Lent

Sermon at All Saints

Last Tuesday I was with the grandchildren making pancakes, so I asked them what they knew about Shrove Tuesday and Lent. They go to a church school, so it turned out I was testing them about what they had heard in assembly that morning. They knew that Lent was traditionally a time of fasting and so the pancakes we were making were a way of using up the foods which were forbidden during Lent. And they had a vague idea that Lent was a parallel of the time which Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

So far so good.

But then the conversation turned to a discussion of what each was going to give up, and of course the suggestions ranged from giving up school, to giving up sprouts. At that point any attempt to delve more deeply into what Lent is really all about was lost!

So what is Lent really about?

As you know, Lent emerged in the early church as a time of spiritual preparation, through prayer and fasting, for baptism at Easter after a period of 2 years or more of instruction. The rest of the church also took to observing this period of Lent in solidarity with them, culminating with a renewal of their baptismal vows at Easter – a re-commitment to their identity as beloved children of God.

The 40 days of Lent were meant to mirror the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, reflecting on the same thing: that is, his calling and identity as the Son of God.

In the gospels we’re told that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led him out into the wilderness. So he embarks on this time with the words from heaven still ringing in his ears: ‘This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.’

I believe that to keep Lent in solidarity with Jesus is less about focussing on giving up a few luxuries and more about reflecting on those choices which Jesus had to make, and which we have to make as we try to live out our baptismal identity as beloved children of God.

Temptation comes to Jesus, as it so often does to us, when he is at his lowest ebb after 40 days of fasting. Jesus hears words designed to undermine the confidence he has established in his identity, before he has even had the chance to live it out.

If you are the Son of God: there’s no need to be hungry: provide for yourself and turn these stones to bread.

Weasel words designed to sow seeds of doubt in his mind.

But Jesus is ready for the challenge:

One doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, he quotes.

In using these words from Deuteronomy Jesus takes us back to the 40 years which the Israelites spent in the wilderness, when over and over again they were tempted to doubt their identity as God’s chosen people, by a petulant insistence on one miracle after another. By referring back to this time Jesus models for us a patient, faithful trust that God has all things in his hands - the one who has called his people his own and brought them out of Egypt will see them through to the end of their journey. Trust and obey.

I don’t know about you, but it can be hard to distinguish between making sensible provision for ourselves, and giving in to the compulsion to keep acquiring more than we need. In our consumer society, we’re surrounded by the temptation to fill our lives with stuff, to indulge ourselves, to keep up with the latest trend. Yet as we’ve seen all too close to home recently, there is no thing on this earth which can’t be taken away by misfortune, illness or natural disaster.

Can we use Lent to discover that our deepest security lies not in things, but in God and his unfailing love and faithfulness, and find contentment in what we already have? The more we come back to our original calling by God, the less we have the need to shore up our lives by acquiring beyond that which we need.

The second temptation for Jesus was to be offered a quick and sensational route to fame, approval and esteem

by getting God to make a spectacular save.

If you are the Son of God, prove it to yourself and to the world - Jump from the pinnacle of the temple – there’ll be crowds watching you and you know that God would never let his son be harmed. – he will send his angels to take care of you.

If you are the son of God.

Jesus is secure enough in his place in God’s esteem as his chosen son, to be able to rebuff this one: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. He doesn’t need to test God’s love for him; he is confident in it.

I wonder how confidently we can claim our place within God’s esteem and approval. We know by now in our heads how much God loves us no matter who we are or what we might have done. But do we really know it in our hearts so that we can live freely out of that unconditional love and let go of the need to achieve, or win approval in the eyes of the world?

Lent is a time to enter more deeply into that mystery.

Finally, Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will only worship him – a quick route to power and glory.

Jesus orders Satan away: Worship the Lord and serve only him.

Jesus knows that true power is to be found in a life of humility, love and service, not through earthly power and riches. The path to glory is by the way of the cross.

Ever since our rebellion in the garden when we made the choice to put ourselves on a level with God, the human tendency has been to put self centre-stage, to want to be in control. If we are to rediscover our vocation as the people God called us to be - co-operating with him in his purposes caring for creation and the world, - we must move from serving ‘me first’ to serving God and others first.

So Lent is about a great deal more than giving up chocolate or alcohol, or school or sprouts. It is fundamentally about living into our identity as beloved children of God. This is the end goal of the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting prayer and alms-giving. Secure in that identity, we discover that we can let go of our need for security and worldly approval to trust in the unending love and faithfulness of God. We can learn to let go of our ‘me first’ desire to be in control and instead live for God and for others.

It may be, as it was for Jesus, a path which involves sacrifice and suffering but it is also the path to the new life which we celebrate at Easter. Whatever discipline we choose to undertake this Lent, may it lead us more fully into the new life of Easter.