I often wonder what visitors think when they visit an Episcopal church like Grace on the First Sunday of Lent. Actually, I often wonder what most members or regular attenders think when they come to Grace today. We have endured the oldest piece of liturgy written in the English language—the Great Litany, with its comprehensive list of petitions on behalf of everything and everyone under the sun. We have chanted and prayed at length, listened to readings, and now finally you’re settling in for a few minutes of respite from what will be six weeks of relentless reminders of our humanity, sinfulness, and need for repentance. Is it any wonder some people give up church for Lent?
For many of us, the very notion of Lent seems quite alien, or perhaps unnecessary. We have enough stress and anxiety in our lives, enough worries to keep us distracted, enough reasons and excuses for diverting our attention from the spiritual life, that coming to church to hear the Great Litany, to hear about our sins, need for repentance, and all that, all of it is enough to keep us away these dreary days of February and March, and wait for the return of the upbeat message of Easter. We have enough that’s depressing in our lives, why should our religious lives also put us in a funk?
Well, I’m sympathetic with all of that. I, too, wonder about the meaning and place of Lent in 21st century America. And I don’t want to have to convince anyone that the observance of a Holy Lent, as the prayer book says, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” is something we all have to engage in. Sure, it’s great if you find it meaningful, and I do believe that each of us could benefit by engaging in the listed practices, but I know that for many of us, it’s just not going to happen. And I’m not going to try to make you feel guilty by expecting you to. Instead, this season of Lent, my sermons will invite you to use the scriptural passages as an opportunity to reflect on yourself and on your life, in the hope that you may find in those words of scripture a message of consolation and encouragement, and a way to connect more deeply with Jesus Christ.
The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is common to Matthew and Mark as well as Luke, but as is always the case, Luke puts his own particular spin on it. Unlike Mark, who tells us that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, Luke says that the Holy Spirit led him there. The temptations Satan presents him with are three-fold—food, money, and power. But just behind this story lies another story in our imagination, the story of the first temptation, the story of Adam and Eve, a connection Luke suggests by putting Jesus’ genealogy just before this story, a genealogy that begins with Adam himself. In Genesis 3, Eve sees that the fruit is beautiful, good to eat, and desired to make one wise, so she eats. It is a temptation of the appetite, and of that very human tendency—curiosity. In Genesis, it leads to a broken relationship with God.
Here in Luke, Jesus confronts similar temptations to be self-sufficient, and to be like God. They are very human temptations, ones we confront on a regular basis. We are told at every turn, by the whole power of the media, that we are consumers, born to shop, and that our worth as human beings, our very existence and meaning, is created by the products we purchase—the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the phones and computers, the places and things we eat. We are the sum total of our purchases and our life’s meaning a series of financial transactions—whoever ends up with the most toys wins. We have even come to see our spiritual lives in similar ways—when we seek a new church, we go church shopping.
But there are times when we are faced with the emptiness of that existence, times when existential crises, illness, a family member’s death, or something else jolts us out of that mentality and confronts us with its meaninglessness. At such times, we discover again the deeper longing in our hearts, a longing for connection and for God.
I’m always struck on Ash Wednesday by the diversity of those who come to church. We had at our three services almost as many people who attend on a Sunday morning, but it’s a very different congregation—many, many unfamiliar faces, many who attend Grace only sporadically, and for whatever reason, relatively few of our regulars—probably less than half the congregation would be considered members of Grace. Why do they come? Why do they attend this service, where they will receive ashes, in the sign of the cross, on their foreheads? Why do they want to hear those ominous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
It’s a reminder, of course, of who we are, where we came from and where we are going. It’s a reminder of our humanity and our mortality. But it’s also a reminder to us of God, the one who created us out of the dust of the earth, and the one who redeems us, the one, who through Christ gives us grace to restore ourselves to our full humanity.
Ash Wednesday is a powerful reminder of both our alone-ness, and our dependence on a loving God. It is a message we need to hear regularly, a message that breaks through all of our efforts at self-sufficiency and our desires to make ourselves God. It is the good news of the Gospel that we can’t do it on our own, and we needn’t even try. Instead, the Good News of Ash Wednesday, the Good News of Lent, is that when our efforts come to nothing, when all is lost, God is there, to welcome us, and embrace us, and love us. God is there when we kneel at the foot of the cross. God is there, in bread and wine, God is here, in the community gathered, to forgive us, restore us, and make us whole.