Lenten Sermon Series: Experiencing Lent
On Wednesday, our congregation marked the entry into a new liturgical season. As we received a smudge of ash on our hands or foreheads, we remembered our mortality and that one day we will return to God. As we prayed and meditated, we thought about those parts of our lives we wish to release, repent, or turn over to God. In this service, we, as a church, become somber. In 40 days, we will once again rejoice with the Good News of Resurrection, but there is a season to move through first – the season of Lent.
There are two types of people in this world – we say that about a lot of things but this one seems to hold true. There are those who read ahead to see what happens at the end of a novel, or read the spoilers to see what will happen in a movie or on their favorite TV series before it airs, and those who don’t. Often during this season we want to rush ahead to the end – it’s hard not to when we know what happens. However, I encourage us to resist that temptation, to not look too far ahead to the joy of Easter morning, and instead dwell in Lent for this season. It will make the experience of the end that much more exciting.
During Lent, Pastor Ted and I are preaching a series entitled “Experiencing Lent”. The premise is that in order to fully experience the joy of Easter morning, we must also experience the process of Lent. On Wednesday, we experienced what it means to have clean hearts. Today we will reflect on the experience of being in the wilderness. Over the next 5 Sundays, we will experience fearlessness, second chances, forgiveness, extravagant worship, hope, death (on Good Friday), and, on Easter Sunday, everlasting life. As the season shifts from ordinary time into a special time, we are invited to examine our Lenten practices. As some scholars have written, “Lent is…not giving up something, but rather taking upon ourselves the intention and receptivity to God’s grace so that we may fully participate in the mystery of God-with-us.” I invite you to participate as we experience this holy season.
Today we begin the season in the wilderness, with Jesus and Satan. What we gain from this encounter is that the wilderness is a place not only for testing, but also a place of learning and growth, a place to ask deep questions and make decisions about priorities in our lives, and the place where we can see that we must fully rely on God. As the children of God, and as Christians, the wilderness is not new territory for us. We read in Deuteronomy that the Israelites wandered in the desert generations before Jesus found himself there. It’s what we do with the experience that shapes who we are when we exit. I imagine the term “wilderness” conjures up a different image for each of us. The term in the Greek is ἔρημος – eremos. Looking in the Greek lexicon provides several different images of what this word means. It is seen as being in a state of isolation, desolate, deserted. An uninhabited region or locality, desert, grassland, or wilderness. (Danker; Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature.) Mostly, it refers to uninhabitated land outside towns and villages. Being in the wilderness does not necessarily mean you are without what you need to meet your basic needs. In the desert, mountains, and forests, there is plenty for basic provision, and plenty to sustain us.
The wilderness, those times when we feel isolated, desolate, lost, or without direction, can be one of the places where we find opportunity for learning and growth. In 1993 or 1994, about a year before his death, baseball great Mickey Mantle was interviewed by Larry King. In this interview, Mantle opened up about his struggles with alcoholism and the regrets he had about how he had lived his life. He shared his experience at the Betty Ford Clinic – a time when he acknowledged his drinking problem, listened to others who shared issues with addiction, and spent a large amount of time reflecting on his life. The only contact he was allowed with the outside world was 2 telephone calls on Saturday, and 2 hours of television on Sunday. For him, this was a wilderness experience – a time out to explore his soul and redirect his life. The pastor who shared this story says that she believes it was his time in the wilderness that best prepared him to deal with his liver failure the following year, and to face his death with courage and grace (Lessons from the Wilderness: Second Baptist Lenten Devotional February 7th 2008, Post Presbyterian Church Feb. 10, 2008). Where is your wilderness? Where are you being called to examine the uncultivated parts of your soul, to embrace growth and learning? What are you learning from this experience? In the wilderness, we learn about ourselves, but also about God – who God is and what God does. When Jesus was in the wilderness, we learned that the son of God was not about political power. Each of the temptations he faced – to create enough food to feed nations, to rule over a vast kingdom, and to worship something other than God would have granted him political rule and power. But, that’s not who Jesus was. He learned that he was strong enough to stay true to God. This time in the wilderness for Jesus was a time of testing his values and seeing what was truly important in his ministry and his life.
We also set priorities when we are in the wilderness places of our lives. Often when there is a serious illness, job loss, or other negative life change, we feel lost and isolated. So we begin to think about what is really important to us. Sometimes, this prioritizing happens for positive reasons – we may purposely enter into the wilderness for a time of reflection and regrouping, as did Jesus when he went to a deserted place to pray. Lent is an invitation to explore the wilderness – to find a time and space to think about our priorities in whole lives – spiritual, emotional, physical. Often, to find our priorities, we need look no further than our calendars and checkbooks – where do we spend our time and money? What does the voice of God crying out to us in the wilderness tell us to do differently? I read a story this week, that speaks to just that :
There was a businessman who took a vacation to a small fishing village on the coast of Mexico. One day, as he was standing at the pier, he noticed a small fishing boat pull up to the dock. The fisherman got out, and unloaded his catch – several large yellow fin tuna. Complementing the fisherman on his catch, the business man asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while” was the answer.
“Why didn’t you stay out and catch more fish if it only took a little while?” the business man asked.
“Because I have enough to support my family’s needs.”
The business man inquired what the fisherman did with the rest of his time. The fisherman answered, “I sleep in late, play a little with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine with my friends and play guitar. I have a wonderful, full, rich and busy life.”
The businessman thought about this for a minute or so. “I have an MBA from Harvard and would love to help you out. You should spend more time fishing and sell those fish. Then you can buy a bigger boat and hire fishermen to work it. With the money you make from that, you can buy more boats and eventually have a whole fleet working for you. Cut out the middle man and sell directly to the processor, and eventually you can own your own cannery. You would control the whole product – catching, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave the village, and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually to New York to control your empire.”
“How long will this all take?”
The MBA answered excitedly, “Oh, 15 or 20 years, if it all goes according to plan”.
The MBA laughed and said, “Here’s the best part! When the time is right, you announce your initial public offering, and sell your company stock to the public and become incredibly rich – you would make millions!”
“Millions? Then what?”
“Well, then you would retire, and move to a small fishing village in Mexico. You could sleep in late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings to sip wine and play guitar with your friends.” (MinistryMatters.com/article/entry/2333/sermon-series-wilderness-time Accessed Feb. 12, 2013)
What’s the priority? The temptation is there, but what is your priority? Where is your life headed? These are excellent questions to ask if you are in the wilderness. We ask deep questions of ourselves in times of desolation, and we ask deep questions of God. “Why” seems to be one of them. And that’s where we remember that God does not create the circumstances of our lives that send us there. God does not say “Hmmmm… let’s see how you’ll respond to this life event”. Often our priorities perpetuate life events that lead us to the wilderness. When we get there, we find that God is often right there with us. When we are in the wilderness, when we find ourselves in a placed of learning and growth, of asking deep questions, we often find that it is in those places we recognize our utter dependence on God.
The Israelites know a little something about utter dependence on God. In the reading from Deuteronomy today, they share their history of being in the wilderness. Israel’s story is our story. When the Israelites make their offerings – the first and best of what they have produced (which is another sermon for another day, but one well worth hearing) – when they make their offerings, they remember their story. “‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us,7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This is the Apostle’s Creed – a recitation of who they are and where they have been. The ancestors wandered in the wilderness, their forefather was jobless, and homeless – Jacob – son of Isaac, son of Abraham. He wandered into Egypt, the people grew great, and then they were enslaved. God provided Moses and led them out of Egypt, and they entered the wilderness, where they wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land. This is our story, too this is our history. While in the wilderness, they were not abandoned, nor was God absent. The wilderness is where God provided manna so they would not starve. It is where God provided guidance, and the law. It is where a leader depended on God, and led the people to the promised land, though he did not reach it himself.
When we are in the wilderness, what sustains us? What gives us the strength to take one more step, to make one more move, to do one more thing? How do we move forward to the other side? I look for angels. There were angels there with Jesus – messenger from God to remind him that he was not alone in this place. My prayer is that we all have someone in our lives who can help us see God accompanying us when we can’t see it for ourselves. We depend on God, we dig deep, and our spiritual life is often stretched and grows. It is often in our times of weakness and need that we see God actively at work, when we seek the one who sustains us, and we find that one. Depending fully on God looks different to each of us. We depend on God to hear our cries, to hear our prayers. We depend on God to hold us up. If we are there for reasons we did not choose, Christ is there too, experiencing our fear, heartache, and fear right along with us. When we are lost because we have made bad choices, it is our dependence on God’s redemption in Jesus Christ that carries us through, saves us, and leads us out of the wilderness and into new life.
The question of how God leads you out, is important. The King James version of the Bible says more than 450 times “it came to pass.” If you are in the wilderness, this is good news. It will come to pass that God leads you to the other side. The good news of our Christian faith is that the wilderness is not the final destination, and even when we are there, we have hope in our God, who we rely on, that we will indeed leave it. I was having a conversation with a friend this week who is getting ready to celebrate a significant milestone in her life. She has given me permission to share part of our conversation. My friend is getting ready to celebrate the anniversary of her sobriety. As we were thinking about the significance of this, she shared with me that the anniversary is not the end of the journey to her healing and wholeness – it is a lifelong journey. There have been wilderness moments, and there may continue to be, but with support she is able to move through those times. The journey does not end with a birthday cake and candles, as we mark anniversaries. It ends with death – the journey of sobriety is one of a lifetime. As I pondered that, I compared it to our Christian journey. God accompanies us on the entirety of our journey – from birth to death. There will be times when we feel lost in the wilderness, but those times are not the end. Instead, they are an opportunity for us to reflect, grow, prioritize, find hope and walk with Jesus out of the wilderness and into the promised land. Even in desolate territory, the good news is that the wilderness is never the end, and hope is alive.
I invite you to experience the wilderness a little bit in this Lenten season. Grow quiet, find a place where you can be alone, and ask yourself some hard questions – where is God calling me to learn and grow? What priorities in my life need to be adjusted? Am I fully depending on God, or am I just depending on myself? If this feels scary, know that you are not alone. Jesus too entered the wilderness. Christ understands the wilderness places of our lives because he has been there. Perhaps it is our turn to better understand it too – and by better understanding this experience, may we have a better understanding of his journey to the cross, and the joy of Easter morning. Don’t flip ahead to the end of the story, but experience the richness of the pages as it unfolds.