust;
fault ridden
Slowing down,
perhaps the antidote to
maniac attempts
to prove how correct I am,
how necessary,
how irreplaceable.
Is it possible
that in that humbler, slower state
I might find
some small good that I can actually do
and some connection
to a Will greater than my own?