Lessons for the 1st Sunday in Lent: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
THE ASHES ARE GONE NOW
This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become. Recall on Tuesday – Shrove Tuesday – we stood in the Saint Francis Garden with the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday in hand. And then we burned them. That’s right, those ashes were once the palms we waved in jubilation as we stood (in memory and in solidarity) with those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest.” Those palms became a mere remnant, a shadow of their original purpose, much like the shouts of “Hosanna” would turn into shouts of “crucify him, crucify him.” The palms become ashes, reminding us of our fragility, of our humanity.
This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become and what they will be. This past Wednesday we received the cross of ashes on our forehead and we struck out into the wilderness, into the desert space alongside Jesus. We struck out on our Lent.
I noticed on Wednesday as I was imposing the ashes that tiny grains would periodically fall into your eye lashes or on your noses or down upon your cheeks. I suppose I knew that this happened but, for some reason, this past Wednesday I really noticed it, almost in slow motion. And I noticed, too, that your hands would come up to rub your eye or brush your cheek. I noticed some of you, as well, would check with your fingers to see how big or how thick I made the cross.
The ashes are gone now. They have been washed off our foreheads, for some as soon as we left church. My brother and I used to leave Ash Wednesday service, always the 7 am service so that the ashes could be there all day, and wonder how we might get them off. How can we get them off without mom noticing. How can we get the ashes off before we get to school or to work or to the market, out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday and where most people no longer remember Lent?
The ashes are gone now, washed off our foreheads, but the darkness remains as a reminder as we begin our Lent once again. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our fragility. It reminds us that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity. The scripture lessons for this first Sunday of Lent call to mind that same humanity, the same fragility highlighted by our tenuous grasp on life. The lessons today lay out some of the many ways we are called to respond to and from our humanity this Lent.
THE RESPONSE FROM OUR HUMANITY
The reading from Deuteronomy is a story full of light and goodness. It reminds the reader of God’s gracious gift to Israel of a land flowing with milk and honey. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty, the people acknowledging their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction. The story demands a response on the part of the Israelites to live with thankfulness, giving the first fruits as an offering of gratitude. Indeed, though hands have toiled the earth to bring forth its fruits, it is the Lord who owns the land and has blessed us to inhabit it. We are called to be good stewards and to give back out of what we have been given.
“He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” The psalmist’s prayer today is another image of a God who hear our cries. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that God has not abandoned us. We are not alone. Rather, God is “so bound to me in love,” as the psalm says, that God will deliver and protect us. Even though we might fail in our own love, focusing on ourselves to the point of sin, God remains steadfast in mercy with long life and salvation. In other words, God is with us, ready to brush the ash from our face.
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” wrote Paul to the Romans. That is the word of faith proclaimed by those who call upon Jesus name and also the very “Word” of God in who they put their trust. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that? This is an incredible, empowering call to humility. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” All who confess or witness to or proclaim Jesus are not just opened to the possibility of but are promised life, redemption, and reconciliation. We are not saved by works or by merit but simply and wholly by grace – a grace that comes from orienting our lives with and toward Jesus. The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions.
What will this Lent be for you? Where you are on the journey toward Jerusalem? What place does thankfulness have? What of trust? What of humility will you seek to help you as you progress toward new life in and through Jesus?
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
JESUS’ TEMPTATION & OUR HUMANITY
As I look at the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, I note that Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness with a stack of commentaries under one arm and sack of good under the other. No, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. For forty days Jesus was tested by Satan. He didn’t have crib sheets or notes or supplies. Jesus was stripped down. Jesus was naked, metaphorically in contrast to his physical nakedness during the scourging. He was naked now, stripped down to his truest self. He was naked, faced with the incredible temptation of his humanity and fragility. And he was offered a way out, a defense against his fragile humanity. He was tempted by the ability to control his fragile humanity – to create food where none had been, to rule over everything to his own comfort, and to defy his physical nature by jumping from the precipice.
But Jesus instead chose his humanity. Jesus resisted the very real temptations thrown his way. He was clothed with thankfulness, grateful for the promise and nourishment that comes from God alone. He was clothed with trust, knowing God’s faithfulness and so worshipping and serving only the Lord God. He was clothed with humility, obeying his God and not putting the Lord to the test. Jesus resisted the temptation and in doing that prepared himself to begin his ministry.
For many, there is no greater fear than being naked in front of others. Struck by social restrictions, mores, and taboos, the realness of our own bodies becomes frightening and shaming. Confronted by unrealistic and unnatural body images and our lack of control of youth, we want to hide from our naked bodies. And not just literally, we hide behind work and family, behind productivity and profitability, behind fears and scars. We hide. And not just from others but from ourselves as well.
A LENTEN CHALLENGE
So this Lent, I have a challenge. Stop hiding! Be your true self. This does not mean that you should be more of what the world is calling you to be – the easy and unrealistic thinner, fitter, smarter, and faster one. This does not even mean that you should be more of what your community, your family, or our church are calling you to be – though they can be sounding boards. I challenge you to be the one who God is calling you be. So be naked and unashamed, confront yourself, your fragility and humanity.
What does this look like? What does our naked look like? What does our fragility look like? It can be hard to see but look to Jesus who found in his frailty the strength and will to be humble in bowing before God, to trust, and to give thanks. Jesus did that in the wilderness and came out ready to minister. He came out of the wilderness ready to see others in their humanity – the poor and the hungry, the rich and wanting, the sick and the well, everybody dying, the weak and powerful, the lonely, the alone, the possessed and dispossessed, the sure and the unsure, the Jew and the Greek.
Its forty days in the wilderness. Lent leaves forty days for finding ourselves, for seeing our true selves. Seeing ourselves, we begin to see those around us. And after the forty days, there is a triumphant entry and a table full of friends. Then there’s a cross on which to lay our humanity and a tomb waiting for every one of us. And then there’s Resurrection.
But for now its Lent, a time to simply look and know that the Word is so very near to you, “on your lips and in your heart.” Amen.