Lent 1 10 March 19 – St. Andrew’s Indooroopilly (Baptism of Julia Rose Brown)
Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11, Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16, Romans 10: 4-13, Luke 4: 1-15
Today as you know is the first Sunday in the Season of Lent. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized at Easter or for those who were to be received back into the community of faith from which they had become separated – usually through wrong doing. Gradually, people came to see that, as the Ash Wednesday liturgy says, “By keeping these days with care and attention Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and grow in faith and devotion to our Lord. So, by self examination and repentance, by prayer and fasting, by self-denial and acts of generosity and by reading and meditating on the word of God, let us keep a holy Lent ……”1
What we’ve just heard are the traditional spiritual disciplines of Lent and they are in part to help us prepare for the joy of Easter. The Gospel reading from Matthew on Ash Wednesday2 highlights these. Lent is a penitential season when we are bidden to take the journey into our hearts, and we express the penitential nature by some sombreness in our liturgy – the Ten Commandments can be recited, we don’t sing the “Gloria” for example, , we don’t have flowers. This sombreness is not so we feel beaten down as dreadful sinners, but as an expression that we’re on a journey and to provide some visible indication of the journey into our hearts that we are taking, and that it is indeed a different liturgical season.
The English word “Lent” initially simply meant spring (as in the German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and it comes from the Germanic word for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen. That’s of course a Northern Hemisphere reference. Today is also forty days before Easter, so traditionally was called “quadrigesima”. I must admit that growing up as a good Methodist boy, quadrigesima and all the other gesimas were a mystery to me for a long time.
But the number forty has many symbolic Biblical references: the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God3; the forty days and nights Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb4; the forty days and nights God sent rain in the great flood of Noah5; the forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert while travelling to the Promised Land6; the forty days Jonah gave in his prophecy of judgment to the city of Nineveh in which to repent or be destroyed7. Forty usually represented a time of testing or trial.
Jesus retreated into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days, so what is being described is highly symbolic. Jesus is tempted by the devil as we hear in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning. He overcomes all three of the temptations by citing scripture to the evil one, at which point the devil leaves Him, angels minister to Him, and He begins His ministry.
This reading from Luke 4:1-13 is a traditional centrepiece for the First Sunday in Lent, and it should be. In so many ways, Lent invites us to explore our values. Jane Williams in her 2019 Lent Book, “The Merciful Humility of God” comments that Lent is not primarily about giving things up or even denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves. Along the way, she says, it will often feel like a journey of self-abnegation, but that is because our “selves” have been built on shaky foundations.8 Jesus takes this journey to discern on what foundations his life will be built. The Lenten season similarly invites us to self-examination about the foundations of our lives. Questions like: What is truly important to us? Where are our deepest values and how do we embody them in daily life? Where is God in our lives?
I mentioned the traditional Lenten disciplines a little earlier – and their other purpose, or worth, is to help us concentrate our minds on what is important to us. Taking on something extra in prayer, or reading of the scriptures, or other spiritual reading, giving generously, living simply are all to encourage us in, or even direct us to some serious self examination and reflection on what really is important to us, what defines us. Again, from Jane Williams “We are already beloved by God, and God waits, humbly, while we try to work out if this is enough. It will mean putting aside other self-definitions, that may seem more obvious and dependable, but that will always take us back into the world where we are a commodity and treat others as such. If we are defined by what we do or have, then there will always be others who do and have more, and so threaten our self-definition. But if we are brave enough to let God tell us who were are, then we are always and for ever the beloved ones alongside others equally beloved.” 9
Although today’s reading is often described as “Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness,” others prefer to describe it as “Jesus’ vocational retreat.” Throughout history, both Christian and non-Christian, young and not so young adults have gone on spiritual quests to discern their life’s path. These times set apart serve to help seekers discover their “true” nature or calling, the tasks that lie ahead of them, and their role in the community and the larger world. The Community of the Way established this year at St. Francis’ College is a local example. It describes itself as a community of people who seek to follow the way of Jesus with prayerful hearts, enquiring minds, and compassionate lives.10
During his retreat or quest, Jesus discovers his vocation, but he also experiences temptations to turn away from the highest and best possibilities set before him. In themselves, what is offered to Jesus healthy food, security from danger, and power to change the world for the good seem attractive. The problem is that following these temptations might lead to a good life, but ultimately it will lead to self-serving and self aggrandisement. For example, the third temptation takes place on “the pinnacle of the temple”, representing the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that, asks the English priest and poet, Malcolm Guite. He goes on to observe that the best things turned bad are the worst things of all. A “religious” or “spiritual” life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging others, looking down on them, despising God’s good creation. Such twisted religion can do enormous damage in the world.11 It will not lead to the recognition of God as the source of life and to the richness and fullness of life that is and can be the glory of God in human experience. The singer, Leonard
Cohen once said in an interview that the real weapons of mass destruction are the hardened hearts of humanity.12
Temptation never ends for any of us. The Gospel tells us that the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time”. We constantly make decisions, some of which bring us closer to, others of which take us away, from God’s visions for our lives. We are responsible for our choices. Jesus makes choices in the desert. He takes his own experience of God and the words at his baptism “You are my beloved Son” and chooses that this will be who he is. Facing temptation can be a solitary process, but it need not be. Jesus does not go on this quest as some sort of rugged lonely hero. He goes with his experience of God and with the force of the Holy Spirit with him. Actually the Holy Spirit book-ends this morning’s Gospel. We’re told both at the beginning and end that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mark’s Gospel describes it as angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness.13 Living our lives as a people of God requires a group of supportive companions, colleagues, and spiritual companions – that’s one reason we worship – to provide that group of spiritual supporters, a faith community that is absolutely essential to our Christian life and growth.
I said a few minutes ago that Lent invites us to explore our values – Jesus was certainly placed in that situation in the desert – to examine his values. The questions I asked were “What is truly important to us? Where are our deepest values and how do we embody them in daily life? Where is God in our lives?” Baptism invites us to examine our values and to ask ourselves those same questions – not just parents and godparents who respond on behalf children, but for all of us as we baptize Julia this morning. We baptize her – this community of faith baptises her – I do certain things on your behalf. We are asked if we will support the parents Sarah and Nick and her godparents Hannah and Rebecca in their calling as they reflect on these questions. And even though Lent is a penitential season, and despite what the Prayer Book says, baptism at its heart is not about washing away sins – it is about new life. Mention of water in the Scriptures – from the first Chapter of Genesis to the last Chapter of the Revelation – is always a sign of new life. At Jesus own baptism the voice from heaven was heard saying “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”14 Baptism is saying of Julia “God delights in you”. It’s a glimpse into what is truly possible for Julia as she lives and grows into her baptism guided by parents and godparents and a community of faith as not just today, but each day as they take their life journey together, they continue to reflect on “What is truly important to us? Where are our deepest values and how do we embody them in our daily lives? Where is God in our lives?”
A website I look at sometimes is called “Living a Holy Adventure.”15 We embark on a holy adventure in this season of Lent, Julia embarks on a holy adventure as we baptize her this morning. “May this Lenten discipline, which we undertake with love, turn our minds to things above.”16
1 Lent, Holy Week, Easter Services and Prayers Church House Publishing with Cambridge University Press and SPCK 1986 p 14 2 Matthew 6: 1-6 (7-15) 16-21
3 Exodus 24:18
4 1 Kings 19:8
5 Genesis 7:4
6 Numbers 14:33
7 Jonah 3:4
8 Williams, Jane The Merciful Humility of God Bloomsbury, London 2018 p9
9 Ibid p20-21
11 Guite, Malcolm The Word in the Wilderness – A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter Canterbury Press, Norwich p17
12 This quotation is from Leonard Cohen’s March 30, 2007 appearance on the Norwegian TV talk show “Først & sist.” 13 Mark 1: 12-13
14 Luke 3:22
16 Together in Song No 463