First Sunday of Lent

2019 March 10 Order of Worship

Blessed are those who hunger for earth’s oneness
For they will be satisfied.
Matthew 5:6

Matthew 7:7-8
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
Seek—you’ll find;
Knock—it’ll be opened for you.
Everyone who asks receives;
Everyone who seeks finds;
And for the one who knocks it is opened.

In the Wilderness James Simmons
I sit alone on the rocks trying to prepare
a man to teach what the laws of life are.
Sunlight and silence, nurses against disease,
are busy fighting my infirmities.
The life is simple, you could not say rough,
a stream, some cans and firewood are enough
to live on; but a hostile shift of weather
would bring me sharply up on the short tether
of endurance. We haven’t survived by strength alone.
We have neither fur nor fangs. I will go home,
just as I rise from sleep, eat and get dressed.
This is one more resort, not last or best.

A teacher in the wilderness alone
learns to make bread and sermons out of stone.

All My Trials Bahamian Spiritual, arr. Norman Luboff
If religion was a thing
That money could buy,
The rich would live
And the poor would die.

All my trials, Lord,
Soon be over.
Too late, my brothers,
Too late, but never mind.
All my trials, Lord,
Soon be over.

Now, hush, little baby,
Don’t you cry,
You know that man is born to die.

All my trials, Lord,
Soon be over.
Too late, my sisters,
Too late, but never mind.
All my trials, Lord,
Soon be over.

Luke 4:1-11
Jesus departed from the Jordan full of holy spirit and was guided by the spirit into the desert, where he was put to the test by the devil for ‘forty days.’ He ate nothing that whole time; and when it was all over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “To prove you’re God’s son, order this stone to turn into bread.”

Jesus responded to him, “It is written,

‘Human beings shall not live on bread alone.’”

The he took Jesus up, and in an instant of time showed him all the empires of the civilized world. The devil said to him, “I’ll give you authority over all this and the glory that goes with it; it has been turned over to me, and I can give it to anyone I want. So, if you will pay homage to me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus responded, “It is written,

‘You shall pay homage to the Lord your God, an him alone shall you revere.’”

Then he took him to Jerusalem, set him on the high point of the temple, and said to him, “To prove you’re God’s son, jump off from here; remember, it is written,

‘To his heavenly messengers he will give orders about you, to protect you,”

and

With their hands they will catch you,
So you won’t even stub your toe on a stone.’”

And in response Jesus said to him, “It is said,

‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

So when the devil had tried every kind of test, he let him alone, for the time being.

The Test

I don’t like tests.

They give me anxiety.

Sometimes life feels like one huge test that is made up of a barrage of daily tests, one after another. Every day I feel tested, evaluated, and rejected. Every social interaction. Every agonizing decision about what to say, how to act, trying to figure out what the hell people want, let alone what God wants, if one could ever know.

At the end of your life, you go before Heaven’s admission’s officer.

“Sorry, there were so many qualified applicants who did better than you on life’s test. You didn’t measure up to our requirements. If you believed in reincarnation, you would have infinitely more chances, but since you are supposedly Christian, you get one chance. And you blew it. Down the shoot to the eternal fire with you. Have a nice day.”

I would have failed all three of the tests put to Jesus in the wilderness.

“Hungry? Have some bread. What’s the big deal? You fasted for forty days already. You can turn this stone into a sandwich. Who is it going to hurt this one time? If you want to fast some more, tomorrow is another day. You are hungry. You have earned it. Go ahead.”

My response? I don’t want to disappoint the devil. He did offer. What’s the hurt? OK.

“The kingdoms of the world? Think what you could do with your big heart and your big love for humanity. You could make a real difference. I will make you the big boss and you can make the world great. Just include my name in the credits. Don’t think of it as selling your soul. Just think of it as a fair trade. Give a little. Get a little. Go along to get along. One hand washes the other. It is the way God’s work gets done.”

My response? Since you put it that way, I guess there is no harm, really. After all, once I do make it to the top and become the big boss, I can really do some good. OK.

“What you need,” says the devil, “is to get your name out there. A little marketing strategy. Some branding. Something spectacular to get name recognition. Show the world God is on your side. A little derring do will do the trick. Take a risk. Take the plunge. Jump from the top. You will wow them and God will take care of you. They will be eating out of the palm of your hand and follow you anywhere.”

My response? Sometimes you do have to take risks and show people what you can do. It is all for the glory of God, right? OK.

I am just lousy at tests. Sometimes I don’t even know when it is a test and when it isn’t. Life feels like one big test made up of an infinite number of small tests and I fail them all.

It is a harsh way to go through life. What is worse is that often times you think you are doing pretty good. You passed a test or you thought you did or maybe you really did and you say to yourself,

“Maybe I am OK. Maybe I finally do measure up.”

But then, dang, the pedestal you were standing on to receive your medal bends, breaks, and down you go. Before receiving the reward for the passing the last test, you flubbed the next one.

A big red F.

Thus we begin the season of Lent comparing ourselves to Jesus. That is a losing battle. That is why he is Jesus and we are not. Jesus passes tests. The rest of us?

One of the functions of the law or the test in the theological sense is to show us that we cannot possibly measure up. We are tested as a reminder that life is not ultimately a test. Life is grace.

But of course, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, life is not cheap grace. Life is not excusing our failure at test-taking. Cheap grace is the illusion that tests do not matter.

Tests do matter. We fail at them. We rationalize our failure.

Real grace comes not as the excuse or the rationalization or by pretending we are “progressive” and don’t believe all that stuff anyway.

Real grace is about honesty.

“’Twas grace that taught
My heart to fear
And grace my Fears relieved…”

That is the paradoxical role of grace.

It convicts and relieves.

It doesn’t relieve without convicting.

It doesn’t convict without relieving.

Thus we begin the season of Lent with Jesus in the wilderness being tested.

I don’t like tests and my guess is you probably don’t like them either. Real tests I am speaking about. Tests that wrench your heart. I am not going to say tests don’t matter or that tests are part of a package of old-time out dated religion. That is between you and God.

I am not going to offer cheap relief suggesting that failure, yours and mine, is not as bad as the failure of others. The grade is on a curve, right? No. It is between you and God. Not you and others.

Country music legend, the late Johnny Cash, said once in an interview that he was a C minus Christian. I think of a C minus as an aspiration. It is not about comparing me with Johnny Cash. Me and God. That is my business.

Lent is a practice. It is a practice preparing us for tests. Taking on a practice, giving up a pleasure for the season, fasting periodically, say one or two days a week, sunrise to sunset, engaging in a study or reflection that you may not normally do, exploring some inconvenient truth that needs attention, learning about the suffering of another, practicing compassion.

Then of course, failing at what you set out to do is part of the practice. Maybe you won’t fail. Then the test wasn’t challenging enough.

Lent is bringing to consciousness what is swimming around our unconscious and messing with us. Maybe a clarity is needed. Maybe it is a season to question what is next for you in your relationship with God and Creation. Perhaps it is a check on your moral compass.

Lent is not easy. It ain’t cheap.

It is, however, a means of grace.

We are facing looming tests as a human race, we who might think of ourselves as innocent bystanders. It won’t do for us to ignore the tests before us, but it won’t do not to pray for the means of grace as we face them.

Thomas Merton is a means of grace for me.

I am slowly reading his book, Raids on the Unspeakable that he wrote in 1966, two years before his death, his martyrdom, as some courageous souls are discovering. Part of the challenge of tests is to be truthful about our myths. Our myths of innocence, in particular.

In the preface to his book he addresses the book in the second person. This is what he thinks his book is about and it is a guide perhaps for Lent itself, the task of Lent in shaping our character. Merton is writing about the purpose of his book. Think of what he is writing as the purpose of Lent. He speaks, if you will, to the season and practice of Lent in the second person.

I leave this as a challenge to all of us as we walk through this season with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

This is the purpose of Lent:

“Your main interest is not in formal answers or accurate definitions, but in difficult insights at a moment of human crisis. Such insights can hardly be either comforting or well-defined. They are obscure and ironic. They cannot be translated into a program for solving all the problems of society, but they may perhaps enable a rare person here and there to come alive and be awake at a moment when wakefulness is desirable—a moment of ultimate choice, in which he finds himself challenged in the roots of his own existence.” Pp. 2-3.

Thomas Merton, writing about the purpose of his book. I am applying it to the season of Lent. Lent through its practice that can raise the consciousness of the tests and the grace that accompanies them, exists for the rare person to come alive and to be awake.

That, my friends, is what I think the testing leads us to become. The testing that is painful and convicting and challenging and frustrating leads to the grace of awakening.

Awakening to what? That is between you and God.

Amen.