First an update. Things are going well. I have been working at a local community outreach organization. It really feels like something special that God is involved in, so I’m excited about that. I’m loving getting to know the community better. It’s needs, who’s doing what to fulfill those needs, what needs that leaves unfilled, etc. I’m loving the schedule of keeping the kids a day, working a day. I’m getting to work with some old friends and I’m getting to make some new ones, so I’m really enjoying it. Last weekend a friend came to visit, and we went to visit another friend who has moved into the general area. He’s leading worship and really thriving, so visiting him and getting to experience what he’s doing first hand was a really amazing experience. So, things are well.
Over the last several weeks I’ve been asked to do some teaching on lent. I’ve heard people claim disappointment in missing it, so I thought I would share some of those thoughts in an abbreviated form (although sorry, it’s still going to be quite long). While I realize that they may have simply been being cordial, it does seem to be an itch that people I have been in contact with want scratched, so here we go.
Christianity began as a movement. Like most any movement that exists for a while it begins to become institutionalized in some way, shape, or form. But, even before that happens it begins to develop practices. The Christian tradition inherited practices from Judaism from which it emerged – things like prayer, fasting, study of scripture, tithing, worship, etc. One of the practices it inherited/developed was the arranging of time in such a way to keep us grounded in the things that really matter, the things of God, because if we’re not careful we can easily let ourselves become too busy to live in an awareness of the things that matter most. For the Jewish people this was done through seasonal festivals (think passover), prayers (think temple prayer times), and fasting. The first Christians (who were Jewish) lived in these rhythms, and through faith in Jesus, they began to develop them to take on new meaning in coordination with their new faith. It’s a sort of way of going beyond simply reading the scriptures and living into them. So, around this idea has developed the idea of the liturgical year. In more traditional denominations you’ll notice a change of colors in the worship space as the year progresses, they are symbols of the season in which we find ourselves. This year begins with Advent, the time before Christmas, where we prepare for the coming of Christ. This leads into Epiphany, the season of light. Then comes Lent.
The word comes from the Latin for long. Generally it is the forty days leading up to Easter. Different denominations celebrate lent differently. Some simply go the forty days leading up to Easter while others do forty days not including Sundays leading up to Easter (because Sundays are considered little Easter’s because it is the day on which Jesus arose). This is a time of contemplation and reflection. It is a time of preparation and repentance, where we wrestle with the dark things deep inside of ourselves – fears, sins, anxieties, addictions, etc. – and prepare for the time of crucifixion and resurrection. It begins with Ash Wednesday and is also a time of our wrestling with our own mortality. A common practice during this time is that of fasting and/or abstaining. The hope is that through giving up something we find a greater understanding of ourself as well as a fresh relationship with God. Some people go all out and actually fast (do not eat) for this period, while others give up something they enjoy (television, chocolate, meat, etc). Hopefully, through giving up something you depend upon you discover a greater reliance upon God to provide as well as a deeper trust that God will do so. It is an identification with various stories in the scriptures where people fasted for forty days. Moses did this on Mount Sinai before receiving the ten commandments, Elijah did this when fleeing from Jezebel prior to hearing the “still small voice”, and upon Jesus’ baptism he is led into the wilderness to be tempted. It is this story that becomes the central framing text for what the season of lent is about. And it really all revolves around one question, “Can God be trusted?”
Feel free to look the story up (Matthew 4), but for the sake of space I’m going to paraphrase. Jesus goes into the wilderness and fasts for forty days, and quite obviously he is hungry. It is in this moment that Satan appears tempting him to turn stones into bread. And he opens this temptation up with some form of if you are the Son of God, then you could. Now there are three temptations that take place – turning stones to bread, throwing himself off the temple, and bowing down to satan – however underneath the surface there are really all kinds of temptations happening here (as most of our temptations are a mix of a lot of different things). One of the things going on here is the temptation for Jesus to prove himself – to himself, to those in whom proving himself would most advance his cause/purpose/calling/career, and to the world. First he could be wanting to prove himself to himself. In the scriptures he has not yet done any miracles. Here is a private environment where he could test out his powers (how embarrassing to get in public and the miracles not be working). Remember when he was baptized there was a voice from heaven declaring his identity, but will he trust it? Second, if he jumps from the temple, it will prove to the religious establishment who he is, thus making his job much easier. And third, he could prove to the world who he is, thus fulfilling the every knee, every tongue thing. Now, I think we can all relate to this in that we all want to prove ourselves and believe that in doing so we will find self worth. But, there’s also much more going on here.
In response to every temptation Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy. This is Moses’ final farewell address to the Hebrew people before he dies and they enter the promised land. Each one of these quotes is a reference to a way in which the Hebrew people failed while wandering in the wilderness for forty (there’s that number again) years. Jesus’ response to the temptation of turning stones into bread is a reference to God’s giving the Hebrew people manna from heaven. His response to the temple temptation is a reference to the event of the water from the rock at Massah and Miribah. And, his response to bowing to Satan is possibly a reference to both the golden calf incident and/or the turning to other Gods once in the promised land. So, there is this sense that Jesus, if he overcomes these temptations, is succeeding where his ancestors did not. But wait, there’s more.
Some people claim that all of our temptations fall into one of the categories that each of these temptations create. And they all revolve around the question, can God be trusted. The first question is, “Can God be trusted to provide for my needs?” I feel like this is an extremely relevant question in this day and age, with unemployment and the economy the way they are. Jesus has been in the wilderness (most likely desert) for forty days. He’s hungry. And up till now, God has not provided. Will he now take matters into his own hands, or will he continue to trust that God will provide? I imagine thoughts going through his head like, “if God really loved me He wouldn’t put me in this situation,” or, “if God were going to provide it would have happened by now.” But, Jesus sees through the lie, and sees that it is in God that we find life.
The Second temptation is that of presuming upon God. Usually when we do this we use phrases like, “God always,” or, “God would never.” It the think fast situation where someone throws something valuable and makes you catch it. It’s the tail wagging the dog. It’s the kid that prays for the grade when he hasn’t studied, but puts God on the spot in his prayer talking about how he would be a bad witness if he got a bad grade. It’s that question of can God be trusted or do I have to force/trick/manipulate God into doing what I want so that things turn out o.k.? Again, Jesus does not fall for the lie. God will not be manipulated, and we are not to put God to the test.
The third temptation is to go about the right thing by the wrong means. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says that he will give Jesus all authority if Jesus will only bow down to him. Now, the book of Matthew ends with Jesus’ great commission. But, the great commission begins with Jesus saying, “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28) So, Satan is offering to give Jesus the thing for which he came and to get it more quickly and easily. It’s the temptation of the shortcut, to achieve the thing to which God called you, but to go about it the wrong way. The question is, “Can God be trusted to carry out what God has called me to do?” It reminds me of when David spared Saul’s life in the cave despite the fact that the circumstances seemed to indicate that God had given Saul over to David to be killed. But, David knows that God commands against killing the anointed king. The simple fact of the matter is that when we go about achieving the purposes of God, but don’t go about doing so by God’s ways we put the calling above the one who called us. It is a form of worshiping something other than God. And Jesus sees through that lie as well and responds with worship and serve only God.
And so that is the point of Lent. To identify with the temptations of Jesus, to wrestle with our own mortality and the things that lie within us. To go through a process of self-examination where we wrestle with all the ways we are tempted to put our trust in our own ways of taking our lives in our own hands, providing for ourselves, advancing our careers, and fulfilling our callings. It’s a time where we prepare for a kind of death as we get ready to examine the cross, and we make ourselves ready to embrace a new life that comes with the death of self as we celebrate the resurrection.
For more information on a brief history of the church and how it has developed I would recommend Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence, and for more on fasting I would recommend Scott McKnight’s book in the ancient practices series aptly titled Fasting.